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.