Staring into the abyss

Posted on December 9, 2008


By Darran Anderson

You can mark the ascendancy of an artform by charting the outrage it’s aroused. If they’re anything, moral panics are a cultural barometer, demonstrating what has potent influence on youth and the hang-ups particular to the people of the time. Once upon a time, mere oil and canvas made the blood boil in conservative veins: when the Impressionists unveiled their first exhibitions, their works came under critical (and often physical) attack while the trail-blazing portraits of Egon Schiele earned him a reputation as a perverted degenerate and a spell under lock and key. From there, the decadent cabarets of Weimar (captured best by the Neue Sachlichkeit artists George Grosz and Otto Dix) and America’s travelling vaudeville freakshows had brief reigns as modern Sodom and Gomorrahs. Then a quick succession of real crime pulp novels and Tales from the Crypt comics spawned all society’s ills before Elvis’ gyrating hips caused a rift in the and some new portal of hell to open. Youth culture would be doing something wrong if it failed to incite the ire of older generations as it has done for time immemorial. The Sex Pistols on Grundy, cinema releases of A Clockwork Orange, The Exorcist and Deep Throat or the whole grindhouse phenomenon, Cannibal Holocaust and the Face of Death series on bootleg VHS, The Dead KennedysFrankenchrist, NWA‘s Fuck tha Police, even Frankie Says Relax have all had their turn. Sometimes it even came in the unlikeliest of guises. Morrissey‘s early performance with The Smiths on Top of the Pops, complete with gladiola and hearing aid, had a strangely brilliantly enraging effect for some who had weathered the storms of punk but drew the line at the sight of a working class dandy. Latterly, the likes of Manhunt and Grand Theft Auto have outraged the moral majority and confirmed the computer game as king.

The well of transgressive literature is deep and, like the human psyche it reflects, bad things lurk there. Fiction that dares to broach the subjects others flinch at (whether to locate a greater truth, as an act of attention-seeking or just for the hell of it) has a rich if often concealed history. We live in an age where supposed sin is omnipotent, our senses have numbed to it and everything, no matter how debauched, is for sale. We can look back with a certain grave smugness upon our primitive ancestors who were sheltered and oversensitive enough to be outraged by the likes of Tess of the D’Urbervilles or Molly Bloom‘s fantasies. The fact is our liberal assumptions are not as solid as we would like to think and every now and then a work can come along that slips under our guarded sense of irony and seen-it-all-before complacency, books that question the consensus and test how genuine our devotion to free speech really is. Admittedly, in the past creating mass outrage was an easier thing to achieve. Deconstructionism, postmodernism, whatever you want to call it, came around and it was hip to exhibit any emotion except shock. For a time, disgust was the only sin left. But if the last decade has shown anything it’s that the old reactionary bastions of Church and State were written off much much too prematurely and they’ve awoke full of storm and thunder at their funerals. Now free speech is not something to be taken for granted, whether you’re a children’s writer or a “lyrical terrorist”. There aint no doubt about it – battle has resumed.

An exploration of the West’s new colonialism and in turn the human condition, Michel Houellebecq‘s Platform is a prime example of a book that shocks the unshockable, that does not toe the party line but rather off-roads it, forcing us to question our own righteous assumptions. Following his equally controversial Atomised, the book sent the intelligentsia reeling, startling not merely with its obscene content (that they can handle) but its apparent support of sex tourism and Islamophobia. Some reacted in the manner of their conservative arch-enemies and issued denunciations in the guise of reviews, others timidly acknowledged his skills as a writer and merely damned him as a human being. Houellebecq soon faced a law suit for inciting racial hatred, initiated by an unlikely, even unholy, alliance of the French Human Rights and the World Islamic League. Eventually, the writer was acquited by a court, who upheld the Fifth Republic’s cornerstone of liberté and Voltaire‘s tradition of religious dissent.

The power of, and the problem with, Houellebecq is that he gets you thinking about the whole artifice constructed by the liberal orthodoxy and you’re forced into taking some kind of position. And in the conceited apathy-ridden climate of Generation X and the materialistic Generation Y, that’s an achievement in itself. The reason this solitary writer provoked such anger is because we suspect deep down beneath the political correct layers we’ve built that the man has a point and we hate ourselves, or are supposed to, for thinking it. Yet the paradox is always there, that Houellebecq seems to despise perhaps the only system that would (lawsuits permitting) allow him to so vocally despise it. The alternatives have not proved to be so forgiving. Free speech, it is evident, is not something that we passively have but something that we must spar, sometimes brutally so, for. Salman Rushdie has been lucky so far, Theo Van Gogh was not.

