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: Naked Lunch [the Restored Text] by William S. Burroughs

Naked Lunch: The Restored TextNaked Lunch: The Restored Text by William S. Burroughs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page

This isn’t a novel so much as a series of heroin-fueled fever dreams. While that makes it sound incoherent and unreadable, there’s a great deal of visceral imagery and clever language in it. What there’s not is a thread that carries the reader through a series of events constituting a coherent narrative arc. The book reads like dystopian fiction, but that’s merely Beat-style lingo and heroin addict worldview applied to a combination of Burrough’s world and the surreal mind-space of the addict on a fix.

As is also true of Joyce’s “Ulysses,” if you’re a reader who needs a coherent story and the avoidance of experimental language, you probably won’t like this book. Furthermore, readers who’re uncomfortable with pornographic imagery will also find the book objectionable. However, if you enjoy books that are prose poem-like in their use of language and if you don’t mind the disjointed strangeness necessary to convey the addict’s mental experience, then you’ll probably get a kick out of this book. It’s worth recognizing that what makes the book a challenging read is simultaneously what makes it such a masterpiece of the drug-addled experience. If it were more lucid, it’d be tepid and purposeless.

This is the restored text edition. This is one of the few cases in which I’d recommend reading all the backmatter. It includes some “outtakes” from the earliest drafts, but (more usefully) some essays by Burroughs that offer important insights. When one finishes this book, there’s a tendency to think, “What was that? What did I just read?” The appendices help one understand the book better. Here we read Burrough’s claim that he had no recollection of composing the original draft, and a later statement in which he clarifies that his earlier statement was an exaggeration – that he did have some memories of it.

I found this book to be an engrossing read. As I say, while it’s bizarre, outlandish, and frequently pornographic, it also lends insight into a state of mind that most of us – fortunately – will never experience.

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BOOK REVIEW: The Convent School by Rosa Coote

The Convent School: Early Experiences of a Young FlagellantThe Convent School: Early Experiences of a Young Flagellant by Rosa Coote
My rating: 4 of 5 stars page


This novella is a work of Victorian erotica. Given the Victorian era’s legendary hyper-moralism and widespread desire to downplay of sexuality, one might be forgiven for thinking of the term “Victorian erotica” in the same vein as “Medieval Electronics.” However, the psychology of interest revolves around the question of whether repression produces obsession, resulting in sex becoming more entangled with guilt and punishment than it is with love and romance. The Convent School tells the sexually-charged story of a girl / young woman / woman who receives a lot of spankings before, during, and after her time at the titular convent school — in the latter case, as an unfaithful married woman.

That brings us to mention the first of two [overlapping] groups of readers who are unlikely to find any appeal in this book, and who would be advised to steer clear of it. First of all, anyone with delicate sensibilities regarding sexual activities will likely find this work over the line. If you are expecting something like Bram Stoker’s Dracula that is sensual but in only a vaguely sexual sort of way, you’ll be in for a rude shock. This story is presented with a pornographic level of graphic detail. It holds nothing back and leaves little to the imagination. I should point out that the story gets more graphic as it progresses. So, for example, before the girl is sent to convent school, the main sexual activity goes on behind closed doors between the girl’s matron-like tutor and the girl’s father (or so the reader is led to believe,) with the girl’s solitary self-exploration forming the most graphic portion. However, by the time she is a married woman being punished for the transgression of infidelity the story reaches a brutal level of graphic detail.

The second group are those who are piously religious. In written tradition that predates the Victorian era, and which includes works like Boccaccio’s The Decameron and any work by the Marquis de Sade, the clergy are presented as libidinous and hypocritical. [At least, that’s how the clergy who feature in the story are portrayed. While it could be argued that they are exceptions to the rule, it might also be claimed that these authors are saying something about how the inability to engage in romantic sexuality will – rather than resulting in the desired asexuality – result in a perverse weaponization of sexual activity.]

As for who would read this book, beyond the obvious — those for whom sado-masochism and bondage / domination has great interest or appeal, the readership is a niche group with interests in history and / or psychology as it [they] overlap[s] literature. It’s fair to say that this is a work that might have been totally forgotten had it not been for the fact that Alan Moore revived the pseudonym and fictitious biography of the author of The Convent School for use in his graphic novel The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen (a work that imagines a collection of Victorian era fictional characters (Allan Quatermain, Mina [Harker] Murray, Dr. Jekyll, and Captain Nemo) brought together as a team of heroes. Having said that it might have been completely forgotten from the annals of erotic literature, it is available on Project Gutenberg.

Normally, here I’d give a recommendation or anti-recommendation, but this whole review serves that function, so consider yourself forewarned / informed.

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