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  • Sade’s Ethics of Emotional Restraint:Aline et Valcour Midway between Sentimentality and Apathy

Why would Sade, a staunch enemy of the moral didacticism that characterized late eighteenth-century French literature, write the sentimental novel Aline et Valcour, which is ostensibly foreign to the rest of his thought? A philosophical interpretation of this work allows us to bring to light how, in his novel, Sade skillfully reconstructs the conception of sentimentalist emotion—encapsulated in Rousseau’s thought—and counterposes it with a new analysis of passions that is no longer based on empathy but rather on interpersonal domination. Through peculiar physiological and philosophical premises, Sade succeeds in delineating a paradoxical ethics of emotional restraint.

The Marquis de Sade’s work can be considered as one of the inaugural instances of a technique that, within both the philosophical and literary realm, is typical of the nineteenth century: emotional restraint. His disapproval of the rhetoric of empathy and moral sentimentalism assumes particular relevance in that it is an “internal” critique. Availing himself of certain characteristic premises of the sentimentalist philosophy—which are primarily attributable to the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau—Sade completely changes their conclusions, to the point of reaching a conscious form of immoralism. This immoralism can be interpreted as a systematic overturning of the morale larmoyante, exalted in late eighteenth-century France.

In order to illustrate this theory, I focus on the analysis of a specific work: the epistolary novel Aline et Valcour, composed during Sade’s imprisonment at the Bastille in the 1780s, and printed in 1795. It is one [End Page 366] of Sade’s most complex and enigmatic texts, long disregarded by critics due to its uniqueness. Though based on an erotic theme, the novel is not sexually explicit: for this reason it has been considered not “Sadian” enough and was excluded from the Sade-Renaissance that characterized the second half of the twentieth century. As Michel Delon observes in the introduction to the text in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade edition from 1990, “the great exegetes that ensured the ‘modernity’ of Sade ignore Aline et Valcour only to prefer other works of his that are apparently more powerful and more sulphurous.”1 The novel is, in fact, the only principal text by the “divin marquis” that has not been entirely translated into the English language to date.2

The scant attention that has been granted to Aline et Valcour is still unjustified. It is not only one of the works in which Sade’s philosophical anthropology is most clearly illustrated—as confirmed by the revelatory subtitle, Le roman philosophique—but also the work in which the comparison with sentimentalism in general, and with Rousseau in particular, is most manifest. I shall attempt to prove how, by means of literary intrigue, Aline et Valcour reconstructs with finesse the conception of sentimentalist emotion, in order to counterpose it with a new analysis of passions, which is no longer based on empathy but rather on rational control and on interpersonal domination. Furthermore, a similar redefinition of the moral value of emotion implies a new conception of sensibility, centered on precise physiological (the role of the nervous system) and philosophical (the principle of integral selfishness and a peculiar reevaluation of apathy) premises.


Aline et Valcour is a hybrid text that combines the art of the epistolary novel with that of the retrospective narrative. It represents a significant choice, seeing as the epistolary novel was the preferred literary form among theorists of sentimentalism. In fact, the three great models that inspired Sade’s novel are Richardson’s Pamela, Abbé Prévost’s Le philosophe anglais and, above all, Rousseau’s La nouvelle Héloïse. The last of these was the most resounding editorial success of the second half of the eighteenth century, as well as the undisputed manifesto of an aesthetic and ethical code centered on the exhibition of emotion.

Sade adopts not only the form but also the content of Rousseau’s masterpiece. The tormented love story between Aline and Valcour clearly recalls that of Julie and Saint-Preux. Both female protagonists [End Page 367] are the daughters of pious and virtuous women; both young men are noble spirits but hail from modest economic backgrounds; both of the young women’s fathers are vehemently opposed to their unions for this very reason. Whereas Julie’s father still sincerely loves her despite being blinded by his social prejudice, Aline’s father, Monsieur de Blamont, is a callous libertine who secretly intends to marry off his daughter to one of his reprobate comrades, Dolbourg. While on a walk in the woods at Madame de Blamont’s country estate, Vertfeuille (a sort of transposition of Clarens), Aline and her mother happen upon Sophie, a young woman who had been kidnapped and abused by two libertines but was ultimately able to escape her tyrants. The reader will soon discover that the kidnappers are Blamont and Dolbourg.

A few days later, the three women receive a visit from two travelers, Léonore and Sainville, who had traversed the entire world in search of one another. Their adventures are recounted in two extremely lengthy letters, which can be assimilated into two independent romans-mémoires, and represent an important political and moral digression: Sade compares the damned kingdom of Batua, where men completely dominate women and can satisfy all of their sexual impulses, to the paradisiacal island governed by Zamé, reviving the typical elements of the classical utopia.

