Shawn's Reviews > Philosophy in the Boudoir or, The Immoral Mentors

Philosophy in the Boudoir or, The Immoral Mentors by Marquis de Sade
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Aug 08, 14

bookshelves: read-lit
Read in March, 2010

And so we come to the finale of my Sade reading project (that included, for context, Sade  A Sudden Abyss by Annie Le Brun and The Sadeian Woman  And the Ideology of Pornography by Angela Carter). I use these reviews as memory aids and sometimes as short essays to work out ideas, so it took me awhile to corral my thoughts into something coherent, but I apologize if I ramble. I'm no academic and I find that a great deal of headway can be made in encompassing a larger view of the world by actually embracing humility (while keeping one's critical senses sharp).

Short version - probably a good introduction to Sade, neither unwieldy nor too excessive (if such a thing can be said about Sade, the introduction calls this the "least cruel and most joyous" of Sade's works), this will still be challenging for those desiring only playful historic sex or, alternatively, a clear take on Sade's philosophy. It could be argued that this book makes it most apparent that you can never get one without the other where Sade is concerned. In practical terms this means that while it still contains reference to unwholesome acts of torture and murder (and does culminate in a hideous act of sexual violence), it is primarily concerned with intimate depictions of sexual algebra amongst 3 (later 4, later 5) characters, mixed in with endless bouts of philosophy proselytizing the libertine worldview between the rogerings. If that sounds like something you're up for (heh heh), go for it.

But it's not a novel, nor even a "philosophical novel" (in the manner of JUSTINE or JULIETTE) - it's more like a combination sexual training manual, philosophical treatise, specific attack on "mother love" as the root of evil in the family, and the script for a calculatedly "outrageous" stage play all mashed up together. That seems to be the thing with Sade - he had fairly complicated thoughts and feelings and liked to communicate them in complicated ways. Even his critics, if they're honest and don't immediately dismiss him as puerile pornographic garbage (which, I'm sure, was part of his calculated intention - since people flock to "garbage" much more quickly than "serious works"), have to admit that there's more going on here than simple ideas. But complexity does not always equal depth, and clarity is helpful, especially when dealing with incendiary ideas like these. That is, unless your point is to playfully obfuscate, to illustrate your own strong feelings on some arguments and also your understanding of the inherent contradiction of others. And on and on. You get my point. Complicated.

So that hideous act that occurs at the end? It's not really that hideous because it happens to an idea, not a character. None of the characters in this book are people, they are cardboard stand-ins meant to represent ideas. Even the hideous act itself is symbolic, as it can only be since it happens to a symbol. The book knows this and takes for granted that you are smart enough to get the point (more on this later), thus the characters are not clumsy, poorly-written cartoons for a soapbox. They are deliberately crafted cartoons for a soapbox.

So, ostensibly, the book is about Eugenie's deflowering, sexual education and philosophical tutoring in the amoral and lusty worldview of the libertine by 3 roues (her female lover, the lover's brother and his gay/bi friend - later they are helped by a well-endowed servant) at the request of none less than Eugenie's father, to counteract her mother's pious moral instruction. Much sex of every flavor is had, and many fetishistic byways (given Sade's personal predilections) are trod. Detailed descriptions of biological and sexual mechanics are illustrated. This, alone, is enough to have made the book notorious in its time and even now, the language is lurid, scatological and deliberately pornographic. It's also repetitive, and even Sade himself apologizes for the lack of variety in the language deployed by his characters in their couplings. And during all this, you'll get sexual theory that underlies the actions, which begs the way into the next level of the book...

...which are the philosophical arguments. These come in two forms. Part of Eugenie's job is to ask stupid or naive questions so that she can be instructed. Occasionally, she does even offer the weak counter-arguments of society. But, again, the point is not even-handed dialogue (as I hope should be evident by now), it is scouring rhetoric. Eventually, even the dialogue framework is retired for a bit and the notorious friend narrates a pamphlet which restates (there's Sade's love of repetition again) the arguments previously presented in a succinct and concentrated form, perfect for separate publication.

So, what is going on here? There is a reductive hierarchy to the approaches one can take in engaging (and dismissing) Sade, each of which is incorrect on the whole but contains some slight kernel of truth. The easiest, basest position is that he is either opportunistic/exploitative (from a economic/cultural point of view) or evil/corruptive (from a purely religious point of view). Neither of these is entirely the case, obviously, because it would have been much easier to write a lurid piece of playful pornography (for profit) or sacrilege (to strike at the Church) than what is produced here. Next would be the assumption that Sade is merely serious but deranged, looking to justify his personal obsessions and perversions by projecting them onto society. Again, this seems unlikely, given how well-thought out some (but only some) of the ideas are. But there is something to the idea that along with everything else that Sade was, he was a exhibitionist in an era when publishing a work like this was the closest you could get to really, ahem, exposing yourself to the masses. And, of course, attracting devotees to the "cause" as it were.

