Some Thoughts on . . .

The Marquis de Sade and the Enlightenment

Sade exemplifies some of the major features of the Enlightenment project: in fact his philosophy represents the logical conclusion of much Enlightenment thought. For example, he demonstrates that morals are historically and culturally contingent, that is, they are merely mores or customs and traditions of specific societies in specific times and places. One custom or morality is no more valid than another. He employs the evidence and techniques of comparative anthropology in precisely the same way as less audacious figures from the 1760s onwards, to demonstrate that there are no universal customs and hence no universal morality or religion. There is, of course, no God, only scientifically discoverable mechanistic principles or chemical interactions that determine all actions and feelings, a view shared by many unitarians and deists. He was a great advocate of natural philosophy, and certainly believed that scientific observation was more accurate than sentimental reasoning. Nature, as he perceived it, is utterly devoid of moral intention, and consists mainly of aimless repetition, waste and destruction. The only natural universal rules are self-interest and the pursuit of pleasure, mainly sexual pleasure. Man and woman are entirely creatures of nature, like all animals, and can only be judged by the rules of nature. The only immoral act is to resist your own nature. The only moral standard is that asserted by Polonius in Shakespeare's Hamlet: To thine own self be true, thou canst not then be false to any man. That is why Sadeís own sadomasochistic acts in his real life are so important to his philosophy: they demonstrate his morality because they demonstrate that he was not a sham, an intellectual impostor. He was a deconstructionist avant la lettre: he set out to expose the hypocrisies and power relations behind all systems of morality, then subverted or inverted them to free the individual as authentic/instinctual subject rather than ideologically/culturally constructed object.

Sade spends a lot of time deconstructing the concept of 'procreation', and exposes the fact that in Nature, behaviour within the category called 'procreation' consists mainly of (a) non-procreative acts, and (b) anti-procreative acts. For example, Nature is profligate in the way she casts her seed about: millions of seeds die while only one fertilizes the egg, and innumerable eggs are produced every month that will never come to fruition but are simply discarded unused. The vast majority of sexual acts do not result in fertilization and are so frequent and overabundant that fertilization cannot really be said to be their aim. Lubricity, rather than procreation, seems to be the aim of the so-called passion to 'procreate'. 'Semen has been produced to be expelled from the body, like any other secretion or excretion' (Juliette); that is, ejaculation is disguised as procreation in the sentimentalists' view of Nature. Observations of the predominance of non-procreation and anti-procreation in nature are used by Sade to celebrate the natural superiority of masturbation and sodomy over conventional heterosexual intercourse. Secondly, much of the so-called mating season consists not of mating, but of battles in which a dominant male tries to ensure that all other males do not get an opportunity to procreate. There is no cooperation to ensure the survival of 'the' species, simply conflict between different branches or families of that species, each fighting for the dominance of their corner. Further, Nature doesnít really care about the survival of any species. It is common for one species to systematically try to render another species extinct (if only by eating them all). Beyond this, earthquakes, floods, famines, conflagrations, plagues, are also common in Nature, which has no overall 'purpose' to achieve. The major characteristics of Nature are not continuity and conservation, but change and destruction.

Sade defends (or, rather, celebrates) sadomasochism in several ways.

First, Nature at its most natural consists in the exercise of crime rather than the suppression of crime. Natural beings (e.g. animals untainted by civilization) are cruelly indifferent to the fate of others, selfishly interested in their own pleasures, concerned to exercise absolute dominance over others, and always inflict pain and destruction and intimidation to achieve that power, and even inflict pain for their own pleasure. (People who hold to a sentimental view of nature were quite shocked by the episode in David Attenborough's Life on Earth which showed the Minke whales tossing about and killing baby seals solely for the sake of their own pleasure.)

Second, and perhaps most frequently, Sade argues simply that certain men and women have it in their nature to take pleasure in giving and receiving sexual pain. That is, it is natural behaviour for them, and they are right in acting in accordance with their nature: 'in no case have you the right to be surprised or to reproach me, because I am acting in accordance with the way Nature designed me, am following the bent she imparted to me, and because, in a word, in forcing you to accede to my harsh and brutal lusts, they alone which are capable of leading me to the uppermost pitch of pleasure, I act pursuant to the same principle of delicacy as the tepid swain who knows nought but the roses of a sentiment whereof I recognize only the thorns; for I, torturing you, rending you limb from limb, I am merely doing the one thing that is able to move me, just as he, sorrowfully encunting his mistress, does that which alone moves him agreeably; but he can have his effeminate delicacy, it's not for me. (Juliette). Sade acknowledges that this passion is a 'mania', but it is a natural one, and natural grounds are the only grounds on which natural passions can be judged.

