time ago, I excerpted from the Marquis de Sade’s Justine for a
Nerve article on banned books.
Soon thereafter, a reader wrote in to express her concern that Sade “glorifies sexual abuse and rape.” I wrote
back indicating that I agreed and did not take such issues lightly. Why then would I include a passage of
literature that glorified these things?
Here I have to admit that I tend to put aesthetic over ethical criteria in the assessment of fiction. If
the writing is brilliant I am likely to forgive (if not be intrigued by) portrayals of even the most extreme
evil. Cormac McCarthy’s novel Blood Meridian, for example, contains unspeakable violence yet
is among the greatest novels of the last twenty years. But I would also argue that it is art’s responsibility to
acknowledge and explore humanity at its best and its worst. Perhaps the foremost of ethical imperatives is
honesty, for only the honest and unblinking eye can expose us to the totality of experience and allow us to
make the most informed ethical judgements.
My point in excerpting Sade both in the banned book article and here is to say,* * *
Hey, look what literature can do. Books are banned because they affect people and, to that extent, they show
the power that great writing has. Sade, monster that he was, showed more than almost anyone else precisely
how disturbing and intense literature can be. That, in my mind, makes his books both great and defensible.
From Justine by the Marquis de Sade
translated by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse
Thérèse, you realize that there is no power which could possibly deliver you
out of our hands, and there is neither . . . any sort of means which might . . . prevent you
from becoming, in every sense and in every manner, the prey of the libidinous excesses to
which we, all four of us, are going to abandon ourselves with you . . .
I fall at Dom Sévérino’s feet . . . Great God, what’s the use? Could
I have not known that tears merely enhance the object of libertine’s coveting? Everything I
attempted in my efforts to sway those savages had the unique effect of arousing them . . .
A circle is formed immediately. I am placed in its center and there, for more than
two hours, I am inspected, considered, handled by those four monks who pronounce either
encomiums or criticisms.
“Let’s to it,” says Sévérino, whose prodigiously exalted desires will
brook no further restraint and who in this dreadful state gives the impression of a tiger
about to devour its prey. “Let each of us advance to take his favorite pleasure.” Placing
me on a couch in the posture expected by his execrable projects and causing me to be held
by two of his monks, the infamous man attempts to satisfy himself in that criminal and
perverse fashion which makes us to resemble the sex we do not possess while degrading
the one we have. But either the shameless creature is too strongly proportioned, or Nature
revolts in me at the mere suspicion of these pleasures. Sévérino cannot
overcome the obstacles. He presents himself, and is repulsed immediately. He spreads, he
presses, thrusts, tears; all his efforts are in vain. In his fury the monster lashes out at the
altar at which he cannot speak his prayers. He strikes it, he pinches it, he bites it. These
brutalities are succeeded by renewed challenges. The chastened flesh yields, the gate cedes,
the ram bursts through, terrible screams rise from my throat. The entire mass is swiftly
engulfed and darts its venom the next moment. Sévérino weeps with rage.
© Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse