Last night I cut my hand in several places on a broken champagne flute, and to recuperate took myself off for a cocktail in Soho. I leant at the bar, sipping a perfect* Manhattan, reading the Marquis de Sade’s Justine as blood dripped from my numerous cuts onto the pages and the stainless steel bartop below me. It was perhaps my first personally-defining moment of 2015.
Sometimes, I think this is the kind of book people imagine I read all the time. My glowing review of Venus In Furs (see here) may be a reason for that, but the very different type of sexed-up novel I bled all over yesterday didn’t grip me** anywhere near as much. Sadism is all just a bit too… nasty for me. Who would want to get off on hurting someone? Surely masochism makes far more sense, right?
Clearly Leopold von Sacher-Masoch agrees with me, although Donatien Alphonse François de Sade really, really does not.
Justine is the story of a wealthy young woman whose parents die and leave her destitute. She then wanders around eighteenth century France for a decade and a half being mentally, physically and very, very sexually abused by all manner of men, and occasionally women. She is raped in every orifice, tortured in all kinds of ways (toes removed, branded, flayed, whipped over and over and over again), forced to work like an animal, denied sleep, denied the ability to pray, falsely imprisoned for crimes committed by others, starved, abused and injured, and throughout these numerous “adventures”, she keeps seeking help and assistance from everyone she meets. Even though all but about two of her acquaintances turn her into a sex slave.
I’ve been told that Simone de Beauvoir defines pornography as anything lacking character development, and she apparently cites Justine as an example. If her definition is accepted, then she is right. Justine, abused and injured and taken advantage of by tens of individuals, never changes, never develops. She is still as pious and hopeful and (mentally, though long since ravaged physically) pure. She is meant to symbolise virtue, and how it is unable to function in the “real world”. Though I don’t think the real world really is this cruel…
For me, none of the sex or torture scenes were erotic but, as mentioned above, it’s not really my bag. It’s repetitive, it’s violent, it’s blasphemous (which is a good thing, right, guys?), and in places it’s quite amusing. Some of the long speeches given to the criminals and libertines, defending their behaviour and trying to charm Justine into one of sexual and financial extravagance, read like propaganda pieces for a sadist existences. Everyone who likes to fuck, steal and torture is articulate, witty and intelligent, everyone who is virtuous is (to simplify) really fucking stupid.
In places entertaining, in others quite horrific, Justine should remain within the canon merely for the fact that it was written in fifteen days in 1787. That’s the best thing about it, really. This was just Sade pouring forth a stream of his own fantasies and dreams whilst in prison for a few weeks. What a guy.
An interesting document, for being (early?) pornography. Not really a great read in terms of plot, though. Glad I read it.
* That’s a technical term, not a compliment. Though it was pretty good.
** I was going to write “or cause me to grip myself”, but as I didn’t actually masturbate over Venus In Furs either – and I value honesty more than I value a good wank joke – I cut it. Though not much more, hence the need for this footnote.