May 23, 2013

De Sade — Insane, or marginized genius?

Or somewhere in between?

The Marquis de Sade, before we get to that question of the header, was not the Larry Flynt of 200-plus years ago. Rather, through his graphically, violently sexual writings, he was, it seems, challenging Enlightenment society in general, and late-Enlightenment France of the philosophes in general.

The Baffler, a place I love visiting, has a very interesting take on him.

That said, the piece is interesting, but, but I disagree with some of its conclusions. This is the most iffy Baffler piece in some ways that I've read in some time. The main thing I like about it is that it strips away much of the myth surrounding the Marquis de Sade. He wasn't promoting free love, he was promoting violent grotesqueries to challenge claims of how enlightened modern homo sapiens of his day allegedly was.

The main thing I don't like is:
It’s impossible to know whether Sade—who was almost certainly mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it—deliberately sabotaged the Enlightenment by ruthlessly parodying it or really held the philosophical and political convictions his characters voice ad nauseam.
The "impossible to know" may be somewhat overstated; I lean toward thinking he really had such convictions. That said, it's not tremendously overstated.

What is thrown out baldly, without evidence, is the claim that he was "almost certainly mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it." Isn't that a way of marginalizing what he said, and not trying to wrestle further with that "impossible to know"? After all, people have no problem pointing at Nietzsche as insane, even well before the period when he actually did go insane, as a way of dismissing him.

And, I suspect that if ancient Alexandria, in Hellenistic times, had had both insane asylums and Christians, insanity charges would have been hurled against Diogenes, the founder of Cynicism. That said, he's not an exact parallel.

Other than demythologizing him, the piece is good in demythologizing Nietzsche's claim to have been his later interpreter, and Ayn Rand's claim to have been the later interpreter of both of them. Those claims are made more by their followers than by the two themselves, actually, but they're out there to this day.

Anyway, it should be clear I think de Sade was neither half of the header. He was insightful about the problems with rationalism in general, including its assumptions about the potential, or actual, rationality of human nature — assumptions that too often go unchallenged today.

That said, was he also a tortured soul in some ways? Yes. Was he mentally ill most of his life? Probably not, unless forensic psychology can make a good definition of him as a sociopath. He may have been depressed much of his life, but I don't think Hussein Ibish meant that by "mentally ill for much of his life, if not for all of it."

That said, was he as great as Diogenes? No. Diogenes challenged human social structures more deeply, yet with much less verbal violence, than de Sade, and in a much broader range of portions of society.

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