[image of original book cover is from here]
[This was re-HTML coded and also revised on 7 Febuary 2010 ECD]
In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, the political philosopher, social analyst, and activist writer of literature Andrea Dworkin quite brilliantly analysed the life and work of the Marquis de Sade. I doubt many have read this particular critique of him and his dubiously distinctive and heroiclibertine accomplishments. I doubt many WHM get past the title of her book, as it does something they detest: it tells a central truth about WHM. Dworkin's account of the despicable de Sade and her accompanying astute political analysis of his written work, see: "The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814)," in Pornography: Men Possessing Women, The Women's Press, 1981, pp. 70-100. What follows is a summary of that writing, from the website just linked to in the previous sentence:
"A radical feminist essayist and fiction writer, Dworkin has published several books on the politics of gender. In her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women, she argues that pornography functions in society as an instrument of power with which men degrade and subjugate women. In the following excerpt from that book, Dworkin posits that the violence against women that permeates Sade's work expresses basic assumptions about the relative rights of men and women in both his society and the present day."
From another unacceptably and inconveniently brilliant and truthful book by Dworkin, we can read this, in her preface to Intercourse:
I have never written for a cowardly or passive or stupid reader, the precise characteristics of most reviewers--overeducated but functionally illiterate, members of a gang, a pack, who do their drive-by shootings in print and experience what they call "the street" at cocktail parties. "I heard it on the street," they say, meaning a penthouse closer to heaven. It is no accident that most of the books publsihed in the last few years about the decline and fall of Anglo-European culture because of the polluting effects of women of all races and some men of color--and there are a slew of such books--have been written by white-boy journalists. Abandoning the J-school ethic of "who, what, when, where, how" and the discipline of Hemingway's lean, masculine prose, they now try to answer "why." That decline and fall, they say, is because talentless uppity women infest literature; or because militant feminists are an obstacle to the prorape, prodominance art of talented living or dead men; or because the multicultural reader--likely to be female and/or not white--values Alice Walker and Toni Morrison above Aristotle and the Marquis de Sade. Hallelujah, I say.
[...] The public censure of women as if we are rabid because we speak without apology about the world in which we live is a strategy of threats that usually works. Men often react to women's words--speaking and writing--as if they were acts of violence; sometimes men react to women's words with violence. So we lower our voices. Women whisper. Women apologize. Women shut up. Women trivialize what we know. Women shrink. Women pull back. Most women have experienced enough dominance from men--control, violence, insult, contempt--that no threat seems empty.
Intercourse does not say forgive me and love me. It does not say, I forgive you, I love you. For a woman writer to thrive (or, arguably, to survive) in this current hard times, forgiveness and love must be subtext. No. I say no." -- Andrea Dworkin, Intercourse (1988, preface, pp. xxix-xxxi)Below is a discussion of a book Sadeian Women, the author Angela Carter's analysis, and the subject of her own analysis: the Marquis de Sade's understandings of sexuality, sometimes referred to as a heroically libertine "philosophy of sexuality". I put that in quotes only because what any white straight male sadist and rapist says is considered "high art" and "deeply philosophical" while Marimba Ani's brilliant book Yurugu: An African-Centered Critique of European Cultural Thought and Behavior, on white male supremacist culture and the philosophies that company it, and Andrea Dworkin's political-philosophical work, Intercourse, do not tend to be defined and revered as such: Ani and Dworkin, alas, were not men-who-rape-for-freedom. That sexism, heterosexism, and racism are "at work" (overtime without pay), I hope is well understood by the readers of this blog. See this, for a reasonable and thoughtful review of Intercourse. Was it written by a man? You have one guess.
What white heterosexual men refuse--REFUSE--to do is to take the writings by women of color and/or by militant feminists seriously as truth-revealing philosophy and insightful political analysis, as literature, as art, as worthy of intellectual engagement that is not summed up by the relatively new term "dissing". Straight white men diss the work of women of color and/or militant feminists because such work threatens them politically, it frightens them enormously, because it reveals to them something privileged white men do not want to know about themselves: that they are not the center of the moral, cultural, or social universe; they are not the most intelligent creatures on Earth--they are often very stupid, in fact, and astoundingly and willfully ignorant about the majority of the world's people: women. They prefer to remain ignorant, and speak out of that ignorance with all the status and entitlement that few in the world will ever attain, including to rape and kill women an girls and be regarding in history books as heroes.
