The United Sades of America

[from The Baffler No. 22, 2013]

Not long after I took refuge from the academy to work in the policy centers of Washington, I visited one of D.C.’s landmark bookstores, Politics and Prose—a literary venue known, as its name suggests, for furnishing customers with the conceit that they’re browsing and shopping in a vaguely subversive fashion. But as I walked up to join the store’s cultivated and edgy communitas, I committed a terrible error: I asked a clerk where I might find the works of the Marquis de Sade. My request made its way up through an increasingly consternated group of shop assistants; I had to repeat it several times before they fully registered what I was asking for. At that point, I was told to leave the store immediately. The scene concluded on a perfect grace note when I was sternly conducted to the store’s exit by a female employee who was obviously French. It was as if I had asked for a how-to manual for murder, kidnapping, or child abuse—or, at a minimum, the most objectionable form of pornography.

That scene spoke volumes about the curious legacy of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, the great and demented aristocratic theorist of unrestrained desire, in our own republic of consumer longing. Here, in the self-regarding intellectual center of a city justly famed for the free play of unleashed personal ambition and the basest kinds of instrumental manipulation of others, Sade was a four-letter word. Nor can I say that I was entirely taken aback by this reception; as I completed work on my doctorate, my professors took me aside to warn me that I should never attempt to teach any of Sade’s work until I was securely tenured—and even then, they stressed, I should proceed with enormous caution.

On one level, of course, it’s clear enough why Sade and his work make people squeamish: that was often his goal. To a degree not even rivaled by Sigmund Freud and other later explorers of the id (and its indispensible partner, the sadistic superego), Sade seemed to insist that the darkest, most destructive urges of humanity are core elements of our nature—that the drive to inflict pain, to dominate, even to murder, needs to be affirmed as part of the same complex of erotic and creative desires that keep human society viable and individuals “free.”

This is perhaps why, despite the careful strictures against uttering his name—let alone marketing his work—in polite consumer society, the shade of Sade is a markedly unquiet one in our America. Like other repressed ideas, Sade is everywhere and nowhere—indeed, there appears to be a strong inverse proportion between the popular reach of his name and image and actual familiarity with his writings and thought. (In an irony that Sade himself would likely have appreciated, the only European thinker with a similar universal-yet-unread profile in American intellectual life is probably the great Puritan theologian John Calvin.)

It’s difficult to imagine anyone, then or now, reading Sade and experiencing profound sexual excitement.

Sade is, indeed, enough of a household name among us that he functions as a sort of shorthand consumer brand for transgressive naughtiness, and the outright flouting of civilization’s taboos. He is commonly associated with sexual sadomasochism as a commodity, and pornography in general—including the mommy porn marketing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. He’s popularly synonymous with cruelty and evil, much like the “murderous Machiavel” of the Renaissance English-speaking world. And he is also frequently, and reasonably, cast as the most extreme of misogynists. At the same time, Sade is also often represented as a proto-Romantic rebel—among the first, and certainly the most radical, protesters against the rational certainties of Enlightenment humanism (this was indeed the basis of the largely sympathetic portrait of Sade in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade). A bowdlerized version of Sade has cropped up occasionally as a generic embodiment of artistic and intellectual freedom struggling against authority and restriction—a Larry Flynt of the eighteenth century, as it were. This was the Sade featured, for instance, in Philip Kaufman’s 2000 film Quills.

And this is all to say nothing, of course, about the sprawling popcult traffic in the graphically violent genre we might dub thanato-porn: the voyeuristic cult of invasively depicted death experiences as famously anticipated in the 1973 J. G. Ballard novel Crash. David Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation of Ballard’s book reveled in the erotic allure of death while affecting to critique its exploitation, but by now we’ve dispensed entirely with the conceit of critique; thanato-porn now runs the gamut from the Saw movie series to Grand Theft Auto videogaming and the latest network TV spinoff of the CSI franchise. If the point of much of Sade’s work was to marry the most intense modes of sexual frustration and release to the practice of interpersonal violence, he could confidently gaze out on the landscape of our popular culture, and declare much of this project a fait accompli.

