When I was asked to select and translate work by the Marquis de Sade for publication in England I knew that there would be two major difficulties at the outset--the difficulty of obtaining authentic texts and the difficulty of publishing in English important sections of his work which public opinion and legal precedent hold to be obscene and blasphemous.
So begins the preface to this interesting and somewhat confusing collection of writings by one of the world’s most infamous authors. It is also my first introduction to de Sade, about whom I know little more than rumor and suggestion.
To say the volume is not what I expected is an understatement.
Let’s start with the lowest-hanging fruit. Blasphemous. The very first item in the collection is a fictional dialogue between a priest and a dying man that de Sade wrote in 1782 while in prison. (De Sade, it turns out, wrote a lot of what he wrote in one prison or another. An almost natural product, I think, of his over-active mind with little or nothing else to occupy it.)
In the dialogue, the priest asks the dying man to repent his sins and receive the grace of God, but the dying man is unrepentant, or rather, singularly repentant, but not in the way that the priest (and much of the society de Sade found himself in) would expect.
Here is my meaning. I was created by Nature with most active tastes, sent into the world solely to surrender myself to them, and to satisfy those desires. As these effects of my creation are only the necessities relative to the first designs of Nature, or, if you prefer it, the developments essential to her projects for me, due to her laws. I only repent that I did not recognise sufficiently all her power, and my sole remorse merely extends to the mediocre use I have made of those faculties (which you would call criminal, I natural) given me by Nature for her service. Sometimes I resisted her and that I repent. Blinded by the absurdity of your doctrines, through them I have fought all the violence and desires communicated to me through a much more divine inspiration, and I repent gathering only flowers when I could have taken a generous harvest of fruit. These are the exact motives for my regrets. Esteem me highly enough not to attribute others to me.
This, in fact, is a good summary of the philosophy that will seem to spawn the bulk of the writings that follow in this tome. De Sade, long positioned in my uninformed mind as the consummate libertine, here declares himself as exactly that on this second page of his collected writings.
And as a libertine, he must by definition be blasphemous. In the passage above, the dying man says he was created by Nature and calls Christian doctrine absurd. Later in the dialogue, he refers to Jesus such…
...he was seditious, turbulent, slanderous, deceptive, libertine, vulgar comedian and dangerous rogue; he possessed the knack of imposing on the people, and therefore became fit for punishment in a kingdom of that State in which Jerusalem was then found.
So is de Sade blasphemous? Absolutely. But obscene? Well, that’s a little more difficult to discern. I mean, it all depends, as it always does, on what one means by obscene. There are obviously the tales of sexual immorality and depravity that supposedly make up his work (and I say supposedly only because the editor of this volume chooses not to include any truly egregious examples). But in his short introduction to his excerpts from the novel Justine, for example, he describes that work this way:
The heroine Justine is the embodiment of virtue and is doomed to suffer every possible form of torture, outrage and evil at the hands of a succession of monsters, perverts or criminals whom she meets in her wanderings. Usually she suffers passively; sometimes, if she attempts a good deed, her own actions turn against her. Between descriptions of orgies or crimes in which sexual desire and destructiveness are often inseparable--for example the villainous surgeon Rodin tried to make love to a girl while performing a lethal operation on her--there are discussions or speeches in which the characters express the author’s views on a multitude of ethical, moral, religious and political problems. These speeches, which invariably attack all accepted standards of thought and behavior, show the extremes to which rationalism can be taken. At first reading some of these speeches, morality apart, have a certain incisiveness, even though they do not bear analysis; at their worst they are rambling, repetitive and derivative.
And indeed, when we use this collection to examine de Sade for evidence of obscenity, we are much more frequently directed to his extreme philosophical and political views that we are to his descriptions of sexual frenzy and excess.
The latter, in fact, is, in my view, a bit of a screen for the former. De Sade himself, wrote the following note to his lawyer upon Justine’s publication.
A novel of mine is being printed. But it is too immoral to be sent to a man so well-behaved, pious and decent as you. I needed money, my printer asked me to make it very spicy and I’ve made it capable of corrupting the devil. It is called Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu [Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue]. If by chance it falls into your hands burn it, do not read it. I renounce it.