There’s been other recent contenders for enfant terrible in novel form but perhaps none as effective: The Wasp Factory, a fine atmospheric Scots Gothic novel, bore a notorious ending that now seems more than slightly ludicrous while the much-feted ‘Guts’ (from Haunted) by Chuck Palahnuik (which provoked 73 faintings and an indeterminate number of vomitings among poor gentle souls at book-readings) is too slapstick to truly chill or stir the soul. Shock they may well do but neither were the moral incendiary device that Platform was and remains.

Who else then in modern times has succeeded in turning society’s stomach and examining the contents? For all his storytelling nous and high culture references, Thomas Harris writes airport novels. Martin Amis‘ remarkable and appropriately-titled sophomore Dead Babies has definite punch (if somewhat overtaken by his petrifying factual Koba the Dread), A.M. Homes‘ genuinely disturbing tale of grooming and child-murder The End of Alice was roundly condemned, but stands as the equal, and a shadow, to the universally-acclaimed bookclub favourite The Lovely Bones. J. G. Ballard‘s managed to do it several times (Crash, Atrocity Exhibition) despite being decontaminated and elevated onto the pedestal of high art. Bret Easton EllisAmerican Psycho too has gone beyond pulp horror and been embalmed as a modern classic but rereading it you’re struck by how fucked up and disconcerting it actually is. There are parts, many pages long, of the most repellent rape, torture and butchery (mirroring earlier bouts of hedonism in the book) that make it a difficult read, albeit lightened by the fact the book is also ruthlessly satirical and hilariously funny (you’ll never think of Huey Lewis or Phil Collins in the same way). Only in totalitarian societies does poetry matters enough to warrant being censored, though Tony Harrison‘s remarkable opus V did cause a commotion by confronting British skinhead culture head-on and in a commendably visceral way. The latter’s potency highlights both the need for such works and the crucial absence of them, the need for something that goes beyond the empty adolescent thrill of blood and guts and actually says something, a book that shakes us to our core in words, the way films like La Haine, Man Bites Dog or Irreversible do so devastatingly in film.

Then again, shock is not necessarily a question of intent. There does not have to be some wicked purpose to render a book with notoriety. Some of the most benevolent idealistic books have had the most harmful impact. You think of Mark David Chapman reading Catcher in the Rye on the sidewalk outside the Dakota building, as John Lennon is bleeding to death in the backseat of a cop car. Or the socially benevolent writings of a white-bearded German economist in the hushed reading room of British Library that somehow led to Siberian death camps, Moscow cellars and the killing fields of the Khmer Rouge. Then there’s the Tragedies of Shakespeare, filled as they are with murders, gang-warfare, regicides and rapes right down to eye-gouging, throat slicing and tongue removal but which have seemingly remained immune from spreading any kind of negative influence other than inadvertent snobbery and insufferable luvvies. In contrast, what number of crimes have been justified by emancipating texts like the Bible and the Koran? Once released from the writer’s mind, there’s no control or guarantees over how the reader will use the text. One of the most cursed writers of this ilk is Friedrich Nietzsche, whose texts extolling mankind rising to a new level and shattering the old idols sparked one world war (Gavrilo Princip, the TB-afflicted assassin of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, had the German philosopher’s teachings burned in his mind and wished his epitaph to be the direct quote, “Insatiable as fire, I consume myself”) and inadvertently spawned the crimes of a second (Nietzsche’s heroic Overman being perverted into the Nazi’s Master Race). Even in recent years, a century after he died, his teachings have been regularly cited in the diaries and suicide letters of the instigators of high school massacres. As Nietzsche prophesised, long before it drove him mad, staring into the abyss long enough and it will stare into you.

Mein Kampf – Adolf Hitler

“For this, to be sure, from the child’s primer down to the last newspaper, every theater and every movie house, every advertising pillar and every billboard, must be pressed into the service of this one great mission, until the timorous prayer of our present parlor patriots: ‘Lord, make us free!’ is transformed in the brain of the smallest boy into the burning plea: ‘Almighty God, bless our arms when the time comes; be just as thou hast always been; judge now whether we be deserving of freedom; Lord, bless our battle!”

