A day doesn’t go by now without reports that disaffected Western youths—some as young as fourteen—are joining or trying to join the Islamic State because they hope it will provide them with a sense of purpose. One might wonder if joining a fundamentalist guerrilla group abroad is any better than grabbing a rifle and mowing down others in an incomprehensible display of so-called friendly fire, as an Iraq war veteran did in Texas last April, or as a freshman did in Marysville, Washington, last October, but then perhaps it’s best not to. As if these incidents weren’t enough, we are now being blitzed almost daily with gossip about the Canadian and American scandales that have turned celebrities like Jian Ghomeshi and the fatherly Bill Cosby into pariahs for allegedly sexually assaulting women and the lethal Luca Rocco Magnotta into the poster child for the ravages of schizophrenia. Much of our sense that the world has gone a little madder, worse, and more dangerous than ever can be explained by a man we might still cast today as the pundit everybody loves to hate: Donatien-Alphonse François de Sade, known simply to most as the Marquis de Sade. It isn’t so much that todays’ alienated youth, mass shooters, deluded celebrities, or other persons who grant themselves permission to resort to violence and expect to get away with it have read and been influenced by the Marquis de Sade’s graphic descriptions of humankind. It is, rather, that Sade’s eighteenth-century works are strangely oracular and announce with depressing accuracy a world we are living in, so that it might be worthwhile to review his ideas.
Born in 1740, the French Marquis was educated by Jesuits and later distinguished himself as a captain of cavalry in the Seven Years’ War. He married Mademoiselle de Montreuil in 1763 and, from there, felt entitled to adultery, which was by no means unusual for a man in his station. A number of his affairs turned sour, however, as some of his lovers complained of his, well, sadistic practices. He was incarcerated repeatedly for those practices and his mother-in-law, the Présidente de Montreuil, did what she could to keep him locked up for as long as possible throughout his life and hers.
The list of his incarcerations is long: he was jailed in 1763 (the year of his wedding), in 1768, in 1772, in 1777, and from 1778 to 1779. It was during this last inglorious period in the slammer that Sade wrote a number of his salacious works, among which was the first Justine and the 120 Days of Sodom. Justine or Good Conduct Well Chastised, the second Justine (there were three versions in total), was first published in 1791, while he was free. But Sade was incarcerated again in 1793 and again, and for the last time, in 1801; he died in prison in 1814. What is not commonly known is that from 1793 on, the French aristocrat was incarcerated not for his sexual practices, but for writing licentious works. From 1810 until World War II, French bookstores and libraries could not carry his oeuvre. Yesterday’s rubbish being today’s gold, his writing has been redeemed and published in its entirety in the prestigious Editions de la Pléiade. Sade himself, who was once perceived as a monster and a case-study in psychopathology, has been rehabilitated by Guillaume Apollinaire, André Breton, Pierre Klossowski, Georges Bataille, Lacan, Maurice Blanchot, Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir, Roland Barthes, and Michel Foucault. Each of these thinkers, I’m sure, must have realized that Sade, as a novelist and pornographer, fails to rise above tedium. But as a cold critic of humankind and as a prophet of our age, the notorious Marquis is worth reading, if you can stomach him.
As a writer, Sade breaks every rule of the eighteenth-century novel, and not in a good way. In Justine, for instance, psychology is scarce; characters are drawn schematically and described merely as “a poor woman,” “a miser,” “a counterfeiter,” “a surgeon.” His pornographic scenes are irksome and unoriginal. But Sade’s priorities lie not in verisimilitude, psychology, depth, or originality. If his novels fall short of the literary standards he praises in others, like Fielding or Richardson, it is because he saw each of his novels as a Trojan horse meant to arouse readers’ interest in his philosophical ideas. Works of philosophy, in other words, take too long to get to the point, and they lack affect; novels, and especially sensationalist ones, do the job faster and more effectively. Sade therefore used his own to launch a sort of shock-and-awe attack on the morality of his age, and he does so in between graphic scenes of deviant debauchery, conveniently conceived as page-turners. His ideas, taken here from the second version of Justine, are rooted in three basic premises or propositions.