Privileged WHM will happily and defiantly regard child molesting rapists and genocidal racists like de Sade and Columbus as heroes of one kind or another. The WHM may be private torturer or public torturer, but due to sexuality, gender, and race, he will not be written about as horrid, evil, or even dangerous. Why? Because in any WHM Supremacist society, WHM are structurally statused as heroes, not villians, not the Enemy, not THE terrorists. What other raced, sexed, or gendered people can manage to hold onto "hero status" while committing human rights atrocities? No gay white man can molest children, have that known, AND be seen as hero-not-villain. The gay white male author who writes about raping boys will not be elevated by his acts to being honored. The Marquis de Sade can.
No women of color can murder many white men and be considered heroic in history books, nor can she have a national holiday for doing so. Christopher Columbus can (for raping, pimping, and killing women and girls of color). What "they did" that is publicly valued may not be called "rape" and "genocidal atrocity". White het male culture requires an principle of hypocrisy to exist at all. It is savage while calling itself civil; evil while calling itself good; and requires gross theft and destruction while calling itself generous and creative. Columbus, then, is transformed out of what he actually did--that he wrote about--into an "adventurer", a fantastic voyager, a discoverer. Do any of those terms call up in the mind a man so without morals that he'd slice heads off of humans in order to take possession of their land? The Marquis will be described as liberatory, defender of free speech, and a creative artist with a great imagination. Do such terms conjure in your head the bloody bodies of raped and murdered girls he victimised for his sexual pleasure?
Who, in fact, were made safer, healthier, and wiser by these two men? Were women? Were children? How does committing atrocity become mythologised as committing greatness?
Part of the answer lies with who tells their stories: do their victims, if left to survive? Or do they have what we now would call "handlers" who manage their public images as carefully as that of any corrupt U.S. president? Our storybooks must not speak of there ideological and behavioral heinousness directly as such. WHM cannot, according to myth, be ugly. So their stories must be prettied up for the public who comprise the status quo. Make-up is applied with a solid foundation of socially appreciated self-aggrandisement. There must be a masterful mask of obfuscation pasted onto the boastful bronze busts of these WHM, because the true tales are so grim as to warrant this degree of facade. Gross human cruelty is hard to look at and find heroic. So the details are shifted, the victims are deemed evil or inhuman--no great loss if they are taken out, right? In fact, the world becomes a better place. It "progresses" from the savage to the civil, even while the Indigenous people lived harmoniously with other beings and the Earth. Whites possess, use up, or destroy everything they touch. And this process is called "good for humanity". Yes, generations of people believe this CRAP.
So the WHM rapist and genocidalist is somehow, with the truth of their personal histories disguised, become "good", "moral", and "important". Especially the latter. WHM are, almost by definition, "important". So whatever spews forth from their mouths if orators or fingertips if writers, must be seen as oh-so-very relevant and necessary. The rest of us must be reverent and considerate, or at least literate and thoughtful, about this new or old work by WHM. Such work is seen to be marinated, dripping, in prodigious genius. The genius of any "great white man" may be latent or expressed--but it is presumed to be in there somewhere.
Yes, "it's in there somewhere", remark the full-time students and professors of one analyst of literature elevated to the status of great literary theorist and mind-blowing philosopher, Jacques Derrida. In the white male supremacist rulebook, genius can be bestowed on someone who most people don't know or understand. So it is precisely because we don't or can't know what the fuck he's talking about that, by itself, means he's a genius. Meanwhile, the Marimba Ani's of the world go ignored or scorned.
