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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?


“All that You Must Know About the French Revolution you can learn from Irma,” by Antoinette Sol

Antoinette Sol

University of Texas at Arlington

“All that You Must Know About the French Revolution you can learn from Irma

If you ask someone at random walking down the street what comes to mind when one mentions the French Revolution, certain categories invariably come up: violence, blood, public disorder, guillotine, Marie-Antoinette, and– if the person has an interest in history (or is over-educated)– the Terror, pornographic political propaganda, and the tension of oppositional public discourses of sensibility and reason come up. These impressions of the Revolution today echo those of the late 18th and early 19th century when traumatized people tried to make sense of their experiences. One particular novel, coming out of and on the heels of these political, social and cultural upheavals known collectively under the rubric “the French Revolution,” places the reader thoroughly in the revolutionary moment. The monophonic epistolary novel Irma, ou les Malheurs d’une jeune orpheline. Histoire indienne, avec des romances, publiée par la citoyenne Guénard (an VIII) lets the reader vicariously experience not only revolutionary events as it follows the private and public travails of the great (royal family) and the small (and those who come into contact with them), but also allows them to come to terms with them. Representations of the French Revolution are today, as they were then, skewed either to the right or to the left. Rarely is discourse on the Revolution a balanced one. However Guénard offers a path outside of partisanship inside of a royalist novel. It ultimately offers a non-partisan vision of the world; one in which compassion is the ruling ideology. The popularity of the book in the XIXth century and its value today both stem from the novel’s hybridity—both generic and aesthetic—that offered contemporary readers in familiar and non-threatening literary modes a way to come to terms with national as well as personal traumatic events and allows the modern reader to plunge him or herself into the maelstrom of the era.

If the novel, as well as its author, are forgotten today, this was not always the case. In fact, it turned into a small cottage industry for Guénard. Volume one and two, serving as a sort of trial balloon, were published first. For some reason, they were not subject to censure and the sales were encouraging. The third and forth volume quickly followed. The novel ran to ten editions from 1799 to 1815, not including the pirated runs. It was considered politically dangerous enough in 1810 to have the ninth edition confiscated by the police. In the tenth edition, Guénard adds a fifth and sixth volume. In 1825, Guénard published a three-volume continuation, Triomphe d’une auguste princesse, which brings the total to nine. The immensely popular roman à clef recounts the fictionalized story of Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte, Madame Royale, the surviving daughter of Louis XVI and the fate of the royal family set in India and Persia. The characters are barely masked (Siblouïs for Louis/Selabius for Elizabeth for example).  And although the point of view appealed to one particular political faction, the royalists, it was, at its most basic level, a rousing good read for the growing reading public who eagerly seized up the numerous novels published by a burgeoning publishing industry.

As a gothic or frenetic-bildungsroman-sentimental-pseudo historical-adventure novel of persecuted innocence, it had something to please everyone. In addition, the horror of recent events is rendered manageable by its integration into the familiar literary registers and subgenres. Irma is an outrageous novel, mixing historical facts and fictional events, political analysis with wild speculation set in an exotic atmosphere that combines the engouement for the frenetic esthetic so popular at the end of the XVIII century with the familiarity of longstanding popularity of the oriental narrative. However, drawing on tropes familiar to readers of popular fiction and adding the new tropes of the gothic or frenetic novel, Irma allows readers to vicariously relive traumatic events at a safe remove. By setting the novel in an oriental frame, a device popular for the preceding two centuries, powerful traumatic events and political figures are at once neutralized when set at a remove from the present. The reader is able to read tale of persecuted innocence on multiple levels, one according to the clef, a fictionalized account of the imprisonment of a young Indian princess, her family and many political intrigues surrounding them, another as the story of the Royal French family and, again, read it simultaneously as an allegorical account of the French nation as a whole. It allows the reader the distance he or she may need to understand events at a private as well as public level—this proved to be a powerful combination and accounts for the novels enduring popularity.

