Philosophy of the Bedroom: On The Insights and Limitations of Sade’s Dialectic

In his day the Marquis de Sade was a social pariah, an embarrassment to his family and a lecher whose pornographic sensibilities attracted the derision of Napoleon himself. However, in the roughly 200 years since his rather unremarkable death at the Charenton Asylum, Sade’s life and work have been the subject of a revival and reappraisal, especially in academic circles. Perhaps nowhere has this reappraisal been more polarizing than in Sade’s treatment of his female characters and his philosophy on women’s role in society. It has garnered everything from emphatic praise to vitriolic disparagement; yet a more tempered response is needed for any successful evaluation. Sade’s canon of work, specifically his 1795 dramatic dialogue, Philosophy of the Bedroom, displays how his stance on women transcended easy classification. The dialogue suggests powerfully that Sade was interested in parsing ideas regarding sexual and social egalitarianism, yet his fixation on a rigid, immutable dialectic between virtue and vice often produced questionable results regarding his contribution to women and society as a whole.

In seeking to explore this, several Sadeian perspectives must be addressed. Much of Philosophy of the Bedroom is iconoclastic in regards to women, supporting writers like Geoffrey Gorer, who labeled Sade a feminine advocate. Still the complexities which arise out of that advocacy, the “complex dialectic” which writer Angela Carter places at the heart of Sade’s canon, can be interpreted as crippling the rhetorical force of his dramatic dialogue. Ultimately, neither thinker’s analysis is adequate. Clearly Sade’s prose was less cut and dry than what Gorer claims. Yet even Carter’s analysis, which characterizes Philosophy of the Bedroom’s contribution to women as being limited due to the demands of Sade’s dialectic and chosen genre, is insufficient. My own interpretation is that Sade’s philosophy, while hyperbolic, is actually more helpful than what Carter believes, and does not appear inconsistent simply due to Sade being forced to adhere to the paradigms of his genre. Philosophy of the Bedroom shows us that no utopian idealism or humanistic aspirations can easily bridge the dialectical tension existing at the core of our society. Even more dramatically, it illustrates how such idealism can have a counter-productive effect, a sentiment which Freud would pick up nearly 130 years later in his penultimate essay: Civilization and its Discontents.

I. Sade the Feminine Advocate

For Geoffrey Gorer, Sade’s philosophical stance towards women was exemplary. He proclaims in his 1934 book, The Life and Ideas of the Marquis De Sade, that Sade, unlike many of his contemporaries, “demanded complete equality for women in every circumstance.” (Gorer 138). Nowhere is it easier to find support for Gorer’s assertions than in Philosophy of the Bedroom. The text revolves around a young woman’s indoctrination into a lifestyle which disavows social expectations.

Philosophy of the Bedroom focuses on a band of aristocratic libertines indulging in unbridled hedonism at the beginning of the French Revolution and who are attempting to instruct a precocious woman named Eugenie on their philosophy. The implications of this “instruction” relate to taking away her virginity and educating her on how pleasure should be the ultimate principle in governing one’s life. The structure of Philosophy of the Bedroom transpires predominantly with this pattern. There are repetitive descriptions of orgies punctuated by diatribes. The speeches are carried out by Dolmance, a libertine who rails against approved social-norms (reproduction, faith, marriage, and parenthood) and advocates for social taboos such as abortion and violence.

The interpretation of Sade as an advocate for women emerges during the tirades of Dolmance. In order to understand how this interpretation is valid, one must first explore the tenants of the libertine philosophy and the dialectical worldview at the heart of Sade’s canon. The dialectic of Philosophy of the Bedroom is the dynamic between virtue and vice. These terms function as amalgams for a host of different attributes. Essentially, “vice” is Sade’s term for those who’ve disavowed the idea of God and the social norms and institutions commonly perceived as the foundation of society. This disavowal stems from the idea that these different systems, from religious ideology to the rule of law, inhibit a more truthful form of existence: the human being’s status as an animal who must obey the laws of “Nature.” Conversely, the virtuous individual is one who lives a stunted, inhibited life and prescribes to a lifestyle that the libertine views as a perversion of humanity’s natural state.

The dialectical pole of vice, which Sade clearly favors, is based on a singular principle: In the pursuit of pleasure any action becomes justified. Dolmance articulates this to Eugenie early on, showing that the pleasure principle is, according to Nature, the central aspect of the human being’s constitution. “Come my sweet, virtue is but a chimera whose worship consists exclusively in perpetual immolations, in unnumbered rebellions against the temperament’s inspirations. Can such impulses be natural? Does Nature recommend what offends her?” (Sade 208). To Sade, adhering to vice’s opposite (virtue) is an erroneous way to live, condemning women to a specific form of social and sexual experience. In the eyes of the libertine, bowing to the virtuous “chimeras” heavily propagated by human society inevitably leads to an inhibited life.

