Philosophy in the Bedroom by the Marquis de Sade

desade-philosophybedroomWhile 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 were 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.

Beyond Good and Evil by Friedrich Nietzsche

This work by the philosopher Neitzsche doesn’t quite live up to the promise, implied in its title, of providing a deep and coherent understanding of ethics that transcends the normal cateogories of good and evil. For its time, it was likely a revolutionary overturning of traditional Judeo-Christian values, but a lot of the content is rambling in nature, veering off into all sorts of peripheral avenues, including a large section on Neitzsche’s view of women – which is particularly hard to accept in today’s world. Nevertheless, the book had its moments of brilliance, and provided some very quotable quotes (some of which are darkly humourous):

Insanity in individuals is something rare – but in groups, parties, nations, and epochs it is the rule.

Not their love of humanity, but the impotence of their love, prevents the Christians of today – burning us.

Christianity gave Eros poison to drink; he did not die of it, certainly, but degenerated to Vice.

Neitzche views morality as man-made, consisting of master morality and slave morality – those who lead, making use of what he terms the Will to Power, and those who wish only to be led.

“Exploitation” does not belong to a depraved, or imperfect and primitive society. It belongs to the nature of the living being as a primary organic function, it is a consequence of the intrinsic Will to Power, which is precisely the Will to Life.

On whatever points we may disagree with Nietzche, he was clearly a very self-realised person, willing to look at human nature without masking it in self-delusion or wishful thinking. Not the best book I have read on ethics, but valuable nonetheless.

A History of Western Philosophy by Bertrand Russell

I’ve lived a signifiant portion of my life as both a monotheist (there is one God) and an atheist (there is no God). Nowadays, after a great deal of thought, I’m something akin to a pantheist (God is indistinguishable from the universe). In the past, I have been both a materialist (matter is what’s real) and an idealist (mind is what’s real); now I’m a neutral monist (mind and matter are both expressions of an unknown third essence). Those words may carry no relevance to the lives of some readers, but it’s where we stand on these foundational beliefs that affects a great deal of our behaviour, and hence our happiness. Philosophy, defined as the love of wisdom, is where we get our ideas about God, the universe, and the self. For most people, where they stand on those ideas comes down to unquestioned assumptions that are inherited through cultural norms. The real thinker wishes to uncover as many of these assumptions as possible, and determine for himself what to believe. That is the value in reading something like Bertrand Russell’s titanic work on western philosophy.

The volume contains around 800 pages, divided into three parts: (1) the ancient Greek philosophers, (2) philosophy under the triumph of Christianity, and (3) philosophy from the Renaissance to the present (mid-twentieth century). I confess that after about two hundred pages I was feeling quite fatigued, and I had to wonder just how much I was taking in. If you asked me right now to tell you one significant assertion by Empedocles or Protagoras, I would be lost. It’s impossible for the brain to hold this amount of information. But the real value in reading, I realised, was the ability to compare my own personal philsophy with the assertions of past philosophers. I found my own belief in a universe of perpetual flux mirrored in Heraclitus, and my belief in an underlying non-duality of all things reflected in Parmenides.

Following philosophy all through the Christian era was fascinating, in light of my Christian past. I came to realise that Christianity truly is a spent force in the world. Despite pockets of contemporary success, especially in the USA, its influence is nothing compared to centuries past. What we see today is more like a last gasp. Under the pressure of science, there is simply no going back to a universally Christian civilisation. As a general history of Christianity, Russell’s book is incomplete. The same is true of the Greek era. This was the one weakness in the volume, and created an additional difficulty for me in understanding some of what I was reading. Although I have to wonder just how big this book would have ended up, if the author had chosen to be more thorough in his telling of history. So perhaps I shouldn’t complain.

Regardless of how much or how little I can recall, I now have an overall picture of the history of philosophy. Some of the questions asked by philosophers were of great importance; others were intellectual dead-ends, issues of mere syntax. Oftentimes, a philosopher was overly influenced by his culture. Sometimes the success of a philosophy was determined more by political considerations, than pure logic. Ultimately, I came away with a sense of confidence about my own beliefs, since I found nothing to refute them within Russell’s work. And while I love philosophy, an awareness of such of high level of differing ideology through the ages can only make one wonder how far we might yet be from the truth in our present.

Flatland by Edwin A. Abbott

Imagine a world of only two dimensions: length and breadth, but no height. Imagine sentient beings living in this world. Everything appears as a horizontal straight line, like looking at coin on table, keeping your eye level with the edge of the table. Now imagine that a sentient sphere, gazing at this Flatland from above, decides to venture down and communicate with a square. From his vantage point, he can see everything. The walls of Flatland are no barrier to his all-seeing gaze. He speaks to the square, but the square cannot see him, so he physically descends into Flatland. As his girth intersects with the dimension, he appears to the square as a circle which widens as he descends. The poor square has never seen anything like this, and believes that he is experiencing a paranormal visitation. Things become even more alarming for the square when the sphere pulls him up into Spaceland. But the sphere is shortly in for a suprise when the square questions him about the logical possibility of a fourth dimension of which the sphere is not privy, just as the square was not privy to the third.

