Tuesday, December 9, 2008
Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, & Other Writings
by the Marquis de Sade
compiled and translated by Richard Seaver & Austryn Wainhouse
w. introductions by Jean Paulhan of l'Academie Francaise & Maurice Blanchot
The Marquis de Sade, his journals burned, his skull exhumed for phrenological study, continues to write!
The life of this incontestably “free” man was spent for the most part shackled and locked away. The French monarchy threw Sade in prison for his personal indiscretions. The subsequent revolutionary government initially pardoned and freed the marquis, yet proceeded to sentence him to prison cell once again, which was where he spent the remainder of life, and completed the majority of immense, difficult and important body of work. Sade’s life can be called one of imprisonment, yet this is only the case in the grossest physical sense of the word. Sade expounds the imagination as the realm of empowerment –it is in the province of imagination where he engenders an ecstatic freedom divorced from value and divinity. Within the expansiveness of the mind, Sade exclaims “How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination!... [where] the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate.” His work, indeed, his life, is one of mirrors and doubles, and though Sade remains an unparalleled free spirit, he was consumed to the point of enthrallment by that inflammatory art, by writing – which “enslaved” him to a much greater extent than any prison sentence. What value does one assign?
Values shift when discussing Sade, his work and his art; rather, values diffuse and the reader must navigate the terrain of the imagination, wherein value may be flaunted, neglected and reassigned. Perhaps the value sign of a prison term may here be seen as a freedom - expanding and narrowing simultaneously. Prison allowed Sade to write unencumbered by any other responsibilities. Writing itself may become “…worse than a vice or a drug. It has simultaneously to do with passion and with duty.” Consider the years Sade spent writing, rewriting, expanding works such as “Juliette,” exploding them to an almost exponential degree. Consider, then, writing as a fire. Life may be incinerated by its practice, but the act continues even after the hand ceases to move. And wasn’t it Sade’s very imprisonment which afforded him the leisure from a prison cell? A prison cell, remember, also being the place Thomas Mallory wrote his expansive “More d’Arthur.”
The Marquis de Sade’s body may be long since obliterated, yet he continues to stand at the head of “…those perverse writers whose corruption is so dangerous, so active, that their single aim is, by causing their appalling doctrines to be printed, to immortalize the sum of their crimes after their own lives are at an end…” In the way that the great Japanese writer, Yukio Mishima’s ritual seppuku may be seen as the writing of a totalizing final “line” of poetry, one continuing indefinitely, so does Sade’s imprisonment and his censure explode the silence into a tremulous echo of the negative state. Jean Paulhaun calls Sade’s school of thought a philosophy of negation, but strangely enough it is in Sade’s ecstatic deletions that we find writing’s irritated actualization – the art itself in an enflamed and most assuredly active state.
Art and act become complicit in the Marquis de Sade. That is, the reader begins to rethink the borderlands that constitute the division of theory and practice. Jacques Rousseau, wrote in reference to “Justine,” an emblematic text of Sade’s, that “any girl who reads but a single page of this book will be lost…” Rousseau’s warning optimistically bestows a great honor onto the act of writing; he awards it the distinction of action. If a piece of writing may do more than “instruct” its reader, possibly even “corrupt” them, than writing (and by “writing” I mean both writing and reading) moves into the province of practice. Practice is aggravated action. Sade was penalized by the French state for his acts, but he was also imprisoned for his writings –Girouard, the publisher of his novel “Justine,” fared worse and was executed along with countless others during the French Revolution, in part due to his clandestine publishing history. And while Sade was punished for both act and writing, distinction blurs, and the myth of Sade ambiguously arises from a conglomeration of life and text, mirrored to each other as a fierce double.
The Grove Press compendium I am here discussing is an indispensable resource for any reader seeking an understanding of the vastly important writer and thinker whom Apollinaire called “The freest spirit who has ever lived.” In addition to Sade’s seminal novel, “Justine,” seven personal letters of the Marquis’, and excellent critical essays by scholars Jean Paulhan and Maurice Blanchot, Grove Press includes the entirety of Sade’s “Philosophy in the Bedroom.” This text, like the earlier “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man,” benefits from its presentation as a dialogue. This format allows a much greater lubricity and clarity than the pretense of traditional narrative seen in “Justine.” Sade, a man of his times as much a man ahead of his time, was an Enlightenment-era encyclopedist. It is in his vast cataloging and listing that Sade’s most cogent, incendiary thinking shines – think of his “120 Days of Sodom” as it spirals towards its conclusion becomes simply a list of horrifying upon horrifying acts.
