What had the face of politics and imagined itself to be political, will one day unmask itself as a religious movement. Kierkegaard’s prophecy is taken as the epigraph of the Acéphale journal and as the sacred task of the corresponding secret society. The College of Sociology is the third and most public layer of the new initiative Georges Bataille undertakes in April 1936. It is a decisive and paradoxical moment. At the very height of the anti-fascist struggle, Bataille turns his back on politics and leaves Contre-Attaque, the combat union of revolutionary intellectuals he has only just formed together with Claude Cahun, André Breton, and others. In the same moment, he dedicates himself completely to the secret society under the sign of the acéphale, a headless figure who has come to him in dream and trance as much as in his study of ancient art, who is starry-breasted, labyrinthine of belly and has the face of death for its reproductive organs, who clutches the knife of sacrifice in its left hand and the sacred heart in its right, and whose appearance signs the dramatic break with even the most revolutionary forms of political struggle.
Up to this point, Bataille has torched through a series of ever more revolutionary groups and cannot find his home in any; he has earned the accolade of heretic from the anarchists and communists alike. But this new group – possessed, as he puts it, of a purely religious purpose – is not a renunciation of struggle, does not signal any laying down of arms or retreat into comfort. It is said that a person’s name carries the secret signature of his fate, and Bataille, whose very name is battle, cannot renounce combat any more than he can escape his destiny. Violence and aggression are one with the free play that is life. It is politics, like the Christianity it is based on, that seeks to nullify and control this instinct, to infect life with moral reasoning and turn it against itself. What we are starting, Bataille writes, is a war. A war at a higher level, freed from the falsehoods of politics, waged at the level of the sacred. Anti-fascist, anti-Christian, and anti-Socialist, for these are not three different things but three different heads of the same monster. As Michel Camus put it in his introduction to the 1980 French facsimile edition of Acéphale, Bataille’s “political passion turned less to apoliticism than by some ‘religious’ means to the most virulent anti-politics.”
For Camus, this hostility to the politics of left and right alike provokes only bafflement. But we find a strong resonance here. The anti-political spirit has blazed through our worlds in recent decades, finding fuel in circles of post-left and green anarchists and anti-state communists, which can be seen as later iterations of the revolutionary groups Bataille frequented until the break with Contre-Attaque. To be sure, not everyone touched by anti-political fever will find her way into a cult, but some, just as surely, will. And while it would be foolish to see Acéphale as a model to follow, how could we not gaze into the rough and imperfect mirror it offers?
The mirror shows us Acéphale: the religion of madness. This is the meaning of the headless figure, as Bataille makes clear in “The Sacred Conspiracy.” We must escape our heads like prisoners their prisons. If you would sever yourself from the world of politics, aim precisely at the neck. It is told that shortly before the formation of Contre-Attaque, the well-known revolutionary Simone Weil attempted to bar Bataille’s admittance into an earlier group, the Democratic Communist Circle. She protested that for Bataille “revolution is the triumph of the irrational; for me the rational; for him a catastrophe; for me a methodical action in which everyone strives to limit the damages; for him the liberation of the instincts, particularly those generally considered pathological; for me the superiority of morality…. How can we coexist in the same revolutionary organization?”1 No wonder Bataille cannot last in the ultra-left groups. Morality, reason, and restraint – as we have seen, these are precisely what must be left behind. Abandon the world of the civilized and its light, Bataille urges. It is too late to be reasonable and learned. The world of secular modernity remains hopelessly enslaved to the head, forcing us to a life void of ecstasy, a life not worth living. Below the neck lies an awakened world, beckoning us to carry out the greatest of jailbreaks. Revolutionaries are just more jailers.