The dialogue elucidates how virtue is a dangerous concept, as it obfuscates the true reality of those who adopt it. “No; the virtuous woman acts, or is inactive, from pure selfishness. Is it then better, wiser, more just to perform sacrifices to egoism than to one’s passions?” (209). What Dolmance is arguing is that virtue keeps the individual docile, accepting of their subordinated, inhibited role solely because they can maintain a high opinion of themselves. This notion is not just present throughout Philosophy of the Bedroom. It has incredible resonance in Sade’s Justine, where the eponymous hero allows herself to be horrifically abused solely because disavowing virtue would be the more traumatic action.

Dolmance explains to an incredulous Eugenie that the dialectic relates to many aspects of the female experience, with reproduction being a primary concern. For the libertine, reproduction being considered the primary purpose for sexual expression conflicts with several of Nature’s edicts. “Let us make no mistake about it, this propagation was never one of her laws, nothing she ever demanded of us, but at the very most something she tolerated,” (276). This passage supports the interpretive claim of Gorer. It is hard to argue that there isn’t an element of advocacy here, as there is a clear recognition by Sade of women having a right to a sexual agency revolving around pleasure alone. The fixation on reproduction is incongruent with Nature, a force apathetic to our continued existence.

The rejection of reproduction is expanded upon by the libertine’s embracing of abortion. Dolmance and the lecherous Madame Saint-Ange forcefully chastise Eugenie’s vacillation on the issue, declaring that abortion helps preserve women to indulge more powerfully in their primary mode of being. “Eugenie, be the implacable enemy of this wearisome child-getting, and even in marriage incessantly deflect that perfidious liquor whose vegetation only serves to spoil our figures, which deadens our voluptuous sensations,” (248). Under this perspective, abortion sheds its moral ambiguity and instead becomes imbued with a positive meaning. The action assists women by increasing the longevity of their unbridled pursuit of sexual expression. Additionally, the action moves the human closer to Nature by honoring its apathy towards reproduction.

To Sade, the castigation of abortion occurs through humanity’s belief in a metaphysical creator. Because of this belief, they must modify their impulses to remain in compliance. This directly conflicts with libertine culture, which believes that humankind should be unconcerned with such notions. “As we have broadened the horizon of our rights, we have recognized that we are perfectly free to take back what we only gave up reluctantly, or by accident, and that it is impossible to demand of any individual whomsoever that he becomes a father or a mother against his will,” (249). The very idea of not being able to exercise complete control over one’s body for pleasure-seeking is a repellent idea to the libertine. To support these beliefs on abortion Dolmance goes to great oratory lengths to extract the spiritual element from the concept of newly created life. This is conveyed by the dramatic comparison of a human being’s gestation with the “development of a germ of wheat.”

This particular aspect of the libertine’s philosophy can appear inconsistent, specifically with Dolmance’s assertions that parents should have unfettered control over their offspring: “this creature whether more or less on earth is not of very much consequence, and that we become, in a word, as certainly the masters of this morsel of flesh, however it may be animated, as we are of the nails we parse from our fingers, or the excrement we eliminate through our bowels,” (249). This comparison, which equates the act of life-creation with that of any other corporal function, suggests that the libertine considers a child to be devoid of any personal autonomy, without a claim on whether it even lives or dies. This notion is inverted regarding Eugenie’s relationship with her own mother. Eugenie has nothing but contempt for this woman, an emotion that eventually manifests itself in a violent manner in the dialogue’s conclusion. The libertines encourage this mentality in her, pushing her towards recalcitrance, then to a violent rebellion. This suggests something completely contradictory to their earlier claims for parental domination over the fate of their children.

Madame Saint-Ange provides this “clarification” for Eugenie regarding what she owes to her mother, reminding her that no other species is saddled with the obligation of parental obedience. “And do the young fancy themselves in any sense beholden to those whence they have received breath? Surely not. By what right, hence, are other duties incumbent on the children of men?” (219). This statement appears, at least initially, to reduce the libertine doctrine at best to one of mixed messages.

What could be the explanation for a philosophy that first relegates human children to a “morsel of flesh” and then subsequently seeks to convince a particular individual (Eugenie) that she can dismiss her mother’s controlling influence and is capable of self-volition? For Sade, his dialectical perspective reigns supreme. Eugenie’s mother, Madame de Mistival, through procreating and submitting to the institution of marriage, has been damned in the eyes of the libertines. She has already transgressed against several of the core principles of Nature. She has relinquished her autonomy, her potentiality to become the Nietzschian superwoman for which Eugenie is now being groomed. She stands in stark contrast to her daughter who has become enlightened through her rejection of God and society for Nature and pleasure. Eugenie’s sexual autonomy trumps any claim that Madame de Mistival might seek to impose upon her. In order to remain compliant with Nature’s laws, Eugenie is obligated to go to any lengths necessary to protect her access to pleasure, even if that means employing violence.