Now, you either love this sort of a mindfuck or you don’t. I’m a great believer (for philosophical reasons that I won’t go into just now) that there is more to the universe than material reality. This charming fiction provides a mathematical basis for such a notion. It behoves us to try and conceptualise a fouth dimension which sees into the third in much the same way that the third can see into the second. It’s impossible to wrap your head around, just as in the story it’s impossible for the square, once returned to Flatland, to describe his experience to his companions, or even to accurately remember it. I’m someone who has an appreciation for things of a magical or psychic nature, so I know that there’s something to the idea that Abbott presents, although I would hasten to add that his presentation is an approximation, not a factual description, of a higher reality than the physical dimension.

Concurrent with a discourse on dimensionality, the story also provides a satirical commentary on social customs of the Victorian era in which it was written, especially as it concerns the abuses of religious authority in preventing the free speech of those who think different. Although this book is classified as fiction, because it is first and foremost a story, I believe that a reader seeking entertainment will find much less pleasure in it than the philosopher-at-heart. To the latter, I thoroughly recommend this little volume.

Brave New World by Aldous Huxley

Brave New World takes place in a dystopian future masquerading as a utopia. The whole world is united under a World State. Eternal peace is maintained, not by threats of punishment, but by the most intimate control of the human race – a control that begins even before a person is born.

In this future, natural reproduction has been done away with, and by means of technological advances, humans are now spawned in vast “hatcheries.” Through chemical interference, the development of a foetus is arrested, so that different social classes can be maintained, to fulfill various functions in society. Only members of the highest caste, the “Alphas,” are allowed to develop naturally. World population is permanently limited to two billion people.

Once born, all education is performed by rote, using technology called “hypnopedia” – learning while you sleep. This way, everyone is implanted with the same ideas, such as “Ending is better than mending” to promote continual consumerism. People are conditioned to view the idea of “family” as repulsive and even funny.

Life consists of work (that that lower castes are conditioned to love), frivolous entertainment, recreational sex, and drug-induced happiness. Man is made to feel content in his bondage. This is a society where there is no place for individuality, and little hope of it sprouting. People are simply cogs that service a vast, efficient social organism. The only places that have any freedom are reservations where “savages” live. Although citizens are free to take vacations to these reservations, this appearance of freedom is made grotesque by the crippled nature of the minds of the holiday-makers.

The novel is told from multiple perspectives, a technique which the author uses to allow the reader to view this strange society from a variety of angles: from those who control it (Mustapha Mond, a World Controller) to those who are alien to it (John the savage). Somewhere in between we have the interesting character of Bernard Marx, an Alpha who suffered a chemical mishap before he was born – something that left him uncommonly small of stature, a disadvantage that imbued him with a sense of individuality born out of adversity. But if you’re expecting Bernard Marx to be the hero of the story, think again. Likewise, if you are expecting John’s “savage” upbringing to bring a ray of sanity to the proceedings, nothing so uncomplicated or idealistic ensues. This is a highly unpredictable tale.

While the technology foretold in this novel hasn’t emerged in quite the same way, we see similar methods of mind-manipulation employed in television (subliminal advertising) and education (learning by rote). Brave New World is essentially a satire of our utopian pipedreams and a sober warning about the price that would have to be paid to ensure the continuance of such a “paradise.” There is not a single gun in sight, nor a single murder commited, and yet the cost of such a dream is appalling.

Brave New World is a complex novel of great insight. It taught me something about the human condition, and left me with a sense that there was more going on in the story than I could grasp with a single reading.

Ape and Essence by Aldous Huxley

Ape and Essence begins in a movie studio, with a script accidentally falling from the back of a trolley full of manuscripts (what authors would call the slushpile) on its way to the incinerator. Two movie executives pick up the screenplay and they are so moved by the story that they seek out the writer, a man named Tallis. Finding him deceased, this part of the story ends (about a quarter into the novel). The rest of Ape and Essence is the mysterious script itself, presented to the reader without modification or editorial comment.

When I say “script”, it’s really a bit of a curious script-novel hybrid – not nearly as sketchy as a screenplay, which is good from a reader’s point of view. We are transported to a world where apes act like people, but in a manner far more surreal than Planet of the Apes. Tribes of apes go to war against each other, each one keeping its very own Albert Einstein on a leash. The symbolism is obvious: the apes allude to the stupidity of mankind, going to war with nuclear weapons and bringing about universal destruction.

