Thursday, July 31, 2008

the marquis & me - 4

Reality, of course, is a matter of balancing attractions and pleasures [not always carnal] with the responsibility and effort inherent in getting ahead and nurturing offspring and enhancing the civilization apparently born of sublimation. With all this in mind, I’ve recently read, more closely than ever before, that perverse mixture of sexual fantasy and libertarian philosophy, the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom.

When I first discovered the work of the far-from-divine Marquis, I laughed a lot. Laughter relieved my discomfort, as well as allowing me to feel unshockably sophisticated. Clearly his work was a joke, a finger up the arse of public taste and public morality. He was simply upending all that we claim to hold dear – family, religion, fellow-feeling, ‘common decency’ – and he had the audacity not only to travesty these values in his fictions, but to defend such a travesty intellectually, or pretend to. I’ve never been quite sure how seriously to take him.

In any case, as I’ve grown older, the joke has worn thin. More importantly, as one grows older, one is less able to think of ideas in a vacuum, one thinks of impacts, possible or actual. Sade’s arguments always go to extremes, but diluted versions of them are still to be found among modern libertarians, not to say libertines.

I should point out the difference – at least my working difference – between libertinism [what Sade calls libertinage] and libertarianism, a version of which he was advocating in Philosophy in the Bedroom, specifically in the section called ‘Yet another effort, Frenchmen, if you are to become Republicans’. Libertarianism, usually associated with the political right these days, is all about freedom from state control, and obviously libertinage, freedom of sexual action, can be seen as entailed by such a libertarian philosophy. Sade certainly thought so.

Philosophy in the Bedroom was written in 1795, after the French Revolution and the reign of terror under Robespierre. This was during a rare period of personal freedom for Sade, who’d been imprisoned for years under the ancien regime, and was to be so again with the advent of Napoleon. Not that we should feel too sorry for him – his activities, if repeated today, would keep the tabloid journals churning over for a lifetime. Though he’ll always have his defenders, it’s pretty clear that he was a serial rapist and sex offender who, especially during his young adulthood, before his reputation overtook him, used his aristocratic position to procure pleasures for himself at the expense of the relatively powerless. His crimes were far from victimless.

‘Yet another effort, Frenchmen, if you are to become Republicans’ is divided into two sections, ‘Religion’ and ‘Manners’, though he doesn’t keep to these subjects very tightly. Needless to say, Sade was an atheist, and he took advantage of the contemporary talk of liberty to urge his compatriots to jettison ‘this puerile religion’, Christianity. His warnings about the probable resurgence of the church have a certain prescience:

Before ten years are out – utilizing the Christian religion, its superstitions, its prejudices – your priests, their pledges notwithstanding and though despoiled of their riches, are sure to reassert their empire over the souls they shall have undermined and captured; they shall restore the monarchy, because the power of kings has always reinforced that of the church; and your republican edifice, its foundations eaten away, shall collapse.


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