“Lightning” by Michael Taussig.

Soul mates they be, sun and lightning. No doubt about it. Makes you think different about the sun, that’s for sure. To imagine the sun held still and compressed as lightning streaking earthward is to imagine something strange and wonderful, crystallized sunlight, like the quartz crystals used by shamans in South America or those lamps glistening in the darkness of winter when the sun never shines on the graveyard in northern Finland, birds soaring over the sadder-than-sad railway station.

I get this concept of crystallized sunlight from Georges Bataille’s electrifying essay on Egyptian obelisks as petrified sunrays. The task of the obelisk is to hold time rock-still so as to empower the sun king, descendant of the sun god Ra.

But today our obelisk is different. It is unstable, asymmetrical, and anything but still. It is a tree, a crippled tree hit by lightning, abject and alone. This is the body of my concern.

This is our re-enchanted sun, our dark surrealism, this wounded tree, site of wonders.

This is how Ra exists today. Listen to Sun Ra and his Arkestra searching for an alternative future for African America on another planet.

Giambattista Vico singles out lightning as a cause of civilization—of what he calls “poetic wisdom,” based on the sense humans once had, he assumes, that every aspect of the universe is animated, allowing nature to be read like a language. Vico’s Scienza Nuova influenced Marx as well as Joyce’s Finnegan’s Wake. (Marx, Joyce, and Vico all had a dash of lightning, that’s for sure.)

In the late 1930s Bataille and the Acéphale group planned to sacrifice someone by a tree hit by lightning just outside of Paris but chickened out. “On marshy soil, in the center of a forest,” as Bataille puts it, “where turmoil seems to have intervened in the usual order of things, stands a tree struck by lightning. One can recognize in this tree the mute presence of that which has assumed the name of Acéphale, expressed here by these arms without a head.”

For Bataille there exists a parallel between sacrifice and the magic hour of twilight and dawn beloved by cinematographers. In contemplating the unexpected emergence of laughter, which he saw as occasioned by sacrifice and hence the sacred, Bataille noted that the “laughter that has wholly overpowered me I remember in any case, like the sunset which continues, after nightfall, to dazzle eyes unaccustomed to darkness.”

Perhaps this is not surprising if we take heed of Bataille’s great love, Laure, the only female member of Acéphale, stating that expenditure, destruction, and loss have “ontological status for Bataille, being found in cosmology, meaning the sun.”

In this she is echoed by Annette Michelson, quoting Bataille: “The analogy between sacrificial death by fire and solar radiance is man’s response to the manifest splendor of the universe.” With this she wishes to emphasize the giving, the letting go, the burst of being that Bataille calls dépense. This is not only the basis of Bataille’s General Economics but in his book, The Accursed Share, he states that solar power underpins life and provides the essential law of dépense. The question now becomes how would he react today when this very power underpins not life but death?

Putting his colleagues to the test, Bataille asked Roger Caillois to be a sacrificial victim so as to make a myth that would found the secret society. Caillois demurred. But times have changed and instead of sacrificing Caillois what we have is a misshapen tree struck by lightning in central Mexico fifty years ago as our sacrificial victim. The lightning dismembered the tree. It has no head. A healer called Don Lucio lived close by. He took me there. He had been struck by lightning too. The name Lucio means light.

I ask myself why do mutilated, lightning-struck, acéphalic trees offer compelling witnesses to our current situation? Are they holy on account of their being, like sacrificial victims, violently destroyed, in this case, by the sun in the form of lightning? Why are such trees engraved in the psyche of monumentalities? James George Frazer has the priest of the sacred grove of Diana walking round and round the golden bough of the sacred oak until he is killed (sacrificed) and another takes his place going round and round. Seems like we are getting to the end of round and round. Nowadays it is just the tree and even though there exists Don Lucio carrying the lighting within, the tree stands solitary in the open field, awkward, misshapen, reeking with the irradiative phlegm of the negative sublime.

In his introduction to Bataille’s collected works fifty years after the aborted sacrifice at the tree struck by lightning outside Paris, Michel Foucault wrote of (the language of) transgression as “the solar inversion of satanic denial”:

like a flash of lightning in the night which, from the beginning of time, gives a dense and black intensity to the night it denies . . . yet owes to the dark the stark clarity of its manifestation.

That was before Foucault lost touch with Nietzschean magic, the lightning went elsewhere, and social science types found their guru on more familiar terrain. It appears that Nietzsche, too, had to be sacrificed.

But let’s haul back this touch and its lightning, this spiraling movement of transgression that, in Foucault’s words, replaces the “limit of the Limitless,” meaning God, with the “limitlessness reign of the Limit,” meaning sexuality after the death of God, meaning pretty much what I call the mastery of non-mastery. No doubt about it. Language heats up when lightning streaks through the night. I try to picture Foucault, head shaven like a monk in the mountains of Mexico, which is where Nietzsche wanted to go in the hope that the fierce electrical storms would cure his fierce migraines.

In those mountains I have heard it said that if you are struck by lightning and survive you will nevertheless die if you do not find a healer whose power comes from having also been hit by lightning. If all goes according to plan, you will in turn become a healer charged with lightning, and so the mimetic chain of animate impulses continues, tying the body to the ruptured sky.

