In May, Ensuing Chapters visited Paris and soaked up the books and culture of France. We’ve been celebrating this experience through the ongoing series, Littérature Francaise. Previous installments have covered Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and part I of a discussion of Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.
This week, we conclude our discussion of de Sade. In part I, we covered:
- The international art scandal surrounding the original manuscript of Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome
- The surface-level content of 120 Days, including layout
- Some of the absurd fantasies explored in the text
- Some critical commentary of the work from de Beauvoir and Georges Bataille
We closed with the assertion that despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.
Marquis de Moralist
Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “…though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes.
How does he make the leap from monster to moralist?
There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness.
This is where we must consider the Marquis.
He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes.
I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another.
To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim.
This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?”
This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “…there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.”
This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder.
As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.”
Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place.
“Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes.
The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.”
This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”
Voice of the Victim
Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself?
On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground.
“One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism.
Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “…de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.”
(Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.)
Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim.
“In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.”
Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.)
As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.”
Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.”
Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability.
“And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.”
De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work.
I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today.
“The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”