This sizeable digression is useful for the development of the story. Léonore, who thought herself to be a descendent of a noble Breton family, is actually Aline’s sister, and was replaced at birth under rocambolesque circumstances that complicate the plot. When Blamont’s criminal plan is finally uncovered, he initially tries to have Valcour assassinated and later poisons his wife, the only defender of the young couple. In order to evade her father’s wickedness and remain virtuous, Aline commits suicide, as Sophie had done before her, not forgetting, naturally, to leave behind one last letter for her lover—just like Julie. Shaken by the loss of his beloved, Valcour resorts to a hermetic life and dies shortly thereafter.

From this brief summary alone, it is possible to understand how Sade’s text falls under the category of roman sensible. It masterfully adopts the lexicon of what has been efficaciously defined as “cardiogram’s literature,”3 such that it creates an actual dictionary of sensibility of clear Rousseauian nature right before the reader’s eyes. 4 It is no coincidence that Rousseau takes part, firsthand, in the events of the novel, imparting upon Valcour—who has been exiled to Geneva—his first lessons on virtue and sensibility: “My friend, he told me one day, no sooner did [End Page 368] rays of virtue enlighten people than they were so greatly dazzled that they opposed to them the prejudices of superstition; there remained no sanctuary save the depths of an honest man’s heart. Detest vice, be fair, love your fellows, enlighten them” (OC 5:25).5

This literary imitation, both content related and formal, which would have been even more evident to the eighteenth-century reader, conceals a subversive aim. Sade does not wish to conform banally to the literary modes of the period, nor does he wish to write a parody of the Nouvelle Héloïse, despite the fact that the comical register is undeniably present in his novel.6 Rather, he wishes to redefine the philosophical anthropology of Rousseau—for whom he developed a sincere admiration and whom he always considered as a sort of “master”7—while modifying certain premises, which can be specifically attributed to the analysis of emotions.

Sade ascribes to Rousseau not only an attempt to delineate a philosophy that is in compliance with nature but also an understanding of the “recapture” of the natural dimension, which for both authors was misshapen by historical progress and was indissociable from the passionate realization of the individual. It is from the union of these instances that, according to the analysis conducted in the pages of Idée sur le roman, the greatness of the Nouvelle Héloïse arises:

This sublime book [La nouvelle Héloïse] will never have imitators; may this truth let the pen fall from the hands of the host of ephemeral writers who, after thirty years, have not ceased to offer us horrid copies of this immortal original; may they understand that in order to attain it, one would need a soul of fire like that of Rousseau and a philosophical mind like his, two things that nature does not combine twice in the same century.

(OC 10:11)


According to Sade, while Rousseau rightly emphasizes the centrality that the role of the passions takes on in addressing human action, he fails to grasp the effective nature of emotion. In fact, in Rousseau’s view, emotion essentially derives from pity, “a natural virtue . . . that inspires in us a natural repugnance to see any other sensitive Being perish or suffer” (Discours sur l’inégalité, ET 5:87).8 It is, therefore, a sympathetic sentiment that institutes a transparent relationship between interiority and exteriority, and that reveals the truth of the former by way of the latter: “[The emotions] of ardent and sensitive hearts are the work [End Page 369] of nature, they show themselves despite the person who has them” (Dialogues, ET 3:284).

Thanks to its ability to be authentic—that is to say, involuntary and spontaneous—emotion represents not only a decisive chasm between l’homme de la nature (amoral and unemotive) and l’homme de l’homme (moral and emotive), but it can also be considered an actual source of normativity. Precisely because it is beyond the control of the subject and cannot be manipulated, emotion is truly able to put individuals in proximity with their neighbors, leading up to—as pointed out in the preface to Nouvelle Héloïse—a perfect sharing of inner life: “And yet one feels the soul melt; one feels moved without knowing why. The strength of the sentiment may not strike us, but its truth affects us, and that is how one heart can speak to another” (ET 15:1221).

Though he researched the origin of emotion in an individual’s original configuration, Sade steadfastly contests Rousseau’s hypothesis. According to Sade, emotion find its roots not in pity but in amour-propre, the only natural principle that characterizes a human being: “Self-love is the most active emotion within man; everything is attained by striking a chord with it” (OC 6:319). Motivated by this integral selfishness,9 all men try to attain their own pleasure, which can only be satiated through interpersonal relationships. Its attainment, therefore, coincides with the achievement of power, which inevitably comes to represent a form of subjugation, both emotional and sexual, over one’s neighbor. From such a perspective, any sympathetic feeling is an obstacle for the full expression of oneself and “pity, far from being a virtue, is but a weakness” (OC 8:271). From a virtuous bedrock of emotion, it becomes the primary impediment for its authentic manifestation, causing a weak and unnatural sensibility—for which Blamont scolds his wife: “When you give in to the sentiment of pity rather than to the counsel of reason, when you listen to your heart over your soul, you plunge yourself into the depths of error, since there is no more false organ than that of emotion” (OC 5:336).