Where to begin but the bottom? The personal reminiscences, political schemes and racial aspirations of the antichrist, dictated to his deputy Rudolph Hess whilst they served a remarkably short sentence for treason in Landsberg prison, following their botched Beerhall Putsch. Originally bearing the catchy title A Four and a Half Years Struggle Against Lies, Stupidity and Cowardice: A Reckoning with the Destroyers of the Nazi Party Movement, Mein Kampf‘s crimes are legion: it lay the supposed intellectual groundwork for the mass extermination of millions of Jews, Poles, gypsies, homosexuals and dissidents, the occupation of Western Europe and the scorched earth genocide in Russia. In a literary sense, its chief offence was mediocrity. Reading it now with the safety of history, the primary revelation is surprise at how boring it is. Mass-murdering lunatic he was, few could deny Hitler had anything less than a fascinating story to tell. There was a backwoods childhood with a foul-tempered bee-keeping drunkard for a father and a doting much younger mother whom he was later to keep a vigil over as she died an agonizing death from botched cancer treatment. There were his years of schooling (bizarrely and mysteriously at one point alongside Ludwig Wittgenstein) and his desire to become an artist, crushed by his rejection by the Viennese Academy of Fine Arts (a pivotal what could have been moment). His cloaked destitute years in Vienna where he honed his anti-Semitism, painting postcards on street corners and lodging in dosshouses between periods of homelessness. His time dodging bullets and mortar fire as a scout in the trenches of the Great War, his blinding by mustard gas as the German Army capitulated and his rise from fringe conspirator to leader of a prospective Thousand Year Reich. These stories are ably told elsewhere (Alan Bullock’s Hitler: A Study in Tyranny is as good a place to start as any, while Richard Grunberger’s remarkable A Social History of the Third Reich is one of the most authoritative portraits of the society Hitler inherited and warped) but, despite Hitler’s literary pretensions, listing his occupation even whilst Fuhrer as being a writer, are merely touched upon here. Instead, Mein Kampf is a monotone manifesto filled with interminable ramblings and serves to demonstrate that even mental illness and megalomania can be drab squalid things. How deep Germany had fallen, or was pushed following the Versailles “Diktat” and the Great Depression, to put faith in such horseshit is anyone’s guess.

Cobbled together from the virulent penny dreadfuls of the Viennese sidewalks (chapbooks like The Protocols of the Elders of Zion were sold in plentiful copies on street corners) and standard right-wing “November Criminals” takes on the First World War and eugenics (Houston Stewart Chamberlain’s theories for example), it is bound together by Hitler’s obsessions and his manic near-hysterical energy. You get Hitler’s damning indictments of the “Negro-izing” West, the scales of mastermen and subhumans, his territorial ambitions and repeated claims of divine providence, population density calculations, rants against syphilis and prostitution, multifarious inter-party manoeuvres and of course his fixation with the “Jewish problem.” In terms of the demagogue’s obsession with the Hebrew race, J.G. Ballard made a startling ironic observation when he commented about Hitler, “Wandering about the streets of Vienna shortly before the first World War, his head full of vague artistic yearnings and clap-trap picked up from popular magazines, whom does he most closely resemble? Above all, Leopold Bloom, his ostensible arch-enemy, wandering around Joyce‘s Dublin at about the same time, his head filled with the same clap-trap and the same yearnings.”

Obsessed with hygiene, Hitler endlessly hammers phrases into the reader – vermin, filth, parasites, tumour – rhetoric that no doubt would animate in the theatre of his public speeches but which only resemble pathology when in written form. Even his continued professions of love for the German nation, the only positive or empathetic quality in the book, is given a lie to by the sociopathic haste with which he dragged the country over the brink in the dying days of the War, treating his beloved citizenry to a nationwide Wagnerian funeral pyre.

Hannah Arendt famously commented on the banality of evil and you sense it here in every page, how a system of thought that would almost wipe an entire race of people from the face of the earth could have its roots in a work with chapter headings like ‘The Mask of Federalism’ and ‘The Problem of the Trade Unions.’ But then the most dangerous actions can come disguised in legal jargon and stamped by clerks, bureaucracy itself serving the function of disassociation.