But there was always much more to Sade than the simple lionization of the urges to objectify and dominate—and Sade’s legacy assuredly doesn’t end here, in the overstimulated agoras of our media world. If we broaden the aperture a bit to take in the official scenes of governance—a procedure that Sade himself strongly encourages—we can also see that he haunts our political culture in all sorts of unacknowledged ways. While many on the intellectual left have sought to grapple with Sade more directly, Sade also exerts a suitably perverse influence on the present-day American right. To take just one example, elements of Sade’s thought—via an embarrassingly reductive caricature of Nietzsche—thrive in the robust American cult of Ayn Rand.

Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan frequently cited Rand as his most important inspiration, and Rand’s unabashed championing of economic elites was also echoed by Romney’s own notorious dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans who don’t earn enough money to pay income tax and therefore needn’t be bothered with. At least one of Sade’s fictional monsters, Roland, anticipated this Randian attack on all forms of socially conscious responsibility to others as pathologically self-indulgent. In Justine, Roland rebuffs Justine’s plea that she be spared since she saved his life. “What were you doing when you came to my rescue?” he demands. “Did you not choose [this] as an impulse dictated by your heart? You therefore gave yourself up to a pleasure? How in the devil’s name can you maintain I am obliged to recompense you for the joys in which you indulge yourself?”

Similarly, there are echoes of Sade’s celebrations of personal violence (as opposed to the state-sponsored variety) in National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre’s infamous response to the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre. LaPierre suggested that the appropriate response to the epidemic of gun violence is increased gun ownership in a country already awash with firearms of every variety. One could easily imagine Sade also making the argument that the only rational or natural response to violence is additional and opposing violence—with the sole exception of the death penalty, which he opposed with all-encompassing passion.

Indeed, Sade’s deeply idiosyncratic views on the morality of personal violence are probably Exhibit A for why he cannot pass muster as any kind of guide for left-liberal cultural resistance. If we take his work at face value, he was not opposed to individual murders. He frequently had his characters argue that murder should not be punished by the state at all. Yet there probably has never been a more passionate opponent of capital punishment—the only form of premeditated homicide that normative “rational” thought typically considers potentially justifiable. This is Sade’s challenge to his readers in a nutshell: he specializes in justifying the conventionally unjustifiable while absolutely and passionately condemning what many would regard as, at least plausibly, defensible and rational.

There is, however, a much surer gauge of what might be called a vulgar Sadean legacy: the mainstreaming of American porn. Pornography is now so ubiquitous in contemporary American culture—so impossible to get away from—that the two things one may be assured of being offered in even the cheapest motel are pay-per-view porn on the television and a Gideon Bible in the bedside table, should you find yourself in sudden need of one form or the other of shameless mystification. I’m sure I’m not the only frequent traveler who has never availed himself of either of these kindly offerings, but they’re always there. One can’t help but imagine both Sade and Calvin bitterly grousing, in whatever mutually disappointing afterlife to which they’ve been jointly consigned, about how their intellectual legacies have been downgraded into all-but-interchangeable items of consumer convenience.

Can’t Touch This

There’s an especially bitter irony in Sade’s image as a cheap pornographer: he was not in any recognizable sense creating pornography at all—nor can he be neatly pigeonholed into any other literary tradition. Sade was an astonishingly prolific writer who produced an enormous oeuvre covering a huge variety of genres. Much of it is mediocre to the point of being unreadable, particularly his conventionally sentimental or comedic dramas and stories. There seems little doubt that without his notorious “libertine novels,” most notably Justine, Juliette, Philosophy in the Boudoir and, especially since its rediscovery in the early twentieth century, 120 Days of Sodom, Sade would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, these works, and a few others, have assured him of a profound—albeit highly contested and unstable—artistic and intellectual influence.