This affirmation brings out the decisive aspect that arises from the antithetical conception of the nature of emotion in Rousseau and Sade; that is, the dialectic between emotion and reason, between cœur and esprit. According to Rousseau, there is a coessentiality between the emotive and the rational dimensions—one of the most original elements he generated in the contemporary philosophical debate—which is confirmed by their simultaneous development: “Whatever the Moralists may say about it, human understanding owes much to the Passions, which by common [End Page 370] agreement also owe much to it. It is by their activity that our reason is perfected” (Discours sur l’inégalité, ET 5:112). In other words, when correctly developed, rationality is not opposed to, but rather intrinsic to, emotion and sentiment. Julie reminds us of this when she states, “The heart does not follow the senses, it guides them” (Nouvelle Héloïse, ET 14:294). Sade certainly shares his morality, and the idea that emotion is a fundamental element of the full development of a human being, with Rousseau. In order for him to fully express himself, however, the emotive dimension must be guided and controlled by reason, which he understands to be—in accordance with the philosophes—a faculty that is distinct from sentiment.

From this oppositional dialectic between sentiment and reason, the reverse judgment of the moral efficacy of emotion derives: while Rousseau equates this efficacy to the intent and spontaneity of emotion itself, Sade considers it exclusively in relation to its effects; that is, based on the rational control that the subject is able to exert over it. The clash between these two concepts of emotion triggers the moral dualism at the heart of Aline et Valcour. The sentimentalist vision of the passions (emotion/pity) is embraced by all of the virtuous characters in the novel: its two protagonists as well as Madame de Blamont, Monsiuer de Beaulé, Déterville and his wife, the village priest, and the servants at Vertfeuille who remain faithful to Aline and her mother. The awareness of the need for emotive control (emotion/self-love) is, by contrast, the distinguishing trait of the evil characters, from Monsieur de Blamont and Dolbourg down to Sarmiento, a European who is at the service of the king of Batua and who later becomes a cannibal.

The six letters written by Blamont, which, at first glance, appear to take on a marginal role in the novel, turn out to be particularly decisive for the Sadian re-elaboration of the concept of emotion, so much so that they can be considered one of the keys to understanding the philosophical scheme of the work. Monsieur de Blamont, in fact, desires to instruct Dolbourg, to liberate him from his religious and social prejudices that douse the so-called virtuous ones, in such a way as to open before him a superior form of existence, which presents itself as a conscious immoralism centered on emotional control.

The oddity of Sade’s position, therefore, does not lie in the common need for reason to act upon sentiment—a leitmotif of the philosophy of the Enlightenment—but rather in the overturning of its ethical significance. While the rational control of the passional dimension has been conventionally associated with morality, in Sade it becomes an [End Page 371] inescapable condition for the conquering of immorality, as a detailed analysis of the figure of Blamont will confirm. He is evil not only in temperament but also in thought. The selfish and lewd passions that dominate his character—the passions that, in the eyes of Sade, coincide with the essence of human nature—would be nothing without the cerebral will that instigates them. In letter 52, he openly reprimands Dolbourg (a libertine for fun and not by principle, who ends up regretting his decision) for his inability to understand the connection between passionate impulses and rationality: “These damnable passions trouble us. . . . They listen to nothing but your passions, without rationalizing their cause, and you have never had enough philosophy to subject them to systems that can identify them within you. . . . I, being infinitely wiser, have corroborated my crimes through rationalization” (OC 5:316–17).

Blamont’s wisdom resides in his consideration of his relationship with his neighbor not in terms of sympathy or mutual recognition but rather exclusively in terms of pleasure and domination, as affirmed by the repeated use of military metaphors in his letters. For this reason, he believes it crucial that the libertine learn “the science of steering events towards our own goals” (OC 4:35). This science, which is also defined as “the art of feigning and of deceiving men” (OC 4:34) is identified with the ability to manipulate emotion for one’s own profit. In letter 26, Blamont goes as far as theorizing an “art of passions,” a “sublime science that makes us masters of the soul’s resources through the influence of the passions, which teach us to successively move that which should produce a desired effect.” It is a complex science that brings numerous variables into play, ranging from sex to education, from one’s physical conformation to one’s temperament. By means of this “expert study of the human heart, which, while developing the most secret of creases, also points out to us what key should be pressed,” one may identify “how to stifle remorse and how to replace it with sweet sensations, how to finally apply to vice that which one desires, even the virtues that one discovers in it” (OC 4:130).

