Monday, October 18, 2010

"The Marquis de Sade: a Study by Simone de Beauvoir with selections from his writings": Review

"Must We Burn Sade?" de Beauvoir's 1951-52 essay, cautiously answers no. She explains how this most notorious libertine sought a sort of liberty from convention. He tried to wrestle and pummel and seduce Nature into submission; he failed to escape his body and his desires once slaked returned to torment him, and the cycle escalated as he tried to overcome the indifference of Nature to man's most outrageous actions, and as he tried to resist the powers of the State who imprisoned him for his dangerous actions, not only his infamous writings.

He created in his surname a byword for perversion, yet as an author, "talking to himself" at great length he prattled on about political philosophy as often as the other activities that earned him censorship. Simone de Beauvoir places the Marquis de Sade's struggle within the difficulty we all have: to stay autonomous but to aspire to a universal condition, an integration into a community. This may turn as it did in real life and on the page for de Sade into a twisted utopia bent on orgies, infamies, and communal property and no claim to one's body, and as de Beauvoir shows, he failed to "turn the real world of hard fact into a theater."

She suggests that he suffered a form of "autism." That is, he could not forget himself in the transports of the violent, the idealistic, or the erotic, and he lacked being "genuinely aware of the other person." He wore himself out inventing new ways to assault the body that seemed a barrier to be overcome in the way to freedom. He grew obese, he prattled, yet his contradictions forced himself to compel others to watch himself, for even in prison, he invented an audience. "In order to amaze or frighten oneself, one must observe oneself from a distance, through foreign eyes."

De Beauvoir reminds us of his opposition to state-sponsored capital punishment, his uneasy switch from pre-Revolution pleasure to post-guillotine depredation, and his many irreconcilable positions on matters of the mind and body, the State and the individual, law and anarchy. "In choosing eroticism, Sade chose the make-believe." There he could live without being disappointed by a world unable to understand his strange rebellion. She concludes that he "drained to the dregs the moment of selfishness, injustice, and misery, and he insisted upon its truth. The supreme value of his testimony is that it disturbs us." He forces us to wonder again how much we truly care for each other, if there is no God and if Nature does rule supreme over our destinies.

De Beauvoir more than once draws our attention to the "Pensee," a side of de Sade that the modern reader may not anticipate. He wrote: "God, then, no more exists than colors do for men born blind; and man is, then, as right to maintain there is no God as the blind man is to hold that there are no colors, for colors are not real things but simply matters of convention and all matters of convention acquire reality in men's minds only in so far as they affect their senses and are capable of being understood by them." He goes on to argue how our senses cannot perceive God, and that God has no reality in terms of whatever people can comprehend.

(As an aside, a new book by Guy Deutscher, "Through the Language Glass," explains the color convention in how different cultures invent or lack vocabulary for the spectrum; see my review in October 2010. See also my review of Pierre Klossowski's "Sade My Neighbor," which de Beauvoir critiques for its reliance on a Freudian reduction of de Sade's reaction to his hated mother.)

This edition works better for giving us the essay by de Beauvoir than the anthologized passages that here follow her article. The prose selections from the Marquis included here after "Faut-il brûler Sade?" have been superseded by fuller, unexpurgated translations. Presumably due to censorship laws or fear of prosecution, this anthology was published 1953-54 with careful renderings of a few political, religious, sexual, and philosophical excerpts chosen by Paul Dinnage. The original French often remains to disguise the lubricity, the homosexuality, and assorted brands of "sodomy," while the atheism, moralizing, and murder is intact in English.

These selections, often less engrossing than dull, give some sense for the curious reader of the range of his thought, and the narrowness of its depths, but as in the case of poor Olympe tossed by her companions (after two hours of outrages) into a volcano simply because she "bores" them seem more puerile than philosophical, compared to the "Pensee" above. He cites Voltaire to sum up his own outlook: "Love is the fabric of nature embroidered by the imagination." De Sade may bore you more than you might suspect, but as in the excerpt above, he does cloak within his verbosity moments that you will remember, if not the ones you might have first expected.

(Posted to & Amazon US 10-13-10. For more on Klossowski, search by that keyword on my blog, and see Benjamin Ivry's "ArtForum" 2001 essay, reproduced today on Words Undone here. In turn, Ivry wrote a wonderful article on Simone Weil in the Forward that I blogged about here: "Simone Weil: Chain-Smoking, Self-Starving, Jewish Mystical Malcontent?". That leads to my review of Grahame Davies' astonishingly poised novel comparing and contrasting Weil's ambition with that of a latter-day Welsh language activist, "Everything Must Change.". Bookers, Pulitzers, and Nobels have been granted for far less. I rarely praise a novel so, but this I do.)

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