Because of the centrality of his erotic novels to his legacy, later critics have often caricatured Sade as not only a pornographer, but as the arch-pornographer, representing either the worst or the best of the genre. But this is deeply misleading. Insofar as pornography is a commodity of mass-marketed and stylized representations of sexual practices, Sade is better seen as an anti-pornographer. His work is unquestionably obscene, and transgressive in the extreme, but its impact is neither conventionally pornographic nor erotic. Although much of his fiction bears a great deal of similarity to the Gothic novel genre (of which he was a noted and serious critic), his best work, in the “libertine” series of fiction, is sui generis. It doesn’t correspond or submit to the stylistic or thematic patterns established by any previous writer—nor has it been successfully reproduced by any successor. Though stultifyingly repetitive in themselves, Sade’s most provocative works are simply not containable or assimilable by others. They subvert themselves in an infinite loop of contradiction, contortion, and, in many ways, ultimate incomprehensibility.

A powerful strand of masochism in our political culture has pushed many toward the overtly avaricious and predatory, and indeed sadistic, thought of Ayn Rand.

To see how completely Sade fails to permit even highbrow visual interpretations of his work, one need look no further than Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, a loose adaptation of 120 Days. As any patient reader soon discovers, Sade’s project is an exercise in stretching, in certain very limited directions, language and imagination (and repetition) beyond all conceivable boundaries. His images of unimaginable, and physiologically impossible, cruelty, indulgence, and excess belong entirely to the medium of the wordsmith. Any graphic representation transforms Sade’s literary surplus into heavy, grounded imagery, unmoored from the fantastical lightness of prose. It inevitably literalizes, contains, and forestalls Sade’s overflow of deranged fantasies and rhetorical overkill.

In Salò, we see Sade’s scenes staged with graphically represented bodies—a process that makes the horrible more horrible, but also much more mundane, and empties Sade’s grotesque fantasies of all their dark humor. Salò tries very hard to be funny, but it just can’t. By contrast, no matter how horrible the images described by Sade’s unnamed narrator in the first part of 120 Days, he rarely fails to amuse. In his effete verbosity, one can almost smell the powdered wig, see the over-rouged cheeks, and feel the faint, exasperated swishing of the handkerchief before the face of the world-weary, jaded, and supremely haughty late eighteenth-century aristocratic storyteller (yet another of Sade’s outlandish fictional characters).

Because Sade can’t be successfully reproduced, he can’t be mass-marketed. Beyond simply being pornographic, erotic words and images require the fetishism of branding to become viable commodities. This means there must be a recognized set of styles of pornography—or of any commercial genre, for that matter—that are easily reproducible and that will at least promise the consumer some foreknowledge of the product in question. To be successfully mass-marketed, porn is best watered down or sprinkled into other well-established genres of fetishism, especially what’s now called romantic fiction. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, boils down to an execrably written version of “Cinderella” for our time—a familiar and reassuring fairy tale, albeit larded with a supposedly edgy brand of erotica.

Porn is particularly prone to sub-generic classification, for the simple reason that it’s intended to reproduce a given set of symbolic fantasies, some of which are already psychically or socially fetishized before they become commodified. Hence pornographic novels or videos within a given subgenre are not merely allowed to repeat, in effect, the same book or film over and over again; instead they must be quite monotonously re-created. Endless, precise, and meticulous reproduction is required by the audience. This is, to some extent, true of any genre of popular fiction, but porn’s commercial impulse to be innovative is even more deeply suppressed than it is in other highly repetitive genres such as action thrillers or romantic comedies. And even the silliest, most repetitive genre can, under the right circumstances, open up the possibility for real subversion of its central tropes and motifs.

Porn, of whatever variety, seems to foreclose that prospect. It is designed to meet an audience’s expectations and satisfy its fantasies, certainly not to complicate them or subject them to critical examination. These fantasies are not meant to have any broader personal, social, or political significance, and their pornographic representations must never imply that they do. They are presented and used as if they really were merely ends in themselves.