Blamont is an undisputed master in this art, which is understood in its double declination. Alongside one of its interior manifestations, which corresponds to a subject’s control of his own emotions, the art of passions expresses itself even in the intersubjective dimension, which is to say, in the ability to instrumentally avail oneself of the emotions of others. While this second modality is exemplified by Blamont’s ability to “forge” Augustine—one of his wife’s servants whom he pays off to betray Aline—the first modality is reflected in his ability to emotionlessly deceive [End Page 372] his consort with regard to Augustine’s presumed remorse: “Moreover, nothing was as moving as Miss Augustine’s recovery: I was there, I would dampen my eyelids from time to time, so as to make it look as though I had a heart . . . and she was simple enough to believe it” (OC 5:281).


In this last case, Blamont makes use of the emotion favored by theorists of sentimentalism—that is, weeping—albeit entirely reversing its value. Tears were considered not only a sign of a shared elitist sensibility but they were also the barometer of emotionalism itself, since their effusion certified the authenticity of felt passion. This was expressed in Rousseau’s famous statement, “Nothing bonds hearts more than the sweetness of weeping together” (ET 2:686).10

In order to subvert this aesthetic and ethical code, Sade applies a dual strategy in Aline et Valcour. Firstly, he transforms pathos into ridicule, describing emotional manifestations as being so excessive and trite that they lose significance in the eyes of the reader. All of the letters written by the virtuous characters are, in fact, marked by a fierce rhetoric of tears, whose effusion does not correspond to any ability to act. This dynamic is exemplified in the incipit of one of the final letters that Madame de Blamont—well aware of her husband’s crimes, but unable to stand against them—addresses to Valcour: “[This letter] is dampened by my tears, and it will surely make yours flow. . . . Oh! my friend, give me your advice that I am so in need of; the sentiments of the heart damage the reasonings of the spirit, I feel it and I cannot find a resolution” (OC 5:309–10).

From this point of view, tears, along with every other manifestation of a compassionate emotion, become a sign of weakness, which exposes the inappropriate predominance of sentiment over reason. This position was already openly supported by Madame Duclos in Cent vingt journées de Sodome, which was composed shortly before the Roman philosophique: “As far as I know, I have never wept over my sorrows and much less over those of others. . . . I could watch the universe perish, and I, thank God, would not shed one tear over it. . . . Compassion is the virtue of fools” (OC 13:187). When, in a rare moment of emotion, Duclos herself sheds “a few involuntary tears” as she recalls her deceased sister, she is harshly scolded by the Duke of Blangis, who reminds her of the uselessness of such a gesture: “Leave tears to imbeciles and children, that they never blemish the cheeks of a reasonable woman whom we esteem” (OC 13:156–57). [End Page 373]

An excessive and sterile emotion when considered from a sympathetic viewpoint, weeping can still be rehabilitated insofar as it is an instrument of power and interpersonal domination. This is the second instance of the “strategy” employed by Sade. As we ascertained, the art of passions allows the libertine not only to dominate his own interiority but also to find joy, through a sort of emotive vampirism, in the despair and pain of others. This aspect, which was extensively illustrated in Cent vingt journées de Sodome and destined to become one of the defining traits of sadism in the collective imagination, finds its expression in Aline et Valcour not in the description of physical torture but in Blamont’s recurring fantasy of seeing his daughter cry during an incestuous relation: “She must be delicious to grasp amidst her cries” (OC 5:353).

In light of these considerations, it is interesting to observe that the very moral value of tears is at the heart of the final discussion between Blamont and his wife, which can be considered a sort of summary of the clash between the two different conceptions of emotion that fuel the narrative:

Oh! sir, let me be foolish for the rest of my life, if that is what one is when one listens to one’s heart; your cruel sophisms will never give me one fourth of the pleasure that I am afforded by a good act; and I would rather be stupid and sensitive than to possess the genius of Descartes, if I were forced to achieve it at the expense of my heart.

All of this depends on the organs, replied the President; these moral differences are entirely subject to the physical. . . . But what I ask of you is that you never conclude, which I know can happen to you from time to time, that one is a monster because one does not cry like you . . .

(OC 5:353)

The evolution of the event leaves no doubt as to which of the two options prevails in the eyes of Sade. All those who believe in the sentimentalist and sympathetic vision of emotion—that is to say, individuals who are religious, respectful of their neighbors, and naturally inclined to do good—are destined to see their projects fail and to suffer, ultimately facing a heinous death (a prime example is precisely the case of Madame de Blamont). Good fortune belongs to the evil characters, as demonstrated by the fate of Monsieur de Blamont, who will escape justice in order to live in London off private means, as well as, more significantly, the fate of Léonore. She is the only character who fully achieves happiness, inheriting the fortune of both her alleged Breton family and the Blamonts. [End Page 374]

