Georges Bataille was a morbid sexual obsessive whose relentlessly abject and pornographic writings, usually published under a pseudonym, shocked even the most cynical of his contemporaries. He lived a dual life. By day, he was a respectable librarian at the Bibliotheque Nationale; by night, an admirer of Dostoevsky and a follower of the Marquis de Sade, drinking to suicidal excess and visiting the lowest brothels of the rue Pigalle. He had powerful enemies. The surrealist Andre Breton described him as a "sick and dangerous pervert"; Jean-Paul Sartre said that Bataille "incarnated human sexuality in its most degraded form".
Bataille first began to write while undergoing psychoanalysis. This was a conventional enough procedure for those who, like him, were close to surrealist circles in the 1920s. The Story of the Eye, the novella he produced from therapy, was not, however, simply a pornographic period piece. It was an extraordinary hallucinatory fable that has since excited and disturbed generations of readers, from Yukio Mishima and Angela Carter to Kathy Acker and Will Self.
Bataille was not just a pornographer. He was also a kind of philosopher. In this guise, he has been acclaimed by Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault as an avatar of limitless irrationalism and, through his pursuit of the irreconcilable separation between thought and language, as a prophet of postmodernity. His philosophical writings are no less extreme than his pornographic fiction. "My thoughts are naked and obscene," he wrote. "I have the harsh thirst for sensuous murder: the cutting into pieces of the possible." Bataille expressed this most clearly in his notion of transgression, defined as experiences such as tears and orgasm that lie beyond rational thought.
Reading Bataille, Michel Surya writes, is a difficult and uneasy experience, not because of the explicit sexual content of his work, the cruelty and the wilful pursuit of the grotesque, but because Bataille himself was terrified of his own obsessions. He described himself not as a philosopher, but rather as a madman or a saint. In truth, he was a metaphysician of the extreme limit of human experience.
Surya includes here a series of photo- graphs taken by the anthropologist Louis Carpeaux in 1905. These depict, in appalling, graphic detail, the public execution of a Chinese youth. The psychoanalyst Dr Adrien Borel gave them to several writers, including Bataille, in the 1920s, as a way of inducing trauma in therapy. The renegade Catholic poet Pierre Jean Jouve, who himself had undergone treatment with Borel, spoke of "the nauseating horror" of his encounter with "the crucified Chinaman". For Bataille, the dying youth was "beautiful like a wasp". These were talismanic images that the deviant librarian kept on his desk throughout his career.
Surya traces Bataille's intellectual journey from surrealism in the 1920s, through anti-fascism and the experience of Occupation, to his role as founder and editor of the journal Critique, a crucial influence on the young Foucault and Jean Baudrillard, among others. His account is, for the most part, penetrating and insightful. Most importantly, it stands to correct the prevailing view in the English-speaking world - or at least that part of it which still rather quaintly reads Bataille as a postmodernist - that the historical and political Bataille, who lived, worked and actively engaged with the great convulsions of the 20th century, is of no importance. It should also be said that the translation is skilful and sensitive, which is quite an accomplishment, given the often dense and allusive nature of Surya's overheated prose.
A failing of the book is that Surya seldom confronts the real Bataille he has so diligently uncovered. He offers few critical judgements on the relation between his subject's life and work. The orgies and drunken benders - an integral part of Bataille's life - are dismissed as mere "details". Any interest in them is dismissed as vulgar prurience. But this is a frequent fault in biographies written in France, where reverence towards dead writers can overwhelm common sense.
Surya suggests that Bataille had the courage of his most extreme convictions. The most dramatic expression of this position was to be found in the activities of the secret society called Acephale that he founded in Barcelona in 1935, as Spain was collapsing into civil war. The stated aim of this group was to trace the nervous breakdown of western society to its origins in the loss of religious belief. Each member of Acephale was sworn to reveal nothing of what went on at the meetings in a wood outside Paris. Acephale was founded on a secret - the shared desire for real human sacrifice.
The venture was as short-lived as it was insane. It was rumoured that Bataille's lover of the period, Colette Peignot (otherwise known as "Laure") had consented to be the victim. Whatever the truth of the matter, the resulting scandal further blackened Bataille's reputation among established writers. He himself later acknowledged Acephale as his greatest mistake. "I tried to found a religion," he explained in the 1950s. "It was a catastrophe, a devastating disaster."
Today Bataille - pornographer and philosopher - is a literary monument in France. The ministry of culture officially celebrates his work, and he is the unofficial presiding spirit in France's black pantheon of "accursed writers" which runs from Francois Villon to Michel Houellebecq. Yet Bataille frequently insisted that the most necessary condition of his life was failure. It is the achievement of this book to demonstrate that he leaves behind not so much a cathedral of thought, as a cathedral in ruins.
Andrew Hussey is the author of The Game of War: the life and death of Guy Debord (Pimlico)