What is surmised from the dialogue’s ideas about abortion and reproduction is that for a woman’s autonomy to be secure the development of an uncompromising, singular form of existence is necessitated. In order to accomplish this and remove any threat which may potentially curtail one’s sexual expression, it is not sufficient to simply obviate reproduction or jettison any moral qualms regarding abortion. The very bonds which help constitute the human community must be reassessed. For example, Eugenie states that through the development of civilization and the formation of partnerships and communities, positive feelings of goodwill were evoked, which then led to the development of love and friendship between individuals. Dolmance rebuffs this idea, remarking that love, a bond allegedly at the core of social institutions such as marriage, is a constrictive force. It binds a woman to one man, nullifying her ability to autonomously pursue pleasure, “because the outcome of constant love, binding you to him, would be to prevent you from giving yourself to someone else, a cruel selfishness which would become fatal to your pleasures.” (284). Even romantic connections which do not culminate in marriage must be reassessed and perhaps guarded against. Dolmance explains the different attributes of love, specifically its cause and effects. “What is the foundation for this sentiment? Desire. What are this sentiment’s consequences? Madness. Let us confine ourselves to the cause and guarantee ourselves against the effects.” (285). This viewpoint defines “love” as something comparable to the act of reproduction; the only difference being that love introduces an emotional malady which addles a woman’s pursuit of pleasure, as opposed to the physical ramifications of procreation.

These passages point to the paranoia percolating under each of the main points discussed by Dolmance and his compatriots. The existential anxiety, spawned through the libertine’s belief in thecurtailing power of God and man, reaches its apogee with the libertine endorsement of violence. The dialogue explains that aggression and cruelty is another acceptable technique, justifiable if used in the pursuit of pleasure. Yet violence used indiscriminately is not sanctioned. Dolmance describes it: “In general, we distinguish two sorts of cruelty: that resulting from stupidity, which, never reasoned, never analyzed, assimilates the unthinking individual into a ferocious beast: this cruelty affords no pleasure,” (255). Violence should only be used to serve a higher calling. In this case that higher calling revolves around the protection or the heightening of a woman’s pleasures.

For the libertines there is a recognition that women’s natural propensity for evil perhaps eclipses that of men and is exacerbated by their initial subjugation: “the other species of cruelty, fruit of extreme organic sensibility, is known only to them who are extremely delicate in their person […] delicacy, so finely wrought, so sensitive to impressions, responds […] best, and immediately to cruelty; it awakens in cruelty, cruelty liberates it.” (255). This statement is where Sade elaborates on his dialectic, specifically that the weakness, passivity and submission he associates with virtue are not inherently feminine traits. If anything, women have the inner potential to transcend into a far more truthful state of being, perhaps even more easily than men considering their past history with repression. He continues: “you will see whether it is not their extremely active imagination, the acuity of their intelligence that renders them criminal, ferocious; oh they are charming creatures, […] and not one of the lot cannot turn a wise man into a fool if she tries.” (255). Sade appears to consider women more than capable of becoming an agent of Nature, only limited by the “rigidity, or rather the absurdity, of our customs,” which “acts as no encouragement to their cruelty; they are obliged to conceal themselves.” (255). Through his comments on cruelty and the nature of its relationship to women, Sade speaks positively about the place society should create for women. They would be able to reach their full potential in society if society would just get out of the way.

At this point, the question of Sade’s perspective on women seems fairly clear-cut. His argument is powerful, utilizing his dialectic to call for a rejection of women’s role as simple reproductive factories. He also disavowed the subordinating institution of marriage and drew attention to the intrinsic potential of women for cruelty and, perhaps, greatness. This is, of course, a compliment, as cruelty is the “first sentiment that Nature injects in us all.” (253). However, as Sade introduces the most famous section of Philosophy of the Bedroom, the section entitled Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans, the core paradox about his writing and philosophy emerges: the call for a return to Nature, yet a reticence and an attempt to ameliorate the implications that this advocacy evokes.

Sade’s dialectic, specifically the lack of potential for movement between its two extremes and how it relates to this section of Philosophy of the Bedroom, is where the overall positivity of Sade’s contribution to women becomes dubious. That, paired with Sade’s depiction of female sexuality being one based on patriarchal influence, are some of the issues Angela Carter finds fault with in her book The Sadeian Woman. Her belief is that through Sade women may be capable of obtaining some freedom, but only freedom previously sanctioned.

II. The Implosion of Sade’s Egalitarian Dream

The late Angela Carter adopted a highly critical mindset towards Sade, concurring with Gorer, but only to a certain degree. In her 1978 book, The Sadeian Women and The Ideology of Pornography, she took on the question of Sade’s relationship to women, even appropriating some of his rhetoric for feminist purposes. She characterizes Sade as a “moral pornographer” who “might use pornography as a critique of relations between the sexes.” (Carter 19). Carter states that Sade’s writing illuminates how “sexual relations always render explicit the nature of social relations.” (20), and recognized women’s sexual agency.