In this context, it’s painfully evident that pornography that subverts or implicitly critiques the fantasies it reproduces—the sort of sexual writing, in other words, that Sade specialized in, to the ruthless exclusion of anything resembling standard-issue titillation—will fail in its overt mission by provoking reflection rather than arousal. This would have a self-defeating effect similar to that of an insomniac trying to remedy his or her condition by assiduously taking notes on the experience while trying to fall asleep. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, then or now, reading Sade and experiencing profound sexual excitement. A plethora of other affects are infinitely more plausible: fascination, boredom, amazement, amusement, disgust, horror, frustration, anger, admiration, or indifference are all more readily produced by his baroque narratives and verbose prose style than erotic arousal.

This effect turns up on nearly every page of the libertine novels. If we avoid the more ghastly passages—which, believe me, is not easy—we can see how deliberately counter-erotic Sade’s thought is by simply pointing to his persistent predilection for the foul, as exemplified by this passage from 120 Days: “Beauty, health never strike one save in a simple way; ugliness, degradation deal a far stouter blow, the commotion they create is much stronger, the resultant agitation must hence be more lively. . . . [A]n immense crowd of people prefer to take their pleasure with an aged, ugly, and even stinking crone and will refuse a fresh and pretty girl.” The description of the crone Fanchon that follows makes the point even more vividly. And the murder of Augustine in Part the Fourth is virtually unreadable, and unsurpassed in its unmitigated horror.

Sade not only invites the reader to reflect on the nature and origins of the sexual acts, deviations, and perversions that he so exhaustively catalogues, he demands it. And he insists that they have profound philosophical and political implications. Commercial porn, since at least the late nineteenth century, has been based on the most straightforward possible commodity fetishism, and is not only intended, but fully expected, to mask the power relations it represents. By contrast, Sade’s best work coldly and unflinchingly lays bare those relations—but only for sustained consideration, not in any neatly programmatic prescriptive or political schema.

Far from presenting any actionable or even coherent model for liberation, Sade’s work resists the reader’s effort to draw any stable conclusion at all. For good or ill, Sade cannot be appropriated politically, or even philosophically, because of the internal inconsistencies, incongruities, and contradictions that make up the core of his thinking and writing. He raises an infinite loop of questions, but neither offers nor allows any answers.

The Cunning of Unreason

If we cannot view Sade as an apostle of political deliverance or personal liberation, he nevertheless was far ahead of his time, in subject matter if nothing else. His writings anticipate a huge cross-section of twentieth-century Western art, scholarship, and politics. Indeed, we could reasonably posit that his work laid the cornerstone for the entire anti-humanist project. Surely Sade’s most important contribution, at its high point, lay in dragging Enlightenment reason to absurdist logical conclusions, spelling out the method of its implosion, and anticipating the backlash against it that culminated in the sixties and seventies. What he bequeathed us was nothing less than a slow-growing but highly malignant, if not terminal, cancer buried deep in the corpus of Enlightenment rationalism.

It’s impossible to know whether Sade—who was almost certainly mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it—deliberately sabotaged the Enlightenment by ruthlessly parodying it or really held the philosophical and political convictions his characters voice ad nauseam. They appear to champion reason, based on quasi-philosophical sophistry, but their arguments seem deeply arbitrary and profoundly irrational. Whether Sade intended to create a systematic satire of the philosophies of Rousseau and Kant or sought simply to take the logic of the laws of nature and the categorical imperative to their unsustainable conclusions in a mad trajectory of narcissism and self-gratification, his writings delved one yard below the mines of the Enlightenment’s humanist conceits, even though his own ordnance exploded more than a century later.

