Wednesday, March 22, 2006

A Trip to the Head



I was reading the Marquis de Sade's "Philosophy in the Boudoir" this morning while taking a crap. Its a very thought-provoking book that reminds me why I love French culture so much. For those who haven't had the pleasure of being exposed to it, the text is comprised of seven dialogues in which philosophy and carnality are intermixed with glee.

In the heat of the fifth dialogue, I came across a line that fascinated me.

It is spoken by the character Dolmancé, in the midst of their planning a new sequence of debaucheries. He is gently refuting the ingenue Eugenie's objection that homosexuality is "unnatural".

The line is this: "Nature does not have two voices, one forever condemning what the other commands."

Sexual desire, by its very existence, can never be unnatural.

This quote hit me hard, because it gets to the centrality of nature's power to rupture the boundaries of culture. Culture and morality are continually establishing oppositions that Nature so violently overwhelms when its magma floods the town, wiping out high and low equally.

Just wanted to share that.

13 Thoughts:

Blogger Doug said...

At pawlr's request, I'm making a guest appearance here on cyberpoles.

Paul -- I've only read Justine, and not what you read. As for the subterranean magma, it is there for sure. That's what civilization is there to hold in check, sometimes quite wisely, sometimes horribly unfairly. Also, I should say that any book that made anal sex boring to me must have something wrong with it! LOL. But that's another story.

Sade definitely used the naturalistic fallacy to support his cultural beliefs. What is need not be what ought. Nor need it NOT be, but I don't see any special force in "natural" arguments. Kropotkin, whom I'm also reading, makes the same mistake from a diametrically opposed political viewpoint, so it's equal opportunity.

There are connections among levels of complexity, from quantum physics to galactic (through the genetic, cultural, et al). Which level and what interactions in what specific situation is what matters, and ideally neither reductionism or some kind of top-down "holism" that priviliges certain levels of explanation (which have their institutional/academic/cultural cache and power, of course -- often these issues are shakeouts of academic politics) should have a priori precedence.

On Sade, I can't remember who wrote it, but someone said that in Voltaire, the "pornographic" elements are deployed in the service of philosophy, whereas in Sade, the philosophy is deployed in the service of the "pornography."

I don't find Sade shocking or dangerous...just boring. Couldn't even finish Justine. I mean, how many helpless women need to be anally raped in order to "prove" Sade's biological determinism? Especially when the cruelty is so obvious, and the titillation factor plummets with each reiterated scene. That's why I'm not into S&M -- it's a role-driven situation that makes sex all-too-predictable. No moral issue, as long as consent is there, obviously.

However, if there is something else I should read, let me know!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 10:59:00 AM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Interesting Doug, thanks for swinging by with your thoughts.

For me, the women of "P in the B" are not simply victims, because in many of the anal rape scenes within, they are begging for it first. Sort of makes things somewhat ambiguous. Monstrous, yes, but ambiguously so.

But hey, a given text either gets ya hard or it doesn't. Hence the difference in our imaginations.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 11:51:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Paul:

At least in what I read of Justine, the women are not willing in any sense. Could just be that book, but they are economic slaves -- at least my memory of Justine herself was that.

Justine is a female Candide in many ways (not sure which came first), and I get what Sade was trying to describe. Just don't think Justine was much more than an outpouring of his own psychosexual proclivities. Sure, it shouldn't be (or have been) suppressed. But I don't really dig it as erotica or as philosophy or as social critique.

Without consensuality, sex is rape. Fantasies are fine -- uncontrollable, anyway -- but unlike the Catholic Church, I see a major difference between thought and deed. "Playing" at a rape fantasy (role playing) is not rape -- consensuality still exists.

Anyway, I like the unpredictability of sex -- not just in the limited physical sense ("ooh, I'm surprised she did THAT!"), but also (and more importantly) in the emotional sense. Opening oneself up is what makes sex lastingly good, I think. One can hide oneself in sex easily, and there is undoubtedly some athletic fun ("sport-fucking," as Fight Club put it) in love-less sex, but I don't get fully off, so to speak, unless there's an expression of love involved.

Which is wholly lacking in Sade.

Anyway, thanks for the invite and responses.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 12:50:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Here's a zipped PDF of the book, which I'll read. Just in case anyone's interested...

Out.

Dug

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 12:59:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Hmm. Interesting that you require some concept called "love" in order to come completely during a fuck.. I certainly don't. To imply that my behavior suggests i'm hiding my identity gives me a chuckle. I'm certainly hiding my identity in something, that's for sure!

