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  • Sade: Queer Theorist by William F. Edmiston
  • Paul J. Young
William F. Edmiston, Sade: Queer Theorist (Oxford: SVEC, 2013). Pp. x + 244. $105.00.

William Edmiston’s book is a provocative work that fills a void in eighteenth-century studies by offering an in-depth and clearly argued attempt to read Sade’s work through the lens of queer studies. Edmiston argues that Sade attempts “to break down many of the binary oppositions used in his society to define sexual difference . . . in order to denaturalize heteronormative conceptions of sex, gender, and sexuality” (2–3). In his introduction, Edmiston offers three axes around which to consider reading Sade as an avant la lettre queer theorist: Sade’s reformulation of the idea of “nature” as a way to counter the socially constructed sexual norms of his culture; his frequent depiction of characters “who defy . . . traditional classifications of gender, sexuality, and even biological sex” (4); and his turn to counter-generality—“sexual acts transgressing laws and norms” (5–6)—as a means to dismantle and interrogate heteronormativity. These theses are well developed in the chapters that follow, and Edmiston offers insightful readings that examine Sade’s major novels, including the final version of Justine, which is often overlooked in favor of shorter editions.

Chapter 1 poses the question of whether Sade’s erotic novels can be read as queer, beginning with a discussion of the “binary model of anatomical sex” (41), engaging in analysis of the “third sex,” and affirming that for Sade, “there exists a determinism between sex and gender and sexual-object choice or preference” (47). Edmiston grapples with a paradox that likely puzzles readers of Sade—the tension between the cultural determinism that he privileges and “his conviction that all sexual practices and pleasures are dictated by nature” (54)—while also arguing that “Sade rejects the notion of sexual dimorphism and undermines the male/female binarism” (99). The chapter offers a compelling exploration of Sade’s defense and illustration of sodomy and sodomites through an examination of Bressac, “the as yet unnamed homosexual” (101). Edmiston underscores Bressac’s “passionate detail” in describing “the pleasures of homosexual coupling in the first person” (62), arguing that Bressac’s pronouncements “stand in stark contrast with the absence of homosexual characters in the earlier works of the eighteenth century” (63), an idea he revisits in the following chapter.

Chapter 2 examines Sade’s advocacy of “non-heteronormative or queer sexualities” to “determine to what extent these defenses constitute a plea for tolerance of an aberration, or a justification and a demand for recognition of a natural and viable expression of sexuality” (103), while also examining Sade’s effort to “re-semanticize” certain terms (law, crime, nature) to invest them with “new signifieds” (123). Here again, Edmiston confront the inconsistencies and ambiguities in Sade’s rhetoric and ideology, notably in the latter’s reliance upon “nature” to formulate his ideas around desire and transgression. Edmiston sums up: “The textual tensions, slippages and ambivalences strive to destabilize received notions about morality, yet . . . The destabilization threatens to subvert the intended subversion” (138). This chapter offers an interesting reflection on sodomy that complements the discussion of Bressac in chapter 1, arguing that Sade’s writing offers a late eighteenth-century example of Foucault’s “reverse discourse,” here examined as a “queer discourse” (113). [End Page 453]

Chapter 3 turns to Sade’s underexplored philosophical epistolary novel, Aline et Valcour, and examines “two non-normative forms of sexuality”—incest and homosexuality—that Edmiston argues are deployed in this novel “to challenge, question, and queer the prevailing heteronormative assumptions of Sade’s society concerning sex, gender, and sexuality” (143). Edmiston suggests that for Sade, incest “was more palatable . . . than homosexuality would be” for his readers (192), and that in this novel, incest is lampooned and “the contractual arrangement of marriage, [is] exposed and criticized for its mercantile character and its indifference to human desire” (191). Indeed, but the reader may be less persuaded that “the allure of forbidden sexuality . . . serves to relativize the taboos and to force a re-examination of society’s interdictions of normal sexual relations” (191), and some readers may find the examination of homosexuality...


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pp. 453-454
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