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Derived from the Greek ἀκέφαλος (akephalos, literally "headless"), Acéphale is the name of a public review created by Georges Bataille (which numbered five issues, from 1936 to 1939) and a secret society formed by Bataille and others who had sworn to keep silent.
Acéphale, the review
Dated 24 June 1936, the first issue was only eight pages. The cover was illustrated by André Masson with a drawing openly inspired by the famous one by Leonardo da Vinci of Vitruvian Man, who embodies classical reason. Masson's figure, however, is decapitated, his groin covered by a skull, and holds in his right hand a burning heart, while in his left he wields a dagger. Under the title Acéphale are printed the words Religion. Sociologie. Philosophie followed on the next line by the expression the sacred conjuration (la conjuration sacrée).
The first article, signed by Bataille, is titled "The Sacred Conjuration" and claims that "Secretly or not... it is necessary to become different or else cease to be." Further on, Bataille wrote: "Human life is exasperated by having served as the head and reason of the universe. Insofar as it becomes this head and this reason, insofar as it becomes necessary to the universe, it accepts serfdom."
This reference to Friedrich Nietzsche's philosophy should be put in historical context: while most of Europe had been conquered by fascism, Nietzsche had been appropriated by Nazism as one of its seminal thinkers — despite Nietzsche's explicit attacks on anti-semitism, nationalism and racism. Thus, unsurprisingly, the German philosopher was unpopular at the time in France.
The second issue of the review begins with a large article titled "Nietzsche and Fascists", in which Bataille violently attacks Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche, Nietzsche's sister, who had married the notorious antisemite Bernhard Förster — the wedding had led to a final rupture between Nietzsche and his sister. Bataille thereby called Elisabeth Elisabeth Judas-Förster, recalling Nietzsche's declaration: "To never frequent anyone who is involved in this bare-faced fraud concerning races."
The same issue contains an unedited text of Nietzsche on Heraclitus from Die Philosophie im tragischen Zeitalter der Griechen (Philosophy in the Tragic Age of the Greeks), as well as an article from Jean Wahl titled "Nietzsche and the Death of God," which is a commentary on a text from Karl Jaspers on Nietzsche.
The other issues also centered on Nietzsche. The last one, prepared but ultimately not published, was titled "Nietzsche's madness" (La folie de Nietzsche).
Apart from Bataille, who signed most of the texts, Roger Caillois (issue 3 and 4), Pierre Klossowski (issue 1, 2, 3 and 4), André Masson, Jules Monnerot (issue 3 and 4), Jean Rollin and Jean Wahl (in the second issue) also participated in the review.
The Secret Society
Because of its very nature, it is difficult to describe the society's acts. Bataille referred several times to Marcel Mauss who had studied secret societies in Africa, describing them as a "total social phenomenon". On this model, he organized several nocturnal meetings in the woods, near an oak which had been struck by lightning. Members of the Acéphale society were required to adopt several rituals, such as refusing to shake hand with anti-semites and celebrating the decapitation of Louis XVI, an event which prefigured the "chiefless crowd" targeted by "acéphalité". Members of the society were also invited to meditation, on texts of Nietzsche, Freud, Sade and Mauss read during the assemblies. There was discussion amongst members about the possibility of carrying out a human sacrifice, but these discussions were never put into action.
The Encyclopaedia Da Costa
Acephale also published Encyclopaedia Da Costa (Da Costa Encyclopédique), meant to coincide with the 1947 International Surrealist Exhibition in Paris, but due to printing delays, the Encyclopedia was not distributed until months after the exhibition ended. Ironically modelled after the format of a conventional encyclopedia, it lambasted social and individual conventions with an unprecedented fervor, as well as putting forth more obscure ideas.
Perhaps its most insolent entry was the "License to Live", a faux governmental form requesting vital statistics from the bearer in order to enforce its legal fiat; the penalty for failing to keep the document "in order" was death. The license was likely an invention of Marcel Duchamp, typographer for the Encyclopaedia Da Costa, and was a gesture that, in keeping with the best of Surrealism, had no obvious relationship to the art object as it is commonly known. A precursor to "License to Live" appears in an earlier note in Duchamp's Green Box, published in 1934 but written 20 years earlier, where he imagines a society in which people must pay for the air they breathe.
By the end of the century the encyclopedia fell into obscurity, partly because those who created it actively discouraged interested parties from procuring copies.
- Documents, a surrealist journal edited by Bataille from 1929 to 1930
- Minotaure, a primarily surrealist-oriented publication founded by Albert Skira, published in Paris from 1933 to 1939
- La Révolution surréaliste, a seminal Surrealist publication founded by André Breton, published in Paris from 1924 to 1929
- View, an American art magazine, primarily covering avant-garde and surrealist art, published from 1940 to 1947
- VVV, a New York journal published by émigré European surrealists from 1942 through 1944
- « Il est temps d’abandonner le monde des civilisés et sa lumière. Il est trop tard pour tenir à être raisonnable et instruit — ce qui a mené à une vie sans attrait. Secrètement ou non, il est nécessaire de devenir tout autres ou de cesser d’être. » (French)
- « La vie humaine est excédée de servir de tête et de raison à l’univers. Dans la mesure où elle devient cette tête et cette raison, dans la mesure où elle devient nécessaire à l’univers, elle accepte un servage. » (French)
- See e.g. Nietzsche, "Nice, end of December 1887: Draft of letter to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche":
In the meantime I've seen proof, black on white, that Herr Dr. Förster has not yet severed his connection with the anti-Semitic movement. [...] Since then I've had difficulty coming up with any of the tenderness and protectiveness I've so long felt toward you. The separation between us is thereby decided in really the most absurd way. Have you grasped nothing of the reason why I am in the world? [...] Now it has gone so far that I have to defend myself hand and foot against people who confuse me with these anti-Semitic canaille; after my own sister, my former sister, and after Widemann more recently have given the impetus to this most dire of all confusions. After I read the name Zarathustra in the anti-Semitic Correspondence my forbearance came to an end. I am now in a position of emergency defense against your spouse's Party. These accursed anti-Semite deformities shall not sully my ideal!!
- Bataille, Georges (1985). "Introduction". In Stoekl, Allan. Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-1939. University of Minnesota Press. pp. xx–xxi. ISBN 978-0-8166-1283-3.
Texts from Georges Bataille
- L’apprenti Sorcier : Ce que j’ai à dire, éd. de la Différence, Paris, 1937
- Acéphale, réédition des numéros publiés et du numéro final non publié, éd. Jean-Michel Place, Paris, 1995
- L’Apprenti Sorcier (textes, lettres et documents (1932–1939) rassemblés, présentés et annotés par Marina Galletti), Éditions de la Différence, Paris, 1999
- Maurice Blanchot, La communauté inavouable, Les Éditions de Minuit, Paris,
- Marcel Mauss, Manuel d’ethnographie, Petite bibliothèque Payot, Paris, 1967
- Michel Surya, Georges Bataille, la mort à l’œuvre, Gallimard, Paris, 1992
- L’unebévue, n° 16 : Les communautés électives, EPEL, 2000
- Stephan Moebius, Die Zauberlehrlinge. Soziologiegeschichte des Collège de Sociologie, Konstanz 2006.