In Irma, Madame Guénard weaves history into her fiction in the Oriental mode in line with the traditions long established by Scudéry and company but with a difference. The novel thrills and entertains according to its generic functions, but it informs on another level as it educates the reader with a well thought out political and historical analysis that is presented as such in the text. In her attempt to explain the underlying reasons for the recent social and political upheaval, Guénard stays close to historical events in her tale of Irma/Marie-Thérèse-Charlotte. Guénard takes this central, yet marginalized historical figure and transforms her into a “player”-through her role as daughter, wife and mother. If you lifted the thin veil of Orientalism, Irma could be called an historical novel. Guénard includes letters (albeit apocryphal), documents, notes and trial testimony alongside the standard fictional inclusions such as Romances (chansons) and Stances. In this cross between a mémoire and letter novel, Irma writes of events to her intended husband, her first cousin. She recounts the events leading up to the Royal family’s imprisonment and the narration advances through these included letters from the King, her father, to family members when he is separated from them right before his trial. For the reader, Guénard humanizes the royal family and creates a real one out of a symbolic one. In so doing, she  appeals not to politics so much as to the reader’s sentiment.

The narrative is split into contemporaneous events told by Irma and the historical perspective leading up to those events explained by her aunt, Selabius. The historical sequence is respected, giving the reader both sides of events, the private side as well as the public. Guénard shows the private face of history as Irma’s narrative traces the march on Versailles, the Terror, La Grande peur, the royal family’s incarceration, the physical conditions of that incarceration, and the reaction of her father and mother on the one hand, and the reaction of the “outside” to the King and Queen on the other, their respective trials etc. Although clearly royalist, there is enough even- handling of the other side to satisfy a Jacobin reader; There are good guys and bad guys on both sides. Dark prison scenes and murderous guards alternate with kind ones and moments of generosity and friendship.  Guénard gestures towards impartiality (I. 28) when she describes that, for the most part, representatives that destroyed her family were acting in good faith and that it was “une insolente minorité” who almost destroyed the country. However, those involved in the Terror for example—not a favorite with any faction by the mid 1790s—are portrayed as monsters, while “le peuple”, portrayed as basically virtuous, are lied to, manipulated and victimized. The two villians in the book are the Philippe Egalité figure, Robespierre and their henchmen.

One can look at this novel as the story of Irma’s political education, à la Télémaque. It is made clear in the text that Irma has received her sentimental education from her father, but it is her aunt that teaches her the historical causes of the Revolution. Her discourse is an explanatory one, giving justifications for certain decisions, which, in hindsight, were poor ones. Guénard literally traces the path from Louis XIV to Louis XVI, pointing out the good that had been done as well as showing how things went wrong, how poor decisions had been made and how the father/King, a good sentimental man, is taking responsibility for his forebears mistakes as well as his own. Irma presents the king in his role as her father and rarely refers to him by his title, “son âme sensible avoit reçu toutes les vertus d’un digne chef de famille: heureux pour lui s’il n’êut été que satrape!” (I, 5). He is presented as the incarnation of a roi-philosophe,

“C’étoit lui qui avoit effacé jusqu’à la trace de l’esclavage. Par lui, on avoit renoncé cette coutume barbare, d’arracher, par les tourmens, les aveux aux prévenus de crimes souvent imaginaires; la tolérance étoit dans son coeur, et il cherchoit les moyens de rappeler, dans le sein de l’Inde, les sectaires que le fanatisme des prêtres en avoit bannis […] il avoit la douceur de Zoroastre et croyoit que les homes sont frères. Il méprisait les grands dont les moeurs étoient corrompus; il aimoit le peuple.” (I,  8)

But one unsuited to public life, “On entoura mon père de pièges que sa franchise ne lui permettoit pas même d’imaginer” (I,11). Misinterpretation of words and deeds is a leitmotif recurring constantly in the king’s sister (Irma’s aunt) Sebaluis’ historical political account. If “les actions les plus simples de la cour étoient mal interprétées” in the present, it was the same in the past (I, 15). The lack of transparency in the king’s intentions has brought the royal family and the nation to a crisis point. The mis/reading of signs has always been important in the political arena and this king finds himself at the end point of a long series of missteps that reach back to le grand Siblouïs (Louis XIV), “le coup est porté, et c’est de la magnifique profusion du prédécesseur de notre ayeul, que sont sortis tous les maux de sa race” (I, 121). Irma receives an education in interpretation, in reading and deciphering ostensible and hidden meanings in a political and private context as her aunt takes her step-by-step through one hundred years of government.