“Philosophy in the Bedroom’s” conceit is that of a libertine education enacted within a boudoir. The sixteen-year-old Eugenie is liberated from conventional mores through the work of a gang of freethinkers lead by Dolmance, one of Sade’s many empowered “unique” beings. This education proceeds through both philosophy and practice. Dolmance asks his fellow libertine, Madame de Saint-Ange, “…but the better to convince Eugenie of all we are going to relate concerning pleasure, would it be in any way prejudicial to Eugenie’s instruction if, for instance, you were to frig her in front of me?” This sentiment is voiced throughout Sade, as in “Justine” the libertine Rodin asks “But by what means, I repeat, could I join a little practice to the morality?” Philosophy always follows practice, or rather, the two are both emanations of Nature, which to Sade remains the only deciding factor in man’s deeds. The sexual act and the philosophical act cannot be separated.
Nature supersedes the arrogances of man and civilization. Sade rallies against the manner in which “…man stupidly confuse[s] social institutions for Nature’s divine ordinations.” Nature does not assign value, for indeed, “…every form is of equal worth in Nature’s view…” That is, since everything is accorded the same value, the same uniqueness, then everything is worthless and inevitably subsumed to the vast totality – called by Sade “Nature,” though it amounts to an ultimate and unknowable “Is” that lies beyond comprehension or communication. As an absolute being or truth is, Sade argues, impossible, then what we are left with is an extravagance of appearances – a fertile coral surface without depth. How does this relate to virtue or more expressly qualitative value? Sade asks, “… it is very surely virtue, or might it not be the appearance of virtue, which really becomes necessary to social man? Let’s not doubt that the appearance alone is quite sufficient to him: he has got that, and he possess all he needs.” As the universe is valueless and Nature is beyond our understanding, then only our self-fabricated signs, their appearances, remain as foci.
This negation, this nihilism, leads on through to an unmitigated and unsentimental humanism, one quite remarkable for a time period where secular humanism was still undergoing birth pangs. At a late point in “Justine,” one of Sade’s numerous avatars, another “unique” being like the earlier Dolmance, implores “…Virtue, like vice, is nothing beyond a scheme of getting along in the world…,” value is therefore a simple matter of survival.
This devastation of value so apparent throughout Sade allows man to stand, for once, outside the boundaries of religion and state, which together form a despotic entrenchment, wrenching power and individual identity away from man. Sade does not propose a utopia, in that he is incredibly honest. He refuses to admit ease or comfort in any way factors into Nature or its “plan.” Cruelty, though, is a foundational element of survival, and man is better serviced by acknowledging so. The incomprehensibility of the world beyond the extent of our senses suggests that “…because there is no possible comparison between what others experience and what we sense…” The world is an arena of the senses. The imagination, Sade’s great cause, is intrinsically sensual. The sensual reality of the world, therefore, is the world.
Irony is utilized throughout Sade’s work to refute any predilection for sentimentality. The artifice of empathy is twisted throughout “Justine,” as the eponymous character’s continued misfortunes are essentially portrayed as a result of her refusal to adapt to her environment and adopt the required tactics of survival. Justine’s final incineration by a lightning bolt is the supreme irony, as Nature itself acts upon her, instead of Nature’s human acolytes. The irony also arises from the supreme artifice of such an event – the act of Nature itself is actually the contrivance of an ordering author, of D.A.F. Sade himself. The surface is acknowledged – here, as elsewhere, Sade does not create a representational picture of reality; he plays with appearance. Remember the opening of the short piece, “Eugenie de Franval,” also included in this collection. Sade writes that “To instruct man and correct his morals: such is the sole goal we set for ourselves in this story.” This is, of course, true, but Sade doesn’t go out and say that what he really intends to do is decimate conventional morality and then replace it with his own humanism of cruelty. Irony is therefore, a device through which Sade escalates his philosophy of negation and reduces values to a series of surfaces. These surfaces are without vice or virtue and entirely sensual, which, Sade argues, is enough.