Commonplace Book: Perversity and Paranoia, Sade and Steiner

Mitchell Abidor reflects on “Reading Sade in the Age of Epstein,” with a useful history of the notorious author’s welcome reception by the 20th-century intelligentsia:

Then, in the aftermath of World War II, there was an extraordinary explosion of analyses of Sade. Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 Sade, mon prochain, claimed that Sade was a man deeply influenced by Christian mystics. In a 1951 article in Les Temps modernes, Simone de Beauvoir famously asked: “Must We Burn Sade?” Answering in the negative, Beauvoir was not reticent in pointing out the flaws and contradictions of Sadeian thought. Warning against a “too easy sympathy” for him, she wrote, “it is my unhappiness he wants; my subjection and my death.” Still, she concluded by enlisting him in the Existentialist cause, saying that: “He forces us to put in question the essential problem that haunts this time in other forms: the true relationship between man and man.”

I will confess I’ve never finished anything by Sade, though I’ve probably read about 200 non-sequential pages by him, enough to get the flavor. I took two graduate seminars on Enlightenment literature and philosophy; in one, I was assigned (and did read) excerpts from 120 Days of Sodom, and in the other I was assigned all of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, but in a scholarly lapse I quit that one at the halfway point, having by then gotten the message.

Did I get the message? Faking it in the seminar room—I had no idea whether I was saying something odd or reinventing the wheel—I suggested it was a parody of Rousseau’s Nouvelle Héloïse, which we’d discussed earlier in the semester. The professor nodded sagely, as if I’d made a worthwhile claim, so I will take that as confirmation. This was a decade before what Abidor, with journalistic Hegelianism, calls “the age of #MeToo and Jeffrey Epstein,” so the seminar at large seemed more or less delighted by Sade’s sexual assault on Rousseau’s Romanticism (which, by the way, I also hated—scorning the Continentals, I wrote my final essay on Laurence Sterne and Ignatius Sancho, ribald authors of a more humanistic mentality).

Later, I dutifully read Adorno and Horkheimer, who—if I got their message—ambivalently praise Sade for revealing the secret underside of the Enlightenment, the hidden truth of bourgeois morality. I also read Roger Shattuck’s chapter on “The Divine Marquis” in Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography, but found that piece disappointing. Shattuck effectively rebuts the Sadeophile French modernists and poststructuralists by juxtaposing their grandly philosophical advocacy of Sade with his texts’ grisly reality. Then Shattuck tries to argue for Sade as a dangerous author by finding among his admirers not only the likes of Barthes and Bataille but also Ian Brady and Ted Bundy.

But in a book querying limits to knowledge and indeed to free speech, focusing on a pornographer, even a major one, seems like a failure of nerve. A handful of disturbed people might have read Sade before committing crimes on unfortunate individuals; on the other hand, the perpetrators of countless pogroms and genocides and mass murders worldwide found inspiration where else but in the Bible, while Stalin, Mao, and Pol Pot studied not Sade but Marx. (Examples could be multiplied among the world’s religious scriptures and political programs.) I would have devoted a chapter on dangerous literature that perhaps ought to be forbidden—though I certainly don’t think any literature should be forbidden, at least legally—on the latter texts instead of on any kind of pornography, whose influence is by its nature more self-limiting than the effect of texts advertising themselves as universally salvific. The postmodernists, despite their sometimes reckless libertinism, had a point about that. Shattuck decides against censoring Sade, it should be noted, but advocates instead “that we should label his writings carefully: potential poison, polluting to our moral and mental environment.”

Anyway, and at the risk of hypocrisy—since I called Clive James an anti-intellectual for refusing to grapple with Continental radicalism in Cultural Amnesia—I will cut this Gordian knot. Beauvoir’s famous “Must We Burn Sade?” is the wrong question, because it confers on his work the glamor of the forbidden. Perhaps the most extraordinary aspect of the left-liberal hegemony in academe, journalism, and publishing today is its ignorance of this glamor. When some serious person with furrowed brow and pursed lips starts explaining solemnly and with wagging finger why we must not read or watch something, anyone of any intelligence or sensibility, anyone with enough self-respect to want to be free, will immediately seek out the forbidden object.

