The Practice of Joy in the Face of Death

All that I am, and want to be:
Simultaneously dove, snake and pig.

When a man finds himself situated in such a way that the world is happily reflected in him, without entailing any destruction or suffering – as on a lovely spring morning – he can let himself be swept away by the enchantment or simple joy which results. But he can also perceive, at the same time, the weight and the vain yearning for empty rest implied by this beatitude. At that very moment, something cruelly rises up within him that is comparable to a bird of prey that tears open the throat of a smaller bird in an apparently calm and clear blue sky. He recognizes that he cannot fulfill his life without surrendering to an inexorable movement, the violence of which he feels acting upon the most hidden aspects of his being with a rigour which frightens him. If he turns to other beings, who do not go beyond beatitude, he does not feel hatred, to the contrary he feels sympathy for necessary pleasures: he only clashes with those who pretend to attain fulfillment in their lives, who act out a risk-free comedy in order to be recognized as having attained fulfillment, while in fact it is all just talk. But he should not succumb to vertigo. For vertigo quickly exhausts and threatens to revive a concern for happy leisure or, failing that, for a painless emptiness. Or, if he does not give in, and if he tears himself completely apart in terrified haste, he enters death in such a way that nothing is more terrible. He alone is happy who, having experienced vertigo to the point of trembling in his bones, and being no longer able to measure the extent of his fall, suddenly discovers the unexpected ability to transform his agony into a joy capable of freezing and transfiguring those who encounter it. However the only ambition which can take hold of a man who, in cold blood, sees his life fulfilled in rending agony, cannot aspire to a grandeur that only extreme chance has at its disposal. This kind of violent decision, which interrupts his repose, does not necessarily entail his vertigo nor his fall in sudden death. In him, this decision may become an act and a power by which he devotes himself to the rigour whose movement continually closes in on him, as cutting as the beak of a bird of prey. Contemplation is only the context, sometimes calm and sometimes stormy, in which the rapid force of his action must one day be put to the test. The mystical existence of the one whose “joy in the face of death” has become inner violence can never attain the satisfying beatitude of the Christian who gives himself a foretaste of eternity. The mystic of the “joy in the face of death” can never be regarded as cornered, for he is able to laugh complacently at every human endeavour and to know every accessible delight: however the totality of life – ecstatic contem­pla­tion and lucid knowledge accomplished in a single action that cannot fail to become risk – is as in­exorably his lot as death is that of a condemned man.


The following texts cannot in themselves constitute an initiation into the exercise of a mysticism of “joy in the face of death.” While admitting that such a method might exist, they do not represent even a part of it. Since oral initiation is itself difficult, it is impossible to give in a few pages anything more than the vaguest represen­tation of what by nature cannot be grasped. On the whole, these writings represent, moreover, less exercises strictly speaking than simple descriptions of a contemplative state or an ecstatic contem­plation. These descriptions would not even be acceptable if they were not given for what they are, in other words, as free. Only the very first text could be proposed as an exercise.


While it is appropriate to use the word mysticism while speaking of “joy in the face of death” and its practice, it implies no more than an affective resemblance between this practice and those of the religions of Asia or Europe. There is no reason to link any presuppositions concerning an alleged deeper reality with a joy which has no object other than immediate life. “Joy in the face of death” belongs only to the person for whom there is no beyond; it is the only intellectually honest route that one can follow in the search for ecstasy.

Besides, how could a beyond, a God or anything similar to God, still be acceptable? No words are clear enough to express the happy disdain of the one who “dances with the time which kills him” for those who take refuge in the expectation of eternal bliss. This kind of timorous saintliness – which first had to sheltered from erotic excess – has now lost all its power: one can only laugh at a sacred drunkenness which is allied to a “holy” horror of debauchery. Prudishness may be beneficial to those who are undeveloped: however anyone who is afraid of naked girls or whisky would have little to do with “joy in the face of death.”

 Only a shameless, indecent saintliness can lead to a sufficiently happy loss of self. “Joy in the face of death” means that life can be glorified from root to summit. It robs of meaning everything that is an intellectual or moral beyond, substance, God, immutable order or salvation. It is an apotheosis of that which is perishable, apotheosis of flesh and alcohol as well as of the trances of mysticism. The religious forms that it rediscovers are the naive forms that precede the intrusion of a servile morality: it renews the kind of tragic jubilation that man “is” as soon as he stops behaving like a cripple: glorifying necessary work and letting himself be emasculated by the fear of tomorrow.


