Georges Bataille (essay date 1957)
SOURCE: "De Sade's Sovereign Man," in Eroticism, Death and Sensuality, City Lights Books, 1986, pp. 164-76.
[A French novelist, philosopher, and critic who died in 1962, Bataille received considerable critical attention in France for his theories of eroticism and mysticism. He was among the first critics to undertake a serious study of Sade's writing and philosophy. In this excerpt from a book first published in French in 1957, Bataille considers the sexual excesses depicted in Sade's works in terms of a quest for absolute personal sovereignty.]
The Marquis de Sade's system perfects as much as it criticises a certain way of bringing the individual in to the full exercise of all his potentialities above the heads of the goggling crowd.…
The events of de Sade's real life lead one to suspect an element of braggadocio in his insistence on sovereignty seen as a denial of the rights and feelings of others. But the boasting was essential if he was to work out a system completely free from human weakness. In his life de Sade took other people into account, but his conception of fulfilment worked over and over in his lonely cell led him to deny outright the claims of other people. The Bastille was a desert; his writing was the only outlet for his passions and in it he pushed back the limits of what was possible beyond the craziest dreams ever framed by man. These books distilled in prison have given us a true picture of a man for whom other people did not count at all.
De Sade's morality, says Maurice Blanchot [in Lautréamont et Sade, 1949]
is founded on absolute solitude as a first given fact. De Sade said over and over again in different ways that we are born alone, there are no links between one man and another. The only rule of conduct then is that I prefer those things which affect me pleasurably and set at nought the undesirable effects of my preferences on other people. The greatest suffering of others always counts for less than my own pleasure. What matter if I must purchase my most trivial satisfaction through a fantastic accumulation of wrongdoing? For my satisfaction gives me pleasure, it exists in myself, but the consequences of crime do not touch me, they are outside me.
Maurice Blanchot's analysis faithfully matches de Sade's basic thinking. This thinking is doubtless artificial. It fails to take into account the actual make-up of every real man, inconceivable if shorn of the links made by others with him and by him with others. The independence of one man has never ceased to be any more than a boundary to the interdependence of mankind, without which there would be no human life. This is of cardinal importance. But de Sade's doctrine is not so wide of the mark as all that. It may deny the reality on which life is based, yet we do experience moments of excess that stir us to the roots of our being and give us strength enough to allow free rein to our elemental nature. But if we were to deny those moments we should fail to understand our own nature.
De Sade's doctrine is nothing more nor less than the logical consequence of these moments that deny reason.
By definition, excess stands outside reason. Reason is bound up with work and the purposeful activity that incarnates its laws. But pleasure mocks at toil, and toil we have seen to be unfavourable to the pursuit of intense pleasure. If one calculates the ratio between energy consumed and the usefulness of the results, the pursuit of pleasure even if reckoned as useful is essentially extravagant; the more so in that usually pleasure has no end product, is thought of as an end in itself and is desired for its very extravagance. This is where de Sade comes in. He does not formulate the above principles, but he implies them by asserting that pleasure is more acute if it is criminal and the more abhorrent the crime the greater the pleasure. One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based.
In this de Sade was convinced that he had made a decisive discovery in the field of knowledge. If crime leads a man to the greatest sensual satisfactions, the fulfilment of the most powerful desires, what could be more important than to deny that solidarity which opposes crime and prevents the enjoyment of its fruits? I can picture this violent truth striking him in the loneliness of his prison. From that instant he ceased to have any truck with anything, even in himself, that might have invalidated his system. Had he not been in love himself, just like anyone else? When he had run off with his sister-in-law, had not that helped to get him locked up by arousing his mother-in-law's wrath so that she procured the fatal lettre de cachet? Latterly was he not to adopt political views based on concern for the welfare of the masses? Was he not horror-struck to see from his window, in the prison to which his opposition to the methods of the Terror had brought him, the guillotine at work? And finally did he not shed "tears of blood" over the loss of a manuscript [The 120 Days of Sodom] in which he had striven to reveal—to other men, observe—the truth of the insignificance of other people? He may have told himself that none the less the truth of sexual attraction is not fully apparent if consideration for other people paralyses its action. He refused to contemplate anything he could not experience in the interminable silence of his cell where only visions of an imaginary world bound him to life.…
De Sade's system is the ruinous form of eroticism. Moral isolation means that all the brakes are off; it shows what spending can really mean. The man who admits the value of other people necessarily imposes limits upon himself. Respect for others hinders him and prevents him from measuring the fullest extent of the only aspiration he has that does not bow to his desire to increase his moral and material resources. Blindness due to respect for others happens every day; in the ordinary way we make do with rapid incursions into the world of sexual truths and then openly give them the lie the rest of the time. Solidarity with everybody else prevents a man from having the sovereign attitude. The respect of man for man leads to a cycle of servitude that allows only for minor moments of disorder and finally ends the respect that their attitude is based on since we are denying the sovereign moment to man in general.
From the opposite point of view, "the centre of de Sade's world" is, according to Maurice Blanchot, "the demands of sovereignty asserted through an enormous denial". Unfettered freedom opens out into a void where the possibilities match the intensest aspirations at the expense of secondary ones; a sort of heroic cynicism cuts the ties of consideration and tenderness for others without which we cannot bear ourselves in the normal way. Perspectives of this order place us as far from what we usually are as the majesty of the storm is from the sunshine or from the drearily overcast sky. In fact we do not possess the excessive store of strength necessary to attain the fulfilment of our sovereignty. Actual sovereignty, however boundless it might seem in the silent fantasy of the masses, still even in its worst moments falls far below the unleashed frenzy that de...
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