Léonore, who is able to set aside the false prejudices of sentimentalism and adapt to all of the rocambolesque situations that she encounters—making use of the art of passions—is the true heroine of the novel. Her distinguishing trait is being an isolated figure, excluded from the world of the femmes de sentiment, which is dominated by emotive excess. All of the virtuous protagonists deem her to be harsh and cold-hearted, and they see in her “more manner than genuine sentiment” (OC 5:7). Léonore’s insensitivity is radically accentuated as the affair progresses. Madame de Blamont confirms this when she reiterates the indelible connection between emotion, sensibility, and virtue as she describes her daughter to Valcour: “This new girl . . . who raises the insensitivity of systems, the atheism of principles, the indifference of reasoning . . . may not indulge in any error, but no virtue will ever blossom from her” (OC 5:268).


In reality, Léonore is not insensitive at all. Quite to the contrary, she is the model of a new sensibility. The prototype of a future Eve, she is able to counterpose an active self-control to Aline’s virtuous weakness and sentimentalist impotence. Authentic sensibility, therefore, no longer entails giving in to our emotions, as Rousseau maintained (according to Sade’s interpretation, of course), but rather rationally stimulating or repressing them as needed.

Sade’s libertine is perfectly aware of how willpower can govern the physical world of sensation by making use of extreme sensory experiences, which can be induced by a shock to the nerves. The importance of the nervous system, which works through the “irritation caused by the collision of atoms . . . upon animal spirits,” is extensively illustrated by Sarmiento to Sainville during a “lesson” on physiology and morals, which concludes with the belief that nerves are “the only soul accepted by modern philosophers” (OC 4:212).11 This aspect is further analyzed in Histoire de Juliette (1801), whose entire plot—based on the comparison of two sisters, one virtuous and unlucky, the other depraved and happy, inevitably recalling the fate of Aline and Léonore—is notably described as “the story of the shock of criminal impressions on nerve masses” (OC 8:115).

In this case, Sade’s reflection finds an important source of inspiration in contemporary medical theories, which have been rightly emphasized in recent critical literature.12 Vitalistic doctrines—in contrast [End Page 375] to iatromechanism, which was still dominant in the first half of the eighteenth century—highlighted the insufficiency of a reductionist and mechanistic explanation of sensibility, which allowed for no real intervention on the part of the subject upon the physiological mechanism, but rather a mere adaptation of it. In contrast, the very study of the nervous system favored the development of an active conception of sensibility, which allowed for a rational intervention on physiology itself. Sade, who had always harbored an active interest in medicine and was a dedicated reader of authors such as Lacaze, Tissot, Cabanis, and Bichat, found in them not only the confirmation that the keystone for understanding sensibility resides in the relationship between the brain and the nervous system13 but also justification for his will to mold the physiological dimension, or—to use the conceptual pair typical of late eighteenth-century France—to put the physique at the service of the moral. Sade’s “morals,” as with Rousseau (one need only consider his Profession de foi), in no way express ethical content or even the relative independence of the spiritual dimension, but rather, as in Helvétius, an insistence on the physiological dimension itself.

Furthermore, from this standpoint, it is possible to understand the aesthetic and moral superiority of pain over pleasure14 insofar as the former—as Blamont explains—stimulates the nerves with a force that is superior to the latter: “The shock that grief causes on a nerve mass immediately provokes delight in women, the atoms of electric fluid, and an individual of this sex is never more pleasure-seeking than when she is seized amid tears” (OC 5:279). While “normal” people feel pleasure when external objects act in harmony with their neural fluids, the libertine seeks a complete dissonance between the external objects and neural fluids. A prime example is the character of Saint-Fond, the protagonist in Histoire de Juliette, who, in a day’s time, is able to have an incestuous relation with his daughter, kill his father, and torture several girls to death: “We wish to make our nerves experience a violent shock; we are well aware that the shock of pain will be stronger than that of delight; we use it, and it is to our liking” (OC 8:258). This is yet another testament of the need to manipulate emotion in order to shape “true” sensibility: “It is only in receiving or producing the largest possible shock on the nervous system that one is able to attain a state of inebriation that is needed in order to feel pleasure” (OC 8:328–29).

