While everyone’s feeling naughty for reading E.L. James’s 50 Shades of Grey these days, I thought I would instead delve into something by the man who gave sadism its name. My fascination with reading Philosophy in the Bedroom actually stems from the fact that I’ve got a soft spot for an old Jess Franco movie called Eugenie, starring the gorgeous Maria Rohm. According to the film’s opening credits, it’s based on the de Sade book here under review. The story is simple: a rich and powerful woman, Madame de Saint Ange, with her brother, Le Chevalier de Mirval, take a naive teenage girl, Eugenie, under their wing and proceed to give her an “education” in the ways of being a libertine, over the course of a weekend. While Franco’s movie does little more than tease the viewer, the original work is quite a different beast.
The book is written in the form of a play, consisting entirely of dialogue – except for occasional stage directions about sexual positions, which came across as unintentionally comedic. I couldn’t imagine this actually taking place with actors, and I doubt it was ever made real in that fashion. However, I couldn’t help but visualise the actors from Franco’s adaptation in their respective roles. I use the word adaptation loosely, because Franco essentially did his own thing. Trust me, if he followed de Sade’s script, he would’ve been jailed.
I’m not easily shocked when it comes to sexual content, but I have to admit that I was surprised at the extremes depicted by the author. I won’t go into detail, but I simply had no idea that many of de Sade’s sexual kinks had even entered the imagination of man three centuries ago. I was under the impression that the excesses depicted in modern pornography were largely a product of modern pornography. Not so, it seems. They were here all along.
Parts of the book are actually very intelligent. There is a lengthy non-erotic portion concerned with libertine politics, which was rather boring for me. But I thoroughly enjoyed de Sade’s rant against Christianity. It was strikingly blasphemous for the time period, displaying a remarkable courage in a heavily Christianised society.
Central to de Sade’s philosophy is an appeal to nature. He views man, rightly, as a part of nature, not as a thing alienated from nature, as religion teaches. Man is not a creature that has to beat his natural instincts into submission in pursuit of some “higher” ideal. The passions of man have every right to be expressed and enjoyed without guilt, because man is an animal. Arguing thus, de Sade is well ahead of his time. It wasn’t until Charles Darwin proposed the theory of natural selection in the mid-1800s that we were able to scientifically defend what de Sade already saw clearly. Sadly, the author is unable to separate his ideas about nature from his own personal sexual neuroses. To him, every thought that excites him, no matter how deranged, is natural. It looks like the old cliche about genius and insanity being very close companions.
The erotic element of the story, frankly, does get tiresome after a while, and I almost gave up reading halfway through. I did like the philosophical side, though. How do I sum up the Marquis de Sade? Deranged genius? Maybe.