Great works of art have been produced by atheist philosophers in the past and where France is concerned at least, Camus' The Outsider and The Plague and Sartre's Huis Clos come to mind. Unfortunately this(and I suspect the rest of the output of the Marquis de Sade) can not join this distinguished list. With little of the nuance and shade that makes for great art and with its unremitting tone, Juliette feels principally reminiscent of the film Baise Moi or a film by John Waters or Russ Meyer stretched over 10 hours. The freewheeling narrative has little dramatic arc and while there is some curiosity value in this "encyclopaedia of inhuman lewd practices",it is still very hard going at over 1,100 pages.
In fairness, the Marquis de Sade is a better writer than is sometimes credited. At more than one moment in the novel, Juliette is in genuine danger and De Sade proves surprisingly effective at building up tension. He also does seem to be able to gauge the response to his readers at individual moments. So for a novel that for much of the time consists of endless scenes of libertinage, De Sade knows when to go into detail and when to rely on short summaries. As a novel,
Juliette is far funnier than is sometimes acknowledged and some of the violence is so extreme as to descend into surreal black humour. Additionally there is irony such as when one character observes that she can handle ample stallions (my paraphrasing) before her morning hot chocolate. It is true that most of the characters are cut from very similar cloth, but the one truly virtuous character Monsieur de Losange is given a proper opportunity to expound his argument in
favour of virtue. The fact that he met Juliette in a house of ill repute is not presented as a source for mockery. He represents a truly nuanced character in a way that De Sade does not manage with the likes of Princess Borgese (a libertine prone to bouts of guilt).
If this was all that there was to De Sade's Juliette then it would have to count as a pretty mediocre romp, livened by the author's insanely gothic and uninhibited imagination but severely flawed by its insanely over-bloated length. However it is as a philosopher that the
Marquis de Sade is most worthy of note and it is that which makes Juliette worth reading. We are not accustomed to finding lengthy philosophical expositions in works of pornography but I suspect that De Sade would agree with those who argue that the end goal of all man's activities is the spreading of his genes, and this could be seen as validating his hardcore approach. De Sade's philosophy may have been refined into a more palatable form by Nietzsche but it is hard
not to admire the former for his intellectual consistency. A deeply pious philosopher like Blaise Pascal (in his Pensees) acknowledged that morality is based on custom rather than being innate. De Sade builds on this, arguing that since there is no God, we should deconstruct everything that we see as virtuous and recognise almost all of it (friendship, love, loyalty, respect for the lives of others, altruism) as disabling and stifling of our individual happiness. Nature holds no more value for a lump of mud than it does for 10,000 human beings, so if the genocide of 3 million people gives no more satisfaction than that of a good dinner, this should not bar the man
with power from practicing this mass murder. Man may derive pleasure from altruism but it is unlikely to be recognised by others, unlike cruelty, and the 'kick' provided by the latter is more piquant.
My problem with this viewpoint is threefold. Firstly I would question whether it is a certainty that we derive more pleasure from cruelty than from pleasure. To those who suspect wishful thinking, I would direct them to Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor's book On Kindness. However, more importantly perhaps, what goes around comes around. It is certainly true that there is honour among thieves, and I can quite easily believe that the same applies for libertines. However when they respect the life of their fellow libertines, they are acting virtuously. In fairness, De Sade and his anti-heroine is aware of this, and recognises that if she strays from the true path of vice for even a moment then she faces a far greater risk of losing her life (in
an exceptionally unpleasant manner) than were she among virtuous people. Yet as De Laclos demonstrated in his brilliant Dangerous Liaisons, this then places the libertine or sadist in just as much of a straitjacket as the virtuous person. It is for that reason that I felt cheated by the ending of De Sade's novel (I'll say no more). Again, as Shakespeare showed through the character of the atheist Aaron in Titus Andronicus, it is possible for a libertine or sadist to
have agendas beyond his own self-interest, yet De Sade's philosophy would require him to forfeit them thereby reducing his freedom.
De Sade is also wrong to portray nature as endlessly creative and to see it as welcoming destruction as a prompt to further activity. The writer can not be blamed for his mistake as Juliette was written long before Darwin's On the Origin of Species but we now know that nature
does not come out of nowhere but evolves. Were we to wipe out a million humans the damage would be questionable (and might in fact benefit the planet) but the wholesale extinction of the bee population would definitely not be beneficial.
With the intensity of its violence, Juliette is a novel that challenges the tolerance of even the most liberal reader who might wonder what a disturbed person would make of it and of its message.
Yet as it happens I recently started Bart D Ehrman's God's Problem where he passionately objects to those intellectuals who tackle suffering as an abstract concept without exploring precisely what it means and the intensity of its existence in the real world. We can certainly not accuse De Sade of looking away from the practice of cruelty or of its consequences, nor of the potential meaning of living in a Godless universe with no sense of absolute right and wrong. I would argue that however problematic De Sade's writing may be, it is no less dangerous that the strand of 'new atheist' (you know whom I am talking about) who like ostriches stick their head in the ground, argue that morality is innate and that there is no logical route from atheism to violence. If this book gives those thinkers a very bad day then it will have been worth it.
As a heterosexual male, I may not be the best person to comment on the book's feminist politics, but I'd like to chip in a word or two on this subject. I don't think that Juliette can really count as a feminist novel since there is little sense that our central heroine is motivated by anything beyond her own pleasure. Consequently, her role as a male fantasy (sluttish but beautiful and sexually insatiable) appears to be her real personality (and remember this is a first person narrative). The sheer intensity of the violence inflicted on women also plays into the hands of those who would wish to portray Sade as a woman hater. Yet freedom for all, male and female, is what he seeks, and in recognition of marriage as state-approved bondage, he pre-empts feminist thought by at least a century and a half.