Some months ago, while strolling through Chapters, an interesting title caught my eye – Juliette by the Marquis de Sade. Ever since a friend and I spent one summer during high school watching the movie Quills over and over again, the topic of de Sade’s writing has been titillating. I once brought home a collection of de Sade’s letters to his wife and mother-in-law to the horrified disgust of my dad. Nothing in that volume was in the least sexual – rather they were penned by a man incarcerated for his mind, a mind which was increasingly spiraling out of control and waxed and waned between sharp satire and lonely desperation.
My next encounter with de Sade came during a graduate seminar on the French Revolution. We were asked to read a book about the psychology behind the Revolution, and the art(s) that it inspired. Rather ham-fistedly, the author included a chapter on de Sade’s writings in the middle of the work. It was a shocking review of de Sade for an academic text, as it including direct quotes and pictures. I say it was a ham-fisted inclusion because the author never mentioned de Sade before, or after, the chapter on him. None of the reviewers mentioned it either. It was almost as if the chapter was an afterthought which the reviewers wouldn’t deign to acknowledge it.
Having said all that, while in Chapters, I decided to go directly to the horse’s mouth, by-passing Geoffrey Rush and French academics, and read the words of the man himself. I bought Juliette, and it promptly sat on a bookshelf in my apartment for over a year. Last night, I pulled it down and gave it a brief read. There are several comments on the work I think should be mentioned.
What first struck me was the writing style of the sexual scenes. It was almost as if de Sade was a frat boy, recounting his sexual escapades to his buddies, with less and less honesty. The tales become so big, so detailed, and so inflammatory as to remove any sincerity from him. What then becomes apparent is that the sexual scenes lack all passion. De Sade writes of disgusting, degrading, and horrendous sexual acts, but they’re the imaginings of a man who has no real desire within him. They are chilly narratives that are too calculating to be titillating.
What passion is committed to the page is geared towards de Sade’s distaste for the aristocracy and Church. The only rise the author seems able to get out of himself is a description of the horrendous sexual acts committed by priests and cardinals, or by members of the French nobility. From what I read, he distained his fellow nobles, but was disgusted by the members of the Church. This contempt is fully realized in long-winded rants that go on for pages and pages, in uninterupted paragraphs, delivered (generally) by the characters who represent the aristocracy and/or Church. These rants are rationals for libertinism which try a little to hard to be rational. From depraved sexual description to mental masturbation? The work becomes almost undreadable in multiple spots.
On a whole, I am at a loss to understand why his contemporaries saw de Sade’s works as anything other than sloppy satire. I understand the times and public moral codes that dictated to the people of the time how to react, but with the benefit of historical hind-sight, the French state handled de Sade incorrectly. Juliette (and one can only imagine his other works are of a similar propensity) would best have been defeated by ignoring it. It would have interested horny teenagers, the social gauche, and maybe a few brave souls, but had officials ignored it, it most likely would have been dismissed from the public consciousness as unimportant – for that’s what it is.
De Sade’s work is the ranting of a disaffected man on paper. I cast no judgment on the man himself, merely on his works. Is it worth reading? Certainly – all books are worth reading, even if they can’t be finished due to lack of interest, simply so one can have an opinion on them. Is it worth lauding as a classic? Certainly – because of the French state’s reaction to the works of de Sade, everything he’s written has a place in the annals of western literature. Is it any good? No, of course not – the writing style is readable, but the manner in which the story is presented is sloppy. The reader can almost hear a breathlessly giggling de Sade urging them on like a child, saying ‘and then, and then, and then….’
Juliette holds a place in the zeitgeist because of its own history, not because of the quality of writing or the story itself; worth a peruse, not worth a read.