Not everyone who is bestowed the power to name genius will concur. U.S. and UK WHM modernists will scoff and turn up their snotty noses at any Continental philosopher--female or male. The superior snoots have no time even for the postmodernist white men--usually marginalised by ethnicity (in Derrida's case) or sexuality (in Foucault's). Both these men, unlike Columbus and de Sade, succeed, each in their own ways, using their own methods, prove how both white and male supremacist modernist white male makers or literature and philosophy are. So Derrida is derided, and Foucault is called a fool. But some whiteboys adore them.
The work of women of color and/or militant feminists is always prejudged to be idiotic, insane, or infantile, by definitions of "value" and "art" provided to us out of the WHM dicktionary. Well, until the rest of us notice the brilliance. In the West, once enough of us notice, some of "us" are likely to be white and male. And when white men speak out naming these women as great, only then, is enough value awarded socially to make them targets of other white men's wrath and ridicule. This contempt and criticism is never, ever based on the bodies of work these women produce. Not ever; not once.
WHM will find passages they believe demonstrate how evil and dangerous these women are, whose books go out of print. These sloth-like slanderers pass about quotes taken out of context--as antifeminist men do with predicktable regularity. That way they never have to engage responsibly or intelligently with the actual subjects women writers discuss: like women's yet-to-be-achieved struggle for human rights and human status. Since women aren't given the power to name greatness, and most men will keep their pact with the devilish white brotherhood to portray the victims as the victors and the victors as the victims, who is going to hold those WHM accountable to actually reading the whole of a text they appear to despise? Clever, if ill-informed and ultimately stupid bunch, those WHM critics. Even when they bother to actually read a book by a woman of color and/or a militant feminist they flat out don't get it. Women's writing is written in languages men speak. But men can't speak out loud about what women notice that men do: commit atrocity. So while their bodies may register what these women are saying as "hitting close to home", they will shove this knowledge away violently by speaking out against the women truth-tellers of what men do to women that is, indeed, bad news.
It is frustrating and infuriated that proof of value can only be stated and awarded by WHM. (Including, for example, American Idol creator and critic Simon Cowell.) Those are the only people who are imbued, socially, structurally, politically, and culturally with the power to name things "as they are". So if some WHM idiot--go ahead: throw a dart in any academic setting where white men abound and you're likely to hit one--calls Dworkin's book Intercourse "absurd", the listening masses often assume there must be some truth to this. According to white men, objectivity and lack of gross bias are socially inconceivable when it comes to the social-political analytic work of women of color and/or militant feminists. And so greatness is not likely to be found by the privileged. Nor is it likely to be granted by those in dominant classes. So if and whenever a woman of color identifies Columbus as a villain, her viewpoint is called "absurd". Or if a militant feminist of any color derides de Sade as nothing more than a perpetrating abuser of women and children who wrote about his abuses in culturally offensive ways, she will be challenged by the WHM brotherhood with that oh-so-pale-male social (not biological, not "evolutionary", not "god-given") power to name.
Only because the racist antifeminists' scripts are so similar, I often amusingly wonder if WHM meet in a room somewhere. It, I imagine, is a spacious and comfy one with lots of Corinthean leather-bound stuffed chairs, high in an ivory or glass and steel tower, with a penthouse view of all the other phallic buildings they hired working class and poor people to build. In this well-lit room there is also a table or desk around which the men may congregate so as to have a place to rest their well-suited elbows. There they convene and discuss the latest news. When a memo is handed to them about one of those women of color and/or militant feminists having critiqued something deemed "great and beyond reproach" by them, or when great literature is produced by any of those women, it is both ridiculed and unacknowledged for being what it is; it is simultaneously dissed and missed. The old stamp and ink pad of legitimacy is not withdrawn from the desk drawer. It can only be used if "greatness" is white, heterosexual, and male.
