Friday, 29 January 2016
I watched the 2011 film “Hysteria” a few days ago. Directed by Tanya Wexler and set at the end of the 19th century the film depicts the management of “hysteria,” a then popular diagnosis of women displaying an array of symptoms including nervousness, insomnia, exhaustion, depression, cramps, and sexual frustration. It’s an atmospheric film, evoking images of Victorian London; it is also a romantic comedy. The humour comes from the way in which upper class women were treated for hysteria, both from the female’s point of view and the young Dr Granville’s technique for masturbating them.
Medical practitioners of the day tried to manage hysteria by massaging the genital area, decently covered under a curtain, to elicit "paroxysmal convulsions", without recognizing that they were inducing orgasms. In the film, the young physician Dr. Mortimer Granville gets a job helping Dr. Dalrymple, who runs a successful practice treating women.
Granville seems to be good at massaging, getting a sizeable following, while at the same time developing a liking for the Dalrymple's very proper Victorian daughter, Emily Dalrymple. As the practice prospers, Dr. Dalrymple proposes marriage between Emily and Granville; in the meantime, Granville finds himself assisting Dalrymple's other daughter, Charlotte, a premodern feminist firebrand who runs a settlement house in a poor section of London.
Dalrymple forbids Granville from offering any future assistance to Charlotte, hoping to dissuade her from her work in the slums. Meanwhile, the increased clientele at the practice is hard on Granville, and his hand musculature is unable to keep up with the task. In terms that we, today understand, he has repetitive stress syndrome. This leads to dissatisfaction among the patients and his dismissal by Dalrymple.
Fortunately, his friend Lord Edmund St. John-Smythe has developed an electrical feather duster, and its vibrations give Dr. Granville the idea to modify the gadget for use as an electric massager.
As such, the vibrator enters the stage as a medical device for the treatment of the condition, reducing treatment time while greatly increasing customer satisfaction. The royalties from its sale result in independent wealth for Granville, who has since fallen in love with Charlotte. Pledging to use some of his wealth to establish a clinic at her settlement house, he proposes marriage to Charlotte and she accepts.
As with anything to do with the Victorian era, the contrast between rich and poor is apparent. The wealthy, upper and middle class ladies, can have their sexuality fulfilled. The poor women, whom Charlotte endeavours to help, rely on charity for their most basic medical needs.
In the 19th century, masturbation was seen as deviant behaviour, and as even more inappropriate for women than for men, since women were believed (and taught) to be free from any form of sexual desire. Some physicians treated "female hysteria" -- symptomized by insomnia, irritability, nervousness, or "excessive moisture inside the vagina" -- with what was termed "medicinal massage", inserting a finger and gently rubbing the woman's genitalia. This led to "paroxysm", a sudden outburst in the patient which doctors (being men) believed was not orgasm, since women were thought incapable of orgasm. "Physician-assisted paroxysm" became popular among patients, but for doctors it led to pained, sore fingers and wrists. Sometimes taking anything up to an hour for the female patient to achieve the desired result. Regardless of Dr Granville's intent and protestations, his device was soon adopted for the task, allowing treatment which had taken as long as an hour (and often failed) to instead be completed in mere minutes (and virtually always successfully).
At the height of his worldwide fame, Sigmund Freud sought to discredit medical masturbation, but by then many women viewed doctors as an unnecessary intermediary. Vibrators were soon offered in the Sears Roebuck catalogue, but with the advent of motion pictures came pornographic films, and when men realized how these machines were being used by women, vibrators were withdrawn from ordinary commercial distribution and even outlawed in many areas.
In 1952, more than half a century after Dr Granville's death, the American Psychiatric Association concluded that female hysteria was a myth, not a disease. The sale of vibrators for sexual purposes remains illegal in many nations, and in the American states of Alabama, Georgia, Indiana, Louisiana, Massachusetts, Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia. In 2007 the US Supreme Court declined to hear a case questioning the Constitutionality of such prohibitions, leaving these laws in effect.
This blog post was compiled using sources from the Web.
