The Book Club

Canonization Is the Best Way to Deep-Six Sade

Dear Roger Shattuck,

Reading once again your perorations against Sade being made “an honored classic,” a tenant of the “five-foot shelf,” and so on, I can’t help but wonder whether such an enshrinement might not actually be the best way to get rid of him, in the manner of a company deep-sixing a troublesome employee by awarding him a vice-presidency.  Sure, induct him into the Harvard Classics, label him an essential feature of the Western canon, engrave his name on the pediment of the library–you’ll effectively ensure that only the grinds will read him.  They’ll know the stuff backwards and forwards and completely miss the point.  Nobody else will be remotely curious about his work.  Within a generation or two he’ll be as forgotten as the Lays of Ossian.

I may sound flippant, but I’m not so sure that the PoMo-academic packaging of Sade won’t ultimately have that effect.  I speak from experience.  I actually took a course on Sade in my undergraduate years, in the dank precincts of the Columbia French department, and after a few days of jabber about his codes and paradigms and scissions and catalyses I was screaming wit boredom.  Never did a work of literature seem more remote from sexuality or violence that Juliette once it was cut up with semiotic hatchets.  The word jouissance (orgasm) began to sound as if it referred to something that took place between protozoa.

The French are brilliant at this sort of ossification.  They name streets after anarchists, devote six-day colloquia to apostates, proclaim regional festivals in honor of incendiaries–and presto!  No impressionable young person is ever going to be tempted by those corrupters again.  They are dead.  Francine Gray notes that not far from La Coste, site of Sade’s château, you can find a hash house that serves Mousse glacée aux fruits confits d’Apt et son coulis d’orange à la Sade.  What do you suppose is the percentage of those who’ve had this dessert who’ve read 120 Days of Sodom?  Probably about the same as consumers of chateaubriand who’ve read Memoires d’outre-tombe.

If my endorsement of Sade was “pretty tepid” in my first installment, it’s because for me he had long ago retreated into the fuzz of theory jargon.  But you, sir, seem bent on putting the smut back into pornography.  Has it occurred to you that slapping warning labels all over something is the surest way to arouse interest in it?  You might as well have bumper stickers printed up that say DON’T READ SADE.  Consider the wisdom of the Western powers over the past quarter century or so:  After decades of ineffectually cracking skulls, engaging in costly and unreliable show trials, wasting time on laborious and inevitably backfiring demonization campaigns, it finally occurred to them that the best way to stifle dissent was to ignore it.  A demonstration with no significant police presence might as well be a failed publicity stunt.  An agitprop tract that goes unseized is as good as a coupon flier issued by a palm reader.

To put it in plain English, my interest in Sade is directly proportional to the outrage he manages to provoke.  While he remained in the hands of the stamp collectors, circle squarers, and Double Dutch specialists who run so many literature and cultural-studies departments these days he was as inert as so many pounds of old phone books.  Oh, I might give a thought now and then to, say, Minsky’s furniture made of living girls in Juliette, but by and large the stuff lacked the gusto of Rabelais, the poetry of Lautréamont, the galloping invention of Raymond Roussel, the rabble-rousing of Benjamin Peret.  Fourier was a more interesting maniac, Lacenaire a more interesting criminal, Max Stirner a more interesting egoist, Saint-Just a more interesting nihilist.  Closer to our time, Alexander Trocchi is a far better pornographer, and in the domain of sadomasochism Pauline Reage has him, so to speak, whipped.  Sade does have a certain line in icy rhetoric, but even that pales in comparison to, for instance, the Cardinal de Retz.  So aside from the believe-it-or-not Brobdingnagianism of his enterprise, and the proportionately non-stop excess of his orgy scenes individually considered, all that Sade has going for him is his ability to provoke.

You have, therefore, responded appropriately to Sade.  You have been provoked.  You regard him as a threat; this is no mean feat for an author deader that the deadest American byline.  You call him “depraved,” a word that never fails to draw a crowd.  You contrast this attribute with what he conspicuously lacks: moral refreshment–which sounds like gruel and hymns and a doss on the floor at Holy Joe’s.  You aver that Sade’s imagination is wanting because the things he imagined are awful, which is like saying that the house is uncomfortable because it isn’t green.

You are repelled by Sade.  Very well, that’s your privilege, and it’s a view shared by many.  However, your repulsion acts on you like a magnet on a compass.  You become frantic.  You reach for anything at hand–a poker, a cabbage, a blunderbuss, a bathrobe, a deck of cards–to throw at the gorgon’s head.  You serially fling accusations whether or not they fit, are relevant, assist your case, follow logically, stand up in court, or make sense.  You are an old-fashioned liberal, so you will not argue for suppression, although it seems as though suppression is what you really want.  Instead you are reduced to arguing against Sade’s being admitted as a “classic.”  What this refers to is unclear.  Perhaps you are thinking of the professors down at the Text Lab, although if you were to consider everything on which they hold a symposium a “classic,” you’d have a shelf from here to Pittsburgh.  You refer vaguely to Sade’s being “studied in colleges and even high schools.”  I’d be curious to visit the high schools; as for colleges, I refer you back to my experience of 25 years ago.  I guess you would like for nobody to read Sade, ever again, and that includes specialists in smocks and gloves.  But you can’t make him go away, not without sending yourself back in time so you could strangle him in his crib.

Luc Sante