In a just world, the penniless and lampooned corporal and house painter would have come out of prison and faded into obscurity like Wolfgang Kapp, the assassin Anton Arco-Valley, Hermann Ehrhardt or any of his other rightist predecessors. As it happened, the zeitgeist had shifted to accomodate him and he began his rise to power by first buying a Mercedes from the proceeds of this work. It would one day become the best-selling book in the entire 20th century. The terror of what happened is only, and barely, counter-acted by the terror of what could have been, had all the wishes hinted at in Mein Kampf came true. Even to his erstwhile comrade Mussolini, Mein Kampf was “a boring book that I have never been able to fully read” filled with “nothing but commonplace clichés.” The preening barrel-chested Roman was right but in his vanity, he overlooked the fact that clichés are dangerous, powerful things.

The Gates of Janus– Ian Brady

“You might sleep
You might sleep
You might sleep
But you will never dream.”
The Smiths, ‘Suffer Little Children’

In the Doge’s palace in Venice, there’s a large luxurious chamber, along the walls of which are lined paintings of all the successive Doges, the leaders of the Republic of Venice who had flourished on the islands for a millennia. In one corner is a curious canvas covered in black cloth. It is there to mark, or rather omit, one Malin Faliero, 55th Doge of the State, who in his seventies had attempted to usurp absolute power and declare himself Prince. His uprising failed and was brutally put down, Faliero losing his head and being declared damnatio memoriae (literally damned from memory), a declaration that meant he should be written out of history or of ever having existed in the first place. His very name and image were so dishonoured, they were to be forbidden. Every trace that he had ever walked the earth was to be excised. He was an unperson.

The Moors Murderers Ian Brady and Myra Hindley are two of the few individuals, in modern times, to reach such a level of public abhorrence that damnatio memoriae seems a desirable epitaph. Yet Brady was possessed with a narcissistic desire to justify his actions and enshrine himself as some kind of enlightened nihilist who had risen above, rather than below, morality. Hence The Gates of Janus, his attempt to analyse other serial killers such as John Wayne Gacy and Peter Sutcliffe and also somehow argue the case for torturing and butchering children (and as in the case of Lesley Ann Downey recording themselves doing so on camera and reel-to-reel audio) as some inevitable consequence of moral relativism or some warped Darwinism.

There are only two reasons for reading this book: the first is the least defensible, the kind of voyeuristic murderer chic that spawns Charles Manson T-shirts and Gacy clown paintings, cherished by those pampered and lucky not to have such terror enter their lives. The other is as a psychological study, a profile of what makes such people tick, itself a controversial outlook as all attempts to understand criminals can be interpreted as a form of forgiveness. However, the argument goes, without studying the deviant mind how can it be countered? Indeed, one of the great arguments against the death penalty is the ability to exploit the subject as a life study in pathology. What could Saddam Hussein or Rudolph Hess revealed about the dark side of the human condition and the corrupting nature of absolute power had they faced prison rather than the gallows?

As it is, The Gates of Janus is another exercise in not only the banality of evil but the vanity of it, the sub-Colonel Kurtz justifications and self delusion permeates every line written by a man who seems to have no conception of what the outside world thinks, how it functions or where his true place is in it. Ironically, in damning the memory of the Moors Murderers so enthusiastically, the state and the media have burned their image into the public consciousness and into a form of immortality. It’s a chilling thought but those infamous monochrome mugshots of them must be among the most recognisable images in British history just as the black painting of Malin Faliero will always remain, despite the pomp and splendour of all the others, the most grimly intriguing work, and the biggest, in that palace hall.

Last Exit to Brooklyn – Hubert Selby Jr

“Sometimes we have the absolute certainty that there’s something inside us that’s so hideous and monstrous that if we ever search it out we won’t be able to stand looking at it. But it’s when we’re willing to come face to face with that demon that we face the angel.”

