The Marquis de Sade and Literary Terror
Donatien Alphonse François, the name does not stir in us any emotions. Perhaps for Francophiles it sounds elegant, to the untrained mouth it may be unwieldy, yet, to the educated listener that name is best known as The Marquis de Sade. Now, when one mentions de Sade a range of emotions may occur. We may be nauseated, disgusted, ashamed, reviled, stricken; we piece together what we know about him and dismiss him as being insane and dirty, we may even make the bold claim that his works should be consigned to the fires and never read by anybody with the least amount of sense. In many ways de Sade would agree with this, yet to relegate him to the annals of history as a mere aberration does not do justice to his work and it reflects badly on the modern reader. de Sade, for all his proclivities and gestures toward the lubricious, can also teach us much about literary terror.
Literary terror has most commonly been described and defined in connection to the rise of Gothic literature as a way to demarcate what is mere horror and what is worthy of being called terror. Supernatural fiction writers, analysts, and compilers continue to make the distinction between what is horrific and what is terrible, yet they often exclude de Sade. Critics will comment on Polidori, Shelley, Stoker, Radcliffe and even Tolkien but they rarely cast a glance in the direction of the Marquis. I pick up on the missed opportunity to explore the roots of literary terror in works of fiction that do not have supernatural monsters, yet fill the reader with terror as they turn every page. De Sade is a precursor to this Gothic literature precisely because his works are foundationally based on terror.
One of the earliest concepts of terror in literature comes from the gothic author Ann Radcliffe. In her short dialogue/essay titled, On the Supernatural in Poetry (1826) Radcliffe makes a clear distinction between horror and terror. For Radcliffe, “Terror and Horror are so far opposite, that the first expands the soul, and awakens the faculties to a higher degree of life, the other contracts, freezes and nearly annihilates them” (Radcliffe 47). She goes on to say that Milton, Shakespeare and Edmund Burke do not source horror as a cause for the sublime but they do cite terror. So what then is terror? It is a source of the sublime but moreover it engages the imagination. Terror is about uncertainty and obscurity, enough of each to make the reader wonder at what is coming next, how it has happened or why the character has done what they have done. Pure horror is unimaginative; it leaves nothing to the imagination and is played out in front of the reader.
This definition is supported by the 20th century horror master H.P. Lovecraft. In his long essay and history of gothic writing he makes the same distinction between terror and horror. While Lovecraft gives them different names the definitions stay the same. Like Edmund Burke, Lovecraft connects the notion of terror to pain and the menace of death. Thoughts of pain and death stay with us more readily than thoughts of pleasure, so any work that can tap into this primal psychological fear gives rise to real terror (Lovecraft 27). For Lovecraft this can be shadowy gods from other realms or the intense feeling of aloneness and separation that is felt by many of his characters. In any case, his definition stands united with Radcliffe.
When there is a deep psychological-imaginative fear present it can easily be turned to terror. Boris Karloff speaking about this distinction quips that terror is rooted in the cosmic (read primal) fear of the unknown. Horror, in contrast, is the gory and banal repugnance that we can find on the six o’clock news (Kaye xiv). This distinction between horror and terror is meaningful. It is very rare, if it even exists, to enter a book store and find a section that is dedicated to terror novels or a video store that specializes in terror movies. Yet, when these literary theorists speak about terror they often connect it to horror, a term that deserves some recognition.
Horror, is disgusting, revolting and repulsive; it is often connected to monsters or beings that represent our worst fears especially those that make us feel unclean (Carroll 19). Horror and terror work closely together and are often inseparable. According to Stephen King, horror movies (as well as novels) work on two levels: there is the gross out level in which the monster kills or the demon makes a mess with human bodily fluids. This is the superficial level; it is a meretricious effect that is easy to employ and liable to fail if used too often (Kaye 610). This level sits atop a deeper structure that is necessary to make the novel/movie memorable and meaningful. The second level King says is more potent. Tt is part of the ever swirling danse macabre, “a moving rhythmic search” that is looking for where the audience lives at its most primal level (King 4). This is where the situations hit the audience on its “phobic pressure points”, areas of the psyche that hold our most deeply felt fears. Without reaching this level the novel, film or art serves as “gore porn” or appears as totally unnecessary instances of unrefined calamity.