This redefinition of sensibility, which at the same time is a direct derivative of the theory of emotional restraint and represents its justification, marks an important difference between Sade’s earlier writings and his [End Page 376] mature thoughts, which coincide with the postrevolutionary period. In his earliest writings, Sade is still a proponent of a form of reductionist materialism, and is particularly inspired by the thought of La Mettrie and Holbach.15 From a similar perspective, emotion de facto loses all moral weight insofar as it is nothing but a necessary manifestation of the physiological mechanism or, at most, a sort of adaptation to it. Beginning with Aline et Valcour, however, the active aspect of emotion—corresponding to the ability of the moral to direct and subjugate the physical and draw inspiration from it—is exalted. While remaining a necessary condition for the attainment of happiness, physical pleasure is no longer sufficient per se, if it is not accompanied by moral pleasure: “Am I not, therefore, happier than you, by fine-tuning everything, as I do, and by never involving myself in physical enjoyments, so that they not be accompanied by a small moral shamble?” (OC 5:280). This same “excess” of the moral over the physical is reiterated in Augustine’s description of libertine education, and can be interpreted as a sort of experiment aimed at demonstrating the validity of the “art of passions” advocated by Blamont: “I have a butler specifically for these sorts of spars. . . . He will impact the physical without reservations, and we . . . receiving it from his clasped hand, will shape the moral with success” (OC 5:351).

In addition to being justified by the physiological convictions mentioned previously, the insistence on the moral value of sensibility once again implies a conscious comparison with the philosophy of Rousseau,16 who in Dialogues openly theorizes about the duplicity of the sensitive faculty. Alongside “a purely passive physical and organic sensibility which seems to have as its end only the preservation of our bodies,” he singles out another sensibility that is “active and moral and that is nothing but the faculty of attaching our affections to beings who are strangers to us. This type, about which study of nerve pairs teaches nothing, seems to offer a fairly clear analogy for souls to the magnetic faculty of bodies” (ET 3:218).

Though he shares with Rousseau the idea that moral sensibility17 cannot be reduced to the physique and that it represents an active force, Sade inverts its course. From an expansive force it becomes a centripetal movement, as the Marquis of Bressac explains to Justine during a philosophical lesson on insensibility, which is, in many ways, comparable to Sarmiento’s lesson to Valcour: “Extinguish your soul, Justine, just as you see us harden ours” (OC 7:166). From this perspective, authentic moral sensibility is in no way a natural “present from the Heavens” (ET 14:230), as Saint-Preux protests and as Valcour himself, in his wake, [End Page 377] claims: “Too much sensibility is one of the most cruel presents that nature has given us” (OC 4:146).18 Quite the contrary, it is the product of an actual emotive apprenticeship. It is no coincidence that Bressac invites Justine to abandon her “gloomy sensibility,” imbued with religious and sentimental prejudice, in favor of “authentic” sensibility based on emotional restraint, and masterfully evocative of the (anti-Rousseauian, par excellence) image of compressing the heart: “Do you believe, therefore, that during my childhood I did not have a heart just like you? I compressed the organ: and it is within this pleasure-seeking harshness that I discovered the home of a multitude of distractions and pleasures that are preferable to my weaknesses” (OC 7:166).


In light of such considerations, we can assert that Sade’s great philosophical ambition, which became progressively more distinct as he developed it, corresponds to the desire of delineating an anthropological model of a new “sensible” man (or woman) who is able to feel exclusively what he himself (or she herself) has “created” rationally. A similar ideal, already personified by Blamont and Léonore in Aline et Valcour, will find its more complete formulation—once again in Histoire de Juliette—in the self-description of Clairwil,19 a cruel libertine whose principal passion consists of killing young men: “My soul is impassive, she used to say; I defy any emotion, other than pleasure, to touch it. I am the mistress of the affections of this soul, of its desires, of its reactions; my head controls everything; and that is what is worst, for this head is quite detestable” (OC 8:262). This connection between sensibility and rationality also characterizes Eugénie, the young protagonist in Philosophie dans le boudoir: “Adorable creature, never have I beheld a sensibility like yours, never so delightful a mind!” (OC 3:441).

This vision of sensibility leads to a redefinition of its very idea. Sensibility—as clearly revealed by the analysis of the art of passions—is not a universal fact for Sade, as it was for the sentimentalists, but rather a cultural construct that can and must be addressed. While it is, therefore, undeniably artificial, this sort of hypersensibility is in no way associated with a pathological dimension or considered as unnatural.20 On the contrary, it paradoxically becomes the manifestation of true human nature, which has been distorted by the prejudices of historical progress (particularly religious prejudice) and by the affirmation of “empty” sentimentalist sensibility. The sensible man exalted in edifying [End Page 378] literature in no way reflects actual human nature: he is simply an illusion, an ephemeral dream that brings about its very annihilation. It is no coincidence that all of the characters in Aline et Valcour who personify the Rousseauian paradigm of emotion are so sensible that they attain insensibility, and so passionate that they lose all ability to resonate with the sensibility of the reader.

