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The Fallacy of Unity of Stance in de Sade
– Nov. 15, 2013

A reader's guide to the differences between the primary works of the Marquis de Sade

See also my brief look at Pasolini's Salò as regards windows in the Cinema drawer, here.

The most common error people have when they read or talk about de Sade's works (and by "common" I mean "rampant") is that each work is written with the same stance as regards the characters and events within the work. That is, that a sex act in 120 Days of Sodom carries the same ideation as the same sex act would in Juliette. Or, to say it a different way, in a way that one might very possibly if not very frequently hear it, "sadism in de Sade is universally the same across his works."

This is wholly untrue. In fact, it is so untrue that the statement in that last sentence makes no sense. When approaching and reading de Sade's works, the situation of the story has to be taken into account. Yes, sex is the central theme of all of de Sade's works. But that sex is different in each of the works. That is, sex for de Sade is a subject matter that is put to use in different ways depending on the book. You have to remember that Sade is never merely talking about sex: he is always talking power, individuality, and state and cultural institutions.

If I may quickly go through the four primary works:


120 Days of Sodom:

People reading or talking about this book fall almost invariably fall into the error that the four primaries in the book are Sadean heros. This is not the case. 120 Days was written while de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, in a cell whose window looked down upon the guillotine. His every day was the sounds and -- if he looked -- the sights of executions: which is to say state political power run amok. 120 Days is a description of such a state. It is critique of a state (the isolated chateau) that has been organized around a rational and rationally written set of rules (the state's social contract). The "libertines" in 120 Days are thus corruptions of the libertines one meets in, say, Philosophy in the Bedroom: they have rejected the very basis of libertinage -- individuality -- in favor of creating an established state/religion. Ultimately, their state collapses in on itself and disintegrates: de Sade's commentary on artificial and inherently corrupted nature of established power.

There are no heros in 120 Days, there is only the state and its participants, including the men who have organized the state, the people who participate in its daily functions, and the victims themselves, who, for de Sade, are also participants in the state, if passive participants. In fact, it is that very passivity that makes them complicitous participants. As such, 120 Days becomes quite the commentary on state, especially in the post-WWII world.


Justine is a morality tale about just such a victim. She is a person who has wholly abandoned her individuality, her self-ness, even, in her obesiance to religion, that the world reacts to her as a victim. If you follow the events in Justine they form a more or less degressive chain, which ends in a situation where she is prisoner to a man described as much as a beast (in the natural sense) as a human: that is, her abandonment of self to the establishment of religion is equated as self-identification as victimhood, and the powers of state and religion, and in the end of Nature itself, treats her as such.

It is false to assume the holders of power in Justine are Sadean heroes: for many of them may be said to represent established power (that is, the necessary opposite side of established victimhood) rather than true libertinage: I do not believe it is accident that Justine is named Justine: for de Sade witnessed the realities of state-applied and populous-demande "justice" all around him. And with the movement of the book to the most base elements of nature (pure predator and prey), I do not believe there is much room for the appearance of true, free libertines: that is, outside of Juliette. As such, I do not think it is outside the bounds to say that de Sade believed (and in this book portrayed) that if you forsake your individuality -- whether to the direction of power or victimhood -- you also forsake your humanity: and that is Justine's journey.

Philosophy in the Bedroom:

Philosophy is the opposing text to 120 Days. It is the text of Sadean heros: libertines at their highest. The situation of the book is a gathering of equals: and that is key to understanding de Sade and Philosophy: sex in its highest pleasures can only be had, for de Sade, between equals: specifically, between free thinking individuals. It is not for naught that the sex in Philosophy is organized and arranged as though the group was putting on a tableau vivant: for sex between them was thus become an aesthetic experience. They were making scenes of, essentially, mythical heroes.

Yes, there is a little sadistic libertinage in Philosophy, but, again, victims are victims: for de Sade, by rejecting their individuality, they willingly assume a position within the power establishment.

There are different translations of Philosophy, and if you go to read one you should recognize that the original text includes the primary character reading a quite long pamphlet on political theory. Some translations choose to leave out that pamphlet: though, I consider that an error. While it is very long for the size of the book as a whole (and thus undoubtably a flaw in the book), the fact that the libertines are discussing and critiquing state establishment is important to understanding the context Philosophy.


Juliette is to Philosophy as Justine is to 120 Days. (If you do not know, Juliette and Justine are sisters, and in Justine Juliette takes part in her sisters fall.) It is the story of an individual who has rejected the establishments of religion and state. Indeed, I do not see how you could not call it a bildungsroman. The story of her adventures is a story of her coming into the domain of one libertine after the other, of her tutelage (in various forms) under them, and of her learning their various philosophies on being and reality, and, ultimately, of the development of her identitity and power as an individual.


The descriptions may be short, but they are sufficient to understand that there are fundamental differences within the books of de Sade. Not every Sadean character is a hero. And victimhood is not simply being a victim: it is a philosophical and spiritual choice. In fact, if you at all come to an understanding of the contexts of the books, and what those contexts mean as to the sex acts in the book, you will recognize that the common concept of sadism that you hear applied to the books actually does not really exist within it. This is another fallacy you often come across: the confusion of the two contemporary concepts of sadism: that of mutually pleasurable bdsm sadism, and that of psychopathic pleasure out of causing pain, do not exist within the texts. Some might argue the former does, since it is pleasure between mutual participants; but within Philosophy -- and Juliette -- libertine sadism always speaks a power relationship. As such, I do not see why mutual bdsm is really closer to Masoch than Sade. But, really, the true source of the error lies in people reading Sade (and Masoch) as documents of psychological behavior, which they absolutely are not. They are crafted, literary depictions of power relationships, and commentaries, each in their own way, on power and establishment. They are not catalogs of sexual deviancy: they are literary works, and work as literary works.

On that note, in relation to both Sade and Masoch, I highly recommend Gilles Deleuze's book Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty, a fantastic discussion of the critiques that Sade and Masoch are making as regards power structures and established state/religion. It is not the easiest read, but for those interested in de Sade or Masoch, immeasurably valuable.