If Acéphale is the religion of madness, it is also the religion of the Earth. Bataille, Masson, Klossowski, and the others meet outdoors, in the woods, under the sky, worshiping a sacred lightning-struck tree and conspiring amid fortress ruins. The religion of the Earth knows no nation or fatherland. The Earth’s mountains and seas destroy the nation and the fatherland. The mountain is sacred to Acéphale, as it is to the ancient religions, because it is a reminder that the Earth is not a rock, not a dead thing but a living and dying planet. The cult is formed immediately after Bataille travels to the mountain Montserrat with his friend André Masson. There they encounter the mysteries they will ritualize in the cult, there they receive the vision of the acéphale, and there Bataille writes “The Sacred Conspiracy.” When the acéphale appears in Masson’s drawings, it is sitting or standing on the mountaintop. In the mountains, fires rise up and burst forth: beneath its crust, the Earth is another star. In Masson’s sketches, the acéphale and the god Dionysos are accompanied by earthquake and volcanic eruption. Indeed, it is in volcanic soil that the grape vines sacred to Dionysos thrive, for Dionysos – born of Earth and lightning – is the fire of the earth, the god who reveals that the Earth is, like every living being, another star. Earth, in the acephalic religion, is not ground, it is not constancy, it is the sign of utter ﬂux and ungroundedness: precisely that which we consider ground becomes a crust upon the surface of a burning sun. Are we not continually falling? And backwards, sideways, forward, in all directions?
Acéphale is the Nietzschean religion, quite possibly the largest group yet formed on explicitly Nietzschean principles. The society dedicates the journal’s second issue entirely to him, and Bataille dedicates the most laborious texts in the series to redeeming him from the fascist abuse just then reaching its peak. Nietzsche’s doctrine cannot be enslaved, Bataille writes, it can only be followed. The secret society is a fanatical attempt to do just that. But how is it possible? A Nietzschean religion, a religion under the name of the great atheist who preached the death of God? A century of musty scholarship has obscured the matter. The journal’s writings on Nietzsche uncover a long trail of overlooked writings, a labyrinthine path not deist so much as deifying and undeifying. It is nothing less than a resurrection of the truly ancient philosophy. That the earliest Greek philosophers all admitted to have learned their art in Egypt at the feet of the philosopher-priests for whom philosophy was a divine art – this fact has been nearly erased from the philosophical tradition. But Nietzsche was steeped in the myth and tragedy of ancient Greece as much as in its philosophical schools. Originally a student of philology – the love of myth and story – his first book was entirely about Dionysos, the god of theater and of madness. In those timeless moments that fall to one as if from the moon… Nietzsche’s Dionysian studies laid the ground for his mystical experience at Lake Silvaplana and his recovery of the Egyptian thread. Significant portions of Acéphale’s reading of Nietzsche were in fact largely inaccessible to the English-speaking world until very recently. Many of the key unpublished fragments were included in appendix to the Mercure de France edition of Zarathustra and put to use by Acéphale. In a strange twist of fate, during our work on this book, these fragments were independently published in English translation by Paul Loeb and David Tinsley for the Stanford Complete Works. Other key passages are scattered across Nietzsche’s published works, especially those written after the mystery of eternal recurrence was revealed to him in 1881, and particularly in Zarathustra, Beyond Good and Evil, and the fragments collected under the title The Will to Power. Acéphale’s journal, the collection you hold, serves as an introduction to this deifying thought in Nietzsche, and the citations provide plenty of pointers for further reading. But, as often happens, much of the English-speaking difficulty with the doctrine has turned on a difficulty of translation. Nietzsche’s thought has often been reduced to mere atheism because of Zarathustra’s famous doctrine of the death of God, but Zarathustra brings these tidings as a precursor for the more radical doctrine, which is that human beings are something that must be overcome. This is the doctrine of the superhumans, which is well known, though not by this name. Most modern translators, following Walter Kaufmann, render Nietzsche’s Übermensch as “overman” in order to avoid association with comic book superheroes and Nazi propaganda – and, what is probably a secondary concern, to keep Nietzsche’s wordplay around over and under. This translation choice has had its cost. The German noun Übermensch barely appears before Nietzsche; he essentially coined the term. But the German adjective/adverb übermeschlicht was in common use, and simply means superhuman. Nietzsche himself used this term several times in earlier writings before his Übermensch coinage. Much of the confusion around the idea of the Übermensch has come from failing to notice that Nietzsche’s vision of the overcoming of the human was something precisely superhuman or supernatural. Compellingly, Loeb and Tinsley point out that Nietzsche’s first use of the term Uebermenschen (an alternate spelling of Übermenschen) referred explicitly to the supernatural:
The invention of gods, heroes, and superhumans [Uebermenschen] of all kinds, as well as near-humans and subhumans, of dwarves, fairies, centaurs, satyrs, demons, and devils was invaluable training for justifying the selfishness and sovereignty of the individual: the freedom granted to one god in relation to other gods was in turn granted to oneself in relation to laws and customs and neighbors.
