Sadism and The Man Who Lived Up to Its Name

Growing up I always considered myself a free spirit aka a person unrestrained by convention and fairly open minded to experiences. If something did not fit or I wasn’t interested in testing the waters, my go-to curb was “it’s just not for me.” That was put to the test when I purchased Philosophy in the Boudoir by the Marquis de Sade.

I surrendered after chapter two. The tiny tome was an even 132 pages but it was a mighty testament to the libertine debauchery of the odd man behind the eponymous term sadism. According to Merriam-Webster, sadism is defined as the derivation of sexual gratification from the infliction of physical pain or humiliation on another person. I wish I could follow that up with: “so you can imagine, it wasn’t an easy read” but no amount of imagination can prepare you for the Marquis de Sade’s sexual proclivities. Not even 50 Shades of Grey or surprise DM indiscretions.

Papa Was a Rolling Mudslide

To his many admirers, Sade is credited for being the martyr of free thought. His novels were among the first to explore the dark and “forbidden” impulses of human nature. He completely embraced homosexuality and presented it as a sexual preference that was just as “normal” as heterosexuality. And he was committed to removing all “civilized restraints” on behavior imposed by religion and state, a precursor to contemporary authors’ quest for individual freedom.

“Sade’s influence has been enormous in every sphere of Modernist art,” said Laurence des Cars, one of the curators of the exhibition “Sade – Attaquer le soleil” at the Musée d’Orsay. “His aim was to destroy every illusion surrounding human sexuality, be it historical, moral or religious, which inspired artists to look at the body in a new way.”

You can certainly feel that energy when you read the Philosophy in the Boudoir’s dédicace :

Voluptuaries of every age and every sex, it’s to you alone that I offer this work: nourish yourselves upon its principles, they favor your passions, and those very passions, of which flat and frigid moralists would have you fear, are the only means that nature employs in order to lead Humankind in the purposes that it has for them; listen only to those delicious passions; their voice is the only one that can lead you to happiness.

Sade’s insistence that morals are meaningless and life’s only purpose is “to enjoy oneself at no matter whose expense” put him 150 years ahead of existentialism; his obsession with sexuality as a driving force behind our actions makes him a precursor to Freud; his denial of the right to property, and his insistence that the French Revolution was not a struggle between elites, but those elites united against the working class, makes him a precursor to Marx.


Too Ahead of His Time but Still Too Old for This Time

For many other intellectuals, branding Sade as a humanist and a liberator is dangerous: “Even according to his most hero-worshipping biographers, this man was a sexual delinquent,” said Michel Onfray author of the book La Passion de la Méchanceté or the “passion for wickedness”.

In fact, many of Sade’s nefarious exploits included the kidnapping and sexual torture of pre-adolescent serving girls. Other recorded acts displayed his penchant for using his authority and wealth to entrap his victims and endanger their well being. If Sade was alive today he’d get a fury of #MeToo mentions in his notifications, a precursor to Harvey Weinstein. It’s no wonder the 18th century philosopher had been left in the shadows of the Enlightenment for centuries.

But the modern world is taking baby steps to understanding Sade’s hedonistic philosophies and allow the taboos of sex to enter mainstream conversations (cc: Fifty Shades of Grey). Although sadism continues to be a puzzling and mysterious paradox, as long as consent is the keeper, people are free to indulge in whatever behavior they choose.

Still, it’s just not for me.

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