The Book Club

Visionary or Madman?

Glad to meet you, Luc Sante, in this ethereal encounter.  I cannot see you, but your words begin to leave a virtual image.  Your letter started several trains of thought, and I’ll jump right on my horse.

The fact that you describe Francine du Plessix Gray’s new biography of the Marquis de Sade as “a model of good sense” must mean that you find the long chapter in my book, Forbidden Knowledge, a model of bad judgment.  I have just reviewed Gray’s biography for the Los Angeles Times Book Review (November 15) and hope that you and our readers look up that review in print (or click here to read it on the Web) in order to assemble the available evidence.

In spite of long passages of speculation about areas where we have no information, Gray’s account is accurate enough in the information it does recount about Sade.  Her writing maintains a certain bounce on subjects that could be daunting.  I have two reservations.  She never makes the case, stated on the opening page of her foreword, that women shaped Sade’s life and succeeded in taming his sexual and destructive energies.  The opposite is the case.  His wife, his mother-in-law, and his companion in his last years all tried to change him, gave up, and abandoned him.  My second criticism about Gray’s biography is that she gives details of Sade’s utter self-absorption, vindictiveness, infantilism, violence, and psychological exhibitionism, and then delivers a verdict of innocent.  After 200 years the Divine Marquis has worked his way with his latest biographer.  She is not the first to react this way.  Like most of the others, she feels that he dared to speak out with “visionary gifts” about “humankind’s most bestial urges.”  The book’s title, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, expresses a remarkable naiveté about the kind of person one would choose to live with.  Gray squanders any good sense she has in a romantic sympathy for criminal excess

You do well in your letter to distinguish the different parts of our subject: Sade’s life, bad enough to deserve prolonged incarceration, did not contain the torture, murder, and wholesale human extermination celebrated in his writings.  (I also would distinguish between his philosophy and his narrative fiction, and all the above from his rehabilitation in contemporary Western culture.  Of these I hope we can speak later.)

You refer to Sade’s doleful life as “a mere case study” in retarded development and in conventional aristocratic excesses.  It is the books he left us as “”he most extreme writer of all time” that set him apart as a literary curiosity, as “an interesting freak.”  Well, here we agree.  And here I propose that we follow the analogy a bit further.  Sade belongs to a side-show, like the ones  my parents took me to in the bowels of the old Madison Square Garden.  The Tattooed Lady and the Siamese Twins and the Fattest Man in the World inspired fascination and revulsion.  I was not allowed to see the geeks biting off chicken heads.  None of these creatures protested against their marginal status.  Sade, however, never stops shouting.  He wants to be upstairs in the center ring with no one in the other two rings, and to stage his immense production of violent debauchery in order to demonstrate his natural-born superiority to everyone else.  This freak wants to take over the whole show.  And he has attracted a group of handlers, agents, scholars, and groupies who have partly succeeded in carrying it out.  What are you and I doing here on the Web, Luc Sante, if not contributing to this nefarious publicity campaign?  Should we be here?

And now you have an answer to one of your two charges against me.  I don’t want to burn the genuine historical man Sade and his works–that is, this freak.  I’m prepared to leave him where he belongs, among others in the side-show.  What I do propose is his glorification and heroization into a cult figure of immense transgressive powers of imagination.  We’ll have to talk later about his imagination.

Your other charge is that I treat Sade’s compulsive masturbation as “some unthinkable blight.”  My remarks in Forbidden Knowledge do not match your description.  One pities the poor guy.  The most widely practiced of sex acts is also the saddest and most inadequate.  I say that because masturbation deflects our sexual energies from the two areas in which they could lead to the greatest fulfillment of pleasure: a genuine reciprocal relation to another human being based on emotional commitment, and the production of a child as the creation of that relation.

But most of these matters do not approach the major considerations about Sade as a potential figure of respect and even greatness.  Even though you tend to cut Sade down to size by calling him a case study and by bringing out the freakish side of his writings, you still end up with Gray and the others in seeing him as a free man.  In your last paragraph you refer to a force in him based in part on  “a genuine desire for freedom in the larger sense.”  Presumably “the larger sense” means something like “more than just a release from imprisonment.”  If you believe what you say earlier about Sade being unable to contain himself from buggering servants and being “completely at the mercy of his whims,” then freedom plays no role in the case.  This man was simply a mechanical doll driven by springs and levers, signifying nothing.  But this is a mere debater’s point.  For, unless we decide to call him a full-fledged madman, Sade could decide things for himself the way the rest of us do and was at the mercy of those voluntary decisions.  He chose his actions.  He tells us so.  We treat him so.  When he ended up in an insane asylum, it was because his family bought his way in,  Most of the authorities wanted him to remain in a common criminal prison.  He was responsible for his actions.

We’d better try to get this freedom thing right.  In 1912 the poet Apollinaire, turning a hyperbolic phrase, called Sade “the freest spirit who has ever lived.”  No puppet there.  A real freedom fighter.  But the question is: whose freedom?  A reading of Gray’s biography gives us the answer clearly enough.  His own freedom, to the exclusion of everyone else’s.  As you point out, Luc Sante, this is infantile freedom.  No one else entered the perimeter of his concerns.  Sade was loyal to no one-family friends, or associates.  His greatest fictional hero, the self-aggrandizing Juliette, betrayed anyone and everyone when her own interests called for it.  Sade’s “desire for freedom” had nothing to do with considering anyone but himself, his pleasures, his property, and his fame.  We have a name for such behavior: megalomania.

In the end, I guess I believe our true subject is the state of mind of intelligent literate individuals and a number of institutions–among them university literary studies and The New Yorker magazine–in wanting to welcome Sade as a full-blown classic author with important lessons to teach us.  Except in reverse, as I argue in the end of my L.A. Times review.  Try to read it.

I still haven’t answered your final question.

Happy landings,
Roger Shattuck