For Carter, the fact that Sade encouraged women to disavow virtue for vice proves that he had at least some interest in promoting female emancipation. Carter’s perspective on Sade’s texts as being pro-women relates also to how they help deconstruct female mythology, such as the “goddess mother.” The manner in which societycharacterizes female anatomy is the central topic of the myth. The womb in particular is imbued with a spiritual nature, transformed into the “first and last place,” a religious altar which men both lust after and strongly fear. The act of existing in the womb, of being nurtured and protected and not having to exert any effort is, “a repose, of course, not unlike that of a corpse.” (108). This is the source of the world’s ambivalence towards women as their reproductive functions encapsulate both the origin of life and its inevitable termination. Sade’s applicability in this conversation comes from how his writing, which discards the reproductive function of women, actually allows for one to examine the reverence and horror commonly associated with this function. Carter’s intuition is that society abhors the possibility of removing this function, as it represents the final secularization of mankind. It invariably kills the goddess mother, reducing the woman to her corporeal form of bone and meat.

Carter’s work is equally focused on the genre in which Sade chose to work. This is important because it is his chosen genre that Carter feels eventually disables Sade’s ability to put forth progressive discourse for women. Carter viewed Sade as a moral pornographer, as she saw his work highlighting real world concerns. Having to address the social dynamics of sexual intercourse is what The Sadeian Woman posits as being the inevitable byproduct of the pornographer’s journey, especially when using mainstream literary techniques such as plotting and characterization. They must make a critical choice about how they are going to frame their work, deciding to put it into the service of the, “world or the wet dream?” (19).

The foundations on which Sade built his pornographic universe are clearly indicative that he chose to address the world. His ability to demystify something like the womb suggests this. His simultaneously awe-inspiring and repugnant ability to depict inequality is another example. The evidence needed to corroborate that Sade transcended the normal paradigms of his chosen genre is illustrated in his eventual fate, which was a lifetime of incarceration and the destruction of a majority of his books. As Carter notes, “when pornography serves […] to reinforce the prevailing system of valuesof a society, it is tolerated; and when it does not, it is banned.” (18). For better or worse, this continual experience of oppression seeped into his work, ineluctably transforming the landscape of his stories into one where his creations could only live or express themselves through opposition. This eternal system of conflict manifested itself through many fields: between female and male, the active and the passive, the chaste and the hedonistic, the disenfranchised and the aristocracy, the religious and the atheistic.

Sex, as in all of Sade’s stories, is the primary method for illustrating these power dynamics. It is to him the primary mode of being. Thus, because he advocated for women to move towards the active, powerful, and vicious pole of his dialectic in regards to their sexual identity, he simultaneously sought to give them license to change their economic and social destinies. This license however creates a depiction of human cruelty that equals, if not transcends the barbarity and malediction of Sade’s male characters. Juliette and Clairwell from Juliette and, more relevant for this paper’s purposes, Eugenie from Philosophy of the Bedroom are prime examples of this. This viciousness is the result of female vindictiveness exploding upon the world due to its initial subjugation. Therefore, because of the apocalyptic capacity for violence considered to be synonymous with the enlightened woman of Sade’s literary visions, one begins to understand Dolmance’s insistence for women to be able to indulge in their own sexual autonomy. Sade seems to believe that not doing so would arguably bring about a greater degree of bloodshed and destabilization to society.

The potential consequences of womankind embracing vice is what Philosophy of the Bedroom‘s most famous section, Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans, attempts to address. It aspires to offer a vision of a sexually equitable society without the warring identities of virtue and vice, or oppressed and oppressor. Carter’s perception is that Sade tried to head-off the explosive implications of his own philosophy – a task of fundamental importance because, as articulated by Carter, “A free woman in an unfree society will be a monster […] These womenmurder.” (27). Carter describes how Sade recognized the intrinsic capacity for violence within human beings. Additionally, because he could only envision human action in relation to dialectical tension, the unequivocal subjugation of women leads inevitably to the embracement of vice. So, with the methodology available to women to alter their unfavorable circumstances being immutable, Sade attempted to illustrate how to mutate society. His postulation is that once the sexual paradigms had been revised, the other elements which constitute the human experience would fall into a similar egalitarian schema.

Yet Another Effort Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans takes the form of a pamphlet insert, and is read by the libertines during the dialogue.This section is more than a simple reevaluation of society, which is promulgated by Sade in other books; it is an attempt, seemingly, to actually do something about the various issues he is discussing. He sketches instructions for how to build the utopian, post-revolutionary French society, bellowing for the destruction of any remaining authoritarian edifices of the ancien regime.

This section functions as both a reinforcement of the philosophical views already expounded upon, and an attempt to reconcile some of the disturbing implications that this philosophy evokes. The pamphlet states that while France’s overthrow of the ancien regime is highly commendable, it is insufficient, a half-measure. The goal of liberty remains intangible as long as the institution of the church (which is synonymous with virtue and celebrating weakness and submission) remains a dominant factor in shaping the country’s destiny. Once the vestiges of religion have been expurgated, the republic can forge a path towards correcting the inequalities that have ravaged the relations between men and women. Sade considers these relations to actually become vulnerable to his analysis once the idea of God has been removed. No longer is there a mythological chimera designated to help reinforce the status-quo or prevent a conversation from being had.