Friday, 22 January 2016
Paedophilia isn’t something I spend a great deal of time thinking about. I know that some people do. They probably have kids and grandkids, so I suppose they are bound to. I know when I was a kid, my mum always told me that if a strange man tried to talk to me, that I should run and find a lady and tell her. Then along came Myra Hindley, in the 1960’s, and more recently, Vanessa George.
I guess my mum was naïve, I am sure that there have always been predatory women around. You just don’t hear about them very often. But both women have become archetypes of evil, because they stepped out of the traditional role of women as nurturers, instead embracing, and seemingly relishing, doing harm to children.
It’s not good enough to say that both women were under the influence of charismatic men. They knew right from wrong. It seems that some dark, latent, fascination was drawn from them, by the compelling influence of the men who came into their lives. Without those men, maybe the two women would have led quiet suburban lives; but we just don’t know.
Myra Hindley was working quietly in an office, in the 1960’s when she met Ian Brady. He introduced her to the writings of the Marquis de Sade and Adolf Hitler. Brady and Hindley were lovers, but lovers who embarked on a spree of rape and murder. Myra’s role was to lure and abduct. Ian Brady raped then murdered the children that she procured for him. He sucked the life out of them like a greedy vampire. They buried their poor little violated remains on bleak Saddleworth Moor.
I think that it was Myra Hindley who changed the way children played in this country. When I was a kid, we played outside and rambled far from our homes. I remember distinctly, I was 10 years old and my friend Jean and I would cycle around the countryside and be gone all day, looking for fields with ponies. No particular reason – we just loved ponies. Our parents never worried, nor scolded us for being away for so long – they were innocent times.
In 2009, Vanessa George, a mother of two, and a worker in a children’s nursery, appeared in court, having been charged with seven offences, including two of sexual assault by penetration and two of sexual assault by touching children in her care. She was also charged with making, possessing and distributing indecent images of children. Vanessa George, 39, was arrested after indecent images of children taken at Little Ted’s Day Nursery in Plymouth, were found on a computer disc seized by police from a suspected paedophile in Manchester. Police said that the photographs included pictures of children’s torsos taken on a camera phone at the nursery, where Vanessa George had worked for the past two years.
So far, none of the children have been identified, and the officer leading the investigation said that some of them might never be. Parents of the 64 children, aged between 2 and 5, have been asked to complete a questionnaire and list any features that could help to identify individual children from the images.
Russ Middleton, the head of Plymouth CID, said: “At this time we have been unable to identify any images of individual children and it is right to say some images may never be identified.” The number of photographs being examined by the computer experts could eventually run into thousands, Mr Middleton said, though he could not say how many had been taken in the nursery.
He added: “We have specially trained officers looking at the images. We have a large number taken from laptops and PCs but the starting point was from a camera phone. Some of these images were clearly taken inside the nursery but it is impossible to say where others were taken.”
Vanessa George’s arrest followed that of her mentor, Colin Blanchard, who appeared at Trafford Magistrates’ Court charged with possessing and distributing indecent images.
Officers searched a caravan that Mrs George owns at Harlyn Bay near Padstow, Cornwall, in addition to the family home in the Efford area of Plymouth. Police said that her husband, Andrew, and two teenage children had been taken into “protective care”.
Police will be speaking to the nursery’s 15 other members of staff but say they are not looking for anyone else in connection with the investigation.”
Vanessa George still refuses to say which children she abused.
Paedophilia isn’t a topic that sits easily with writers. Perhaps there is a fear of being identified, associated with the crime, let alone the idea of finding a publisher to take the book on. But a paedophile with a female accomplice? Myra Hindley had Ian Brady, Vanessa George’s mentor was Colin Blanchard.
Then there is also the case of “Marc Dutroux a Belgian serial killer and child molester, convicted of having kidnapped, tortured and sexually abused six girls during 1995 and 1996, ranging in age from 8 to 19, four of whom he murdered. He was arrested in 1996 and has been in prison ever since. His widely publicised trial took place in 2004. He married at the age of 19 and fathered two children; the marriage ended in divorce in 1983. By then he’d already had an affair with Michelle Martin. They would eventually have three children together, and married in 1989 while both were in prison. They divorced in 2003, also while in prison."
Michelle Martin was complicit and indulged in Dutroux’ atrocities.
Henry James anticipates this type of insidious, dark exchange in 1898, with his novella, “The Turn of the Screw”.
“The Turn of the Screw”, is essentially a ghost story. The subtle indications of paedophilia are there, but in a more “creeping up behind you”, dark manner than in Vladimir Nabokov’s “Lolita”, which tackles it head on.
A young governess, is sent to a country house to take care of two orphans, Miles, aged ten, and Flora, aged eight. Soon after her arrival, Miles is expelled from boarding school. Although charmed by her young charge, she secretly fears there are ominous reasons behind his expulsion.
With Miles back at home, the governess starts noticing ethereal figures roaming the estate's grounds. Desperate to learn more about these sinister sightings she discovers that the suspicious circumstances surrounding the death of her predecessor, Miss Jessel, hold grim implications for herself.
As she becomes increasingly fearful that malevolent forces are stalking the children the governess is determined to save them, risking herself and her sanity in the process.
Peter Quint and Miss Jessel are the bad guys in “The Turn of the Screw”.
Peter Quint had been a servant at the house at Bly; Miss Jessel was the children’s previous governess. They had an intense erotic interest in one another. Both are now dead; Peter Quint in some sort of brawl. Miss Jessel, under strange circumstances, after she left Bly.
It is much more than a ghost story, “The Turn of the Screw”, is an enthusiastic romance of children and sex. The implication that Miles, the young ward of an impressionable governess, is sexually aware, sexually experienced, and sexually hungry has its draw. Titillating in its inappropriateness, the novel suggests through metaphor and silences what was, and still is, unmentionable.
A dialogue between the narrator and the housekeeper, Mrs Grose, emphasises this;
Mrs Grose says that she was afraid of Peter Quint. “I daresay I was wrong, but, really I was very afraid.”
“Afraid of what?”
“Of the things that man could do. Quint was so clever -- he was so deep.”
I took this in still more than, probably I showed. “You weren’t afraid of anything else? Not of his effect --?”
“His effect?” she repeated with a face of anguish and waiting while I faltered.
“On innocent little precious lives. They were in your charge.”
So the new governess, has strong suspicions that Peter Quint has corrupted young Miles, in addition to seducing and corrupting Miss Jessel.
Peter Quint and Miss Jessel haunt the house at Bly, they also haunt the children’s new governess. It seems that even in death the ghosts want the children for themselves.
When Mrs Grose and the narrator next converse they speak of the children as their darlings, their little dears. But Quint and Jessel, even as ghosts are still a threat. The narrator is certain that Quint and Jessel want to possess the children.
“They’re not mine -- they’re not ours. They’re his and hers!”
“Quint’s and that woman’s?”
“Quint’s and that woman’s. They want to get them.”
Poet and literary critic Craig Raine in his essay on Sex in nineteenth-century literature states quite categorically his belief that Victorian readers would have identified the two ghosts as child-molesters.
Mrs Grose tells the governess about Quint’s relationship with Miles;
“It was Quint’s own fancy. To play, with him I mean -- to spoil him.” She paused a moment; then she added; “Quint was much too free.”
Psychoanalytically, the governess, who is alluded to as being sexually inexperienced and sexually repressed, has attached the image of raw, animalistic sexuality with the ghost of Peter Quint, which explains why she is fervent in her efforts to keep this ghost away from the young and impressionable Miles. The housekeeper, Mrs Grose, early in the novel, implies that Peter Quint, who acted as master of the house at times, and the young Miles may have engaged in some man-boy intimate contact, and thus the strange behaviour of Miles can be read in this manner.
Quint represents a scary threat: sex. We know that he seduced the unfortunate Miss Jessel; Quint is a destroyer of young ladies, and that he spent far too much time alone with young Miles. Quint is described as handsome, but dastardly, and he is seductive and frightening in equal measure. Basically, Peter Quint stands for everything the Governess is afraid of, and this sense of menace is his most distinguishing characteristic.
