Sunday, 28 April 2013

The Marquis de Sade - Icon, Villain or Celebrity Philosopher?

The Marquis de Sade was born on 2nd June 1740 and died on 2nd December 1814.  He remains a figure much revered, despised and reproduced.  He has become the cultural equivalent of a Hammer horror villain or Jack the Ripper.  The epitome of extremism.  To some a political thinker, critical of political figures such as Robespierre.  To others, a libertine who transcended concepts of morality.  There would be no concept of Sadism without the Marquis de Sade.

His biography makes for fascinating reading, his continual imprisonment for subversive works, but what has always intrigued me is how he remains a vital ingredient in the more extreme and subversive aspects of cultural expressionism.  A Mickey Mouse figure for a generation of degenerates and thinkers.  The proverbial straw that continues to break the camel's back.

I probably first encountered the Marquis de Sade, whilst at college in 1993.  His philosophical views probably fascinated me as they would most young men.  No restraint and no limits.  A rebel who held the Government of his time to be detrimental and wanting.  I remember deciding to try to find one of his works at Foyles.  I should have been prepared for the reaction I received.  Upon asking a shop assistant for The One Hundred Days of Sodom, I was pointed towards the adult books in the corner.  The majority of his works were there with some of the most inappropriate covers I have ever seen.  The front and back covers are full of female naked bodies cavorting with no faces apparent.  The Arrow Books' edition cover illustration provided by John Geary.  It's quite a nice illustration but not something you would proudly display on your journey to college or work.  Looking again at my copy of the book, which is essentially a novel, I can spot my underlinings.  Pencil underlinings were a feature of my days in education.  They also provided a way for me to anchor myself in the material in a slightly more academic way.  The novel can be read as an aid to arousal, if you are of a certain proclivity.  I am open to ideas and enjoy the sense of engagement that a pencil provides.  I do remember not finishing the novel.  Basically, a group of aristocrats take themselves off to a chateau somewhere with an assortment of men, women and children.  They subsequently perform any acts that take their fancy and assert strong rules.  At certain points, they control the excremental habits of the people who have no control or function other than to serve the needs of the aristocrats.  The novel is broken down into days and at times is hard to read owing to the atrocities committed.  I will reread the novel soon to see if it impacts upon me in the same way as it did on a nineteen year old.  Believe it or not, it does have interesting insights into human nature, Nature and religion.

Two quotes that give an insight into the extremity and unpleasantness of de Sade, but also the transgressive beauty of smashing the boundaries of human codes of morality can be found below:

"By and large, offer your fronts very little to our sight; remember that this loathsome part, which only the alienation of her wits could have permitted Nature to create, is always the one we find most repugnant."

(De Sade: Page 222)

'Let them be persuaded, these stupid creatures, let them henceforth be convinced that in all the world there are not twenty persons today who cling to this mad notion of God's existence, and that the religion he invokes is nothing but a fable ludicrously invented by cheats and impostors, whose interest in deceiving us is only too clear at the present time.'

(De Sade: Page 223)

Both of these quotes are taken from a section of the text that documents a speech given by the Duc de Blangis, an eighteen year old and one of the Masters in this narrative.  The first pertaining to the rather derogatory attitude towards the vagina, which I continue to find intriguing.  The seeming misogyny perhaps rather indicative of a wider disgust for procreation and human beings in general.  The second quote is actually quite a reasonable assertion if you believe in nothing more substantial than your own existence or uphold atheist beliefs.  My objection with de Sade is the abuse that his characters inflict upon each other.  I also dislike the way that women are depicted.  Having said that, political analogies can be drawn.  Power relations always lean towards some form of exploitation.  So in this respect, he preempts Marx's views and philosophy.