 “I abandon myself to peace, to the point of annihilation.”


“The sounds of struggle dissolve into death, like rivers into the sea, like the sparkle of stars into the night.

“The strength of combat is fulfilled in the silence of all action.

“I enter peace as into a dark unknown.

“I sink into this dark unknown.

“I myself become this dark unknown.



 “I am joy in the face of death.


“Joy in the face of death transports me.

“Joy in the face of death hurls me down.

“Joy in the face of death annihilates me.


“I remain in this annihilation and, from there, I imagine nature as an interplay of forces expressed in multiplied and incessant agony.


“I slowly lose myself in an 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 in the face of death.



 “I am joy in the face of death.
“The depth of the sky, lost space is joy in the face of death: everything is cracked open.
“I imagine the earth turning dizzyingly in the sky.

“I imagine the sky itself slipping, turning, and disappearing.

“The sun, comparable to alcohol, turning and bursting breathlessly.

“The depth of the sky like an orgy of frozen light fading.

“All that exists destroying itself, consuming itself and dying, each instant only arising in the annihilation of the preceding one, and itself existing only as mortally wounded.

“Continuously destroying and consuming myself within myself in a great festival of blood.

“I imagine the frozen instant of my own death.”*



 “I focus on a point in front of me and I imagine this point as the geometrical locus of all existence and all unity, of all separation and all dread, of all unsatisfied desire and all possible death.

 “I cling to this point and a deep love of what I find there burns me, until I refuse to be alive for any reason other than for what is here, for this point which, being both the life and death of the loved one, has the roar of a cataract.

 “And at the same time, it is necessary to strip away all external representations from what is there, until it is nothing but a pure violence, an interiority, a pure inner fall into an endless abyss: this point endlessly absorbing from the cataract all its nothingness, in other words, all that has disappeared, is “past,” and in the same movement endlessly prostituting a sudden apparition to the love that vainly wants to grasp that which will one day cease to be.

 “The impossibility of satisfaction in love is a guide toward the fulfilling leap at the same time that it is the nullification of all possible illusion.”


 “If I imagine in a vision and in a halo that transfigures the ecstatic, exhausted face of a dying being, what radiates from this face illuminates out of necessity the clouds in the sky, whose grey glow then becomes more penetrating than the light of the sun itself. In this vision, death appears to be of the same nature as the light which illuminates, to the extent that light fades once it leaves its source: it appears that no less a loss than death is needed for the flash of life to traverse and transfigure dull existence, for it is only its free uprooting that becomes in me the power of life and time. In this way I stop being anything other than the mirror of death, just as the universe is only the mirror of light.”



 “I myself am war.”

 “I imagine a human movement and excitation, of which the possibilities are endless: this movement and excitation can only be appeased by war.

“I imagine the gift of an infinite suffering, of blood and open bodies, in the image of an ejaculation, felling the person it jolts and abandoning him to an exhaustion full of nausea.

“I imagine the Earth hurled into space, like a woman screaming, her head in flames.

“Before the terrestrial world whose summer and winter order the agony of all living things, before the universe composed of innumerable spinning stars, losing and consuming themselves without restraint, I only perceive a succession of cruel splendours the very movement of which demands that I die; this death is only the exploding consumption of all that was, joy of existence of all that comes into the world; even my own life demands that everything that exists, everywhere, continually give itself and be annihilated.

“I imagine myself covered with blood, broken but transfigured and in agreement with the world, both as prey and as a jaw of time which ceaselessly kills and is ceaselessly killed.

“There are explosives everywhere which perhaps will soon blind me. I laugh when I think that my eyes persist in demanding objects that do not destroy them.”

Georges Bataille
La pratique de la joie devant la mort,  Mercure de France,  1967

* One night, dreaming, X. is struck by lightning: he knows that he is dying and is suddenly, miraculously, dazzled and transformed; at this point in his dream, he attains the unexpected but he woke up.