From the Archives: Evelyn Lord on ‘Scandalous Societies’ past and present

hellfire

From Secessio Vol.1 No.2, an excerpt of Evelyn Lord’s fascinating history of the secret clubs that have scandalised civilised society over the centuries. Evelyn is a Fellow of Wolfson College, Cambridge and author of The Hellfire Clubs: Sex, Satanism and Secret Societies and The Knights Templar in Britain. Read the full essay here.


In 1937 Bataille founded his own scandalous and secret society Acephale. Its aims and rites are still secret, but some hints of these were disclosed by a member later in the twentieth century, and can be tentatively reconstructed from the articles in the journal Acephale and Bataille’s other writings. Bataille’s aim was to bind together a community and awaken it to the fatality of destruction and death, through a new religion based on that of the Aztecs ‘fierce and malevolent’ religion, promoting an intense spirituality throughout either blackest death or intense eroticism (Surya 2002, 245).

The community was to be male, with one or two women, and at its inception had nine members. However, some members of Bataille’s circle were notably absent, and like the Beggar’s Benison pool of potential members they may well have been deterred by what might happen at the society’s meetings, as in 1927 Bataille wrote a gruesome and anally fixated account of a sacrifice, and there was evidence that Bataille was looking for a willing human sacrifice, and a sacrificer. Unsurprisingly, neither was forthcoming.

The society members were sworn to secrecy, and the details of what happened, and the society’s rules only emerged much later. Members were forbidden to shake hands with anti-Semites, and had to attend a commemoration of the execution of Louis XVI in the Place de la Concorde, where Bataille was going to announce the death of God.  There may be a deeper meaning to the choice of place, and it connects Bataille’s community to another secretive society, the Freemasons, and back to Anders Behring Breveik. Some branches of the masons claim they descend directly from the Knights Templar. Eli Levi suggested that the Masons wanted revenge on the French monarchy for burning the Templar Grand Master at the stake, and were part of a silent conspiracy to destroy the social edifice which had destroyed the Templar order. When Louis was guillotined a mason dipped a handkerchief in his blood and proclaimed ‘Thus is Jacques de Molay avenged’. Masons guard the secrecy of their members, so it is not known whether Bataille was aware of the Masonic significance of his choice of venue, or whether this was merely a coincidence.

Bataille’s community had culinary rules; daily lunch was minced horse meat and water, and no wine was drunk during the day – something that sets it apart from most other scandalous societies, whose activities were dedicated and interspersed with the consumption of alcohol. The best known activity of Bataille’s community involved each member travelling separately by train to a forest at St-Nom-la-Beteche, where they spent the night alone in meditation, and pouring rain. In the morning they met by a tree which had been struck by lightening and ignited sulphur or Greek fire. There is no evidence that any sacrifice or orgy took place, and one of the members was to tell Michel Surya that he did not understand the intentions of the occasion as most of it seemed to be in Bataille’s head. However, Bataille and his mistress Colette Peynot frequently visited the tree, and members visited brothels in the Rue Pigalle and in St Germain-en-Laye. Michel Leiris suggests that the rituals and the community’s projects were part of a hoax, and Bataille was known as a prankster. This raises the question as to whether the accounts of the Beggar’s Benison were also an elaborate hoax. Had only the records been found, that might have been the case, but the artefacts are elaborate and wide-spread with examples now in the British Museum, St Petersburg and in stately homes such as Kedleston Hall in Derbyshire. Read on…

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