This remarkable passage, from “Greatest Advantage of Polytheism” in The Gay Science, resonates strongly with Zarathustra’s prophecy of the superhumans to come. After all, one of the most defining features of the superhumans is precisely their iconoclastic individualism, their freedom from all existing law and custom. Nietzsche writes that the superhumans will be Dionysian beings. Dionysos himself was half-god, half-human. In his notes to Zarathustra, Nietzsche describes humans as raindrops falling from a dark cloud in which lightning is hidden – the lightning, he writes, is the superhumans.2 Likewise, Dionysos was born of lightning and Earth, and Acéphale worships the lightning-struck tree. Again Nietzsche writes that the superhumans are the mirror of the universe – the universe that is God. The mirror was one of the toys of the child-god Dionysos, and it is said that, of all the toys, it was the mirror that most captivated him in the moments before he was torn apart by the Titans. It is through the death of God – even more, by killing God – that one encounters existence itself as an eternal becoming-god and unbecoming-god. In this Nietzschean formula, godliness is not supreme goodness, not supreme wisdom, it is nothing but will to power:
this my Dionysian world of eternal self-creating, of eternal self-destroying, this mystery-world of the doubly voluptuous, this my beyond good and evil, without goal, if a goal does not lie in the happiness of the circle, without will, if a ring does not have good will for itself – do you want a name for this world? A solution for all its riddles? a light for you too, you hiddenmost, strongest, most intrepid, most midnightly? – This world is the will to power – and nothing else! And you yourselves are also this will to power – and nothing else!
A mirror-world, a Dionysian world that undoes separation, where God is world, world is will to power, and you yourself are God and world and will to power. This is why Zarathustra insists that one must preserve chaos within, so as to give birth to a dancing star. Following these writings, in the period known as his madness, Nietzsche signs a number of his final letters as Dionysos or Nietzsche-Dionysos. Is Nietzsche’s madness the unraveling of his philosophy or its apotheosis? His teachings have spent too long under the pens of those incapable of following his greatest leap. If philosophers define their domain as the realm of human reason, then they have disqualified themselves from interpreting Nietzsche’s final teachings. (Nietzsche, who understood the mad god Dionysos as a philosopher and wrote that gods also philosophize, surely understood philosophy otherwise.) Where reason can only trail off, Acéphale begins. It is instructive that the cult holds precisely two days sacred: the 21st of January for the beheading of Louis XVI, the 3rd of January for the coming of Nietzsche’s madness. On that day, the paradox of Nietzschean religion is no less a paradox, no less a joke, but it is fully realized in the overﬂowing laughter and celebration at the death of God.
A particular reading of mythology also instructs Acéphale in their attempt to follow Nietzsche’s becoming-god. Bataille’s lectures and notes of the time betray a curious obsession with Frazer’s Golden Bough, and in particular with the “strange and recurring tragedy” for which that massive work is named.3 According to Frazer, the story is told in ancient Rome of a tree that grows within the sanctuary of Diana beside the lake of Nemi known as Diana’s mirror. It is forbidden for any person to touch the golden boughs of the sacred tree, but an escaped slave unbound by social taboos finds his way there and breaks off a branch of the tree. This done, he is compelled to fight the priest-king of the grove in single combat, and, upon killing the king, takes his place to rule as Rex Nemorensis until another escaped slave comes to take his life and renew the eternal cycle. Frazer finds instances and echoes of this ages-old mythic theme in cultures the world over, repeating ad infinitum: to rule as god-king is to be condemned to die; to murder the god-king is to be condemned to take his place. Frazer’s pattern allows Acéphale to interpret Nietzsche’s death of God as a moment in a great cosmic cycle, eternally renewed. To understand the acephalic religion, their obsession with the death of God, the beheading of Louis XVI, and the rites carried out at Montjoie to hasten the death of the king,4 to grasp the headlessness of their namesake at all its levels, we must follow them in their reading of Frazer together with Nietzsche. For Acéphale, the great mythic arc requires the death of God, and just as necessarily demands the becoming-god of God’s murderer. And who today is not one of God’s murderers?
