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  • The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde by Alyce Mahon
  • Katharine Conley
Alyce Mahon, The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde. Princeton University Press, 2020, 284 pp.

The main argument of Alyce Mahon's remarkable new book on The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde is that twentieth-century avant-garde artists and writers drew from the Marquis de Sade's "vision of absolute freedom" to challenge patriarchal norms for desire, social structures, and politics (32). She stresses how those drawn to Sade's libertinage are often drawn to the question of liberty itself. In this deeply researched study, Mahon moves gracefully from a thorough exposition and analysis of Sade's life and work to his many critics, in particular studies of the deployment of Sade's ideas in art and writing throughout twentieth-century France extending to twentyfirst century New York, from the surrealists to the publication of Story of O by Dominique Aury shortly after World War II to leading avant-garde writers, artists, filmmakers, and playwrights from the post-war period, including situationist Guy Debord, post-war surrealists Jean Benoît and Léonor Fini, Peter Weiss and Peter Brook's Marat/Sade, Jean-Jacques Lebel's happenings, the cinema of Pier Paolo Pasolini, and the multimedia of Paul Chan. The conclusion she draws is that what she calls the "Sadean imagination" makes "thinkable the unthinkable," confirming in her final sentence the contemporary relevance of her book: "In an age of global terror, it has never been more crucial to preserve and extend its unflinching exploration of man's inhumanity to man" (235).

Mahon's work on eroticism and the role of women in the politics of the avant-garde in her landmark volume, Surrealism and the Politics of Eros, 1938-1968 (2005), as well as Eroticism and Art (2005), lends authority to this in-depth study of Sade's impact on twentieth-century European culture. The notion of a "Sadean imagination" subtends Mahon's book as the unifying concept linking her feminist analyses of widely disparate works of literature and art—extending from the publication of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade's books in late eighteenth-century revolutionary France to New York-based artist Chan's Sadean installation Sade for Sade's Sake (2009-10) and book The Essential and Incomplete Sade for Sade's Sake (2010), which juxtaposes a reproduction of an etching from the original 1797 edition of Sade's Juliette with photographs taken at Abu Ghraib prison in 2003. As she observes in her opening paragraph: "while it is not easy to read Sade's fiction it is impossible to forget it once you have" (1). Mahon reminds us that the Sadean imagination is indelibly rooted in terror and, as a consequence, in the body, because terror [End Page 119] inevitably arouses a physical response. For Mahon, the power of the Sadean imagination lies in the fact that it is radically open, "eliciting rather than prescribing experience" (24). She argues that the Sadean body provides "a form with which to explore not just sexual and political terror, but dominant and countercultural ideology"; it tests both society's moral boundaries and "the boundaries of aesthetics and representation" in an embrace of Sade's challenge to imagine a new space, a new world, that does not yet exist (17).

In the book's first chapter, Mahon moves from Sade's life and work, both the writings and illustrations, to a review of the extensive list of his major critics. She extends Gallop's reading of Sade as "thinking and writing 'through the body'" to Sade's casting of "the female as libertine philosopher" (4). She covers the surrealist response to Sade in writing and art with admirable economy and clarity. She reviews the significant role Guillaume Apollinaire, Robert Desnos, and André Breton played in bringing Sade to the attention of the avant garde and, through them, to a greater public, and then turns to examples of Sade's influence on surrealist visual art by Man Ray and André Masson. In her chapter on The Story of O (1954), Mahon tells the compelling story of how Jean-Jacques Pauvert was...


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pp. 119-121
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