Readdressing the value and impact of the controversial “libertine” writings of Donatien Alphonse Fran François, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) is the subject of this investigation. While the term “Sadean” is now common in the cultural imagination, conjuring the grotesque — freakish, bizarre, abhorrent — and extreme images of sex and violence, the man himself was an especially confounding and controversial figure — even by the standards of the eighteenth-century French aristocratic elite.
Avoiding being weighed down by his personal criminal and degenerate reputation; I instead insist in the following that our focus on Sade respond only to his works and fictions, and in particular, ‘Philosophy in the Bedroom’.
As Georges Bataille confirms, there is no more fruitless task than to take Sade at his word, or to read him literally. In response, this article casts any lingering inclination towards realism or the literal aside, confronting Sade’s novel as I believe we must, as a darkly fantastic, highly satirical and subversive satires of political, philosophical and existential transgression that undermines any pre-existing moral presuppositions as a baseless fallacy.
In doing so, I elaborate on a philosophical/ethical position of absolute negation and rejection of establishment values which is eerily familiar when reading against our twenty-first-century western culture that so readily fails to live up to our defining moral propensity for optimism.
For Albert Camus, Sade may well have been “the first theoretician of absolute rebellion”, his writings indicative of his standing as the archetypal political rebel and early nihilistic propagator, in which he articulated a “monstrous dream” and materialist vision of humanity acting out their nature.
Bataille describes Sade as “a monster, obsessed by the idea of an impossible liberty”, and Attarian describes him as a nihilistic writer of “demonic genius”, whose works of literature “presented for the first time, a philosophy of nihilism, and illustrated all its evil consequences and implications”.
While the task of measuring the extent of the “evil” and its consequences within the fiction of Sade is an interesting and fraught proposition, both do intricately describe a writer who is complex, confounding and unsettling to read. Sadean literary transgression pushes “the boundaries of what is humanly/inhumanly” possible, to ascertain a sexual or affirmative gratification and admonish religious, political and social authority via a violent and horrific fascination with the obscene.
Of Sade’s vast corpus of work, which ranges from his letters, theatre, short Gothic fictions, historical novels and pamphlets, it is his openly libertine novels which are routinely held in critical regard as the most overtly “authentic” of his writings.
Throughout his “libertine” texts, Sade pushed the “politically and socially subversive possibilities of pornography to their furthest possible extreme” to annihilate any presupposed belief in limits (be those the limits of behaviour, or religious and secular pragmatism, and of course, of the human body itself) in search of a new form of radicalism or otherness.
His literature, I argue, consequently demonstrates a value — in speculative terms, rather than in literal terms — for horrific excess as a motivating political and subjective factor undermining convention, and re-establishing the individual as apart and free from oppressive establishment values, taboos and morals. Rather than the simple breaking of laws, then, the acts committed by the Sadean literary figures throughout Philosophy resist and bypass arbitrary tensions of good and evil, right and wrong, legal and illegal. In doing so, they importantly take a spiteful stand to establish their own society of libertinage, premised on the primacy of desire and its fulfilment at whatever cost.
Sade’s literary reputation has been subject of fierce debate over the years, revered and chastised, his literature supposedly demonstrates his influential status as nihilist, sexologist, psychopathologist, revolutionary, conservative, ethicist and even feminist.
Simone de Beauvoir famously recovers and positions Sade at the forefront of modern Western critical thought in her influential essay, ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ Herein, de Beauvoir argues that despite his obvious flaws, Sade deserves some credit for his courageous and aggressive critical exposure of the self-interest and hypocrisy underlying modern intellectual thought and politics.
Angela Carter, also, vociferously redeems the feminine in Sade’s writings arguing that Sade — subverting a cultural inclination to shelter and control its women — liberated his female libertine characters. In a move to be lauded, Sade foregrounded female sexual desire and the propensity for deviance and violence, transgressing the commonly held presumption at the time of a woman’s submissive, repressed role as little else than mother or daughter.
His writing has also contributed to a noticeable shift from a classical to a modern intellectual epoch in his man-centred materialism, in the pre-empting of themes which would occupy the likes of Freud, such as the foregrounding of unconscious desires and an early engagement with Freud’s latterly dubbed “pleasure principle”, and forthright rejection of Religion as the moral and existential compass.
As a thematically “modern” writer in much of the sense, Sade’s fiction examined subjects who had turned from God (and even in the Nietzschean sense “killed” him) and who instead look inward, foregrounding the fraught condition of the human subject and in doing so, certain factions in criticism have long since lauded him as “one of the first powerful voices of a secular and ultimately more democratic modern world.”
Sade’s literature offered a model of “integrat[ing] the subterranean and the aboveground, often using sexuality as a carnality as a meeting place between the two”. His influence on literature since the eighteenth-century is pronounced, with satirists and transgressive authors since, particularly, demonstrating a certain Sadean continuity in their integration of the acceptable and the unacceptable, their mistrust and scepticism towards authority and grand narratives and their “liberal” approach to violence.
Today, as failing establishment politics are increasingly under threat by right-wing populism, violent fundamentalism and the increasing failure of our political groups to secure and promote liberal values, it is I think necessary to reconsider Sade’s satirical, fantastical and horrific libertine novel, Philosophy, which achieves what is so often lacking in intellectual and radical discourses.
As Barthes states, the Sadean text: “forms the basis of a social autarchy. Once shut in, the libertines, their assistants, and their subjects form a total society, endowed with an economy, a morality, a language, and a time articulated into schedules, [labours], and celebrations. Here, as elsewhere, the enclosure permits the system, i.e., the imagination.”
Sade’s fiction articulates and explores the highly speculative, if not altogether impossible, fantasy of absolute negation and abandon of morality, the establishment and the political to invigorate a sense of purpose to human life, which is otherwise rendered as a nullity.
Sade wrote in the shadow of the French Revolution, wherein revolutionary and anti-establishment ideals were being violently pursued and the oppressed revolted against a self-serving, conspiratorial elite.
Sade’s speculative experiments in grotesque and subversive free-thinking seem particularly timely today, capturing a spirit of radical and rebellious energy that many crave within our own period of increasing social and political upheaval, mounting discontent and vitriol against governing elites, and the threat of politically and economically motivated fundamentalist terror and violence.
Extracting a philosophy of political and subjective pessimism from Sade is necessary, firstly because within a cultural landscape of increasing cynicism and discontent towards ruling elites and the intellectual, neoliberal values that sustain our western societies, the desire for an alternative which reinvigorates our sense of existential satisfaction is ever more pronounced.
Phillips highlights that the importance of Sade’s Philosophy is that it displaces philosophy “from the mind to the body”, and in doing so secures a political gravity and impact in the offending, transgressive bodies.
The result being, that within Sade’s novel, the speculative pursuit of an existential and “ethical” alternative is confounded in, and firmly linked to, a dark and grotesque fantasy of political subversion and subjective admonishment.