Dionysus, Devil, and Debauchery
There are many figures of history that have rebelled against society- the dominant religion, the form and actions of the government, the complacency citizens drink over conversations of vain self-indulgence, three of which I will discuss today and their goals and contributions to subsequent contrarians.
Marquis de Sade, Friedrich Nietzsche, and Aleister Crowley stand as figures of extreme controversy, addicting intrigue, and the occasional act of repulsion. The similarities are striking, the differences even more so, but there must be something about these figures that causes to go back to them, study them, quote them, and strive to find a piece of them lurking in us.
Marquis de Sade, from which we get the term ‘sadism,’ was a self-professed libertine, a glorifier of the staunchest egoism imaginable. His inarguable masterpiece ‘Justine’ flips traditional literature on its head by arguing throughout the story that ‘vice beats virtue.’ His less theoretical work, ‘120 Days of Sodom,’ is more of a checklist in which the most depraved sexual acts known to his imagination are discussed in full detail while he wasted away in prison. Marquis de Sade was anti-clerical, anti-establishment, anti-morality, anti-authority, and on and on and on. De Sade, like the others, was raised in a religious home, had a close relationship with his father whom he had planned to follow in the footsteps of a religious career. De Sade’s father died when de Sade was still quite young to which began his initial rebellion. The instruction received at a strict Catholic school only furthered de Sade’s contrarian views on Catholicism and societal authorities in general.
Friedrich Nietzsche, known as the ‘little pastor’ as a child, came to be known for writing about the ‘Death of God,’ for rejecting the Judeo-Christian morality, and titling a book ‘The Antichrist.’ Nietzsche glorified the ancients, most notably the characters in Homer’s works. The often misunderstood concept of Nietzsche’s ‘Will to Power,’ has been abused and taken out of context to the extent that some may see Nietzsche as a sadistic endorser of the hedonism advocated by a de Sade. Nietzsche’s often vitriolic treatment of religion and the standard morality of Europe at that time (many remnants exist in today’s western societies) stand as a formidable force for the disenchanted people today. Nietzsche’s father, a Protestant pastor, as well died at an early age. De Sade spent most of his life in prison, Nietzsche the majority of life in agonizing pain from health problems-adding more color to the source of his writings. De Sade wrote and read voluminously as did Nietzsche.
Aleister Crowley, supposedly the most evil man to ever live, founded a cult-like society in Italy (the group was later expelled at the hands of Mussolini) in which the most ‘libertine’ acts were encouraged with such zeal that de Sade himself would have been proud. Drugs were often available and even the animals got involved in some of the fun. Crowley, unlike de Sade and Nietzsche, grew quite attached to demonic forces and black magic, traveling to Egypt to perform a ritual to bring about dark forces which made Crowley a conduit between the earth and hell. All three figures faced societal isolation, an unconventional outlook on life and its significance.
Now, who wins? I would have to argue that Nietzsche takes the cake. De Sade’s writings carry with them a bit of ambivalence which he would have gladly appreciated (along with the reactions of horror). The ambivalence, at least as it exists today, consists in whether he was being ‘smutty’ for smut’s sake, or if he was really driving home the point that by simply shifting the perspective from institutionalized acts of perversion to consensual sexual acts of perversion, the reaction completely changes by a seeming lack of justification on the latter’s exercise. De Sade’s writings carry with them plenty of philosophical justifications, plenty of rational arguments, even anticipating possible refutations, but at no point does de Sade ever let up illustrating the point of absolute egoistic sexuality. Crowley has spawned many enthusiastic supporters, but in what way? How many of his supporters would be willing to have sex with an animal? Is it the demonic obsession of Crowley that creates such supporters, or is it the underlying rebelling against society that attracts so many people? That ‘oh my god, this can’t be real’ fascination innate in all of us to a larger or lesser extent creates a curiosity that turns into a short-sighted admiration for such figures.
Nietzsche’s writings, as controversial as they may be, do not create the sexual dystopia present in de Sade or result in the collapse of a ‘new society’ with a ‘new man’ as in Crowley. Nietzsche gives advice but leaves much open to the reader. Now, Nietzsche did read his de Sade of course and would probably agree with many of his philosophical arguments pertaining to individual creation and empowerment, but de Sade seems to focus on sexuality to such an extent that there isn’t much room for that backdrop of ‘self-creation.’ Whereas de Sade seems to be hinting that one should just do what one wants, and it is society that hinders such ‘productive’ activities, Nietzsche rejects the same society and for the same reason but urges us to redefine who we are in a more all encompassing way- to be passionate but not be bat-shit crazy about it. To reach our full potential, Nietzsche argues, is to be master of ourselves, to not succumb to every single whimsical fantasy that creeps in us. Both Nietzsche and de Sade fight against societal constraints, but only Nietzsche would advocate a form of self-restraint in order to fully empower oneself.