King Phallus

Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings

by Marquis de Sade, compiled and translated by Richard Seaver and Austyn Wainhouse, with Introductions by Jean Paulhan and Maurice Blanchot
Grove, 753 pp., $15.00

Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade; drawing by David Levine

This, it would seem, must count as a historic volume, since it is the first serious, non-clandestine edition of the Marquis de Sade’s writings ever to appear in America. The translation reads well, in spite of a number of perhaps misleading archaisms or gallicisms, such as “luxury” for “lust” (luxure) and “inconsequent” for “inconsistent” (inconséquent). The choice of texts is quite representative; in addition to seven letters by Sade and a dialogue on atheism, there are two “black” items, Justine, in one of the later, fuller versions, and La philosophie dans le boudoir, and one “white” item, Eugénie de Franval, a tale of incest and murder with a conventional moral ending. Eugénie is rather a bore, but at least it shows that Sade could bow to the moralizing conventions of the eighteenth century when he chose to do so, just as he could deny authorship of the “black” works with a fine display of moral indignation worthy of Diderot or Rousseau. Justine and La philosophie are not quite so overpoweringly ghastly as Les 120 journées de Sodome, which has been omitted; still, they are obscene and sadistic enough to give a fair idea of the Marquis in his most typical mood and to put any homme moyen sensuel completely off sex for a day or two.

The volume also contains a chronological list of the principal external events of Sade’s life, a Foreword by the translators, a Preface by the publisher, as well as two essays by Jean Paulhan and Maurice Blanchot, which were landmarks in the twentieth century rehabilitation of Sade in his native France as one of the neglected glories of that already richly endowed nation.

It is easy to see why Sade, after a hundred and fifty years of clandestinity, has been finally brought out into the open again. With the recent development of sexual frankness from André Gide to Proust and Jean Genet, or from D. H. Lawrence to Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, it was to be expected that the Marquis would eventually come into his own as the most concentrated and forceful exponent of the sexual obsession. As far as my reading goes, in his own particular line there is no one to touch him; he ranks as King Phallus. Shut a man up for some thirty years in jails and asylums and, if he does not rot, he is likely to work out such thoughts as he has to their ultimate conclusion. Sade had an obsession and he had ideas about it, and for the better part of his adult life he lived in the sort of confinement that could be imposed on an eighteenth-century French gentleman. He did not go into a decline, his spirit was not broken, and he wrote at such length and with such gusto that one even suspects he enjoyed the transcribing of his erotic dreams as much,…

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