The next would be a surface reading that takes him completely at his word, and dismisses him as misguided and confused/contradictory/naive or agrees with him explicitly - man is an animal, society consists entirely of falsehoods created to enslave man, nature provides the direction, overturn the lot, rape and murder at will until you die or are stopped, using society's predilection for falsehood against it to further your aims. It's nihilism masquerading as anarchism, essentially, and no doubt many have taken Sade deadly seriously, treating him as mentor and directing their lives under his assumed tutelage (although undoubtedly to a more proscribed degree than exalted in his works - "If only..." they weep). And that seems to me also somewhat off the mark, as it ignores the playful, humorous and exaggerated aspect readily apparent, at least to me, in Sade. André Breton, in his (heh heh) seminal Anthology of Black Humor by André Breton retroactively crowned Sade the initial practitioner in his newly defined field.

So next would come, as expected, reading Sade as satirist - he can't possibly MEAN this? He CAN'T be serious? His libertines are as much cartoons as his pious upholders of goodness and faith. Surely, he is having a joke at the expense of all of us. And this gets much closer to the truth, but is not entirely there yet it seems to me, mostly because it defuses and de-fangs Sade in one deft movement. Yes, forthright society is corrupt and hypocritical, but Sade is also lampooning those that exist in reaction to that extreme, showing them to be just as much prisoners of their desires and drives. And as I said, that gets close.. but he loves his cartoon libertines. His caricatures of straight society are savage and damning, his caricatures of libertines are OTT but loving, paintings of people he wished he knew, saying things he wished people could or would say (right or wrong). He has lots of ideas because he is being truthful to himself and thinking things people weren't supposed to think (in the general) back then.

But it is here, I think, that something close to the point of Sade is reached - I don't think Sade knows, either, what his point is. He takes stabs at it (heh heh), but I don't think he's presenting a detailed, thought-through argument or a worldview (although he presents it as such, wraps it in that package, the better to sell it, to make himself infamous, to get himself read, to incite dialogues and discussion and also because this whole he has encompassed contradicts itself, the edges cannot be filed off, the world cannot be reduced to a standardized form when dealing with so many ideas). There is then, I think, an element of the absurd in Sade. The world is this way, but it is also that way. People are like this, and like that, but if we are painfully obvious, and incorporate all we know (and all society lies about and hides) then logic propels us to a potential world just as hideous as the one we inhabit now, just hideous in a different way.

And make no mistake, it is a dark world he propounds, the blackness cannot just be dismissed. Those who gabble on about the divine Marquis should realize what this entails, how problematic it is. Everything we desire should be done. Incest is good. Women exist to be fucked, unless they can take the power and fuck those in return. Children will be raped and molested and killed, and why not? They are powerless to stop such a thing. The old will starve, and why not, if they have not marshaled their forces or planned ahead? And you... you will be killed...unless you kill first. Red in tooth and claw indeed, Sade, while being defiantly atheistic, anarchistic and anti-monarchy, is also anti-democratic by definition. He spins out a world of sociopathology run rampant, much like our current hyper-capitalist world (if Communism breeds slaves, zombies and docile cows, Capitalism breeds addicts and sociopaths, it seems to me). It is perhaps humorous to note that, for example, in his arguments against each of the virtues, Sade's statements on Charity absolutely mirror the current Republican platform regarding the poor (it's their own fault, let them die off if they cannot find work or make money discovering some new way to exploit their fellows, but helping them only encourages them). In a way, Sade's world is almost unlivable and full of contradictions - the libertine's own pleasure comes first and foremost, those he fucks exist only as a means to an end. The worst thing to do is to ever say "no", "too much", "stop". Yet how can people like these be friends? They can't...and yet, they are, because the world is a lie. As I said, it is absurd - it makes no rational sense - so those who come away from Sade confused, finding him a confused thinker in turn, are probably right - he's not going to offer you a well-tied package - he acknowledges that he cannot see the ground he's standing on or what's behind his back, despite the immensity of his vision. His thought is nebulous, because he's incorporating so much. It seems reductive, but that's an illusion. He undermines his own solidity, eternally blurring the edges. He turns the world inside out and calls it the truth, knowing that it is only the other side of a much bigger whole. He is not a rigorous thinker, in its usual sense. Obsessed, maniacal, dogged, visionary, perhaps.

I do think he's an interesting thinker. I don't think he is easily dismissed. He may not be a successful philosopher in a practical sense, but his thought is robust and almost never backs down. In attempting to reconcile a world of lies he saw around him, and what he (because he only had himself to judge by) felt were the "truthful" drives and passions he possessed, he failed, but in diligently mapping all the pathways of that failure, in interrogating every concept until it bled, it's like he opened a rent in all systems that claim to encompass man and his nature. He became the eternal spoiler, the crack in the surface, the warden at the spot where "man" supposedly separated from "nature" to create civilization, eternally wagging his finger like some lurid, satanic, jester cackling "don't be so sure. Watch, I'll show you!" as he violently sticks his Id into this hole he's made and vigorously moves it around. It's like Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade, figured out a way to fuck history, to fuck thought itself, so as to eternally be on display for all mankind, to shock eternally. He may not be "divine", but he does deserve respect.
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Comments (showing 1-2 of 2) (2 new)

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message 1: by Portia (new)

Portia Altimus haven't read this yet.... but sounds familiar :) i put down 120 days after day 17, but i'll get back and finish it one day. it's really hard to imagine how much farther he can take it with half a book left!

Shawn yes, that's what Sade's hoping, of course, that you can't imagine what he can...

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