livres philosophiques: A Critique of ‘Justine’ pt. 1
‘Justine is the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.’—Napoleon Bonaparte.
After trudging through this 300+pg manifesto which was filled with a continual onslaught attempting to create repulsion, I found myself wondering how serious I should take libertinage and it’s championed spokesman; Marquis de Sade. I found Justine to be the masochistic Don Quixote in that, regardless of what arguments were presented to Justine (they are numerous and in depth), regardless of the continual suffering Justine experienced from those displaying the most benevolent of intentions- she just kept charging the same damn windmill over and over again.
Justine, who is suppose to represent Virtue (her sister Juliette, representing Vice, takes another book over 1000pgs) is left stranded alone, just above penniless, and is only armed with the principles of Judeo-Christian morality- altruism, sacrifice, an optimism towards the heaven regardless of the hell on earth. It takes little time in the novel for Justine to encounter her first libertine and experience the results of placing Vice as the sole motivation in man. In fact, there are at least 11 separate libertine attacks on the poor and gullible Justine in the 300 pages and within each of these attacks is the same well-crafted defense of the life of a libertine.
As can be found in the philosophy of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, de Sade has his libertine characters present the case of the ‘noble savage’ and pinpoint the problems of man within the construction of society itself. One need not wait too long for the repulsion of societal institutions, for the most illustrated and specific tortures are credited to some ascetic monks who happen to have an underground dungeon where ‘lost’ slaves follow a strict regiment in pleasing all of the monks. The libertines in this treatise on Vice disregard God as a fable, a horrible joke used to inhibit man’s natural inclinations. Nature- as can be seen through such travesties as the recent earthquake/tsunami in Japan- contains within its paradigms creation and destruction so by throwing the idea of God out- one’s inclinations and motivations must rest in Nature. This last point is one of de Sade’s most powerful- why would Nature instill in us an inclination that she would not want carried out? For if nature creates and destructs for no obvious reason- then why are we to absolve from this obvious inclination? It is the hypocrisy of the social institutions that feel free to practice collective egoism while attempting to create an obedient neurotic masses that creates in libertines, and de Sade, an anarchic view of institutions, meanwhile practicing the most totalitarian and egoistical acts imaginable- for if they are imagined, they came from somewhere, if all is under the paradigm of Nature- then why fight natural impulses?
‘Would she [nature, my addition] inspire in us what would cause her downfall? As, be at ease dear girl, we experience nothing that does not serve her; all the impulses she puts in us are the agents of her decrees; man’s passions are but the means she employs to attain her ends.’ (Justine, pg. 520; edition can be found in ‘Reading 2011 blog’)
Arguments such as these are found throughout the book, in fact, almost every libertine that Justine comes across paints some sort of similar construction as to the illusory notion of secular or metaphysically based morality- for in Nature- there is no morality. In Nature there is only egoism and the willing, illusory notion of sacrifice.
Now, whether fortunately or unfortunately, this is but one review of hopefully many on ‘Justine,’ for there are many concepts to address; freedom, society, nature, god, social institutions, egoism, and many others that should be enlarged to address current theories and outlooks. But for now, it is nature that I have addressed. For de Sade is a naturalist to the extreme and wants to exploit the full inclinations in man and show what they embody.
Ah, and to not leave you hanging, the choice of the title; which should serve as a good closing to de Sade, but also to other ‘radical’ writers ranging from Voltaire to Nietzsche:
‘As Darnton has shown, philosophy and pornography performed subversive functions. The fact that exigencies of law grouped them together served to radicalize each one. To judge from the bedroom conversation portrayed there, the theories of d’Holbach or Diderot worked as eighteenth century aphrodisiacs, as did any sort of attack on the Catholic Church. All these signaled challenge to order and rejection of restraint which are generally erotic. One can imagine cynical reasons to blend philosophy and porn: a dull philosopher might hope to market his long-winded materialism, a sharp pornographer to evade the censor by burying his smut in speeches few have patience to read to the end. But these are twentieth-century surmises, full of built-in dissociation. Darnton shows, rather, that ‘muckraking journalism, social commentary, political polemics, bawdy anti-clericalism, utopian fantasies, theoretical speculations, and raw pornography- all cohabited promiscuously, under the same label, livres philosophiques.’’ (Susan Neiman ‘Evil in Modern Thought: An Alternative History of Philosophy, pg. 176); (The quote being referenced in aforementioned text is Robert Darnton’s ‘The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Revolutionary France.’)