The narrator tells Mrs Grose about the ghostly vision that she’d had of Miss Jessel.
She describes her as “handsome, but infamous.”
Mrs Grose replies; “Miss Jessel was infamous…they were both infamous.”
But what is it that the governess is so afraid of? It seems that her entire focus is on the “corruption” of the children -- she is certain that they were corrupted by Quint and Jessel when they were alive and that they continue to be corrupted now that they are ghosts. Before she even knows about Quint, the governess guesses that Miles has been accused of corrupting other children. Although corruption is a euphemism that permits the governess to be vague about what she means, the clear implication is that corruption means exposure to the knowledge of sex. For the governess, the children’s exposure to the knowledge of sex is a far more terrifying concept than confronting the living dead, or of being killed.
In the final chapter, Miles tells the narrator the reason he was expelled from school.
“I said things.”
When asked how many boys he had “said things” to, he replies;
“No -- only a few. Those I liked.”
“…they must have repeated them. To those they liked.”
The narrator asks; “What were these things?”
Events take over and we never find out for sure -- although we share the narrator’s suspicions.
Consequently, her attempt to save the children takes the form of a relentless quest to find out what they know -- to make them confess, rather than predict what may happen to them in the future. Her fear of innocence being corrupted seems to be a big part of the reason she approaches the problem indirectly -- it’s not just that the ghosts are unmentionable, but what the ghosts have said to them, or introduced them to that is unspeakable.
But what the hell is going on with this current governess? She is the narrator and we only ever see things from her point of view. Is she reliable? Can the reader trust her? At times her narration seems to border on the hysterical. She describes the children as “little dears”. “Our sweet darlings”. But just pages later, she hints that they are duplicitous; colluding with the ghosts. And what about her own relationship with the children, especially Miles? On their walk to the church, their dialogue reads like an adult flirtation.
“I could say nothing for a minute, though I felt, as I held his hand and our eyes continued to meet, that my silence had all the air of admitting his charge and that nothing in the whole world of reality was perhaps at that moment so fabulous as our actual relation.”
Then later, the narrator is so overwhelmed, (we would say turned on; aroused) she cannot bring herself to follow Miles into the church.
“…it was too extreme an effort to squeeze beside him into the pew; he would be so much more sure than ever, to pass his arm into mine and make me sit there for an hour in close, silent contact with his commentary on our talk. For the first minute since his arrival I wanted to get away from him.”
Let’s not forget that Miles is a ten year old boy and the governess is a woman in her twenties. Does she have an infatuation with Miles? She speaks of their relationship as if she is violently, sexually attracted to him. Is she as guilty in her secret thoughts of the sin that she condemns Quint and Jessel for? Or maybe she is just flustered around males; she is seduced by Miles -- she continually tells us of his goodness; but it is plain that he makes her nervous. She has certainly been attracted to Miles’ uncle, when he interviewed her for the position of governess in Harley Street. And Peter Quint’s raw, animalistic sexuality terrifies her. It’s as if she can scent Quint’s musky, relentless, sexual arousal. Quint is primal, feral. He takes what he wants.
Henry James clearly knew what he was doing, when he created his characters and this malevolent situation. Never is he explicit, he lets his words work on us, like burrowing maggots. What we, as readers can imagine is vastly more frightening and haunting than what he, the author, could have ever committed to the page.
Perhaps James is asking us to consider; what is the source of evil? We know that evil exists, but where does it come from? He "turns the screw" on the conventional notion of evil, by introducing the innocence of children.
Miss Jessel, Myra Hindley, Vanessa George, Michelle Martin. What are we to make of them?
Paedophilia is silenced. Okay, these days we talk a lot about it. We babble and say nothing. When we try for a constructive dialogue, we end up screaming at each other. We panic.
What is less admissible, more unspeakable than paedophilia? And what then is more silenced than the female paedophile?
