Saturday, July 05, 2014

A Simple Procedure To Promote The Work Of The Marquis De Sade

June’s game in the What Will Be almanac was “A Simple Procedure To Promote The Work Of The Marquis De Sade”:

1.    Take a map of a country, city or neighbourhood.
2.    Draw upon it lengthwise an inverted cross.
3.    Go to the point of intersection between the two lines of the cross and place there a wine glass with a strip of paper inside it, on which is written a thought or phrase taken from the works of the Marquis de Sade.
4.    Wait until a passer-by appears in anticipation of him/her finding and reading the message.
5.    Discreetly approach him/her and make a comment on the message’s content – moral, historical, sociological, anthropological etc.
6.    The experiment would be considered a success if this action was to thereby cause a large number of people to gather at the place, discussing the message, from which a riot ensued requiring the police to turn out.

The rubric of this game is more suggestive of a thought experiment than of a game intended to be played in practice and for real. Nothing daunted, we planned to play it anyway. Our internal group conversation about the preparations for the game ran as follows:

Been collecting the Sade quotes for the almanac game, I don’t know what it consists of. But Sade is not good. Why Sade? The quotes alone have disturbed me.

Now let's see how long Eugenie can go without launching into a long email in praise of Sade... I think this means the game's already begun...


Nice, I wouldn't mind a Sade debate!

I don't remember when we last traded "how I came to surrealism" stories, but mine includes the crucial late moment where, after embracing the self-identification as a surrealist and eventually finding another surrealist to share things, and through him getting access to then-contemporary American and Australian surrealism, there were a number of novelties to their particular synthesis/variety of surrealism. Some of these made immediate sense, but some of them were spontaneously very alien to me and it was difficult to see any coherence and it was only through immense curiosity and selective trust that I kept pondering them for long enough to accept them as part of surrealist tradition and surrealist culture (not necessarily as crucial parts of surrealism). The ones I remember having difficulties with were: (1) jazz and blues, (2) communism, item 3 on the list is of course Sade, which was the point, but which the train ride to work this morning was too short for me to arrive at... We'll see if I get the time to get back to it during the afternoon or if it'll be after tomorrow morning's train ride.

Dolmancé, I am looking forward to hearing your thoughts on De Sade. Like Madame de Saint-Ange, what little I know about him (plus a cheesy ’70s Hammer horror version about his life. Ha!) I can’t say I like him. But between you and Eugenie, this should be very interesting and obviously there is a lot to learn!

Yeah, samesies. I know very little about Sade, I have not read his stuff. My brief intro to him was through Andrea Dworkin. Whether good or bad I shared her hostility (she has a way of inspiring rage in me. I’m very susceptible that kinda stuff) so with little question or consideration (and probably ignorantly), I thought, “well yeah, fuck him!” But now he reappears :) Hello! 

Madame, you are priceless!

Andrea Dworkin has an immense talent for reducing the complex and challenging to the one-dimensional. I really wouldn't take her word for much, and especially not for anything as immense as Sade.

Don't go to secondary literature, feminist or otherwise. Quotations taken out of context won't do either. To encounter Sade, do it unfiltered: just read him. All of his writings are available in full and for free online. They range from monumentally long novels to short stories and very readable dialogues. He's hilariously funny, and utterly terrifying, and for Surrealism he is simply indispensable.

No, you don't like him, and you won't like him (you might soon adore him, but adoration is not liking). Madame de Saint-Ange, Augustin, I know bloody well that neither of you thinks that Surrealism has anything to do with likeability. Sade is completely unacceptable, unassimilable, incomprehensible. He's hurtling down into the abyss, he's taking you with him, he doesn't give a good goddam whether you're going as his victim or his accomplice, but he's sure as hell got his claws into you from the minute you start reading and down you are going to go, whether you "like" it or not.