The monster in Frankenstein throttling the life out of a victim is horror, the abuses suffered by the “guests” in 120 Days of Sodom are horror and Satan becoming disfigured to represent his station in Paradise Lost is horror. Any brute overt act that is played out by the supernatural or the natural constitutes an act of horror. Horror is named after the affect that it is supposed to promote in the audience (Carroll 14); one should feel suitable horrified–unpleasantly surprised or shocked. In this way we see that horror and terror differ. Terror attaches itself to our psyche, makes us question, throws us into ambiguity and fear while horror is meant to shock us and revile us. It is because horror “does the dirty work” of killing and grossing out that these two terms are nearly inseparable.
Consequently, it is this charge that is most often leveled against de Sade. Many of his contemporaries as well as modern readers charge de Sade with unnecessary horror. Rape, ejaculation, blasphemy, and irregular sexual attitudes are cited as being the main focus of his work. De Sade is regularly and continually subjected to the accusation that his writing is meaningless except to horrify the audience. To a certain extent this is true, the Marquis was writing in a politically tumultuous time (called the Terror) against a government that he did not respect. Therefore it is not a stretch of the imagination that he would use horrific images to make his point as evident as possible. Compound this with the generally conservative attitude of late 18th century French government and you have a truly radical author who would be speaking from a very particular standpoint—almost anarchic. Beyond the politics however, was a man who loved literature and dedicated a great portion of his life to writing. A contemporary of Horace Walpole who is noted to be the first gothic author, the work de Sade was producing must be understood as part of the foundation of gothic literature and as such a fundamental part of understanding terror.
Saving de Sade?
One of the authors who best understood de Sade was Simone de Beauvoir, French existentialist and philosopher. In her essay Must we burn Sade? de Beauvoir attempts to understand de Sade’s motivation for writing what he did without engaging in an overt political reading. Instead, Beauvoir gives a close reading to de Sade’s works and philosophically renders his logic through an existential lens. She says that the interest in de Sade is not with his aberrations, nor with the horror that he writes, but it is with the manner in which he accepts the responsibility for these opinions and beliefs (Beauvoir 6).
This pushes Beauvoir’s reading of de Sade into the realm of the psychological- into the realm of terror. Beauvoir goes on to comment on his love of literature and the reasons why he lived such a literary life. She says that the Marquis was in love with the ability of literature to grant him what society could not “excitement, challenge, sincerity and all the delights of the imagination.” (14) When de Sade writes to his wife vehement that it is not the manner of his thinking but the manner of others thinking that has been his unhappiness we do not hear a man who is preoccupied with horror, what we hear is a man whose ideas cannot be expressed in the way that society would like them to be. Again this is echoed in the Philosophy in the Bedroom when Dolmance says “Modesty is an antiquated virtue.” (Sade 197) What is being expressed is an opinion that is terrifying; it lets the audience’s mind wander. What if Sade is right? How many virtues do I adhere to? Am I unhappy because of how I live my life or because of how others view my life?
Beauvoir goes on to suggest that one of the most terrifying aspects that de Sade brings out in his work is the idea of apartness or detachment. Each of his aggressive characters can engage in wild sexual exploits because they are detached from their victims. Their motivations are never explained other than it is constantly noted that they are libertines and libertines live for pleasure. Substitute pleasure for religion or politics and what would we call a libertine? Somebody who is willing to hurt and kill for deeply felt religious ideas and who is detached from their victims—is this not a succinct definition of a terrorist?
This is a term that I do not use lightly; I hearken back to the Latin root of the word Tererre: to terrify. So disconnected from the human victim is the Sadean hero that they are able to remain lucid and “so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.” (Beauvoir 21) Many authors use 120 Days of Sodom as the hallmark piece of Sadean literature, and it certainly is one of the longest and most obtuse pieces that he compiled. However, for the sake of understanding literary terror Philosophy of the Bedroom is a better example. It is nothing more than a long lucid, cerebral philosophical dialogue between characters while they engage in rape, murder and sexual violence. It is a handbook on how to be libertine and engage in libertinage without the slightest remorse for your victims.