All of Sade’s major works pursue—and, indeed, relentlessly repeat—his anti-Enlightenment arguments. But he airs them most compellingly in the demented and appalling, but also absurd and hilarious, introduction to 120 Days, and, above all, in the claims made by its leading character, the Duc de Blangis. They are further elaborated in a lengthy polemical pamphlet, “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans,” that Sade shoves incongruously into the middle of Philosophy in the Boudoir by simply having its leading character, Dolmancé, read it aloud to the other characters. The pamphlet, she tells them, argues that “murder is a horror, but an often necessary horror, never criminal, which it is essential to tolerate in a republican State.”

Insofar as they can be coherently summarized, Sade’s monstrous antiheroes’ ideas—constantly restated—are of a piece with such horrific broadsides. If one laid them side by side, their message would amount to this: individual liberty and autonomy are absolute; anything that interferes with the use of an object (including another human being) to satisfy one’s caprices, whatever they might be, is immoral; human impulses of all kinds, including theft, rape, and murder are the dictates of “nature,” and hence no law should forbid them; private property is an intolerable evil as it deprives others of that property’s use, thwarting their “natural inclinations”; religions, especially Christianity, are monstrous evils designed to justify the repression of individuals’ “natural rights”; atheism of the most iconoclastic variety is, therefore, the only defensible religious attitude; and the accumulation of power by elites should be constantly and violently resisted by bloodthirsty and “immoral” citizens eager to defend their individual prerogatives by smashing any social or political institution that might restrain them.

This logic explains Sade’s apparent defense of murder but passionate opposition to the death penalty. Individual murders are “natural,” because the blood-thirsty impulses behind them arise spontaneously from organic being. Therefore, it is tyranny to punish them. The state, however, is an artificial and inorganic structure that has no vital being in nature—and it therefore has no right to take a life, even under the most extreme circumstances. It is natural for individuals to objectify each other for whatever purpose, but it is intolerable for the state or any inorganic institution to do so. In short, Sade created a reductio ad absurdum of Enlightenment rationality that—as the limitations of reason became increasingly apparent toward the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth—became increasingly powerful.

It is, of course, extremely difficult to know to what extent Sade agreed with these precepts, though he goes to great lengths to encourage readers to assume that he does. In Philosophy in the Boudoir, some characters accuse Dolmancé of being the secret author of “Yet Another Effort,” a sly suggestion that identifies the author with the character, and both with the pamphlet’s arguments. In 120 Days, Sade uses similar feints with Blangis, who is often cast as an ironic self-portrait of the author. The novel even makes reference to “the brave Marquis de S*** who, when informed of the magistrates’ decision to burn him in effigy, pulled his prick from his breeches and exclaimed: ‘God be fucked, it has taken them years to do it, but it’s achieved at last; covered with opprobrium and infamy, am I? Oh, leave me, for I’ve got absolutely to discharge’; and he did so in less time than it takes to tell.”

Such self-distancing irony again raises the question of authorial intent: How seriously did Sade mean to be taken? Even if he was mad and dangerous, Sade was certainly no hypocrite. He paid for his chosen way of life, and dearly. Sade proved utterly unable to live in accordance with any of the social or political systems of his times. He was jailed under the ancien régime for eleven years, ten of them in the Bastille, for various forms of libertinage and criminal abuse. He was released after the Revolution and became a member of the extreme Left, but was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Jacobins. After the Reign of Terror, he was again released, only to be ordered arrested in 1801 by Napoleon for his “immoral writings”; declared insane, he was held at the Charenton asylum for the remainder of his life. Sade spent at least twenty-six of his seventy-four years in incarceration of one kind or another. That he sacrificed such an exceptionally large swathe of his adult life to confinement by the state strongly suggests that although much of Sade’s work is based on a dark and twisted humor, he wasn’t simply kidding.