Around page fifty I was getting frustrated with the book’s strangeness, but it’s at this point that the story shifts to a post apocalyptic 22nd century and stays firmly grounded therein for the remainder. The world has been devasted by nuclear and chemical warfare. Only one country remains unscathed, for no other reason that it was of little strategic importance during World War III: New Zealand. And the New Zealanders are now making their first sea voyage to rediscover America. Among the crew is our protagonist, the botanist Dr. Poole. Not long after they arrive on shore, Dr. Poole is kidnapped by natives and the rest of his crew are forced to abandon him. He finds himself all alone in a society very unlike the Christian one he came from. The citizens now worship Satan (whom they call Belial), essentially because, given the state of the world, Satan appears to be in charge. Mutation has caused biological changes in mankind. Women typically have three sets of nipples, and mating takes place during a week-long orgy once a year. Anyone who has yearnings to mate all year round is referred to disparagingly as a “hot.” Dr. Poole establishes a place among these “savages” due to his knowledge of botany and the benefits he can bring to the civilisation. Much of the book concerns Dr. Poole as a fish-out-of-water, undergoing changes due to his environment.

Huxley is known for putting a lot of subtext in his novels, although it’s hard to gauge exactly what points he’s trying to make at times. I guess this novel fits in with the mid-20th century preoccupation with the end of the world by nuclear war. It reminded me a lot of John Wyndham’s The Chrysalids, only more wacky. Wyndham presents Christianity-gone-mad, whereas Huxley goes for Christianity-gone-Satanic. However, it must be said that Ape and Essence loses none of its charm for its strangeness. I had a great time with this novel. Particularly eyebrow-raising (when you consider the era that it was written) were the sexual elements of the story. Nothing too gratuitious, but the very inclusion of an orgy in which the protagonist participates was quite daring.

I enjoyed this novel particularly as a clash of societies, where the rightness of one’s own views are challenged by submersion into an alien environment, and where something that you might call “humanity” manages to emerge, despite the pressures of both paradigms. I very nearly gave up at page 50, before the real story got rolling; glad I stuck with it.

The New World Order by H.G. Wells

H.G. Wells is best known for his fiction. This little book is non-fiction. It’s essentially a very long essay on the subject of globalisation, something that is highly relevant in today’s world, where we see so much centralisation of power underway, as corporations merge into bigger corporations, and governments become collectivised into unions. When reading this book, which was published in 1940, it’s important to remember that the term “New World Order” didn’t carry the same sinister significance that it has in the minds of many conspiracy believers today. What I’m saying is, let’s not call Wells a bad guy on the grounds of the title alone. There’s much in the book to commend it.

Here are three quotes that I find particularly impressive. I don’t know how much these will strike you, but I personally went through an awakening about eight or nine months ago, where I became aware of how much my mind was being manipulated by the dogma of religion and the false assumptions of science. In my eyes, these quotes are as fresh and relevant today as they ever were.

On religion and its resistance to criticism:

Most of our belief systems rest upon rotten foundations, and generally these foundations are made sacred to preserve them from attack. They become dogmas in a sort of holy of holies. It is shockingly uncivil to say “But that is nonsense.” The defenders of all the dogmatic religions fly into rage and indignation when one touches on the absurdity of their foundations. Especially if one laughs. That is blasphemy. This avoidance of fundamental criticism is one of the greatest dangers to any general human understanding.

On our planet-wrecking consumer mentality:

Natural resources are being exhausted at a great rate, and the increased output goes into war munitions whose purpose is destruction, and into sterile indulgences no better than waste. Man, “heir of the ages,” is a demoralised spendthrift, in a state of galloping consumption, living on stimulants.

On the false assumptions of science that turn us into know-it-alls:

“Science” comes to us from those academic Dark Ages when men had to console themselves for their ignorance by pretending that there was a limited amount of knowledge in the world, and little chaps in caps and gowns strutted about, bachelors who knew all that there was to be known. Now it is manifest that none of us know very much, and the more we look into what we think we know, the more hitherto undetected things we shall find lurking in our assumptions.

The thrust of the book is this: Wells believes the world must become collectivised under a single leadership, or else the world is doomed to destruction by inevitable war. He bases this conviction on something he calls “the abolition of distance.” War, in olden times, was fought by travelling on foot or horseback to your destination, but in the modern world of technology, it is now possible to attack any part of the world very quickly. Everyone is neighbour to everyone else, in that sense. It begs the question, how do you defend your border? You can’t. The abolition of distance, Wells argues, creates too many possibilities for devastating war scenarios, and makes the end of the world inevitable.

Much of the book theorises about what sort of world government could function to be fair to all people. This was tough stuff to understand for me personally, because my political knowledge is not good. The overarching question I kept asking myself was, “If there’s one force at the top of the tree to which all others are subservient, how do you stop it turning into a global tyranny somewhere down the line?” It seems naive to suppose that a single centralised world government would simply stay good and fair over time. And if there are no powerful independent countries (which is the idea) to call upon for help to release you from such tyranny, what can you do? Nothing. In my mind, centralisation of world power is one way to world peace and a very short step from permanent tyranny. The book didn’t give me answers to that objection. Wells was firmly locked into the mentality that the world as it stands is doomed unless we centralise power. I’m not sure if the present world system really does need to collectivise, and I certainly don’t think a single world government is the answer. We’re almost seventy years past the writing of this book, we’re in possession of far more destructive technology, and we’re still here.

In any case, this book is an illuminating, thought-provoking read.