Sep 082006

Gray, Francine du Plessix. At home with the Marquis de Sade: A life Simon and Schuster, 1998.

To the Lieutenant General of Police:

Show me the legal code which dictates that fantasies executed with whores earn a gentleman tortures as long and arduous as mine! … There is no statute against what I have done… which condemns a man… to be treated which such inhumanity.

Pray, sir, tell me if the Messalinas, the Sapphos, the incestuous, the sodomites, the public and private theives… who constitute that respectable Montreuil family of which you are the slave– all knaves, whom I’ll introduce you to whenever you wish– tell me, pray you, if any of them have suffered the tortures I’ve been victimized with for thirteen years…. Isn’t it because they had money and whores to offer the judges?… Cease, sir, cease the consummate injustice you have singled me out for….

May the Eternal One someday reject you with the brutality with which you have rejected me.

Sade wrote that letter in 1785, his eighth year of continuous incarceration. Many aspects of his character comes through in that excerpt: his hyperbole, his paranoid sense of persecution, his literacy and way with words.

The author has chosen the difficult task of trying to tell a coherent narrative about Sade. This is difficult because Sade’s accounts of himself are very unreliable, full of self-inflating boasts and self-preserving lies to please the current regime. To understand his life, you have to look at the people around him: the father who had little interest in him, the mother who abandoned him, the uncles and aunts who spoiled him rotten, his inexplicably loyal wife, his formidable mother-in-law who had him incarcerated to preseve the family fortune, the various servants and staff who enabled him, the prostitutes who were both mistreated by him and saw him as as opportunity to exploit him, and the police who watched him for years.

Those police reports give a strange insight into Sade, including the revelation that the original sadist was just as much a masochist, at least physically. (Rather than being polar opposites, Sade and Sacher-Masoch had a lot in common.) In the 1763 incident with Jeanne Testard, a 20-year-old fanmaker and casual prostitute, Sade ordered her to whip him. Sade’s little chambre was full of props, including a chalice he masturbated into, ivory crucifixes hanging alongside pornographic prints and drawings, rods, cat-o’-nine-tails, pistols and a sword. He told her to utter sacreligious lines and perform sacriligious acts, like a apostate theatre director.

The Easter Sunday incident of 1768 is what really brought Sade to the attention of the authorities. He brought a 36-year-old unemployed cotton spinner named Rose Keller to one of his residences in Paris on pretext of hiring her for housework. He threatens her until she undresses, and is upset when she resists him. He holds her down, then beats her alternately with a rod and a cat-o’-nine-tails, mixed with the application of hot wax. When Keller begs him to stop so she won’t die without having done her confession, Sade said she could confess to him.

Until I read the above excerpt, I had written Sade off as a classic controlling abuser. This forced me to reevaluate him slightly. We know that Sade had a life-long interest in the theatre; he acquired a taste for drama, as well as for corporal punishment and probably sodomy, from the Jesuits. The Easter Sunday incident shows Sade’s pickiness about costuming, as well as an example of anti-Catholic parody. Even Keller’s escape from a window via knotted bedsheets has a dramatic flair.

Were these scenes something Sade had fantasized about for years before he acted them out with working women like Testard and Keller? It seems to me they were. Obviously, Sade had no idea about modern ideas of consent, and he was too much of a narcissist and an aristocrat. He had a low regard for prostitutes and was mortally offended that the official reason for his incarceration was mistreatment of them.

Sade’s phrase, “fantasies executed with whores”, suggested that what he was doing with them was not literal, but a form of play. The mise en scene was not so much about the act of hurting or being hurt, but performing Sade’s private ritual. Granted, Sade was always ready to say what was necessary to save his own skin and charm people into staying with him. He was also clearly an obsessive-compulsive, obsessed with numbers, and his compulsive swearing and blaspheming suggests something like Tourette’s syndrome. But I suspect there was something ludic, game-like or play-like, in his actions.

Thus, there actually may be a link, however tenuous, between Sade and the modern BDSM culture.

Aug 302006

First lesson in writing: the library is your friend.

I got a copy of Thomas Otway’s 1682 play Venice Preserved (incorrectly cited as “Venus Preserv’d” in Emily Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish) at the library today, and read it in the dull moments at my temping job.

Venice Preserved is a political allegory about England set in the republic of Venice. The kinky stuff comes in Act III, Scene i. Antonio, a lecherous and corrupt old senator, goes to the house of Aquilina, the Greek courtesan. Aquilina tries to turn him away, as she finds him repulsive, but he pushes his way in.

Antonio addresses Aquilina by childish nicknames (“Nacky, Nacky, Queen Nacky — come let’s to bed…”) and then as “Madonna.” He disregards her insults and brags about his “eloquence” which his actions equate with bribery. He overcomes her objects with money.

Aquil. No, sir, if you please I can know my distance and stand.

Anto. Stand: how? Nacky up and I down! Nay, then, let me exclaim with the poet,
Show me a case more pitiful who can,
A standing woman, and a falling man.
Hurry durry—not sit down—see this, ye gods—You won’t sit down?

Aquil. No, sir.

Anto. Then look you now, suppose me a bull, a basan-bull, the bull of bulls, or any bull. Thus up I get and with my brows thus bent—I broo, I say I broo, I broo, I broo. You won’t sit down, will you?—I broo—[Bellows like a bull, and drives her about.]