Former merchant seaman and college dropout, Selby is the Virgil-style guide to Brooklyn back before gentrification kicked in and the streets were wild labyrinthine places. This is the night-side of the American dream, a world fallen through the looking-glass where everything is contrary to the clean-living homely myths of the Eisenhower Fifties, where life is nasty, brutish and short. Selby wrote the book originally as a series of short stories strung together under the title The Queen is Dead. They reflected what he observed around him or was, at least, happening outside his window. Bedridden and medicated on heroin for a decade from the TB that took his lung, a dozen ribs and ultimately his life years later, Selby initially began to write, like the old blind country bluesmen of yore, because he had no other choice. Benezendrine highs/lows, the gay underworld, alcoholism, the debaucheries of shore leave, the travails of shemales, Machiavellian union intrigues, Last Exit reads like a sensational depiction of life on the edges, the Inferno to the Paradiso of Middle America.

Central to the controversy that would accompany the publication was the Tralala section, in which the hustling anti-heroine is subjected to a brutal gang-rape in a packed bar. When the excerpt first found publication in the Provincetown Review, its editor was hauled up on charges of selling pornographic material to minors. In Britain, with the depressing predictability, it was found guilty under the Obscene Publications Act and banned (all women were dismissed from the original jury under the proposition that a lady shouldn’t have to read such perversions). In a rare demonstration of judicial sanity, the decision was overturned after commendable efforts from John Mortimer and cultural luminaries such as Anthony Burgess, Frank Kermode and Al Alvarez. The victory was two-fold. As Andrew Stevens has alluded to elsewhere, the censors simply served to point out to the world which books were vital, edgy and dangerous enough to warrant banning and sure enough the book (and the later harrowing The Room and Requiem for a Dream[) was a roaring success, selling thousands and, alongside Tropic of Cancer and Naked Lunch, ushering in a new (but still fragile) age of free speech. Ironically, Selby’s influence is now witnessed, due to its cinematic-style dynamism and character driven sketches, as much in several generations of filmmakers including Robert Altman and Darren Aronofsky as his literary descendants.

Whether or not the authorities ban works due simply to prudery or because they wish to silence voices that run counter to the establishment ideals and their projection of what the world should be (but isn’t) is a matter for political discourse. The only fact that is a given is that every nearly every classic that speaks the truth, however grim, has been fought for and no doubt will always be. For culture is not just something you frame on a wall or sit on a shelf, culture at its best, in the only definition that gives it its dues, is a battlefield.

EC Comics

Night!… Black, wet, pouring night, with the muffled monotonous sizzle of fat raindrops hitting the ground! Night… Roaring velvety night punctuated by blue-white flickering lightning and bowling-ball thunder! Night!… When men sleep and evil wakes!… A black sedan careens through the night, swerving madly on the wet road!”

Who could resist such glorious schlocky nonsense? To give them their full title Entertaining Comics were the brainchild of William Gaines, who brought adult tales of the dark side to an austere post-war audience and, despite massive commercial success, brought down the wrath of the US administration for his sins. Seen now as vintage (somewhat kitsch) collectors’ items, these classics of gore and suspense were painted as a Trojan horse of sex and death in what was seen as a kids medium. Accusations that they drove juveniles to ruin fit in perfectly with the prevailing mindset (see also the Reefer Madness/Cocaine Fiends farce). It was perfectly acceptable to obliterate Nagasaki, firebomb Dresden or support Jim Crow segregation but to depict horror stories, mutant fairytales, scientific anomalies, crime scenes, sideshow freaks and axe-murderers in tongue-in cheek cartoon form was beyond the pale.

Tellingly, it wasn’t the stories of abduction or ritual murder that aroused the greatest lasting controversy but one innocuous and touching story about a black astronaut, reflecting the twisted logic of the times. When conservative academics were rolled out (most influentially in the form of the Marxist Frederic Wertham’s Horror in the Nursery and Seduction of the Innocent) to back up claims that these publications were corrupting minds of America’s youth, the end was nigh. Public book burnings, congressional enquiries and the reign of a dictatorial Comics Code Authority ensued. Comics from now on were to be squeaky clean and any sign of overt weirdness or satire would activate the Iron Fist. Of course, it simply drove the creators to more ingenuous ways of subversion and inadvertently fuelled the San Franciscan underground comix of the Sixties and the fledgling Bizarro genre. If EC’s sacrifice paved the way for the graphic novels of today, it would be foolish to assume the conflict is over. The iPhone comic Murderdrome has been banned by Apple while Alan Moore, widely recognised as one of the world’s finest living writers in any medium, has found his masterful epic of erotica Lost Girls (reinventing the heroines of Alice in Wonderland, Peter Pan and The Wizard of Oz) has been shunned by select countries and retailers alike for fear of obscenity prosecution. The price of liberty is eternal vigilance as the man once said.

