BOOK REVIEW: Philosophy in the Bedroom by Marquis de Sade

Philosophy in the BoudoirPhilosophy in the Boudoir by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 4 of 5 stars Page

This seven-part dialogue tells the story of a young woman’s education in libertinage (“libertine” shouldn’t be confused with liberal or libertarian.) The book mixes action sequences of a pornographic nature with philosophical discussions on ethics, law, governance, relationships, and religion. A young woman, Eugenie, is sent (without objection) by her father into the care of Madame de Saint-Ange, though another character, Dolmance, serves as both the girl’s primary philosophy lecturer as well as the choreographer of the orgiastic sexual activities that take place throughout book.

Overall, the philosophy is weak, but not altogether lacking compelling ideas, at least in the context of its time – i.e. late Age of Enlightenment. Setting aside the controversial and broadly reviled nature of Sade’s philosophy, I criticize it primarily on the grounds that it misunderstands its own foundations and frequently contradicts itself. The foundations I’m referring to are the workings of the natural world. Libertine philosophy is an offshoot of Enlightenment thinking, and as such attempts to replace the superstition and the arbitrary morals of religion. The question becomes with what one replaces religion-driven bases for determining action. Sade’s argument is that we should see ourselves as part of nature and behave in synch with it. It could be argued that using natural principles as one’s guide is as fine an idea as any, but the problem is Sade doesn’t have an accurate picture of how nature really works. Ironically, he seems to have the same unsophisticated view of nature that his opponents held – i.e. that nature is always and everywhere a brutal and chaotic hellscape. [The main difference is that Sade assumed that one must surrender to this hellscape while his opponents proposed that one must subdue it.] The fact of the matter is promiscuity and intraspecies killing aren’t universal in nature, and cooperation does exist alongside competition in the natural world. (To be clear, interspecies killing is universal for many species and intraspecies killing occurs, but consider venomous snakes of a given species that wrestle for dominance while not using their poison or infantrymen who only pretend to shoot their weapons in combat. Also, I don’t mean to suggest monogamy is the rule [besides in birds, where it is,] but Sade seems to believe there is no order to mating in the natural world.) In sum, nature does not tell us to default to the most savage behavior in all situations, and while animals can be ferocious, they generally don’t go around being jerks for the sake of being a jerk.

Since I also criticized the book’s philosophy for inconsistency, I will give one example to demonstrate a more widespread problem. Dolmance tells us that humans should live checked only as nature would check us (as opposed to by religious dictates,) but tells Eugenie to not listen to the voice of nature that tells her to not behave fiendishly.

I also said this philosophy wasn’t without compelling points. Setting aside the many ideas that were well-addressed by more mainstream philosophers long before Sade entered the picture (e.g. the need to separate the activities of religion from those of government,) Sade’s arguments for seeing a purpose for sexual activity beyond procreation, against seeing the making of more humans as a grand and necessary virtue, and against attaching stigmas to nonprocreative sex are all ideas that have gained traction since the turn of the 19th century and arguably could be furthered to positive ends.

Speaking briefly to the non-philosophical side of the book, I will say that – excepting Dialogue VII (the final one) – this book was much less disturbing than some other of the Marquis’s books (e.g. 120 Days of Sodom or Justine,) Prior to the last section, the book involves consensual activities that aren’t dialed up to the maximum level of shock value. That said, Dialogue VII is as cringeworthy as they come. Also, I didn’t understand how all the orgy choreography could work, but that might be attributable to my lack of imagination.

This book will obviously not be everyone’s cup of tea (too much orgy sex for some, too much philosophy for others, and to much of both for most) but as the Marquis de Sade’s books go, it does delve most deeply into philosophy and is moderately less disturbing than some others.

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BOOK REVIEW: Justine by Marquis de Sade

Justine (Harper Perennial Forbidden Classics)Justine by Marquis de Sade
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

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This is the story of a virtuous, and pretty, young woman who repeatedly falls prey to lecherous libertines. Over the course of the story, she is victimized by aristocrats, monks, and outlaws. The lead goes by the name Therese, though her given name was Justine. She is one of two sisters orphaned after their father ran afoul of a man by having an affair with said man’s wife. The story is set in France immediately before the Revolution, as it was written while de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1787.

As Therese is telling her tale of woe on the eve of her trial for murder and arson, one might question whether she is an unreliable narrator. In other words, was she as morally upright and steadfastly pious as she portrays, and were her sufferings truly through no fault of her own [beyond naïveté.] That level of complexity is beyond de Sade’s simple formulation. The lesson of his amorality tale is that Therese ends up in such a mess precisely because (by being so virtuous and pious) she fails to comply with what de Sade saw as the law of nature. His version of the law of nature is defined by the strong lording over the weak, and the ideal of “do unto others, before they can do unto you.”

What is the evidence for de Sade’s twisted amoral moral to the story? First, he includes a sister, Juliette, who follows the path of least resistance (accepting a life of vice) and ends up much better off. Second, all of the “villains” (though de Sade didn’t see them that way, I’m certain) are prone to Bond Villainesque exposition on this philosophy as justification for the vile acts they are perpetrating. This ham-handed approach can make for an annoying read. [However, if one is interested in the minutiae of the philosophy of libertinage, one may find some of the arguments interesting. While de Sade’s philosophy is rank and vile, it may have just been a wild pendulum swing from what was going on in the mainstream world at the time.]

While I certainly wouldn’t recommend the book as a treatise on ethics, morality, or philosophy, it’s an interesting story. I’ve only read one other book by this author (i.e. “120 Days of Sodom”) and can say that “Justine” is vastly better than that one.

I’d recommend it for those intrigued by the occasional amorality tale. It can’t be said to lack tension. Needless to say, it’s graphic in places, and not for readers of delicate sensibilities.

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