The Book Club

Libraries Above Brimstone

Salut, Luc Sante.

I find myself wondering if our exchanges in this four-day debate have changed anyone’s mind. I don’t seem to have swayed you, though I’ll try again in just a moment. I have listened to your arguments as attentively as I was able and do not find reason to shift my ground very much on the Marquis de Sade or on Gray’s biography of him. Have we, then, engaged in an empty exercise? I think not. Because of exaggerated claims made about the quality of his writings (not by you), Sade has been thrust upon us as a test case, in the general area of literature. We must try our best to clarify the issues in this area, for they have become even more urgent in the visual and electric media. Movies, TV, and the Web can have stronger effects than words alone. No honest debate in this area is in vain.

I want to rebut a few items in your last letter. Through a quotation from Ned Polsky you raise the question of “”serious empirical research” on the effects of pornography, and you wonder if I have taken the trouble to consult such materials. The months I have spent reading such research convinced me that measurements of penile tension in men watching X-rated films and questionnaires however carefully designed give us very flimsy information about the long-range effects of any kind of reading or watching–no more trustworthy than Kinsey’s pseudoscientific reports. And in rejecting the statements of Ted Bundy on the subject, you inaccurately write that he “attempts to pin his massacres on porn.” That’s the position he explicitly rejects. Pornography, he said, was only one factor among many. Read the pages in my book. If we’re going to talk about empirical research, let’s get the facts straight. But in this area of inquiry there are very few facts, let alone conclusions, to help us.

You assert, as if it were a widely accepted opinion, that Sade carried 18th-century pornographic satire to “its outlandish but logical conclusion.” Were that true, I would accept the feat as a true literary accomplishment. But whom does Sade satirize? Some of the aristocrats and clergy have hideous bodies; all perform hideous acts. But Sade portrays these figures as admirable precisely in their excesses, not as mean and reprehensible. No satire there. It’s complicity. Justine perhaps? The utterly stereotypical figure of the innocent victim of all outrages, she invariably turns up the next morning and in the next chapter made whole again and ready to be violated all over again. In Justine could Sade be sending up the porn convention of the eternal victim? Possibly. But he uses it mechanically, obsessively, without anything like Voltaire’s rapid-fire style to tell us where to laugh. Satire requires a light touch; Sade remains heavy-handed, laboriously detailing more and more joyful tortures. The only possible and unintentional butt of his writings would be his own obsessions.

Finally we come to “mere words” again. With a few established exceptions like immediate danger (“Fire!”) and fighting words I suppose, you argue steadfastly that words and ideas cannot influence us in any significant way. Your final metaphor, that Sade smells more of the library than of brimstone, confounds me and should confound you even more. If you believe that writing and literature have insignificant effects on our behavior compared say to the powers of science and magic, then what are you doing here? You believe as I do, Luc Sante, in the amazing, universal, and sometimes scary power of ideas delivered in words. You hope to be read and pondered and to have an influence. Unless I misjudge you gravely, you are not merely preening and strutting as you type out your pieces for Slate and elsewhere. But to handle the hot potato called Sade, you find yourself obliged to say that his words and ideas and arguments have no weight, don’t matter. That cannot be the justification for our four-day conversation.

We must limit ourselves to one system of weights and measures, of justice and literary quality. Writers make a difference. They leave their mark. Will you really deny it? The nature of your profession will make that difficult. The fact that Sade smells more of the library than of brimstone gives him his power over some readers particularly the breakers of all boundaries, the big-time metaphysical scoff-laws, even a few small-time sadists.

Haven’t we located the most basic difference between us? You puzzlingly want to rate the effects of writing–everything from advertising to your own contributions to magazines to the extremes of violent pornography–as very small, hardly worth worrying about or taking account of. I rate the effects of writing as considerable, difficult to measure against the facts, never trivial in the case of a great author and thinker. It is precisely because so many modern critics and biographers overrate the Marquis de Sade that I find it both necessary and annoying to be here talking to you about him. Sade doesn’t deserve the attention. There is unquestionably a need among some individuals to have the help of pornography in their sex lives. But Sade’s writings should have another name and classification. They aim not to help with the fulfillment of reasonable and healthy sexual appetites, but to redirect those appetites into cruel, destructive, and outrageous practices. He depicts not the acts of consenting adults in which no one comes out the victim. Sadism requires a victim, real or imagined. Human beings are so constituted that the frequent trying out fo the latter can lead to the former. I cannot prove the last statement. Neither can you, Luc Sante, nor any empirical research, prove that it never happens.

And so, by a great viscus of recirculation, we come back to Francine du Plessix Gray’s At Home with the Marquis de Sade. She has, in my opinion, laundered the man’s life even while telling us many of the most damning facts, including his incorrigible humiliation of women. But somehow, thanks to the erroneous thesis that women saved him and allowed him to produce his writings, it all comes out treacle.

At the same time, Gray certifies Sade’s writings as magnificent without giving them careful and sustained examination. She compares him, implausibly, to Kafka and praises his “novel and bold ideas.” I have not found those ideas. What I do find in the culture around us is a widespread distortion of his life and writings and a willingness to embrace what has become Sadean chic.

Thanks for the conversation, Luc Sante. Perhaps, in a few years, we can have a return match. And I’d be pleased to hear from some readers.

Roger Shattuck