Sadism 101

In the summers, I would often run out of books to read, and raid my dad’s shelves for new material.

One summer when I was around 14, I found a compilation of the works of De Sade, and pulled it out for a look-see. Later on, my dad saw what I was reading and said, “If you’re going to read that, we should have a conversation about it when you’re partway into it.” This was the libertine 70’s I supposed, or something like that.

To be honest, De Sade’s writing is pretty bad. It’s as though his characters are cardboard cut-outs and he’s a teen-ager tying to stack them every which way, to see what happens. I remember being puzzled by a fair bit of it – it did not make sense that someone might beat themself with a stick until “the blood flew” or that that would be erotically exciting to them. Later, I was to learn that there are people who seem to be primed to fixate on almost anything, and one should dramatically broaden one’s expectations. At the time I did not understand De Sade’s characters, as he portrayed them, because he did it so badly that their motives were hidden, or never understood at all. If you don’t have that, in my opinion, you just have a litany of fictional beatings and buggerings and none of it makes any sense. The worst pornography is like that – uncreative and un-artistic, disconnected and dispassionate – it may be a visual treat but there’s a human aspect missing. If I’ve just offended someone’s sensibilities, i.e.: “I like my porn disconnected and dispassionate!” then, please, enjoy yourself. I’m acting someone in the role of remembered critic, and I cannot detach myself further from my own detachment – there are some things I find beautiful and others I do not, but I found De Sade to be boring; I don’t think I got more than halfway through Justine before I went back to look for something else to read.

So, I asked dad about De Sade, “you said you wanted to tell me some things about that?” or some such awkwardness. And (as often happened) I got a short lecture. Because, context matters. De Sade, as my dad explained it, hated his position in society – he was a minor noble who was a spoiled child growing up, who grew up to be a spoiled adult. Like many children, he was physically punished (flogged) in school, for some offense, and it apparently left an indelible mark on his psycho-sexual make-up. Whether he had some kind of mental disorder (in todays terms, such as bipolar disorder, or obsessive-compulsive disorder) is an open question, but he may have had mental problems. Some people point to the fact that he spent many years in an insane asylum as evidence for this, but not everyone committed to an insane asylum is insane. It appears that De Sade embarked on a crusade of libertinage, but didn’t have the political or financial clout to be a Gilles De Rais or a John Wilmot. The context: he didn’t get his way, in fact he got locked up. In France at the time, there was a process called a “Lettre De Cachet” which was a legal document in which a high-level noble (generally, the king) would command someone to be imprisoned and … well, that was that. Eventually De Sade annoyed his in-laws enough that they wrote a lettre de cachet and he found himself in prison. The rest of his life was spent bouncing between prisons, home arrest, and insane asylums. Basically, decent society wanted nothing to do with him and got rid of him in the usual way.

De Sade had a military career, tried to fit into society, failed, and fall back to drinking and whoring and generally misbehaving. There aren’t indications that he tried to actually do a lot of the stuff that appears in his writings – when dad dissected De Sade for me, that was a key point: he doesn’t write about these thing as if he had done them. There are indications he dabbled, and it seems to me as though he was the kind of guy who’d have eventually worked his way around to trying to be a monster, had he the money and privacy and time. Instead, he became what today we would call “an internet troll” and an “incel” – by virtue of being locked up – someone who decides that “you can’t shut me up!” is an invitation to be as unpleasant as possible. De Sade wrote his masterpiece, the 120 Days of Sodom in tiny little letters on a roll of paper that could be hidden in his cell, smuggled out and published. He was saved, inadvertently, by the French Revolution of 1789 and became a delegate to the national assembly. When Bonaparte came to power, he ordered the arrest of the author of Justine, who happened to be De Sade, and De Sade wound up in prison, again, for the rest of his life. Some people, such as Michel Foucault, see De Sade as a political figure and an icon of freethought, but I contextualize him more as an internet troll who was just too far ahead of his time. The point that I took away from my dad’s little thumbnail sketch of De Sade was that he just wasn’t very interesting – but he was trying hard to be.

The question (still unresolved) that my dad opened in my mind was whether De Sade was really into all that stuff, or whether he was just obsessively dumping his fantasy-life on an undesiring world. I pretty much completely forgot about him and his writings until I read Orwell’s 1984, and realized that Orwell’s character O’Brien was a Sadist. And, I mean, a real honest in your face unrepentant sadist: the kind of person that arises when power and opportunity allow a monster to let his nastiest desires take the stage:

“O’Brien: How does one man assert his power over another, Winston?