Fucking is its own reward for me. But.. you say tomayto, I say tomahto.

I agree with you that writing about rape, or reading about rape, is certainly not rape. Thoughts != Deeds. That, of course, applies to Sade's work, since books don't rape, people do.

Just musing, I wonder if Sade the singer (pronounced Shah-Day) named herself that on purpose to imply a connection? I always thought her vocalizations a little too submissive for my taste. To wikipedia at once!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 1:16:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Sade's given name was apparently Helen Folasade Adu. "Sade Adu", her chosen artist's name, is interestingly proximate to an inversion of "De Sade". I continue to wonder whether that's a coincidence. Any fans that might have a lead on this theory?

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 1:23:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Paul:

Well, "get off" was modified by "so to speak" -- I'm talking about something more than, but inclusive of, an orgasm. I've had great orgasms all by myself, as we all have, I'm sure. It feels good, but it doesn't bring into the situation any communion (real communion, not imagined) with another. Now, love, per se, is not necessary for good or even mind-blowing sex -- we all know that -- but without love, there is a glass ceiling placed on sexual pleasure. For me, at least.

"Love" doesn't have to be bourgeois -- a good example is the sex between the two main characters in Children of a Lesser God. In that scene, questions of "orientation," et al, are pointless -- an expression of many feelings, possibly summarizable as "love," leads to and permeates the sex act. Which is why it is beautiful.

If you don't want to use a term like "love," for whatever reasons, some kind of human connection -- the one-night-stand that is equivalent to the long conversation on the bus with a stranger -- is necessary for something sexual to be memorable, to me. I've had those experiences, too. Something beyond masturbation, which is "self-love."

It comes down to something more than just the act itself. The mind is the true sexual organ, I think, so if you include the mind in the sex act, then we can dispense with worrying about what is part of or not part of the "act itself."

And that's just what's missing in Sade. He must rely (in fiction and in his life) on ever-more-complex, ever-more-"transgressive" fantasies (or realities) in order to serve his pleasure. His pleasure is the key, I think. And the ever-proliferating combinations and "transgressions" (and no-quote transgressions) are typical signs of compulsion, not of freedom, regardless of what Sade argues.

I read Philosophy in the Boudouir just now, and it's interesting how a confused jumble of authoritarianism and extreme libertarianism is embedded in a series of pornographic scenarios, all of which is to educate Eugenie to be something even Nietzsche never intended, to my reading: a monster of selfishness.

Sade's philosophy, for all it's surface libertarianism, is actually a worship of power for power's sake -- of course, duly offloaded onto "Nature."

How can he preach freedom when he (and his characters) infringe upon others freedom constantly? This doesn't obviate his funny critiques of theism and (some) manners, but it is a major inconsistency. See pages 106-112: Women are free and equal, yet they must submit to "Nature's law" whenever a man's lust demands. It's how they're built (by Nature), you see.

Women are given their own "houses of libertinage," but it is not made clear whether they have the same right of domination -- in fact, it seems rather the opposite. They have the right to indulgence of, but not control over, their bodies. Because of "Nature's" law, you see.

Interesting, and not a little self-serving, even if the equality of sexuality is laudable. The problem is that it really isn't all that equal. Some libertines are more equal than others, it seems.

Free and equal we citoyens, are...Citizen Sade writes, but yet murder, the ultimate denial of another's freedom, is not an offense against Nature, the arbiter of morality. Thus, Sade can conclude: "Briefly, murder is a horror, but an often necessary horror, never criminal, which it is essential to tolerate in a republican State." Hmmmm. Yet he is against the death penalty -- read up on Sade's life (as I obviously have) and you'll see at least a potentially self-serving reason for these tortuous turns of argument.

It is a matter, it seems, of some debate as to how far Sade acted, rather than wrote, according to his philosophy. It looks to me as though enough is there to worry about his deeds, as well as his thoughts. But he's long dead -- and I see no reason not to publish and read his books. No need to censor him, or really anyone else.

But I also imagine that the more needlessly repressive a society is, the more of a reaction some will have to that society, or to the features of society that have been implanted in one's mind via the family, etc. Thus, I can see an overly repressed person reveling in Sade's works, and ignoring the horror therein. Is this truly the defeat of repression or just another guilty pleasure?