Sade calls for a return to the state of Nature, before the creation of God or the constrictinginstitutions of man, when women simply belonged to all and all belonged to them. He states, “Self-interest, egoism, and love degraded these primitive attitudes, at once so simple and so natural; one thought oneself enriched by taking a woman to wife, and with her the goods of her family: there we find satisfied the first two feelings I have just indicated,” (Sade 318). This encapsulates Carter’s insights regarding Sade’s view of sexual relationships – that the sexual, the social, and even the economic often coalesce. With marriage functioning as a business transaction, women being one part of a larger property deal and love being ineluctably intertwined with economics, the entire premise of marriage, of families, of society becomes inherently corrupt, and inequitable.

Philosophy of the Bedroom’s theory for correcting this, aside from urging women to take up the mantle of someone like Juliette, is a fantastical vision for communal sexuality – a return to the state of Nature that Sade is so reverent towards. The dialogue envisions state-sanctioned houses of libertinage, separated by gender. In these houses men and women enjoy the sex in whatever manner they see fit and all citizens are required to participate, which essentially transforms society’s entire sexual experience into a public act. To Carter, this was further evidence of how the Sade the Smut Peddler became, at certain points, Sade the Advocate. His Rousseauian gravitation towards the public sphere, where there is potential for sexual egalitarianism, and where amazingly no retaliatory acts of violence are involved, helps to further his reputation as a female advocate. In this utopia, “in which nobody need bleed” women are able to return to their original state. This, to Sade, is the natural state, where women existed before they experienced the commodifying effect of marriage, before they were required to “fuck by contract,” (Carter 9) or were relegated into being the passive propagators of the species.

The libertine houses function as an amalgam of the libertine philosophy, serving as an alternative path to women’s liberation that stands in sharp contrast to Sade’s sanguinary proclivities. Sade sums it up better: “released from her paternal fetters, no longer having anything to preserve for marriage […] and superior to the prejudices which once imprisoned her sex, will therefore […] be ableto indulge in everything which her constitution prompts her […] and returned once again into society,” (Sade 322). Sade viewed his libertine houses as a great equalizer, where the sexual playing field was leveled. Nobody is exploited because all are equal participants.

Carter seems to find this idea admirable but implausible, characterizing Sade’s utopian dream as one which offers hope, but “not for us.” Carter also indicates that his utopianism is not congruent with the demands of his dialectic. At this point she breaks from the positive simplicity of Gorer, claiming that the lack of modulation offered by Sade’s dichotomized world refuses to allow for the open sexual egalitarianism of the “Encore un effort” section.

For Sade’s dream to come to fruition, his dialectic must evaporate. With the climax of the dialogue involving Eugenie, who has returned completely to what the libertines deem the “natural state,” sexually attacking her mother, the dream implodes because the lack of dialectic mutability is evident. This attack triggers a psychoanalytic interpretation for Carter. Eugenie joyfully penetrates her mother with a dildo, exclaiming to her mother, “come, let me serve you as a husband.” (Sade 359). The act of aggression involving an artificial phallus is the key issue, pointing to the tempestuous animosity existing at the heart of the “enlightened child” and the “repressed mother,” and the father’s influence in shaping the female child’s relationship to her mother and to sexuality. Carter remarks, “Sexual hostility is […] the inevitable relation between mother and daughter, as long as the mother regards sexuality as synonymous with reproduction and hence sanctified activity in which only the Holy Mother, herself, may indulge.” (123). Carter continues, saying there is an association drawn by the daughter through the mother’s attempt to curtail sexuality and the mother’s own status as a repressed being. This idea of passive acquiescence to repression is drawn from the iconography of the genitalia, explicitly evoked through the Freudian fear of castration. The female child perceives her mother as castrated, not just physically but emotionally, socially, ontologically, and seeks to compensate for this by arming herself with a phallic-like object.

The repressed mother is doomed to remain castrated because, as in all of Sade’s literature, biological mothering is something that Sade abhors and attempts to destroy. It is in conflict with the idea of communal mothering, mothering in the public sphere, which is praised through the depiction of Eugenie’s relationship with Madame Saint-Ange, or Juliette’s relationship with Durand. The stagnancy of Eugenie’s mother in regards to her sexual and social circumstances is conveyed in how her body responds to the assault, specifically that just prior to experiencing an orgasm she faints. She is incapable of moving out of her role in Sade’s dialectic; her repressive history is too deeply entrenched.