Frazer, unable to bear the weight of his great discovery, weaves a pathetically Christian, moralizing, and indulgent story of the progress of civilization. According to him, we are meant to suppose that Christianity’s story of the death of God is a progressive improvement on the ancient stories. But for Nietzsche and his followers, it is entirely the opposite. Christianity is a degeneration, a sickness, a sign of life’s becoming exhausted with itself. It is in precisely this sense that the acéphalians are atheists, but it is also in precisely this sense that they are ferociously religious Dionysians. The tragic mythos of Dionysos, god of paradox, conforms to the golden-bough genre: Dionysos is a dying and reviving god. But it would be a mistake to compare this death-and-rebirth with that of Christ. What distinguishes the acephalic religion from Christianity is the meaning of this death and rebirth. (Have I been understood? Dionysos versus the Crucified!) The death of God in the crucifixion is a curse on life, the resurrection is the renunciation of life, for Christianity is the religion of the hatred of life. But the tragic dismemberment of Dionysos, the violent and bloody sparagmos, is an eternally renewed cycle and a blessing on life – life which is eternal self-destruction and self-creation. In the Dionysian mysteries, the boundaries between sacrifice, sacrificer and receiver of the sacrifice are unmade: sacrificer becomes the sacrifice becomes the receiver of the sacrifice. Nietzsche’s notebooks reveal a deep understanding of the mysteries: his Dionysian world, sacrificing itself to itself eternally. In Zarathustra, he speaks of the one who shatters old values and creates new ones: For its own law it must become… sacrificial victim. Bataille takes this to heart, and it very nearly becomes his fate. He is fully committed to become the human sacrifice for his cult, though he fails to compel the others despite each having made an explicit pact to wield the knife. As for Nietzsche, he foresees his own fate when, by the lake of Silvaplana (in the mountains, looking upon a natural stone in the shape of a pyramid) he is struck by his greatest realization: eternal recurrence. His fate is to eternally return as the teacher of eternal recurrence.
Acéphale is thus the religion of Dionysos. The second issue of the journal is dedicated to Nietzsche, and it is to Dionysos that they sacrifice the double issue 3/4. Dionysos is abundantly acephalic: god of madness, god of ecstasy (the escape from the head, from the state), god of death and rebirth, the god who demands the sacrifice of himself to himself. Just a few lines from Walter Otto’s epic Dionysos: Myth and Cult are enough to confirm that this paradoxical god bears all the qualities of Acéphale’s Nietzschean religion:
The visage of every true god is the visage of a world. There can be a god who is mad only if there is a mad world which reveals itself through him. Where is this world? … For this no one can help us but the god himself….
He who begets something which is alive must dive down into the primal depths in which the forces of life dwell. And when he rises to the surface, there is a gleam of madness in his eyes because in those depths death lives cheek by jowl with life. The primal mystery is itself mad – the matrix of the duality and the unity of disunity. We do not have to appeal to the philosophers for this…. All peoples and ages testify to it through their life experiences and their cult practices.
Man’s experience tells him that wherever there are signs of life, death is in the offing. The more alive this life becomes, the nearer death draws, until the supreme moment – the enchanted moment when something new is created – when death and life meet in an embrace of mad ecstasy. The rapture and terror of life are so profound because they are intoxicated with death. As often as life engenders itself anew, the wall which separates it from death is momentarily destroyed.
