Justine
Marquis de Sade
1787

“The most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” – Napoleon Bonaparte sure took note of this little book by Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, written during a stint in jail in 1787, edited into various shapes (some more graphic than others) and finally ordered destroyed in 1815 after its author died in the jail/ insane asylum that had been his home for a number a years. The legacy? C’mon. The guy gave us the term sadism. That is some impact.

Justine has its share of what made the Marquis de Sade famous. There’s a whole lot of sex here, the story largely chronicling abuse after abuse during Justine’s life as sex slave. But there’s alot more going on, too. Sure, Sade’s a pornographer; but he’s also a philosopher and social critic.The subjectivity of morality, the interaction of virtue and vice, the relative weights of reason and passion in human behaviour, gender roles, political absolutism and the reach of the state, the class system and the corruption of church and judiciary and more. Sade’s voyeurism, his porn, his exploration of sex and power and desire is more than titillation. It’s about social and political relationships, a damning critique of morality as power, the hypocrisy of the institutions that enforce religious, economic and political order. And freedom.

Published anonymously (though not successfully so) together with a companion volume, Juliette, which told the story of Justine’s sister, the English translation of Juliet was printed in its entirely only in 1953, when Maurice Girondias’ risk-taking Olympia Press released the novel. But even now, most editions remain edited or censored in significant ways. That hasn’t hampered the book’s impact, however. It is, with 120 Days of Sodom, Sade’s most famous work, a glimpse into the dark places of our lives and desires, and still pretty much unmatched for its ability to shake the knees of censors and our own censorious selves.

de Sade himself? Well, he did indeed campaign and propagandize against abuse of authority and for a radical democracy. He was elected to the National Convention of the French Republic, representing the far left. But his writings weren’t just fantasy, and while he had his share of consensual lovers for boundary-pushing play he was also charged, on numerous occasions, with abuse and detention of women. The man, then, is not unlike his work – something about him attracts us, compels us, but equally offends and repels. Simone de Beauvoir is only one of the feminist voices that has seen in Sade a radical impulse, a drive to freedom, a space for women and desire outside and against institutions of male power. But it’s a dangerous freedom, and one that in text and in practice was his, de Sade’s. Less free were those women of low birth who caught his eye.

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