Donatien de Sade (1740-1814), more famous for his title, Marquis, is the author of one of the most subversive literature work of history. His name even enters the common vocabulary by being associated to a pathological behavior that takes pleasure in one’s suffering: sadist. However, this word has lost a bit of its original inspiration from Sade’s work since then. What the Marquis de Sade describes in his books, is not so much focusing on the pleasure of a dominant person who distribute bad treatments to others but rather in the relationship between two bodies, one of them exercising an absolute power over the other. Her lies the real disturbance in Sade’s literature. His descriptions could not be cruder, but at the difference of another author who also ended up giving its name to a comparable behavior, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch -i.e. masochist- the crudeness of his discourse is not the only disturbing aspect of his narratives. Indeed, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was describing a domination of a body over another that was registered in an explicit contract “signed” between two of them. His sexual descriptions, however crude they might be, are therefore a common construction that managed to create an immanent ethics rather than a transcendental moral.
On the contrary, the violence introduced by Sade, whether it is sexual or other, could not be more transcendental in the absoluteness of the power exercise on a body over another. The quintessential example of such power in Sade’s work might be The 120 days of Sodom that introduces a form of societal embodiment of Sadian behaviors. Written on a twelve meters long paper roll when Sade was imprisoned in La Bastille, this narrative describes four wealthy libertine men who seclude themselves in a remote castle along with 46 young men and women. The latter will suffer all along the story of the worst sexual and physical treatments from those four bodies who embody an absolute transcendence over them. Pier Paolo Pasolini, few decades after having observed the industrialization of such power in the camps created by the Nazis during the Second World War, will adapt this work in a film, entitled Salo (1975) that still remains extremely painful to watch (see stills below as a mere example).
The Marquis de Sade’s work thus allows us to observe this absolute power and this way, includes “true evil” in our imaginary. By forcing us to be spectator of the exercise of this power, he does not give us the choice but to react to it, and to integrate that a form of pact with evilness is offered to everyone of us as a philosopher like Hannah Arendt attempted to show in her lifetime work.
To go further, and if you understand French (once again I am sorry), you can listen to the recent extremely interesting week dedicated to Sade by the French radio philosophical broadcast Les Nouveaux Chemins de la Connaissance:
- June 20th 2011: Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade
- June 21st 2011: La philosophie dans le boudoir
- June 22nd 2011: Une morale, un dieu pour Sade
- June 23rd 2011: Les 120 journées de Sodome
- June 24th 2011: Justine et Juliette
Also you can (re)read the article I wrote about the very interesting and disturbing architectural narrative elaborated by Eduardo McInstosh that I entitled Sadian Architecture back then.
The following stills are extracted from Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Salo: