Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Enjoyment of Pure Reasoning: Gilles Deleuze on Marquis De Sade

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

The Enjoyment of Pure Reasoning: Gilles Deleuze on Marquis De Sade

Article excerpt


The French libertine novelist Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade's (1740-1814) famous last request was that acorns should be sewn onto his tomb. He did not want his name or his literary works to be remembered by those who came after him. Soon after his death in 1814, however, it was clear that his wish would not come true: for example, the eponym 'sadism' appeared in the Dictionnaire universel de la langue française in 1834, and eminent writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Gustave Flaubert discussed his novels.1

At the end of the nineteenth century, Sade's name appeared in a totally new context. The German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced 'sadism' as a clinical concept, and several psychiatrists started discussing Sade's life and work. One decade later, the French writer Guillaume Apollinaire published L'oeuvre du marquis de Sade, the first comprehensive study on Sade's life and work. Apollinaire's interest in Sade was followed by, among others, Maurice Heine, who discovered and published several of Sade's texts, and Gilbert Lely, who wrote the first detailed biography of Sade. During these years, the 'Divine Marquis,' as he was called, was also an important figure for the surrealists, who saw him as an intellectual companion in their revolt against bourgeois society.

Despite this multi-faceted interest in Sade, however, the Marquis was not a central figure in the intellectual life of the past century, as Apollinaire had predicted he would be.2 Nevertheless, in the two decades after the Second World War, Marquis de Sade's novels were interpreted comprehensively by most of the leading French philosophers of that time: in 1947, Pierre Klossowski's study, Sade mon prochain,3 and Georges Bataille's "Le secret de Sade"4 were published, and twenty years later-after Simone de Beauvoir,5 Maurice Blanchot,6 and Jacques Lacan7 had released their interpretations of Sade-a reworked version of Klossowski's text8 and a new Sade study by Roland Barthes9 appeared.10

1967 was also the year that Gilles Deleuze published Coldness and Cruelty.11 This book has a special place in the long line of French Sade studies. As the French title, Présentation de Sacher-Masoch. Le froid et le cruel,12 suggests, it is not Sade's oeuvre but rather the work of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1835-1895) that occupies the bulk of Deleuze's study.13 However, Sade is far from absent in the text: Coldness and Cruelty is bookended by detailed interpretations of Sade's novels. Reading Sade in combination with Masoch reveals what is at stake in Coldness and Cruelty. In his long essay Deleuze argues that the unity of sadism and masochism, as expressed in the clinical concept of 'sadomasochism,' is a non-entity.14 Instead, apathy, reason, and the father are central for Sade, whereas coldness, imagination, and the mother characterize Masoch's universe.15

When critics discuss Deleuze's anti-sado-masochistic thesis, no attention is paid to what he claims is one of the central characteristics of sadism: that Sade's libertines16 are, first and foremost, thinkers, and that their sexual enjoyment is derived from the activity of pure thinking.17 This thesis is remarkable, first, because it flies in the face of the widespread psychiatric interpretation of sadism. After all, Sade's characters are commonly thought to torture their victims because they enjoy the other's pain and suffering, not the free unfolding of pure thought. Deleuze's interpretation also runs counter to the other leading interpretations of Sade in French philosophy.18 Klossowski, for example, argues that the libertine's pleasure is not in thinking but in dreaming about torturing young virgins;19 Barthes, for his part, holds that the object of the sadist's enjoyment is the strict obedience to empty formal rules;20 and Bataille21 suggests that the sadist's enjoyment is an effect of transgressing the border between what Bataille calls 'the restricted economy' and 'the general economy. …

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