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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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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BOOK REVIEW: The 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade

The 120 Days of SodomThe 120 Days of Sodom by Marquis de Sade

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

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This book was listed in one of those “500 Books One Must Read” lists. Maybe it was “1,001 Must-Read Books.” However large the number, I think it was wrongly included. But it was free in e-book form (or nearly so) and so I figured: “I love free and I like edgy, so what’s not to enjoy.” Besides, this book has been banned many places around the world and there’s nothing that makes me want to read a book like it being banned. Plus, how many authors have such profound impact on the language as to have their names raised from that status of proper noun to common noun (the Marquis de Sade being from whence the word sadism, or “delight in cruelty,” is derived.)

Now the natural inclination of people seeing the uncomplimentary fashion in which I present this novel will be to think that I’m just a vanilla guy who found the work morally objectionable and that tarnished my view. It’s true that the scat, pedophilia, rape, and—in the latter chapters—homicidal mania rampant throughout the book are not my cup of tea. I, therefore, may not be able to convince you that I could have found the book appealing if it presented the same content in a more skillful manner. [I can’t imagine such a book being “enjoyable,” but I can imagine one that would be “engrossing.”]

However, I intend to convince you that there is a great deal that is unappealing about this book that has nothing to do with the subject matter. I firmly believe that, regardless of one’s ability to stomach the substantive content, one will still find the book to be an utter disappointment. [It should be noted that many people will find the book is more effective in the horror genre than the erotica genre—which isn’t to say that it succeeds in either.]

The synopsis is that four wealthy and prominent men take a harem of 46 individuals (boys, girls, men, and women) to a remote retreat to both have their way with them and, ultimately, snuff most of them out. The four men spend their time listening to tales of debauchery and sadism as told by a couple of prostitutes and then emulating the acts in the aforementioned stories.

Now, you may say, “What would keep 46 people from overwhelming four men—rich and powerful as they may be—and regaining their freedom?” Well, that’s the first problem with the book. It’s true that many of the victims aren’t adults, but enough are to make a rebellion workable. We are never told why this should work, and in this way the book is just a bunch of crude juvenile fantasies that fail the credulity test. A Bishop or President tells someone to drink acid or kill their own kin, and we are just supposed to accept that they would do it without question. The book sets up no tension. It really is the fantasy realm of an impotent man with delusions of grandeur.

The organization of the book is in five parts corresponding to the months / partial months that make up the 120 days mentioned in the title, and the storytellers tell progressively more vicious tales as the book progresses. The first couple parts don’t involve much violence and the acts described aren’t much different from what one might find in a book like The Story of O, except for the tonnage of poo in the Marquis’ stories. Having compared this to Réage’s work, let me say that it’s not just the poo that makes Sade’s work inferior, it’s also the lack of insight into the mind of the characters. (Part of the problem is that there is a vast cast of victims that have no dimensionality to them.) We see O’s reluctance, anger, pain, and transformation, but get none of this in The 120 Days of Sodom.

As the book progresses, it degrades further into lists of acts of debauchery and cruelty that all seem to blend together into a tepid bowl of poo. The Marquis de Sade wrote this work in prison and it really comes off as an outline of acts of violence he dreamt up out of the frustration of impotence. A well-written work that wanted to explore this situation would pick a few particularly evocative acts from the list and would form them into a coherent story with multi-dimensional characters and a narrative arc. This book is just a list of cringe-worthy acts written out tersely, but they don’t induce a cringe because none of it feels real because we get no insight into characters and the four leads are just supermen who get to do whatever they please without any realistic opposition.

If you read this book, read it out of interest in the historical persona of the Marquis de Sade. If you’re reading it as erotic literature, you’ll probably find it to be a disappointing series of premature ejaculations that just tries too hard to list the most disgusting and objectionable acts imaginable. If you read it as horror, you’ll have to read through a couple of chapters of stuff that’s just disgusting–but not particularly scary, and then when you get to the horrifying part it’ll just be a machine gun blast of little tales with inadequate description to be truly gripping.

Needless, I think the greatest act of cruelty ever committed by the Marquis de Sade was getting people to read this horrible book—maybe that was what he was after.

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