Concise, critical reviews of books, exhibitions, and projects in all areas and periods of art history and visual studies
May 5, 2021
Alyce Mahon The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2020. 296 pp.; 44 color ills.; 56 b/w ills. Cloth $45.00 (9780691141619)

Must We Praise Sade?

In her defense of the notoriously vile writings of the Marquis de Sade, “Must We Burn Sade?,” Simone de Beauvoir wrote: “In a criminal society, one must be criminal” (introduction to The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, Grove Press, 1966, 58). The oft-cited quote encapsulates the feminist philosopher’s tempered response to the eighteenth-century libertine texts of Donatien Alphonse François (better known as the Marquis de Sade) and their place within modern European history as bastions of unfettered freedom of expression. In novels such as The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), and Philosophy of the Bedroom (1795), many of which were written in the throes of the French Revolution, Sade merges philosophy, politics, and sex though their shared entanglements with cruelty. The horror of these texts, Beauvoir contended, offers an ethics of malignity and an existentialist precursor to the likes of Friedrich Nietzsche. As Beauvoir succinctly proposed, the power in Sade’s twisted tales lies in their capacity to reveal the depths of cruelty as a fact of the human condition rather than as an abnormality found only in the monstrous among us.

Beauvoir’s words appear in Alyce Mahon’s The Marquis de Sade and the Avant-Garde, a beautifully written and meticulously researched defense of another kind. Mahon deftly narrates the history of Sade the person as well as what she calls the “Sadean imagination,” defined as “a Sadean world, created in the imagination, in which our understanding of humanity is expanded through an exploration of humankind’s dark, sexually explicit, violent, and cruel nature” (1). Infanticide, matricide, torture, and cannibalism are among the many forms of extreme violence that color Sade’s imagined libertine worlds. In Mahon’s book, the ways that these acts of cruelty work as metaphors for a deeply embodied interrogation of numerous ideological, social, and political relations are carefully considered. The absence of a critical examination of the raced and classed limitations of the Sadean imaginary, however, threatens to undermine the rather lofty aspirations set by the author.

From early illustrations of Sade’s novels to the photographs of Abu Ghraib, the book examines a vast body of texts and images. Mahon begins with a close look at the life of the Marquis de Sade, contextualizing a number of discourses that have called upon his writings with varying degrees of celebration and derision. The result is a well-argued situatedness of the Sadean among some of the most central concerns of modern French philosophical and aesthetic pursuits, the transnational movements of which expand its reach to Italy, England, the United States, and beyond. In chapter 1, Mahon reads key texts by Sade and analyzes the illustrations that accompanied certain volumes, describing the interpolation of the reader as embodied intersubjective spectator. Held up against the decorous theater traditions of eighteenth-century France, Sade’s “terror in the round” is positioned as an early progenitor of the “open work,” joining the likes of Umberto Eco and Antonin Artaud in a sort of patrilineage of the performative.

Early in the book, the reader is introduced to two paragons of the Sadean imaginary: Justine and Juliette. Although associated with virtue and vice, respectively, these two characters and their reincarnations in a broad array of cultural narratives defy normative gendered conventions in their pursuit of knowledge and pleasure in addition to cruelty. The author’s contribution to long-standing debates over the feminist implications of Sade is most visible in her close readings of these so-called Sadean heroines. Harnessing their inherent wickedness, they invert Enlightenment constructions of a “fairer sex” and, Mahon argues, merge body and mind, positioning the female libertine as philosopher rather than mere victim or passive recipient of sexual torment (4, 32). She is the figure that connects all of the book’s chapters, appearing in eighteenth-century illustrations, Surrealist photography, Situationist films, performative Happenings of the 1960s, and more.

The female libertine might also be identified with Dominique Aury (Anne Desclos), author of Story of O (1954), as well as with Surrealist artist Leonor Fini, whose work graces the cover of the book. Mahon centers women and girls as both material and masters of the Sadean imagination in the second and third chapters, wherein the contributions of Aury and Fini are situated among their male counterparts and the Sadean circles in which they moved. As Mahon writes, due in no small part to the work of Sade’s biographers, the Surrealists “turned to the Sadean imagination and its iconoclastic force—that is, outside of taste, law, and moral sentiment—as an extreme means of forcing the reader/spectator into an active, feeling, desiring, position” (102). The work of Man Ray and André Masson, the author contends, calls upon the liberating mechanisms of Sade’s sexual cruelty to respond to politically and socially repressive contexts and post–World War II trauma. Mahon argues that the overrepresentation of tormented and dismembered female figures is a result of the power of such images to signal the destruction of bourgeois notions of familial and divine love. The author goes so far as to claim Man Ray’s fragmented feminine forms and Hans Bellmer’s disturbing “dolls” as Sadean heroines, making one wonder whether the conditions upon which the possibility for said heroism depend are worth the moniker.

