Complexity and Interconnection: The Dao, Sade, and Time/Quantum Biology, Part 4
The Marquis de Sade and Anarchism –
“Are not laws dangerous which inhibit the passions? Compare the centuries of anarchy with those of the strongest legalism in any country you like and you will see that it is only when the laws are silent that the greatest actions appear.” (Marquis de Sade)
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was born on 2 June 1740 in the Hôtel de Condé, Paris, to Jean Baptiste François Joseph, Count de Sade and Marie Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, cousin and Lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Condé. He was educated by an uncle, the Abbé de Sade. Later, he attended a Jesuit lycée, then pursued a military career, becoming Colonel of a Dragoon regiment, and fighting in the Seven Years’ War. In 1763, on returning from war, he courted a rich magistrate’s daughter, but her father rejected his suitorship and, instead, arranged a marriage with his elder daughter, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil; that marriage produced two sons and a daughter. In 1766, he had a private theatre built in his castle, the Château de Lacoste, in Provence. In January 1767, his father died.
Sade, who died in 1814, was a revolutionary, politician, philosopher and writer, famous for his libertine sexuality. His works include novels, short stories, plays, dialogues and political tracts; in his lifetime some were published under his own name, while others appeared anonymously and Sade denied being their author. He is best known for his erotic works, which combined philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, criminality and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion or law. The words sadism and sadist are derived from his name.
Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life; 11 years in Paris (10 of which were spent in the Bastille), a month in the Conciergerie, two years in a fortress, a year in Madelonnettes, three years in Bicêtre, a year in Sainte-Pélagie and 13 years in the Charenton asylum. During the French Revolution he was an elected delegate to the National Convention. Many of his works were written in prison.
He was also a passionate gourmet, and especially loved baked apples and vanilla custards for dessert. He also fancied Provençal delicacies such as quail stuffed with grape leaves, very fresh cream of chard soups and chocolate cake. “I wish for a chocolate cake so dense,” he once wrote his wife from one of his stints in jail, “that it is black, like the devil’s ass is blackened by smoke.”
Sade, one of the few men in history whose names have spawned adjectives, was just as finicky about his clothes, and also wrote his wife from jail that he wished for “a little prune-colored coat, with suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but specifically not made of linen.” He was equally particular about matters of personal hygiene and liked to bathe every day — a habit totally foreign to his 18th century contemporaries, who might have bathed twice a month at the most. He loved dogs, he loved children as long as they abided by his orders and he delighted in family games such as blind man’s buff and musical chairs.
One of the most interesting and least-emphasized aspects of Sade’s character is his thorough dislike of his own peers and of the corrupt nobility of his time. Sade hated Paris, and Versailles even more; his eventual demise was in great part caused by the fact that he refused to pay court to the king, refused to network with his fellow nobles, refused to work the room in any aristocratic milieu whatsoever. And this haughty aloofness from circles of power, which he shared with his very rustic, reclusive wife, left him without any base of social support in those frequent cases when he got into trouble with the law.
He made all his friends, ironically, amid those very classes of society that were preparing the Revolution of 1789 — amid the lawyers, tradesmen and artisans of Provence, and also among the more liberal clergy. Sade’s romantic attachment to his Provençal Chateau de La Coste was closely connected to this hatred for France’s central government, and to his archaic political ideals. That ideology can only be described as a very bizarre blend of radical libertarianism and robber-baron elitism. He felt intense nostalgia for those anarchic eras of the early middle ages, before the rise of nation-states, when every warrior lord had total control over his vassals and was not constrained by the edicts of any other ruler.
So why bother with Sade at all? What is there to learn from this creep who makes us want to puke, who makes us want to take a shower every 10 minutes, and who above all often bores us into a stupor, this buffoon who, two centuries before Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, pioneered the very notion of boredom as an aesthetic value? And what do we as readers do with the Marquis de Sade? How do we relate to these scatological fantasies of carnage, sperm and rape whose repugnance is far more conducive to chastity than to any libidinous behavior? (As Simone de Beauvoir put it, “Sade’s perverse bucolics have the grim austerity of a nudist colony.”)