Christianity, and the secular modernity that is its decomposition, denies the life that lives cheek by jowl with death. Unable to affirm a life that is inextricable from suffering, tragedy, death, it can only affirm a false eternal life while denying life itself. Dionysian existence is the affirmation of life as tragedy. How better to affirm life as tragedy than to celebrate the greatest tragedy: the death of God! Attempt to understand this paradox through the head and you are condemned to confusion. Escape the head and the paradox becomes painfully, joyfully clear. Learn joy in the face of death, and you learn to live. For what is life but the joyful, violent impulse for play, calling new worlds into being? So teaches Acéphale, or, the religion of life.
Let us be clear that the translators, compilers, editors, designers, printers and binders of this book and the authors of this introduction are anarchists of the anti-political variety. With Acéphale, we reject the false opposition of Left and Right statism, and with them we likewise reject the false opposition of the Christian religion versus the rationalist religion of equality, democracy, and civilization. With this we have quickly become incomprehensible to most anarchists, not to mention most of the others, but we will go ahead regardless. We see that we are not alone, but part of what Acéphale’s Klossowski described as “a long-standing conspiracy initiated in the past by isolated individuals who had transmitted the watchword” (Sade, Nietzsche, Hegel, Baudelaire, Rimbaud, Lautrémont), each “working out the code of honor of this coming community” with the mission of “bringing forth, out of the bosom of the profane world of functional servitude, the sacred world of the totality of being.”5 Understanding that the French word translated here as conspiracy (plotting, breathing together) equally means conjuration (swearing an oath, casting a spell, conjuring into being), we affirm that these living, breathing forms exist insofar as we invoke and swear by them. With this in mind, we add two names to Klossowski’s list, and to the list of Acéphale’s members as recorded in the official histories: Walter Benjamin and Laure.
Walter Benjamin’s place in the group remains somewhat shadowy, but Klossowski clearly recounts that he attended the group’s secret meetings.6 Notwithstanding this, he certainly seems to have remained something of an outsider with respect to the cult, as was his way throughout his life. But some significant cross-contamination between Benjamin and the cult cannot be denied. When he ﬂed the Nazi invasion of France – an exodus that would claim his life – he left his papers with Bataille for safekeeping. Among his final writings one finds strong and curious resonances with the acephalic religion. Especially of note is his study of Nietzschean eternal recurrence in his unfinished Passagenwerk and in the omitted notes to “On the Concept of History.” In these notes, under the heading “New Theses C,” Benjamin writes: “Thinking the idea of eternal recurrence once more in the nineteenth century, Nietzsche becomes the figure on whom mythic doom is now carried out.” What doom is this? It is not Nietzsche’s madness or any misfortune he suffered during his lifetime: is now carried out. The doom carried out on Nietzsche in 1940 is precisely the Nazi attempt to appropriate his thought. This omitted note emphasizes just how much Benjamin had in mind the teacher of eternal recurrence when he wrote “On the Concept of History.” And this is no surprise when we consider not only the resonances between eternal recurrence and the theses themselves but also just how intimate Benjamin would have been with Bataille’s recent defense of Nietzsche. In this light, it can be none other than Nietzsche’s spirit that moves Benjamin’s pen when he writes that “the only historian capable of fanning the spark of hope in the past is the one who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he is victorious. And this enemy has never ceased to be victorious.”
At this point, we would be remiss not to make clear that we see our work on this book as a continuation of Acéphale’s battle for Nietzsche. In light of this, we cannot fail to mention that certain modern-day fascists continue to try to make use of Nietzsche – and increasingly Bataille as well – for their grotesqueries. In turn, a parade of moralists who have never read Bataille or Nietzsche enjoy proclaiming that anyone who does is ﬂirting with fascist ideas. For this doom to be carried out on one of the very first people to defend Nietzsche from the fascists is as unforgivable as it is unforgivably ironic. Eternal recurrence indeed! Trembling with rage, Bataille’s words in “Nietzsche and the Fascists” come back to us. This is nothing less base than the reduction to degrading slavery of one who intended to destroy slave morality. Today all humanity rushes toward slavery harder than ever, casting their chains on anything with the appearance of a free spirit. If this book is not a shattering of these chains and a conversation among free spirits, then it is nothing at all.
