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Sade, the First Radical Queer

by Gert Hekma in Films & Books , 07 mei 2014

Dit artikel is ook in het Nederlands beschikbaar

William F. Edmiston’s “Sade, Queer Theorist” is a marvelous book. Notwithstanding a twenty-year long history of queer theory with Sade being the “queerest theorist” of all time, this is the first academic work where he is being recognized as such. It gives a rich overview of the gender and sexual transgressions in his work and, to a lesser extent, in his life, with a strong focus on homosexuality and incest.

Another major theme that is addressed concerns the question as to whether homosexuality is a taste or an inborn nature in Sade and his characters. Violence or cruelty in sexuality that is often seen as typical for his work receives less attention.

Donatien Alphonse François marquis de Sade (June 2, 1740 - Dec. 2, 1814) lived at the end of the Enlightenment and was seen as one of its most important and highly critical adherents. After some sexual scandals, he ended up spending twenty-seven years of his life in prisons like the Bastille and asylums like Charenton. In these institutions he began to write his amazing work that mainly consists of novels with great amounts of violent sexuality mixed with philosophical considerations on state, church, gender, sexuality, incest, crime, nature and so on. Due to this remarkable interweaving of concepts he is regarded as both a pornographer and a philosopher. In this age of the birth of pornography, it was understood as politically subversive rather than as erotic literature. The work of Sade stands out in philosophy because it came in the form of novels, and not as academic essays or treatises. It offers an open, and not a closed dogmatic system. This form of writing allowed Sade to take a distance from the opinions voiced in his work by creating literature and also by denying that he was the author of his books – a sensible strategy in a time that such work was strictly forbidden.

Predecessor of the Gay Movement

The “divine marquis” had a strong influence on nineteenth century literature, on twentieth century French philosophy and on artistic and social movements such as Surrealism, Situationism and Provo. His name became a code word for cruelty and a sexual perversion and his work was forbidden until the 1960s and for a long time remained accessible only in underground circles. The novel “La philosophie dans le boudoir” (1795), with strong lesbian and gay content, includes a tract that is an early declaration for homosexual rights, but he has rarely been acknowledged as a predecessor of the gay or queer movement. Although his work is pervaded by sadism, homosexual practices and gender variation, it received little serious attention in the fields of gay, lesbian, gender or queer studies. The study of Edmiston on Sade as queer theorist stands out by introducing him into these fields.

The highlight of the book is its summary of the most interesting quotes from Sade’s work. This is done in three consecutive chapters on gender and sexual pleasure; nature, sodomy and the question of homosexuality as practice or proclivity; and finally on incest in comparison with same-sex pleasure. In the first part, Edmiston shows how Sade extensively addresses gender variation and presents many strong women who enjoy sex and can be very masculine – having enormous clitorises and using dildos to engage in Sade’s favorite pastime, anal sex or sodomy. They are not only passive but also active partners, both with men and women. Men transgress the gender binary as well by enjoying being penetrated and showing feminine sides. At the same time, Edmiston deplores Sade’s misogyny, as men are always the libertines and women their victims. The marquis may invert this scheme quite regularly, but his perspective remains distinctly masculine. It raises the question as to whether we should see Sade’s work as an essay or as a reflection of his society in which women were victims of Catholic priests who had more success in producing female prudes than male adherents for their bigotry. He divides women into two types: those who submit to Catholic doctrines of virtue and suffer from evil and those who quickly learn that virtue has little to offer and follow the lead of libertines and enjoy good and evil. It seems that male nature debauches men, resulting in them not having the religious qualms of women. There are good reasons to see the misogyny in Sade’s work as a reflection of his time and less as the view of Sade on women because he shows many sexually liberated and gender-transgressive women who give “positive” examples (if one could say so) for his highly ambiguous works.

Activity or Identity?

The second part of the book discusses two different theories of sexuality at work in the novels. The first is generalizing: every character is able to enjoy all different pleasures. The other is particular: various individuals have specific proclivities. Edmiston is especially interested in the question as to whether homosexuality is a practice that anyone can engage in or an innate characteristic. He comes to the conclusion that Sade embodies a time when theories changed from the idea of homosexuality as a practice to an assumed identity. He confirms Foucault’s theory regarding the transformation of sodomy as a practice, sin and crime, to homosexuality as a pathological identity, but indicates that in the case of Sade, this transition happened a century before the realization of doctors and homosexuals themselves. Sade was sitting on a fence between two time periods and was very much a forerunner as his work preceded that of homosexual rights activists Ulrichs and Hirschfeld and of sexologists Krafft-Ebing and Freud. I am a bit amazed that the author cannot entertain the view that both theories may have existed at the same time. A good example is the conversation between Chevalier de Mirvel and Dolmancé at the beginning of “La philosophie dans de boudoir” (1795) where the first is clearly heterosexual and the second homosexual. The latter seduces Mirvel who declares to have no problem penetrating him, as he is not a man who will hit a charming person doing such a proposition. The pleasure is returned when Dolmancé subsequently sodomizes Mirvel. Here we see a generalizing perspective (that homosexuality is a practice anyone can engage in) that fits perfectly together with a particularizing one (Dolmancé having a preference for penetration). And he already makes an ironic statement on queer bashing.

