I finished reading the 120 Days of Sodom and other novels from the Marquis de Sade, who critics and thinkers have tried to understand for the last two hundred years. Though Sade depicts libertine savagery in every story he takes a different stance in each one. In Philosophy of the Bedroom he condones the libertines, devising an entire philosophy to justify it. In Ernestine and Eugenie of Franval he condemns them in morality tales, warning of the dangers of leading a selfish life. In 120 Days of Sodom he does both, praising the four Messieurs as heroes and debasing them as criminals, at times in the same paragraph.
Sade’s readers have tried to reconcile the two conflicting messages. Maurice Lever, one of Sade’s biographers, insists Sade wears a mask when he takes the side of virtue to pass his books past the censors. I think it’s partly true but I wouldn’t be surprised to discover ambiguity in Sade. It is not uncommon for great creative persons to have many personalities, to be possessed by many muses, not just one. These daemons sometimes agree with one another but many times don’t and clash violently in their host.
Likewise, their conflict shows in the genius’ works. – The spectacle happens more often with students of the arts than of the sciences because their work involves human nature. – But the genius embraces and explores nuances and difficulties; ze does not run away from them or suppress them. The pantheon holds many figures of many natures, characters whom are neither black nor white but a rainbow.
Milton: Satan and Christ – Milton’s Satan is an evil person, a deceiver who leads his fellow fallen angels, the first humans Adam and Eve, and himself to damnation. But Satan holds many of the revolutionary doctrines Milton followed throughout his life. The surely republican advocated for freedom of the press, divorce, and regicide. Why would Milton abandon his principles now? Why glamorize the Devil as a tragic hero? Milton was “of the Devil’s Party without knowing it” but was a deeply religious Puritan who found the Church of England corrupt and, like most Puritans, wanted to worship to come straight from the Gospel, with no corrupt Church in the middle. At times Satan and Christ did join together, a marriage of Heaven and Hell.
Shakespeare: The Globe – The Bard had not one or two muses but many. My first companion to Shakespeare, Theodore Dalrymple, emphasized Shakespeare’s nuance in handling the issues of his day and his three-dimensional characters. Shakespeare avoided presenting a simple worldview, and when a character did, he would subvert it by making events happen the opposite way. Richard III and Macbeth are, to me, his most compelling characters. Richard III was a villain but Shakespeare avoided a simple morality play by giving sufficient motive for Richard’s envy, the ridicule and rejection he suffered all his life from his deformed back. Macbeth is a good man but his wife feeds in the ambition all people have, the original sin of pride, and causes him to murder King Duncan and drive the path to his destruction.
Mozart: Beauty and Darkness – Mozart was never the simple and pure composer as we think of him. He was always challenging and controversial who wanted drama and truth to be presented in as natural a way as possible. To be simply beautiful was not enough. Mozart has two daemons, one pretty and charming the other dark and dramatic, and he learned how to fuse the two seamlessly together. His music is ethereal, effortlessly moving from one idea to the next, yet earthy, forceful, and dynamic. Mozart was as much a bridge between the Enlightenment and Romanticism as was Beethoven.
Charles Rosen speaks better than I can: “It is only through recognizing the violence and sensuality at the center of Mozart’s work that we can make a start towards a comprehension of his structures and an insight into his magnificence. In a paradoxical way, Schuman’s superficial characterization of the G Minor Symphony can help us to see Mozart’s daemon more steadily. In all of Mozart’s supreme expressions of suffering and terror, there is something shockingly voluptuous.”
Beethoven: Darkness and Heroism – He held in his heart doves and crocodiles, lions and serpents, the beautiful and the sublime; Beethoven dramatized such as extreme gloom and anger to transform them into hope and courage. As such Beethoven’s music is very dynamic and often undergoes a heroic journey where much conflict, growth, and change happens along the way. His greatest example is the Eroica Symphony, a tale of death and rebirth with the artist as hero. In his works he tended to make musical themes extreme opposites of each other and to convey the rainbow of emotions that resulted. He even carried this scheme into the way he published his music. His first three piano sonatas were published together to present a broad display of his talent: the first sonata dark and tragic, the second gracious and witty, the third bold and forceful.
Sade: Virtue and Vice – The Marquis speaks two messages in his works that are very different from one another but are not necessarily incompatible together. On the side of Virtue: Sade explores the darkest parts of the human heart and the dark side of the Enlightenment. Philosophers of the time praised reason, rejected religion and common morals, and extolled the values of free trade, and materialism and industrial capitalism began to grow. But an underside of entitled selfishness and greed, unchecked by religion or common morals, justified by sophistries, also emerged. The extreme end for an enlightened liberal is not a self-righteous, political correct yuppie but a lonely and antisocial person who shatters all bonds ze shares with other human beings, who has sex without restraint yet loses all intimacy, who commits every crime until no law remains to be broken. Only the weak lust for power at all costs and abuse it. The strong gain strength from their principles and the restraint to not indulge in their follies.
The muse of Vice says: all human beings are truly alone in a monstrous world and true communication is not possible. We are all prisoners; isolated individuals enslaved by Nature, who endowed us with limitations, and by the codes of society. All moral codes and religious beliefs are, at heart, social constructs, reflecting the culture that created them but nothing close to eternal truths. At best they are myths people believe in so they can survive together. But a strong person need not such solace but can live alone, only needing to use the people around zir and nothing else. Why live an empty life of hypocrisy and self-denial under false beliefs you always feared but never truly respected? Let nothing stand in your way. Even murder, rape, and fraud should be indulged in as only fools call them crimes. The weak cling unto such values to protect themselves but you see virtue for the chimera it really is. Live for yourself, fulfill your pleasure, reach for your potential, die with no regrets.
Blake: Heaven and Hell – The Poet was as devoted as Milton yet like the Poet his beliefs were self-made. His beliefs held gnostic trends and, while he did worship the Christian god, he subverted many of the conventions of the Christian churches. Blake presaged Nietzsche in many ways, such as rejecting the heavenly and Platonic for the bodily, praising the physical, fiery, and sensual. He even wrote devilish aphorisms. Blake’s work frequently contrasts extreme opposites to later resolve them. The Songs of Innocence and Experience are mirrors. The Songs of Innocence are the noon sun, a naive and honest state of being while Songs of Experience are the midnight moon, shielded, cynical, and weary state of being. The Marriage of Heaven and Hell reflects two cosmic forces, incomplete on their own but building the cosmos when united. Heaven is rational, moral, Apollonian while Hell is energy, raw desires, and Dionysian. Both are labeled Good and Evil in religions around the world but, though one is stigmatized, it drives us to create and push boundaries. Both must exist and always conflict with each other, or no creation or progress is made.
Nietzsche: Overcoming – One must write an entire book for Nietzsche.