In this case, too, Sade makes use of a characteristic element of eighteenth-century ethics—that is, the revival of stoicism—while entirely overturning its course. Domination over the passions, which is generally considered the ultimate goal of a journey of spiritual wisdom that drives the individual to submit to a superior order, becomes for him the means for reaching the full expression, both selfish and entirely temporal, of the role of passion: “Apathy, insouciance, stoicism, solitude, this is the tone to which one must necessarily raise one’s soul, if one wishes to be happy on earth” (OC 7:303).21 Hence, the peculiar dialectic between emotion and apathy found in the pages of Aline et Valcour pours forth. Through the clever mirror-like play between the two different conceptions of emotion personified by the characters, the pathetic is used to demoralize sensibility and reinstate its original nature to emotion, which is attainable because of the emotional restraint and apathy achieved by the libertine. Yet again, Blamont is the representative of this theory—notably defined as a “prudent philosophy”—when he scolds Aline, now at his complete mercy, for her distress and tears:

Thereon, Mr. President replied that the greatest of all the follies is to torment oneself, that one must know how to raise one’s soul to a sort of stoicism, which would make us regard all events in life with indifference; that he, instead of distressing over things, rejoiced in everything; . . . and that with this system one is able to transform all of the thorns of life into roses. . . . That sensibility is but a weakness of which one can be easily healed.

(OC 5:399)

Bressac directs the same advice, formulated with even greater concision and effectiveness, to Justine: “Try to derive pleasure from all that alarms your heart. Soon you will arrive like us at the perfection of stoicism and it will be in this apathy that you will feel arise a host of new pleasures delightful in quite a different way” (OC 7:166). In Sade’s reversal of stoicism (a paradoxical form of passionate stoicism), apathy works contemporaneously against pathos, understood in the moral sense of the term—that is, as the foundation of emotion/pity—yet it makes use [End Page 379] of the pathos itself, understood in its immoral declination (that is, as an expression of self-love), in order to rediscover authentic naturalness.

This dialectic not only fuels the narrative anthropology at the heart of the novel but can be expanded to the relationship that is established between the literary figure and the reader. By overturning the leitmotif of sentimental literature from within, which uncovers the possibility of an edifying pedagogy in the representation of pathos, Sade places emotion at the heart of his immoralism. In fact, by virtue of its close relationship with the active aspect of sensibility, pathos itself “converts” the reader to libertinism: the aesthetic/erotic seduction employed by the representation of emotion, particularly by the pain of a victim, leads to the suspension of false moral judgment (according to which it would be evil to make someone suffer), implicitly causing the reader to embrace the ideological principles of immoralism.

Liberated at last of its imaginary sympathetic foundations, “new” sensibility can affirm itself as the natural, anthropological manifestation of the principle of integral selfishness, clearly overturning the traditional distinction between virtue and vice. The myth of Rousseau’s “noble savage,” equally moved by self-interest and sympathy, must now be replaced by a new natural man, “licentious in temperament, cruel in instinct [and] ferocious in refinement” (OC 8:558).

In conclusion, Sade’s neglected masterpiece, Aline et Valcour, can be considered not only a decisive turning point in the author’s development but also a milestone in the history of the philosophy of emotion. In this work, Sade is able to discredit, from within, the moral didacticism conventionally associated with sentimental literature—making conscious use of its formal and stylistic methods—with the point of dismantling its foundations. The shift from sentimentalism to emotional restraint sanctioned by this epistolary novel represents both clear testimony of a transformation in aesthetic and anthropological paradigms that occurred between the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries and a decisive confirmation of the inseparable nexus between philosophy and literature. Sade himself, in defending his scandalous conduct as a novelist, never grew weary of reaffirming that validation: “Nonetheless, I am a philosopher; all who know me have no doubt that I glorify and profess it” (OC 15:27). [End Page 380]

Marco Menin
University of Turin


1. M. Delon, Notice, in Marquis de Sade, Œuvres, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard, 1990–95), vol. 1, p. 1213.

2. Until now only a few pages have been translated into English. See Selected Writings of de Sade, trans. L. de Saint-Yves (London: Peter Owen, 1953).

3. A. Montandon, Le roman au XVIIIe siècle en Europe (Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1999), p. 302.

4. For more on this subject see S. Faessel, “Sade, lecteur de Rousseau dans Aline et Valcour,” in Jean-Jacques Rousseau et la lecture, ed. T. L’Aminot (Oxford: The Voltaire Foundation, 1999), pp. 267–80; Sade en toutes lettres. Autour d’«Aline et Valcour», ed. M. Delon and C. Seth (Paris: Desjonquères, 2004).

5. All citations by Sade are taken from Œuvres complètes du marquis de Sade, 16 vols., ed. G. Lely (Paris: Cercle du livre précieux, 1966–67); hereafter abbreviated OC, followed by volume and page number.

6. Sade himself, in his fictional Avis de l’éditeur, emphasizes “the merging of three genres in the same work: comedy, sentimental and erotic” (OC 4:XXVIII).