In chapter 3, the protagonist of Aury’s Story of O is held up as a “new woman” figure, one whose abandonment of the gendered roles of mother and wife unhinges her from a variety of social and moral codes. Aligned with Beauvoir’s reading of the Sadean, Mahon carefully analyzes Aury’s novel as a humanist feminist rejoicing in sexual abjection and a vehicle through which female emancipation might be reached. Her position emerges from a detailed account of the contemporary reception of Aury’s text, one that was colored by its publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert’s legal battles. In 1956 Pauvert was put on trial for his publication of Sade’s texts, an event known as l’affaire Sade that illuminated a circle of Sadean defenders including André Breton, Georges Bataille, Jean Cocteau, and Jean Paulhan (who had an intimate relationship with Aury). The description of Story of O as both a love letter to Paulhan and a product of rising French humanist feminism poses a productive contradiction that, according to Mahon, tests the parameters of a “feminism of equality rather than difference” (126). This contradiction reveals the untenable nature of a feminist position of any sort that delimits desire, even one tethered to white heteropatriarchal sexual narratives. Rather, the potential for something like a feminist erotics depends upon evacuating morality from the acts themselves in favor of an examination of the sociopolitical and cultural institutions that police them.

In the final chapter of the book, “Shouts for Sade,” the legacy of the Sadean is traced through the work of Guy Debord, Jean Benoît, Jean-Jacques Lebel, and Peter Weiss, who, like many cultural producers of the time, turned to the performative in response to the increasingly dehumanizing effects of global capitalism and war. Mahon’s articulation of the “open Sadean work” is a particularly important contribution to both performance studies and art history, linking the practices of these artists to both their Surrealist precursors and the contemporary approaches of Pier Paolo Pasolini and Paul Chan, both of whom are discussed in the book’s conclusion. The dominance of white male deployments of the Sadean in this portion of the book, however, underlines the raced and gendered particularities of the imagined spaces of liberty that are examined in its pages. The absence of work by artists such as Carolee Schneemann and Tatsumi Hijikata, for example, seems particularly glaring; both could have offered compelling insights into the Sadean, including its limits.

A glance through the illustrations reveals the feminized form as most vulnerable to the vagaries of the Sadean imagination, laying bare the paradox of the book’s central premise. While the Sadean heroine is held up as the most powerful personification of the liberating possibilities of libertine terror, it is a liberty earned through her position as object of sexual torture or as “groomed” executioner of the will of the libertine. It is crucial to acknowledge that cruelty, pain, and objectification are functions of desire and operate in complex ways that are not somehow inherently circumscribed by the gendered or sexed specificities of the bodies that experience pleasure from them. The question that lingers in the face of praise of the Sadean, however, is one of origins. With what sexed, raced, and gendered ideologies and fantasies was the figure of the libertine constructed? Whose vision of liberation or emancipation lies at its heart? While Mahon provides ample evidence of the agency wielded by women and girls as characters within, and writers of, Sadean narratives, the white imperialist heteronormative framework from which the philosophy stems remains underinterrogated. The rather bold assertions that the author makes for Sade—claims that include the queering of gender, the destruction of the patriarchal institutions of church and state, and even “unlimited human freedom” (126)—therefore risk hyperbole.

Mahon’s study of Sade and defense of his texts as central to the legacies of the avant-garde are, no doubt, well-argued and deeply researched, and they make for a compelling read; the book is a significant and important contribution. In Mahon’s seemingly unequivocal praise for Sade, however, we are left with a perpetuation of a now decades-old “burn” or “praise” dichotomy that leaves little space for the mechanisms of simultaneity and contradiction that seem to be the very political and aesthetic power of the Sadean.

Angelique Szymanek
Assistant Professor, Department of Art + Architecture, Hobart & William Smith Colleges