- Reviewed by
Lewisburg: Bucknell University Press, 2015.
x+212pp. US$70. ISBN 978-1611486469.
With two important international conferences marking the bicentennial of Sade’s death, one at his château in southern France and the other in Amsterdam, and the publication of Éric Marty’s Pourquoi le xxe siècle a-t-il pris Sade au sérieux? (Paris: Seuil, 2011), we are seeing a flurry of increased interest in bringing Sade into the twenty-first century. One of the publications coming out of this renewed attention is Sade’s Sensibilities, a wide-ranging look at the Marquis de Sade as both a product of the Enlightenment and its most infamous rebel, or as the introduction states, an author “striving to connect as much as he aims to estrange” (3). The volume ties together the many disparate images of Sade—the philosopher, the hedonist, and the social scientist—in an effort to move beyond the villainous caricature critics so often dismiss. Sade is showcased within his time by identifying him as a product of his Enlightenment education, but he is also shown as a forerunner of numerous theories, including those of personal liberty and subjectivity. The essays in this collection build on previous studies of Sade, but several of them expand into less-explored areas, such as comic parody and biopolitics. The book is split into two parts, the first primarily dedicated to understanding Sade as a man and a writer, and the second focusing more specifically on his texts and their interactions with society. In the first section, “Thinking Feeling, Reading Sade,” Christopher C. Nagle and Courtney Wennerstrom’s article ties Sade’s comic structure to medieval fabliaux, giving a historical context to Sade’s version of Enlightenment writing and humor. Next, Eliane Robert Moraes echoes recent scholarship that discusses concepts of privacy and readership. Bringing together the Nagle and Wennerstrom article with the Moraes essay, John Phillips shows the theatricality of Sade’s writing as both a shared carnivalesque approach to literature and something that includes important off-stage moments, underlining the frequent duality seen in Sadean texts. This section concludes with Norbert Sclippa’s contribution on Sade’s understanding of nature and how he uses Enlightenment reasoning to explain man’s relationship to it. The second part of the book, “In Pursuit of D.A.F. de Sade,” investigates how Sade presents human nature in his novels. We begin with Caroline Warman’s stimulating portrait of the philosopher as a libertine character. This topic flows nicely into Sade as a philosopher of failure, discussed in a thought-provoking essay by Natania Meeker. Taking a more scientific approach, Mladen Kozul’s article shows how Sade entwines contemporary medical theories and libertine desires to provide a rationale for his characters’ [End Page 532] actions. Finally, Sade’s historical relationship with sexology is detailed in Will McMorran’s closing essay.
As many of the essays note, Sade has largely been used as a figure-head for libertine authors, while the details of his prolific oeuvre have typically been glossed over in favour of using him for shock value in discussing eighteenth-century debauchery. This collection does a good job of teasing out some of the nuances in his texts through close readings and the application of Enlightenment principles in vogue at the time. The essays analyze a few of Sade’s lesser-known tales, but they primarily cover his major works, making the volume accessible to novices and aficionados alike. There is a nice variety of topics covered, ranging from more traditional literary analyses to dissecting Sade’s scientific approach to libertinism. Several of the scholars take detours into other authors’ works in order to illustrate Sade’s stylistic or philosophical creations. While there is merit in comparing authors, the length of time devoted to non-Sadean texts in several of the essays is distracting and, at times, seems to imply that Sade’s works cannot support their own scholarship. This is a common trap in Sadean criticism and may reflect a lack of in-depth knowledge about D.A.F. de Sade and his...