Theses Doctoral

A Monster for Our Times: Reading Sade across the Centuries

Bridge, Matthew

This doctoral dissertation looks at several readings and interpretations of the works of the Marquis de Sade, from the eighteenth century to the present. Ever since he was imprisoned under the Old Regime following highly publicized instances of physical and sexual abuse, Sade has remained a controversial figure who has been both condemned as a dangerous criminal and celebrated as an icon for artistic freedom. The most enduring aspect of his legacy has been a vast collection of obscene publications, characterized by detailed descriptions of sexual torture and murder, along with philosophical diatribes that offer theoretical justifications for the atrocities. Not surprisingly, Sade's works have been subject to censorship almost from the beginning, leading to the author's imprisonment under Napoleon and to the eventual trials of his mid-twentieth-century publishers in France and Japan.

The following pages examine the reception of Sade's works in relation to the legal concept of obscenity, which provides a consistent framework for textual interpretation from the 1790s to the present. I begin with a prelude discussing the 1956 trial of Jean-Jacques Pauvert, in order to situate the remainder of the dissertation within the context of how readers approached a body of work as quintessentially obscene as that of Sade. At Pauvert's trial there emerged an opposition between readings that concentrate on the prurient nature of the texts and those that instead attempt to justify their place in society by stressing their intellectual merit. This opposition remains in effect throughout the remaining chapters, each of which focuses on a particular historical moment in the reception of Sade's works and on a certain reader or group of readers.

Chapter One establishes Sade himself as the first reader of his texts, and discusses how he situated them with respect to the genre of obscene books that had developed in France throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Chapter Two focuses primarily on Rétif de la Bretonne as the first reader of Sade, one who publicly condemned the author and his works on moral grounds while simultaneously composing his own erotic novel in the Sadean vein. Chapter Three deals with the onset of a tendency among nineteenth-century French authors to admire him as the "Divine Marquis," with a particular focus on Flaubert and his discussion of Sade in his correspondence. The second half of the dissertation focuses on the reception of Sade's works during the twentieth century. Each subsequent chapter examines the interaction of mainstream intellectual readings--such as those of the surrealists, post-war essayists like Blanchot and Bataille, or Pasolini in Salò--and the underground readings that occur in the realms of erotic fiction and film, paying special attention to how Sade was used in various political and artistic debates. Finally, my conclusion discusses the place of Sade in contemporary society, including in recent films such as Benoît Jacquot's Sade and Philip Kaufman's Quills.

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More About This Work

Academic Units
French and Romance Philology
Thesis Advisors
Ladenson, Elisabeth A.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
April 13, 2011