Friday, 8 January 2016
Jean-Léon Gérôme (11 May 1824 – 10 January 1904)
was a French painter and sculptor in the style now call Academicism. The range of his work included historical painting, Greek mythology, Orientalism, portraits and other subjects, bringing the Academic painting tradition to an artistic climax. WIKI.
His painting, “Slave Market”, is lyrical; it has a narrative, it tells a story. The viewer forms the story in his own mind. Transfixed, the viewer gazes at the lovely image of the naked woman. The viewer asks a series of questions. What is going on here? Who is the woman? Is she really going to be sold; bought by an unknown man? The same man might go on to another market and purchase a cow, a pig, a horse. The naked female is going to be someone’s property to do with as he wishes. She is for his consumption. He can flog her, have sex with her when he chooses. She will not have any legal right to refuse him.
The viewer is a voyeur; excited and watching.
A group of men in Arabian dress, surround her; one examines her teeth. I think that this is a visual metaphor which places her on a level with an animal. It is the traditional way to assess a horse’s age, by looking at his teeth. The woman is submissive; her nudity is emphasised by the fact that everyone else in the painting is clothed. She appears drugged; she seems to sway sleepily. She gazes seductively, languorously at the Arabian man. She is ready for sex, she is one step away from rubbing her genitalia against the prospective buyer’s thigh.
This is where the viewer begins to tell himself the story. What has happened to bring a woman of European appearance to a slave market? And what will happen next?
The painting is a BDSM fantasy. It is erotic in its use of visual metaphor and subject matter. Gérôme succeeds in creating a striking image that remains in the viewer’s memory.
Was Gérôme present at such an event as a slave market? We don’t know; but he was well travelled in the Orient. He travelled to Constantinople, in 1853.This would be the first of several travels to the East; in 1854 he made another journey to Turkey.
His paintings of the Orient are atmospheric, suggesting exotic scents and sounds. The Orient is mysterious; sensual.
In this painting, the nude woman up for sale seems slightly more with it. She holds an arm in front of her face to hide her shame. Any sex that is going to happen, after her new owner takes her to his harem, will not necessarily be consensual. It will be rape.
Here, Gérôme turns to even more fantastic settings and more erotic portrayals. This is a painting telling a story of ancient Rome. The bidders are noisy, yelling out their price and probably yelling out obscenities too. All the slaves on display are European in appearance. They are stripped naked, and they’re obviously much sought after and apprehensive about it. The girl crouching on the right looks directly at you, the viewer, as if she hopes you’ll buy her.
PHYRNE BEFORE THE AREOPAGUS
The Greek myth tells us that Phyrne was famously beautiful. On the occasion of a festival of Poseidon at Eleusis, she laid aside her garments, let down her hair, and stepped naked into the sea in the sight of the people. When accused of profaning the Eleusinian Mysteries, she was defended by the orator Hypereides, one of her lovers. The speech for the prosecution was written by Anaximenes of Lampsacus according to Diodorus Periegetes. When it seemed as if the verdict would be unfavourable, Hypereides tore open her robe and displayed her breasts, which so moved her judges that they acquitted her. According to others, she herself removed her clothing. The judges' change of heart was not simply because they were overcome by the beauty of her naked body, but because such unusual physical beauty was often seen as a facet of divinity or a mark of divine favour during those times. WIKI
Phyrne is hiding her face at her sudden theatrical exposure; there is a certain dramatic pause about the gesture. Faux modesty? It is a moment of pure drama; it is meant to be. But it is her face that she hides, not her body. It’s as if she knows the power that her fabulous body has over men. The faces and postures of the judges, suggest a moment of numinous awe. As if they are in the presence of something holy.
It appears that Gérôme had a complex relationship with the Orient. Is he recording a truth here in these paintings; or is he suggesting a fantasy? Exposure and humiliation can be just as much a female fantasy, as it can be a male. Wanting to be displayed and humiliated is a fantasy of submissives, as it is a fantasy of a Dominant, who dreams of being in control. Rape, torture and pain, as well as humiliation are on his/her mind.
