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This page Acéphale is part of the mysticism series. Illustration to the Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (1618) by Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens
This page Acéphale is part of the mysticism series.
Illustration to the Speculum Sophicum Rhodostauroticum (1618) by Teophilus Schweighardt Constantiens
Blemmyes from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)
Blemmyes from Hartmann Schedel's Nuremberg Chronicle (1493)

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Acéphale (from the Latin a-cephalus, headless or without a chief) designs both a public review created by Georges Bataille (which counted five issues, from 1936 to 1939) and a secret and esoteric society formed by Bataille and some other members whom had sworn to keep silence. Bataille himself maintained close links with the Surrealism movement in Paris.


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.

See e.g. Nietzsche, "Nice, end of December 1887: Draft of letter to Elisabeth Förster-Nietzsche.

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 The 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 refered several times to Marcel Mauss whom had studied secret societies in Africa, describing them as a "total social phenomenon". On this model, he organized several nocturne 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-semitics or celebrating the decapitation of Louis XVI, event which prefigured the "chiefless crowd" targed by "acéphalité". Members of the society are also invited to meditation, on texts of Nietzsche, Freud, Sade and Mauss read during the assemblies.

The Encyclopaedia Da Costa

Encyclopaedia Da Costa

They 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 perpetrating more recondite clusters of 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. It is most likely another invention of the mind of Marcel Duchamp, typographer for the Encyclopaedia Da Costa, and 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.

See also

Surrealist magazine


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

Other references


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