Likewise, even if we view him in earnest, doesn’t Sade simply end up reinforcing the kinds of cultural authority that he professes to attack head on? Don’t his arguments remain trapped in a binary from which he cannot escape—in which vice, in order to be praised, must remain clearly identified as vice and opposed to virtue? How can one transgress without acknowledging the moral authority of the forces that one is transgressing against? Don’t his extensive arguments in favor of blasphemy all, in effect, come full circle to make him, de facto, a defender of the spiritual legitimacy of the Church? Blasphemy requires some acknowledgment that what is being profaned is, at some level, actually sacred. Many of his fictional outrages, for instance, involve the abuse of a consecrated host. To everyone but the faithful, this “host” would appear to be some sort of damp wafer, the sexual use of which would be odd but inconsequential and hardly scandalous.

Sade must have seen this tension himself, since it appears in his novels time and again. After a lengthy diatribe in which Blangis defends theft and other crimes, Sade’s narrator in 120 Days dryly observes, “It was by means of arguments in this kind the Duc used to justify his transgressions, and as he was a man of greatest possible wit, his arguments had a decisive ring.” Sade’s antiheroes are often described in his narratives—sometimes even by themselves—as “criminal,” “sick,” “depraved,” and other adjectives obviously designed to appall the reader, but that are incompatible with any sincere philosophical defense. Are they good because they are evil? Or does that make them, in the end, simply “evil” after all? Or are they beyond good and evil—in which case, why the remorseless cat-and-mouse game with readers over his antiheroes’ moral nature and their endless depravities and crimes?

This is precisely the kind of systematic self-subversion that makes Sade so slippery, difficult to systematize, and impossible to appropriate. Such incoherencies and contradictions in Sade’s work have led a number of scholars, including Laurence Bongie, the prominent historian of Counter-Enlightenment thought, to deny almost any value in his libertine fiction (although Bongie does highly praise his famed prison letters). But the temptation to dismiss Sade’s work, whatever its merits as literature, has to be tempered by a realistic assessment of the profound influence it has exerted on the Western world over the past century and a half.

Choosing Sades

Critical elements of Nietzsche’s attack on Enlightenment “reason” appear to be rooted in Sade, although scholarly opinion is divided over how direct this influence may have been. The imprint of Sadean precepts can be seen clearly in Nietzsche’s 1887 On the Genealogy of Morals and, above all, in his bitter denunciations of Christianity, which seem to mimic in both substance and language those of Sade’s antiheroes. And Nietzsche obviously originated almost all of Ayn Rand’s ideas, though she pompously claimed to have been influenced only by Aristotle. Rand essentially popularized a distorted version of Nietzsche and therefore some elements of Sade’s legacy. She notably claimed to have been the most implacable philosophical enemy of Kant, a title that surely belongs to Sade and not Nietzsche, let alone Rand.

Ironically, while Sade, Nietzsche, and Rand all champion the primacy of the individual will, Sade’s antipathy toward all forms of private property could not have been more absolute. Sade’s contempt for property and the rationalist philosophical system derived from its defense indeed places him well to the left of the Jacobins and most other French revolutionaries. For Sade, property is the essence of despotism. Conversely, Rand and her present-day followers on the American right (along with many others) cast private property as the essence of liberty.

Like so much else having to do with Sade, his historical descent into present-day influence doesn’t follow anything resembling a straight line. Sade is so subversive that all efforts to directly appropriate him politically have been entirely restricted to the Left, usually as a vehicle for attacking the Right.

Sade has managed to get his tentacles so deeply into our narcissistic, self- and other-devouring culture that traces of his influence are almost ubiquitous.

Scholars began to systematically rediscover Sade’s work, after decades of censorship and obscurity, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This recovery took place in two related contexts. The first was the growth of interest in the full range of human sexual behavior, most notably through the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing. His 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis popularized the term sadism (derived from Sade’s own name, of course). Soon thereafter, Freud famously began excavating the psychic origins of sexuality, often drawing on the same primal fantasies that inform the Sadean landscape. Here, modern interpreters have cast Sade’s writings, particularly 120 Days of Sodom, with its obsessive lists of and commentaries on paraphilia, as precursors to both Krafft-Ebing’s documentation of human sexual behavior and Freud’s investigations into its deeper psychological origins. Sade’s novels are also rightly regarded as neurotic symptoms, par excellence, in and of themselves.