For Sade like Burke and Lovecraft, pain is unmistakable and most often remembered; this is what it is to be sublime. Whether the pain is self-inflicted, inflicted by another or, more importantly in the case of de Sade, inflicted on another, pain is the keenest sensation. Dolmance, the most lubricious of libertines comments “Should it happen that the singularity of our organs, some bizarre feature in our construction, renders agreeable to us the sufferings of our fellows…who can doubt then, that we should incontestably prefer anguish in others, which entertains us, to that anguish’s absence.” (Sade 254)
While this may sound horrific (and to some degree it is) I categorize it as terror because it leaves so much to the imagination. The Sadean hero makes argument after argument for the abandonment of virtue, the taking up of vice, the need for murder and various other atrocities that the author says are perfectly natural. Sade challenges the reader to think through all of these arguments when they put down the book. The life of the libertine is not mindless, it is calculated and philosophically supported. Sade encourages the audience to become libertine enough that atrocities and horrors and all that which is filthiest and forbidden should rouse the intellect and prompt the reader into action, sexual and otherwise. No matter where one turns in the works of the Marquis they are not singularly confronted with over played and boring acts of violence. They are confronted by a philosophical call to action that is meant to persuade the mind while giving pleasure to the body.
Good and Evil
Lastly I would like to briefly devote some time to the notion of good and evil in de Sade. It is pretty characteristic of most societies to value the good and eschew the evil. This is a lesson we get from ancient thinkers, organized religion and even the most simple of ethical systems. It is the adherence to this rule that generally shapes the way one thinks and behaves in society. What we have seen with Sade is that the good is only what we make of it. If we can make the pain of others into our good we should take that opportunity and go with it. Further, he says that if we cannot always do evil and therefore be deprived of the pleasure that this brings, we should at the very least have the option to do no good (Sade 217). Again Sade casts the reader into uncertainty and obscurity (as Radcliffe says). We are perplexed just enough by his formulation that we are able to give it thought. This is terror, the ability to take a tradition of entrenched values and turn it on its head just for a little while. Enough time to make the audience stop and think and be just slightly confused.
The Marquis de Sade has given the literary world many troubles. How do you classify him? Is he worth reading? Should we burn all his books and relegate him to the furthest reaches of memory? These questions continue to be a big part of Sadean scholarship. While de Sade is certainly gross and over the top most of the time, he also embodies the necessary attributes of literary terror. Being a precursor (and grandfather) of the gothic movement Sadean literature teaches the audience something about psychological terror. The constant rationalizing of counterintuitive morality opens the way for various forms of “uncommon” thinking that potentially could lead to action. While many will say these are just books written by a sick individual, such thinking does not further our understanding of terror. De Sade attempts to break the audience out of conventional modes of thinking and presents a different definition of terror that continues to haunt the psyche of those who have seriously contemplated his works.
Carroll, N. (1990). The Philosophy of Horror. Routledge: New York.
De Beauvoir, S. (1966). Must we Burn Sade? IN Wainhouse, A. and Seaver, R (Eds.). Marquis de Sade: The 120 Days of Sodom & Other writings. Grove Press: New York
De Sade, Marquis. (1795/1965). Philosophy in the Bedroom. IN Seaver, R. and Wainhouse, A. (Eds.). Marquis de Sade: Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom & Other Writings. Grove Press: New York.
Kaye, M. (Ed) (1985). Masterpieces of Terror and the Supernatural. Doubleday and Company: Garden City, New York.
King, S. (2010). Danse Macabre. Gallery Books: New York, New York.
Lovecraft, H. P. (2012). The Annotated Supernatural Horror in Literature. Hippocampus Press: New York.
Radcliffe, A. (1826/2004). On the Supernatural in Poetry. In David Sander (Ed.). Fantastic Literature: a Critical Reader. Praeger Publishers: Westport, CT.
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