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Eighteenth-Century Studies 35.1 (2001) 156-159
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Libertinages: The Franco-American Divide
Laurence L. Bongie. Sade: A Biographical Essay (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998). Pp. xii + 336. $29.00 cloth.
Lucienne Frappier-Mazur. Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade. Translated by Gillian C. Gill (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 1996). Pp. x + 245. $18.95 paper.
Catherine Cusset, ed. "Libertinage and Modernity." Yale French Studies 94, (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998).
The premise of Bongie's Sade: A Biographical Essay is set from the book's opening page: "Sade's biography throws important light on his fiction, just as his fiction significantly draws upon and illuminates his singular life. What the marquis did or personally conceived of doing in real life is intimately connected to the actions of his fictional monsters . . ." (viii). In other words, Bongie not only subscribes to the traditional l'homme et l'oeuvre category, but he is going to take the literature/life connection one step further and imply an almost one to one equivalence between writing and intimately personal behavior. For a reader familiar with Sade's life and writings, Bongie's declaration of programmed intentionality cannot but raise an immediate red flag.
First Professor Bongie delves into speculative psychoanalytic assumptions that lead him to sketchy suppositions of a lack of parental affection during the first four years of the infant Sade, the formative years that Bongie diagnoses as crucial to the understanding of the violence of the older Sade. Statements such as the following, however, do not make for a very convincing argument: "Barely out of his infancy, at a mere two years and two months of age, the little marquis already seems to be acting out the characteristically belligerent, larger-than-life scenarios of his later years"(29). This conclusion is based on a letter of Sade's father relating an alleged thrashing of the six-year-old prince de Condé by the two-year-old Sade in a fight involving the former's toys. The alleged evidence of Sade's abnormal early development allows Bongie to explain Sade's acts of rebellion against authority, his violent cruelty, his chronic recidivism, his sexual oddities, the ill treatment afforded women victims (in life and books), his hatred for mothers in the novels, etc . . . all of which is justified by Sade's abnormal early developmental period. Unfortunately, and despite the fact that Bongie provides a few archival discoveries, the evidence he uncovers remains thin, if not missing altogether. To make the trauma of the absent mother after the age of four the central explanation of Sade's dominance fantasies and coercive acts in his fiction is to reduce Sade's literary expression to a pathology. This not particularly novel explanation may be valid to understand his libertinism in real life, but it misses the point as far as his fiction and philosophy are concerned. We have only to look at the many hundreds of titles catalogued in the Enfer section of the Bibliothèque Nationale (as Bongie himself acknowledges) to see that Sade's writings are not that different from scores of fringe--and not so fringe, witness the case of Mirabeau--writers of the day. In other words, Sade writes novels very much in the style of the underground novels of his time. If one were to follow Bongie's psycho-biographic line of argument, it would have to be argued that all pre-revolutionary writers [End Page 156] were characterized in France by an emotional make-up of unsatisfied maternal need--how else would we explain the pathologies that define much of the underground literature of the period?
Again and again, in his effort to link real-life events to fiction, Bongie makes questionable assertions. The pseudo-autobiographical passages from Aline et Valcour that Bongie considers real-life transpositions are merely 'dramatic' literature having little to do with the author's own identity or milieu; while what Bongie takes literally to be Sade's authorial notes in his fiction are traditional stylistic devices proper to...