The Marquis De Sade and the Avant-Garde

The Marquis De Sade and the Avant-Garde
by Alyce Mahon

Princeton University Press, Princeton, NJ, 2020
296 pp. Trade, $45.00
ISBN: 9780691141619.

Reviewed by: 
Allan Graubard
March 2021

The Marquis de Sade and the works that bear his name are ever sources for reflection and commentary. There is perhaps no other author who has tested our capacity, as readers, to imagine the unimaginable more. In matters of libertinage, Sade’s fiction is also without peer. Equally so is Sade’s use of fiction as an arena by which to subvert the personal, political, cultural, religious, and social mores of his time. In our time, at least as far as the previous century is concerned, Sade re-emerges through the literary and artistic avant-garde, the subject of the present book. At stake with Sade, as our author Alyce Mahon clarifies, are several issues that continue to compel, confound, and disturb us: the differences between imagined and real criminality, the character of libertinage in representation, the gaining power of women to command and lead, and the freedom to transgress artistic norms.

Mahon’s compass, of course, also involves commentary on how Sade’s works play for us today, when, for political opponents, torture has become commonplace, genocide against defined peoples sustains, and authoritarian control over permitted speech expands. For Mahon, though, as for other scholars, woman and men alike, Sade is a retort in this regard. He offers a literary means to explore the depths of our passions, past and present, and emerge renewed.

Mahon begins by situating Sade’s works historically during the period of the French Revolution, its iconography, and the circumstances Sade lived and endured, including his imprisonment -- where he becomes the author we know him as. Characteristic of the position that Mahon has taken on Sade, she notes that Sade revealed a new model of woman who, in contrast to the disempowerment of woman in literature, claimed “a whole new level of self-knowledge,” particularly in the characters Justine and Juliette and “their journeys to jouissance.”

Pitched to the use of Sade by the avant-garde, Mahon then details how Sade’s works resurfaced. Prior to the 20th century, of course, Sade was known to a small group of writers only. She names six: Stendhal, Flaubert, Baudelaire, Maupassant, Rimbaud, and Swinburne. Then in 1909, poet and art critic Guillaume Apollinaire publishes The Works of the Marquis de Sade, excerpts from six books with selected letters and Apollinaire’s introduction. It is a watershed moment. A decade or so on, it is André Breton and the surrealists that openly champion Sade, provoking poetic and critical response and bringing him to wider notice. Of interest is Mahon’s perceptive overview of Man Ray and Andre Masson’s use of Sade in their art, and commentary on Sade’s growing influence on literary and scholarly discourse.

Post WWII, with the defeat of Fascism, Mahon documents the pioneering role of those in France who struggled still to publish Sade, preeminently Jean-Jacques Pauvert. For bringing out Sade’s complete works, with each work introduced by a noted author, the books are confiscated as a “threat to morality,” and the 1956 trial against Pauvert begins. The “Sade Affair,” as it was known, also brings to the fore prominent figures who testified for Pauvert, and the relevance of Sade in literature, philosophy, and morality, including: André Breton, George Bataille, Jean Palhaun, and Jean Cocteau. Nor should we forget previous, similar writings on Sade by Simone de Beauvoir and Albert Camus.

From this critical landscape, Mahon focuses on the popular, scandalous novel, Story of O, published by Pauvert in 1954, which explores Sadean themes on love from a woman’s perspective, written, as it was, by Anne Desclos (under a pseudonym). According to Mahon, this novel, “born out of the development of women’s rights during WWII”— women finally gaining the right to vote in France in 1944 -- will inspire feminist debate well into the 1970s.

The fourth and final chapter focuses on translating Sade into ceremonial and performance events. There is Guy Debord’s aggressive 1952 film, Howls for Sade; the extraordinary Execution of the Testament of Marquis De Sade, created and performed by Jean Benoit in 1959; Jean-Jacques Lebel’s Happenings, culminating in 1966 with his 120 minutes dedicated to the Divine Marquis; Peter Weiss’s well-known play on Sade, directed by Peter Brook in 1964, starring Glenda Jackson; Passolini’s scabrous critique of Fascist Italy in the 1975 film Saló, or The 120 days of Sodom; discussion of the brilliant erotic art of Hans Bellmer, and more.

In 2004 we were horrified by US Army personnel happily posing for photographs of the prisoners that they tortured and, in several instances, murdered in the Abu Ghraib military prison. Their methods ranged from suffocation, hanging and sleep deprivation to anal rape with objects, sodomy and forced masturbation, to name a few. Sade, I think, put this issue in context some 223 years prior, as Mahon does throughout her book. In a 1781 letter to his wife, Sade admitted: “I am a libertine, but I am neither a criminal nor a murderer.” In the violent world we live in today, encountering Sade’s books and, ever again, the differences between imagined and real criminality, and toward what end they’re used, seems ever more necessary.