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Saturday, August 4, 2007

The Misfortunes of Virtue

"It is essential that misfortune should suffer; its humiliation, its pains are among the number of Nature's laws, and its existence is useful to the general plan, as that of prosperity which crushes it; such is the truth that ought to stifle remorse in the soul of the tyrant or malefactor; let him not hold back; let him blindly deliver himself up to all the wrongs the idea of which arises within him; it is the voice alone of Nature that suggests this idea to him; it is the only way in which she makes us the agents of her laws. When her secret inspirations dispose us for evil, it is because the evil is necessary for her, it is because she wishes it, because she requires it, because the amount of crimes being incomplete, insufficient for the laws of equilibrium, the only laws by which she is ruled, she requires the former moreover for the completion of the balance; let him not therefore be frightened, or stopped, he whose soul is carried on to evil; let him commit it without fear, as soon as he has felt its compulsion: it is only by resisting it that he would outrage Nature."

-from Justine by the Marquis de Sade

I have been endlessly fascinated recently by de Sade's writings. They are essentially horrific, despicable, amoral, exploitative and incredibly unique, thoughtful and provocative. This novel is subtitled The Misfortunes of Virtue and it is more of a platform for his radical, even for now, philosophies, than a plot-based novel. It's somewhat of a bastardized version of traditional Socratic dialogue, with lengthy philosophical discussion between characters.

This passage is really interesting. He is arguing against Virtue; in fact the entire book is, as is obvious from the title, a full-on philosophic attack on the benefits of Virtue. Yes, it's real out. Several subtexts are interesting in this quote. The one that stuck out the most to me is the emphasis on the feminization of "Nature". Mother Nature of course is the derivation, but for a figure as misogynistic as de Sade to base the core of his morality, or should I say amorality, on the submission to an abstract notion of Nature that he excessively feminizes is very intriguing. Continually using the pronouns she and her is oddly provocative - especially given the tone: "because the evil is necessary for her, it is because she wishes it, because she requires it" - as well as because of the prolificity of de Sade's erotic literature, much of it involving S&M; the term sadism is named after him. De Sade believed that his only master was in fact Nature. A devout atheist, there are famous tales of his excesses and debaucheries involving various desecrations of religious symbols. How could such a man not sexualize the only authority figure he maintained any sort of deference to?

Although he makes very interesting points in this tirade - it is essentially an excerpt of a long monologue one of the characters gives in the hope of convincing Justine to abandon her Virtue and sleep with him - there is a crucial point of his logic that I disagree with.

In this passage he argues a now-common modern argument against excessive moralism:

"...let him blindly deliver himself up to all the wrongs the idea of which arises within him; it is the voice alone of Nature that suggests this idea to him..."

The idea is: if it is in our nature, then how can it be wrong? This is definitely a remarkable concept, more so for when it was written in 1791, but if you continue down that path of logic then the argument collapses by its own merit.

If the argument is that since Vice has always existed in Nature then it must be natural to pursue it, then couldn't you argue that Virtue is in fact natural as well? Virtue had to come from somewhere; it came from nature. It is in our nature to elude suffering just as much as it is to seek selfish gain, and somewhere back in our past we realized that we could reduce suffering by instituting rules and programs to try to teach and enforce behavior that would bring about less suffering for people. Whether this was, and is, successful is debatable, but impulses and desires on a macro level do not just form from society. The primal desire for safety is what created Virtue, just as it created the common behavior of living in packs, which was probably a precursor to organized enforcement of safety conditions.

That said, the passage, and much of the book, is endlessly thought-provoking. I would really recommend people checking out some de Sade. You have to have a strong stomach though, his writings themselves are extremely graphic and sadistic. I would say Justine is a good starting point. Don't do what I did and start out with 120 Days of Sodom, unless you are ready to start out with some ridiculously twisted writings.

2 comments:

emily banneker said...

I think sade viewed vice as natural, but viewed morality as a "religious construct", which is to say that it was not natural since it was imposed upon the person from outside. but then i suppose you could go whole hog and argue "well religion must be natural, for from where did it come from?

try reading some of the feminist theory on sade. i'd highly recommend Simone De Beauvoir's essay "Must We Burn Sade?"

Also interesting is that Sade at least had a moral message he was attempting to deliver. I wonder sometimes if he wasn't sensationalizing in order to place the sexual viciousness next to the vices of the corrupt public officials . I seem to recall that Justine was violated by a priest at some point. Would Sade himself engage in this behavior? Somehow, I doubt he did.

Compare "The Story of O" by Pauline Reage.

Anonymous said...

helpful post.