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BOOK REVIEW: Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips

The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short IntroductionThe Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by John Phillips
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

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History has—fairly or not—relegated the Marquis de Sade to status as the author of four violently sexual novels and the eponyms (i.e. sadism and sadist) that arose from those works. He produced many more conventional works than libertine / sadomasochistic ones (including plays, stories, essays, and correspondence), and has been credited among the leading developers of the modern short story. While his philosophy tended to be both extremist and inconsistent, it was also in the vanguard of rationalist thinking that eschewed superstition, put mankind squarely in the realm of nature, and advocated cherishing the body (if tending toward a hedonistic approach, but contrasting with religious thinking in which the body was a mere empty vessel—a burden to be gratefully cast off at death.) The man also lived through fascinating times astride the French Revolution, while spending much of his adult life in prison.

Phillips emphasizes the unfair oversimplification of Sade’s work, ideas, and place in history. That said, he does give special attention to the four libertine novels (i.e. “Justine,” “Juliette,” “120 Days of Sodom,” and “Philosophy of the Bedroom.”) This attention is spread across the book’s seven chapters as Phillips deemed relevant. While the author wants us to recognize Sade was more complicated than we might think, he also suggests that the libertine novels tell us the most about the man’s philosophy and his personal psychology. If it sounds like Phillips is a mere champion of Sade, he does mix in strong criticism with his defensive positions.

The first chapter is a biographical sketch of the life of the Marquis de Sade. Sade’s life story has been the subject of more than one book, so this is that biography greatly condensed. The chapter is designed, as its heading suggests, to separate the man from the myth. In this more objective telling of Sade’s life, one learns some interesting facts. For example, Sade held a judicial position in which he could have passed sentence on his ex-in-laws for whom he had no love. However, the ultra-violent sadist set them free because he didn’t believe in the death sentence, and knew they would be doomed to it if he did otherwise. This is representative of the contradiction of Sade, but it’s also not. Sade distrusted violence in the hands of groups and government even while he swore it was the way of nature between individuals. There is a seed of truth in his apparently irrational stance, and that is that we humans are inescapably of nature.

Chapter two is entitled “Man of Letters” and it looks at Sade as an author and scholar. Here we learn about the breadth and depth of Sade’s work which included comedies, tragedies, and satires, and in which plays out in several media. Chapter three is about Sade’s stance as an atheist, which could have gotten him killed before or after the Revolution, and it was a much more lethal stance than his life as a pornographer. (Note: I use “pornographer” as the authorities might. Phillip makes a point [upon which I agree] that most of Sade’s libertine writings are too disgusting and/or violent to achieve eroticism. Some would classify them in the horror genre rather than that of erotica.)

The fourth chapter describes Sade’s life around the French Revolution. He was in prison at times before and after, but—as mentioned–at one point was given a judgeship. Phillips points out that at one point Sade’s prison cell overlooked a yard in which Robespierre’s guillotine operated as the revolutionary’s “Terror” was in progress. (As has been true on numerous other occasions, revolutionaries can more than match the brutality of those they overthrew.) It seems likely that witnessing executions had a profound influence on Sade’s psyche and philosophy.

Chapter five is about Sade’s theatricality. Besides being a playwright, Sade was known to act and also to use theatrical elements in his other written works. Phillips specifically notes this tendency with respect to “120 Days of Sodom” in which much of the action revolves around four libertines listening to stories of old prostitutes, which the libertines then try to reenact or outdo in person.

Chapter six delves into an area of great controversy: Sade’s views on women. Sade has often been dismissed as a she-hating misogynist. This reputation isn’t without reason, despite the fact that Sade’s libertine characters are brutal to males over which they have power in similar fashion. However, one sees in both “Philosophy of the Boudoir” and “Juliette” a more nuanced view. The former is a girl’s coming of age story (coming to age as a lady libertine, though), and the latter is a counterpoint to “Justine” in which tragedy after tragedy befalls a virtuous female lead (in “Juliette,” Justine’s separated sister–who took to vice in accord with the ways of nature as Sade saw them–experiences prosperity beyond all expectations.) The take-away is that Sade may have been a hater of goody-two-shoes women, but his views on Jezebels seems to border on affectionate.

The final chapter considers Sade’s perspective on liberty. Like his positions on femininity and philosophy, it’s a mixed bag of muddled views, but it doesn’t lack for boldness. As mentioned, Sade saw both the before and after of Revolution and was inherently distrustful of any party in power. He’d been an aristocrat (if a scandalized one) and he’d been freed from the royal dungeons–thus currying temporary favor among revolutionaries. And, of course, he’d watched many a head roll wondering if his day wasn’t soon to come. He saw mankind in the Hobbesian state of nature, and couldn’t help but have it reinforce his established views.

The book has numerous graphics. One should note that many of these are line drawings of a sexual and / or sadomasochistic nature. There are also “further reading” and “references” section, that are a little longer than average for books in this series.

I’ve reviewed a number of books in this “A Very Short Introduction” series put out by Oxford University Press. They are designed to give one the core information on a subject in a compact package. This one is slightly longer than average for the ones I’ve previously reviewed (i.e. usually 100pp, this one is about 140pp), but not severely so–particularly given it being in the humanities.

I’d recommend this book to anyone who wants to separate the Marquis de Sade from his myth. It’s not straight biography, and–if that’ s specifically what you’re looking for–it may not be your primary choice, but I’d still recommend it for some of the information on specific subtopics addressed.

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