Orgies of the Atheistic Materialism: Barthes Contra Sade. Drunken Risibility.

The language and style of Justine are inextricably tied to sexual pleasure. Sade makes it impossible for the reader to ignore this aspect of the text. Roland Barthes, whose essays in Sade, Fourier, Loyola describe the innovative language of each author, underscores the importance of pleasure when discussing the Sadian voyage:

If the Sadian novel is excluded from our literature, it is because in it novelistic peregrination is never a quest for the Unique (temporal essence, truth, happiness), but a repetition of pleasure; Sadian errancy is unseemly, not because it is vicious and criminal, but because it is dull and somehow insignificant, withdrawn from transcendency, void of term: it does not re­veal, does not transform, does not develop, does not edu­cate, does not sublimate, does not accomplish, recuperates nothing, save for the present itself, cut up, glittering, repeated; no patience, no experience; everything is carried immediately to the acme of knowledge, of power, of ejacula­tion; time does not arrange or derange it, it repeats, recalls, recommences, there is no scansion other than that which al­ternates the formation and the expenditure of sperm.

Barthes’s observation reflects La Mettrie’s influence on Sade, whose libertine characters parrot in both speech and action the philosopher’s view that the pursuit of pleasure is man’s raison d’être. Sexuality permeates a great many linguistic and stylistic features of Justine, for example, names of characters (onomastics), literal and figurative language, grammatical structures, cultural and class references, dramatic effects, repetition and exaggeration, and use of parody and caricature. Justine is traditionally the name of a female domestic (soubrette), connoting a person of the lower classes, who falls prey to promiscuous behavior. Near the beginning of Justine, Sade renames the heroine the moment she accepts employment at the home of the miserly Monsieur Du Harpin, surname evocative of Molière’s Harpagon. Sophie, the wise example of womanly Christian virtue in the first version, becomes Thérèse, the anti- philosophe in the second, who chooses to ignore the brutally realistic counsel of her libertine persecutors. Sade’s Thérèse recalls the heroine of Thérèse philosophe who, unlike his protagonist, profited from an erotic lifestyle.

Sade may manipulate language to enhance erotic description but he also relies upon his observation of everyday life and class division of the ancien régime to provide him with models for his libertine characters, their mores, and their lifestyles. In Justine, he presents a socio-cultural microcosm of France during the reign of Louis XV. The power brokers of Sade’s youth who, for the most part, enriched themselves in his Majesty’s wars by means of corruption and influence, resurface in print as Justine’s exploiters. The noblemen, the financiers, the legal and medical professionals, the clergymen, and the thieves-robber barons representative of each social class-sexually maneuver their subjects to establish control. While we learn what the classes of mid-eighteenth-century France ate, how they dressed, where they lived, we also witness the ongoing struggle between victim and victimizer, the former personified by Justine, an ordinary bourgeois individual who can never vanquish the tyrant who maintains authority through sexual prowess rather than through wealth.

Barthes tells us that Sade’s passion was not erotic but theatrical. The marquis’s infatuation with the theater was inspired early on by the lavish productions staged by the Jesuits during his three and a half years at the Collège Louis-le-Grand. Later, his romantic dalliances with actresses and his own involvements in acting, writing, and production attest to his enormous attraction to the theater. In his libertine works, Sade incorporates theatricality, especially in his orgiastic scenes; in his own way, he creates the necessary horror and suspense to first seduce the reader and then to maintain his/her attention. Like a spectator in the audience, the reader observes well-rehearsed productions whose decor, script, and players have been predetermined, and where they are shown her various props in the form of “sadistic” paraphernalia.

Sade makes certain that the lesson given by her libertine victimizers following her forced participation in their orgies is not forgotten. Once again, Sade relies on man’s innate need for sexual pleasure to intellectualize the universe in a manner similar to his own. By using sexual desire as a ploy, Sade inculcates the atheistic materialism he so strongly proclaims into both an attentive Justine and reader. Justine cooperates with her depraved persecutors but refuses to adopt their way of thinking and thus continues to suffer at the hands of society’s exploiters. Sade, however, seizes the opportunity to convince his invisible readership that his concept of the universe is the right one. No matter how monotonous it may seem, repetition, whether in the form of licentious behavior or pseudo-philosophical diatribe, serves as a time-tested, powerful didactic tool.

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