Pending Dolmancé’s Sade origin story, I'll give you mine. I read Sade long, long before I ever thought seriously about Surrealism. I did so, as it happens, while I was a Women's Studies student, and because I was writing an essay on porn and had recently read Dworkin. Ok, I thought, I'll get this Sade stuff from the horse's mouth, it'll be good essay fodder. MORE FOOL ME. This was back before the Internet, obviously, but new English translations of Sade had just come out in paperback at the time, and off I trotted to Waterstones and got myself a copy of 120 Days Of Sodom. Read the whole thing in one sitting and did not at all "like" the fact that even after I had put the book away those 120 Days kept on becoming 121, 122, 123... inside my head. I've lost count of them now, but they're still unfolding. The tutors didn't "like" my essay either.

Hmm. I think that Dworkin's hostility gets directly to the point of why Sade defies such criticism.

There's a frequent attempt to attack Sade because he's misogynist and sexist, which rather misses the point. Sade is explicit that libertinage is available to all: you can be a libertine or a victim - it's your choice, and it's a choice open to everybody regardless of sex. So attacks on him for violence against women end up (unintentionally) privileging his other violence, because for Sade it is always a question of monstrous violence.

Sade is monstrous. He's irredeemable, he's no one's friend, and that's why he is so vital and so profound.

He is the blackest of black poets, beyond all attempts to include or exclude him from norms of bourgeois morality. Sade is - absolutely - Other to everything that might be expected, and therein lies his poetry.

In his personal life he was an aristocrat who was beyond the pale for his own class, who imprisoned him. He was released by the French Revolution: he supported its revolutionary destruction of what had existed before (which had given him his position) but without being any loyal proponent of the newly established bourgeois regime (which ended up institutionalising him).

Sade embodies revolt at a personal level in an undirected one-man-barmy-army way. He can't be co-opted, which is why some self-proclaimed rrrrrrevolutionaries start to get a bit shifty and reactionary whenever he appears. (20 years ago I worked in a radical bookshop: one of the directors told me she didn't think we should stock Sade.)

Opposed to the order of the ancien régime Sade was also opposed to the order of the new capitalist régime. While the old aristocracy imprisoned and restrained him he also refused to conform to the rational philosophical strictures of the Enlightenment that was about to fuel the Revolution: Sade offers an alternative to the formal and restricting aspects of Romanticism. Where Rousseau is peddling the grandeur of nature, Sade has nature as a bloody enemy that will give as good as it gets. (Sade's Justine, who has spent her entire life trying to be good in the face of extreme violence from all quarters, finally dies when she is struck by lightning: nature'll get you if no one else does, so you'd better fight like fuck - and fuck like fight - against everybody and everything, all the time.)

Sade is also extremely funny, in the bleakest of ways. Sometimes he manages it deliberately, sometimes it's just a product of everything else that's going on. But it's always unpleasant and disturbing.

You'd never take Sade anywhere for a quiet holiday read, but he's always invigorating and inspiring, in a frenzied and upsetting way.

He isn't easy, which might be his greatest quality.

Okay, thanks, that explains why Dworkin gets swear words but not much else outa me. The horse’s mouth. It’s time to be introduced to Sade!

Eugenie, I have just sat down and read this. Absolutely agree. My initial reaction had been, that Sade isn't about liking him........ what little I knew about him, only that he broke all the rules and our pre-set rules of normality/correctness. My initial thoughts had been on the right track, but didn't trust them, as usual. Because of my lack of self-confidence. Wish I had trusted my instincts now.

My two cents (I was hoping the Sade argument would get much more heated :P)

I remember a couple years back there was a German student in my class, mid-40s and hilariously fun. We used to go as a group into Starbucks on our lunch break and he'd tell the barista that his name was Marquis de Sade or Dorian Gray, which they'd write onto his cup nonchalantly, and he'd waltz up to retrieve his coffee with a theatrical flair, always drawing attention to himself. He also had a knack of upsetting waiters and bartenders where ever we'd go.

