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We’re Having A Snow Day, A Tropical Snow Day…

with 5 comments

Okay, not quite.  There’s snow on the ground, and some coming down, but it’s pretty warm, so I’m guessing it’s all going to be gone by noon or so. 

In the meantime, of course, it’s pretty annoying.

I have come to the conclusion that I’m not going to get any real writing done this month–I’ll try, but in the end this month is about Greg’s surgeries, and I’m just not going to be able to concentrate enough to keep fiction sane.

Oddly enough, this doesn’t seem to have caused me any trouble with reading, so let me go with that.

I’m nearly at the end of Roger Shattuck’s Forbidden Knowledge:  From Pornography to Prometheus, and as I expected–and vaguely remembered from having read it years ago–we ended up with the Marquis de Sade.

I don’t know how many of you out there have read Sade, but my recommendation, from the very little I’ve read myself, would be to say that you don’t really want to.

When I say I’ve read very little, I mean very little.  I made a stab at Justine once.  I got about seven pages in before I was so revolted I had to stop.  Then I sort of skipped around and targetted pages to read and found even more of the same.

Then I was required to read long excerpts in a course I took for my master’s degree.  The excerpts were mostly long passages consisting of one character or another justifying the other things.

I don’t mean to be deliberately vague, but it’s hard to convey the content of this stuff to people who haven’t read it.

Let me take one of the less revolting passages in a longer and very baroquely constructed book, Juliette.

In one long scene in this novel, Juliette, her aristrocratic lover and his valet take Juliette’s ten year old daughter, violate her simultaneously from in front and behind as she is forced to perform orally on the third party, beat the crap out of her, and then throw her into the fire alive, to burn to death.  All this time, the child is screaming in pain and terror, and her screams cause the aristocrat and Juliette herself (the mother) to come to orgasm.

And all of this is described in excruciating detail, play by play, blow by blow, as hard core as it’s possible to get.

And yes, I did say that that was one of the less revolting passages.  Sade has a really remarkable range, so to speak.

As is to be expected from a book called Forbidden Knowledge, Shattuck does touch briefly on the idea that maybe we ought to ban books like Juliette, not least because, obtained by the wrong sort of person, a person with a proclivity to sexual violence, they provide the impetus for action.

I’m not one of those people who tries to defend freedom of speech and the press by saying that books can’t cause violence or any other kind of action. 

I think this amounts to saying that books are essentially trivial, and I don’t think that’s true.  Nobody would write anything if he thought that readers would not be affected by what he says. 

Imaginative literature can be especially effective because it provides a way in under the radar of our conscious control.  Fiction creates a moral world and asks us to live in it, and some of us will adopt that moral world as our own.

When that means that we show up at jury selection wearing a Star Fleet uniform, it’s a little nutty but basically harmless.  When we’re Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, the harm is infinite.

The real issue in censorship questions is not whether a book can impel some people to violence–we know some books do that to some people–but whether or not a system of law, which is based inevitably on concepts and abstractions, can ever safely be allowed the power to determine whether or not this or that particular book produces more harm than good in any total sense.

There are very few Moors murderers and Ted Bundys and Jeffrey Dahmers.  There are a seemingly endless number of people convinced that “harm” means people who think differently than they do, or people who resist “common sense” regulations on private life, or–you name it.

And, liberal and conservative, they all go into government or start organizations to promote causes.

Shattuck, being as much a product of the Enlightenment as I am, comes to the same conclusion, but what really interests him is another issue altogether.  This is what he calls the “rehabilitation” of Sade.

Specifically, Shattuck looks into the movement, started in the Fifties and early Sixties, to turn the Marquis de Sade into a “canonical” author, in the sense of an author acknowledged to be “great,” one who produced work that is among the greatest achievements of human beings, work that deserves to be admired and imitated.

I don’t suppose it should surprise me much that the movement to “rehabilitate” Sade was started in France by many of the people we now call “deconstructionists,” or that a prominent figure in that movement was Michel Foucalt, who praised Sade for “resisting” and “transgressing” “bourgeois values.”

I mean, yes, I suppose it’s terribly “bourgeois” to think it’s wrong of people to rape, torture and murder their own children, but I’d hope it was terribly “progressive” and “conservative” and “stray wandering hippie,” too. 

In fact, I’d be willing to bet that “it’s wrong to rape, torture and murder your own children” comes close enough to an absolute moral standard to make most moral relativists choke.

That said, there becomes a bigger question:  why would anybody want to rehabilitate the Marquis de Sade?

In some of the cases of people involved in this movement–which is still ongoing, by the way–what we almost certainly have are men (and they are almost all men) with just those abnormal proclivities that de Sade’s work speaks to (and that de Sade seems to have shared), for whom these works are what milder forms of pornography are to other people. 

We’re just lucky that they have more self control that an Ian Brady does.

But the percentage of people who are trying to turn Sade into a “great writer” are not likely to be so inclined.   These are the people, I think, who make the case that Sade’s work is like vaccination–if you read it, you get turned off sexual violence–or catharsis. 

These are also the people who tend to fall in love not with the explicit sex and torture scenes, but with the philosophizing speeches of the characters who justify what they are doing in terms Milton’s Satan would have understood.

But it still brings me back to two questions:

Is this another manifestation of that weird attraction some intellectual people have for violent people?