The past adds to the present lesson that her father, a victim of his own misplaced trust, deems so important and requests that his children learn: they should count on nothing, “pas même sur les vertus apparentes de ses semblables” (I, 88). Irma shows how the King has been and is still poorly served by his advisors, who wanted only a “simulacre du roi” (I,23) to front for their ambitions. The narrative alternates from contemporaneous events to the historical synthesis and back again. This political education (of Irma and the reader) is interrupted by the “hache homicide,” to which she loses her family, one by one (I, 97). Irma, like her real life model the Madame Royale, is eventually sent to her maternal relatives (the King of Persia in the text) in exchange for Revolutionary hostages. In the Persian court she continues her “lessons” in practical politics–international relations and local party politics as palace intrigue etc.– and then again on a more abstract level when a sage takes up where her aunt left off. Although the narration moves the reader through the emotional as well as social chaos of the Revolution, the author takes great care to explain the origin of events, giving a context for the upheaval. The author fosters a sense of emotional security through intellectual understanding by retelling of events experienced by contemporary readers or at the very least with which they were familiar. She places personal trauma in a larger national and public tragedy. By the end of the novel (first 4 volumes at least) the reader comes to an emotional understanding and a certain peace even if the times are still uncertain.

An integral part of this education is the short inset narratives of people Irma comes across. Contrary to expectations, the normally rigid monophonic epistolary form bends its singular and aristocratic point of view to include multiple voices from different social and economic backgrounds.  One of the novel’s great strengths is that it does give voice to oppositional parties and differing opinions to create a united compassionate discourse by its end, leaving the political and ideological in the background to favor the polyphony that is the basis for its appeal. Everyone tells their story and they all have one from the highest nobles, to the servants that served them, to peasants in the field. From monarchists, to revolutionary partisans, to the politically neutral, (women especially) all tell horrendous stories of betrayal, separation, anxiety, and loss.

“Je puis y être heureuse par l’amour de mon bien-aimé, mais je le sens : au milieu des plus douces jouissances, l’image sanglante des auteurs de mes jours se présentera à moi, et je me trouverai bien mieux avec ceux, qui comme moi, ont des larmes a répandre, qu’avec les êtres qui ne peuvent avoir aucune idée de ce que je souffrirai sans cesse, n’ayant rien éprouvé de semblable.”  121

The common thread running through all of these “témoignages” is the pain of separation from both their country and loved ones. If the appearance of virtue is not to be trusted, easily counterfeited, and intentions illegible, the signs of pain are transparent. By the end of the novel, the reader like Irma has come to understand that her country is in reality not divided, but united and equal, with pain and loss as the great leveler. A united community has been forged, but it is not a political one. It is located rather in the sentimental register, coming out of pain and loss and built on shared trauma. It is in this domain that everyone proves equal and one in which her own experiences has taught her to read the suffering heart of her fellow Indians.

In sum, Guénard shows the private face of History, demonizes destructive private ambition and renders public the private suffering of the people.  The particular (found in the singular epistolary narrative voice) expands to encompass the communal through shared experience. By the end of the novel, the reader like Irma has come to understand that her country is in reality not divided between revolutionaries and royalists, but united and equal at a deeper and more important level, with pain and loss as the great leveler. A united community has been forged, but it is not a political one. It is located rather in the sentimental register, coming out of pain and loss and built on shared trauma. Irma, for modern readers, allows the reader, on an emotional level, to experience the paranoia, fear, and confusion rampant at the time of its production and expose him or her to contemporary analysis of recent historical events. If a late XVIII and early XIX century reader looked to Irma for romance, rational explanations and to be moved (both in horror and pity), this novel allows the modern reader to plunge into a world of hysteria, paranoia, violence and schizophrenic pairing of reason and sentiment of the French Revolution. This one novel unites the emotional overload of a people traumatized by violent political events, both public and private, analyses and historicizes the causes of that violence, and, in attempting to come to terms with these events both personal and public, reflects the communal hysteria of 1799 in its frenetic aesthetic. If there was ever a novel that communicates at a visceral level its zeitgeist it is certainly Irma. 😀