The Book Club

The Double Bind of Denouncing Sade

Thank you, Luc Sante, for your gracious remarks about a book I published many years ago.  It’s also evident that I’ll have to prove myself all over again in your eyes.  You suggest that I’m beginning to sound like Sade himself in my intemperate “rage” against the man and that my intemperance has the unwanted effect (presumably for both of us) of renewing your interest in him and his work.  Oh how swiftly I have painted myself into a corner!  Put myself into a double bind.  To state strongly what I believe encourages attention to the very events, writings, and attitudes I deplore.  Yet I cannot now fall silent.

Allow me to loosen my clothing a bit and back up far enough to look at how we got here–or at least how I got here.  My book Forbidden Knowledge began as an essentially literary study of great myths, epics, and stories about the powerful motive of curiosity.  Surely we should impose no limits on human knowledge as opposed to human actions.  Yet Prometheus and Pandora, Adam and Eve, Faust, Frankenstein, Crime and Punishment and many other indelible stories deal with possible limits on knowledge and the consequences of exceeding them.  All can be read as cautionary tales.  As I completed this planned book, friends and colleagues pointed out to me that the subject of forbidden knowledge obliged me to treat two further areas: pornography and science.  They raise the great contemporary challenges to the question of limiting knowledge and expression.  As a consequence, the final book required five more years to write.

Instead of pornography in general, I decided to treat the specific case of the Marquis de Sade.  I had read him a bit in connection with my first book, The Banquet Years.  Temperamentally and because of my early admiration for Rabelais and Alfred Jarry, I find that the most natural and immediate response to most people’s sexual behavior is laughter.  What could be more comic than the rituals and gyrations that bring us erotic pleasure?  Ideally and following out this impulse to laughter, in response to Sade’s works one could be reduced to guffaws of incredulity at the preposterous organ sizes and methodical repetitions of outlandish sex acts.  According to his letters, the English poet Swinburne reacted in exactly this fashion to his first reading.

I was not quite so detached.  Aversion was followed by puzzlement and finally, after discovering how far the rehabilitation of Sade had proceeded, a discussion to take on the Sade case as a 20th-century intellectual phenomenon.  For I do not think it is a popular movement.  I felt that someone had to respond to those biographers and critics who want to rank Sade as an honored classic author to be studied in colleges and even high schools.  Yes, some do feel that way.  That prospect strikes me as patently unwise, and I speak as a person who has been a teacher most of his life.

Someone should provide a little back pressure, I concluded.  My Sade chapter grew to 80pages.  But if I had my way about things, I would prefer to have the gifts of Swift or Voltaire or Jarry.  Then I could provoke the magnificent peals of laughter and ridicule that will best bring Sade and his writings back into perspective.  Well, we live with our limitations.  My lot is to debate you about a biography that I believe swallows Sade whole and uncritically, with little sense of what it means to take Sade seriously as a moral and philosophical thinker.

You come to the point near the end of your last letter of granting that Sade is a “lucid monster” capable of bringing every intellectual, cultural, and commercial activity among us to a standstill.  To that I must respond: Only if we invite him in and make him a guest of honor.  Without that deliberate welcome, the preposterousness of his ideas and proposals must be visible to everyone.  And you reply that he deserves our admiration “because his imagination went as far as possible into the red zone as it is possible for anyone’s to go.”

You have located the critical issue, I’d say: the imagination.  Almost every commentator on Sade comes to it.  So I’ll try to take measure of Sade’s imagination in his narrative fiction.  Sade described many milieus and levels of society.  His stories work like funnels to draw the characters away from ordinary living into a restricted, protected, highly controlled setting in which all laws, social constraints, shame, privacy, and dignity have been stripped away by a male tyranny.  Then, in strictly ordered sequence, the horrors begin.  In my Sade chapter in Forbidden Knowledge, I quote as some length (with warnings) passages of murderous inhuman acts for which we have no adequate classification.  I shall not do so here.  Should I be recommending them for their imaginative power?

All these endlessly repeated scenes, usually following a crescendo effect of violent debauchery, serve the same purpose.  The essential sex act, which for Sade is anal intercourse, and ordinary copulation are systematically disassociated from tenderness, love, reproduction, offspring, and social bonds.  They are associated with pain, torture, domination violence, solitude, and murder.  As Sade’s readers know, I do not exaggerate.  Some of his novels, like Aline and Valcourt, could appear under his name because they contain no explicitness.  But the essential work of Sade’s imagination in the works for which he is best known is to find narrative variations for the single project of turning your sexual nature away from its usual biological and social purpose toward a role destructive of everything except the domination and pleasure of the male.  His sexual satisfaction excludes any pleasurable participation on the part of a woman.  She must remain a mere device for his  pleasure.  Yes, it’s not unlike masturbation with a woman brought in as an unmoved facilitator.

You are right to call this a red zone into which Sade’s imagination ventured as far as it could.  For the strictly violent and murderous details of these scenes–like a mother exulting in pushing her 7-year-old daughter into the fire and watching her death throes while being serviced sexually by two hired lackeys–he doesn’t have serious competition.  Even the great 18th-century pornographers stayed mostly with sexual activity as something pleasurable.  So we might find a limited originality in Sade’s excesses.  But the narrowness of his imagination becomes clear when one takes account of the predictable stereotypes he presents as characters and the shallowness of his psychology.  Am I deluded and wanting in literary response in putting up some resistance to these books as candidates for any five-foot shelf of classics?  If I call them depraved instead of morally refreshing, have I violated some unwritten decorum of 20th-century literary criticism?  Come on, Luc Sante.  Your endorsement of Sade’s more debauched novels was pretty tepid in your first letter.  Do you maintain it now only because I’m trying to call a spade a spade?  There’s my double bind back again.  I cannot just leave the field.  And anything I say against the man incites further prurient interest in him. 

Another thing.  Sade does condemn capital punishment in “Frenchmen, One More Effort…”  And within two pages he also justifies as lawful according to the laws of Nature theft, rape, murder, and proposes a state so totalitarian that it will take over the raising and education of all children.

Literature, you write, “permits everything to happen, and it’s safe.”  To be continued.