The Invisibles #1.7

But intelligence and sensibility—not to mention limited time—demand standards above mere contrariness, or else we’ll be wasting our lives on trash produced only to provoke the pious, an unworthy goal. Sade wins undeserved readers only because he is, in some sense, or for some people, forbidden, despite his academic celebrants. So we shouldn’t burn Sade; we should ignore him. We should ignore him because his fiction and his thought are without interest. Elaborate sexual geometries illustrating fetishes not one’s own, sans persons or plots to care about—who needs it? (For more on the boring nature of transgressive literature, see my pieces on Ballard and Bataille.)

As for the philosophy, it is three words long and requires no elaboration: might makes right. A  thought so crude does not reveal the terminus of the Enlightenment by abstracting into cold formalism the Enlightened belief in a rational social order, as if that order’s contents did not matter; nor does it help us to understand the Enlightenment’s underside, because it is itself too one-dimensional to count as an instance of the irrational at large, as if one could only be a robot or a rapist. There’s more insight into these psycho-political conundrums on one page of Frankenstein or Hawthorne’s short stories or even Grant Morrison’s comic-book commentaries on Sade than in anything I’ve read by the man himself.

Speaking of intelligence and sensibility, n+1 gives us this strange and unflattering if not exactly surprising reminiscence of the polymath George Steiner by the mysterious and apparently pseudonymous Kinton Ford, “An Evening with George Steiner (1929-2020)”:

Steiner pursued the African American question: “What do the Black Muslims say about this?” Me: “Well Farrakhan has denounced the attacks, though he denies that the US has given sufficient proof that bin Laden was behind it.” Steiner: “So the black population doesn’t agree with the US government.” Me: “Well, no, most African Americans are not Muslims; I don’t know what the majority of Black Muslims think, but as I understand it, most African Americans are behind the US response right now.” “Oh.” He didn’t know that most African Americans identify themselves as belonging to some Christian denomination. But undaunted he wondered how influential Black Muslims would sway African American opinion: “What are Skip Gates and Cornel West saying about this?” The other Professor pointed out that they weren’t Muslim either (West is an ordained minister). Still, said the Celebrated Poet, there was clearly a class aspect to the terrible American overreaction: I grew up in Italy, she said, and (like the Germans) the Italians are disgusted by the American reaction too. We lived with the Red Brigade. They bombed the Bologna train station, where the clock is still stopped at the moment of the bombing. They killed dozens of others. They killed Moro. But Italy didn’t invade Germany, even though the Red Brigade consisted mainly of German adolescents sneaking across the border (I think she meant Baader-Meinhoff; the Red Brigade turned out to be supported by vicious elements of the Italian government, seeking the death of Moro and the anti-leftist reaction it would bring). Why should America go to war?

Not all of the bien-pensant were so haughtily innocent of African-American culture, not even two benighted decades ago, but the bien-pensant mostly did talk this way back then. An undergraduate at a semi-public research university, I moved in slightly less rarefied circles than the one dramatized above, but Steiner was hardly the only scholar to make oracular pronouncements like “Americans don’t want to die.” We should only read literary critics for their literary opinions. Steiner’s literary opinions—and his literary personality—were immense, as I’ve discussed several times over the years in these pages.

With that caution about critics’ politics in mind, I quote this grimly amusing piece mainly to enter into the record its author’s bold assertion about who killed Aldo Moro. My own response to 9/11 was to become a full-blown left-wing conspiracy theorist for about five years, and I’m here to tell you that there was nothing glad in Operation Gladio. Please don’t ask me for the details, though; I forgot them all when, declaring politics totally hopeless, I became an aesthete!

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