Carter sees huge implications in Madame de Mistival’s inability to climax, articulating that it is the primary example of how Sade’s dialectic is incompatible with his feminine advocacy. During this sequence of sexual violence, the two women remain completely in their dialectical roles, which are in Sade’s universe intrinsically assigned. Eugenie’s mother, Madame de Mistival, seems biologically wired to avoid pleasure and faints because she cannot transcend the paradigm of conflict. This is Sade’s ineluctable literary and personal proclivity; ingrained in his writing, and enforced by his own experience with repression. Carter comments on what would happen if Sade had allowed for the mother to experience pleasure, stating: “Virtue and vice, that is energy and passivity, that is, evil and good, would then be states to which one could accede. […] in the model of the world that Sade has made, a man or a woman is naturally vicious or naturally virtuous,” (129). By allowing for Madame de Mistival to oscillate between extremes, “Transcendence would have crept in. He might even have to make room for hope.” (129). The entirety of Sade’s literary system would collapse because, without the system of repression facing off with empowerment and sexual transgression, the concept of taboo becomes meaningless. This would then culminate with the very point of pornography being nullified.

Conversely, Eugenie was already corrupt before her entry into the boudoir, inexperienced and prone to vacillation perhaps, but already transgressive against society’s norms due to her pre-existing affair with Madame Saint-Ange. Her experiences in what Carter characterizes as the libertine “Schoolof Love” are what solidify her as an agent of vice. This transformation is encapsulated in her appropriation of the phallus, the active, powerful tool of pleasure. Carter’s idea here is that the phallus is disassociated from masculinity in this context (because sex never implies reproduction), and that the Sadeian form of empowered sexuality is genderless. Eugenie is fully ready to defend her right to sexual expression at all costs, and to rail against all that Nature deems unacceptable.

Because both women remain on the polar extremes of sexuality, the ability for sexual egalitarianism to develop in society (and subsequently economic and social egalitarianism) becomes an impossibility. There is no possibility of redemption from repression, nor is there the potential for one’s viciousness to be mediated. Sade espouses two ideologies, which once again revolve around the functioning of the phallus. He “dithers” says Carter; he “cannot fully decide whether it is an instrument of pleasure […] as it might be in the Republic […] or a weapon for admonition […] as it is with Eugenie, Clairwell and his male libertines.” (129). This depiction of female enlightenment is, to Carter, indicative of Sade’s cowardice. If he was truly invested in upsetting the status-quo, not only would movement between the poles of the dialectic be possible, Madame de Mistival would be allowed to feel pleasure, and Eugenie’s own sexual enlightenment would not express itself solely in patriarchal terms.

This idea of patriarchy imbued in Eugenie’s sexual assault lies in how her instruction by the libertines was sanctioned from the beginning by her father, who sent a note to the boudoir warning the participants of Madame de Mistival’s imminent arrival, and urging them to deal with her in whatever way they saw fit. Without this explicit approval, which Carter compares with the license God gave Eve to transgress in the Garden of Eden; Eugenie would never reach such lascivious heights. And while during the attack upon her mother Eugenie is, in a fashion, attacking herself or more specifically, her potential future self as a mother, she is still acting as the proxy of the father, who has asserted his influence into the “psychic theater” of the libertines. “In the Freudian orchestration, now father enters the nursery and imposes his phallic presence between the daughter and her mother; his arrival […]signifies the end of the mother’s role as seducer and beloved.” (125). What Carter proposes is transpiring in this scene is a gender inversion of the Oedipal complex or a version of the Freudian concept of “penis envy,” (the social privileges associated with the phallus). The female child, once she experiences a disruption in her mother’s attention (due to the mother being owned by her father), finds their bond irrevocably split asunder. The child is at last confronted with the world as it is: devoid of total nourishment, safety, and happiness. She is separated from the divine nature of the mother’s physiology.

She thus seeks vengeance against the mother for bringing her into and then abandoning her in an unforgiving world, instead of turning her anger on those actually in control, such as Dolmance. This gravitation towards the father, where the woman can only express her sexuality through the father’s encouragement, through the harnessing of the phallus, is stimulated by her opposition to the mother. The mother is the abscess of weakness, the nadir of the species, castrated and hopeless. Sade’s female characters and their relationship to father figures define his canon. This is evident in Philosophy of the Bedroom, Eugenie de Franval, and Justine.

This dynamic between Sade’s conception of the father and the mother, and the way that this is articulated through the sexual assault upon Madame de Mistival, leads Carter to the summation of her ideas on Sade, and how he approaches women. Carter’s analytical dissection of Philosophy of the Bedroom exposes how Sade evokes how the sexual circumstances of women often unfairly subordinate them socially and economically, but cannot escape the demands of his genre. Pornography necessitates the creation of roles like oppressor and oppressed, and Sade adheres to this. She views Sade as one who wanted to use pornography to subvert the patriarchal symbols governing his society; such as father, monarch, and God. Tragically however his vision of empowered female sexuality (Philosophy of the Bedroom), and repressed female sexuality (Justine) are both still expressions of fatherly influence.

