The radical French philosopher Georges Bataille and the English magus Aleister Crowley at first seem to have much in common—both explored the darker sides of eroticism and their links to spiritual experience, both were evocative writers expressing philosophical standpoints considered beyond the pale of polite early twentieth-century society, and both sought a rapturous mystical dissolution of the ego-bound self, a union with what traditional mystics would call the One or the All. But their understandings of the end of the mystic’s quest differ greatly—even to the point that, according to orthodox Thelema’s conception of the magician’s supreme goal of “crossing the Abyss,” Bataille could be labeled a member of the vilified Black Brotherhood, that society of Dark Adepts who ultimately fail in their spiritual task. (Bataille, of course, would probably revel in the transgressive identification.)

As theoreticians of the erotic, both Crowley and Bataille saw eros as a key to mysticism, and to the very cosmos itself. The Crowleyan formula of “love under will” utilizes magickal eros in order to unite the magician with the ideas or experiences which are seemingly outside of himself—a formula of willed union. The magician thus transcends his psycho-spiritual discontinuity through conscious assimilation of the other Stars within the body of Nuit, Crowley’s symbol for the sum-total of macrocosmic experience. As Crowley writes in Magick Without Tears,

What happens when the Aspirant invokes Diana, or calls up Lilith? He increases the sum of his experiences in these particular ways. Sometimes he has a “liaison-experience,” which links two main lines of thought . . . Every accretion must modify me. I want it to do so. I want to assimilate it absolutely. I want to make it a permanent feature of my Temple.  I am not afraid of losing myself to it, if only because it also is modified by myself in the act of union. I am not afraid of its being the “wrong” thing, because every experience is a “play of Nuit,” and the worst that can happen is a temporary loss of balance, which is instantly adjusted, as soon as it is noticed, by recalling and putting into action the formula of contradiction.

The A∴A∴ adept, through the use of this formula, becomes one with the universe, in order to annihilate it in the experience of the crossing of the Abyss—the pouring of all one’s blood into the Cup of Babalon, according to Crowley’s Thelemic symbology. Following this formula, one must attempt to magically expand to encompass the whole macrocosm before one attempts to cross the Abyss, because, as Crowley puts it, “Unless ‘all you have and all you are’ is identical with the Universe, its annihilation would leave a surplus.”

This is where the Bataillean understanding of inner experience most differs from Crowley’s understanding of mystical attainment, and more closely resembles Crowley’s conception of the Black Brotherhood—not surprisingly, as Bataille draws heavily on Neoplatonic and medieval Christian mysticism in his formulations, whereas Crowley is far more indebted to East Asian spiritual teachings (the late Victorian understandings of Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism).1My reading of Bataille here draws heavily on Jonathan David York’s “Flesh and Consciousness: Georges Bataille and the Dionysian,” Journal for Cultural and Religious Theory 4.3 (August 2003).

For Bataille, inner experience is also based on an embrace of eros, but this perverse eros leads one not to assimilated union but to a never-ending and never-fulfilled Dionysian desire for the experience of the basest materiality. According to Jonathan David York, in Bataille’s Dionysian dialectic when “we submit to the self-loss of inner experience we encounter being in its purest, which is to say basest condition. In this uncanny experience we approach an otherness within our own interiors, a Not-Self that is at once material and spiritual.” In York’s turn of phrase, this Bataillean inner experience “worlds the world”; we receive the world back in an “ontological mutation” through giving ourselves up to inner experience.

Compare this to Crowley’s Magister Templi experience of being “beyond the desire of these things,” in a place of darkness where “the light of the sun shall not shine upon thee and the moon shall not lend thee of her luster, and the stars shall be hidden because thou art passed beyond these things, beyond the need of these things” (The Vision and the Voice). The Thelemic mystic has successfully assimilated the entirety of the Universe prior to crossing the Abyss, and now willingly annihilates it by pouring every drop of his blood into the Cup of Babalon. There is no world to be worlded; the sum total of the balanced Universe adds up to zero, nothing or Nemo (the name of the Babe of the Abyss).

Both the White and Black Adepts attempt to gain the experience of continuity beyond the discontinuity of ordinary human consciousness. But again in Magick Without Tears, Crowley suggests that “if there is any difference at all between the White and the Black Adept . . . it is that the one, working by ‘love under will’ achieves a marriage with the new idea, while the other, merely grabbing, adds a concubine to his harem of slaves”—a perverse eros rather than an eros that results in union.

In other words, the White Adept embraces the formula of “love under will,” but the formula of the Black Brother is based on the “sin of restriction”: “The about-to-be-Black Brother constantly restricts himself”. While the White Adept grows through his magick to encompass the whole body of Nuit, the Black Adept restricts himself to the point of reaching the inner experience of the irreducible point within, the base matter that in Bataille’s radical formulation is where, “in the lowest stratum of matter,” the Black Adept finds “the purest emanations; that is, paradoxically, in the wasted sphere of ‘base matter’ we come closest to the original Source” of all being. Base matter, according to York’s reading of Bataille, “rests at the primal node where spirit initially unfolded itself, becoming world, and therefore provides the purest link between body and spirit, flesh and consciousness.”

For Bataille, eros leads to the sacred sacrifice of inner experience that dialectically culminates in the superconsciousness that encompasses the whole material cosmos; for Crowley eros leads to the procreative union of opposites that culminates in the inversion of oneness into nothingness (Crowley’s Buddhistic zero equals two formula). Bataillean mysticism restricts the ego-self so completely that it is forcibly annihilated through an inner encounter with base matter; the experience is “a pure inner fall into a limitless abyss” that brings one to a “pure interiority” (York citing Bataille).

