Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir: A “Must” of the French Revolution?, by James Steintrager

James A. Steintrager (University of California—Irvine)

Choosing Sade’s La Philosophie dans le boudoir as a “must” of the French Revolution might seem obvious. After all, it is not as if Sade—or this particular writing—is unknown. We are not talking about an archival discovery. But the reception of Sade nonetheless leads me to conclude that the relevance of this work to the Revolution has, in fact, been largely obscured. The best-known part of this reception has been, in a word, theoretical, and as such has often lost sight of—or misunderstood—the particular circumstances of his writings and how these circumstances inform and form a content that has sometimes been seen—to a degree correctly—as idiosyncratic. What are the high points of this reception? Following the decadent and surrealist invocations of the Divine Marquis—and they are little more than invocations—there have been, for example, Bataille’s thanato-erotic hero, Camus’s existentialist rebel of sorts, and Klossoski’s heir to the heretical counter-tradition in his Sade, Mon Prochain, which had a decisive influence on Lacan’s examination of Sade in his seminar on ethics (to put it mildly). Then, of course, there is post-structuralist Sade of Sollers, Barthes, and Foucault. The latter did place Sade in historical context, although the different and pivotal roles that he plays for Foucault suggest that here too we might learn more about the historian’s theoretical stakes and assumptions than about the object of his attentions. Foucault’s Sade is by turns a literary exemplification of a certain regime of madness, the point of rupture between epistemes, and eventually what we might call an exceedingly frustrated expression of the shift from juridical-discursive power to bio-power and “sexuality.” Nevertheless, Sade’s writings, including Philosophie dans le boudoir, have in the past couple of decades received historical attention (and the impetus that Focault’s work provided strikes me as crucial in this regard). There have been, for example, contextualizations of Sade’s writings in terms of the history of the novel and the history of science. “Sensibility” has been a keyword joining these two domains.

Still, the historical approaches just mentioned tend not to pass through the French Revolution. Instead they track trends that are neither explicitly political—in fact, running deliberately counter to political expression in favor of “cultural” or “discursive” formations—and have little place for events. There is, however, a longstanding tendency in intellectual history to place Sade’s thought at the endpoint of certain rationalist trajectory and to align it with the Revolution. Adorno and Horkheimer thus claimed that Sade was the monstrous revelation of what the instrumentalization of reason entails. But their Sade remains historically vague. Lester Crocker similarly made the case for Sade as the logical culmination of enlightened materialism in nihilism (with perhaps less verve but with considerably more attention to the array of philosophical inquiry in eighteenth-century France than Adorno and Horkheimer). There is a soupçon of the same case in Robert Darnton’s The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Pre-Revolutionary France, which argues that libertine literature and libelles had a de-legitimizing effect on the monarchy and thereby contributed causally to the French Revolution, its inception and its regicidal, anti-aristocratic, anti-clerical, course. A role for Sade could be found here, of course, although events were well under way by the time Philosophie dans le boudoir or his other major writings saw publication.

In short, while Sade’s works have frequently enough been invoked in relation to the French Revolution, they have less often been to tied to concrete events and specifically Revolutionary cultural discourses. And although I am entirely sympathetic to historicist modes that do not reduce a work to its immediate or near immediate context, I think that we cannot really grasp Philosophie dans le boudoir in particular—nor can we see what it brings to our understanding of its context—unless we consider what I would be willing to call its occasional nature. The original text appears to have been published sometime in the second half of 1795. Although we do not know exactly how long Sade took to write it, generally speaking authors at the time did not linger over their manuscripts for years. I would treat as the absolute earliest date of composition for the most politically pointed parts of text—for, again, there are themes and philosophical interests that extend beyond the occasional—as June 24th, 1793, that is, the date of the Constitution de l’an I. And as the editor of the Pléiade edition of the text remarks, while the action of the dialogue apparently takes place late in the reign of Louis XVI, internal evidence suggests as the terminus ad quem for composition some time shortly after the Constitution de l’an III (August 22, 1795), which established the Directoire and its less radical tone and content (see Sade, Œuvres [Paris], 3.1265-1266). Sade’s intervention certainly appears to be just that from a certain perspective: an engagé commentary on the socio-political landscape of this period, which included, of course the Terror (a point that lends topicality to Sade’s largely anthropological analyses of human aggression in the text, if not a dose of realism).