Carter’s analysis is most effective in its characterization of Sade as a regressive patriarch. In Justine, the heroine cannot develop a mature or competent perspective on the world, due to her fear of transgressing against her supernatural father and creator. Similarly the influence of the father figure in Philosophy of the Bedroom is everywhere even when he is physically present nowhere. Carter’s critique of Sade’s dialectic, that his devotion to taboo pornography negates any real contribution to women (specifically the “Encore un effort” section), is simplistic. It reveals a profound lack of understanding for what Sade, perhaps even unintentionally, outlined in the dialogue – that the dialectical tension existing at the heart of human relationships cannot be expurgated. Utopian dreams are simply not congruent with the power dynamics of human society, dynamics which are established early on during our infantile realization of the trauma of existence.

Ironically, despite evoking Freud to explain how the infant gains an understanding that love and gratification are often finite, Carter cannot recognize how Sade’s reinforcement of his dialectic (through Eugenie’s attack on Madame de Mistival) directly following the “Encore un effort” section, as anything but acquiescence to genre expectation. Her answer for correcting this perceived shortcoming is also disappointing. She promulgates the same utopianism as the ideologues of Sade’s revolutionary time, suggesting that libertines would not need to cultivate a voracious, self-serving pathology if they just recognized love.

This inability to recognize love is certainly a part of Philosophy of the Bedroom; both Dolmance’s philosophy and the utopianism of “Encore un effort” deem it unhelpful to human desires being placated, or to women not having their sexuality curtailed. But more importantly Philosophy of the Bedroom evokes the intrinsic nature of human aggression. “The infant breaks his toy […] strangles his canary long before he is able to reason; cruelty is stamped in animals.” (Sade, 253). Carter perceives this as the libertine’s inability to share pleasure, and their desire to return to the state of Nature before the development of things like the super-ego. This desire to return to an infantile stateand unwillingness to share pleasure is reflected in Eugenie’s indoctrination and in Justine. Dom Clement, one of the demonic monks who terrorizes Justine, explains it by correlating inequitable heterosexual relations with economics: “Is it not plain enough that a woman can share nothing with us without taking something from us? […] And what then is this necessity, I ask, that a woman enjoy herself, when we are enjoying ourselves?” (Sade 603). Clement is saying that one cannot share pleasure without giving up pleasure, and that in becoming free you must make someone else less free.

Sade’s vacillation from a rigid dialectic to utopian idealism before finally allowing his dream to implode during the rape of Madame de Mistival, is not just the product of a pornographer afraid to transcend his genre, but an authentic belief in the dialectical tension existing between people. For Carter to ignore this and attempt to paint Sade as a simple coward, is unhelpful in understanding him. Additionally, her humanistic paean for brotherly love as being the force that can unite all peoples and bridge the divide between the two poles of Sade’s dialectic is naive. It ignores her observations on the aggressiveness of human beings, which is created during our introduction to the world. In my own opinion, this also disregards the neurotic, debilitating effects this type of universal love can produce.

III. Civilization and its Discontents: Freud Carries The Sadeian Fire

Sade’s libertines and their rejection of love imply that the only form of society palatable to them is one based on mutually assured destruction; an anti-social contract. In Justine, this is evident when the criminal DuBois explains how her criminal fraternity is bound together solely by the promise of a greater economic return. There is never a doubt that these criminals would turn on one another if the efficacy of their partnership ever faltered. Ideas like love and love’s free, egalitarian system of exchange are ideas that must be negated. By not doing so, they would face the prospect of their needs, at least periodically, going unmet. This is an idea that the libertines cannot entertain, but one that is the foundation of man’s participation in a social sphere. Essentially, for society to function we all have to give up something.

I believe that Sade’s violent destruction of his own utopian ideals is not a matter of him simply bowing to pornography’s expectations. It is a depiction of a fear of unmet needs and the personification of the aggression often stimulated through said fear. He may entertain the idea of a world of endless pleasure palaces, but eventually his own intuition punctuates this delirium. The attempt to parse the idea of a world where the jostling power dynamic of virtue and vice no longer exists fails, because Sade’s characters cannot leave themselves vulnerable to the oppressive weight of reality. They must compensate for this existential emptiness by greater and greater displays of sexuality; a return to the mentality of the infant, whose conception of sexuality is one defined solely by egocentricity. Carter effectively labels this as the libertines’ attempt at transcendence through regression, a process where the libertine rationalizes behavior by turning perversity into normalcy, and vice versa.

Sade’s rejection of utopianism in favor of reinforcing the strength and ubiquity of his dialectic highlights several valid aspects of his philosophy. There isn’t enough love to go around. Aggression due to the anxiety of unmet drives is a very real force. Finally, the idea of society tied together through the bonds of brotherly love often appears implausible, even downright damaging to the individual. Sade proves himself to be the precursor of Freud in this regard, whose penultimate essay Civilization and its Discontents mirrors many of Sade’s observations. Freud states, “The commandment, ‘Love thy neighbor as thyself’ […] is impossible to fulfill; such an enormous inflation in love can only lower its value, not get rid of the difficulty.” (Freud 109).