It’s not an attraction to violence itself.  Norman Mailer didn’t go out into the streets and start mugging people at knifepoint.  He championed Jack Abbott and got his violent thrills vicariously.  That’s the best explanation I’ve been able to come up with for the attraction to Che, and various self-proclaimed “socialist” dictators over the last several decades.

And the second question is this:  what makes a “great” writer? 

What makes an imaginative work–a novel, a story, a play, a poem–so outstanding an achievement that it should be counted among the very few things that define the best of what it means to be human?

If we restricted the literary canon to only those works, my guess would be that there would be very few of them.

Does Sade belong on that very short list?  Does he belong there even if his work is technically perfect?

(I haven’t even attempted to read Sade in French and my French is rusty and weak anyway.  For what it’s worth, Shattuck thinks Sade is turgid and belaboring.)

And maybe that brings me to a third question:  what does it mean for a society if it counts books like Juliette as emblematic of the greatest heights of human achievement?


I’ve got to go.

I’ve got lawyers.

Written by janeh

April 1st, 2011 at 8:05 am

Posted in Uncategorized

5 Responses to 'We’re Having A Snow Day, A Tropical Snow Day…'

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  1. I think, once you eliminate the people who seem to get some kind of pleasure from sadism, those admirers who are left are those who are bored and need stimulation. I mean mental or emotional stimulation, rather than sexual.

    There’s a certain kind of restless need for the novel and new and intriguing that a lot of bright people have. They don’t channel it into constructing the perfect small ordinary life – that’s not on the right scale, and anyway, it’s what a lot of them were brought up with so it’s not new or special enough, and they generally rebel against it. Some of them might become mountain climbers or explorers or missionaries in the most hair-raising of circumstances or soldiers, but the warrior hasn’t been esteemed by some people since WW I, religion is so passe although environmental or political activism sometimes provides a substitute, and we’re running out of remote corners of the world to explore or invade or preserve.

    So. As they say, the devil finds work for idle hands. Bright, restless, bored people of this type tend to turn to more and more to the forbidden – the violent, the perverse, the ‘transgressional’ – and a certain percentage will find somewhere to direct their passion and find excitement and relief from boredom – maybe even meaning in life. And then they start evangelizing…

    But no, I don’t like de Sade’s work counts as one of human achievement, and if most of society did, we’d be even more nasty and violent and lacking in respect for all human beings than we are now.

    It’s odd that at the same time part of our our society is busy criminalizing name-calling and even minor forms of bullying (the major forms always involved criminal acts) at the same time another part is touting de Sade as a great man. It’s kind of like our hysteria over child sexual abuse (even that involving teenagers) vs encouraging teens to explore their sexuality and selling adult-style clothing to pre-teens.

    We aren’t terribly consistent.


    1 Apr 11 at 8:41 am

  2. Maybe this one will get through the moderation process, unlike yesterday’s contribution.

    “There’s a certain kind of restless need for the novel and new and intriguing that a lot of bright people have. They don’t channel it into constructing the perfect small ordinary life – that’s not on the right scale, and anyway, it’s what a lot of them were brought up with so it’s not new or special enough, and they generally rebel against it. Some of them might become mountain climbers or explorers or missionaries in the most hair-raising of circumstances or soldiers…”

    Some of them become a Julian Assange and get worshipped by silly people who think that sort of person is “cool” instead of the social misfit and amoral jerk he really is. Charles Manson had a staunch and loyal following. There’s none so queer as folk.


    1 Apr 11 at 8:54 am

  3. OK, I’m going to say it and hope to survive the ensuing explosion. How do the credentials of de Sade’s promoters differ from those of persons whose word I am to accept as defining the Canon and deciding what constitutes great literature? And if it is improper of me, with only a history degree, to say that Steinbeck and Hemingway weren’t worth the time they took up in class, why is my opinion of de Sade worth hearing?

    This is why I don’t take the opinions of credentialed experts in the humanities as seriously as I take those of experts in chemistry, physics and engineering. It’s not that they aren’t often intelligent and learned people. It’s that they aren’t subject to the same sort of refutation when they’re wrong. And everyone’s wrong some of the time.

    Why de Sade? There are bound to be a few people who get their rocks off with scenes of torture, rape and murder, but I think more are entranced with passages justifying such behavior. Accepting even such a standard as “don’t murder your own children” places you with and not above humanity, and means there are rules you are bound to accept. No rules for these people except for those they make themselves–though they’re generally happy enough to make rules for others.

    I think the dictator-worship thing is different. I’m not sure about the fascination with murderers.


    1 Apr 11 at 6:45 pm

  4. I know of two web sites which have BDSM stories. Neither would take de Sade. One says no characters younger than 13 and the other says none younger than 16.

    Judging from the success of the TV shows SVU and Criminal Minds, there are a lot of people who enjoy a mix of violence and sex! But I do not see how anyone could want de Sade as part of the literary canon.


    1 Apr 11 at 7:51 pm

  5. Jane says:


    I’ve got to go.

    I’ve got lawyers.”

    Sounds like an infestation of weevils, only stickier. ;)

    Sorry, I couldn’t help myself. I once helped create a lawyer by putting my first husband through law school. The universe repaid me when he filed for divorce six months into my first pregnancy.

    I hope you manage to quell the infestation.


    1 Apr 11 at 9:42 pm

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