The answer is that we’re forced to deal with a man who’s had a profound influence on artists such as Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Luis Buñuel and Octavio Paz. Moreover, the interface between morality, literature and censorship lies at the heart of the question, “What do we do with Sade?” Gruesome deeds have been depicted with relish by many classic authors, from Sophocles to William Faulkner, and if we’re going to judge literary works by their harvest of bloodshed, we might consider burning the Koran and the Bible (for example, the Book of Judges, Chapter 20, in which a Levite carves up his unfaithful concubine into 12 parts and sends one section of a limb to each tribe of Israel.)
Moreover, for true modernists who look on art as an irritant, a stimulant and a problem rather than a balm, who read for ideas rather than pleasure, Sade might be worth studying, if only as a historical curiosity, because he expressed several notions that were quite novel to Western thought. Beyond advancing the most extremist doctrine of individual liberty ever set forth, he proposed a revolutionary view of the human psyche. He broke with his contemporaries, who had limited their scrutiny to the surface of observed behavior, and explored those more hidden inclinations, which we now call the subconscious. Deriding the Enlightenment’s Pollyanna-ish pieties concerning natural goodness, he emphasized the grim ambivalence of erotic and destructive impulses, of love and hate, that color most human attachments. A century before Freud, he saw that the manner in which these conflicting drives were repressed or fulfilled might provide the master plan of every individual personality.
Sade’s single most lucid 20th century commentator is possibly the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire. Hampshire sees him as a “serious figure in the history of thought” because he was the first to understand “the non-logical, or contradictory, nature of men’s original attachments,” and because he dared to discard “all civilized restraints” in depicting a primeval stage of humanity not yet curbed by the most fundamental taboos.
Sade was equally prophetic in his highly androgynous views of the human libido. Few thinkers since Plato have more eloquently argued that heterosexual relations are not any more “normal” than homosexual ones. Not unlike advocates of contemporary “queer theory,” Sade championed a highly polymorphous view of erotic impulses in which heterosexuality was only one of many possible expressions of libidinal impulses, one fragment of the sexual spectrum available to human needs.
Another way the more adventurous reader might deal with Sade is to see him as the principal forerunner of modernism, a claim usually made for Nietzsche. He created a revolutionary and indeed sadistic new relationship between the reader and the author that forgoes the pleasure principle of traditional narrative and deals instead with insult, alienation and boredom. One of the most maddening and most modern — if not postmodern — aspects of Sade’s writing is that he is programmed himself to foil most methods of decoding and typification. He never lets us know his true intent; there is no way of knowing whether he is writing on a level of subversive irony, whether he takes his wacky anarchist ideas seriously or whether theyre incited by his buffoonish exhibitionism.
Sade is a modernist, or even a postmodernist, because he brutally abolishes the traditional pact of trust between reader and writer; because he cracks, through his excesses, any traditional critical grid through which we might evaluate him; because he forces us to play his own game, which works through principles of indeterminacy and sadomasochistic traumatization. Sade was perhaps the first to propose that the goal of art is not pleasure, but the investigation of all possible boundaries.
About Anarchy (or Anarchism), best is to let Sade express himself.
By reading carefully Juliette or La Philosophie dans le Boudoir one can find some dissertions and dissertations that evoque anarchism. But specific texts, deliberately philosophical (and political) are more convincing. Hereunder are two examples –in his own words:
The following is a portion of a conversation between two Italians in Rome.
“ A. If we were convinced of the indifference of all our actions, if we realised that those we call just and unjust are seen quite differently by Nature, we would make less false calculations. But the prejudices of childhood deceive us and will continue to lead us into error as long as we have the weakness to listen to them. It would seem as though the torch of reason only lights us when we are no longer in a position to profit from its rays, and it is only after folly has succeeded folly that we manage to discover the source of all those that ignorance has made us commit. The laws of the land still almost always serve us as compass to distinguish the just from the unjust. We say such an action is forbidden by the law, therefore it is unjust; it is impossible to find a more mistaken manner of judging than this, for the law is founded on the general interest; now nothing is more in contradiction with the general interest than particular interest, and at the same time nothing is juster than the latter; therefore nothing is more unjust than the law which sacrifices all particular interests to general interests. But man, you object, wishes to live in society and therefore must sacrifice some portion of his private happiness to that of the public.