Aquil. Well, sir, I must endure this. Now your [she sits down] honour has been a bull, pray what beast will your worship please to be next?

Anto. Now I’ll be a Senator again, and thy lover, little Nicky Nacky! [He sits by her.] Ah toad, toad, toad, toad! spit in my face a little, Nacky—spit in my face prithee, spit in my face, never so little: spit but a little bit—spit, spit, spit, spit, when you are bid, I say; do prithee spit—now, now, now, spit: what, you won’t spit, will you? Then I’ll be a dog.

Aquil. A dog, my lord?

Anto. Ay, a dog—and I’ll give thee this t’other purse to let me be a dog—and to use me like a dog a little. Hurry durry— I will—here ’tis.

[Gives the purse.]

Aquil. Well, with all my heart. But let me beseech your dogship to play your tricks over as fast as you can, that you may come to stinking the sooner, and be turned out of doors as you deserve.

Anto. Ay, ay—no matter for that—that—[He gets under the table]—shan’t move me—Now, bow wow wow, bow wow …

[Barks like a dog.

Aquil. Hold, hold, hold, sir, I beseech you: what is’t you do? If curs bite, they must be kicked, sir. Do you see, kicked thus.

Anto. Ay, with all my heart: do kick. kick on, now I am under the table, kick again—kick harder—harder yet, bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od I’ll have a snap at thy shins—bow wow wow, wow, bow—’od she kicks bravely.—

Aquil. Nay, then I’ll go another way to work with you: and I think here’s an instrument fit for the purpose.

[Fetches a whip and bell.] What, bite your mistress, sirrah! out, out of doors, you dog, to kennel and be hanged—bite your mistress by the legs, you rogue—

[She whips him.]

Anto. Nay, prithee Nacky, now thou art too loving: Hurry durry, ’od I’ll be a dog no longer.

Aquil. Nay, none of your fawning and grinning: but be gone, or here’s the discipline: what, bite your mistress by the legs, you mongrel? out of doors—hout hout, to kennel, sirrah! go.

Anto. This is very barbarous usage, Nacky, very barbarous: look you, I will not go—I will not stir from the door, that I resolve—hurry durry, what, shut me out?

[She whips him out.]

Aquil. Ay, and if you come here any more to-night I’ll have my footmen lug you, you cur: what, bite your poor mistress Nacky, sirrah!

Enter Maid.

Maid. Heavens, madam! What’s the matter?

[He howls at the door like a dog.]

Aquil. Call my footmen hither presently.

Enter two Footmen.

Maid. They are here already, madam, the house is all alarmed with a strange noise, that nobody knows what to make of.

Aquil. Go all of you and turn that troublesome beast in the next room out of my house—If I ever see him within these walls again, without my leave for his admittance, you sneaking rogues, I’ll have you poisoned all, poisoned, like rats; every corner of the house shall stink of one of you; go, and learn hereafter to know my pleasure.

What’s interesting to me is the ambiguous relationship between client and dominatrix, in short, who exactly is on top here? Aquilina doesn’t like him or want him around, but he’s able to pay her to follow his script. She refuses part of the script, to spit on him, and then goes over his limit by whipping him and then kicking him out. There’s a constant push back and forth. It has a ring of truth to it, much as the flagellation scene in John Cleland’s Fanny Hill, published in the middle of the next century.

Later in the play (Act V, scene ii), Aquilina threatens Antonio with a dagger as promised vengeance for the state execution of her beloved Pierre.

Aquil. Thou! think’st thou, thou art fit to meet my joys;
To bear the eager clasps of my embraces?
Give me my Pierre, or—

Anto. Why, he’s to be hang’d, little Nacky,
Trussed up for treason, and so forth, child.

Aquil. Thou liest: stop down thy throat that hellish sentence,
Or’ ’tis thy last: swear that my love shall live,
Or thou art dead.

Anto. Ah-h-h-h.

Aquil. Swear to recall his doom
Swear at my feet, and tremble at my fury.

Anto. I do. Now if she would but kick a little bit, one kick now.

Aquil. Swear, or—

Anto. I do, by these dear fragrant foots
And little toes, sweet as, e-e-e-e my Nacky Nacky Nacky.

Aquil. How!

Anto. Nothing but untie thy shoe-string a little, faith and troth,
That’s all, that’s all, as I hope to live, Nacky, that’s all.

Aquil. Ney, then—

Anto. Hold, hold, thy love, thy lord, thy hero Shall be preserv’d and safe.

Aquil. Or may this poniard
Rust in thy heart.

Anto. With all my soul.

Aquil. Farewell—

Even with Aquilina’s dagger at his throat, Antonio seems to be getting off on the situation, angling for more kicks or views of her feet. It’s unclear whether he’s enough of a drunk, a fool or a fetishist that he can’t see he’s in real danger. After her depature, Antonio lies down and pretends to be dead, and Aquilina is not heard from again.

According to Apter’s Feminizing the Fetish, the first scene was the basis for the animal roleplay scene in Emile Zola’s Nana, but I suspect both can be connected to the story of Phyllis coaxing Aristotle into playing the role of a horse for her, which IIRC goes back to the middle ages, though not classical times.