Freud’s work exerted a strong ideological influence on the early twentieth century Left, which viewed his brand of psychoanalysis as fundamentally subversive of the dominant bourgeois social order (though Freud made it amply clear that his system offered little hope for a more democratic alternative). But Freud’s ideas also informed the strategies of corporate mass culture and advertising—particularly through their practical application in propaganda pioneered by his American nephew, Edward Bernays, the founder of the new twentieth-century discipline of public relations—as well as those of the fascist Right. With “mass society” increasingly subject to manipulation at the unconscious level, often through highly sexualized imagery, Sade—with his “eroticized” fantasies of harsh punishment and arbitrary, rigorous discipline—was to some degree rehabilitated as a writer who channeled a crucial subconscious dynamic. Sade eventually became identified in a good deal of psychoanalytic thought as the voice of the shadowy “obscene superego” that regulates the libidinal economy by prompting and structuring enjoyment while simultaneously enforcing the “law” that prohibits it.

Likewise, various artistic and intellectual movements, especially the Surrealists, rediscovered Sade’s shortcuts to the unconscious—and embraced them. Existentialist, structuralist, and poststructuralist critiques that expand on the anti-humanism pioneered by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals all have roots in elements of Sade’s writings. Sartre and Camus, and even Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Dostoevsky, all expanded on themes originating in Sade—wittingly or unwittingly. In her 1955 essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir wrestled with the fact that, in spite of existentialism’s obvious debt to Sade, as a feminist she found his writings deeply troubling. Somewhat grudgingly, Beauvoir concludes that Sade was indeed engaged in an existentialist project avant la lettre, and takes him seriously as a moralist, but ultimately she condemns his ethics and artistic values. The anti-humanist agenda, arguably initiated by Sade, culminated in French poststructuralism, and above all in the work of Michel Foucault (who reveled in homosexual sadomasochism in his personal life).

The Left has been drawn to Sade’s attack on Enlightenment reason from two perspectives. The first values Sade’s anticipation of the logic of various contemporary evils, including fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, or corporate-driven mass consumer culture. In their influential 1944 study of the limitations of the rationalist tradition in capitalist economies, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were probably the first to draw a direct link between Kant and Sade. Sade and Nietzsche, they wrote, “both took science at its word,” and pursued “the implications of reason still more resolutely than the positivists.” Moreover, they added, “because they did not hush up the impossibility of deriving from reason a fundamental argument against murder, but proclaimed it from the rooftops,” they are “still vilified, above all by progressive thinkers.”

If the point of Sade’s work was to marry sexual frustration and release to the practice of interpersonal violence, he could confidently gaze out on the landscape of our popular culture and declare it a fait accompli.

Horkheimer and Adorno argue that Kantian rationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, lends itself perfectly to totalitarian systems. They further note that Sade’s arbitrary but rigorous and ruthlessly imposed sadomasochistic orders prefigured the elaborate mechanisms of repression that flourished under totalitarianism, which (much like their Sadean predecessors) vacillate between utopian and dystopian impulses. They hold that Sade’s anti-heroine Juliette already explains and enacts the ruthless but logical consequences of a purely rational categorical imperative when such ideas are placed in the wrong hands. Horkheimer and Adorno see Sade’s protagonists as callous automatons of alienated, but rational, Kantian orders, as well-developed proto-fascists—or, indeed, as modern bureaucratic functionaries of any ideological persuasion.

A similar argument by the structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan holds that Sade, in effect, “completes” Kant by monstrously closing the circle left gaping by the open-ended categorical imperative. Moreover, Lacan identified the categorical imperative as simply another term for the superego itself. Ever the surrealist of theory, Lacan argues that Sade can be presented as if he were Kant. If Sade’s arbitrary but rigorously enforced imaginary social systems are a parody of law, Sade himself can therefore be cast as a parody of Kant.