If we follow Sade, then cyberpolers should not be upset by the recent murder in NYC, as I saw posted below. Nature's law, is all. Now none of you will follow Sade that far, but that is where he goes. What prevents going that far? The good ol' Golden Rule (of Confucius, Jesus, and many others, I'm sure) -- simple, elementary ethical truisms.

Sade's reaction to his own psychological repression (or whatever it was) was about as far as one can go (see 120 Days of Sodom) -- and may have occurred in whatever society he found himself in. Impossible to know. What's more interesting is how Sade has been both reviled and lauded over the past 200 years.

When you truly set aside the sillier aspects of Bronze-Age ethics and embrace what Sade's more level-headed and consistent contemporaries began to lay out -- liberal democracy, human rights, egalitarianism, etc. -- Sade is neither shocking nor all that revolutionary. He has done us all a favor by being as honest as possible about the subterranean workings of at least his mind, if not to some extent all human minds. He's a clever writer.

But, ultimately, he's a bit boring and self-serving. And sad.

My two centavos!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 3:17:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Funny, I saw "Children of a Lesser God" and didn't like it, it just seemed too sentimental for me. Oh well.

In any case, I again appreciate your comments for what they are: a reification of virtue. All very edifying.

One minor quibble though is that I think you misread Sade's ideas on freedom and morality. Your quote is:

"Free and equal we citoyens, are...Citizen Sade writes, but yet murder, the ultimate denial of another's freedom, is not an offense against Nature, the arbiter of morality."

For de Sade, Nature is not the ultimate arbiter of morality, it is utterly amoral, beneath good and evil entirely. Because of this, "freedom" means freedom from all virtues, including Confucius. Staggeringly, de Sade permits genocide if it increases even slightly the level of pleasure for a single individual who perpetrates it. The provocation implied by this is indeed monstrous.

I guess as a writer he's compelling to me because he explains a great deal of human behavior - the limiltless cruelty of the imagination. His point really is that there is no economy to our ability to project sexual fantasy. Decadence and cruelty are a part of us, we cannot excise it - no enforced social set of laws or habits can prevent it from entering our consciousness. Make of this what you will.

De Sade's perspective explains a great deal about our predilection for violence in film, our voyeurism, our escapism. Many liberals find themselves constantly let down by their expectations of humanity because people ritualistically fail to obey the golden rule, over and over. For me, its just so much more likely that this results from natural will-to-power, which you admit exists, than some social aberration (capitalism, for example) that keeps us from hewing to social and political mores. In other words, give the Devil his due.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 4:24:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Or, should I say, give Nature hers. The Devil, as an "evil" opposition to "good", has nothing to do with it.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 4:26:00 PM  
Blogger Doug said...

Hey, Paul: Sade explicity states, even in the quote in your original post, that Nature's diktats are to be followed. He says it again in the philosophical treatise toward the end of Boudoir, and it goes through all of Justine.

It's just another naturalistic fallacy, which is rife. What is, even if you accept Sade's version, need not be what ought to be. And since we not only don't really know what Nature's diktats are, nor how hard-wired they are, given our flexible brains, I don't see how one can find one's morality in Nature. Reproduction is clearly hard-wired. Why not join the god squad and say that any sex for any reason other than procreation is "against nature" (or "God")? And so forth.

So, Sade is most definitely caught at least in that fallacy, if not in the more prosaic one of projecting his own desires onto Nature. If that ain't reification, I don't know what is! :)

Your take on Sade I think gives him more credit, but I agree with it. All is thinkable, and fantasy knows no bounds.

Interestingly, this comes up in Plato's Republic, which I just happened to have re-read for an ethics course I just did:

Dig (I'll italicize it for easier skippability): Jowett transl., Book 9:

Socrates - Adiemantus

Last of all comes the tyrannical man; about whom we have once more to ask, how is he formed out of the democratical? and how does he live, in happiness or in misery?

Yes, he said, he is the only one remaining.

There is, however, I said, a previous question which remains unanswered.

What question?

I do not think that we have adequately determined the nature and number of the appetites, and until this is accomplished the enquiry will always be confused.

Well, he said, it is not too late to supply the omission.

Very true, I said; and observe the point which I want to understand: Certain of the unnecessary pleasures and appetites I conceive to be unlawful; every one appears to have them, but in some persons they are controlled by the laws and by reason, and the better desires prevail over them-either they are wholly banished or they become few and weak; while in the case of others they are stronger, and there are more of them.

Which appetites do you mean?

