- "My Sade"
Among the many problems that Sade's œuvre poses for scholars, perhaps the most intractable derives from Sade's own tenacity in pointing out how critical practice itself is inevitably driven by that which it often claims to exclude: namely, desire. The urge to instruct, in Sade's novels, is so regularly linked to the need to [End Page 667] possess as to leave no refuge for disinterestedness. Over and over again, Sade insists that, like Madame de Saint-Ange in La Philosophie dans le boudoir, we all "join a little practice to [our] theory" when we seek to educate and to improve.
In Sade's world, moreover, there are no exemptions granted for high-mindedness. His libertines predictably delight in exposing the hypocrisy of those who refuse to recognize the role played by the most embodied of pleasures in the exercise of even the most ostensibly depersonalized forms of authority. In the end, neither the retreat into virtuous orthodoxy (in its various institutionalized forms) nor the embrace of vice functions as a safe harbor for the reader who would prefer not to recognize herself in Sade's insistent renderings of the vestedness of judgment. Those who condemn Sade out of revulsion are trapped by the same paradoxes as those who celebrate him. Readers' responses, in other words, never fail, for Sade, to reveal their interests.
In the context of such a pointed attack on the very mechanisms that serve to generate and stabilize evaluative judgment, scholars of Sade's philosophy have long been caught in something of a double bind. On the one hand, adherence to the principles of the Sadean work as constituting their own sort of dogma—even, or especially, in the form of a dogma of transgression—misses the point of the Sadean materialist critique, which includes any and all varieties of belief in its sweep. Yet the very effort to interpret or decipher the Sadean universe, from even the most distanced or skeptical vantage point, also runs the risk of exposing the libidinal investments of anyone who undertakes this task of translation—particularly since apparent disinterestedness, for Sade, always conceals its own forms of perverse enjoyment.
Of the three works of criticism under discussion here, two of them remain committed to functioning within this Sadean double bind and to illuminating its operations from within, whereas the third, David Martyn's Sublime Failures, moves beyond it. It is characteristic of the challenges posed by Sade to traditional criticism that François Ost and Jean-Baptiste Jeangène Vilmer, who set out to interrogate the relationship between Sade and the law, come to conclusions that are not only distinct from but vigorously, even diametrically, opposed to one another. Ost, in a reading of Sade that emphasizes the latter's fundamental perversity as a thinker of law and legality, develops with care and a certain bravura a vision of Sade as a philosopher of paradox—a writer who, in his commitment to the perverse, deliberately and with pleasure violates, as Ost puts it, "the foundational principle of classical logic, the law of non-contradiction" (189). Ost describes his study as having its genesis in an attempt to understand the "hidden face" of the history of law by posing the question of the existence of an absolute evil. It is in this context that Sade emerges, for Ost, as a writer endowed with a radical singularity, a thinker unlike all others. Ost's Sade is most aptly characterized by his commitment—elaborated in his thought and through his prose style—to a notion of evil as quite unfettered by the good. "Such is the true scandal of Sadean writing," affirms Ost, "Sade violates literary convention along with the social...