First, man is a natural being, and since nature is indifferent to morality, all that nature inspires in us must be cause for indifference as well. Good and evil, then, must be indifferent to us, as they are to nature, since nature itself destroys and creates continually. Nothing offends nature, the villain Coeur-de-fer tells the perpetually shocked Justine. Similarly, Rodin, the physician and would-be vivisector of his own daughter, along with the Count de Bressac, who will kill his aunt, echo this thought when they tell the naïve Justine that nothing is lost in nature—what we kill forms part of nature’s cycle of destruction and regeneration.
The corollary to this first premise is that if murder is justified by nature, then some must kill and some must die, for nature may be known for its indifference, but it hasn’t made all men equal: some are stronger than others. This is the Count de Gernande’s justification for torturing and bleeding his wife: “I can agree,” he says, “not to employ force against him whose own strength makes him to be feared; but what could motivate me to moderate the effects of my strength upon the being nature subordinates to me?” (645). He goes on to explain that pity is a reciprocal sentiment that can only exist between equals—if I have pity for an inferior, then my pity is wasted; it’s of no use to me if this inferior creature cannot shower his or her sympathy upon me when I need it. For Sade, then, sentiments are a bartering currency: I’ll give you some of mine if you give me more of yours.
But Sade’s views are a perversion of Adam’s Smith’s economics. For Smith, one good deed attracts another through gratitude. For Sade, or for his character, St-Florent, gratefulness does not involve the law of exchange. When Justine asks St-Florent whether he lacks appreciation for the fact that she saved his life, he replies that she did so out of pleasure and not without hope of a reward; therefore, he has no obligation towards her. What we do, we do at all times for ourselves alone; notions of reward and benevolence are hypocritical, ex post facto justifications.
The second premise of Sade’s philosophy anticipates Darwin’s theories on the survival of the fittest. If nature makes men strong or weak, civilization reinforces those differences. Money and power allow the strong to subordinate the weak. Legal institutions protect the rich; the defenceless must always suffer.
Predictably, Sade’s third proposition is that if all acts are morally indifferent to nature and ranked by men according to wealth, social hierarchies, and power, then the supreme value is the cultivation of selfish pleasure. Once again, he raises an economic notion. The main imperative is to do what brings us the most pleasure. Virginity and virtue, for instance—Justine’s virginity and her virtue, so vital to her because they represent her dignity and integrity as a human being—are seen as useless, even ludicrous, since they can bring her no pleasure, although, of course, they bring a great deal of pleasure to someone like St-Florent, who—the pun is most likely intended—deflowers Justine.
The corollary to this last proposition is that of the supremacy of the individual over others. My own self-interest is what matters, so why would I care how others feel when all that counts is how I feel? “When the appetites speak, they must be heard,” says St-Florent, “that’s my law” (656). The act that brings me the most pleasure becomes that which is most easily justifiable. Justine, in fact, is a catalogue of acts of cruelty, each more brutal and perverse than the next. If cruelty brings me joy, fine. If murder turns me on, all the better—nature won’t care. Pushed to an extreme, these views turn man into a punitive yet predictable god.
So what are we to make of this satanic porridge?
Sade’s most obvious counterpart is the Genevan philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who saw virtue as an antidote to the hypocritical mask that man wears in society to attain his selfish interests. Virtue is viewed by Rousseau as a gauge of much-needed authenticity. Like Rousseau, Sade was sick of the eighteenth-century’s emphasis on appearances. Like Rousseau, he wished to tear the mask off his contemporaries’ faces. Unlike Rousseau, however, what Sade tore off was in fact the mask that has it that virtue matters; what he revealed instead was precisely man’s egotism. Even the paragon of virtue that is Justine will not, in the end, die for her principles; when she has a choice between helping felons to save her life or dying, she systematically colludes with evil. “I became a criminal through virtue,” Justine says, again and again, or, “I was but a slave.” Her protestations would be comical if not for the fact that—for any modern reader—they are chilling reminders of the banality of evil that, Hannah Arendt tells us, characterized the Nazi regime. Virtue, Sade suggests, does not exist in nature, which demands only that men try to survive and satisfy themselves, just as they may quench their thirst or sate their hunger.
