Shawn's Reviews > The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography

The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter
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Apr 15, 14

Read in January, 2010

This was the opening salvo in my two-pronged attack on reading a work of De Sade (Philosophy in the Boudoir: Or, The Immoral Mentors) - the second prong will be Sade: A Sudden Abyss. I chose this because I love Angela Carter's short fiction and know her as imaginative writer and clear thinker.

And that's what you get here. Carter tackles the notorious figure and finds interesting and amazing things to tease out, all while floating a larger concept of what pornography is. The primary works she investigates are the infamous "twinned" sister books, Justine & Juliette, and the above named Philosophy in the Boudoir. There are so many interesting ideas here that it's almost impossible to keep track of them. Carter's take on Sade is that he is a satirist, but unlike Swift, who mocks humanity because we roll in shit, Sade mocks humanity for rolling in shit and acting as if we can, and are, reaching for the stars. One of the most enjoyable aspects of this book is that Carter treats Sade neither as a freakish pervert to be instantly dismissed (well, yeah, or there wouldn't be a book at all), nor as some "divine" Saint. She does not have time for those who take Sade seriously as a man modeling an achievable (or even desirable) philosophy, in fact, she seems to imply those "Sadeians" have missed the point entirely. Although its never specifically stated, her take on Sade seems to be a man who had very serious things to say about life, oppression, equality and power, but who deliberately said them in an uncompromising, aggressive way while also indulging himself in his most extreme fantasies and sexual perversions. He refused to excise his particular proclivities from his arguments, and even used them and himself as examples.

JUSTINE, for those who don't know, is the tale of a young girl who lives her life by virtue and spends her life being chased, raped, confined, beaten, used and accused of crimes she doesn't commit. In Sade's world, she becomes the scapegoat of virtue. Meanwhile, JULIETTE, her sister, dedicates herself to vice and crime and thrives stupendously, moving higher and higher into positions of power and wealth. Carter unpacks both these works in detailed and creative ways, spinning out an argument that Justine (in just one minor example), is the prototype of the standard Hollywood starlet sex symbol that culminates in the figure of Marilyn Monroe. Contrarily, she argues that JULIETTE, though seen as "succeeding" in the surface ways our society perceives success, is also enslaved by her situation, she just makes the best of it that she can by discarding everything that makes her human.

The wrap-up, where Carter reads BOUDOIR as Sade's manual for the training of young women for thriving in this hideous world (while indulging his every perverse whim, and taking every chance to philosophize at great length between the fornication) is fascinating. Without revealing too much, Carter tracks (with, as others have noted, a refreshing lack of jargon - although those who find Freud completely bankrupt at this point in history could argue that point, as Carter relies heavily on some Freudian theories involving "the phallic Mother") Sade's attempt to completely destroy the figure of Motherhood, and then makes a pointed observation that his inability to allow one minor event to happen, an event that happens over and over in other contexts but simply CANNOT BE ALLOWED to happen in this context, to this character - his failure to write that moment, that possibility, exposes the structure and theory of BOUDOIR as false. It's stunning work and amazing stuff!
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Comments (showing 1-11 of 11) (11 new)

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message 1: by [deleted user] (new)

This reminds me: I really must get around to reading Sade one of these days. Do you have a particular thing from him that you would recommend for a first time reader such as myself?


message 2: by [deleted user] (new)

I should add that that goes the same for Carter as well, since you recommend her highly.


Shawn This reading experiment is a first stab at Sade myself, so I'm reading PHILOSOPHY IN THE BOUDOIR, with the Carter and Annie Le Brun books as support. I might make the point of tackling the 120 DAYS OF SODOM at some point, but it's notoriously extreme and, Le Brun posits, deliberately off-putting, so I couldn't see reading it until I'd knocked off some of the other imposing literary milestones (Joyce/ULYSSES) first.

As for Carter herself, I;ve never read any of her novels, although I intend to soon. Her short fiction is great. I;d suggest THE BLOODY CHAMBER as a starter.


message 4: by [deleted user] (new)

Oh, I thought you were reading this to get a different perspective on Sade shortly after having finished some of his stuff. I misunderstood what you wrote in your first paragraph, though now it seems to be pretty clear. My bad.

Usually people tend to read the author before tackling an analysis of his work. Why did you decide to do it the other way around?


Shawn Wolfie wrote: "Usually people tend to read the author before tackling an analysis of his work. Why did you decide to do it the other way around?"

Because Sade's so daunting - some could argue that the philosophy is crap and the worldview rancid and the whole point is just sick, indulgent perversity, a black joke told to humanity by a articulate sociopath. And I don't feel like I have the background to be able to dispel that concept just reading Sade on my own.

Contrarily, Sade is so uncompromising and puzzling that he's been constantly interpreted in multiples of ways since the 20th Century - part of Annie Le Brun's book is about how this "tames" the ferocious aspect of Sade that many find off-putting, and she seeks to discount some of those approaches while also trying to figure out, outside of sheer visceral reaction to the baseness of it, why Sade is so disturbing.

So, I already had the Carter book and picked up the Le Brun book a few years later in preparation for this "guided reading" as it were.


message 6: by [deleted user] (new)

So you will keep the points of these other authors in the back of your mind while you read Sade, and assess him against your judgements as well? Plus there is always the question of whether or not reading the criticism before the work could steer the reader in the direction of the criticism's conclusions, not your own. It seems like you think Sade is misunderstood, though you haven't read him yet, and want to give him a fair shake. I can understand that: I am reading Maldoror right now and people tend to say such things about it as well. It is terrible (but beautiful) on the surface, for sure, but underneath rests a moral core (not sure how to qualify it exactly--"moral core" doesn't really do it for me) to the book that a lot of people don't see.


message 7: by Aloha (new) - added it

Aloha Shawn, I love your take on Carter's work. I have not read her, but only skimmed her work in a bookstore. I'll have to start reading her.


Shawn You won't be disappointed.


message 9: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca Excellent review.

If you are interested in another view by an author who has been hailed as Carter's heir, I suggest this fiction:The Fan-Maker's Inquisition: A Novel of the Marquis de Sade by Rikki Ducornet; I'm finishing it (reluctantly) and found it significant in making Sade accessible.


Shawn I have some Ducornet on my to be read shelf but I'll definitely add this - thanks!


message 11: by Scribble (new) - added it

Scribble Orca You're welcome, Shawn. To read sooner rather than later, I promise. If you're interested in my thoughts I've so far reviewed Gazelle and Netsuke and will tackle The Fan-maker this week. She's become my Lawrence Durrell successor, although for some she is known as Lady Rabelais.


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