The Book Club

Overthrowing Idols

Dear Roger Shattuck,

First of all, let me hasten to say that in calling Gray’s book “the only” one on Sade that “could be described as a model of good sense” I hadn’t intended to administer a preemptive slap in your direction; your book is not solely about Sade. Certainly I wanted to ease into the subject with you gently, otherwise this exchange will risk turning into a dialogue de sourds.

Tip-toeing around the outskirts, then, let me explain why I characterized your view of masturbation as “some unthinkable blight.” On Page 283 of your book you list the four claims made for Sade’s stature as a classic: powerful imagination, importance as scientific documents, great revolutionary, original and significant moral philosophy.  By this point, 56 pages into your chapter, we are well aware that you have no truck with any of these notions.  But it is nevertheless a small shock to then come to the opening sentence of your next paragraph: “One more circumstance, both biographical and literary further weakens all four claims.”  And what is that circumstance?  Waxing the bishop!  Of all damn things!  This is not unlike deciding that the stature of Jojo’s great epic is severely undermined by the fact that he picked his nose while composing it and, furthermore, several times within its pages depicts characters picking their noses.  I’ll grant that onanism is neither reciprocal nor procreative.  Neither is flossing.

I have now read your L.A. Times review of Gray’s book.  At this juncture, I’d like to express the admiration I’ve had for your works over the years.  At 16, in fact, about the same time I first read Sade, I spent time in high school detention for getting caught reading The Banquet Years in class (instead of, I think, Rolvaag’s Giants in the Earth); I literally wore out my first copy.  The other tribute I can pay you is rather more left-handed:  You have succeeded where Gilbert Lely, Pierre Klossowski, Maurice Blanchot, Georges Bataille, and now Francine Gray have failed–you have renewed my interest in Sade.  In your review, your book, and your initial installment in this exchange, you persistently sound the same note: He represents “pollution,” “poison,” “bestiality,” “evil.”  His legacy is criminal, period.  Those who have made a case for him are “handlers” and “groupies.”  You even strike at the title, merely descriptive if not unleavened by irony, of Gray’s book.  Since the book considers in depth the people who shared Sade’s life, your accusing her of “remarkable naiveté” seems disingenuous–or else you are so consumed by rage that every detail becomes for you evidence for the prosecution.  You even find room, in your review, to cast aspersions on the Sade descendants whose assistance Gray acknowledges, as if they were literally a family of vampires.

So much expended energy, so much evangelical fervor in denunciation, such insistent humorlessness, a scorched-earth approach that vaporizes nuance–dare I say that all of this is more than slightly reminiscent of Sade himself?  And by the way, is it quite clear that we are talking about a novelist?  Sade was not Hitler or Pol Pot or Milosevic or Richard Spick or Gilles de Rais.  He killed no one.  Whether he might have had his life taken a slightly different course is immaterial.  Did he advocate murder in his books?  Sure.  So did De Quincey (Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts).  That’s one of the great things about literature:  It permits anything to happen, and it’s safe.  As Ambrose Bierce once replied to a critic who complained about the violence in his work: “If it scares you to read that one imaginary person killed another, why not take up knitting instead of reading?”

The violence of your wrath against Sade revives my interest in him by reminding me just why Apollinaire and so many others made such grand claims on his behalf.  It’s precisely because Sade is an acid test, a barbed-wire wall, a gigantic monkey-wrench tossed into the works.  As a stylist, a narrative architect, a writer capable of evocative description or psychological elucidation or the orchestration of varied moods, he doesn’t even rank.  As artistic madmen go, he’s more Adolf Wölffli than Vincent van Gogh.  But as a figure capable of stopping traffic, halting commerce, freezing piety, opening the last door in the oubliettes of the unconscious, he has no competition.  “How can lawful pleasures be compared to those which embody not only much more piquant delights put also the priceless joy of breaking all social taboos and overturning all laws?”  Few will admit they concur, of course.  Out loud, that is.  Sade is a dark mirror for anyone who has the courage to admit all the slime that lurks within him or her.  He is a permanent reminder of the fact that the laws and taboos that exist to protect the weak are obscured by those which exist to consolidate power.  He is a lucid monster.  He occupies in Western culture the same niche that the bogeyman has in the child’s imagination.  He can be a joke to those who have no need to fear him.

He can be described as “free” not, obviously, because of his pathetic wreck of a life, but because his imagination went as far into the red zone as it is possible for anyone’s to go.  You may not want to go there; you may not want your offspring or partner or your domestics or your elected officials to go there, but somebody was bound to.  And he further served the cause of freedom by writing one very curious document, the pamphlet called “Frenchmen, One More Effort If You Want To Become Republicans,” oddly inserted into the middle of Philosophy in the Boudoir .  Francine Gray rightly points out that his motives for writing it were complicated, to say the least, that it is in fact more of a satirical tract on the order of Swift’s “Modest Proposal,” but motive is not always the key to outcome. Whole sections of it, those on religion and on the death penalty in particular, rank among the most cogent and persuasive polemical writings to come out of the French Revolution.  You might, in fact, ponder the following, substituting if you wish the author’s name for the deities’:

“I cannot repeat it to you too often: no more gods, Frenchmen, no more gods, lest under their fatal influence you wish to be plunged back into all the horrors of despotism; but it is only by jeering that you will destroy them; all the dangers they bring in their wake will instantly be removed en masse if you pamper or ascribe any consequence to them.  Carried away by anger, you overthrow the idols?  Not for a minute; have a bit of sport with them, and they will be demolished; once withered, the opinion will collapse of its own accord.”

Yours truly,
Luc Sante