Actor On the Stage
Many people fear and loathe Donatien Francois, the Marquis of Sade, but the man’s bad name is overrated. We shroud him in mystery with our ignorance; religious people and humanists smear him a prince of darkness while surrealists knight him the freest spirit who ever lived. Sade chortles at us in amusement from beyond the grave, since he is at heart an edgy teen who wants attention, but like most edgy teens he appears to have more shock than substance. Even if that is true, he offers us many important ideas behind all the scat porn, and we should at least consider them.
“Postmodernism”, for example, is another thing shrouded in mystique, but the word should never have been invented. It simply refers to intellectuals of the latter 20th century who question the modern ideals we get so excited about, making it more an era than a school of thought. – You see, you merely have to add a Latin prefix or a Greek suffix and, voila, you make a word magical and profound.
But skeptics annoy priests and kings in every age. Are the ancient Egyptians who doubt the sunny afterlife “postmodernists”? Is Diogenes the dog who hounds Plato for his so called scientific theories a “postmodernist”? And what of the skeptics of the Enlightenment like Immanuel Kant and David Hume; are they “postmodernists”? If you are a reactionary of any age, a “postmodernist” is just another “degenerate” who does not believe in your traditional ideals. This is where I find Sade in the drama; he is one of the many “postmodernists” who questioned the shiny new values of his time.
Sade took issue with Enlightenment ideas of human nature, like the optimistic doctrines of Rousseau, Voltaire, and company. Rousseau thinks we were noble savages before civilization poisoned our soul. Voltaire thinks religious states are the culprit and, if we outgrew their superstitions, we would live together far more humanely. Most of these thinkers despise the Church but look to Nature and her laws to form secular ideals on how to behave. “If only,” sighs Rousseau, “we can live in Nature again”.
Sade gives Rousseau what he wished for. His main idea, other than “RELIGION BAD! ATHEIST SMASH!”, is that Nature is utterly cruel and amoral. We humans, religious and atheist alike, invent morals, then delude ourselves by dubbing them natural laws. A human being who truly lives “in accordance to natural law”, like Juliette does, is a selfish, brutish, shallow person who only cares about her power and pleasure. This dreadful tiger burning bright in the forests of the night is Nature in her true form.
We are all fettered Juliettes, but we are too weak and cowardly to spurn the religious and secular fables we grew up with. Even if we are strong and brave, we are too dumb or too lazy to get away with crimes through cunning. So we trick ourselves with all kinds of deceptions to deny our souls what they really want. Sade seems to regard civilization with contempt, like Rousseau does, but sees it as a kind of prison where the weak create morals to curb the strong. What we call our “conscience” is a prison of the mind.
If we topple down organized religion and fulfill Voltaire’s wet dream, we will not find peace as enlightened deists but will find new ways to torture each other, using whatever new dogma we come up with to justify it. Sade’s libertine characters use their dogma as an excuse, we use ours. We torture peasants in Africa and factory workers in China because we must live with luxury. We deserve it because we are a civilized people who invent great cultural icons like the stock market, gold crusted pizza, and Internet porn; we worked really hard for it in the office; we need wealth and power to defend “freedom”. In short, our excuses to do horrible things to innocent people go much deeper than religion.
Sade gives us hardly anything new as far as pure boring theory is concerned. We have seen Machiavelli and Hobbes explain in detail how we are scumbags deep inside. What makes Sade different is his humor, something most thinkers do not bother paying attention to. He lampoons Enlightenment thinkers, toys with the relations between men and women during his time, and ridicules revered leaders of all kinds by depicting them as perverts. – Humor, you see, is for frivolous people only. We philosophers are too ponderous and profound to rely on such trifles.
I admit it is hard to tell if Sade is truly a neglected satirist or some deeker who believes every word he preaches. Either way, I take several issues with him, many of them regarding the methods of his craft. Aesthetics, like humor, is a trifle unworthy of serious minds.
For one, he depicts sex only on the surface level. He only addresses lust and the physical aspects of sex, but not the more complex emotions or social intrigue, like in de Laclos’ Dangerous Liaisons. Sade also insists on describing every detail of sex among characters you do not have a deep connection to for reasons stated above, making even the most depraved scat porn tedious to me. After a while, the sex is no longer shocking but merely noxious.
Sade’s porn is a lot like modern porn, so much that scholars and pundits on Sade think he helped build the porn industry; both titillate only the body, both are garish, both leave a bad taste in the mouth afterwards, as if they “know” they are secret vices that should remain hidden in a dark corner. Yes, Sade’s porn is far more brutal but, like child porn or snuff porn in the dark web, is the same substance in different form. Contrast modern porn with the Kama Sutra, where sex has a sacred element, or Greek erotic art, where sex is shown with dignity and intelligence.
Regarding plot and philosophy, Sade is as subtle as a hammer. In Florville and Courval, the plot twist at the end is so obvious, that Florville killed her son and mother, and married her father, M. Night Shyamalan could have made it. Sade will pause the action so the libertine can lecture you for several pages on philosophy. Reserving a lecture for a rare moment, like a climax when Juliette meets Pope Pious VI only to outwit him, makes good use of the trope, but too often and it becomes tedious, especially when each lecture is the same thing at heart. When you hear one, you hear them all.
The lecturing libertines become more noxious when you realize they are stringent moralists. A man like Saint-Fond screeds against morals until he is blue in the face, but demands his peers agree to everything he says and take part in all his perversions without tarry. Saint-Fond schemes to poison the water supply of a town and Juliette hesitates, just a little bit; he sniffs her doubt and schemes to have her murdered, but Noirceuil helps her flee.
You see a similar trend in 120 Days of Sodom: it does not matter if you enjoy a perversion or feel like having sex at all, you are obliged to join the orgy, on principle. You have a moral duty to be amoral. It is like being a member of Ayn Rand’s cult or the inner circle of a far right Internet group. They make a big noise how they are freethinking heroes bravely standing against a stifling liberal regime, but will themselves persecute you if you disagree with them, since they see such horrific betrayal as a threat to their existence.
Sade’s account of Nature is insightful but his vision is very narrow and one sided. Nature is endlessly vast, made of so many conflicting creatures, forces, and passions, no one could understand them all. When Sade confronts aspects of Nature that are not wanton and cruel, he becomes a dogmatic priest to keep his worldview intact; he simply waves them away as weakness or hypocrisy. The truth, however, is social animals need sympathy and trust to survive – even we expanded those faculties as we evolved through millions of years.
Pyotr Kropotkin, someone who studied Nature in detail and did not make conjectures as philosophy, discovered that Nature selected animals who had the right amount of empathy to survive, because it allowed the members of a species to better work together. And Kropotkin refers to none other than Darwin himself as a source. Nature favors “weak” kindly animals, “strong” cruel animals, and all kinds of creatures with both traits; it all depends on context, if the animal is in the right place at the right time. She simply does not care about contradiction, hypocrisy, or anything else that can befuddle a human, even Sade.
On the side of satire, Sade explores the worst parts of the Enlightenment values we take for granted today. Dozens of Enlightenment thinkers, like Diderot, d’Alembert, and other household names, wrote The Encyclopedia in their ambition to collect all human knowledge in one work. Sade wrote an upside down Encyclopedia, The 120 Days of Sodom, where he catalogues every perversion possible, casting a rather different light for human knowledge. What is most impressive is Sade recording how a libertine’s perversion evolves over time; the libertine has a mild kink but he grows into a murderer.
Sade took doctrines like individualism, materialism, and naturalism to their worst extremes. There is no such thing as society and the individual matters above all else, right? There are no immortal guardians to watch over us, right? We should do what is natural, right? Well, here you go. Everything depends on your physical pleasure and any moral question involving a group of people becomes a numbers game. If you own a business, you are entitled to grow endlessly, even if you destroy your host. Our modern libertine is the Wall Street coke addict, the rich kid of London, the real estate speculator, and so on. This is classic juvenalian satire.
I already brought up Nature, how the Enlightenment pines his hopes on so called natural laws to replace religious laws. Sade flips this hope on top of its head with delight. Nature is not a kind mother but a kind of serial killer who tortures and kills her children. Some philosophers say, “Nature is good; let’s follow her.” Others say, “Nature is evil; let’s avoid her.” Sade says with glee, “Nature is evil; let’s follow her.”
We overcame many religious tyrants, or killed God as it were, but we left a huge cave open and have no idea how to fill in the gap. You may think secular ethics can work but we built those ideas from Christian doctrine. As we painfully know by now, cold science takes no moral sides, and many tyrants last century used science to play a numbers game to decide who lived and who died. We justified our bigotries with religion as the excuse. Now we justify our bigotries with science as the excuse. If science cannot give us morals, where to now?
Calling Sade a feminist would be silly but many parts of his work make me curious. Even outside the libertine novel, Sade knew of a trend of subversive writing at the time. A prostitute would speak philosophy to her clients or coworkers, and she would often attack mainstream doctrines of ethics, religion, politics, and other subjects. The greatest libertine heroes Juliette, Madame Durand, and Madame Duclos do the same job but on a grand scale. Juliette and friends go far beyond any “strong female characters” in modern literature. Only the very ancient goddesses of the Egyptian, Babylonian, and Vedic religions surpass them in strength, cunning, and cruelty.
Women libertines in Sade’s work are just as despotic, cruel, and cunning as the male libertines. Sade sometimes states, in explicit terms and through male characters, why he thinks women make better libertines than men do; women have more sensitive faculties, little moral sense, and have a more consuming sex drive. On the other side of the coin, Sade takes no women prisoners and spares no female character from a brutal fate because of her sex. In other words, Sade puts women and men on the same playing field.
The Domestic Cult started forming around the 18th century; the ideal woman selflessly served her husband and children, a modest creature with no knowledge of sex, not even in her heart of hearts, until her wedding night; such was her innocence. She was to be seen and not heard. Sade likes tearing this ideal down, either by torturing Eugenie’s mother or having Juliet throw her child in the fire. The heroines carelessly flaunt the 18th century morals men imposed on women at the time, most of all the morals on sex.
Lastly, we observe Sade’s god, the one one true god, Nature herself. When you read one of Sade’s rants against religion, you often see Sade refute and blaspheme the male Christian God in the most extreme ways, while you also see Sade exalt female Nature as the omnipotent force in the universe.
Sade seems to share some ideas of Nature with the Romantics. A trope in Romantic painting is Nature as an awesome subject; the forests wide, dark, and deep, the massive mountains jutting into a vast limitless sky; Nature is so big and sublime she is outside our understanding. The human objects in the painting are tiny specs, part of the scenery. Nature is an omnipotent tyrant and humans are peons to her whims.
This is humbling at first, but soon it gives you courage, because you become free of many pretentious burdens and responsibilities, all made by humans in their arrogance. If Sade can give you any positive message, this may be the best one. How you use that freedom is, well, up to you.