Ilya Merlin — Georges Bataille collection

Photo of Ilya Merlin

And above all, ‘nothing’, I know ‘nothing—I moan like a sick child, whose attentive mother holds his forehead (mouth open over the basin). But I don’t have a mother, the basin is the starry sky (in my poor nausea, it is thus).
Georges Bataille

My mother killed herself on the same day that my father learned of his need for emergency heart surgery. Such events occurred two weeks prior to the beginning of my graduate education. My first seminars, as chance would have it, were on the religious thematic of ‘the dead mother returned.’ Moreover, my advisor at the time was engrossed by the texts of Georges Bataille. Lacking comfort and direction, I decided to follow my advisor’s literary suit. Such circumstances led to my encounter with this thinker, Bataille, who, although dead and, with or without my consent, would have a major impact on my life.

Driven by an insatiable thirst for understanding and reconciliation, apropos of my recent loss, I read through the English translations of Bataille’s works. What I initially encountered, when pouring through these texts, was an affirmation of my self-nihilistic propensity. As I read through secondary texts, however, I became increasingly sensitive to the insensitivity often lacked therein. That is, after returning again to the primary texts, I discovered that, counter to depictions of Bataille as a fascistic sympathizing amoral nihilist, there was something deeply ethical and, at the same time, dreadful, in his works.

With feelings of impotence for my inability to articulate the compelling, ethical, and life-affirming currents of Bataille’s thought, I dedicated the following summer to French language acquisition. I thought at the time that a closer proximity to the language of his primary texts would spark my capacity to parse the importance of his work: for my own sake, and for that of the literary canon that had all but exiled his writings. I spent time in the French archives of the University of Virginia haunted by theoretical paradoxes and an inexplicable exigency. Perhaps deluded by my own deferred mourning, I began to see Bataille as a heroic figure counter the Nietzschean last man—a laudable and rigorous thinker who took the inner battle against totality and the forfeiture of sovereign identification quite seriously. How, then, to do this perceived polemic justice?


A small collection of rare books and periodicals was growing in my living room. First, I needed all of the original Documents publications, then Acéphale, then original Contre-Attaque tracts. I wanted to feel the historical proximity of impending catastrophe as I tried to reconcile the contingency of life that was still haunting my days and, worse still, my nights. I gathered original editions of his fictional works, some pseudonymous. I dug deeper into his productions, acquiring his earliest publications in the Arethuse coin catalogues and his writings on pre-Columbian art. Trans-Atlantic negotiations then opened my collection to the acquisition of other obscure ephemera. Some pieces came directly from former members of André Breton’s inner circle, others from closing libraries, and still others from generous donors who understood, hesitantly, that I was en route to the dangerous-but-redemptive obsessions that Bataille himself could not shake.

My collection included nearly every first edition of Bataille’s published works, at times unpublished manuscripts, early drafts from extinct journals, abstruse prefaces, and nearly every journal where monumental works—such as La Structure Psychologique de Fascisme —surfaced for the first time. Never did I elevate Georges Bataille, at least consciously, to the status of a godhead figure—nor would I encourage anybody to do so. Discretion and a certain willingness to forfeit one’s self seem, rather, to be the appropriate requisites of friendship, silence, and the teleological suspension that permits communion (with an other) itself.

Several years have past now since the initial traumas and hazards that lead to my fascination with this author and his circle. To say that Bataille does not lurk behind my sense of ethics or politics would be a lie. Perhaps more prominently, his trace informs those rare moments located outside of the realm of utility through which I am able to surrender to various forms of, what could be called, enjoyment. I should not dwell longer on the conditions that lead to the acquisition of such a sui generis literary collection, or on the affect of such textual incorporation to my self. Rather, something must be said of expenditure itself.

I decided to give my collection to the Pride Library, initially, as an anonymous act of selfless expenditure. Bureaucracy made this pursuit an uphill battle. My professors, for example, did not believe that I was in possession of the works that I kept dear, and my peers similarly met such proposals with suspicions that I had embellished the story of both the actual collection and my failed attempts to give it away. Nonetheless, the very works that served as the undercurrent of many of the twentieth century’s most profound thinkers are now housed, in their original form, at Western University’s Pride Library.

I do not wish to impose any will or horizon upon this collection. Even if this event of expenditure, or donation—understood as momentary—is absolutely singular, I only hope for others to encounter these works and perhaps to consider that, beneath the clichés, reductions and misunderstandings, a voice—silent nonetheless—calls forth.

—Ilya Merlin, November 16th 2014, penned with urgency.



Acephale (cover)Dirty (cover)Histoire de L'OeilL'archangelique

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