Thursday, September 02, 2010

The Marquis de Sade, decadence, Quills

I remember seeing the film adaptation of the movie 'Quills', about de Sade, and being impressed with one particular scene where the woman who has befriended him clutches a copy of 'Justine' to her heart with both hands, just published, closer her eyes, and smiles. As someone who has actually read 'Justine', and in particular the version called "The New Justine"--which was the one that the character was holding--I can't help but wonder what part of it made her sigh. Was it one of the times when Justine is repeatedly and violently raped by men who have presented themselves as benefactors? Possibly the scene where the monks isolated in an abbey for wealthy but degenerate clergy men torture a pregnant woman? Justine is an interesting book, but the idea of both it and of Sade's writing in general has no relation to the reality of it. Philip Kaufman, the director, seems to think that what Sade was writing about was sex with a little bit of spanking, a little bit of bondage, involved. Sort of a kind of naughty sexuality. In point of fact, of all of the sex scenes in Justine I would wager that either none or possibly only one or two are actually consensual. Justine isn't just played with naughtily, she's beaten and raped over and over again, with the brutality not covered up by some sort of late 18th century date rape euphemism. No, things happen like she trusts a guy to help her out, she turns her back, he punches her in the head, takes her down, and brutally rapes her. And that's just one of the first ones. As said, the monks, in what is probably the darkest section of the book, literally have a contest about who can torture women most creatively.

Part of the point, or actually, most of the point, is to contrast Justine's view of human beings as basically good and benevolent with Sade's perception of real life as being mercilessly violent and cruel. The characters often deliver philosophical monologues about the nature of the real world after they've finished raping Justine. But even so it's hard to see Sade making the book even more brutal against women unless he just turned it into something based on mass murder. Either way, it's not exactly naughty-naughty sexuality that's being dealt with and certainly not, "Oh, he's such a good writer, he warms my heart" swooning such as the female character in Quills does over "The New Justine". But then, the movie was made by an American, so I suppose these things are to be expected, especially with Hollywood's titillation fixation, which until recently just hinted at the naughty and forbidden in order to keep people's attention.

In any case, despite the subject matter, The New Justine is a good read, if you can withstand it. Especially for the philosophical dialogues, which are very interesting if ultimately very depressing.

As for censorship, personally, my feeling is that it doesn't have a place in modern society. Not to say something that makes light of real suffering in the world, but if a person wants to write a fascist novel about raping little children while praising Hitler they should be allowed to it, have it printed, and have it sold.

But that's just me.

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