In the essay that follows, you may note how de Sade is thought of as a great thinker and maker of art--never a censor, never repressive. In reality he censored the lives of those he abused: killing, for example, is a form of censure and censorship, which is why protesters of fascistic regimes are often killed. (We can note here: men routinely kill women who "provoke" them by bruising their tender egos. Women do not kill men for this reason, and rarely kill men at all--even those who bruise their not so tender bones.) The Grand Marquis silenced women with control, violence, insult, contempt, and a pro-rape, pro-dominance ethic considered liberatory by many and literature by many more. Through socially approved and completely lawful domination, he possessed women and produced pornography. Nothing he did went against the patriarchal moral imperatives of his time, except one. While any WHM was allowed to abuse women and girls without negative social consquence to himself, de Sade was, perhaps, a tad extreme in his sexual sadism. But it is not even the extremity or compulsivity of his sadism that made him stand out. Rather, he had the audacity to tell stories about what he did. Some cultural historians call this "fiction". This is important, as we wouldn't want to think he actually did any of the sick stuff that is now normalised into society as "sadism chic" and mass marketed along with various accessories for the crime of sadomasochistic pornographic practices.
Perhaps that is what makes him unique as a WHM "literary figure" and what makes him a hero: he wrote about his violence against women and girls and then got to be worshiped by those not quite at the tippety top of the status ladder. Some of the most powerful WHM were not happy about him speaking of such things openly. According to the "ethic" (if such a word can be used here) of those most powerful white men's atrocities must remain private, lest the public get concerned and go so far as to condemn such acts as truly harmful in three-dimensional reality, not theoretically, or as idea only, appearing on flat paper. In reality, de Sade was a generator of harmful pain and painful harm, not different from the pain and harm you or I feel as such when beaten, insulted, humiliated--not for pleasure at all. Not as redemptive, transgressive, or transformative. Not as radical or profound or monumental. Just plain ol' patriarchal pain, and horrendous ol' harm. The aggrandisement and pornographication of banal behavior of the statused toward those they destroy at will: that's what de Sade "created", or replicated. He dared to write about some of it quite graphically and get these explicit writings published. And the rest, as they say, is his-story.
WHM usually and often honor the repressive interpersonal censors: the rapists, the murderers; as well as the more efficacious ones: the gynocidalists and genocidalists--as great heroes and great thinkers. Meanwhile we degrade the critics of these heroes as repressed and repressive censors, and as ignorant tyrants. (The term "feminazi" comes to mind.) Men who want free speech adamantly want those critics to shut the fuck up. WHM are so veddy, veddy libertarian, aren't they? (No. I say no.)
I hope you get some of what's entirely sinister about this whole matter of oppressors treating those they oppress, in painful and harmful ways, as their own censors and tyrants, as criminals and as Nazis. Please keep all of this in mind as you proceed to read the review, below, of Sadeian Women and discussion of the Marquis de Sade. Note, especially, how the woman writer must, at times, give props to the whiteboys, speak of them with awe, treat them with a level of respect and regard. WHM refuse to offer women of color and/or militant feminist writers--those insane humans with the denigrated gender and/or race--this kind of communal applause. If the hands of such men are open, they are positioned only to slap the faces of those who unapologetically speak truth to white men. The critics of WHM are slapped and attacked with mind-numbing regularity, with the angry, irritable whiteboys using the same insults over and over in writings on and off the Internet.
What can be discerned, is that women of all colors are uniquely socially positioned as "not men", never stationed where he is stationed, or at least not with the status and deferential treatment given to him. But being positioned in this way allows for human beings to make observations about those who oppress them that the oppressor refuses to know about himself. With this structurally protected self-unawareness, he rejects such observations as preposterous, ludicrous, and laughable. (Or as serious enough to kill the b*tch.) Should women audaciously utter these observations above a whisper and without the required humble (read: humiliating), "thank you, massa" attitude (for the verbal lashings and gross violations he doles out, mind you) such women speakers and writers will be punished--beyond the lashings and violations. One form of this non-lethal punishment is the refusal to acknowledge them as just as at least as brilliant, if not more so, than any great white heterosexual male thinkers.
