High hurdles for the athletic libertine

Pornography Part One: THE Suzi Feay COLUMN
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If Sade didn't exist, would there be no sadism? He evidently thought he had given birth to something new and monstrous, introducing his 120 Days of Sodom with the words: "Prepare your heart and your mind for the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began, a book the likes of which are met with neither among the ancients nor amongst us moderns." He was right in a way: his catalogues of murders, tortures and rapes were, for sheer scale, unprecedented in the annals of literature. But were his crazed dispatches from the sexual front so alien, or did he just magnify ordinary male sexuality until it became disgusting, the way anything familiar - a flake of skin, a nail-paring - reveals jagged horrors under the microscope?

Of course the effect of the lens - or of any art, even Sade's - can so distance the reality, that you can once more admire with detachment the beauty, say, of a virus or diseased organ. To the Taoist adept, excrement was as beautiful as amber. Well, why not? Sade would not have found this at all peculiar.

Krzysztof Kieslowski chose to portray, in A Short Film About Killing, the worst sort of human vermin, the perpetrator of a pointless, joyless crime. The judicial execution of the murderer is pointless and joyless, too. Kieslowski uses a "worst-case" scenario to confound both liberals and reactionaries. In the same way, anyone interested in either pornography or censorship should study Sade as a kind of "worst-case" scenario, and remember Simone de Beauvoir's verdict: "Every time we side with a child whose throat has been slit by a sex maniac we take a stand against him." Yes, there are too many seedy old tossers eulogising "The Divine Marquis", but it is significant that de Beauvoir also concluded, in her essay "Must We Burn Sade?", a decided non. Does Sade need censoring? Surely his work is its own emetic. Like so much pornographic writing, it suffers from the mechanical repetition attendant upon its subject. Most writers of porn, however inventive, eventually descend to toilets and violence. In Sade, toilets and violence are the main event, and, there is something irresistibly comic and infantile - very wee-wee and poo-poo - about his fantasies.

There are other crippling hurdles in the works of Sade for the athletic libertine to vault. He is a terrible bore, even at his most outrageous. The 120 Days of Sodom is conceived, like The Faerie Queene, on such a grand scale and with such lofty aims, that even its monomaniac author could not finish it. It peters out into an exhausted list of tortures to be carried out on pregnant women and small children, a tedious catalogue of despair and self-disgust. It's impossible to read 120 Days with one hand unless your tastes are very specialised. It's difficult to remain aroused when your author keeps lobbing stink-bombs. Sade shows it's possible to be a pornographer and a pedant; his books are full of political tirades and pompous philosophising.

One of the defences of pornography is that there are enough laws around to restrain behaviour without restraining expression. This was certainly true in Sade's case. One Easter Sunday when Sade was still a young man, he procured a prostitute, Rose Keller, whipped her, cut her with a knife and dripped molten wax on the wounds. Ironically, Sade was only fined for this assault; but he spent much of his life in prison anyway, on the grounds of being unpleasant, anti-social, an embarrassment to his family. Sade nearly went mad in prison; Stewart Hood's Marquis de Sade for Beginners has him becoming obsessed with numbers as he crosses the days of his confinement off on the wall. The 120 Days features a numerology of perversion with its multiple permutations of the 16 victims (eight male, eight female), four libertines, eight studs, four duennas and four storytellers.

Sade might have been locked up, but at least his mind was free. Prison did not cause his perversions (he liked sodomy, passive and active, and flagellation long before he was incarcerated), but it exacerbated his misanthropy and his despair. His fantasies became a lifeline: "This way of thinking ... is my life's one consolation; it alleviates the sufferings of prison, it constitutes my pleasure in the world, and I am more attached to it than my life." For such an infamous theorist of female subordination, Sade inflicted remarkably little damage in his lifetime. Freed as a victim of the old regime, he became a magistrate during the Terror, when he drew suspicion on himself by his lack of Jacobin zeal in sending people to the guillotine. Sade was a man, you feel, who understood the difference between fantasy and reality.