Anyway, at one point I got into an argument with him about Sade (I've no idea how it started) and he got really serious all of a sudden. I remember him saying to me: “You might have read Sade but you haven't REALLY READ SADE! Not a lot of people GET Sade and why he is life changing for those of us who DO get him.” He didn't much elaborate on this point but judging by his general libertine antics, my guess is he was trying to channel him the entire time, which had the rest of us in disbelief (yet thoroughly entertained) of how he managed to get away with some of the stuff he did. Then he went back to Germany and resumed his life as a serious production manager.

Yup. Well, maybe I can try to heat things up for Madame de Mistival’s sake by saying that I think Eugenie's email is unduly romanticised and even sanitised. Sade did actually rape Rose Keller and a lot of other people besides. It wasn't just a question of heroically defying convention. In fact for a male aristocrat to rape a woman, child, peasant or servant in the C18th was hardly defying convention at all.

Yes, that's fair enough, although he did also stick enormous dildos up his arse, which may have been slightly further beyond accepted convention.

But in a way that's another part of the libertinage argument, surely?

Madame de Mistival, I once told a Starbucks barista who wanted to write my name on a coffee cup that I was called Donatien Alphonse François, but he just wrote “Donny”, which didn't have quite the same effect.

Apparently promising a contribution to a discussion worked well as a contribution to a discussion.

The marquis was recommended reading already in industrial music circles, and the single book which was available was Justine, which I still consider the least interesting one. Even with a hunger for aggressive outpourings, I found repetitive misogynistic cruelty far less interesting than the poetic misanthropic cruelty of Lautréamont or the shimmering misanthropic resentment of Pär Lagerkvist's The Dwarf and its inspiration Poe's Hop-frog. In spite of the exalted eulogies of Sade from my closest misanthropic industrial-music pal, I remained cold.

After turning to surrealism, I didn't quite see the relevance of Sade there either. Breton and Eluard never explained why they loved Sade. For Breton's viewpoint, one could see a little bit of the particular moral rigour that was Breton's ideal in Sade's admirable anti-opportunism, sure. Eluard saw an ideal in libertinage, which was perhaps coinciding with his love for "woman" in the abstract while spending his fortune as a punter. All their other recommendations were mostly right on target, but reading Sade was such a disappointment. A clumsy writer amassing funny sophistic rationale for what in practice boiled down to an unusually uninhibited conventional male aristocrat freedom.

I asked one surrealist friend what was the point about Sade. He replied with mystifications. I think he meant that it is important to stick to the surrealist tradition whatever it says. I asked another surrealist friend what was the point about Sade. He replied with empty-watchword-sounding eulogies of freedom and desire. I think he just found Sade to be the most "surrealistically acceptable" convergence point with his own personal fondness for pornography (and cruelty).

I read Angela Carter's apologetic book on Sade and was not convinced. But then I read some of Sade's own essays and dialogues, which are interesting, and eventually I read the Philosophy in the Boudoir and finally made it through Juliette, which are both very sweet (and politically sharp) tales of sexual excess. Admittedly interesting, I still found it all quite overrated in surrealism.

Somewhat later, I was so happy when finally reading Horkheimer & Adorno explaining how Sade is a beautiful illustration of the limits and self-contradictions of reason itself, and then Bataille, explaining how Sade keeps himself on the verge of the abyss, and then Barthes, explaining how the very obsessiveness of Sade (and especially its choreographic implementations) was a kind of poetry itself. Continental philosophers with their intellectualised versions finally reconciled me with Sade. Thus, the Sade I let in from the cold was not Sade himself nor a specifically surrealist Sade, but the academics' "king of fools", who more than anything demonstrated the anti-utopian point that cosy anarchism preached: if you rigorously let reason decide your path and goals, you will always end up badly. A giant jester, a beautiful laughing stock. And on the side of this, a readable 18th century writer among many.