But what if women regard other women as such: as brilliant, as genius, as truthful? The women who do this will then be stigmatised by the master as self-serving and naive. So perhaps the white man can attest to the veracity and value of a woman's written work? Ah, well. Not so fast. Because to do this as a white man, in my case a gay and Jewish one, is to be deemed "p*ssy-whipped". The stigma of those praised is then transferred to the praisers--if they are white and male. (If the critics are neither, the stigma is already in place.) "P*ssy-whipped*", like "feminazi", is a glaringly problematic term. It ascribes levels and means of power to the oppressed, even though these oppressed people have never manifested such power in anything called reality. To consider a feminist woman a Nazi is the inverse of considering Hitler to be a victim of HaShoah. It is like calling slaves "dangerous". It is like calling the poor "thieves". It is like calling Arabs "terrorists". Reality demonstrates something else. The cognitive convolutions necessary to arrive at these conclusions ought to make anyone with a brain pause and check the level of rationality of said accuser.
And regarding that oh-so-endearing term: p-w'ed. Let's not forget: there are parts of the human body that can be and are used, in actual social life, to subordinate and force submission: the man's fist is one such body part. The penis-with-man-attached is another. I doubt this will be refuted, even by the antifeminist idiots: Men use their penises to rape others, in social reality--not theoretically or hyperbolically--many times a day. The vulva and vagina, whether attached to a human being or verbally take off a woman's body only to be made into a derisive thing that represents her socially degraded humanity, is never a weapon of force in reality. It is not politically or anatomically structured to be used as such, which is not to say women only use their vaginas passively. While it may be penetrated with penile force, it can clench tight and block entry into the body, in some instances. It can also tug on the penis as well as spit it out. It can tighten a grip and strangle the life out of that penis, leaving it temporarily limp and useless as a forceful object.
The woman with a vulva and vagina can also ignore the humans with the appendaged penis entirely, for a whole life, and be quite happy and fulfilled. Many women attempt to do this, and it will only be the force of men against women's will that makes this impossible.
The text below makes ill-use of the term "obscenity". It is not the woman's injured body that is obscene, nor photographed and displayed rapes and acts of pimping as entertainment for men: that is a violation of a human being and a violation of civil and human rights. What is obscene is the force used to produce rape and pornography, to perpetuate sexism and racism, and to perpetrate gynocide and genocide. And so when women name this force as such, honestly and directly, without flinching, they must be silenced with derision, so declare the towering men with the memo. And yet men cannot silence all the women who know the truth about what men do, where they do it, when, how, and why they do it. Men cannot silence all women. But they will attempt to do so, by every means necessary.
From Left Socialist Blog, Tendance Coatesy, written by Andrew Coates on 5 February 2010 ECD:
Pornography and Left: A Retrospective on The Sadeian Woman. Angela Carter. Virago. 2006 (1979)
Close to the live debate on Prostitution, lies the more muted feminist discussion of pornography. In the background of arguments about the sex-trade are issues about the commercialisation of obscenity. Or rather, “Any violation of a woman’s body can become sex for men; this is the essential truth of pornography.” (Intercourse. Andrea Dworkin. 1987). In this “occupied territory” surely the pornographic writer is the bureaucratic lackey recording the tortures of its victims. Selling sexual pleasure is only part of a mass-producing industry that reaches the top shelves of the local newsagents. Nobody can doubt that the presence of sexuality, commercially or individually express, sold, consumed, or bound up with gender politics, remains an unresolved issue. Except that is for puritans whose hostile answers are ready-made.
Here we reach a problem that has faced feminists since the late 1970s. Debates continue about sexuality, and oppression, over masculinity and femininity, over LGBT topics, and about their cultural, and economic basis. In this instance the clash between anti-pornography feminists, and those who back libertarian sexual pleasures, those for and those opposed to censorship (sex-positive feminists), has drifted away from argument about the content of the material, to concentrate on the business.
In a sense the terms of debate have not advanced much since the William’s Report (1980) and working out degrees of public protection from “obscenity” and assessing what should be considered “private”. Williams’ concern with pornography was that it crossed this line, by making picture of intimate acts visible. The worries about its accessibility and half and unwilling consumption has increased today with the deluge of images present on the Web. Not to mention the Net’s threat to post-Williams legislation restricting its consumption. Rules restricting sales of certain types of porn to sex shops, or preventing under-age buyers, appear unstable faced with computer access.