And we don’t know Gérôme’s own mind on this. Perhaps he was turned on by his paintings. "Orientalism" is more widely used to refer to the works of the many 19th century artists, who specialized in "Oriental" subjects, often drawing on their travels to North Africa and Western Asia. Artists as well as scholars were already described as "Orientalists" in the 19th century, especially in France.
There was also a fascination with the Orient across the English Channel, with the Romantic movement there. A few weeks ago, I was talking about Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s poem, Kubla Khan. Gérôme’s paintings of slave girls echo the drama and mood of the poem, with its swaying, drowsy use of language.
“Weave a circle ’round him thrice,
And close your eyes in holy dread:
For he on honeydew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of Paradise!”
“Perfectly painted, with an absolute precision of line and a masterly use of colour, Gérôme’s works, despite the academic nature of his subjects and compositions, established a more complex relationship with modern art than might seem to be the case at first sight. This issue has been the subject of recent attention on the part of art historians when reassessing Gérôme’s work and artistic personality. He combined the Romantic interest in reproducing subjects from the classical world, the Far East and even French history with a rationalist desire to offer a truthful account, with the latter intention even prevailing over the need to make the composition intelligible and leading him to infringe academic norms on occasions”. WIKI
Gérôme was one of the most famous painters of his day, although he was also the subject of criticism and controversy throughout his career. His popularity was largely the result of his careful promotion of his works, which became known beyond the frontiers of France and even reached the United States where he was one of the most admired and collected artists from the 1870s onwards.
The fact that Gérôme’s work was so well known in the United States undoubtedly contributed to its role as a source of inspiration for some major Hollywood films. It is this dual nature of his output, at once both scholarly and popular, that makes it so important and appreciated today, both on the part of art historians and the general public.
“Art historians commonly describe Gérôme's paintings as cinematic, and his works have in fact inspired many film adaptations. Widely circulated as prints and photographs, these pictures achieved a global celebrity status by the end of the 19th century. Thus, when early filmmakers referenced these images in their films, they knew that audiences would recognize them.
Gérôme continues to influence filmmakers to this day. In this lecture, Marc Gotlieb, director of the graduate program in the history of art at Williams College, introduces Jean-Léon Gérôme's paintings through the lens of modern cinema. This perspective—characterized by Hollywood and its approach to storytelling and suspense—brings to life pictures that once captivated the attention of audiences across Europe and the United States, even as those pictures were anathema to Modernist aesthetics.”
From Gérôme's Cinematic Imagination. The Getty Centre.
Today, in Europe and America, we don’t really think about the Orient. These days we call the region the Middle East. And when we think about the Middle East, we think about isis, beheadings in the desert; bombings and shootings in Paris. Lee Rigby, hacked to death in front of a horrified public.
Sad isn’t it? It shouldn’t be like that -- but it is. Yet Gérôme is showing us a strange fiction of the “Other” that gives the West a valuable territory of fantasy and desire, which I think is still valid in the 21st century.
“Today the West is bleakly incurious about the history of Islam, its cultural heritage, its art, peoples and learning. There's a blank wall of terror.”
Jonathan Jones Thursday 22nd May 2008. The Guardian newspaper.
Jonathan Jones’ is actually talking about a book that he’s reviewing but his comment seems pertinent here. Our fears have dulled our curiosity. The “Other” has found a different face and it frightens us.
Well -- given the world events of the last ten years, this was bound to happen. The West is fearful. Our curiosity is stunted and yet the Orient still has a history and a culture that shimmers with difference and beauty.
The Orient has a profound cultural heritage of Art, Literature, Philosophy and Intellect. Great civilisations come and go. Time passes...time passes.
The Orient had written language, while we were still scratching our heads trying to work out whether or not the wheel would work.
As for the concept of the Orient itself, we have the wonderful paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme to remind us of that mysterious, soul enriching culture and its history.
Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen for introducing me to the paintings of Jean-Léon Gérôme.
Friday, 1 January 2016
His name is synonymous with the very worst that human beings can be. He plumbs the depths of depravity in his quest for mere titillation; Bad people celebrate his birthday; good people shudder at the mention of his name. He is the Marquis de Sade and I’ve just finished reading “Justine”.
It really is time that I confront de Sade. I call myself a writer of Erotica; indeed, I blushed and trembled with dizzy, giddy pride when the Christian right slammed a “Danger Pornography” notice on my tweets.
But de Sade. He was a French aristocrat, 2nd June 1740—2nd December 1814. A revolutionary politician, famous for his libertine sexuality. His works comprise novels, short stories, plays, dialogues and political tracts. In his lifetime, some were published in his own name, while others appeared anonymously and de Sade denied being their author. He is best known for his erotic works which combine philosophical discourse with pornography, depicting sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom unrestrained by morality, religion or law. The words ‘sadist’ and ‘sadism’ are derived from his name.
He was incarcerated in various prisons and in an insane asylum for about 32 years of his life. Many of his works were written in prison. His ethos is focused absolutely on pain and pleasure.
“It is always by way of pain that one arrives at pleasure.”
“I have already told you; the only way to a woman’s heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.”
“When she’s abandoned her moral center and teachings…when she’s cast aside her façade of propriety and ladylike demeanor…when I have corrupted this fragile thing and brought out a writhing, mewling, bucking wanton whore for my enjoyment and pleasure, enticing from within this feral lioness…growling and scratching and biting, taking everything I dish out to her…at that moment she is never more beautiful to me.”
“Justine,” with the subtitle, “The Misfortunes of Virtue”, is an extraordinary book. The philosophy is that of the merits of vice vs. virtue. The protagonist (a virtuous woman) falls prey to a series of libertines who use and abuse her in whatever ways they deem pleasurable to themselves.
We join the narrative at the point where Juliette, aged 15 and her sister, Justine aged 12 have been orphaned by the death of, first their father and then their mother. They have been educated at a convent, a private establishment, where they had access to the finest minds of their generation.
Their relatives deliberate about what to do with the two girls.
“Since no one cared to take care of them, the doors of the convent were opened to them, they were given their inheritance and left free to do whatever they pleased.”
They were harsh times.
Juliette is sensitive to the pleasures of freedom, while Justine, with her serious and melancholy nature, is aware of the full horror of her situation. Juliette intends to use her pretty face and beautiful figure to her advantage and become a great lady. Justine is horrified by the course her elder sister intends to take and the two go their separate ways.
The story is told at an inn by “Therese” (the name that Justine adopts for the purpose of the narrative) to Madame de Lorsagne (who is actually Justine’s elder sister Juliette. They do not recognise each other) There is irony, in that Juliette,who went briefly for a life of vice, is now in a better position to do good than Justine, who refused to make concessions and so is plunged further into vice.
Justine’s tale begins. On departing from the Convent and leaving her sister, Justine goes to the house of her mother’s dressmaker and asks to be taken in. She is turned away.
A tearful Justine goes to see her priest. De Sade describes her beauty. A perfect picture of innocence.
“..she was wearing a little white close fitting dress, her beautiful hair carelessly tucked beneath a large bonnet. Her bosom could just be discerned, hidden beneath a few ells of gauze, her pretty complexion a little pale owing to the troubles that weighed upon her. Her eyes welled with tears, making them even more expressive..”
The priest does not have Christ, the Holy Spirit or the Rosary on his mind. He drools over the pretty girl.
“God’s spokesman slipped his hand into her cleavage, kissing her in a manner far too worldly for a man of the church.”
When Justine rebuffs him, he throws her out.
