J.G. Keely's Reviews > The Sadeian Woman

The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter
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May 23, 2011

it was amazing
bookshelves: non-fiction, lit-crit, philosophy, religion, erotica, reviewed, uk-and-ireland, favorites
Read in May, 2008

This book's primary thesis is that the Marquis De Sade is the father of modern feminism. For the uninitiated, De Sade's works are infamous for their depictions of sexual humiliation and cruelty. We get the term 'sadism' from the sex practices he fearlessly explored.

Against all expectation, Carter supports this seemingly absurd thesis in a way that is lucid, reasonable, insightful, and even amusing. It seems there is a gift for women in Donatien's mad sensual rebellion, after all.

I have struggled for some time in trying to review this book, simply because it is still beyond me how anyone could be smart and talented enough to propose something so outlandish, and then to make it seem the most natural thing in the world.

Carter's observations on sexuality, gender, and pornography are as remarkable as Foucault's, with none of the meandering semiotics. Her ability to say precisely what she means, both evocatively and concisely never ceased to impress me.

She also suggests that many commonly accepted aspects of feminism are not only narrow-minded, but counterproductive. For instance: she presents how the popular 'mother goddess' figure is just another way to entrap women into the role of 'baby factory'--even making them proud of their one-dimensional existence. Of course, she says it better than I.

This book was roundly and vehemently criticized by high-ranking feminists when it was published. They could see no way that their plight could possibly be illuminated in the works of any man, let alone a man possessed of a perverse and dehumanizing sexuality.

They were uninterested in looking for a commonality with someone they were so clearly superior to. Contrarily, Carter shows that when we are able to connect ourselves to those we instinctively draw away from, we can move further from our narrow selves and closer to humanity.

How can a movement seek to move beyond mere gender definition and call itself 'feminism'? Would we call a movement to erase the delineation between rich and poor 'povertism'?

If the goal of feminism is to remove the discrepancies and prejudices between the sexes, why not name the philosophy after the goal instead of the conflict? 'Humanism' always sounded good to me.

Carter likewise desires to reach beyond barriers, refusing to accept a strict delineation between smut and philosophy. Her willingness to search for insight in the last place expected makes her first unique, and second, revolutionary. It is all too sad that modern sexual theory is still far behind the mark Carter set, it's current vanguard having neither the imagination nor the daring to match her, let alone excel beyond her.
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Comments (showing 1-21 of 21) (21 new)

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message 1: by Kelly (new) - added it

Kelly I have to admit I was skeptical of this book as well. To be honest, I thought it might just be an author looking to feel better about her sexual proclivities and stretching a few truths to make them fit with her political views. Generally, I'm uninterested in projects like that- I find they reek really awkwardly of insecurity and "keep telling yourself that if you have to to feel moral, sweetie." Particularly since I don't particularly believe that the good majority of bedroom proclivities need justifying- (other than the obvious exceptions of child molestation, geniune harm to people, etc, etc, exceptions so people don't jump on me).

However, if you think this book is more than that, and makes a geniune case that is worth reading, I would like to read this. I loved Carter's feminism in The Bloody Chamber. I would equally love to see it translated well here. I am considering this, thanks to you.

message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I love Carter inordinately, but I've never read this for some reason. Thanks for the lucid review.

Humanism, alas, is a term which already has an accepted meaning, and that meaning isn't the same as feminism. Humanism, as an ism, relies on logic and the evidence of the senses to debunk mysticism.

J.G. Keely "Humanism, as an ism, relies on logic and the evidence of the senses to debunk mysticism."

Sounds like a good replacement for feminism to me.

message 4: by [deleted user] (last edited May 23, 2011 09:12PM) (new)

Yeah, but humanism is not really about gender equality, in the end. Humanism's aims are admirable, to me anyway, but they are not focused on gender. I know feminism, as a term, has cooties these days, but I don't think that just changing the term to something that doesn't have cooties will change discomfort with talking about gender issues in general, which is why the word feminism has cooties. That was a bad sentence, I know.

message 5: by Jayaprakash (new)

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Personism? I don't think anyone's used that yet.

message 6: by Jim (new)

Jim My dear old mom, rest her soul, was never a deep thinker.

Born in 1924, she used to say (in the 70s), "I believe in women's lib - women ought to be paid the same as a man for the same job". As a public school teacher she was paid pretty much the same as male teachers.

I think she was unaware of the rhetorical excesses of extreme feminists and would certainly have been horrified ato know of male professors' being muzzled and/or fired for exercising academic freedom (resisting extreme feminism).

If feminism has cooties they are bred in the cesspool of extreme feminist rhetoric and the fallout therefrom.

My mom's narrow form of feminism might better be called Meritocracy - or even more narrowly, in the context of union-dominated public teaching - "seniority".


In another time and place, that might work. Given the violence extreme feminism has done to the Queen's English - damn near anything that incorporates "person" where the old construction using "man" or "woman" worked fine.