Predictably, Sade also attacks legal institutions, which he views as unduly coercive to the individual. Clément, the debauched monk, asks “with what right one man will dare require another either to curb or get rid of his tastes or model them upon those of the social order?” (599). The law would wrench individuals from their state of nature, from their freakish singularity, and force them into a constraining social mold. Clément uses the language of rights to ask by what contrived sense of right and wrong one man forces another to betray his fundamental nature. It is obvious how Sade must have felt about the French Declaration of the Rights of Men and Citizen, which provides that men are equal in rights and that the law is “the expression of the general will.” In On the Social Contract, published in 1762, Rousseau suggests that only through the surrender of each associate with all his rights to the community can the domination of some be eradicated. These Rousseauist principles were obviously antithetical to Sade’s thinking.
But Sade refers to other philosophers of the Enlightenment. For Emmanuel Kant, for instance, maturity consists in an ability to use one’s own understanding without the guidance of another. Naturally, to Sade, the character of Justine is the immature being par excellence, who constantly relies on the old crutches of virtue, charity, sympathy, gratitude, sensibility, right, justice, and religion to rationalize her actions and her own victimization. Sade takes Kant’s reasoning to its limit and posits that he who has attained enlightened maturity may do as he pleases with those who have blindly chosen instead to rely on the age’s fads—the social contract, in his opinion, being one of them.
In the end, Sade rattles and challenges the thinkers of his age as he comes up with a personal vision of what the world might be like if one were to get rid of social masks and conventions. But although he uses many of his contemporaries’ views as springboards into his own, he fails to outdistance them. At best, he manages only to establish a parallel system of values. His flawed logic is infuriating: if Sade’s mature, enlightened man is free of all shackles and no longer dependent on society’s coercive rules, why does he need victims so desperately? Why do Sadean villains like St-Florent, Clément, or the Count de Gernande continually ask for fresh supplies of innocents to torture and torment? Does this not make them, in fact, terribly dependent, vulnerable, and weak?
Also, since nature is indifferent to morality, would not good and evil be positioned on an equal footing? Yet for Sade’s aberrant characters, torture, cruelty, the infliction of pain, and murder are all worth pursuing monomaniacally; good is not. The value judgments that exist in society, in religion, in law, then exist in Sade’s state of nature as well. Some “values” are praised over others: the self is preferred to the group; crime is preferred to virtue.
The only reason why this is so, of course, is that Sade’s villains perceive themselves not as anomalous beings whose appetites are freakish, mercurial, and dangerous to others, but as misunderstood victims in a bullying society that insists upon constraining norms—this and this alone gives them, at least in their own minds, the right to act out against others. The word “right,” here is not used lightly, for—as they persecute others—these characters in fact rely implicitly and hypocritically on the very laws of society that would protect the weak from the overly strong. What they argue is that they too, as a group that was created by nature, necessitate understanding and protection from those who would have them judged and jailed for the safety of others on grounds that they are aberrant. Evidently, this claim completely disregards the harm they do or the criminality of their actions.
These contradictions in Sade’s thinking, this messiness, remind one that in Foucault’s Histoire de la folie, the thunderbolt that strikes down the unendingly victimized Justine at the end of the novel signals the end of the age of reason. What Foucault fails to say in so many words is that Sade is in fact a harbinger of the soon-to-come muddled age of Romanticism, with its whirlwind of overwhelming emotion, personal understanding of God, and chaotic individualism.