Carter’s humanistic attempt to mollify the viciousness of Sade’s libertines is proven to be problematic through Freud’s discussion of love. She does not seem to understand how love works and that with all of its complexity, its expectations and obligations; it cannot be an infinite force. Freud explains, “My love is something valuable to me which I ought not to throw away without reflection. It imposes duties on whose fulfillment I must be ready to make sacrifices.” (66). Freud is commenting on how anyone who cannot recognize that loving unconditionally, without hesitation is foolish, andignores “his experience of life and history.” Also, Freud clearly remarks how the idea of utopias, where the aggressive instinct has evaporated due to a society-wide adjustment, are little more than wishful thinking.

One of the utopian ideals that Freud focuses on is an actual reflection of the “Encore un effort” section of Philosophy of the Bedroom, “by allowing complete freedom of sexual life and thus abolishing the family, the germ-cell of civilization, we cannot […] foresee what new paths the development of civilization could take; but one thing we can expect, and that is that this indestructible feature of human nature will follow it there.” (72). The “indestructible feature” that Freud refers to is of course human aggression, which he perceives as being one of the most natural parts of the human constitution, one locked in conflict with what Freud classifies as “Eros” – meaning the will towards love and creating life. Sade’s utopianism cannot change this eternal conflict, nor is the will towards universal love a sufficient response. Sadeian characters such as Justineexemplify this. The attempt to adhere to a doctrine of universal love leaves them vulnerable to aggression from anyone who chooses not to follow the doctrine.

With both Carter’s humanism and Sade’s utopianism being seen as unsatisfactory, the only other option for controlling aggression is the development of social constraints to mediate human drives. This is another idea that the libertine rails against on a fundamental level, as it runs counter-intuitive with what they see as the correct form of life: submission to the will of Nature and the unfettered pursuit of pleasure. Freud also does not perceive the development of civilization as being entirely positive, with his essay posing a staggering query: Has the development of modern society, which may offer the chance for cultural stability pushed, “the whole of mankind” to “become ‘neurotic’?” (110). Freud quickly answers this question in a heartbreaking fashion. He states that civilization, similar to modern man, is governed by its own form of restrictive superego, a curtailing force which invariably causes the will of the individual to conflict with the will of the majority.

The question about whether or not the creation of laws, or the general development of social ethics, inevitably causes more harm than good remains undetermined. As Freud puts it, “I have endeavored to guard myself against the enthusiastic prejudice which holds that our civilization is the most precious that we possess […] and that its path will necessarily lead us to the heights of unimagined perfection.” (111). The question about civilization’s worth obviously remains. Yet, what does seem true is that civilization can offer the stability necessary for a potential evolution in culture, such as the movement towards a more inclusive society (the inclusion of women in political life or greater representation in the workforce for example) unimagined in earlier eras.

IV. Concluding Thoughts

The Marquis de Sade’s treatment of women continues to inspire debate. He created a philosophy that deconstructed the institutions that curtail women. He disavowed the dominant opinion that there should be an automatic connection between sex and reproduction. He even dismissed mythological connotations attached to women’s anatomy by society. With these accomplishments, Sade violently carved out a place for women’s sexual autonomy, and it is understandable how certain readers could label him a feminine advocate.

For a moment in Philosophy of the Bedroom Sade goes even further, crafting a vision for how egalitarianism may be achieved without the need for women to oscillate to one of the extreme poles of his dialectic: the embracement of vice. This utopian vision is temporal however. The dialogue’s climactic and horrific act of violence reinforces his earlier idea of dialectical tension through a perverse, psychoanalytic nightmare. It provokes claims of Sade being both a regressive patriarch and an intellectual coward, afraid to transgress against his chosen genre of pornography. This is partially correct. Sade never does seem to figure out how to truly subvert his patriarchal times. Yet, Sade should be commended for peering as far into the abyss of human sexuality as one can, and illuminating the arduous, potentially impossible nature of pacifying humanity’s aggressiveness.

Additionally, Sade’s refutation of the idea of love being the force that can unite all the world’s peoples is also significant. It points to the work that Freud would eventually carry forward over 100 years later, articulating how civilization, while capable of providing stability, continually conflicts with the individual. Even more importantly, Sade suggests that modern society, through its need to curtail human desires, can often subordinate and marginalize, as it has with women throughout history. Constant vigilance of the dynamic between society and the individual is required. This is an idea that remains as applicable in our times as it was in Sade’s. It was one that occupied him as he paced in his cell at Charenton, watching and writing as the Ancien regime crumbled and modern times began.

Works Cited

  • Carter, Angela. The Sadeian Woman and the Ontology of Pornography. New York: Pantheon Books, 1978. Print.

  • Freud, Sigmund. Civilization and Its Discontents New York: W.W. Norton & Company Inc, 1961. Print.

  • Gorer, Geoffrey. The Life and Ideas of the Marquis de Sade Westport: Greenwood Press, 1978. Print.

  • Sade, Marquis de. Justine, Philosophy of the Bedroom, and Other Writings New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

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