- A Postscript to Transgression?
Edinburgh Univeristy Press
232 Pages; Print, $24.95
Princeton University Press
296 Pages; Print, $45.00
How should we remember the Marquis de Sade? As a literary figure, Sade belongs to the eighteenth-century tradition of the libertine novel, the period’s innovative gothic fictions, as well as its didactic conduct books. Sade is a philosopher too. On the one hand, his thought looks back to Rousseau and challenges the desire to return to an innocent state of nature that a certain version of Romanticism espouses. On the other hand, Sade’s Dionysian embrace of excess looks ahead to Nietzsche’s transvaluation of values. Sade is also a historical figure. As a witness to one of the greatest political and social upheavals in history, he stands squarely between ancien régime of aristocratic order and the revolutionary effort to overhaul it. There are consequently many Sades. Novelist. Philosopher. Theoretician. Historian. Sade the Aristocrat. Sade the revolutionary citoyen.
Of course, we cannot forget Sade the sadist. His notoriety transcends his variegated legacy in literature, philosophy, and politics even as it underwrites his contributions to those respective contexts. But when we approach his writing, whether the interest is prurient or intellectual, we face another complication. Sade’s writing bores. His works are cumbersome tomes and his style can be monotonous to the point of tedium. He is repetitive and not much of a storyteller. In his quest to imagine new forms of sexual violence and new taboos to transgress, Sade merely adds participants to his orgies or rearranges the parts they play. A few more chambermaids here, some incest there, maybe a dose of infanticide, or some scatological torture. Sade will surely repulse and horrify many who dare to read him. Others may laugh. A phallus can only be so large before it becomes comic. Still more readers will give up. The desire to shock eventually turns back on itself. Rather than become comic, its moralism and seriousness can transform it into farce.
Regardless of how we define Sade’s value, we must reckon with him. He stands before us as a [End Page 6] historical event in the extreme. A figure who pushes the imagination to its limits. When the modern writer condemns civilization because it stifles freedom or numbs our mind, Sade lurks on the periphery and awaits his entrance. He asks us to envision life beyond the boundaries of the acceptable. If the violence his writing depicts is natural, then Sade dares us to consider whether society’s shackles, the effort to reform human nature, are, in fact, a necessary curtailment of our natural freedom. The autonomy Enlightenment philosophers desire or the quest for aesthetic experience in the name of pleasure or knowledge might yield unexpected surprises.
Sade can lead a different set of readers to value civilization’s ability to tame natural man. Others might go further and claim that civilization is itself sadistic. The Sadean universe of torture, murder, and death, in other words, can be viewed as the logical outcome of what we call Enlightenment progress. Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer famously describe this perspective in The Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) when they argue that Sade prefigures the concentration camp. The style of Sade’s writing corroborates. At times he seems to be less of an imaginative writer and more of an encyclopedist. His work meticulously orders and catalogues the crimes it represents. This is because Sade embodies what Michel Foucault calls the rationalist worldview of the Classical Age. But unlike Horkheimer and Adorno, Foucault does not see Sade as a symbol of Enlightenment gone wrong. In fact, he maintains that Sade brings about its undoing. He pushes the Enlightenment to its limit. “After Sade,” Foucault writes in The Order of Things (1966), “violence, life and death, desire, and sexuality will extend below the level of representation, an immense expanse of darkness, which are we are now attempting to recover.”
To recover Sade implies...