Monday, January 07, 2008

"Justine, or Good Conduct well chastized", the big post

As promised, a bigger post on De Sade's novel "Justine". Justine is a novel where the heroine gets into terrible situations time and time again.

Although the subtitle is "Good conduct well chastized" it's really not good conduct that gets Justine into the situations that she finds herself in. Virtue, which is sometimes what "Good Conduct" is translated as in the title, isn't her problem either. Her problem is constantly trusting people that she thinks should be good people because of their social position or the way they present themselves to her.

What happens over and over is that Justine, who starts out in the novel being orphaned by the death of her father, asks Priests, asks high government officials, asks succesful businessmen, for help. She just wants to lead a quiet life. But every time she puts her confidence in one of these people, who her virtue has lead her to belief will be kind, trustworthy, virtuous, helpful, they reveal that they're really out to pursue their own interests under the cover of the sorts of respectability that their positions give them, and that these pursuits often involve crime and enjoying cruelty committed against others.

Her virtue itself leads people to take advantage of her, but it's not the fact that she's virtuous that's the problem, because the alternative that her captors and tormentors present to her in their monologues justifying their actions is slavery and degradation. It's virtue combined with a naivete about how other people are and about how virtue will be received in the world. Justine believes that if she just acts good that everything will turn out all right because good people always win. What she doesn't reckon on is that her goodness isn't the only thing that she needs; she needs to know how to negotiate a world where people aren't all good and where the virtuous are often mistreated if they don't arm themselves against people who are less lofty in their motivations.

Justine, for example, trusts that if she just repeats her story, the story of all the bad things that have happened to her up to that point, to people she meets that they'll take pity on her and help her. What ends up happening time and time again is that the listeners get ideas in their heads about things that they can do to her and afdter she's done deceive her into going with them in order for them to do what they want with her. The fault isn't that Justine expects people to be sympathetic, or that she hasn't gone through horrible experiences, the fault is with the idea that there's this sort of automatic justice that rules the world.

I think this is at the heart of Sade's point: the world is not automatically just. If we want justice we'll have to establish it ourselves.

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