7. For more on Rousseau’s decisive influence on Sade, see M. Delon, “Sade face à Rousseau,” Europe 522 (1972): 43–48, and P. Roger, “Rousseau selon Sade ou Jean-Jacques travesti,” Dix-Huitième Siècle 23 (1991): 383–405.

8. All citations by Rousseau are taken from Œuvres complètes et Lettres. Édition thématique du Tricentenaire, 24 vols., ed. R. Trousson, F. S. Eigeldinger, and J.-D. Candaux (Geneva: Slatkine-Champion, 2012); hereafter abbreviated ET, followed by volume and page number.

9. “Selfishness [is] the part of sensibility received by the hands of nature” (OC 8:299).

10. For general studies on weeping in the eighteenth century see A. Vincent-Buffault, The History of Tears: Sensibility and Sentimentality in France, trans. T. Bridgeman (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1991); A. Coudreuse, Le goût des larmes au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: PUF, 1999); M. Menin, “‘Who Will Write the History of Tears?’ History of Ideas and History of Emotions from Eighteenth-Century France to the Present,” History of European Ideas 40, no. 4 (2014): 516–32. On the moral value of tears in Rousseau, refer to M. Menin, “L’Ambiguïté des larmes: Rousseau et la moralité de l’émotion,” L’Esprit créateur 52, no. 4 (2012): 107–19.

11. For more on the revival of the animal spirit doctrine, see C. Carnicero de Castro, “Le fluide électrique chez Sade,” Dix-huitième siècle 46 (2014): 561–77.

12. See, in particular, S. Quinlan, “Medicine in the Boudoir: Sade and Moral Hygiene in Post-Thermidorean France,” Textual Practice 20 (2006): 231–55; A. St-Martin, De la médecine chez Sade: disséquer la vie, narrer la mort (Paris: Champion, 2010); M. Kozul, “Sade and the Medical Sciences: Pathophysiology of the Novel and the Rhetoric of Contagion,” in Sade’s Sensibilities, ed. K. Parker and N. Sclippa (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield, 2015), pp. 141–68.

13. This specific aspect has been extensively scrutinized in S. Quinlan, “Shocked Sensibility: The Nerves, the Will, and Altered States in Sade’s L’histoire de Juliette,” Eighteenth-Century Fiction 25, no. 3 (spring 2013): 533–56. [End Page 381]

14. See J. Davies, Bodily Pain in Romantic Literature (Routledge: New York, 2014), chap. 3, “Sade’s Unreason,” pp. 67–96.

15. For more on this point—and for additional bibliographical references—see C. Warman, Sade: From Materialism to Pornography (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2002), pp. 21–57.

16. H. M. Lloyd has recently insisted on the “filiation” of Sade’s epistemology from that of Rousseau in “‘Je n’ai jamais vu une sensibilité comme la tienne, jamais une tête si délicieuse!’: Rousseau, Sade, and Embodied Epistemology,” Intellectual History Review 25, no. 3 (2015): 327–42. Inexplicably, the author does not yet consider Aline et Valcour in any way.

17. The question of moral sensibility was widely debated in all late-eighteenth-century French philosophy. On this decisive matter I would suggest the classic contribution of F. Baasner, Der Begriff ‘sensibilité’ im 18. Jahrhundert. Aufstieg und Niedergang eines Ideals (Heidelberg: Carl Winter, 1988). For information on the most recent literature, see La sensibilité dans la littérature française au XVIIIe siècle, ed. F. Piva (Fasano: Schena-Didier Erudition, 1998); S. Gaukroger, The Collapse of Mechanism and the Rise of Sensibility: Science and the Shaping of Modernity, 1680–1760 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010); and I. Csengei, Sympathy, Sensibility and the Literature of Feeling in the Eighteenth Century (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2011).

18. See M. Delon, “‘Fatal présent du ciel qu’une âme sensible. Le succès d’une formule de Rousseau,” Études Jean-Jacques Rousseau 5 (1991): 53–64.

19. See C. Carnicero de Castro, “Entre le crime et la sensibilité: les paradoxes du personnage de Clairwil,” in Sade et les femmes: Ailleurs et autrement, ed. A. Coudreuse and S. Genand (Paris: Harmattan, 2014), pp. 33–44.

20. A well-known “pathological” reading of sensibility in Sade can be found in A. C. Vila, Enlightenment and Pathology: Sensibility in the Literature and Medicine of Eighteenth-Century France (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1998), pp. 286–92.

21. For the peculiar conception of apathy in Sade, see A. Arlette, “Sade et l’éthique de l’apathie,” Mélanges littéraires, François Germain (Dijon: Section de littérature française de la Faculté de Lettres et de Philosophie de Dijon, 1979): pp. 95–104; A. Coudreuse, Le refus du pathos au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Champion, 2001), pp. 227–36. [End Page 382]

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