Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue - The Marquis de Sade

"People who comprehend a thing to its very depths rarely stay faithful to it forever. For they have brought its depths into the light of day: and in the depths there is always much that is unpleasant to see."  - Nietzsche (Human, All Too Human 489)

The Marquis de Sade is one of those writers who is often misunderstood - and too easily dismissed.  His themes are blasphemy, destruction, and perversity.  His ability to offend and horrify are unparalleled.  Any attempt at goodness by any of his characters is quickly (or painfully slowly) annihilated.

So with that as a start, why do his books always make these "List of Important Books" lists?  Why do thinkers (Camus, Foucault, Lacan, Klossowski) think he is a "writer to be dealt with?"  If one can get past the horror-show, is there something more being said?  Or, what is really being said here?

To sum up in a short statement his themes: "Nature gives us desires, when we act on them we fulfill Natures purpose, therefore any denial is a crime against Nature."  For Sade, the desire is always sexual, the act is always perverse, and the outcome is always, well, you get the idea. 

What happens when we carry an idea to it's logical conclusion?  What is the nature of desire?  

"But," you say, "enough of this bibble-babble, we're reading a book!  What about the characters?  What about the story?  What about the Style?"

Perhaps the most interesting aspect I find about Sade is that as uncomfortable as the stories are,  he is a writer of consummate skill.  Never has a writer amassed such a cast of characters.  His creativity is prolific, pure, relentless, and bewildering.  For artistic beauty and Style he rightfully owns his unique place in literature.

A comment on his themes: 
The ideas in the stories are, as Lacan calls them, fantasms - they are not meant to be taken literally as ideas to be implemented in society.  That would be just plain silly.

If you are not familiar with Sade I would suggest a taste before you buy.  If you try a little bit and are not liking it, stop - it only gets worse.  But, if you are up for a horror-show, it's a ride unlike any other.


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  • Randy S

    While this was not a book I would have read on my own or even be drawn to, I'm glad I attempted it and the group discussion made me think the book had more to say than something a deeply troubled man felt compelled to expose to the world. I liked the comment in the discussion by someone regarding criticism of all the groups of people (docutors, clergy, teachers) that should be morally upstanding but are as deplorable as everyone else in the world; also there was a comment about a critique of philosophers. But, still, r**e porn ain't my cup of tea--if that makes me a shallow reader so be it.

    1 · June 16

  • Jon F.

    I wouldn't say the book is a classic. 120 Days of Sodom is much more devastating. But as a conversational topic for passionate and heated …. conversations, de Sade is hard to beat (implied pun intended).

    June 15

    • Rick O.

      I think this story is rather tender and sweet.

      1 · June 15

  • Randy S

    The infernal logic of Rodin's wretched passions:

    "In a totally vicious society, virtue would be totally worthless; our societies not being entirely pf this species, one must absolutely either play with virtue or make use of it so as to have less to dread from its faithful flowers. If no one adopts the virtuous way, it becomes useless; I am then not mistaken when I affirm that it owes its necessity to naught but opinion or circumstances; virtue is not some kind of mode whose value is incontestable, it is simply a scheme of conduct, a way of getting a long, which varies according to accidents of geography and climate and which, consequently has no reality, the which alone exhibits its futility." Granted what is virtuous is relative not absolute and depends on the society and culture. (What virtuous to the Klingons is not so for The Federation!) However, his argument is swiss cheese. All have taboos; it all depends on what it is and what you call it-- virtue or not.

    June 8

    • Rick O.

      Rodin's taboo - to deny Nature and her gifts

      June 8

  • Randy S

    This is a book that I've found hard to get into. It's taken me to about pg 50 to beginning enjoying it. Seems more philosophical discourse than story. But here's a quote to love or hate:

    "There are two positions available to us: either crime, which renders us happy, or the noose, which prevents us from being unhappy."

    June 4

    • Rick O.

      yes - there's quite a bit of philosophy involved. To me that ups the creep factor - there is an utter rationality (what I call the Logic) to the whole thing. But I think there is also a lot of Style (which, I'm always claiming, is the only reason I read). Notice how he never repeats his metaphor for his, um, favorite sex act. And how the scenes for the worst blasphemies are encased in a highly structured, ordered environment - the whole monastery section is some mighty fine writin'. And isn't it sweet how Justine keeps going? - I think the Marquis is just a big softie at heart.

      June 5

  • Rick O.

    I have been asked about translations. My opinion has always been "the best translation is the one you like the most," but a few comments:
    1) Seaver/Wainhouse are considered quite good. My other forays down this road has been with them. I think they translated all of Sade's work so they must have a certain love for their topic.
    2) Avoid the 'Risus' and 'Wordsworth Edition.' Seems these are edited and censored (what's the point?)

    enjoy

    1 · May 25, 2014

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