Here, obviously, is an author who knows both how to cover his tracks and to increase sales.
Another valid charge of obscenity that seems reasonable--at least given the selected writings that are included in this volume--is in the area of sadism and graphic violence. Several of de Sade’s protagonists delight in causing pain in others. In Justine, a young man feeds his mother to his dogs, who “hungrily devoured her.”
In vain she repulsed them; in vain she redoubled her efforts to avoid their teeth; each of her movements succeeded only in further exciting them, and the lawn was flooded with streams of blood.
And in The Mystified Magistrate, a government official is essentially tortured mercilessly and without end, each depredation more horrifying that the last.
They seized hold of the unfortunate president at once, laid him face down on a narrow bench, and bound him tightly to it from head to foot. The four devilish spirits each took up a leather strap five feet long, and belaboured rhythmically with all the strength in their arms and exposed portions of the unlucky Fontanis, who was lacerated for three quarters of an hour in succession by the vigorous hands responsible for his education, and soon displayed one single would from which the blood was spurting everywhere.
But, in their repetition, we become somewhat inured to these scenes, and, in their lack of finality, we come to see them as more comic than horrific. The young man’s mother is not truly devoured by dogs--she is carried back to her room and killed with a dagger plunged into her heart--and the magistrate Fontanis (whose name is evidently similar to that of a real magistrate that prosecuted de Sade) seems almost proud of the abuse he sustains, never seeming to suffer any permanent harm. The violence portrayed is therefore the product of daydreams, not psychosis.
So if not in sex and if not in violence, wherein does de Sade’s obscenity lie? Or more accurately, if the graphic sex and violence are screens for his more obscene purpose, what are those screens masking?
Well, let’s return to that opening dialogue, and the decidedly deterministic view of the universe that it reveals.
Where in all the world is the man who seeing the scaffold beside the crime would still commit it if he were free not to? We are drawn along by an irresistible force, and not for one moment do the masters of that power choose any path for us but that towards which we are inclined. There is not a single virtue which is not necessary to nature, and conversely not a single crime which is not necessary. It is in the perfect balance maintained between one and the other that nature’s whole knowledge resides. But can we be blamed for the side on which she casts us? No more than the wasp can be blamed who plunges his sting into your flesh.
This is still more or less philosophical in its implications, but these collected writings will eventually reveal the practical (and downright, I think, obscene) extensions to which de Sade will take these philosophies.
In one essay--a kind of fictional journey into an African nation--the narrator encounters all kinds of customs and practices that offend his European sensibilities. From the treatment of women:
“You Europeans are mad,” he went on, “to worship this sex; a woman is there to be enjoyed, and not be be adored; it is an offense against the gods of your country to give these simple creatures the worship that is meant for them. It is absurd to grant authority to women, very dangerous to submit oneself to them; it lowers your sex, and degrades nature, when you become slaves to beings who were created to bow to our superiority.”
To the practices of human sacrifice and cannibalism:
“Brother,” I said, with a distress that I could not hide, “on the word of a European, could the dish that you serve me here not be by any chance a portion of the hips or buttocks of one of those maidens who blood streamed earlier over the altars of your god?”
Against which our European narrator violently rebels. But this narrator is then treated to the following lecture from a fellow European who has lived in the African nation for a number of years.
“Stop,” he said, “I forgive this shock to your habits and your national prejudices. But you abandon yourself to them too far. Stop being difficult as far as this country is concerned, and learn how to adapt yourself to situations; repugnances are only weaknesses, my friend, they are minor illnesses of organisation, whose cure you did not study when you were young, and which take possession of us when we have given in to them. It is exactly the same in this as it is in many other things: the imagination, led astray by prejudices, suggests to us first of all that we should refuse … you make the experiment … you find all is well and taste is sometimes adopted with just as much violence as distaste had been strong in us. I arrived here like you, full of stupid national prejudices; I found fault with everything … I found everything absurd; the practices of these people frightened me as much as their morals, and now I do everything like them. We still belong more to habit than to nature, my friend; the latter did no more than create us, the former shapes us. It is madness to think that a moral goodness exists: every type of behaviour, absolutely different in itself, becomes good or bad depending on the country that judges it; but if he wants to live happily, the wise man should adopt that of the region where fate casts him.”