A different, though happily much less influential, strand of left-wing thought has identified in “Sadean” violence, if not a liberatory potential as such, at least a necessary revolutionary impulse. In 1930, Georges Bataille cited Sade as the exemplar of the “ecstasy and frenzy” that characterize “the urges that today require worldwide society’s fiery and bloody Revolution.” Michel Foucault, greatly influenced by Bataille, seemed to see in the 1978-79 Iranian revolution an eruption of the kind of spontaneous revolutionary violence envisioned by Sade in “Yet Another Effort,” and defended in the name of virtuous “immorality.” Sade appears to be arguing through Dolmancé that “insurrection . . . indispensable to a political system of perfect happiness . . . has got to be a republic’s permanent condition,” and that “the state of an immoral man is one of perpetual unrest that pushes into, and identifies him with, the necessary insurrection in which the republican must always keep the government.” Foucault’s woeful misreading of revolutionary violence in Iran as exemplifying these “virtues” has done lasting and significant harm to his reputation.

Assume the Position

While Sade cannot be successfully appropriated, let alone commercialized, he has slowly but surely managed to get his tentacles so deeply into our narcissistic, self- and other-devouring culture that traces of his influence are almost ubiquitous. These Sadean echoes are hardly restricted to—and probably not even mainly to be found in—commercial pornography. By linking Enlightenment and mythology at the hip in their pioneering and still relevant critique, Horkheimer and Adorno identified traces of Sade’s obscene, highly regimented social orders not just in the horrors of fascism and Stalinism, but also in the more mundane tyranny of industrialized mass culture. They repositioned for us the ongoing conundrum, apparently inherent to modernity, that people demand their own subjugation at least as much as they yearn for their own empowerment. And they found, at the core of this problem, Sade and Nietzsche’s critiques of reason.

The heavy tension between egalitarianism and egoism is common to both Sade’s thinking and contemporary American political culture. As Julie Hayes notes, after the French Revolution, Sade “was prey to conflicting notions of society, government, and class structure. He hated the abuse of power, particularly as it applied to him, but his sense of class consciousness was stronger than ever.” In a letter to his attorney at the end of 1791, he confronted the “mobility” of his perspectives, asking him, “What am I at present? Aristocrat or democrat? You tell me, if you please, lawyer, for I haven’t the slightest idea.” This irresolvable tension between radical egalitarianism and radical individualism in Sade is precisely what makes him and his work politically and philosophically “impossible.”

What could be a more resonant puzzle for the way we live now? Is anything, in this sense, more Sadean than self-negating Tea Party slogans such as “keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare?” Much of American culture is committed to egalitarianism, and demands and expects certain social and economic protections from government. But simultaneously, and often in the same breath, it venerates extreme wealth, individual privilege, and the prerogatives of the rich.

This dichotomy is driven, at least in part, by the classic American illusion of widespread social mobility and the idea that anyone can join our morally unrestrained power elite by hewing to the character-defining virtues of hard work, while also incongruously courting the favor of fortune. Meanwhile, a powerful strand of masochism in our political culture has pushed many toward the overtly avaricious and predatory, and indeed sadistic (though hardly Sadean), thought of Ayn Rand. Economic Darwinism is thus bizarrely repackaged as a corrective for corporate amorality—as well as the cure-all for absurd social injustices such as bailouts for financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.”

So to rephrase Sade’s quandary slightly, what are we, Americans, at present? Oligarchs or egalitarians? The normative response to the tension between individual rights, which protect the prerogatives of the powerful, and collective rights, which protect those of the general public, is that we seek to find a balance between the two. This is the consensus view of both the notional “center-right” and “center-left” in our punitive-minded political culture—and this may really be the only politically plausible or reasonable answer in this otherwise untenable standoff. But Sade, that shadowy doppelganger of the Enlightenment, still lurks in the dark corners and liminal spaces of our culture, whispering that reason often carries a very hefty price tag—and with ever more elaborate punishments to come.


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