The lightning entering your body? The sun gone wild, no longer headed for a gorgeous sunset, no longer dying à la Nietzsche in the sea? Instead your body becomes that sea, becomes the death of God, a scarred tree trunk on a barren hillside?

Was Nietzsche aware of that? Was he afraid of that? Was that what he was seeking?

I see him in the volcanic mountains like Popocatépetl, ash drifting skyward, drifting through the haze of the sun where the eagle flies unblinking, going down on Prometheus’s liver every day because Prometheus stole the fire of the gods now consuming us all. Maybe the story goes like this. Nietzsche was right. Like the madman proclaimed with his lantern in the marketplace at midday, God did not die and now our bodies have become a crystalline substance, flaring in streaks of red and yellow, then catching the dying rays of light as here I sit writing a too-late experimental ethnography, emitting dying rays become lightning in our being.

As Laure pointed out, the sun got to Bataille. It is the figure of his philosophizing. The sun does more than produce excess. It is excess, a term with special valence and violence verging on the sacred, if not its basis, which is transgression.

“I will begin with a basic fact,” wrote Bataille. “The living organism, in a situation determined by the play of energy on the surface of the globe, ordinarily receives more energy than is necessary for maintaining life.” If that was true then how much truer is it today, more than a half century later with meltdown, when there is a terrible abundance of excessiveness? In this regard the editor of the English translations of Bataille’s early writing, Allan Stoekl, is wonderfully helpful when he interprets Bataille’s surrealist essays as bound to a de-allegorization of the human body. But what he should have said is that they perform a de-allegorization of the human body in relation to the sun.

And doesn’t every de-allegorization evoke another allegory? This is what we find in Bataille’s sun as it rises and falls in the human body, in essays such as “The Solar Anus,” “Rotten Sun,” “The Jesuve,” “The Pineal Eye,” “The Obelisk,” and “Sacrificial Mutilation and the Severed Ear of Vincent Van Gogh,” as well as his essays on sacrifice and Aztec religion.

Yet the truer and more original surreality lies with our current reality. No need for pineal eyes jerking off to the sun from the crowns of our heads and so forth. Just look around you as the world gets angrier and angrier, crazier and crazier like a certain whaling captain out of Nantucket, Ahab, a solar jigsaw puzzle of mysterious incandescence. He “looked like a man cut away from the stake,” says Ishmael, “when the fire has overrunningly wasted all the limbs without consuming them.” There was a “lividly whitish” scar running down his face and neck, in fact his entire body, like “that perpendicular seam sometimes made in the straight, lofty trunk of a great tree, when the upper lightning tearingly darts down it.”

What manner of “overrunningly wasted” man is this who dedicates his life and those of his crew to capturing and killing the white whale no matter how much ocean they cross? Two things make such a man: first, the fabulous white whale, Moby Dick, who tore off his leg, now replaced by a white leg of whalebone; and second, his being seized by lightning, which will strike again, sparking fire on the masts of the ship in what Ishmael calls a “lofty, tri-pointed trinity of flames.”

With his foot upon a Parsi sailor, Ahab calls down upon himself these flames. The Parsi sailor is a fire-worshipping follower of Zoroaster, about whom Nietzsche modeled an entire book, Thus Spoke Zarathustra.

Nietzsche’s sunsets have the sun disappearing into the sea, like Ahab’s scar running the length of his body, recalling a tree cleft by lightning. “Oh, thou clear spirit,” Ahab says to the lightning, “of thy fire thou maddest me, and like a true child of fire, I breathe it back to thee.” This we call a mimetic relationship, a reciprocating gift relationship. Ahab was a mimetic man, for sure, a Bataillian obelisk of petrified sunrays. It had gotten rough, that embrace with the white whale. He lost a leg but gained a cause, but that’s way too mild a term for the sacred surge within.

The new leg was of whalebone, as if this physical connection, like sympathetic magic, took him ever closer to his prey until he became the prey of his prey. He talked with lightning, which is to say with the spirit of lightning. Frightening talk, full of fury. “A true child of fire,” he says, meaning lightning, his foot on the fireman as flames dance on the masts. “I breathe it back to thee.”

The man has become lightning.

But what of the whale with that oddly unfamiliar name, our Moby Dick? What has he become gliding through the depths other than the phantasmatic specter of the metamorphic sublime?

Excerpt from Michael Taussig’s The Mastery of Non-Mastery, forthcoming from the University of Chicago Press.

  • Giambattista, V. (1970). The New Science of Giambattista Vico [1725–1744], trans. T. Bergin and M. Fisch, Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press.
  • Bataille, G. (1970). “Sacrifices,” in Œuvres complètes, vol. 1, ed. Denis Hollier, Paris: Gallimard.
  • Michelson, A. (1986). “Heterology and the Critique of Instrumental Reason,” October, Spring, Vol. 36, pp. 111–127.
  • Melville, H. (1892). Moby Dick or The White Whale, Boston: The St. Botolph Society.