The Book Club

Mere Words?

Greetings, Luc Sante, on day three out of four.  We have a couple of inches of snow up here in Vermont.  It transforms everything.  But our exchange continues undisturbed.

I begin with the matter I left dangling in my last letter.  Literature, you write, “permits anything to happen, and it’s safe.”  You well know that with those words you are tapping into the master principle of American history and culture, which rests on our political belief in free speech and expression and its embodiment in the First Amendment.  In our history, particularly over the past 40 years, free speech has come to preempt all competing principles such as public order, public health, and fitness of the environment.  Insofar as I remain a card-carrying liberal in political matters, I concur with you in affirming free speech.  In the context of debates about the study of literature and of what are now called the culture wars, I have also stated publicly that I am a conservationist in cultural matters.  By this I mean in part that there are circumstances that begin to weaken the “mere words” argument you affirm by stating literature can say and do anything and it’s always safe.

This discussion reaches very far and deep.  By merely broaching it, I leave myself open to being called a number of names.  (A dozen London publishers have declined Forbidden Knowledge on the grounds that it’s too “censorious” and “prescriptive.”  Still no takers.)  Opposite the “mere words” position lies the position that words have real effects on people–all kinds of effects including indirect and delayed, which we will never fully fathom.  As evidence, just think of what keeps the market machinery turning. Millions of dollars pour steadily into advertising in print and radio (I omit image-based media as even more complex) on the single assumption that verbal messages will influence people’s behavior.  Think of political campaigns and religious evangelism.  When we want to do something about the use of tobacco or condoms or breast examinations, the government organizes a campaign to educate the public–in words.  And such campaigns have measurable results for which interested parties will pay good money.

The Marquis de Sade wrote in part to while away time in prison, in part to earn needed francs during difficult times, and in part to spread his message to fellow Supermen who, with or without aristocratic lineage, claimed a natural right to impose their rule and above all their sexual mayhem on the rest of the world.  Sade promoted his own educational campaign not toward the general populace but toward an elite among readers.  His message basically calls for destroying the foundations of what be need not be ashamed to call civilization: justice, honesty, respect for others, persuasion over violence, and the like.

I have already said that I do not favor either burning or burying Sade’s writings.  Nor do I favor “censoring” his books–whatever that might mean in practice.  What does concern me is the number of educated and generally responsible citizens willing to endorse his message by calling him a major writer deserving our respect.  This response leaves me incredulous.  How often is it made in good faith on the basis of adequate knowledge of his works?  A fair number of articulate Sade scholars must belong to this group; Maurice Lever, for example, exalts “the Luciferian grandeur…of the Sadean novel.”  How many people endorse Sade on the basis of inadequate second-hand knowledge of his libertarian philosophy and because current fashions welcome any extension of freedom, any transgression of bourgeois morality?  This is probably a larger group.  Both, I believe, have been mislead, or mislead themselves.

Yes, Luc Sante, I concur that in a literary work, anything can happen.  It affords, through the exercise of the imagination, a form of open experiment in words.  Some authors employ great subtlety in arranging such experiments; some go to the other extreme and write the most explosive, morally searing, and humanly demeaning scenes and arguments they can conceive.  That is their right and privilege.  In spite of the infantilism and crudeness of such writings, they can be very powerful and affect some temperaments much more than others.  Therefore I cannot concur with the second part of your sentence: “and it’s safe.”  It would be difficult to prove that any particular criminal act can be attributed primarily to the criminal’s having read Sade.  It would be equally difficult to prove that Sade’s writings have never been instrumental in provoking a criminal act.  Today we place the burden of proof on the first proposition.  I shall stop here and refer you and the reader to my Sade chapter in Forbidden Knowledge .  I don’t believe Sade is safe in all hands.  I’m not prepared to do more about that conviction than make it known in circumstances like this exchange with you.  Should I be doing more?  But you don’t share the conviction.  Meanwhile you and I, presumably, have not been corrupted.

Having said all this, I come back to your most recent letter.  I have to admit that I love your argument about enshrining Sade as a classic in order to eliminate him.  When students in the 60s were clamoring for “relevance” in their courses, I tried to launch a counter-slogan: Curriculum kills.  At least it seems to have had that effect in your Sade course.  But you’ve read everything, Luc Sante, particularly on the outer margins of French literature, and you may be a bit jaded.  Still, the idea of dealing with Sade by cooption and making him sit with the grownups corresponds in one of the moral-psychological refrains in both my book and your thinking.  I call it, after Chaucer, the Wife of Bath effect: “Forbid the thing, and that desire we.”  So if we could just hand Sade over to the deconstructionists and the semioticians, they would ossify him for keeps.  The we could leave him alone to seek his own level, and we’d all be happy.  I love your scenario.

But it will not finally wash.  To a great extent Sade has already been enshrined in new literary histories and collections of classics and college curricula.  And he has not simply dropped out of sight as a result.  Nor has enshrinement plus centuries of uneven and sometimes dreadful teaching killed Plato and Shakespeare.  We’re in a bind here.  Neither of us is wriggling out of it very well.  Probably no one can.  You’ve put me in the position where every little move I make “puts the smut back in pornography” and stirs up further attention to the very set of writings I’m trying to–to what?  “Suppression is what you really want,” you write.  And you call me “frantic” in a sequence of sentences that strike me as pretty frantic.  Try reading them again.

So what shall we do now?  Let’s look at a very different case.  Two years ago a scholar and musician I deeply respect, Charles Rosen, published an essay-review called “The Scandal of the Classics” (New York Review of Books, May 9, 1996).  In a serious discussion of Sade’s complete works being admitted to the prestigious Pléiade edition, Rosen writes, “In his sobriety and intensity, his work attains the monumental sublime…Sade is a neo-classic artist…There are many reasons for thinking that pornography does not actually stimulate or inspire sadistic acts, and if this is the case, Sade’s work might reasonably be made required reading for high-school students…”  As I have been arguing, he makes it all depend on a very big if–the “mere words” if.  This treatment comes close to being the ultimate enshrinement.  Does it give you as much pause as it gives me?  Rosen’s encomiums are not going to make or let Sade go away.  Furthermore, I think Rosen’s estimate of him as appropriate reading for high school students, based on the presumption that all writing is safe, runs the risk of weakening the fragile structure of decency and humanity we base our lives on.  No one who knows the history of our century would claim that the structure is so strong it can withstand the glorification and promotion of such ideas.  Have I lots my wits?  Or am I becoming frenzied?

Your whacking away at my thinking, Luc Sante, hasn’t yet reached the Sadistic stage.  Still, I hope you’re enjoying the exchange as much as I am.  I would like to know what you think of Rosen’s strong declarations.

Roger Shattuck