The Torture Garden – Octave Mirbeau

“I’ll teach you terrible things… divine things.”

There are figures who come along now and then (Tesla, Da Vinci, Curie etc) that seem utterly alien to their era, that’ve been somehow mistakenly placed in the past rather than the future. Octave Mirbeau was one such individual. He championed modern art before it was being painted, experimented in writing postmodern novels before modernism had even been conceived, anticipated the teachings of Freud, wrote existential treatises before the birth of Sartre, was an freethinking anarchist in an age when radicals were turning towards the more authoritarian doctrines of Marx and opposed the madness of the First World War from the outset. Yet today, he’s remembered for one notorious work.

“It is no exaggeration to say that the main aim of upper-class existence is to enjoy the filthiest of amusements,” he once claimed and with The Torture Garden he aimed to bring such secrets to a mass audience. Sneeringly dedicated to the institutional elites he despised (the military, judiciary and priesthood – he’d been abused in childhood by Jesuits), the novel begins in earnest with satirical swipes at the French political establishment, before under the guise of a scientific expedition entering the Oriental realm of the title.

Led by the sadistic guide Clara, the accounts assault the senses with a variety of changing literary styles and a series of gruesome descriptions of torment, meeked out for the pleasure of connoisseurs of suffering. In his darkest moments of depression, Mirbeau would spend long periods of time staring catatonic at the plants of his gardens and it’s tempting to imagine these visions appeared to him during these spells. What shocks is not just the unabashed, sexually-charged joy the brutalities inflicted upon fellow human beings instils in the novel’s protagonists but also the fact that the tortures have their foundation in reality. Mirbeau uses the apocrypha of Orientalism to condemn Occidentalism; the notorious rat torture for example was a traditional punishment in imperial China (and was used to equally chilling and powerful effect in George Orwell‘s seminal 1984). The same complexity, the same raising torture to a high art, to the level of a religious ceremony, is present in the Ling Chi photographs that haunted the arch-surrealist George Bataille for his entire life and would inspire his own remarkable literary nasties such as The Eye. The pictures (available online – viewer discretion advised) show priestly monk-like executioners torturing a prone victim to death by slicing and removing their muscles, genitals and limbs over an extended period, a fate reserved for crimes of murder and treason. Bataille was obsessed with the fact that the victim Fou-Tchou-Li, intoxicated on opium, watches intently as his body is dissembled in front of his eyes and rolls his eyes to the heavens in ecstacy, a voyeurism that likewise burns through The Torture Garden.

Were it just a Venus in Furs-style romp (pardon the phrase) through masochistic sexual rituals, it would merely be a diverting piece of fin de siecle arty smut. At its heart and behind all the violence lay Mirbeau’s central assertion that not just the state but bourgeois society (and the colonies that supported it) were founded on savagery. The book is also one of the very first to break through the deadening misogynist atmosphere of the Victorian era and reveal (if it ever needed revelation) female sexuality as a force capable of both divinity and barbarism.

It was this political forcefulness that made it such a potent work beyond the infamy of its various “entertainments.” Again Mirbeau’s foresight was overwhelming, for the violence he foretold would be far eclipsed by what was to come in the first half of the next century. BDSM parlours, the world over, may have been named in tribute to the novel but the finest tribute was the inclusion of a central quote on the equally grim, equally enlightening The Holy Bible, the last testament of his acolyte Richey Edwards and bandmates and the books musical equivalent, “You’re obliged to pretend respect for people and institutions you think absurd. You live attached in a cowardly fashion to moral and social conventions you despise, condemn, and know lack all foundation. It is that permanent contradiction between your ideas and desires and all the dead formalities and vain pretences of your civilization which makes you sad, troubled and unbalanced. In that intolerable conflict you lose all joy of life and all feeling of personality, because at every moment they suppress and restrain and check the free play of your powers. That’s the poisoned and mortal wound of the civilized world.”

The 120 Days of Sodom – Marquis de Sade

“Lust’s passion will be served; it demands, it militates, it tyrannizes.”