It is very much like de Sade is going out of his way to argue for the most extreme of deterministic positions. Nothing in nature is wrong. Not even human sacrifice and cannibalism. Here, it is draped under a veil of cultural diversity and custom--but in other selections, he comes out directly in favor of such barbarities. Killing is not just good for the African brought up in that culture, it is actually a good that cultures not sensitized to them should adopt.
In some ways, de Sade seems perfectly rational, refreshingly level-headed, as he does in this excerpt from Augustine de Villeblanche, where he convicts tribalism for the excesses of conformity and xenophobia it is by nature guilty of.
“The greatest folly of all,” she said, “is to blush for the tendencies that we have received from nature. And to scorn any individual whatsoever because he has unusual tastes is as absolutely barbarous as it would be to make fun of a man or a woman who had emerged from his mother’s womb lame, or with only one eye. But to convince fools with such reasonable principles is an undertaking comparable to halting the stars in their courses. Pride finds a sort of pleasure in mocking faults that it does not possess itself, and such delights are so sweet to men, and particularly to halfwits that it is very rare to see them renounce them. Moreover it gives scope for maliciousness, chilly witticisms and paltry puns, and society, that is to say, a collection of creatures brought together by boredom and qualified by stupidity, finds it so pleasant to talk for two or three hours without ever saying anything, so delicious to shine at the expense of others, and when censuring a vice to announce that you are a very long way from having it yourself … it is a sort of eulogy tactily uttered upon yourself; for this reward you even consent to make one with the others, to form a clique to crush any individual whose great sin is not to think the same as the common herd, and you return home quite puffed up with your wit, when fundamentally you have only proved by such behaviour your pedantry and stupidity.”
And in other ways de Sade seems perfectly modern, as in this excerpt from Juliette, where he adapts the perfect moral ambivalence of the determinists.
“All moral effects,” went on Mme Delbene, “derive from physical causes to which they are irresistibly bound, like the sound which results from the shock of the drumstick upon the skin of the drum: no physical cause, that is to say no shock, and there is necessarily no moral effect, that is no sound. Certain dispositions of our organs, the nervous fluid which is irritated either more or less by the nature of the atoms that we breathe … by the type or quantity of the nitrous particles contained in the food we eat, by the circulations of the humours and by a thousand other external causes, determine a man towards crime or towards virtue, and often in the same day towards the first one then the other: that is the shock of the drumstick, the result of vice or virtue; a hundred louis stolen from my neighbor’s pocket or given from mine to an unfortunate, that is the effect of the shock, or the sound. Are we masters of these second effects when the first causes necessitate them? Can the drum be beaten without giving out a sound? And can we oppose this shock when it is itself the result of things so foreign to us, and so dependent on our organic structure?”
But when de Sade begins to practically apply these philosophical positions to the ideal conduct of man in his own society, things begin to go astray. First, he defends theft, especially the theft or the poor man against the rich man. Again, from Juliette:
The magistrates stole by taking payment for justice that they should have given freely. The priest stole by taking payment for serving as a mediator between man and his God. The merchant stole by monopolising, by charging one third more for his merchandise than its real intrinsic value. Monarchs stole by imposing upon their subjects the arbitrary rights of taxes, tolls, etc. All these thefts were permitted, all were authorised in the specious name of rights; no one thought of taking action any longer except against the most natural thefts, that is to say, against the perfectly simple conduct of a man who, pistol in hand, demanded money which he needed from those whom he believed to be richer than himself.
Like our modern libertarians, he partially bases his argument on the concept that theft by the State (or the Judiciary, or the Church, or the Merchant Class) is still theft, even though we may have been taught to call it taxation (or justice, or tithing, or capitalism). But unlike our modern libertarians, he violates their non-aggression principle by saying that these thefts by the powerful cause and justify the thefts of the weak.
