"L’Art, exercise de la cruauté" was originally published in Médicine de France (June 1949), reprinted in Georges Bataille, Oeuvres Complètes, vol. XI, Paris: Gallimard, 1988.
In truth, the question posed by the nature of the bait does not differ from that of the purpose of the trap. The enigma of sacrifice — the decisive enigma — is tied to our desire to find what a child seeks when seized by a sense of absurdity. What bothers the child and suddenly changes him into a whirligig is the desire to obtain, beyond the world of appearances, the answer to a question he would be unable to formulate. He thinks that perhaps he is the son of a king, but the son of a king is nothing. Then he thinks wisely that perhaps he is God: this would be the resolution of the enigma. The child, it goes without saying, speaks of this to no one. He would feel ridiculous in a world where every object reinforces the image of his own limits, where he recognizes how small and “separate” he is. But he thirsts precisely for no longer being “separate,” and it is only no longer being “separate” that would give him the sense of resolution without which he founders. The narrow prison of being “separate,” of existence separated like an object, gives him the feeling of absurdity, exile, of being subject to a ridiculous conspiracy. The child would not be surprised to wake up as God, who for a time would put himself to the test, so that the imposture of his small position would be suddenly revealed. Henceforth the child, if only for a weak moment, remains with his forehead pressed to the window, waiting for his moment of illumination.
It is to this wait that the bait of sacrifice responds. What we have been waiting for all our lives is this disordering of the order that suffocates us. Some object should be destroyed in this disordering (destroyed as an object and, if possible, as something “separate”). We gravitate to the negation of that limit of death, which fascinates like light. For the disordering of the object — the destruction — is only worthwhile insofar as it disorders us, insofar as it disorders the subject at the same time. We cannot ourselves (the subject) directly lift the obstacle that “separates” us. But we can, if we lift the obstacle that separates the object (the victim of the sacrifice), participate in this denial of all separation. What attracts us in the destroyed object (in the very moment of destruction) is its power to call into question — and to undermine — the solidity of the subject. Thus the purpose of the trap is to destroy us as an object (insofar as we remain enclosed — and fooled — in our enigmatic isolation).
Thus our ruin, when the trap is opened (the ruin at least of our separate existence, of this isolated entity, negator of its likenesses), is the very opposite of anguish, which relentlessly and egotistically pursues the debits and credits of any entity resolved to persevere in its being. Under such conditions there emerges the most striking contradiction, interior to each person. On one hand, this small, limited, and inexplicable existence, wherein we have felt like an exile, a butt both of jokes and of the immense absurdity that is the world, cannot resolve to give up the game; on the other hand, it heeds the urgent call to forget its limits. In a sense, this call is the trap itself, but only insofar as the victim of the joke insists — as is common, if not necessary — on remaining a victim. Consequently, what makes the situation difficult to clarify is that, in each case, a trap is waiting for us. (The trap, in other words, is double.) On one hand, the various objects of this world offer themselves to anguish as the bait, but in a sense contrary to that of sacrifice: here we are caught in the trap of a small and separate reality, exiled from truth (insofar as the word refers not to a narrow horizon but to the absence of limits). On the other hand, sacrifice promises us the trap of death, for the destruction rendered unto the object has no sense other than the menace that it has for the subject. If the subject is not truly destroyed, everything remains in ambiguity. And if it is destroyed the ambiguity is resolved, but only in a nothingness that abolishes everything.
Yet it is from this double bind that the very meaning of art emerges — for art, which puts us on the path of complete destruction and suspends us there for a time, offers us ravishment without death. Of course, this ravishment could be the most inescapable trap — if we manage to attain it, although strictly speaking it escapes us at the very instant that we attain it. Here or there, we enter into death or return to our little worlds. But the endless carnival of artworks is there to show that a triumph — in spite of a firm resolve to value nothing but that which endures — is promised to anyone who leaps out of the irresolution of the instant. This is why it is impossible to pay too much interest in excessive drunkenness, which penetrates the opacity of the world with those gratuitously cruel flashes in which seduction is tied to massacre, torture, and horror.