If De Sade did not exist it would be necessary to invent him. Viewed, at least since his reappraisal as a hero by the Surrealists, as an intellectual heavyweight, he was the philosopher of tyranny and a fearless explorer of the limits of freedom. He was also, crucially, a depraved libertine. It seems it couldn’t have been any other way for De Sade. The product of a decadent social nobility that was on the cusp of destruction (the pressure that would lead to the revolution was mounting), debauchery was in his blood, his father being a notorious sodomite and whoremonger. He’d spend nearly two decades in the army, where he alternated between periods of ill-disciplined licentiousness and active service in harrowing conflicts such as the Seven Years War. His wild streak would led to a spell in prison for defiling Holy Communion, blaspheming Christ and the Virgin Mary and attempting to sodomise a mistress (an offence that carried the death penalty). From then on, he was kept under surveillance by the police and predictably reoffended, firstly subjecting a chambermaid to a flogging and then poisoning several prostitutes with Spanish Fly aphrodisiac during an orgy. The father of one of his servants understandably attempted to shoot him for her defilement. By then, he’d become a public figure of hatred and no longer could his connected aristocratic relatives keep him from punishment. His excesses had gone too far and he was sentenced to death by beheading, escaping his fate by fleeing the country with his sister-in-law. Eventually he was tracked down and ended up in a cell in the dreaded Bastille, growing obese gorging on vast feasts that were smuggled in and eventually being transferred to a lunatic asylum after inciting a crowd outside to riot. Thus began the central years of his writing and philosophising focusing on his hypersexual and anticlerical beliefs (the still potent belief of god as the root of all evil). Every -philia was elaborated on until the point of near-exhaustion. His Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man is a daring argument for atheism that would place him amongst enlightenment thinkers of the day (though it’s doubtful they’d have approved of his ending in which a priest casts aside his faith and partakes with gusto in an orgy). It’s for The 120 Days of Sodom that he’s chiefly remembered though. A sprawling work, he wrote it in a blizzard of activity on a roll of toilet paper which he hid in his cell. When the Bastille was stormed and destroyed by the citizens of Paris, De Sade was devastated, presuming that his masterwork had gone up in smoke (as his ten volume The Days of Florbelle did). Yet it survived reappearing over a century later, when it was brought to light by Iwan Bloch and seized upon by the artistic Dadaist radicals of the day.

The book centres around the activities of a group of establishment figures (cardinals, magistrates, dukes, bankers) holed up (again pardon the pun) in a remote mountainous Black Forest castle. There they partake in all manner of deviancy, rising in extremity (torture, child abuse, bestiality, cannibalism) with each other’s families (and their own) and various willing, and unwilling, young commoners that have been brought to the chateau as slaves. The book is not an easy one to read. Too much excess, and this is a Yellow Pages-size amount, blunts any attendant thrill. But that’s precisely the point. It becomes something else entirely, not a thing of pleasure but a thing of neurosis, in which pleasure has no real involvement. It’s like the absolutions of a junkie, an endless need that will never be satisfied. Desire that has corrupted into torment.

De Sade’s importance is momentous. In charting the apparent depths of sexuality, he anticipated the psycho-analysts’ investigations into the human id and ego. In examining the point at which absolute freedom necessitates absolute servitude and ultimately destruction, he prophesised the reign of Hitler’s SS and the era of totalitarianism (see Pasolini‘s chilling cinematic version of 120 DaysSalo). Another prime example is the Viennese Akion Group, who began with attempts at absolute freedom and soon deteriorated, in the case of Otto Muehl, into child abuse. In exposing the aristocracy as a corrupt venal entity feeding on the poor, De Sade anticipated the revolution(s) that were to come. In saying those things which should not be said, he foretold the fight for free speech, the sexual revolution and even the age of the Internet (the web’s dark side seems synonymous with the mindset of the Marquis). In scything through the official notions of guilt and justice, he pre-empted moral relativism. De Sade would live to witness the purging of the aristocracy on the guillotine (narrowly escaping execution himself several times), the revolution devour its leaders, the rise of Napoleon and the return of the royalty. He’d fall in and out of favour, in and out of incarceration, banned and celebrated, never showing his true allegiances (if he had any). He can be said to be the father of anything from transgressive fiction to sex tourism, outside of good and evil and yet, like everyone, mired in them.


Darran Anderson is an Irish writer. His hobbies include whiskey, rum, vodka and regret.

Posted in: Essays