If you push a servant against a precious vase, and in his fall he breaks it, you no longer have the right to punish him for his clumsiness; you should only deal with the cause which brought about your punishing him. When some unfortunate peasant, reduced to beggary by the immensity of the taxes you impose upon him, deserts his plough, seizes a weapon, and goes to waylay you upon the high road, you most certainly commit a gross injustice if you punish him. For it is not he who is at fault, he is the servant pushed against the vase: do not push him, and he will break nothing. If you do push him, do not be surprised if he does break something.
Thomas Jefferson may have enjoyed the rhetorical flourish de Sade employs here, but even that advocate of refreshing the tree of liberty with the blood of tyrants, I think, would have recoiled at the conclusion de Sade draws.
Thus this unfortunate man, in going to rob you, is in no way committing a crime; he is attempting to get back the goods that you have previously usurped from him, you or yours: he is only doing what is natural; he is seeking to re-establish the equilibrium which in morals as well as physics is the first of the laws of nature; he is only doing what is just.
But it gets worse. De Sade not only defends theft among the citizens in a functioning society, in La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, he defends murder as well. Like in the case of theft, he begins with a philosophical construct.
Undoubtedly we are now going to humiliate man’s pride by reducing him to the level of all the other creatures of Nature, but the philosopher does not flatter petty human vanities. Ever zealous in the pursuit of truth he singles it out from among the foolish prejudices of self-conceit, seizes it, and develops it resolutely before the eyes of the astonished world.
Okay, de Sade. Lay it on me.
What is man, and what difference is there between him and the other animals of the earth? Decidedly, none.
Like them he was placed upon this globe by chance. Like them he is born, like them he propagates, increases and decreases. Like them he endures old age and disappears into oblivion at the end of the term which Nature has allotted to each species of animal by reason of the structure of his organs.
I’m not going to go on quoting him. I’ve spent a good deal of time thinking about this, and I cannot understand how a rational mind can reach the conclusions that follow. First, as reported, that there is no difference between man and any other animal in Nature. You can accept that one if the context, as de Sade tries to paint it above, is predicated solely on the limitations of man’s existence. Yes, all men die and all animals die, and, on that level, there is no difference between men and animals. But that is not the context of this discussion. De Sade is defending the view that because there is no difference between men and animals, that therefore unrestrained murder is not just natural, but a net benefit to the society in which such a practice is allowed to flourish.
But not directly. He makes what he offers as several logical steps along the way to that conclusion. Next, after the fact that men and animals are identical, is that Nature is not harmed when men or animals die. Nature is, in fact, replenished by the raw materials of their bodies when they break down after death. And that leads him to the startling conclusion that death is not any kind of destruction at all.
According to these irrefutable principles then, death is nothing more than a change of form, an imperceptible transition from one existence to another…
Upon reading this, I found myself for the first time questioning de Sade’s sanity. Up until now, everything he had written seemed to me a kind of whimsical exploration of philosophical ideas, framed with erudite language and hidden within a titillating and disturbing wrapper of sexual and sadistic excess. But there is a seriousness in this extended argument on the natural virtues of murder that transcends anything that has come before it.
And since death supplies Nature with the raw materials from which to create new life, de Sade continues, then causing death is an instrument in the service of Nature’s purpose. And since human society is a conglomeration of these instruments acting in the service of Nature’s purpose, then actions taken within that society in service of that purpose serve also the interests of that society. And since they serve the interests of our society, then those who commit such acts should be held up a virtuous and courageous.
Everywhere in fact, the murderer, that is, the man who suppresses his scruples to the point where he kills his fellow and risks private or public vengeance, everywhere, I say, such a man is always considered very courageous, and consequently precious to a warrior or republican State.
Refuting de Sade’s logic seems superfluous to anyone who has either been indoctrinated in or who has meditatively considered the value of the Golden Rule. Yet he goes on to cite all kinds of historical and contemporary cultures who have embraced killing as a virtuous or necessary act.