After a successful Crowleyan crossing of the Abyss, “the Beatific Vision is no more, and the glory of the Most High is no more. There is no more knowledge. There is no more bliss. There is no more power. There is no more beauty. For this is the Palace of Understanding; for thou art one with the Primeval things.” This is a kind of primeval serenity and stoicism, a restoration of the magician to the Qabalistic supernal triad (which could only be directly experienced by a human being through regressing to a pre-emanated state).

As Crowley writes in Liber Cheth vel Vallum Abiegni, his short Thelemic Holy Book on Babalon and the Holy Graal, “This Path is beyond Life and Death; it is also beyond Love; but that ye know not, for ye know not Love.” But there is no end to eros for Bataille, no end to desire for him who seeks the “pure inner fall into a limitless abyss,” to “slowly lose myself in unintelligible and bottomless space.” For the Bataillean mystic, the Abyss is not successfully crossed, but dwelt in forever as a limitless, bottomless fall. Crowley warns the aspirant to the Abyss in Liber Cheth, “if by stealth thou keep unto thyself one thought of thine, then shalt thou be cast out into the abyss for ever; and thou shalt be the lonely one, the eater of dung, the afflicted in the Day of Be-with-Us”—but Bataille embraces this spiritually transgressive possibility.

Bataille’s perverse mysticism “looks forward to the Overman rather than backwards to the primitive,” according to York. “The point of the Dionysian dialectic is not to sustain self-loss as an end in itself”—this would be the becoming of a “pyramid of dust,” Crowley’s Nemo or the Magister Templi—“but to liberate consciousness from its disembodied psychic limitations . . . a reconciliation between ‘Man’ and Nature, the latter entering into conscious experience for the first time,” the attainment of a new superconsciousness that includes the entire material cosmos.

In Qabalistic terms, this would leave one in Daath, Knowledge—the “false crown” “invented” by Crowley’s Black Brotherhood—rather than in Binah, the dwelling place of Babalon and the Masters of the Temple. To use Frater Achad’s phrase (a Crowley adept often declared to be a Black Brother by orthodox Thelemites), this would “represent real attainment—the becoming one with Those Who Know.”2Frater Achad to Gerald Yorke, April 1948, cited ominously in Lon Milo DuQuette’s Introduction to the 2005 Edition of Q.B.L, or The Bride’s Reception, xvi. If Binah is the “Palace of Understanding” wherein is “no more knowledge,” “no more bliss,” and “no more beauty”—just pure understanding, which is “silence, and stillness, and darkness” (The Vision and the Voice)—then the Bataillean Daath is limitless bliss, limitless beauty—jouissance—and the Knowledge of the superconscious Cosmic Being. It is not a regression to “Primeval things,” but a forward-looking “ontological mutation” that, as York puts it, “includes everything formerly foreclosed by consciousness, the best of the postlapsarian world: animal, human, nature, body and mind united in one conscious experience.”

Paradoxically (and, it must be said, Christianly), Bataille’s embrace of the “sin of restriction” leads not to remaining “shut up,” as Crowley puts it in The Vision and the Voice, but to cosmic limitlessness in proximity to the One—especially in terms of desire, whose limitlessness precisely characterizes the relationship between the One and the cosmos. Meanwhile, Crowley’s formula of “love under will” leads to “silence, and stillness, and darkness”—cosmic annihilation with a likeness to Buddhist Nirvana.

It is possible Crowley understood this formula of the Black Brotherhood and its mystical possibilities, though of course he never stopped vilifying it. In his commentary on The Book of the Law, Crowley specifically refers to the Black Brotherhood in a reference to Frater Achad (referred to here by one of his other A∴A∴ mottos, O.I.V.V.I.O.)—who, as aforementioned, is often condemned by Thelemites as a cautionary example of an adept who failed to cross the Abyss and instead became a Black Brother (Achad, of course, actually broke with Crowley and converted to Roman Catholicism, while advancing to the leadership of a very different esoteric society, the Universal Brotherhood). Crowley writes:

It is quite possible that O.I.V.V.I.O. (who took the grade of {8 = 3} by an act of will without going through the lower grades in the regular way) failed to secure complete annihilation in crossing the Abyss; so that the drops of blood which should have been cast into the cup of Babalon should “breed scorpions, and vipers, and the Cat of Slime”. In this case he would develop into a Black Brother, to be torn in pieces and reduced to his Elements against his Will.

Crowley thus suggests that the path of the Black Brother still leads to the mystical self-dissolution that Bataille seeks—but a violent, sadistic dissolution, a reduction to his Elements (his base matter?) against his Will. Of course, for Bataille, the sadomasochistic character of inner experience is quite apparent—there is no real self-dissolution without the experience of being “torn to pieces.” This is not the spiritually serene crossing of the Abyss as a sheet of dust moving by one’s balanced momentum, as in Crowley’s image (though of course the experience is still traumatic in terms of the ego-self and worldly society). According to Bataille, inner experience—revealed here to be the violent and ecstatic experience of the Black Brother—is a never-ending rapture:

I slowly lose myself in unintelligible and bottomless space.
I reach the depths of worlds.
I am devoured by death.
I am devoured by fever.
I am absorbed in somber space.
I am annihilated in joy before death.

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