At the end of the book, Edmiston asks the same question about Sade himself and concludes that he was a bisexual. I wonder why he does not say, considering the title of his book, that the marquis was the arch-typical queer and in that sense a precursor to queer theory and life. Sade went beyond homo- and heterosexuality and could be defined in modern parlance as more of a masochist who preferred passive sodomy with women and men. Desire is always more specific than homo-, hetero- or bisexual and one does not do justice to persons by using such broad and vague terms.

Attack on the Holy Family

The topic of the third chapter is incest, which according to Edmiston was a more accepted practice than sodomy in the eighteenth century. The author sees Sade as a writer who was intent on shocking, but in my view, he went further. The marquis prioritized sodomy because it is the exact opposite of coital sex, and as we know, the church and state only allowed this kind of sex inside marriage with the aim of reproduction. Incest was such an interesting topic for Sade because it undermined ideas of the family being the foundation of society. Weddings provided linkages between families and guaranteed the reproduction of new citizens. His reversal of coitus – sodomy - and marriage – incest - was a most subversive attack on two main societal institutions. These traditions were sustained not only by church and state, but also by his fellow Enlightened philosophers such as Montesquieu, Voltaire and Rousseau. They saw the heterosexual family as the basis for their new social order and in fact changed little when it came to issues of sexual ethics and politics for the secular state in comparison with traditional religious values. Homosexuality remained an abject pleasure that could be better prevented than criminalized; incest was a direct attack on the holy family that created strict divisions between genders (male and female) and generations (parents and progeny). Such radical criticism was highly uncommon among Enlightened thinkers, among the early sexologists or the Freudians until the 1960s sexual revolution – the time that Sade’s work finally received a wider circulation.

Brutal Nature

Another topic that Edmiston raises in the second chapter concerns nature. For him the main question is whether sexual desires are in nature, but a more interesting question might have been what kind of nature Sade supposes. In that respect, he is again in stark contradiction with other philosophers. At a time theorists such as Rousseau considered nature as inherently good, Sade took an opposite stance and viewed it is evil and violent. Such a view is immediately understandable for anyone who has ever analyzed the cruelties of animal life. It is essential for any analysis of society including sexuality. While Malthus is concerned about scarcity of natural resources, the marquis continuously stresses their abundance. The rising anxiety about masturbation in young men as indicated in Tissot’s work on onanism (self-pleasuring) is of no concern to Sade because sperm is plentiful. Kant rejects self-abuse and homosexuality and sees reproduction as the only legitimate aim of sexuality, again contrary to insights of Sade who was indeed a very rare bird in his times and far after. The only individual who came close to successfully advocating such radical views was utopian socialist Charles Fourier, who lived just after Sade and endorsed gender and sexual diversity and plural loves as fundamental to society. Sade sees all sexual pleasures including lust murder as integral parts of a nature that is brutal rather than good.

A nature that is seen as evil and violent has very different consequences for society than one seen as good and peaceful. The effort of Edmiston to discuss nature in the work and life of Sade is misguided because he pays little attention to the various interpretations of the concept. As a queer theorist the author should have realized how words are unstable and have multiple meanings. If Sade was a homosexual, he was of the cruel kind. However, as Sade is first and foremost a novelist, the two different ways in which he discusses homosexuality as principle and practice, or as natural inclination, can be used by different persons or even by the same person as is common among contemporary gay men who move between cultural and biological explanations.

Queering of Sexual Politics

It is great that Edmiston has written about Sade as queer theorist and brought together so many amazing quotes. Sade is a controversial author and LeBrun underlined in her “Soudain un bloc d’abîme, Sade” (1986, “Sade: A Sudden Abyss”) how even all great philosophers did not do very well in presenting his ideas. Therefore, it is of little surprise that there are points of criticism regarding Edmiston’s text. Sade goes beyond understanding and will always remain an enigmatic person. There is no definitive philosophy in his work and we will always be forced to debate various interpretations. It is very promising that we now have an interesting headway into his sex-radical  ideas and more work will come to present his queering of sexual politics.

A conference is in the making on Sade’s sexual politics for December 2014 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of his death. More information about this conference will follow.

William F. Edmiston, “Sade, Queer Theorist.”
Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 2013, 244 pp, £ 60.



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