In prerevolutionary France, the Church is corrupt and the rich and powerful can get away with more or less anything; Justine’s ideas on how to live a decent and good life are hopelessly out of time. Her tale follows an odyssey of misadventure as she moves from place to place, determined to lead a good and honest life, but encountering abuse after abuse. Always, she is taken in and promptly imprisoned. She takes refuge in a monastery, hoping to claim sanctuary and it is in the Holy place, inhabited by Holy men that she is degraded, abused and defiled to a hideous extreme; all described in explicit detail. She is witness to, and has inflicted on her, every sexual depravity you can think of. Child sex, rape, sodomy, coprophilia, endless whippings, orgies and multiple partners. Every encounter follows the same pattern, followed by an exercise in, quite remarkable, lengthy sophistry as the lecher explains his own version of the Libertine’s credo with passionate intensity and the certainty of experience. This is in contrast to Justine’s assertions of Christian principles which are expressed pathetically in the moment, stubbornly, and with the certainty of blind faith.
So what does de Sade’s novel offer BDSM today? Does what de Sade describe have any relevance to BDSM as we know it in 2013? Probably not. The world is a very different place, we have different values and different ways of understanding.
I wasn’t expecting to find fun in de Sade’s work, neither was I expecting to find anything like joy, there is certainly no sense of playfulness in any of the sexual acts that he describes. What he does do, I think, is to touch on many common fantasies such as the need for pain, inflicted or inflicting that brings to the foreground the means for some of us to celebrate our sexuality.
Is de Sade onto something when he talks about pain and pleasure? He wouldn’t have known about endorphins; the mysterious little opioid peptides released by the pituitary gland at times of great excitement, pain, stress and orgasm. We only know about that sort of stuff because of 20th century research methods.
A friend, whose sexual orientation is submissive, tells me that the rush of endorphins, when the pain of a whipping is almost too much to bear, is almost exquisite. “Better than morphine…”
Freud wrote about the pain pleasure principle. He understood that ‘something’ happened, he just wasn’t sure what…
“When pleasure and pain occur together, a certain amount of confusion may occur, which itself may be pleasant or painful and hence determine what happens. Simultaneous pain and pleasure is a basis for masochism.”
In The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter suggests that de Sade is perhaps the first writer, and in this respect he is surprisingly modern, to see women as more than mere breeding machines, as more than just our biology.
And that, I think, is liberating.
Perhaps we are wrong to take de Sade so seriously? Is he actually talking about an achievable, or even desirable philosophy? de Sade didn’t just write about sex; he had very serious things to say about life, oppression, equality and power. But he said them in such an uncompromising, aggressive way, laughingly indulging himself in his most extreme fantasies and perversions that we recoil in horror. His particular proclivities have a place in his argument and his refusal to excise them, using them and himself as examples, shows, I think, that he is not lacking in integrity.
Still I’m not happy. Let me just throw this in; something to contemplate. I haven’t looked at intent. What is de Sade trying to achieve with his pen? Is he just a dirty old pervert, masturbating into our faces sniggering and sneering at our self-righteous disgust? Or is he laughing at our naiivity, our inability to see through what could be considered a sophisticated piece of satire?
We are so busy being shocked, we miss the point.
It is neither inappropriate nor inconceivable to interpret de Sade’s work as a biting parody in the same tradition as the satirist Jonathan Swift, or the great satirists of today. How many times have you watched (the show that keeps me sane) South Park, with your gut clenching, cringing, as you wonder how the writers dare put such corrupt words into the mouths of children? Nothing is sacred in the hands of Trey Parker and Matt Stone. Even the Sacred are a target. God, Satan, Christ, the Virgin Mary. As is the President, sex, age, sexual orientation, social media, popular culture, child abuse, paedophilia. Nothing is off limits: make up your own list from these scatological writers. With wonderful belly aching laugh out loud hilarity, they prick the bubble of pomposity of anyone who takes him, or herself too seriously; no one is exempt. No one escapes.
We know that it’s funny; we give ourselves permission to laugh as Cartman directs yet another totally anti-Semitic ranting tirade at his Jewish friend Kyle. The writers put into the child, Cartman’s mouth, all of the old nonsense of why it’s right to hate the Jews. There is even an episode where Cartman talks enthusiastically and chillingly about “his final solution.” The Nazi euphemism for the total annihilation of the Jewish people.
Is de Sade’s work a brilliant, way ahead of his time, piece of satire? Or is it gratuitous porn; porn for porn’s sake?
You know what? I still really don’t know..