Well, it’s a good thing we, in the twenty-first century, are rational. Or are we? After the Second World War, long after the demise of both Sade and Romanticism, we seemed to have returned to an age of social contracts and measures for the collective good: the United Nations were founded; Nazis were prosecuted and their acts seen as absolutely reprehensible; international human rights instruments proliferated and aimed at protecting men, women, children, and workers from abuses and injustices. Curiously, however, some visionary Modernist writers weren’t convinced. Samuel Beckett’s 1953 Waiting for Godot, for instance, echoes many of Sade’s views although Beckett, the man, had been active in the Resistance in France and believed in the ascendancy of good. Still, there are, in Beckett’s dark and comical world, victims and bullies, preys and sadists, and the sadists are pathetically dependent on those they abuse. There are also grand hypocritical statements made, as, for instance, when the misleadingly gentle Vladimir decries Pozzo’s cruelty toward Lucky, exclaiming, “It’s a scandal!” while doing nothing to save the latter or vanquish the former (19). Later, Vladimir even asks his friend Estragon to play with him at being Pozzo and Lucky, or at being abuser and victim, as if no one could possibly escape those roles and their consequences.
Beckett was no fool. One thing he knew was that lousy ideas tend to return. And so alienated youths take long flights into the desert and reinvent themselves as butchers who slice other human beings’ throats in front of a videocam, knowing they will soon get hits on YouTube and become famous in the news. Meanwhile, alleged victimizers spin their rhetoric on social media and their victims feel justified in lynching them publicly on grounds that the law, a priori, would be unhelpful. We are living out Sade’s idea of nature, which is nothing but an apology of individualism gone mad. Bad behaviour and acts that exclude any consideration for the common good are now increasingly popular, it seems, and what excuses them are the ideas that impulse trumps reflection, that dubious distinctiveness trumps normativity, that might trumps right, and that fame trumps work. Because we are self-seeking, powerful and greedy, we crush others militarily and economically. Because we have single-handedly given ourselves leave to speak for those who have been crushed, we fly planes into populated towers and kill fathers, mothers, sisters, and sons. Because we have been victimized, we again shall deploy all our power and sacrifice our sons until we call ourselves victors. Because technology allows it, we might as well post a video of ourselves killing cats before slaughtering a human being and becoming at least as notorious as Karla Homolka. Because we are mere innocent bystanders in all this, we plough along and just try to make a buck before that too is taken away from us. Suddenly, the advent of the United Nations and the creation of human rights instruments after the war seem not like the triumph of reason and the collective good over inflated individual will, but rather like an idiosyncratic blip in the history of mankind. What we too often refuse to acknowledge is that the age of unreason endures and prevails, and what fuels it is the extreme entitlement of some, the dread and indolence of others, and—with this we have almost managed to surpass Sade himself—the spread and profiteering prurience of the media.
American poet and human rights activist Carolyn Forché called it decades ago. In her long poem titled, “Ourselves or Nothing,” she circles the Holocaust, the Gulags, and the atrocities committed in El Salvador in the 1980s to ask herself what on earth gave us licence to behave so poorly in the twentieth century. She ends the poem with cautionary words. “It is either the beginning or the end / of the world,” she tells us, “and the choice is ourselves / or nothing” (142-44). As Sade, our forefather, has taught us, what comes next depends entirely on how we understand the word “ourselves.”
Beckett, Samuel. Waiting for Godot. New York: Grove P, 1954. Print.
Forché, Carolyn. “Ourselves or Nothing.” The Country between Us. New York: Harper, 1981. 55-59. Print.
Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique. Paris: Galimard, 1976. Print.
Kant. Emmanuel. “An Answer to the Question: ‘What is Enlightenment?’” Kant’s Political
Writings. Ed. Hans Reiss. Trans. H.B. Nisbet. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 1970. 54-60. Print.
Rousseau, Jean-Jacques. On the Social Contrat. New York: Dover, 2003. Print.
Sade, Donatien Alphonse François. Justine, or Good Conduct Well Chastised. The Marquis de
Sade: The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. Comp. and trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York: Grove P, 1965. 449-743. Print.
Smith, Adam. The Theory of Moral Sentiments. New York: Dover, 2006. Print.