Now moving slightly forward in time, the Italian film director, Pasolini made a film version of the novel in 1975 as his final film.  Salo or The 120 Days of Sodom remains one of the most controversial films ever made.  It is still banned in certain countries.  I saw it for the first time the other day at the BFI on the Southbank and as is always the case, when I view films that are so extreme that the media coverage surrounding them render them as rather intriguing Pandora's Boxes, I look at the audience demographic.  If the audience is simply comprised of men, I feel like a pervert and my view of the film changes.  Fortunately, the audience had a fair mix of men and women, so I still felt like a pervert but a pervert with aspirations of wholesome moral values, occasionally achieved.  The film essentially takes the ideas of the original novel and places them in Italy around July 1943 after the fall of Benito Mussolini.  Four corrupt fascist libertines kidnap and take off a group of eighteen teenage girls and boys, who they subsequently use and abuse in various manners.  The libertines are accompanied by their new wives (they marry each others daughters).  The film is structured around four chapters that relate to Dante's Inferno.  It features every possible taboo that you can mention and the final chapter, 'The Circle of Blood' is amongst the most horrible sequences I have ever seen.  As each of the libertines stares through binoculars from an upstairs window, he witnesses the punishment of each of the young people who broke the ground rules.  I guess the punishment matches the proclivity of the libertine and include the application of a lighter to a boy's penis, a scalping and an eye gouging.  Now, I am open to all ideas and find censorship largely abhorrent but the horror of the punishments was something else.  Also earlier in the film, people are forced to eat excrement based on the fact that one of the older women remembers someone enjoying the experience of consuming excrement.  The film is something else and ends with a waltz.  Again, I was intrigued how the audience would respond.  It seems customary to applaud at the conclusion of each film shown at the BFI.  One or two people were tempted to clap but then stopped themselves.  The conversation generated by this film exceeds the reaction to any other film I have seen.  The film's saving grace is the strength and courage of its director.  It is amazingly well made and leaves an indelible mark upon you after you have seen it.

The Marquis de Sade has also been depicted in two major stage plays, which have subsequently been remade as films.  The most radical of these I saw this afternoon at the Rio in Dalston, the Marat Sade, which is the shortened version of the play and film's actual title,   The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade.  The play was written by Peter Weiss and originally directed on the stage by Peter Brook who also directed the film version.  Believe it or not, the title of the play/film is precisely what the play/film is about.  It is a very extreme and peculiar representation of a murder and the events surrounding it.  The Marquis de Sade played by Herbert Lom moves the action along, whilst various representatives of the asylum and their families look on.  The action takes place of a stage, which resembled a cage as bars occupy the front of the proscenium arch where normally, the audience would have an unrestricted view of the action.  The play and film serve to illustrate the views of the Marquis de Sade, the repressive mechanisms in operation in mental institutions to prevent the outbreak of anarchy (the asylum workers intervene every time the inmates/actors get a bit carried away).  The play/film after closing ends with the complete breakdown of normal values and codes of morality.  A sado-masochistic orgy ensues.  Glenda Jackson plays the eventual murderer of Marat, she also suffers from melancholia and sleep sickness.  It's not a conventional film and play.  Upon its stage production back in the 60s and even more recently in 2011 at Stratford Upon Avon, members of the audience walked out.  I found the film engaging yet very stagy.  Having said that, the feeling of anarchy and exhaustion that pervades the film and the staging gives it a sense of claustrophobia and perhaps allows a greater sense of empathy with the characters.  The other major play about the Marquis de Sade was Quills and this also became a film with the Marquis de Sade played by Geoffrey Rush.  The original play was written by Doug Wright.  My memories of the film involve the Marquis de Sade incarcerated writing his incendiary manuscripts and getting other people to smuggle them out for him.  It reminded me a lot of One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest.  It's certainly the more accessible of the two films.

As a cultural figure, I have also bumped into the Marquis de Sade in comics (The Invisibles), in other plays (Madame de Sade - Yukio Mishima ) and in various literary criticism and novels.  After all, just think where would the 'Mummy Porn' sensation, The Fifty Shades Trilogy by E.L. James be without the Marquis de Sade.  He may have been extreme but at his heart, he helped to point out an essential truth, sexuality is not one dimensional.  Also pleasure and pain are not mutually exclusive and for that perhaps, we should be grateful however grudgingly?

Barry Watt - 28th April 2013


The quotes from 'The One Hundred Days of Sodom' are taken from the Arrow Books' edition, The One Hundred Days of Sodom and other writings (Arrow Books, 1990).

Salo or the 120 Days of Sodom (Pasolini, 1975) (Film available on DVD).

Dante's Inferno is the first part of Dante Alighieri's poem, The Divine Comedy.

Marat Sade (Peter Brook, 1967) (Film available on DVD.  The play is by Peter Weiss).

Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000) (Film available on DVD.  The play is by Doug Wright.

One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest (The novel is by Ken Kesey and the film was directed by Milos Forman in 1975.  The film is available as a DVD).

The Invisibles (Comic written by Grant Morrison and published by DC Comics).

Madame de Sade (Play by Yukio Mishima).

The Fifty Shades Trilogy (Novels by E.L. James and published by Vintage Books).


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