- The Autonomy of Pleasure: Libertines, License, and Sexual Revolution by James A. Steintrager
When Donatien-Alphonse-François, Comte de Sade, died in the insane asylum of Charenton in 1801, few would have predicted that he would be read or even remembered more than two hundred years later. The Marquis himself even requested in his will that “the traces of my grave disappear from the face of the earth, as I flatter myself that my memory will be effaced from the mind of men” (see “Marquis de Sade,” https://www.britannica.com/biography/Marquis-de-Sade). His novels and philosophical writings offered, in the name of libertine pleasure, acts of violence so horrifying and disgusting that they were repeatedly banned, [End Page 450] censored, burned, and condemned, both in his own lifetime and later on. Indeed, it can be challenging even to read at second hand about scenes such as the one in Sade’s 1785 novel Les 120 journées de Sodome, in which beautiful, virtuous young Constance is impregnated by libertines, her leg broken, her nipple chewed off, and her fetus extracted and killed. Yet Sade became a touchstone for many of the twentieth century’s pivotal thinkers, including Freud, Breton, Stein, Man Ray, Marcuse, Lacan, Barthes, Deleuze, and Foucault.
Even in his own day, a few readers recognized in the spectacular violence of Sade’s texts possibilities for a radical philosophical critique of the excesses of the Ancien Régime. As James Steintrager points out in his authoritative new book, the fate of Constance was “not dissimilar to that suffered by Damiens, so hideously dispatched for his attempt on the life of Louis XV” (295). In the social and political milieu of eighteenth-century France, aristocrats such as Sade were being systematically disenfranchised as an increasingly paranoid monarchy sought to quell all resistance to its absolutism. Rich and bored, the aristocracy “were freed up to play games of seduction, test out unusual sexual positions, and so forth” (294). Libertinage as a lifestyle claimed radical liberties in the boudoir in the absence of political freedom. In the work of nineteenth-century decadents such as Huysmans, Sade was cast in the role of “the visionary artist blessed in his very accursedness, beyond the ken of the literal-minded, moralizing, and uncomprehending public and its critics” (263). Later modernist movements such as surrealism and the anti-capitalism of Bataille translated this version of Sade into an avatar of what Steintrager calls “liberation theory” (265).
Sade was rediscovered in post–World War II Europe and North America. Technology played a role; a wave of cheap paperback reprints poured forth from adventurous new presses such as Olympia, Obelisk, and Grove as they tested the limits of legal censorship. In new translations of previously unavailable works, the Marquis entered what Steintrager calls “mass consciousness” (265) as emblematic of both radical liberty, in his daring to value pleasure above virtue or productivity, and the oppressive antihedonia of institutions that had resulted in de Sade’s imprisonment. Steintrager invokes the visual statement made by The Jimi Hendrix Experience, “a multiracial, transnational rock band decked out in attire evocative of aristocratic chic from a bygone era (ruffles, velvet jackets, and suchlike frippery),” writing that there is something “truly odd in this appeal to the aristocracy of an earlier period” on the part of an image understood as antiestablishment (265). For the absolute freedom of libertinage certainly has its dark side: not only the parade of torture and murder depicted by de Sade, but latter-day examples such as “the Hell’s Angels killings [sic; one person was killed] at the Rolling Stones concert at Altamont, the Manson murders, the National Guard shootings at Kent State,” Steintrager writes, undermined “the dream of peaceful revolution” among libertinophiles of the 1960s (274). (This reader paused to wonder if these three examples were really parallel. Surely Kent State was an example of the ruthlessness of the state, not the violent tendencies buried in liberation movements?)
In chapters on sodomy, on the clitoris, on...