Nowadays, I see a lot of points in Sade (and not just academically acceptable ones), but I have also spent a lot more effort than with most other writers desperately trying to find these points... Indeed, his points are not about being likeable, but too often that argument is used to hail things simply for being unsympathetic or ugly, which is at best a minor point in itself... Indeed, I am expecting an author to grapple with evil as well as with ugliness and to face to ambiguous width of one's obsessive fantasies, but I think that endless rationalisations and repetitions is far from the most interesting or readable way of dealing with them.

In the end, among 18th century writers, I personally still consider Sade lesser than Blake, Thorild, Hölderlin, Sterne and Swedenborg; but probably more fun to hold forth than, say, Restif de la Bretonne, Lidner, Bellman, Enbom, Creutz, Nordenflycht, Nordenskiöld, Klinger, Schiller, Goethe, Swift, Young, Walpole, Wollstonecraft, Lichtenberg, Jean Paul, Lewis, Radcliffe, Brown and Linnaeus, who are either too unknown or too canonised... In my personal character gallery of associations, I always find Sade as the distorted mirror image of certified inhibited-bore Immanuel Kant: both so obsessed, both demanding such hard labour to read, but both actually worth the effort...

So I am not urging anyone to not read Sade, and I am not claiming he is pointless, I just still stand unconvinced as to why he is considered a crucial part of the surrealist tradition.

Oh sure, a lot of Surrealist justifications for Sade are actually pretty flimsy, especially in my opinion those that try to present him as a champion of unfettered desire or some bullshit of that sort, which as far as I'm concerned is not at all the point.

I think the reason why Sade is indispensable to Surrealism is not to do with eroticism, but to do with negation. Surrealism's vehement utopianism always comes with a deep undertow of despair. We violently say no to the world, and the world no less violently says no to us, and the combined force of those two violent 'no's constantly threatens to drag us all under. Sade is the ultimate embodiment of that force, in his work and in his life.

So I think Sade constitutes the negation of the negation (of the negation of the negation of the...). In that respect, and very counterintuitively, he's aligned with Luca (himself no stranger to Surrealist despair, after all).

I agree that 'Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue' is particularly magnificent, although 'Philosophy in the Bedroom' will always be my top of the pops.

I'm actually, finally, albeit only briefly, internet-connected, with a computer that's working... and loving the discussion on deSade (I have to call him that rather than Sade otherwise I get him mixed up with the ’80s soul singer, sorry) because I love listening about/talking about/thinking about him. Along with the dragonfly trumpeter, he's my hero.....

Dolmancé mentioned Angela Carter's 'The Sadeian Woman' and I think as another way in you might find it very interesting, Madame de Saint-Ange. She certainly has a much more compelling critique than Dworkin, who was, let's be honest, nuts.

(Did I say that out loud?)

I think what Eugenie says is very important.... deSade is really very funny....sometimes accidentally but most often deliberate. For me that's the thing. Funny things....they go into the impenetrable places where anger, filth and the shocking can be can booby-trap with a funny thing....

Dolmancé, I think describing Sade as the “jester” or “king of fools” frames his appeal to me beautifully. He reminds me of the Comedian in the Watchmen.

Eugenie, 'Donny' just brings back images from my childhood and the New Kids on the Block. I can almost see you in a boy band :)

We never did make it outside with the wine glass. Insofar as we have promoted the work of the Marquis de Sade within our own circle, we consider the game a success. However, it must be admitted that the police have yet to be called. Our discussion continues.


David Nadeau said...


Would'nt it be a good idea to present the games at the beginning of the month instead of the end,
so we, outside of the SLAG, could play too?

David N.

Merl Fluin said...

The games are all published in the book What Will Be, and we provide a link to it at the top of the blog post every time we publish our game results. We're playing each game during the month assigned to it in the book. It would be great if there were other people playing them too, so that we could share and compare results!