The false “pamphlet” inserted in the narrative of Philosophie dans le boudoir entitled “Français, enore un effort si voulez être républicains” looks a clear reference to the new Déclaration des droits de l’homme and du citoyen of 1793. In keeping with a certain historical trend, that is, the title says both “Let’s try again” and “Let’s push this even farther.” The content bears this out. The radicalization of republicanism and democracy in the new constitution included the addition of various rights not articulated in the 1789 declaration: rights of association, to work, to public assistance, to education, the right of rebellion, and the abolition of slavery. The rights put forward in Sade’s “pamphlet” echo, extend, and, it would seem, parody these new rights by adding, for example, the right to complete sexual access to any other citizen regardless of age or sex and the right to murder. In a way, what Sade’s pamphlet engineers is a defense of tyrannical power and violence not so much as an inversion but rather as a paradoxical corollary of the Déclaration’s exclusion of “actes arbitraires”: the notion that the “bonheur commun,” stated as the final cause of society at the outset of the constitution, is perhaps in contradiction with an individual pursuit of happiness that is irreducible to the former. That what we are potentially dealing with here is perhaps parody comes from the insinuation within the text that Dolmancé, libertine extraordinaire of the Ancien Régime stripe, is the author of the pamphlet. (Here I need mention as essential reading Lucienne Frappier-Mazur’s Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade, a work that does not avoid the topic of the French Revolution and the play of its rhetoric in my “must.”) At the very least, there is—as usual—a layer of irony that makes attributing certain views to Sade the author difficult and his political intentions at best murky. One could easily imagine a pedagogical exercise in which students compared the declarations of 1789 and 1793 along with Sade’s extrapolation. Not only would the very question of parody make for interesting discussion, but so would topics such as the possible conflict of individual rights, reductio ad absurdam as a real political problem, and the violent aftermath of 1793.

Paraphrasing Robert Darnton on the function of the lubricious in much libertine writing, especially of the materialist variety: sex is a useful vehicle for the tenor of thought (see “Sex for Thought,” The New York Review of Books 41.21 [Dec. 22, 1994]: 65-74). That we are not, however, faced with an entirely figurative use of sex is suggested by the philosophical and political investment in bonheur—long a part of ethical considerations—as good and goal. Which is to say that many libertines trotted out sexual jouissance as potentially foundational given that, in La Mettrie’s characterization, it “penetrates and transports the soul into the sweetest and happiest moments of our existence” (“On the Soul,” in Machine Man and Other Writings, trans. Ann Thomson [Cambridge, 1996], 58). Another way of looking at Philosophie dans le boudoir as a Revolutionary text would highlight the extent to which such issues where entwined with a cultural and gender politics that, again, did not spring up ab ovo in 1789 but that nonetheless has a specificity worthy of our attention. We might, for example, compare observations about marriage in Philosophie dans le boudoir with that peculiarly Revolutionary figure Le Père Duchesne, who in a 1790 edition of the periodical rants in vulgar language against the “indissolubricité” of marriage: “Here’s what our fucking marriage is…. it’s held together only by chains; it was okay when we were fucking slaves. But now we are free: it’s not money, fuck, which should make marriages; it’s no longer father’s authority, it’s inclination and taste” (cited in Suzanne Desan, The Family on Trial in Revolutionary France [Berkeley, 2004], 31). Desan quotes this as part of her case that “[f]reedom to choose a wife and marry would become a key element within revolutionary definitions of manhood” (31). Of course, questioning the rationality and ergo the morality of the Church’s position on divorce has a longer history (consider Montesquieu’s Lettres persanes, where the unnaturalness of enforced lifetime monogamy is satirically compared to the equally unnatural confinement of the harem). The association of divorce with choice and choice with manhood, however, looks more like a historically specific conjunction within the Revolution. That Sade’s text to me seems part of this discourse should be clear; I would simply add that the populist coprolalia of Le Père Duchesne strikes me as comparable in certain respects to the vulgar interjections of Sade’s characters and to his second-order explanations of why we should curse even if their is no God to blaspheme, no shame in intercourse, and thus no inherent offense in shouting foutre: a Revolutionary harnessing of the perlocutionary force of language—as opposed to the bereft constative reference—as a sort of rebellion against conventions and release from them.