Winston: By making him suffer.

O’Brien: Exactly. By making him suffer. Obedience is not enough. Unless he is suffering, how can you be sure that he is obeying your will and not his own? Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will grow not less but MORE merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be progress towards more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love or justice. Ours is founded upon hatred.”

De Sade never wrote anything like that, but then again De Sade wasn’t that good a writer. That brings me to my first comment on “Sadism” – De Sade’s work was never good enough or important enough that he should have been “Sadism”‘s namesake. Sure, he meditated on power, and what happens when people have unconstrained power, but that’s been part of the human condition for a long time before. We can’t call the Roman gladiatorial events “sadistic” because De Sade hadn’t given them his name yet, but otherwise, what were they? They weren’t “Orwellian”, either, but they were a demonstration of power over life and death, trampling and being trampled upon, and a world that grows more merciless.

A decade or so ago I found out that there were still actual “banned” movies. Such as Pier Pasolini’s Salo, the 120 Days of Sodom. [wik] It’s not great, neither a beautiful or important work, other than its virtue of having been banned. It has a few shocks but I guess that’s the point. The main take-away of it, for me, was Pasolini’s clever setting for the movie: a small town is taken over by fascists during the turmoil before Mussolini’s rise to power, and they entertain themselves by tormenting and murdering the helpless population. As a meditation on the depravity of power it barely managed to move the needle (Costa Gavras’ Z is better) I wondered then, as I do now, whether the movie was banned because it’s very naughty, or whether it shines an unpleasant light on politicians, who are very naughty. We can’t play Michel Foucault’s cards and claim that such work is redeemed because it’s an important exploration of power, when there are many better and more interesting films in that genre. Even Kobayashi’s Harakiri, as a meditation on the corruption of power, does it better. Pasolini does get one thing right: the trampling of norms. When the powerful get the chance, the norms they promote are the first things that they discard.

Recently, I’ve been rolling the term “sadism” around on my tongue a lot, because I want a good word to describe American republican politics. It seems to fit: they want to make people suffer for no reason that makes any sense other than that they like to see people suffer. “Sadism” is a good word for that, and sometimes I see (and use) the word “nihilism” as well. I think that often “nihilism” is mis-used in political discourse often, these days. Nihilists believe nothing, i.e.: it’s a position of extreme skepticism, therefore they reject rules and norms. Calling republicans “nihilists” is incorrect: they actually do believe in something – they believe in power and that they should hold it. “Hypocrites” is probably a better label, in that they claim one thing while appearing to believe something completely different, but “hypocrite” is not sufficiently corrosive language – I guess it doesn’t matter what you call someone who simply does not give a shit what you call them. That, perhaps is my point.

It would be nice to have a better word for cruel people, for whom the gratification is in the cruelty itself, or the ritualization of that cruelty. If we want to explore ritualized cruelty, I don’t think we need to look farther than the catholic church, which is literally built around the fetishization of ritualized torture-murder. De Sade, by the way, was also strongly anti-catholic, portraying many priests as hypocrites who preached love and salvation, then retired to dungeons of libertinage in which they sexually abused the nuns and anyone else they could get their hands on. To me, the salient characteristic of De Sade, and the reason we attach his name to it, is the obssession with sexualizing abuse. When I look at Nancy Pelosi’s deficit hawkishness, which masquerades as libertarian/progressive, but is really used to punish those who can’t or won’t work, I admit I wonder if the obsession with other people’s lives is sexualized, or if it’s just brutal love of power. Orwell’s O’Brien is more akin to a politician than a grand inquisitor – you know that guy hasn’t got time for an erection; there are heads to bust.

I’d love to see the term “sadist” and “sadistic” evolve out of usage, replaced with “Orwellian” but, Orwell’s O’Brien is a much scarier monster than anything De Sade ever cooked up. Maybe we shouldn’t lure O’Brien out of the dark.


  1. ShowMetheData says

    Heard a word used to describe Trump’s method

    It’s not exactly the same but close

  2. Ketil Tveiten says

    I don’t think “Orwellian” is a good replacement for “sadism”, pretty far off the mark really. To my reading, “Sadist” is a personal thing, “Orwellian” a political one. I don’t really think we need a replacement even, after all, who cares about De Sade? We all know what the word means, and it’s a useful word. No one is bothered by the distinct un-Odin-ness of wednesdays.

    My favourite De Sade fun fact is that he was locked up in the Bastille until a week or so before it got stormed; he was moved to a prison outside Paris because his habit of shouting obscenities at passers-by from his cell window was concidered too annoying.