Anti-prostitution campaigners also underline the changing nature of the sex-industry. There are allegations of trafficking and near-slavery, as well as increased availability (via the same Internet, and local advertising), which the law can legislate against. Those supporting decriminalisation regard it as a private affair, (choice) but agitate for labour rights and the legal protection of those engaged in this activity. Both issues are normally talked about in terms of choice, privacy, and the scope of public regulation. Or the people involved in the commerce. Not through a take on the activities themselves.
Angela Carter (1940 – 1992) did look at this, in terms of culture and relations between men and women (she barely touches on the Lesbian Gay Bi-sexual Trans-sexual field). Most of us know, and revere her fiction but the author of Nights at the Circus’s writing ranged much wider. In The Sadeian Woman (originally published 1979) she thought long and hard about pornography and its connections with sexuality. The centre of this book is pornography’s most radical producer, the Marquis de (post-French revolution – Citizen) Sade (1740 – 1814). His portraits of diverse sexual acts are often difficult to stomach – far from the erotic – but well worth considering for their insights. As Sade is at present rather an academic taste, it involves looking at some pretty abstract ideas to get a handle on what he said, while attempting to relate them to these topics.
Less interested in his tumultuous life, than Sade’s writings, Angela Carter speculates that, “The moral pornographer would be an artist who uses pornographic material as part of the acceptance of the logic of a world of absolute sexual licence for all genders, and projects a, model of the way such a world might work. A moral pornographer might use pornography as a critique of the current relation between the sexes.” That in de Sade’s work, Justine, Juliette, 120 Days of Sodom (120 Journées de Sodome) and, perhaps most importantly, in Philosophy in the Bedroom (La Philosophie dans le boudoir), Sade claimed the “rights of free sexuality for women, and in installing women as beings of power in his imaginary worlds.” Carter considers that, “I would like to think that he put pornography in the service of women, or, perhaps, allowed it to be invaded by an ideology not inimical to women.” This is because, “he might begin to penetrate to the heart of the contempt for women that distorts our culture as he entered the realms of true obscenity as he describes it.”
It is hard to read Sade. Sexuality as the “primary mode of being” is, in his novels, a story of unspeakable cruelty, of tyranny, of exactly the violation that Dworkin loathed. It is flesh reduced to machines. Endless stories about ‘instruction ‘ in the art of intercourse and its most extreme forms, wavering near to classic pornographic stereotypes, but then turning viciously into something a lot nastier. Adorno and Horkheimer considered Sade ripped off the façade of the Enlightenment project and showed is darkest side. He replaced love with domination and cruelty, “the history of thought as an organ of domination” (Dialectic of the Enlightenment 1944). This is not entirely false. Sade argued for a “un libre essor à ces désires tyanniques”(free rein for tyrannical desires) in Philosophy in the Bedroom. Though this is in the context of a world of sexual dream playing. That is the famous section, Français, Encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains (Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, if you Would Become Republicans*). It comes from passages describing a utopian sexual fantasy of mutual pleasure – and humiliation.
Despite this did Sade’s natural order, where all are a mix of pulsating desires, and violence, prefigure an urge for the freedom to exterminate? That is, not in the imagination, but in reality, as well? That in Sade we can find an anticipation of the death camp – as these Frankfurt School theorists considered? This is less than clear. Sade attacked the death penalty in terms that show a high degree of humanity. He was punished during the French Revolution for his dislike for repression. He wished to be ruled by Nature, not to rule it. If so, then his portrait of sex-driven power is a physiological theory, without the corollary of political tyranny. Sade has more in common the most anti-authoritarian Lumières, like Diderot, who criticised (if imperfectly) tyranny, power, and their expression in early colonialism, than any variety of fascism. Sade’s love of annihilation referred more to himself than to others.