The women of Madagascar exposed those of their children that were born on certain days of the week to savage beasts. In the Greek republics all new-born children were carefully examined to see whether they possessed the possibility of one day defending the republic; if they did not conform to this requirement they were immediately slain. They did not judge it necessary there to maintain richly endowed houses for the preservation of this vile scum of human nature. Until the transference of the Imperial Throne all Romans who did not wish to foster their children threw them to the cesspits. In the past legislators had no scruples about consigning children to their death, and none of their codes ever suppressed the rights that a father considered himself to own over his family. Aristotle favoured abortion, and these ancient republicans, filled with enthusiasm and zeal for the fatherland despised this compassion for the individual which is found in modern nations. They loved their children less, but loved their country better. Every morning in every town in China you will find an incredible number of children abandoned in the streets. A wagon scoops them up at daybreak, and they are cast into a ditch. Frequently the midwives themselves relieve the mothers of their offspring by plunging them immediately into tubs if boiling water, or throwing them into the river.
And finally, with this emphasis on republican societies, I think I begin to see a clue as to what is really going on here. De Sade may not be insane after all. He was, remember, steeped in the era of the Robespierre and the Terror of the French Revolution, when Republicanism, as a direct apostate of Monarchy, was taken more or less off the deep end. De Sade may have been swept into the extremity of these positions by that resistless tide. Resist, after all, and one might have found themselves in prison (as de Sade often was) or under the guillotine.
Let the monarchists say that a country is only large because of its big population. This country will always be poor if its population exceeds its means of existence and it will be always flourishing if it contains itself within its proper limits and can dispose of its surplus.
Defending murder as a means of population control--as a way of “disposing of the country’s surplus”--seems to be at least part of the modus operandi, and that may have been an attempt to stay in the good graces of the homicidal anarchists who had taken over the reins of government, but I’m not sure even that can entirely explain what is going on here. Remember that it was the same (and very different) de Sade that spoke to us in the words of the dying man in the book’s opening dialogue. There, he said:
God forbid that I intend to encourage crime, it must be avoided wherever possible, but we must learn to abstain from it by reason and not by false fears which come to nothing, and the effects of which are so soon destroyed in any soul with but a little firmness. Reason, yes, my friend, reason alone should warn us that doing harm to our fellows can never make us happy, and our heart should tell us that to contribute to their happiness is the greatest happiness for use that nature allows us on this earth. All human morality is enclosed in this one saying, “Make others as happy as you wish to be yourself,” and never do them more harm than you would be willing to suffer yourself. There, my friend, those are the only principles we need to observe, and there is no call for religion or God to admit and appreciate them, a good heart is all that we need.
So, clearly, he did understand the value of The Golden Rule. Might he not, therefore, have had another purpose in putting the obscenity of extreme French republican logic on display--the way, say, Jonathan Swift so expertly put the obscenity of English class warfare on display in A Modest Proposal? To wit, in the final selection of this collection, Idee sur les Romans, he offers this defense for his more lurid writing:
Never, in fact, and this I repeat, never will I paint crime other than in the colours of Hell. I want it to be seen in all its nakedness, to be feared, to be loathed, and I know no other means of achieving that than by showing it in all the horror that characterises it. Woe to those who surround it with roses, their aims are not so pure, and I will never copy them.
So he is being obscene, intentionally so, putting the crimes of hedonistic thought on display in all their nakedness. It’s an interesting theory, but one about which I’m afraid I don’t have enough knowledge of de Sade and his times to be sure makes any sense. And indeed, if you read past the few sentences listed above, you stumble into this:
Following from these principles, therefore, let no one attribute to me any longer the novel of Justine; never have I composed such works, and assuredly I never will. It is only the stupid or the malicious who despite the authenticity of my denials can still suspect or accuse me of being its author, and henceforth the most supreme contempt will be the only weapon with which I shall combat their calumnies.
Back to his games and subterfuge. This, then, is why confusion remains my final judgment on the selections pulled together in this collection. In the end, I’m left with the speculation that the Marquis de Sade might have been the Andy Kaufmann of his age--engaging with the public not for some greater purpose, but purely for his own amusement. Don’t go looking for de Sade in these writings. Just as the real Andy never appeared on stage, it may be the case that the real de Sade never appears in print.
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This post was written by Eric Lanke, an association executive, blogger and author. For more information, visit www.ericlanke.blogspot.com, follow him on Twitter @ericlanke or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.