  3. Reginald Selkirk says

    Oh sure, you will write about sadism, but who ever writes about happyism?

  4. cartomancer says

    I think “Sadism” is probably the closest word we have in English for this tendency, even if its everyday usage isn’t quite encapsulated in De Sade’s writings and outlook on the world. We could perhaps make one up from the traditional Greek roots to mean a love of cruelty (sklerotophilia? chalepotophilia? omotophilia?), but I doubt it would catch on.

    As for the Gladiator shows, while I’m sure there was some aspect of sadism involved for some viewers, there was rather more to them as a cultural phenomenon than that. We are very much used to cartoonish depictions of Roman gladiator shows presented by those who would seek to diminish the moral character of the Romans – initially by Christians who tried to put their own persecution under some Roman emperors front and centre in our understanding of what Roman culture was all about.

    For a start, it seems that gladiator shows developed from a funerary custom, rather like the athletic contests that accompanied great heroic burials in the archaic Greek epics. The element of contest and spectacle seemed to be the main focus of early instances of the phenomenon, and done in honour of the spirits of the departed.

    Secondly, the sheer economics of the developed gladiator industry would have necessitated that a lot of fights were not fights to the death. Training, feeding and equipping gladiators was very expensive, and you wouldn’t want half your roster killed every time you put on a show. While there were serious injuries and fatalities, it is likely that most shows were more like the full-contact pantomime of WWE wrestling than vicious no-holds-barred fighting to the death.

    Thirdly, the cultural context of gladiator shows and the presentation that went into them suggests that, on a grander scale, they were meant to evoke a sense of community and belonging among Roman citizens and to place the violence of the outside world and foreign peoples into a tightly circumscribed arena where it became entertainment rather than existential terror. Many of the different characters that gladiators played were fantastical, fictionalised versions of warlike enemies of Rome – the Samnite, the Thracian, the Gaul, the Celtic Charioteer, the Greek Warrior – or allusions to conflicts of an altogether less martial sort (retiarius vs. murmillo, for instance, evoked the struggles of fisherman and fish).

    Packed together in the local amphitheatre, with the wealthy in the community funding the shows, the local priests and dignitaries at the front and the slaves and women at the back, a Roman would feel a part of something greater than himself. The fighters in the arena were the Other, the spectatores in the seats one’s Own. It was nothing less than an affirmation of one’s Romanness, going to the gladiator shows and being part of the community’s distinctive popular spectacle. We might note that Roman society didn’t really have private or underground fighting entertainment – there were no shadowy secret Fight Clubs where bloodthirsty Romans could go to slake their thirst for armed combat when there were no shows at the amphitheatre. If it was about sadism pure and simple, we might expect other forms of bloodsports and cruelty to be popular forms of entertainment in Roman culture. But they really weren’t. Rome’s other big public spectacle – the chariot races at the Circus – were only dangerous incidentally. And when certain bloodthirsty emperors did try to foist public executions on Rome as entertainment, they were generally met with distaste and opprobrium for doing so. Christians fed to the lions was largely a medieval Christian myth, and never a part of gladiator shows.

    Likewise, when it was beast-fighters versus wild animals, that was an expression of human (specifically Roman human) mastery over nature and its violence. Empire got wound up inextricably here too – look at us! we Romans can bring back and conquer anything the world has to throw at us! Of course we deserve to rule it all!.

    Of course, this jingoistic, back-slapping sense of patriotic indulgence was criticised for what it became. Juvenal’s famous “bread and circuses” line encapsulates a real anxiety among the elite in late 1st century AD Rome that the majority of the citizenry was quite content with feel-good spectacle and unwilling to contribute anything to the political and social life of the state as presumably they used to in Republican times. And there were plenty of Romans (Cicero among them) who found the shows crude, ghastly and unedifying. But there was far more to them than just a celebration of sadism.

  5. lorn says

    My objection to Trump, and perhaps the idea, if not the practice, of sadism, is how utterly banal and unappealing they are. Trump is about as miserable a person as can be. Fragile and utterly self-centered he, by all accounts, takes genuine joy in nothing. This is not a happy man. This is not a man people want to be around in any private, intimate, and interpersonal way.

    Nobody seems to want to spend time with him. He is neither interesting nor interested. It’s like there is a public image but nothing behind it.

    He loves the crowds, and the adulation, and the power, and the control, and being the center of attention but inside he is empty. None of this will ever be enough. He is perpetually dissatisfied.

