The Sweet Smell Of Excess: Will Self, Bataille and Transgression

A lengthy and coherent analysis of Will Self’s work and its similarities with the writing of Georges Bataille by Brian Finney:

“Self sees himself paradoxically both as a moral satirist and as a social rebel who is more interested in shocking his middle-class readers than in reforming them. ‘What excites me,’ he has said, ‘is to disturb the reader’s fundamental assumptions. I want to make them feel that certain categories within which they are used to perceiving the world are unstable’ (Glover 15).

Self shares with earlier thinkers and writers of the twentieth century this conception of being born into an unstable world. In particular, his work evokes the ideas of Georges Bataille who felt that social taboos and their transgression were wholly interdependent. Indeed, Bataille argues, it is only by transgressing taboos that we simultaneously contrive to endorse or modify them. Each is dependent on the other: ‘Organised transgression together with the taboo make social life what it is’ (Eroticism 65). Bataille is representative of a complex view of the modern condition that reconciles Self’s need to shock us in his seemingly arbitrary scenes of animal torture and human excess with his claim to be occupying the high moral ground of the moralist. How else are we to understand a writer who talks approvingly about ‘the social and spiritual value of intoxication’ (Junk Mail 19)? In a century disfigured by events such as the holocaust, Hiroshima and ethnic cleansing, Self maintains that the modern writer is driven to parallel forms of excess and transgression:

ours is an era in which the idea and practice of decadence – in the Nietzschean sense – has never been more clearly realized … [F]ar from representing a dissolution of nineteenth-century romanticism, the high modernism of the mid-twentieth century … has both compounded and enhanced the public image of the creative artist as deeply self-destructive, highly egotistic, plangently amoral and, of course, the nadir of anomie. (Junk Mail 58)”

Read the complete essay