I would also suggest another interesting if potentially controversial linkage. Desan notes that along with the manly prerogative of choice, there is a concomitant concern about the “sacrifice of daughters” (31). The theme is once again, hardly unknown, and I might cite only Diderot’s La Religieuse as proof. But it gains in intensity and in literate and literary female porte-paroles with the French Revolution: witness Olympe de Gouges’s Le Couvent, ou les vœux forcés or, of course, her Déclaration des droits de la femme et de la citoyenne. It is interesting to see that Sade similarly takes up the issue of women’s rights in Philosophie dans le boudoir. This is often enough explicitly so in the text, but one might argue that the entire work is about the issue: the extraction of a young woman of near marrying age from the socio-cultural “traffic in women” and her (wicked) delivery over to freedom and to her right to pleasure. It would be fair enough to cry “parody” here again. Certainly the woman-directed violence that has often and understandably been taken as indication—if not apodictic proof—of Sade’s misogyny would seem to point us in this direction. Interestingly, Sade’s characters’ defenses of what we would now call “gay rights” have increasingly been seen as sincere and laudable expressions of authorial intent. Surely this has to do with his hardly exclusive yet nonetheless clear predilection for violence against woman rather than against men—and Simone de Beauvoir and Angela Carter both understood well why this might be the case and how, while hardly escaping misogyny, Sade’s version could nonetheless double-back on itself in the form of critique. But if there is a certain absurdity to claiming Sade as a supporter of women’s rights in the same manner of Olympe de Gouges, it is nonetheless clear that Sade as a thinker put forward the absurd—that is, the hitherto unthinkable—as simply a logical consequence of following principles. We might take this possibility of thinking the absurd as at the very least conditioned by the Revolutionary context.

Having passed through the cleansing fires of historicism, I do not think it unlikely that even the reading paths just mentioned could benefit from a renewed theoretical attention—that part of Sade’s canonicity, as it were, is the very availability of his texts—including Philosophie dans le boudoir—to a variety of approaches and perspectives. In lieu of a conclusion then, let me schematically indicate a couple of possible directions for a renewed theoretical Sade (both of which are returns of sort to questions that have been associated with Sade before and that I have already indicated above). First, for a while now there has been in political philosophy and increasingly among those we would once have oddly classed as “literary theorists” an interest in revisiting the writings of Carl Schmitt (whose support of National Socialism has made him a controversial figure, to say the least). Schmitt’s recent reception includes contributions by, among others, Giorgio Agamben, Alain Badiou, Étienne Balibar, Chantal Mouffe, and Slavoj Zizek. While neither eighteenth-century studies nor the study of the French Revolution more particularly has played a major role in this reception, it seems worth noting that for Schmitt the so-called “Jacobin argument” expressed the tension of Rousseau’s general and individual wills in an acute form. In Schmitt’s own analysis, 1793 is the moment where liberalism as a “coherent metaphysical system” divulges the irrationalism at the heart of the absolute claims for reason—the moment that the future crisis of parliamentary democracy appears in a brief, bloody epiphany (The Crisis of Parliamentary Democracy, trans. Ellen Kennedy [Cambridge, Mass., 1988], 35). Surely the current interest in a post-liberal politics that has led to a re-examination of Schmitt—cognizant of his frightfully problematic commitments—might benefit as well from a circumspect return to Sade as an often articulate—frightfully so as well—thinker of violence not as something banished by the liberal political order but rather as inherent in it (for such is the case that Philosophie dans le boudoir makes). Another possibility is to place Sade into dialogue with the recent philosophical assessment of nihilism and radical contingency by Quentin Meillassoux in After Finitude and—it would appear—in Ray Brassier’s forthcoming Nihil Unbound. That Sade is perfect companion for the exploration of such topics strikes me as almost self-evident, albeit the very category of “must” begins to look a bit wan in this light. What is a “must,” after all, under conditions of radical contingency?

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