SubStance 30.1&2 (2001) 258-261
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The Invention of the Libertine Body
Hénaff, Marcel. Sade: The Invention of the Libertine Body. Trans. Xavier Callahan. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1999.
It is somewhat strange to be reviewing a book more than twenty years after its publication, twenty years after one's first encounter. One of the finest readings of the marquis de Sade, Marcel Hénaff's L'Invention du corps libertin (1978), has been translated into English by Xavier Callahan. Hénaff, in his preface to the new edition, refers somewhat apologetically to the "temerity" of youth, and observes that so much has been written on Sade in the intervening years that to engage with the more recent scholarship would require a new book--hence, aside from providing an updated bibliography, he has chosen to leave his work as it was. What might such a project have to offer us in today's critical landscape?
Much. Sade is more widely read and studied than ever before. While the major texts--The 120 Days, Juliette, Philosophy in the Boudoir--continue to draw the most critical attention, scholars have also begun to attend more to Sade's dramatic writing, letters, and lesser-known novels. Whereas structuralist critics were wont to emphasize the logical functioning of Sade's discursive machines, more recent work on sexuality, pornography, and gender studies has tended to concentrate on the ideological/ affective stakes in his writing, or on its historical connections: Lynn Hunt's Sade rather than Barthes's. The boom in critical editions and biographies has tended to support the historicizing trend. Hénaff's book, representing in many ways what might [End Page 258] be termed "poststructuralism in the grand manner," may at first seem far removed from these concerns. The "libertine body" is an abstraction, a logical and aesthetic model; and while the critical dialogue is not without a historical component (for example, in the chapter on 18th-century women novelists at the end), the primary discussion takes place outside the Enlightenment: with Descartes and Leibniz at one end, and Hegel, Marx, Freud, and Lévi-Strauss, as well as Blanchot, Barthes, and Foucault, at the other.
Which is precisely why The Invention of the Libertine Body makes so valuable a contribution to the present discussion. Because, as David Allison, Mark Roberts, and Allen Weiss put it in their introduction to a recent collection of articles, "Despite the burgeoning renewal of interest in Sade's work, his intellectual legacy has hardly been resolved" (Sade and the Narrative of Transgression [Cambridge, UK, 1995], 6). Although there have been a number of fine studies of Sade's texts in recent years (most of which are indebted to Hénaff's work), the biographical and editorial projects have all too often gotten bogged down in la petite histoire or hagiography, or, somewhat more startlingly, the reverse, the debunking of the "Sade myth" and revelation that the marquis was neither a good writer nor, gentle reader, a very nice person. Literalist readings of Sade are still very much with us. And, as Hénaff points out in his first chapter, there are two "intelligent ways of missing Sade's point," the first of which he describes as an aestheticizing mode; the other, an "ethical" stance leading to either "allegiance or condemnation"(9). Hénaff's book actually pursues two readings not unrelated to these: on the one hand, a "poetics," and on the other, an "economics" of the Sadean text. The book challenges the reader to maintain the distinctiveness of each reading, even as it suggests, throughout, transgressive connections between the apparently irreconcilable opposites.
Part One, the "Poetics," takes up "the overthrow of the lyric body," or Sade's refusal of traditional allegories and metaphors of sex, blood, and the body, in favor of a logical system characterized by demystification, quantification, and an ars combinatoria of body parts, physical conjunctions, and institutional codes. The overthrow of the lyric body is also an overthrow of narrative as such; Sade's fictions do not offer us the unfolding...