Kant with Sade

Is Marquis de Sade, as the reputation that precedes him intimate, the sexually transgressive aristocrat par excellence? This element seems to be missing in the two short stories published by Hesperus Press in the thin volume Betrayal: “The Magistrate Mocked” and “Emilie de Tourville.”

As John Burnside observed in his foreword to the book, the popular notion that Sade “was all about sex, and that ‘sadism’ – the ritualization of an exquisite sexual cruelty – was something that the ‘Divine Marquis’ had invented” somehow misses the point.[1] Sade’s obsession is with power and humiliation, two themes that overshadow the stories.

I haven’t read any of the Marquis’ other more popular works like Justine, One Hundred Days of Sodom, or Philosophy in the Boudoir to actually verify it with my own eyes, but if we are to believe Burnside “sex in his [Sade’s] writings is usually rather unceremonious, devoid of sensuality, tenderness or erotic charge.”[2] Burnside adds:

Set any of his books beside Venus in Furs, or L’Histoire d’O, and it soon becomes obvious that Sade cares not a whit for the ceremonies of sex, or for the nuances of power play between dominant and submissive partners. Sade is all about force… play hardly ever come[s] into it.[3]

“The Magistrate Mocked” begins with the following epigraph: “For you can take my word: these people I will so / Depict that they will never more their faces show.”[4] And indeed, the whole story is simply about such a humiliation. An aristocrat’s younger daughter is arranged to be married to a corrupt magistrate. Her lover, older sister, and brother-in-law conspire to humiliate and ultimately drive away the unfortunate visitor.

The denigration of blacks in the text aside, what I found distasteful in the story is the underlying condescension against the non-aristocratic classes. The figure of the magistrate, who is representative of the rising provincial bourgeois, is conveniently defined as corrupt, ugly, stiff, and so on. The villain’s provincial accent, for instance, is made fun of, etc. The aristocratic protagonists, meanwhile, are projected as upright, beautiful, playful, etc. Behind the hilarious presentation is an aristocratic bitchiness set against the ascendant bourgeois, provincials, and hapless prostitutes.

“Emilie de Tourville,” on the other hand, is also about a younger daughter, this time victim of the cruel punishment of her elder, lawyer brothers who detest her compromising of their family’s honor. The question posed by de Sade at the onset of the story pretty much sums up this tale of “Brotherly Cruelty” – “who is guiltier in the eyes of reason: a weak and deceived girl, or some relative or other who, by setting up as a family’s avenger, becomes the tormentor of the hapless creature?”[5]

But for all of de Sade’s supposed moral bravado or mania with perverse sexual practices, this story’s the conclusion is quite within the confines of the polite order. A girl gets abused by some sort of dandy. She is punished by her cruel brothers. But at the end all she can do is accept the apologies and of her abuser. Marriage is presented as the only option.

At the end of the day, all this reminds me of Žižek’s expounding of Lacan’s point in “Kant with Sade”:

Today, in our post-idealist era of the “hermeneutics of suspicion,” doesn’t everybody know what the point of the “with” is – the truth of Kant’s ethical rigorism is the sadism of the law, i.e., the Kantian law is a superego agency that sadistically enjoys the subject’s deadlock, his inability to meet its inexorable demands, like the proverbial teacher who tortures pupils with impossible tasks and secretly savors their failings? Lacan’s point, however, is the exact opposite of this first association: it is not Kant who was a closet sadist, it is Sade who was a closet Kantian.[6]

[1] John Burnside, foreword to Betrayal by Marquis de Sade (London: Hesperus Classics, 2006), vii.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid. Perhaps this is one more reason why I think Sade would come late in my reading lists.

[4] Marquis de Sade, Betrayal, translated by Andrew Brown (London: Hesperus Classics, 2006), 4.

[5] Ibid, 83.

[6] Slavoj Žižek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections (New York: Picador, 2008), 194-195.

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