Sade’s philosophical debts are to the early ‘mechanical’ materialism of the 18th century. His sexual clock-work machines, his description of primal drives, of murder and violence, are lodged there. Fewer are clearer than Carter about this. To Begin with he is astonishingly rigid about people’s own ‘nature’. His characters, she observes, are either “naturally vicious or naturally virtuous”. In Philosophy in the Bedroom the ‘heroine’ Eugénie is stripped of “all her socialised virtues “ and restored to a “state of nature”. One in which there is “cruauté naturelle” (natural cruelty), under the law of nature in which we “tous enemies les uns des autres, tous dans un état de guerre perpétuelle et réciprcoque”. (all enemies against each other; all are in a state of perpetual and reciprocal war). A Hobbesian version of sexuality – the lust for intercourse is never-ending propulsion even unto death. The unspeakable horror of the text’s ending, when Eugénie rapes and infibulates her mother, is “an exemplary vengeance on the very idea of good” to Carter, is an even stranger speculation. Against the generation of life itself. O, not to be born is, past all prizing, best!
Michel Foucault thought, “For Sade as for Goya, unreason continues to watch by night; but in this vigil it joins with fresh powers. The non-being it once was now becomes the power to annihilate. Through Sade and Goya, the Western world received the possibility of transcending its reason in violence and of recovering tragic experience beyond the promises of dialectic.”(Madness and Civilisation). The surrealist pornographer George Battaille regarded Sade as a pioneer of the deeper truths about sexual ‘transgression’. The ‘beyond’ here is never reached. As Foucault’s later writings on Sexuality (Histoire de la Sexualité) suggests, there is nothing pre-existing about human sexual behaviour and fantasy that is not caught up and transformed historically, in different social forms, in distinct ways with ‘power’ and ‘knowledge’ (the nexus of force and social ‘truth’ that makes society). Sade may be considered an obsessive talker about sex who manufactured what he considered to be Nature’s Law. There is, if Foucault’s view is correct, no possibility of Sade’s vision of setting loose human desire resulting in free “morality” dictated by Nature alone.
Angela Carter describes Sade’s Utopias which aimed at that. In some respects Justine and Julienne enter into a simple repetition of “instructions” in sexual artifice – unwillingly (the former) or eagerly (the latter). But there is lot more going on. Two of Sade’s imaginary Nowheres are inverted Edens, with death lurking near-by. Juliette discovers in the Sodality, an Abbey of Thélème where “do what thou wilt” is the only law. It is a world in which atheism rules, and there are no family or moral bonds. It is composed of libertines, pursing every possible form of sexual experience, their victims, and servants. So, like all Utopias, there are a few….flaws.
As Sadeian Woman observes, the “egalitarianism of the Sodality only extends to the members of the class of masters.” And expulsion if guaranteed for good works. Another character, this time an experienced one, now menopausal and sterile, Durand enters the Castle of Silling in A Hundred And Twenty Days of Sodom is a brothel in which “the sexual act is one of mutual, if sequential dominance”. The book contains a holocaust of torture and murder. It is really hard going. “Scientific Order, ruthlessly applied, reduces the world to chaos. Durand, the rational biochemist, is the very mythic terror reason fears most.”
In Philosophy in the Bedroom that Sade sets out far wider utopian plans. Encore un effort, Carter tells, us even got published as a separate pamphlet by later radicals. This is a perhaps the nearest he could envisage to an Earthly paradise – still bound to the world, but where sex is freed from the needs of animal reproduction. Sade wills an atheistic republic; we are merely “créatures nécessitées de la nature” who should be liberated from the absurd morality of Christianity and the despotism of all religion. It will be ruled by the mildest and the most limited laws. A supporter of the French Revolution (that let him, for a time, out of Prison and the Asylum) the Marquis became a Citizen – a functionary until imprisoned again for protesting against inhumane measures of his Paris Section under the Terror. From these initial lines one wonders at the implicit criticism of the way the Revolution unfolded – and its Cult of the Supreme Being. Not to mention the lack of effort put to free women, or sexuality.
Sex, naturally, was Sade’s principal concern in Encore un effort.. In houses for women, and men, under government protection, there will be “fournis tous les individus de l’un de l’autre sexe qu’elles pourront desirer” (provided with all the individuals of the other sex that they could wish for) A world, then, where women have equal right to satisfy their desires, in which any form of sexual expression is permitted, from sodomy (described as a harmless practice persecuted out of prejudice), paederastry, to incest. Sade’s own penchant for coprophagy will no doubt also be satisfied. Carter notes “Sade does not concern himself with problems of capital investment or economic organisation in the hypothetical republic”.
How can we assess this? There are many criticisms of the Sade’s visions. They were not just daydreams. He acted on them, though thankfully not with the ultimate violence of his imaginary characters. Sade indulged in acts of cruelty (against prostitutes, thus giving to support to the feminist hostility to men using sex-workers as objects to be exploited). Notoriously he was prosecuted for whipping Rose Keller. There is room here for a discussion of the connection between sadist desire and acts. Regardless of the nature of the sexual wishes involved perhaps the issue really resolves around the degree of protection these woman had from unwanted behaviour; nobody can eliminate the desire itself. Pornography, home-made or commercial, is designed to offer at least a simulacrum of satisfaction for them.
The survival and readership of Sade’s writings illustrates the futility of efforts to ban obscenity. As are attempts to prohibit the mutually consensual fulfilment of the yearnings he described, and listed in Kraft-Ebing’s even more rigorously comprehensive studies. Unfortunately there are more than a few difficulties with one particular case, the way sadism is expressed; it is not only in Sade’s case that ‘other-harming’ is not all play-acting. Modern media make us aware of obscenity: the acts of the depraved on the unwilling flesh of others. Perhaps all we can hope for are means to prevent and prosecute cruelty, not to stifle what cannot be seen until it is acted on. We should be grateful to Sade for showing them in a light which exposes their deepest roots, rather than glossing them over in erotica, however charming and endearing. Sade was intensely moral – but his role is rather like Nietzsche in philosophy: he leads to a re-evaluation of all values, without offering us alternative ones of any lasting worth.
More fundamentally it was, Carter argues, Sade’s inability to concern himself with love that tells the most. He was in his “drama, flesh is used instrumentally, to provoke this spasmodic visitation of dreadful pleasure. In this flesh, nothing human remains; it aspires to the condition of the sacramental meal. It is never the instrument of love.” In the same Enlightenment tradition that Adorno and Horkheimer despise, this might be called the imperative to treat people as ends-in-themselves, not means to an end.
Pornography should be tolerated. Sade nevertheless is at the limit of the tolerable. We endure his writings because they push to a limit what can barely be said. Having said it, though he is much more the predecessor of George Battaile, Henry Miller, and William Burroughs, or Michel Houellebecq, or films, such as Belle du Jour, not to mention Passolini’s Salo, or 120 Days of Sodom, than, say, Asian Babes. The publisher of the Daily Sport makes his living by serving up wank-material, commerce dictates his content. Sade offers an exploration of the boundaries of the erotic and violence, and unpicks social frontiers around individuals. But making people into tools, as a literary device, or a wish, is in the end a mere shard of human being and for all its ability to pierce is not sharp enough to cut into the real basis of what makes us enjoy and suffer in the world. Sade showed, in short, a mere aspect of humanity, and, not the most important one.
The Sadeian Woman concentrates on this radical failing. It is a “holy terror of love that we find, in both men and women themselves”. This is “the source of all opposition to the emancipation of women.” Angela Carter is not concerned with the Holy as such, which one could consider a terror as frightful as anything Sade dreamt up. The left would do well to consider expanding its grasp of what it at stake by thinking about one of the roots of feminism, in replacing all forms of oppression by mutual equality. This book invites us to consider a side of human existence that we often keep to intimate friends and ourselves: affection. She cites Emma Goldman, “the most vital right is the right to love and be loved..” and that “A true conception of the relation of the sexes will not admit of conqueror and conquered; it knows of but one great thing: to give of one’s self boundlessly, in order to find one’s self richer, deeper, better. That alone can fill the emptiness, and transform the tragedy of women’s emancipation into joy, limitless joy.” In these lyrical lines we find a free egalitarian sexuality united with the love of the world that all true humanists share. Something to hope for, and the warmth that sustains us even in the darkest times.
* In fact the gender here is inclusive, including both male and female people.