Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Laugh? I Nearly Died!": Humor in Sade's Fiction

Academic journal article Eighteenth Century: Theory and Interpretation

"Laugh? I Nearly Died!": Humor in Sade's Fiction

Article excerpt

Ann Rice's neo-Gothic novel Interview with a Vampire is distinguished from the more mediocre examples of the horror genre by, among other things, the depth of its exploration of character. A supernatural horror story, this text explores the difficulty of abandoning human values and ethics. Louis, vampire malgre lui, is constantly gnawed by feelings of guilt, pity, and remorse, unlike his monstrous amoral mentor, Lestat. In spite of these feelings, however, he gradually comes to accept his destiny as a killer of humans and animals alike, to reconcile himself to the living nightmare of the undead. Sade's impossibly ingenuous Justine has a great deal in common with the ethical side of Louis, while Juliette, her unscrupulous sister, follows a somewhat steeper learning curve, her remorse much shorter lived than that of her virtuous sibling. But the results are more or less the same: the acceptance of the suffering and death of others for one's own sake. And so, beautiful young women are drained of blood, heads se vered, bodies cleft asunder. In "vampire" films, men and women are mutilated and killed by predators who need to kill to survive. We understand and tolerate a motive, which, whilst it repulses and terrifies us, nevertheless springs from a kind of rationale. Those who, in Sade's fiction, mutilate and kill for sexual gratification, receive no such understanding and tolerance, because, unless sex is directly linked to procreation, we are conditioned to see it as selfish and gratuitous. Thus, the sexual criminal is far worse than the vampire or even the deranged serial killer, whose humanity has been diseased by psychosis. The sex maniac kills for sexual pleasure alone and so is intolerable according to a moral code which is firmly rooted in a puritanical hatred of any form of hedonism. It is, in Sade's writing, the sexual motive which we find especially unbearable, rather than the crime of murder itself, abhorrent though this may be. (1) Not surprisingly, it is his vain call to Robespierre for the creation of "m aisons de plaisir du peuple" which has been found by many to be his most subversive proposal. If once we can overcome our distaste for self-gratification per se, if, withBataille, we can see the thirst for pleasure as an end in itself, then it becomes possible to read Sade in the same way that we read an Anne Rice or Stephen King novel or watch a David Cronenberg movie-with a mixture of shock and excitement bordering on Schadenfreude, but without the guilt associated with the sexual prejudices of a largely Christian tradition. As with the violent contents of the horror genre, there are even strategies for the containment of the reader's repulsion, and it is the main purpose of this essay to describe one of them: laughter. Reading Sade as an essentially comic writer (2) prevents us from reading him simultaneously either as a writer of horror or as a sadistic pornographer.

Humor always de-eroticizes any text in which it is predominantly found. Italo Calvino identifies the main purpose of human laughter as a defence against the anxiety generated by an awareness of the sexual:

le rire est bien une defense contre l'inquietude humaine face a la revelation du sexe.... Le rire qui accompagne une mention du sexe peut etre entendu non seulement comme une anticipation impatiente du plaisir espere, mais aussi comme une reconnaissance de la limite qu'on est sur le point de franchir: de l'entree dans un espace different, paradoxal, "sacre". Ou encore, plus simplement, comme une modestie de la parole face a ce qui la depasse par trop.

[laughter is certainly a defence against the human anxiety experienced when one discovers sex... The laughter which greets any mention of sex can be understood, not only as impatient anticipation of the pleasure to come, but also as a recognition of the limit that is about to be crossed: of the entry into a different, paradoxical, "sacred" space. Or, more simply put as signifying the modest response of language to that which far exceeds it. …

Search by... Author
Show... All Results Primary Sources Peer-reviewed

Oops!

An unknown error has occurred. Please click the button below to reload the page. If the problem persists, please try again in a little while.