Agreed; but why do you want him to have made such a pact without being sure of gaining as much as he sacrifices? Now, he gains nothing from the pact he has made in consenting to the laws; for you inhibit him far more than you satisfy him, and for one occasion in which the law protects him, there are a thousand when it stands in his way; therefore either the laws should not be consented to or they should be made infinitely milder. The only use of law has been to postpone the annihilation of prejudices, to keep us longer under the shameful yoke of error; law is a restraint which man has placed on man, when he saw with what ease he broke all other restraints ; how, after that, could he suppose the supplementary restraint could ever be of any use ?
There are punishments for the guilty; agreed, but I only see in them cruelties and no means of making man better, and that is, to my mind, what one ought to work at. Besides one escapes these punishments with the greatest ease, and that certainty encourages the spirit of the man who has made up his mind. Let us convince ourselves once and for all that laws are merely useless and dangerous; their only object is to multiply crimes or to allow them to be committed with impunity on account of the secrecy they necessitate. Without laws and religions it is impossible to imagine the degree of glory and grandeur human knowledge would have attained by now; the way these base restraints have retarded progress is unbelievable; and that is the sole service they have rendered to man. People have dared declaim against the passions and enchain them with laws.
But compare the one with the other; let us see whether passions or laws have done more good to mankind. Who can question the truth of Helvetius’ remark that passions in the moral sphere correspond to movement in the physical? The invention and the marvels of the arts are only due to strong passions; they should be regarded, the same author continues, as the productive germ of the spirit, and the mighty spring of great actions. Individuals who are not animated by strong passions are merely mediocre beings. It is only strong passions which can produce great men; when one is no longer, or when one ceases to be passionate one becomes stupid. This point established, how dangerous are not laws which inhibit the passions? Compare the centuries of anarchy with those of the strongest legalism in any country you like and you will see that it is only when the laws are silent that the greatest actions appear. If they regain their despotism a dangerous lethargy dulls all men’s spirits; if you no longer see vices you can hardly find a virtue; the springs get rusty and revolutions are prepared.
B. Then you would do away with laws ?
A. Yes. I maintain that man, returned to a state of nature, would crimes.”
This theme is again developed at length in the last volume of Juliette by another “Italian”:
“Give man back to Nature, she will lead him far better than your laws. Above all destroy those vast cities, where the conglomeration of vices forces you to repressive laws. What need has man to live in society? Give him back to the wild forests where he was born and let him do there all that he can; then his crimes, as isolated as he, will do no harm and your restraints become useless: savage man knows only two needs: copulation and food -both natural, and nothing which he can do to obtain either can be criminal. All that produces in him other passions is the work of civilisation and society “.
Philosophy is at the heart of Sade’s work. His major philosophical contribution is his continual reference to an englobing multiplicity that cannot be reduced to the sum of its englobed elements and where the difference and singularity of these englobed elements is protected. There is no distinction between theory and practice in Sade, like there is no distinction between body and mind.
Philosophy becomes a praxis that says everything and anything, but that also opposes prejudices, laws, and imagined beliefs that may limit the saying of this “everything.” In this context, philosophy is still associated with a truth, a truth of the universe where chaos and anarchy prevail and where human laws and institutions are nothing but limited and limiting pockets.
For Sade, it was a question of bringing the battle to the hypocrisy inherent in morality and of adding the liberation of individual impulses to the political and collective revolution of his era –which would be identical with the refusal of all violence against the people exercised by the State or religion.
Didn’t Nietzsche need to read Sade to conclude that “all the religions are, in the final analysis, systems of cruelty” (The Genealogy of Morals)?
To be continued.
Georges M. Halpern, MD, PhD