Third, and most importantly, sadomasochism is the technique or tool for realligning Man with Nature. As Sade explains in Juliette, it provides the 'jolt' which is strong enough to redirect Man from the false path of Civilization into the authentic path of Nature. (If Sade were to use a railroad metaphor, sadomasochism would be the electrical jolt that derails one from the false track sets one on the right track.) The sadistic libertine experiences the keenest, most intense, most poignant, pleasure through the creation of pain and, ultimately, terror in his victim. This literally 'brutal' passion strips all humanity from both participants, the exerciser of absolute POWER as well as the victims reduced to abject POWERLESSNESS, who are thereby enabled to realize themselves as Creatures of Nature, which for Sade is a Good Thing. In other words, sadomasochism is an instrument of revolution. Similarly, blasphemy is used to free oneself from the shackles of religion in exactly the same way that sadomasochism is used to liberate oneself from all anti-natural constraints. That is, though blasphemy does not occur among animal nature, it is nevertheless a justifiable technique used by libertines to reestablish a Natural order rather than the Christian order. Blasphemy and sadomasochism are very much tied together in Sade's world, and I think that the transparent way he uses blasphemy helps us see how he similarly uses sadomasochism as a political tool, a means to an end rather than an end in itself. It is a tool of Enlightenment and self-realization.

It has been argued, along with Rousseau, that 'the unbridled and obsessive pursuit of happiness makes us miserable.' But this is not instantiated in Sade's life. Sade was imprisoned for most of his adult life, with pitifully few opportunities to pursue happiness, and whatever misery he experienced was directly linked to his punishment rather than his obsessions.

It has also been argued that. far from being free, people are enslaved, degraded and ruined by their appetites. But in fact, Sade was enslaved and ruined by society's response to his appetites, not by his appetites in themselves. Sade is dismissed as a 'wanker', a masturbator. I am rather surprised that in the 21st century it can still be suggested that masturbation is a degrading sexual act, or that it can still be characterized as being obsessive or a poor compensation or a last resort. Unlike the anti-Onanists of the early 18th century and then the 19th century, Sade was one of the first persons to argue that masturbation was wholly natural, and a valuable pleasure in and of itself. I had thought that most of the modern medical profession had come round to Sade's clear-headed view that masturbation was not pathological.

It is also claimed by many, that reading a lot of Sade's writings produces boredom and inertia, and that it works very badly as pornography as a stimulus. But I don't think this is the universal experience of readers of Sade. I suspect this is a trope of torpor used by the high-minded to dismiss the power of pornography. Most users of pornography require the repetition of unvarying images, often unremittingly precise and fetishistic. The more often a reader's very particular taste is detailed, the more satisfying it is to him (or, sometimes, her), however boring or ludicrous it may appear to someone with a different taste. It is of course embarrassing to publicly argue that an obscene work is stimulating, so the people who say it is boring will usually win, hands down. I think that this trope of boredom also draws upon the fairly common experience of using pornography of forbidden sexuality, in that once the moment of satisfaction passes, a feeling of self-disgust ensues. However, the overcoming of disgust is the pleasure of the libertine.

In terms of sexual philosophy, I find Sade's works intellectually exhilarating – even after reading his complete works, albeit mostly in English translation, at least twice, and the shorter works and Justine four or five times. Every time he slaughters a sacred cow, I get a rush of joy. I think his use of the technique of Socratic dialogue is superb, and I donít know how readers can fail to engage with it. His Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man and some of the shorter works (and perhaps non-obscene excerpts from Justine) could well be discussed in university classes without fear of being accused of promoting pornography, and are sure to promote lively class discussion and debate. Rousseau, in contrast, is so much humbug.

Incidentally, Francine de Plessix Gray's book At Home with the Marquis de Sade reliew very heavily on Freudianism. So does Angela Carter's The Sadeian Woman (1979), even though she acknowledges that Freud's theories are 'poetic truths' but false psychology. Mostly, however, Carter relies on Jungian theories (which is more satisfying for Sade, since he deals with Culture more than with the Family). On the whole, Carter's extended essay is an elegant and illuminating critique of Sade's pornography and philosophy, particularly in relation to the sexual liberation of women. Carter's own fiction embodies the sadomasochistic imagination (yes, I've read her complete works as well!), so her often-celebratory analysis of Sade is particularly interesting as coming from the same school.

Interestingly, Sade was also a sometime literary critic, and engaged with contemporary English literature that was relative to his philosophy. Sade certainly read Richardson, though perhaps only in the Prevost translation, for which he has great praise. He also read Fielding, and Lewis's The Monk, and Radcliffe's Mysteries of Udolpho and one or two other of her novels (in French translation). Sade's review of the historical tradition of the novel and his advice to would-be novelists, Idee sur les Romans (1800), is well worth reading. Sade's analysis of Richardson is quite interesting, and typically subversive:

'It is Richardson and Fielding who have taught us that only the profound study of the heart of man, that veritable labyrinth of nature, can inspire the novelist, whose work must make us see man not only for what he is or what he shows of himself, (that is the duty of the historian) but for what he may become, for what he may be made by the modifications of vice and the blows of passion. It is necessary therefore to know them all and to employ them all if you wish to work this field. We learnt also that it is not always by making virtue triumph that interest is maintained; that it is quite certainly necessary to aim at it as far as possible, but that this rule, existing neither in nature nor in Aristotle, but being only one to which we would wish that all men subjected themselves for the sake of our happiness, is by no means at all essential in the novel, and is not even one which must compel interest. For when virtue triumphs, things being what they should be, our tears dry up before they begin to flow; but if after the severest afflictions we at last see virtue crushed down by vice, our souls cannot escape harrowing, and the work, having moved us exceedingly, having, as Diderot said, steeped our hearts throughout in blood, must indubitably evoke interest, which is the only surety of fame. Let us ask this question: if after twelve or fifteen volumes the immortal Richardson had ended virtuously by converting Lovelace, and making him marry Clarissa quietly, would we . . . have shed the delicious tears that it draws from every sensitive creature? It is therefore nature that we must grapple with when working in this sphere, it is the heart of man, the most remarkable of all his works, and not virtue at all, because virtue, however beautiful and necessary it may be, is nevertheless but one of the moods of this astonishing heart, the profound study of which is so necessary to the novelist, and every twist of which the novel, that faithful mirror of this heart, must necessarily plot.'

Sade's novels have been branded as simply 'cruel misogyny', but I think his attitude towards women is more complex than that. Sade's inversion of conventional moral values is so extreme, that the term 'misogyny' becomes almost meaningless in this context. But aside from this, there is a very real sense in which Sade was a feminist, albeit a very extreme one, who advocated burning more than just the bras. Sade knew that women were imprisoned by the construct of WOMAN, and that the central feature of this construct was the identification of women with their reproductive biology. Sade explicitly argued that the New Woman could be liberated only by totally rejecting the view that reproduction was essential to her nature, by rejecting the view that she existed only in relation to man, by affirming the view that she was a sexual subject (rather than sex object) who could enjoy sex entirely for her own sake. Feminists since the 18th century have recognized that the main impediment to the freedom of women are the constructs of woman as WIFE and MOTHER and CHILD – all of which reduce Woman to the biological principle of reproduction. Sade aims to free women by systematically demystifying these constructs of WOMAN.

This is why, in Philosophy in the Boudoir (or Bedroom), Engenie rapes her mother with a huge dildo, gets a syphilitic to infect her mother, and then sews up her mother's genital orifice with needle and thread. These are not the personal sexual fantasies of a misogynist, but a set of images quite systematically employed to support an argument about personal and sexual liberation. Here are some perceptions from Angela Carter's analysis of this theme in the novel (in her essay The Sadeian Woman):

'Eugenie must effectively annihilate her mother's sexuality before she herself can be free. . . . Eugenie, unlike Oedipus, acts in the knowledge she is committing a crime. Her crime is the culmination of her search for knowledge. She fucks her mother out of vengeance and so finds herself in the position of a female Oedipus but she is not blinded, she is enlightened. . . . The basis of the plot is Eugenie's relation to her mother and her final ambivalent triumph over the female principle as typified in the reproductive function. . . . Sexual hostility is therefore the inevitable relation between mother and daughter, as long as the mother regards sexuality as synonymous with reproduction and hence sanctified activity in which only the Holy Mother, herself, may indulge. . . . [The Mother in Sade's novels] is a shrine of reproductive sexuality. She is herself the embodiment of the repression of sexual pleasure. . . . Mother is in herself a concrete denial of the idea of sexual pleasure since her sexuality has been placed at the service of reproductive function alone. . . . Vengeance. Transgression. Glory! Engenie offers her arse to her mother and invites her to kiss it. Her seizure of her own autonomy necessitates the rupture of all the taboos she can apprehend. . . . To deny the bankrupt enchantments of the womb is to pare a good deal of the fraudulent magic from the idea of women, to reveal us as we are, simple creatures of flesh and blood whose expectations deviate from biological necessity sufficiently to force us to abandon, perhaps regretfully, perhaps with relief, the deluded priestesshood of a holy reproductive function.'

Well, we can argue about Carter's analysis, but she at least is one feminist who believes that it would be wrong to interpret Sade merely as hating or fearing woman's sexuality: it is specifically the sexuality constructed FOR women that Sade hates.

As this year (2014) marks the bicentenary of the death of Sade on 2 December 1814, it is time not only to celebrate the fall of the last bastion of the ancien regime, but, also, to remember the immortal words of the Bastille's last political prisoner, the Marquis de Sade: 'Rise up and deconstruct the boundaries between hegemonic discourse and the Other: Subvert, comrades, subvert!'

Copyright © 2003, 2014 Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited. My comments originally appeared on the 18th Century Interdisciplinary Discussion List in 2004/2005.

Return to Some Thoughts On ...

Return to Essays by Rictor Norton