Friday, 23 June 2017
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 Our Father 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!
Friday, 2 June 2017
It seems a strange notion; a link between sex and death. I think most people would agree, that life's greatest drives are to reproduce and to avoid death. The Austrian psychoanalyst Sigmund Freud and the French social theorist Michel Foucault argued that the two are fused, that the death instinct pervades sexual activity. I’m not sure whom came up with the idea; Eros and Thanatos, Freud or Foucault, but that is the term generally used to demonstrate the concept. Sex and death are inextricably linked.
Our lives seem to be governed by polar opposites. I think it is helpful to think of Thanatos (death) in these terms suggested by Doctor Stephen Farrier.
“But Thanatos (death) is often overlooked. I think of it as the desire for zero excitation - total non desire (which of course is death)."
And, of course, the French have given us the concept of “La petite mort”; “the little death.” A wonderful metaphor for the orgasm.”
In the Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying, the writer suggests that;
“…with the AIDS epidemic their (Freud and Foucault’s) view has become particularly poignant. A 1992 study from Amsterdam, for instance, found that about one in six U.S. soldiers surveyed said that sex without condoms was worth the risk of getting the AIDS virus. A year later a story released by Planned Parenthood counsellor offices in San Antonio, Texas, explained how teenage girls were demonstrating their toughness by having unprotected sex with an HIV-infected gang member. It seems that, for some, sexual desire is intensified in the presence of taboos and boundaries, even deadly ones."
On television, I heard Stephen Fry tell the tale of a young, gay man, being “gifted”. He had anal sex with as many HIV positive men in one night as he could; hoping to get the virus.
Are human beings inexorably drawn to what can damage, or even kill them? Is there really a pleasure in dicing with death?
The Encyclopaedia of Death and Dying again;
“Attempts to enhance one's sexual experiences can be deadly as well. In 1998 the Food and Drug Administration reported the deaths of several men taking the highly popular Viagra impotence pill. Each year, attempts at sexual self-gratification accidentally kill between 500 and 1,000 individuals, predominantly men, because of autoerotic asphyxia. To heighten their sexual orgasm during masturbation, these individuals cut off the supply of oxygen and blood to their head, often by tying a belt or rope around their neck. Consciousness may be lost, and the individual dies by strangulation.”
It seems that the sex drive and the death drive are powerful forces. But hang on a minute, we don’t all take dangerous risks, do we? Surely, most of us live quite sedentary lives. Sometimes life has a way of tripping us up. Someone lets us down, badly. Love may be unrequited. Our own bodies might betray us.
From the web:
“To be betrayed feels like surrendering to a painful process of death, like being forced to experience the pain of abandonment and loss. Each death, however, seems to be a “sacred” process of transferring to new forms of existence. As Carl Jung reminds, the development of personality almost always passes from a deathly sacrifice, and if we manage to process the experience of betrayal and mourning, the result may be transformation.
Betrayal might seem abhorrent to our conscience. Nevertheless, without maturation deriving from the experience of betrayal, we remain trapped in the unconscious, repeated questing of a merger with another person. We remain out of the mystery of life forever. If we never change direction, we refuse to undertake the responsibility of existence as unique and separate entity, because the repetition of the miraculous discovery of the ego, according to Jung, is possible only if rupture takes place in its temporal consistency and in its beliefs.”
In other words, we have to allow ourselves to experience rupture in order to mature and grow. If we don’t, we remain as children for ever.
The Eros/Thanatos equation has not been unnoticed by Artists.
Aubrey Beardsley’s ink drawing of Salome, conveys the pivotal moment of the Biblical tale in all its gruesome detail. In a rapture that is indecent in its intensity, Salome gazes at John’s severed head with glutinous glee. Beardsley’s line is perfection. Over a blank white paper he gives us a story that is grotesque, weird, macabre, sinister, in a perverse and playfully theatrical style. Salome clutches at John’s decapitated head, as if she is about to devour it. Beardsley has conveyed the tale in all its erotic glory. Salome is sex personified: John’s death is down to her lust. The viewer is repulsed, feeling that Salome is about to burst with terrible laughter.
