BOOK REVIEW – ANGELA CARTER – THE SADEIAN WOMAN. 2000 Virago Press.
You would not expect a feminist assessment of the works of the Marquis De Sade to be positive about his heroines as role models but Angela Carter’s short essay achieves just that.
De Sade (1740-1814) is one of history and literature’s most reviled and misunderstood authors. His very name lends itself to the fetish of sadism, which dominates his work, along with necrophilia, copraphilia, incest, lesbianism and all manner of sexual excess.
De Sade was rarely known to indulge in extreme sexual practices, though he was arrested for poisoning brothel girls enough to induce vomit in trying to induce extreme flatulence from them during a sexual tryst. Others complained that he was rather over fond of using the lash, on them and in turn, on himself. It was his political writings that ultimately landed him in an asylum for his final years however.
Of his sex writings, they are clearly not written as an erotic set of arousal materials as most porn might be seen today. In de Sade, heroes and heroines use sex as a means to gain power, subjugate, dominate or express their wealth with extreme over the top orgies of excess. The rich literally wallow in their own excrements, rape is committed on men by men and on women by women, (with dildoes) simply because it can be done. Sade’s chief heroine for Carter (author of The Bloody Chamber and The Company Of Wolves) is Justine, a girl who is totally virtuous but who lives in a world of no virtue at all. Her saintly reluctance to break the law and moral codes of conduct see her repeatedly raped, imprisoned, falsely accused of murder, and forced to serve in brothel games against her own will. Her optimistic desire for a better life drives her to escape when such torments get too much, but each escape lands her in a worse situation. The tragedy of Justine is that if she was willing to be ruthless and nitrous, she could spare herself much degradation and danger. One of her male tormenters likes to play dangerous hanging games, getting him as close to death byte noose as possible for sexual gratification. When one such game goes wring, Justine saves him, when it would have been easy to spare her much later hurt by letting him perish.
Justine eventually meets her long lost sister, Juliette, who is as evil and ruthless as Justine is saintly – the difference between the girls is that Juliette is rich, powerful and happy - In De Sade, virtue leads to misery while ruthless ness and bohemian selfishness lead to all good things. This is the crux of his sexually driven World; it is base and shocking – only the obscenely wealthy can enjoy the total pleasure of the flesh.
Justine briefly feels happy and free with her sister, though uncomfortable wit her ways, but then Justine is suddenly struck down by a thunderbolt from God or nature – that enters her mouth and exits through her lower genitalia. Juliette will also die a sudden horrible death, but she has lived a life of pleasure. De Sade is not advocating sex and excess as a way of life, but using its extreme and grotesque depiction to show the way he feels about the human condition. It does not make for titillation or pleasurable reading. If anything, it is puritanical anti-porn.
Carter takes a very Freudian view of the heroines, seeing Justine as a proto-Marolyn Monroe, an innocent used and abused by all, event he silent voyeurs who see her beauty on the silver screen, and who eventually faces a sad, lonely death. Carter’s is a radical and astonishing re-evaluation of De Sade which is very much overdue and well worth reading.
© Copyright. Arthur Chappell
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