The Roots of Western Pornography
The Marquis de Sades novels marked a major transition in the 1790s. After the French Revolution, pornography lost its political overtones and gradually began to be replaced by material that pushed more generalized social boundaries. Rather than targeting political figures, Sade attacked every aspect of conventional morality.
In many of his works, Sade focused primarily on the complete annihilation of the body in the pursuit of pleasure, and in doing so, he has been characterized as everything from a raving lunatic to the embodiment of the devil to a brilliant philosopher and prophet of disorder. Many of the themes in modern pornography were touched on in Sades novels.
He fixated on exploding bourgeois sensibilities and fantasized about a total inversion of all values -- social and sexual. Many of Sades inverted expressions and ideas detailed in novels like Justine and Juliette have been perceived as an embryonic form of 20th-century existentialism and nihilism.
Donatien Alphonse François Sade was born in 1740 to an aristocratic family. In his early years, he lived the life of a debauching aristocrat -- until his powerful, politically connected mother-in-law made an arrangement with the government to have him imprisoned. Sades incarceration gave him the isolation he needed to vent whatever anger he had against God, the state, women, his relatives -- all the forces that had conspired to send him to prison. In all, he was incarcerated for 27 years, first under the old regime and then at the hands of the revolutionaries who forced him to spend his declining years in an insane asylum.
Sade can really never be condemned for writing material that arouses. In fact, his obsession with blasphemy would indicate that his greatest mania was religious rather than sexual. The violence aside, his works are hard to read: theyre didactic, repetitious and obsessive. It is, however, important to look at how Sades work plays with gender. In his novels, he scoped out a polymorphous world -- one in which sexual differences tended to blur and disappear. It is a world divided not into men and women, but rather slaves and masters. In orgy scenes described in Juliette, for example, there is often a switching of roles: females become aggressive and predatory, and males often have sex by penetrating one another. Bestiality, anal intercourse -- anything other than ordinary heterosexual sex is presented as being preferable.
Sades Juliette has a taste for torture and orgies that she shares with such figures as the Pope. She goes from whore to teacher to the complete embodiment of Sades philosophy. In many ways, Juliette is also a send-up, a parody of the virtuous maiden who zealously guards her virginity (a popular theme in mainstream novels of the day).
The Misfortunes of Virtue, which is considered Sades greatest contribution to 18th-century fiction, was originally written in two weeks. It was later revised as the New Justine in 1797, prefacing Juliette, and is a bizarre mixture of lust and brutality -- the story of a virtuous girl who suffers under the whips and branding irons of her persecutors. The destruction of innocence, particularly if the victim was a young, beautiful female, was a favorite theme of Sades and gave him endless opportunity to pillory religion and celebrate his belief in a godless universe, where the only "heroes" were those who tortured and murdered their victims.
Philosophy in the Boudoir, which is the shortest and perhaps least sadistic of Sades novels, traces the gradual sexual initiation and corruption of a 15-year-old girl by several male libertines and one woman. The book is divided into seven dialogues in which Eugénie, a young innocent, is given information about truth, politics and the world. The truth, of course, is imparted with violence and cruelty, but Eugénie responds with great enthusiasm to her sex education, and by the end of the story, she sees to it that her own mother suffers sexual violence as well. In true Sadian fashion, virtue and religion are described as despicable, while evil and cruelty are celebrated as the true laws of nature.
It is important (but difficult) to read Sade with a sense of irony and attempt to view his extreme philosophy as a twisted parody of life. This begins to make greater sense when taking into account that Philosophy in the Boudoir was begun when Sade was incarcerated during the Reign of Terror in 1794, and was jailed within view of a guillotine used to execute over 1,800 men and women.
Much like Aretino, Sade used pornography as a way to violate established social codes, but he pushed boundaries unlike anyone before him. His works evoked such fear that the majority was unavailable for public consumption until well into the 20th century. At the British Museum, for example, where forbidden and "dangerous books" have been collected for well over a century, it was rumored that anyone wishing to read manuscripts of the Marquis de Sade would have to do so "in the presence of two museum trustees and the Archbishop of Canterbury."
Coming in April: How the morally severe Victorian Age yielded some of pornographys most popular classics.
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