Here is the story of Salome from the Bible. Mark 6:21-29:
“And when a convenient day was come, that Herod on his birthday made a supper to his lords, high captains, and chief estates of Galilee; And when the daughter of the said Herodias came in, and danced, and pleased Herod and them that sat with him, the king said unto the damsel, Ask of me whatsoever thou wilt, and I will give it thee. And he sware unto her, Whatsoever thou shalt ask of me, I will give it thee, unto the half of my kingdom. And she went forth, and said unto her mother, What shall I ask? And she said, The head of John the Baptist.
And she came in straightway with haste unto the king, and asked, saying, I will that thou give me by and by in a charger the head of John the Baptist. And
the king was exceeding sorry; yet for his oath's sake, and for their sakes which sat with him, he would not reject her. And immediately the king sent an executioner, and commanded his head to be brought: and he went and beheaded him in the prison, and brought his head in a charger, and gave it to the damsel: and the damsel gave it to her mother.
And when his disciples heard of it, they came and took up his corpse, and laid it in a tomb.”
The Belgian artist, Antoine Joseph Wiertz painted a confrontation of Beauty and Death, Deux jeunes filles—La Belle Rosine in 1847. You can see it at the Musée Wiertz, Brussels.
It’s a hauntingly beautiful painting. A lovely, almost naked, nubile young woman stands before a skeleton. The young woman is not daunted by this presentation. Is it a confrontation, or is there a narrative of which the viewer is unaware? I don’t know any stories in mythology that this could have been drawn from; Wiertz is weaving a tale, but I don’t know how to read it. I have the feeling that there is more to this painting than meets the eye. Wiertz’ pictorial language is enigmatic, perhaps hinting at the Surrealist movement that was not to show its face until the following century.
Dissatisfied with the shiny effect of oil painting, Wiertz developed a new technique combining the smoothness of oil painting with the speed of execution and the dullness of painting in fresco. He has used this to effect, in this painting. It gives the work a sombre feel, even ominous. Something is about to happen to disturb the woman’s quiet contemplation. Her head is very slightly tilted, as if acknowledging the skeleton. She could be looking into a mirror, maybe admiring what she will one day become. You would expect her to recoil, yet there is no horror in the young woman’s face, there is even a hint of a small smile.
The Pre-Raphaelite painter, John Everett Millais, gives us the doomed maiden, “Ophelia.” Millais painted the picture in 1852; you can see it in the Tate Gallery, London.
Franny Moyle talks about the painting. “The model is dressed up in Shakespearean reference, it is nevertheless the depiction of a woman committing suicide and an exploration of female sexuality. Ophelia is ecstatic at the moment her life expires. The sexual charge in the picture is heightened by the abundant, competing natural world of the river bank that, portrayed with almost photographic faithfulness, surrounds this woman not only resigned to but aroused by her fate. The depiction of an offering to a greater natural order.
Franny Moyle commentating again. "The Lady of Shalott by John William Waterhouse, draws from Tennyson’s poem, a mythical lady, cursed never to look out of her window, chooses to sacrifice her life for a glimpse of Lancelot and then float to Camelot in a barge to face her doom.
In an allegory of sexual longing and capitulation, Waterhouse freezes Tennyson’s story at the moment the lady is about to release the chain that ties her barge. And so he anticipates the abandonment of the rational self to subconscious sexual impulses."
I think that “The Lady of Shalott,” is also at the Tate Gallery, London.
The encyclopaedia of Death and Dying.
“In a 1992 book, Camille Paglia claimed that it was in the West that sex, violence, and aggression are major motivations for artistic creativity and human relationships. There is little doubt that these are qualities of audience appeal. Hollywood has long known of the attractions to the erotic and the violent, which is why 60 percent of R-rated movies and nearly half of X-rated movies contain violence. The long-term success of the James Bond movie series derives from its fusion of sex and death.
"According to Geoffrey Gorer, such seductions derive from cultural pruderies to matters of sex and death. William May observed that as sex becomes pornographic when divorced from its natural human emotions of love and affection, so death becomes pornographic when divorced from its natural emotion, which is grief. Perhaps the pornographic connotation is why designer Christian Dior chose in the 1990s to label one of his perfumes "Poison."”
Thanks to Jan Vander Laenen, Fulani and Doctor Stephen Farrier, for helping me put this essay together. And, of course, sources from the Web.