    Which brings me back to sadism and O’Brien. If sadism really made them happy I could see it as an unfortunate predilection. But with a purpose as it would be just a means to an end. An end where someone gains some measure of satisfaction.

    But a person and a lifestyle, much less an entire nation, built on an ethos of ever escalating cruelty and hate where there is no love, or comfort, or enjoyment just more or less suffering; a world where, by design, nobody is ever happy or satisfied serves nobodies interests. It is also a fair enough definition of Hell.

  6. says

    I once wrote about a movie called “The Sadist,” over here. If you want the opposite of this – something about masochism with literary merit (whatever its other numerous problems are haha), check out Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch.

  7. Badland says

    cartomancer, I know from your writing at Pharyngula that you consider yourself unattractive, but I’d just like to say that you have a very sexy brain ♥

  8. says

    “I would often run out of books to read, and raid my dad’s shelves for new material.” I could have written that. That’s how I came to read The Politician (a founding document of the John Birch Society), A Choice Not an Echo, None Dare Call It Treason, and Atlas Shrugged. It may also be how I came to read (in the summer of 1969) the common fake translation of Justine. I found all of this stuff to be pretty boring as entertainment, or even as information, but I was fascinated by the insight they gave me into the minds of people with certain monomanias. Phyllis Schlafly, Robert Welch, Ayn Rand, the Marquis de Sade all seemed to have screws loose–which made them interesting as subjects for study and dissection.
    Obviously I don’t know what “compilation of the works of de Sade” that you read, but the English translations available are for the most part, well, inadequate, to say the least. Justine, which you mentioned, is a philosophical novel resembling the modern Atlas Shrugged. The characters exist for the sake of the viewpoints they represent. The arguments de Sade puts into their mouths use forms of argumentation (appeals to nature, to reason, to tradition) ordinarily used to support traditional morality and upends them to support the exact opposite. (Clement for example uses arguments that ordinarily support religion to undermine it; Roland argues from history and reason that all human beings are motivated by selfishness including those who commit apparently altruistic acts.) The sexual acts are part of a landscape of depravity that de Sade depicts as being equally justified by reason, custom, history, and nature as the ordinary world view grounded in morality.
    Personally I always found de Sade’s inversion of morality, like Ayn Rand’s, to be childish and rather buffoonish, like the old depictions of Satanism as religion backwards and upside-down. Like the Vice in a morality play or the guy that does everything wrong in a middle-school health film, Sadean characters embrace evil for its own sake and declare it good. As far as I can tell the main difference between the Marquis de Sade and Ayn Rand is that de Sade was merely making a point while Ayn Rand actually believed her own bullshit.

  9. says

    That’s how I came to read The Politician (a founding document of the John Birch Society), A Choice Not an Echo, None Dare Call It Treason, and Atlas Shrugged. It may also be how I came to read (in the summer of 1969) the common fake translation of Justine.

    That’s quite a list.
    No Fanny Hill? One of my dad’s colleagues left a copy of that.

    Justine, which you mentioned, is a philosophical novel resembling the modern Atlas Shrugged. The characters exist for the sake of the viewpoints they represent. The arguments de Sade puts into their mouths use forms of argumentation (appeals to nature, to reason, to tradition) ordinarily used to support traditional morality and upends them to support the exact opposite.

    That’s a good characterization, I’d say. I’ve managed to never read Rand, though a few of us did a drunken read-aloud of some long-winded speech (short form: “greed is good”) that had Karl Marx, who actually thought about this stuff, rolling in his grave. It seemed to me that Sade was mostly interested in portraying everyone as hypocrites, which is why I see him as a sort of internet troll. He’d have fit right in with some of the youtube atheists who embarrass us all with their sophomoric “take downs” of whatever.

    the main difference between the Marquis de Sade and Ayn Rand is that de Sade was merely making a point while Ayn Rand actually believed her own bullshit

    Quoted for truth.

  10. Sunday Afternoon says

    @cartomancer, #5:

    In your description of the gladiator games, you have me thinking of the Edinburgh Military Tattoo – it seems to be in somewhat the same tradition?

  11. StevoR says

    @ Reginald Selkirk : “Oh sure, you will write about sadism, but who ever writes about happyism?”

    Dunno about write but Aussie comedian & music quiz show host Adam Hills had a pretty funny, thought-provoking and fun gig with that title :

  12. StevoR says

    And, er, yikes the start of this hasn’t aged too well in retrospect has it? :-(

    There’s a few refs to other shows and stuff that makes it less bad but, erm, yeah. Not aged well parts of this.

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