Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Poststructuralist Interpretation of Art: Blanchot's Reading of Sade

Academic journal article Philosophy Today

A Poststructuralist Interpretation of Art: Blanchot's Reading of Sade

Article excerpt


In 1806, eight years before his death, the famous aristocratic libertine Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade stipulated in his will that acorns should be sown on his grave. The motivation for this request was the desire to disappear from the minds of the people-he did not wish to be remembered. In the course of the past two centuries, it has become abundantly clear that Sade's wish did not come true, with one being able to clearly distinguish at least four contexts in which his name has gained popular posthumous circulation.

First, in the course of the nineteenth century, Sade's works were read by writers such as Charles Baudelaire and Honoré de Balzac, authors whose interests-including death, decay, pleasure, and the ugly-were central themes in Sade's oeuvre. At the end of the same century, the name "Sade" also first appeared in a clinical context: in the fifth edition of his famous study Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced the term "sadism" to denote sexually enjoying another's pain. The third context is the extensive reading of Sade undertaken by the surrealists, for whom Sade's universe was an expression of freedom. Finally, following the Second World War Sade came to be widely read by a number of important French philosophers: Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Simone de Beauvoir, Gilles Deleuze, Pierre Klossowski, Jacques Lacan, etc.1

Among this latter group we can locate Maurice Blanchot, whose interpretation of Sade can be read for the first time in "Quelques remarques sur Sade" a text published in 1946 in the literary and philosophical journal Critique.2 Blanchot's second article on Sade, namely "A la rencontre de Sade" was published a year later in Les Temps Modernes, and builds on his first study.3 This second text, now entitled "La raison de Sade" was later reissued three times: twice in a study of nineteenthcentury French writer Comte de Lautréamont, and lastly in a text about the French writer and contemporary of Sade, Restif de la Bretonne.4 Blanchot's third study appeared four times with two different titles: in 1965 "L'inconvenance majeure" was published both as a preface for Français, encore un effort si vous voulez étre républicains, and in Nouvelle Revue Française;5 "L'insurrection, la folie d'écrire" was published in 1969 in Blanchot's L'entretien infini, and in 1986, the text was published together with his second study.6

Scholars such as Leslie Hill, Tanya Loughead, and Eric Marty have focused on Blanchot's Sade reading extensively.7 It is remarkable, however, that in secondary literature little or no attention has thus far been paid to a striking thesis put forward in "La littérature et le droit a la mort" one of Blanchot's best-known works. This thesis holds that Sade is the writer par excellence, and that, in other words, he meets Blanchot's ideal of what a writer should be.8 This initially strikes us as surprising: first, because in the course of the preceding two centuries Sade's work had come to be rejected by many people, not only because of moral considerations, but also because it was deemed somewhat outdated. The second reason this should strike us as unusual is that Blanchot himself repeatedly notes that Sade is annoying to read. This qualification seems to contradict Blanchot's image of Sade as the ideal writer.

The purpose of the present essay is to figure out why the libertine aristocrat the Marquis de Sade, according to Blanchot, is the writer par excellence. In order to achieve that goal, a necessary detour will be made. We will zoom in on a second remarkable thesis from Blanchot's Sade studies: namely, that we should think about Sade's literary texts in explicitly revolutionary terms. In particular, he argues that Sade's work is similar to the radical offshoot of the French Revolution, namely: Robespierre's Reign of Terror.9 This itself is a remarkable assertion: Sade was himself the heir of an aristocratic family, and the Sadean universe is populated by popes and counts, figures emblematic of that to which the Terror was ostensibly opposed. …

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