SubStance 35.1 (2006) 146-150
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Sade Before the Law
Unlike the numerous readings of Sade that make him the apologist of evil, the theorist of crime, and the advocate of the most radical libertinism, Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer argues vigorously that we must not confuse Sade with his libertine characters, that the smoky legend of the divine marquis is precisely a legend, which has inflated facts that are very limited, and that he is above all a prisoner who has suffered the arbitrariness of a pseudo-justice. Vilmer undertakes to demonstrate that we must choose between the Sade of correspondence, who complains during more than 28 years of incarceration that he is an (almost) virtuous victim of immoral persecutors, and the Sade of libertine novels, who vaunts immorality and praises torturers.
Vilmer launches an attack on the vague consensus of sadien studies—Sade's basic immorality—against which he attempts to demonstrate: 1) that we cannot attribute to Sade the responsibility for the libertine pronouncements of his novels; 2) that the Sade of the correspondence and of the numerous implicit and explicit elements of his text—even the least outrageous (gazés)—distances himself from a doctrine that is a priori immoral, and 3) that the immorality of the libertine characters aims in fact at frightening the reader and setting his feet on the path of virtue. Thus the frenetic libertinage in Sade's work operates like doubt in Descartes: one must be methodologically criminal in order to reconstruct a just penal system, surpassing (in a very Hegelian manner) both the old illusory justice, thanks to the libertines, and the new libertine injustice, thanks to morality, to arrive at moderation and reason.
Vilmer's vigorous demonstration begins with both a severe, even aggressive, critique of the readings of an immoralist Sade, and with a precise historic contextualization of the law in the Ancien Régime, in particular the penal reform that was exactly contemporary with the life of the marquis. Vilmer's critique of the summaries that attribute to Sade the criminal pronouncements of his characters seems very judicious. The attempt to reconstitute Sade's thought on the penal system is done in a precise and stimulating way, both by the mobilization of all his [End Page 146] writings (not just the most libertine ones), and by relating them to the contemporary debates on the law (Montesquieu, Voltaire and Beccaria, including the deputies' debates on the death penalty. Thus it is shown quite clearly that Sade's thought is close to that of Beccaria.
Even if numerous critics have long stressed Sade's proximity to the Moralists, it is clear that Vilmer pushes this intuition the farthest and with the greatest conviction and perspicacity. However, there are still several problematic points.
The first and most important has to do with the very definition of morality. Can one show that Sade is a moralist by reconstructing the penal system that he so fervently called for? This is bringing morality down to the level of the law, and making the civility of morals no more than an extension of legal justice. The ties between goodness and justice, between evil and injustice are obvious, but these concepts are nevertheless not exactly the same. The contextualization proposed by Vilmer is judicious, but it concerns only the law. Further (unfortunately, this is a philosophical habit), this contextualization focuses only on the concepts of justice and injustice; there is no history of judiciary or infra-judiciary practices, of public and private forms of vengeance (banally classed as "pre-juridic"), of the evolution of crimes (thefts, murders, prostitution, etc.), of the use of justice's arbitrariness, nor of social hierarchies before the law. And, on the side of morality, no...