Friday, 23 June 2017
THE MARQUIS de SADE; JUSTINE
His name is synonymous with the very worst that human beings can be. He plumbs the depths of depravity in his quest for mere titillation; Bad people celebrate his birthday; good people shudder at the mention of his name. He is the Marquis de Sade and I’ve just finished reading “Justine”.
It really is time that I confront de Sade. I call myself a writer of Erotica; indeed, I blushed and trembled with dizzy, giddy pride when the Christian right slammed a “Danger Pornography” notice on my tweets.
But de Sade. He was a French aristocrat, 2nd June 1740—2nd December 1814. A revolutionary politician, famous for his libertine sexuality. His works comprise novels, short stories, plays, dialogues and political tracts. In his lifetime, some were published in his own name, while others appeared anonymously and de Sade denied being their author. He is best known for his erotic works which combine philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom unrestrained by morality, religion or law. The words ‘sadist’ and ‘sadism’ are derived from his name.
He was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life. Many of his works were written in prison. His ethos is focused absolutely on pain and pleasure.
“It is always by way of pain that one arrives at pleasure.”
“I have already told you; the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.”
“When she’s abandoned her moral center and teachings…when she’s cast aside her façade of propriety and ladylike demeanor…when I have corrupted this fragile thing and brought out a writhing, mewling, bucking wanton whore for my enjoyment and pleasure, enticing from within this feral lioness…growling and scratching and biting, taking everything I dish out to her…at that moment she is never more beautiful to me.”
“Justine,” with the subtitle, “The Misfortunes of Virtue”, is an extraordinary book. The philosophy is that of the merits of vice vs. virtue. The protagonist (a virtuous woman) falls prey to a series of libertines who use and abuse her in whatever ways they deem pleasurable to themselves.
We join the narrative at the point where Juliette, aged 15 and her sister, Justine aged 12 have been orphaned by the death of, first their father and then their mother. They have been educated at a convent, a private establishment, where they had access to the finest minds of their generation.
Their relatives deliberate about what to do with the two girls.
“Since no one cared to take care of them, the doors of the convent were opened to them, they were given their inheritance and left free to do whatever they pleased.”
They were harsh times.
Juliette is sensitive to the pleasures of freedom, while Justine, with her serious and melancholy nature, is aware of the full horror of her situation. Juliette intends to use her pretty face and beautiful figure to her advantage and become a great lady. Justine is horrified by the course her elder sister intends to take and the two go their separate ways.
The story is told at an inn by “Therese” (the name that Justine adopts for the purpose of the narrative) to Madame de Lorsagne (who is actually Justine’s elder sister Juliette. They do not recognise each other) There is irony, in that Juliette,who went briefly for a life of vice, is now in a better position to do good than Justine, who refused to make concessions and so is plunged further into vice.
Justine’s tale begins. On departing from the Convent and leaving her sister, Justine goes to the house of her mother’s dressmaker and asks to be taken in. She is turned away.
A tearful Justine goes to see her priest. De Sade describes her beauty. A perfect picture of innocence.
“..she was wearing a little white close fitting dress, her beautiful hair carelessly tucked beneath a large bonnet. Her bosom could just be discerned, hidden beneath a few ells of gauze, her pretty complexion a little pale owing to the troubles that weighed upon her. Her eyes welled with tears, making them even more expressive..”
The priest does not have Christ, the Holy Spirit or the Our Father on his mind. He drools over the pretty girl.
“God’s spokesman slipped his hand into her cleavage, kissing her in a manner far too worldly for a man of the church.”
When Justine rebuffs him, he throws her out.
In prerevolutionary France, the Church is corrupt and the rich and powerful can get away with more or less anything; Justine’s ideas on how to live a decent and good life are hopelessly out of time. Her tale follows an odyssey of misadventure as she moves from place to place, determined to lead a good and honest life, but encountering abuse after abuse. Always, she is taken in and promptly imprisoned. She takes refuge in a monastery, hoping to claim sanctuary and it is in the Holy place, inhabited by Holy men that she is degraded, abused and defiled to a hideous extreme; all described in explicit detail. She is witness to, and has inflicted on her, every sexual depravity you can think of. Child sex, rape, sodomy, coprophilia, endless whippings, orgies and multiple partners. Every encounter follows the same pattern, followed by an exercise in, quite remarkable, lengthy sophistry as the lecher explains his own version of the Libertine’s credo with passionate intensity and the certainty of experience. This is in contrast to Justine’s assertions of Christian principles which are expressed pathetically in the moment, stubbornly, and with the certainty of blind faith.
So what does de Sade’s novel offer BDSM today? Does what de Sade describe have any relevance to BDSM as we know it in 2013? Probably not. The world is a very different place, we have different values and different ways of understanding.
I wasn’t expecting to find fun in de Sade’s work, neither was I expecting to find anything like joy, there is certainly no sense of playfulness in any of the sexual acts that he describes. What he does do, I think, is to touch on many common fantasies such as the need for pain, inflicted or inflicting that brings to the foreground the means for some of us to celebrate our sexuality.
Is de Sade onto something when he talks about pain and pleasure? He wouldn’t have known about endorphins; the mysterious little opioid peptides released by the pituitary gland at times of great excitement, pain, stress and orgasm. We only know about that sort of stuff because of 20th century research methods.
A friend, whose sexual orientation is submissive, tells me that the rush of endorphins, when the pain of a whipping is almost too much to bear, is almost exquisite. “Better than morphine…”
Freud wrote about the pain pleasure principle. He understood that ‘something’ happened, he just wasn’t sure what…
“When pleasure and pain occur together, a certain amount of confusion may occur, which itself may be pleasant or painful and hence determine what happens. Simultaneous pain and pleasure is a basis for masochism.”
In The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter suggests that de Sade is perhaps the first writer, and in this respect he is surprisingly modern, to see women as more than mere breeding machines, as more than just our biology.
And that, I think, is liberating.
Perhaps we are wrong to take de Sade so seriously? Is he actually talking about an achievable, or even desirable philosophy? de Sade didn’t just write about sex; he had very serious things to say about life, oppression, equality and power. But he said them in such an uncompromising, aggressive way, laughingly indulging himself in his most extreme fantasies and perversions that we recoil in horror. His particular proclivities have a place in his argument and his refusal to excise them, using them and himself as examples, shows, I think, that he is not lacking in integrity.
Still I’m not happy. Let me just throw this in; something to contemplate. I haven’t looked at intent. What is de Sade trying to achieve with his pen? Is he just a dirty old pervert, masturbating into our faces sniggering and sneering at our self-righteous disgust? Or is he laughing at our naiivity, our inability to see through what could be considered a sophisticated piece of satire?
We are so busy being shocked, we miss the point.
It is neither inappropriate nor inconceivable to interpret de Sade’s work as a biting parody in the same tradition as the satirist Jonathan Swift, or the great satirists of today. How many times have you watched (the show that keeps me sane) South Park, with your gut clenching, cringing, as you wonder how the writers dare put such corrupt words into the mouths of children? Nothing is sacred in the hands of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Even the Sacred are a target. God, Satan, Christ, the Virgin Mary. As is the President, sex, age, sexual orientation, social media, popular culture, child abuse, paedophilia. Nothing is off limits: make up your own list from these scatological writers. With wonderful belly aching laugh out loud hilarity, they prick the bubble of pomposity of anyone who takes him, or herself too seriously; no one is exempt. No one escapes.
We know that it’s funny; we give ourselves permission to laugh as Cartman directs yet another totally anti-Semitic ranting tirade at his Jewish friend Kyle. The writers put into the child, Cartman’s mouth, all of the old nonsense of why it’s right to hate the Jews. There is even an episode where Cartman talks enthusiastically and chillingly about “his final solution.” The Nazi euphemism for the total annihilation of the Jewish people.
Is de Sade’s work a brilliant, way ahead of his time, piece of satire? Or is it gratuitous porn; porn for porn’s sake?
You know what? I still really don’t know!