First draft of a talk offered for Marxism 2001, but turned down by the organisers.
The excellent movie Quills has awakened new interest in the paradoxical and much misunderstood figure of the marquis de Sade. Though the movie grasped a number of the essential features of de Sade’s life and work, it was not historically accurate.
It is important to avoid two alternatives. On the one hand de Sade is still seen as a monster, the man who gave us the term ‘sadism’, one who devoted himself to causing suffering to his fellow-human beings and especially to women.
On the other hand de Sade should not be made into a hero, a rebel against sexual convention, and in some way a forerunner of the revolutionary tradition.
To understand de Sade it is necessary to place him in his historical context, at the end of the so-called Enlightenment, the movement that prepared the way for the French Revolution.
The basic achievement of the Enlightenment was to challenge the role of revealed religion – and hence of the Church – in human affairs. During the eighteenth century the dominant official ideology was still based on Christianity and the idea that God had created the universe which was basically good. A popular theologian of the period argued God had given us ears so we could wear glasses, and made the tides to make it easier for ships to get into port.
The dominant thinker of the mainstream Enlightenment was Voltaire. Voltaire was a Deist – he believed in a divine creator who had made the universe, but he believed God was indifferent to the well-being of individuals within that creation – just as the owner of a ship did not worry about the well-being of the rats in the hold. But Voltaire believed that for the common people belief in God was necessary – otherwise they would lose all moral sense and rob their employers. His was a common argument at the time – that without religion human beings could not be moral. It is an argument that still surfaces in the correspondence columns of the Guardian, showing that many people have still not absorbed the intellectual achievement of the Enlightenment.
Alongside Voltaire was Rousseau. Rousseau too believed in God, but above all he believed in nature. Humanity had originated in a state of nature in which human beings had been equal and had been fundamentally good. This had a revolutionary potential – it enabled people to have a standpoint for criticising the grossly unequal society that existed in pre-Revolutionary France. But it also left some enormous questions open. If human beings were naturally good, then where had evil come from? Why had human beings abandoned the state of nature which Rousseau showed as so blissful in order to create the brutally divided society of the present?. Since Rousseau had no explanation of the origins of inequality, he could not present a historical theory of how inequality could be overcome, but merely a moral critique.
The idea of natural goodness spilled over into what is often referred to as pantheism. For pantheists there was no God separate from nature, but nature was, in some sense, God. Hence nature was fundamentally good and could be used as some sort of moral point of reference. The logic was that it was wrong to upset the balance that existed within nature. Elements of this point of view survive in modern Green thinking.
Only a small minority of Enlightenment thinkers were atheists – Diderot, whom Marx greatly admired, the baron d’Holbach, who organised the circulation of atheist literature, etc.
It is in this context that de Sade began to develop his ideas. There is little evidence that de Sade was a ‘sadist’ or engaged in sadistic practices – indeed he may well have been impotent. For him the whole thing was basically an intellectual adventure. It was, in DH Lawrence’s words, ‘sex in the head’. Anyone who reads a book like The 120 Days of Sodom in the hope of sexual titillation is very likely to be disappointed. But, as the de Sade character in Quills so rightly puts it – ‘Don’t blame me – I didn’t make the world, I’m just describing it.’
For de Sade there was no God and no guarantee of the goodness of nature. Hence if we were to develop rules of conduct we had to begin with rejecting all established conventions and above all rejecting the ‘natural’ – it was precisely the artificial that was the most truly human. Hence what is one of the least appetising features in de Sade’s writings – the obsessive fascination with excrement eating, which he describes in loving detail with great emphasis placed on texture and consistency, as though he were a gourmet describing food. The point is that excrement eating is the archetypal unnatural act, and comes to serve as a paradigm of perversion.
Likewise, some of the most rigorous materialists of the Enlightenment, such as Helvétius (a forerunner of Bentham’s utilitarianism) had sought to give an explanation of moral values in terms of the pursuit of pleasure and the avoidance of pain. De Sade showed that things were not so simple – in some ways anticipating Freud, he showed the deep and complex interconnections between pleasure and pain.
In his novel Justine, perhaps the most readable of his works, de Sade explores the issues in more accessible terms. Justine was a satire of the novel based on the triumph of virtue. The heroine Justine was a good woman, concerned to protect her virtue; she is repeatedly raped and degraded in every possible fashion, and when she finally thinks she has found some safety she is struck by lightning through an open window. Meanwhile in the parallel novel Juliette her immoral sister finds a life of vice hugely rewarded. Again, de Sade is not condoning this state of affairs, he is merely saying that the world is like this. The wicked prosper and the virtuous suffer. We cannot have any hope of divine intervention and nature will not solve anything for us. Therefore, the logic is, if we want a humane world we shall have to make it for ourselves.
That, effectively is the point at which de Sade stops. It is the point at which Babeuf – and after him Marx – begin. By taking the logic of the Enlightenment to its most rigorous conclusion, de Sade opened up the problematic of morality in a godless universe, and so posed the problems of the foundations on which communism was to be built.
De Sade was one of a handful of prisoners in the Bastille when it was stormed in 1789. He became an active revolutionary, although, surprisingly perhaps, the so‑called bloodthirsty sadist remained a moderate, supporting the Girondins and opposing the Jacobin terror. Under Napoleon, probably for political reasons, he was committed to a lunatic asylum, where he wrote plays for the prisoners – an episode brilliantly dramatised in Peter Weiss’s Marat-Sade.
The wonderful image in Quills of the tongueless de Sade biting off the crucifix has no basis in history, but it sums up beautifully de Sade’s intransigence in face of state and established religion.
Again in Quills de Sade becomes a best-seller within a year of his death. This dramatises a much longer historical process. In fact de Sade could not be published openly for much of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries – but his presence haunted the period and clandestine editions circulated, often having great influence on writers such as Flaubert or, later, the surrealists.
Only in the 1950s and 1960s did writers such as Simone de Beauvoir, Weiss and Geoffrey Gorer bring de Sade back to the surface and put forward the claim that he should be recognised as an important intellectual figure.
The fact that two hundred years after he wrote de Sade can become the subject of a successful movie on commercial release is confirmation that his ideas remain of powerful relevance for the present time.