I read the Marquis de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom for the first time when I was in my twenties. At that time, I was obsessed with philosophy and psychology. This, of course, has always been a banned book, and I also love to read banned books. In my opinion, this is the most complete and insightful collection of de Sade’s revolutionary philosophies and ideas in print: the most important in my humble opinion being the “complete denial of right to property” specifically the idea that women were property. In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter calls de Sade a “moral pornographer.” I would agree with her assessment. Over the years, de Sade became one of my favorite writers and one often discussed in writing groups. His essay on writing a novel is just brilliant. Now those who have read de Sade extensively know that de Sade never really wrote about sex. He wrote about power, morality, and freedom, and like much of his other more belligerent works, this story is also a socio-political satire – a scathing, hateful, finger-pointy soapbox socio-political satire in which sexualized violence is used to affect the reader.
Set in a bedroom, Madame de Saint-Ange, a twenty-six year old woman who is the owner of the house is charged with the “education” of the young and innocent Eugénie. Yes, the French loved stories about their own perverse aristocracy, so if the setup reminds you of Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos, it’s probably not a coincidence since Dangerous Liaisons was written a good decade before de Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom and they share similar themes of revenge, seduction, and cruelty. Madame De Saint-Ange has an interesting arrangement with her husband in that she satisfies his cravings for a certain sexual fetish and he, in turn, allows her the libertine freedoms she desires. At the bequest of Eugénie’s Father, Madame enlists the aid of her brother, Le Chevalier de Mirval, and her brother’s friend Dolmancé, to assist her in Eugénie’s release from bondage, or, as Madame states, “Woman’s destiny is to be wanton, […]; she must belong to all those who claim her. Clearly, it is to outrage the fate of Nature imposes upon women to fetter them by the absurd ties of a solitary marriage. […] let them boldly fling off and spurn the shameful irons wherewith others presume to keep them subjugated.”
That, dear readers, is what this story, albeit cleverly veiled with perversion, is about: the idea that power subjugates and controls people, be that the power of Religion, Morality, Governments, and the Law, etcetera. De Sade urges young women specifically to break their bonds by “destroying and spurning all those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.” Eugénie’s Father despises his pious and virtuously domineering wife, and Dolmancé lives by the belief that kindness, faith, virtue, and restraint are illogical and irrational, and de Sade makes these philosophical arguments throughout the work in the form of lengthy tirades, touting the virtues of atheism, natural order, sexual freedom, and crime committed in the quest for pleasure. De Sade is anti-authority and clearly anti-dogma; though his own personal dogma and the idea of sexual dominance permeate this work and therein we find the irony. In one act, Madame states, “The imagination serves us not save when our mind is absolutely free of prejudices.” Yup. The irony.
Irony aside, the real brilliance of the story is in the way it is constructed. It is written in Dramatic Dialogue in a Seven Act format, in which de Sade employs the graphic sex scenes as “intermissions” set between the philosophical rants. And like all de Sade’s socio-political satires, he uses every taboo sexual device he can think of to make the reader squirm in their seat: incest, homosexuality, rape, torture, sodomy, all mirroring what he felt was the “Royal Tyranny” and “Religious Superstition” in France at the time. These sex scenes are also where we get a real taste of de Sade’s sense of humor. As horrific as some of the sex scenes are, they are undoubtedly hilarious . . . and,
While all the philosophical ranting is intellectually stimulating, and all the sexual intermissions are hell-fire-crazy-as-all-get-out, the story has to end, and in typical de Sadien fashion, the real point has to be made. Eugénie’s mother, Madame de Mistival, finds out that “monsters” have kidnapped her daughter right under her nose, and so she attempts to rescue her, not knowing until later that her husband had orchestrated the deflowering of her precious daughter and that he had warned his mistress, The Madame, and her friends of the rescue attempt in advance. Nobody gets murdered in this one, but Eugénie’s mother is subsequently beaten and raped by the syphilitic gardener for everyone’s amusement, and this is where de Sade drives his point home: Eugénie sews up her mother’s vagina and anus, making sure the “poison” stays within her so that it cannot infect anyone else. It’s not subtle, but we don’t read de Sade for his subtleties.
So if you are interested in radical philosophical ideas; and,
You are interested in de Sade as a master satirist and dark humorist, then you will love this story.
If you are only reading it for the shocking sex bits, it won’t disappoint, but really, this isn’t why we read de Sade, now is it?
For those who are not interested in anything this overt, then I recommend the more sentimental and idealistic de Sade as demonstrated in his gothic and darkly romantic short fiction. A good collection to start with is Crimes of Love by Oxford World’s Classics.
For those who would like more insight into the man, the myth, and the legend, then I recommend Letters from Prison.
For those who would like a feminist’s take on de Sade with a little Freudian musing thrown in, then I highly recommend The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography by Angela Carter, in which she clearly illustrates where she felt de Sade erred in what I call the “Anarchy confused as Hope” scenario.
Lastly, if you like revenge, seduction, and cruelty themes mixed with a dash of French perversion, then I recommend The Dangerous Liaisons by Pierre Choderlos de Laclos. It’s equally brilliant but not as filthy. It’s the same sort of dramatic dialogue, except that it’s written in epistolary format.