Sade as moralist

MAURICE CRANSTON, who lectures on political science at the London School of Economics, wrote the imaginary conversation between Marx and Bakunin which appeared in ANARCHY 22. His reflections on the Marat/Sade play, recently performed at the Aldwych Theatre by the Royal Shakespeare Company, are reprinted from The Guardian by kind permission of the author and editor.

Submitted by Reddebrek on March 21, 2019

THE ELEVATION OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE to the dignity of a great moral philosopher is something fairly new; and it still seems paradoxical. To the average reader of his novels the philosophical passages are the parts to be skipped as the eye races on from one scabrous story to another more scabrous. And since pornography is either so exciting or (on a second reading) so depressing that it inhibits calm reflection, de Sade’s philosophy has usually got little consideration and less justice. There is also a dearth in his case of the kind of reliable biographical information which helps one to understand how an author’s words should be read.

One of the merits of Peter Weiss’s play at the Aldwych Theatre, London, The Persecution and Assassination of Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, is that it lifts de Sade’s ideas out of the context of pornography in which he himself chose to present them. How far the “Sade” in this play is the historical Sade is a debatable question. Peter Weiss seems to have combined two views of Sade: the existentialist one (found in Simone de Beauvoir’s Must We Burn de Sade?) with the anarchist one (found, for instance, in Marie Louise Berneri’s Journey Through Utopia). This makes for a certain equivocation; and in the actual performance at the Aldwych Theatre, this ambiguity is further enriched by the actor—Patrick Magee—who plays de Sade not as the flabby Frenchman de Sade was, but as a model nobleman with a lightly German accent; he brings to life the idealised image from the mind of the German dramatist. Indeed it must be said, not only of Mr Magee’s performance, but of Peter Brook’s whole production that it is not just a presentation, but a masterly interpretation, a creative use of the theatre such that one is lucky to witness perhaps once in several years. It is odd that this production, in which violence and lust are formalised as to became “metaphysical,” to be grasped conceptually and not gaped at naturalistically—odd that this of all plays should have evoked the protests of the hearties; if such protests are not purely a priori (“It must be sadistic because de Sade is in it “), then they serve to confirm oneof de Sade’s observations (long before Freud had discovered the unconscious) that people dread a mirror which might show themselves to themselves as they are.

Some emphasis is put in Peter Weiss’s play on de Sade as a champion of individualism against socialism. Weiss’s “Marat” is plainly more of a Socialist than the real Marat, more Marxist (more Brechtian, dare one say?), but this does not matter. The point is that Marat was a champion of equality and authority; and that de Sade was against both in the name of liberty. And though Peter Weiss tries not to show his hand too obviously, he clearly see de Sade’s individualism as pessimistic but profound and Marat’s egalitarianism as optimistic but jejune. And there perhaps he is not far wrong.

De Sade’s most devastating arguments are on Nature. Practically all the French philosophers of the Enlightenment believed that man was naturally good. They said that if men were not corrupted by injustice, ignorance, and priestcraft, then they would live together in fraternity and happiness. De Sade disagreed. Men, he said, were naturally aggressive. If a man was to pursue his pleasure he would rape, torture, and otherwise abuse his neighbours, because Nature made men find erotic satisfaction in such deeds. (De Sade used pornography to prove his point; for if his readers got a thrill from reading him, how could they claim it was not true?) Modern psychology has done much to show that de Sade was right and the philosophers wrong on this subject. Right, that is, in his psychology; but not right in his ethics.

In fact the ethics de Sade bases on his psychology are strangely contradictory. On the one hand he preached that what Nature ordains men should obey; his novels are full of injunctions to cruelty and atrocious deeds. On the other hand, de Sade wants to oppose Nature. In a remark Peter Weiss uses in his play, de Sade says: “I hate Nature.” But it does not seem to have struck him that if Nature ordains evil, the way to oppose Nature would be to do good.

De Sade’s attitude to liberty is equally paradoxical. On the one hand, he was the most extreme libertarian, the most total anarchist of all Frenchmen of his generation. All law should be abolished (this is why de Sade opposed capital punishment—not because it entailed killing, but because it entailed legal killing). Equally he thought that all authority should be eliminated. All men should follow the principle of “Do What Thou Wilt,” and not just those civilised beings whom Rabelais addressed. Yet de Sade did not think, with Rabelais, that such unfettered indulgence would make for an ideal life; he thought it would lead to the most monstrous wickedness, which both fascinated and horrified him. So de Sade is at one the most passionate advocate of liberty and also the one whose advocacy makes liberty seem unthinkable.

De Sade’s attitude to religion seems to hold at least one key to his contradictions. He alternately denies God’s existence and asserts that God is evil. For if Nature is God’s handiwork, and Nature makes men evil, then there is no doubt who is culpable. As for God’s supposed solicitude for his creatures, all experience shows, says de Sade, that it is vice which is rewarded and virtue which is punished. De Sade’s two best-known novels are Justine, which is about the misfortunes of a virtuous girl, and Juliette, which is about the good fortune of a vicious girl. This particular metaphysical belief which de Sade shares with Proudhon and Thomas Hardy among others, is not, of course, an atheistic one; for it asserts both that there is a God and that God is hostile to virtue and indulgent to vice; it is nothing other than Christianity turned upside down.

De Sade is far from being a materialist. In fact, he detested the materialism of philosophers such as Diderot, who made out that men were machines. For if man was a machine, there would be no crime in killing him. And de Sade was deeply attached to the notion of crime. In a very revealing phrase, he said: “Crime is the soul of lust.” In other words, if there had been no Church to say that sex was wicked, sex would have had no charm for de Sade. He is haunted by God. The male protagonists of most of the orgies described in his novels are mostly bishops, priests, or monks; de Sade describes blasphemous deeds, like desecrating the host, in the same lascivious way as sexual deeds. In Peter Weiss’s play the priests manqués are the other patients in Carenton; but de Sade was really one of them. And it is his being a theologian gone wrong that limits him as a philosopher.