I mean those which are awake when the reasoning and human and ruling power is asleep; then the wild beast within us, gorged with meat or drink, starts up and having shaken off sleep, goes forth to satisfy his desires; and there is no conceivable folly or crime --not excepting incest or any other unnatural union, or parricide, or the eating of forbidden food --which at such a time, when he has parted company with all shame and sense, a man may not be ready to commit.

Most true, he said.

But when a man's pulse is healthy and temperate, and when before going to sleep he has awakened his rational powers, and fed them on noble thoughts and enquiries, collecting himself in meditation; after having first indulged his appetites neither too much nor too little, but just enough to lay them to sleep, and prevent them and their enjoyments and pains from interfering with the higher principle --which he leaves in the solitude of pure abstraction, free to contemplate and aspire to the knowledge of the unknown, whether in past, present, or future: when again he has allayed the passionate element, if he has a quarrel against any one --I say, when, after pacifying the two irrational principles, he rouses up the third, which is reason, before he takes his rest, then, as you know, he attains truth most nearly, and is least likely to be the sport of fantastic and lawless visions.

I quite agree.

In saying this I have been running into a digression; but the point which I desire to note is that in all of us, even in good men, there is a lawless wild-beast nature, which peers out in sleep. Pray, consider whether I am right, and you agree with me.

Yes, I agree.


The question isn't one of thought (fantasies entering our consciousness) but of deed. What governs that deed you may want to call "Nature" if by that you mean, the universe, which includes the mind and society, or you may want to call it "Culture" (or "Society," depending on your academic predilections) if you take as a fact of Nature that humanity is self-cognizant far beyond any other species we know of. It really doesn't matter, as long as the last bit is understood -- and not necessarily in some hazy Cartesian sense.

So, I'm all for giving the unconscious, or whatever, its due, but I think you need to keep some things separate:

1. Is vs. Ought (naturalistic fallacy; biological determinism; descriptive vs. normative)

2. What actually "Is," and how that is knowable, and to what extent (reductionism)

From Plato to Freud, the unconscious (or whatever) has been given its due -- social contract theorists, whatever their disagreements on the state of nature, did so as well.

What is interesting to me is how deprioritized any sociocultural data is in your apparent opinion -- and we've been discussing this for awhile of course. Compare gun deaths in Detroit to across-the-border, as per Michael Moore. Is that Nature-driven? How could it be?

Wherever the will to power comes from, nature or culture (both, I think, if one avoids unanswerable "origin" questions -- no human is outside of nature or outside of culture), that it exists does not mean it should be followed.

Moreover, to assume that Nature's diktats are always power-driven, or selfish, or even frightening is itself a cultural inheritance -- from the Judeo-Christian tradition! If one must anthropomorphize, Nature shows many scenes of cooperation and other things many of us "like" or approve of. So, why only see "red in tooth and claw"? I think that's a hangover of the recently dis-God-ed (not necessarily you, Paul; speaking generally now...).

True, nature is amoral. We can choose, within some large boundaries, what to do. Much of the problem comes down to informed choice: good ol' education. You and I seem to think things through; why not anyone else, barring truly medical barriers?

Again, the basic principle of reciprocity and universality. All you need to "join" is to be human.

Thanks for posting all my longish comments!

Off to open my FOIA request response from the FBI. Really. If I disappear, call the ACLU.

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 4:49:00 PM  
Blogger pawlr said...

Interesting. I think its pretty clear that we differ on first principles. I'm familiar now with your Gouldian (Gouldite?) and Lewontinesque objections to what you call "reductionism" and "biological determinism" But I'm more convinced by Dawkins et al and my own experience in life. Perhaps I'm reifying politically suspect ideas, but consider at least that you're equally prone to reify politically correct ones. Since we differ on the importance of sexual dimorphism and language on human culture, we either have to hash out that debate or accept where were at.

I would really like to have that debate with you some day, but it'll have to wait until I can read all the info I need to in order to keep up with you!

Wednesday, March 22, 2006 11:32:00 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

"A Trip to the Head" - you guys aren't kidding. I have no idea what the fuck is going on with you two. Maybe you should put your eggheads to good use and get a room, ha ha

Thursday, March 23, 2006 7:23:00 AM  
Blogger Doug said...

Read on, Paul! I can wait. :) For more ammo for "your side," you might want to read GC Williams' Adaptation and Natural Selection, 1966. He's the godfather of Dawkins, et al.

Anon. -- funny! Paul and I tend to get into things like this. Must be due to our ancestors' selective triumphs. ;)

Thursday, March 23, 2006 9:54:00 AM  

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