Thus, "Chairwomen" and "chairman" beat "chair" and "chairperson"

I always refer to servers who really know their stuff as "waiters" - especially women.

Equality - alas this means something else.



Congruency - already used in math.





message 7: by Jayaprakash (new)

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Okay it's not funny anymore.

message 8: by Tom (new)

Tom Meade Egalitarianism?

message 9: by Jayaprakash (new)

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy Finally, a contender.

message 10: by mark (new) - rated it 3 stars

mark monday nice review of one of my past favorite authors. need to revisit her someday soon. but i was disturbed to realize that your description of Carter (and the reactions to this book) were reminding me of Camille Paglia. which is never a good thing. i'm going to try really hard now to eradicate that upsetting mental conjoining.

J.G. Keely I'm not as familiar with her work, though I do agree with her critique of Wordsworth and the Structuralists. That being said, I've never met a 'public intellectual' who wasn't mostly bombast.

message 12: by [deleted user] (new)

"If the goal of feminism is to remove the discrepancies and prejudices between the sexes, why not name the philosophy after the goal instead of the conflict? 'Humanism' always sounded good to me."

Completely diferent territory, same principle: my blood boils every time I hear people talking about gay marriage and gay rights.
Why not call them civil rights and human rights?

message 13: by Evgeny (new)

Evgeny Genesis wrote: ""If the goal of feminism is to remove the discrepancies and prejudices between the sexes, why not name the philosophy after the goal instead of the conflict? 'Humanism' always sounded good to me."


J.G. Keely "Genesis said: Completely diferent territory, same principle: my blood boils every time I hear people talking about gay marriage and gay rights.
Why not call them civil rights and human rights?"

Yeah--I mean, I understand that in the beginning of a movement, it's important to draw out some precise issues, because these are often deliberately hidden by society, and need to be made obvious. But at a certain point, a movement can become an identification with an identity, where it's no longer about equality, but about 'us against them', and then the people who used to be human rights activists become oppressors, themselves.

It's like how Jews were oppressed, marginalized, and killed throughout history, but now that there is a Jewish state, they are the ones oppressing and marginalizing other people groups. Or how the Michigan Womyn's Music Festival has decided to exclude trans individuals, or how parts of the Black community deny that the systematic oppression of homosexuals is similar to that of Blacks or Women, or other civil Rights causes. It's clannish behavior, 'us against them', and it seems to appeal to human beings very strongly.

message 15: by Ian (last edited Sep 07, 2013 12:46PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Vinogradus Re the "chairman" quandary, I think it was my local bookseller (if not someone here on GR) who told me that a club her son belongs to uses the term "chairbeing".

message 16: by Ian (last edited Sep 07, 2013 01:13PM) (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Vinogradus I'm not sure that the main criterion for naming someone else's movement should be what is necessary to get us [males] to join it. Nor should the name have so many expectations placed on it.

My main personal problem with feminism originally was that it didn't seem to adequately recognise that, from my perspective, the main social issue was the relationship between women and men. This was what needed to be repaired, and I thought it required a joint effort.

However, even this gripe of mine was anthropocentric (if that's the right word). We men might be an enormous part of the problem, but it doesn't follow that we will be part of the solution in all circumstances. Heterosexual relationships are only one of the options available to women.

So feminism is about a lot of things, including self-definition and freedom from personal, cultural, and economic oppression, not just the feel-good humanism of a good heterosexual relationship.

J.G. Keely Well, I'm not talking about heterosexuality or personal relationships, but larger political and social context. Even if a woman chooses to be in a relationship with another woman, that doesn't prevent her and her partner from being discriminated against by the wider society, or from being 'second class citizens'.

message 18: by Ian (new) - rated it 5 stars

Ian Vinogradus I might have misunderstood your thrust. I inferred you were suggesting that feminist issues should be subsumed within a broader humanism.

J.G. Keely Well, I think they are part of humanism, in the sense that all civil rights are, whether racial, gendered, sexual, or what-have-you--these are all issues of human equality. I'm more trying to say that if the goal is equality, or lack of prejudice, then you have to take both sides into account. That the real thrust of feminism isn't 'women should be in a better position', but 'both women and men should be on equal footing', placing the stress not solely on the one group that has a problem, but on the interrelationship between different groups which is the source of that problem.

Aaron Jansen If you liked this, you should seek out Carter's fiction. She wrote a lot which could be classified as fantasy, but generally isn't because it's good. Nonetheless she's one of the most unique voices in the genre. The Bloody Chamber is a good starting point, a short story collection in which she reworks famous fairy tales. Her later novels are better than the early ones; I'd start with The Infernal Desire Machines of Doctor Hoffman and go from there.

message 21: by Priyanka (new) - added it

Priyanka In addition to being ferociously original and a wonderfully polemic book, your review makes me want to pick it up without any delay.

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