We turn to Colette Peignot, better known as Laure. Evidence of her involvement is more abundant. We know that she financed the publication of the journal, and Michel Leiris affirms that she inspired the secret society. We also know that she performed rituals with Bataille in the same woods where Acéphale met. Her poem “Crow,” written months before the group’s formation, tells of a lightning-struck tree in a forest that holds “the secret / of a many-rayed star.” A lightning-struck tree was one of the cult’s two sacred sites (the other was the ruined fortress of Montjoie). This headless tree stands in a forest near Paris whose paths intersect in a constellation of étoiles – stars – so called due to the crossroads’ radial shapes. Nearly the entire array of acephalic symbolism appears in these few lines. Summarizing all of this, Michel Surya, Bataille’s biographer, says straightforwardly that Laure was a member of the secret society. And indeed, found among her papers are Bataille’s instructions for finding the way to the secret location of the rituals open only to members of the group.7 We cannot fail to point out, then, the extent to which Laure has been omitted from the official histories of Acéphale. The editors of the otherwise commendable The Sacred Conspiracy go so far as to claim that Laure “took no part in the meetings of the secret society.”8 Their only apparent evidence is the word of Michel Koch, who claims that Isabelle Farner “was the only woman to take part in… the ‘Männerbund’ (male society).”9 But Koch was only active in Acéphale at the end. We are left to wonder what the editors were smoking. Of course, like Benjamin, Laure was a free spirit, not the kind to join any kind of group easily, and this must have contributed to the confusion. Indeed, Laure seems to have been the only member of Acéphale to call herself an anarchist. Having traveled to Spain in 1938 in the midst of the civil war there, she then returns to France, where she attends an anarchist meeting. She writes “I am now an anarchist. The others disgust me too much.”10 Months later, Laure dies of a life-long illness. The impact of her anarchism and her death on Bataille and the others can be seen in the mission Bataille gives to Rollin (another member of Acéphale) as he leaves to fight in the civil war in Spain. Tell the anarchists about our project, Bataille says. They are the best chance for our religion to spread. No trace of a response from the anarchists appears in the histories, so the chance for Bataille’s message to receive a reply from the anarchists lies with the present and coming generations. May this book point the way to that place where the anarchists and acephalians are gathered, free spirits joining other free spirits, conspiring together and conjuring strange books and signs of their world into ours.
Let us return to the twisted shape Masson sketched in the belly of the acéphale. If there is an acephalous route leading on to a Dionysian world, an anti-Christian, Nietzschean religion of life, anarchic and ecstatic, the way is crooked and winding. Who knows how many forests there are in our own vicinities, each with its own sacred tree and frequented by anarchic witches? The authors of this introduction can name at least one. The cult of Acéphale opens the door onto a labyrinth without exhausting its depths. Acéphale is now. Welcome to eternity.
Simone Pétrement, La vie de Simone Weil, Fayard, 1973, p. 306.↩︎
Nachlass, vol. 14, p. 130. NF-4.↩︎
Alastair Brotchie, “The College of Sociology: A Paradoxical Institution,” in The Sacred Conspiracy (Atlas Press, 2018) pp. 63–86.↩︎
For Acéphale, the ruins of the fortress of Montjoie, one of the two sacred sites where they carried out their rituals, held numerous layers of meaning. One of these concerns an account in the Chronicle of the Monks of Saint-Denis of a ritual held at these ruins, where demons were summoned and a man was hanged in order to hasten the death of the king. See Bataille’s “The Ruins of Montjoie” in The Sacred Conspiracy; see also Chronique du religieux de Saint-Denys, pp. 756–757. ↩︎
Sade mon prochain, p. 168.↩︎
Le Collège de Sociologie, 1995, p. 884.↩︎
Laure, 1995, p. 56.↩︎
The Sacred Conspiracy, Appendix I, “Laure.”↩︎
The Sacred Conspiracy, “Chronology,” 25 July 1938.↩︎
Laure, p. 227.↩︎