Saturday, 17 August 2013


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 fa├žade 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.”

(Author unknown.)

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..


  1. Billierosie, you've just summed up my own thoughts about de Sade. His writing is so over-the-top (and the combination of extreme "torment" and devil's-advocate philosophy looks so strange to modern eyes)that it's hard to know how seriously to interpret it. What concerns me is his actual behaviour -- apparently his wife couldn't bear to live with him, and he was charged with trying to poison a woman who has been variously described as a "maid" and a "prostitute." (But whatever she did for a living, she didn't deserve to be poisoned without her consent!)Sometimes I think the only way to get a grip on de Sade would be to become fluent in French and read his work in the original.

  2. Thanks Jean Roberta! He certainly leaves a strange taste in my mouth and he is one scary guy -- but I think that the only way to deal with him, for me anyway, is to laugh at him. And I do agree with you about translations -- how wonderful it would be to read Dostoevsky in his own language. I recall reading that Nabokov once said of LOLITA, that he resented having to write it in an inferior language. He had to write it in English to get it out there...

  3. perhaps someone should have beat the coprophilia out of deSade. A taste of his own medicine.... It's so easy for some to fantasize about hurting others and convince themselves they are really delivering freedom from convention and pleasure, when all that's actually happening is abuse. I don't know the mystery of deSade, but I suspect he was indeed just a sadistic pervert.

  4. I think that de Sade was indeed a twisted pervert -- but as for people who get a weird pleasure out of hurting others, which certainly seems to sum up de Sade -- there are still people whose life ethos to be the recipient of pain and/or humiliation. Submissives -- it is well documented that they actually control the various scenarios in a Dominant/submissive relationship.

    I am not talking about actual abuse, and I don't believe that de Sade was either. I am just wondering if his work informs a BDSM relationship as a catalyst for play.

    Of the two submissive women that I know well, their need for spanking/whipping is very deep rooted and goes back as far as they can remember, even into early childhood fantasies. Certainly, at that time in their lives they had never heard of de Sade -- so where do these needs come from? Perhaps a psychologist could work it out -- I don't have those skills.

  5. De Sade's work could be read as a satirical expose of real power relations: Justine the devout, conventional maiden is constantly abused and convicted of crimes she hasn't committed, while her sister Juliette understands how the world really works, so she gets away with numerous crimes. Many readers would agree that the extreme social hypocrisy in these novels still exists.
    De Sade's real behaviour is more troubling. By all accounts, he didn't practice or advocate consensual BDSM. This is why many people who are aware of the facts of his life see him as an upper-class abuser with a huge sense of entitlement. (Ironically, he wasn't popular with the ancien regime OR the revolutonaries of his time.)
    De Sade's "sex crimes" are especially murky because he was accused of anal sex, which was illegal in his time. (Lord Byron was also accused of that by his bride Isabella.) The association of "buggery" with male/male sex seems obvious, so this law might have been a thinly-veiled means of persecuting gay men, even though there were other laws for that purpose. I suspect that women who accused men of that might have seen the law as a means of fighting back against sexual assault in any form, which was probably harder to prosecute as such, especially against a nobleman. (Men had a legal right to rape their wives and a kind of implicit right to rape their servants, but not to commit "perversions.")
    The debate goes on.

  6. My Art Historian friend,Jan, says:

    "Your Sade entry (and the comments) is intriguing, as is de Sade himself. I don’t think of him as a pornographer but more as a philosopher ridiculing the Enlightment. He particularly laughs at the also ironic phrase of Voltaire in “Candide”: “All is for the best in the best of worlds!”. Obviously de Sade turns this ridiculous, “reasonable” optimism upside down by stating that manhood is criminal, God created us as criminals, and that destruction and depravity is obeying His laws –so only “backwards sex”!. In that sense he introduces Romanticism.

    As for the sex, the 18th Century was a very anal one, everyone doing enemas (Voltaire on a daily base), and the male and female buttocks being considered the most exciting part of the body. You only have to look at all those Rococo paintings... Did you know that the word “bugger” comes from “Bulgarian”, as they were considered sodomites?

    de Sade himself was accused two times in his life for sexual crimes, but behind his imprisonment and stay in an asylum was certainly his family who wanted to get rid of him. And as you say, his sex scenes can be repetitive and even boring compared to everything we have free access to in these days."

  7. There is evidence that taking pleasure from receiving or giving pain goes back much further...I seem to recall the Romans had some very kinky practices? It is only when we have the evidence gained from cultures who used the written word to "explain" these things does it come to light. Having looked very closely at de Sade's somewhat prosaic ramblings I have the distinct feeling he was deliberately trying to shock (a typical provocateur of the day?) in order to highlight the restrictions imposed by the Church.

    As to its relevence today...all I can say is that most exponents of the sadistic arts today would consider it tame.

  8. Yes, de Sade's sex scenes, which are intended, I think, to arose and inflame do come over as rather repetitive and boring to the 21st century reader. And I think that you are correct, Dark Scribe, de Sade is a provocateur with his own agenda.

    Still, he is an important part in the history of pornography -- just a very small part. I was going to say that I don't think he's going to incite anyone to a life of depravity -- then I recall that the depraved murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley were avid readers and disciples of de Sade...

  9. I once read Justine while I was sitting in a long mixing session in a music studio, and was far more involved with the content of the prose than the content of the studio session.

    There is no doubt in my mind that the man was both an imaginative revolutionary and a beast. It is his imagination that lives on though, and regardless of his real life behaviour, the work deserves to be read and celebrated as representative of a world of equality and satire of the highest order to dethrone the moralists. Today we are still floundering with concepts like 'women's pornography' rather than accepting and exploring our deepest selves.

    Great piece!

  10. Thanks Richard...yes, de Sade certainly is deserving of his time in the spotlight. Like the old gods of ancient Greece, de Sade empowers our imaginations, our fantasies and gives us permission to think the unthinkable.

  11. I really enjoyed this post! I've had a lot of trouble coming to terms with De Sade in the past. I've enjoyed parts of Philosophy in the Bedroom but large parts of his writing seem to be almost unapproachably alien to be. I feel like he was a kindred spirit of sorts which makes me feel bad that I find so much of his work almost unreadable. Of course, part of this might be due to my reading whatever translations I happened to run into rather than seeking out the best versions.

    What versions did you use as you researched this post?