Frye on de Sade

Illustration from a Dutch edition of Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue

Further to yesterday’s post, here is a collection of Frye references to de Sade.

It is an elementary axiom in criticism that morally the lion lies down with the lamb. Bunyan and Rochester, Sade and Jane Austen, The Miller’s Tale and The Second Nun’s Tale, are all equally elements of a liberal education, and the only moral criterion to be applied to them is that of decorum. Similarly, the moral attitude taken by the poet in his work derives largely from the structure of that work. Thus the fact that Le Malade Imaginaire is a comedy is the only reason for making Argan’s wife a hypocrite—she must be got rid of to make the play end happily (Anatomy of Criticism, CW 22, 105-6)

Blake says that we live in, if you like, a fallen world, that is, a world of great inequities, of privi­lege, a world of ferocity. He doesn’t have an ideal­ized view of nature like Rousseau. He doesn’t believe in the noble savage. Wordsworth says that nature is our teacher, and the Marquis de Sade says that nature justifies your pleasure in inflicting pain on others. Blake would say that there is a lot more evidence for the Marquis de Sade’s view of nature than for Wordsworth’s. So for Blake what happens is that the child, who is the central figure of the Songs of Innocence, is born believing that the world is made for his benefit, that the world makes human sense. He then grows up and discovers that the world isn’t like this at all. So what happens to his childlike vision? Blake says it gets driven underground, what we would now call the subconscious. There you have the embryonic mythical shape that is worked on later by people like Schopenhauer, Marx, and Freud. (Cayley interview, CW 24, 958)

It is unfortunate that Praz’s influential book concentrates so much on the purely psychological elements of sadism, for sadism is far more important as a sardonic parody of the Rousseauist view of society. According to de Sade, nature teaches us that the greatest good of life is pleasure, and there is no keener pleasure than the inflicting (or, for masochists, who complete the theory, the suffering) of pain. A society of sadistic masters and masochistic slaves would therefore be a “natural” society. There is no evidence that Rousseau’s natural society ever did, could, or will exist: the evidence that it is natural for man to form societies that condemn the majority to misery and humiliation and give a small group the privilege of enjoying their torments is afforded by the whole of human history. The sense that ecstasy and pain are really the same thing is connected with the fact, just mentioned, that for Romantic mythology the greatest experiences of life originate in a world which is also the world of death and destruction. (A Study of English Romanticism, CW 17, 121-2)

The symbol of the artist as criminal, however, goes much deeper. I spoke of the way in which optimistic theories of progress and revolution had grown out of Rousseau’s conception of a society of nature and reason buried under the injustices of civilization and awaiting release. But, around the same time, the Marquis de Sade was expounding a very different view of the natural society. According to this, nature teaches us that pleasure is the highest good in life, and the keenest form of pleasure consists in inflicting or suffering pain. Hence the real natural society would not be the reign of equality and reason prophesied by Rousseau: it would be a society in which those who liked tormenting others were set free to do so. So far as evidence is relevant, there is more evidence for de Sade’s theory of natural society than there is for Rousseau’s.  (The Modern Century, CW 11, 46-7)

I’ve said too that de Sade is just as right about “nature” as Wordsworth is: he simply points to its predatory & parasitic side. But no animal acts with the malice that man does: that’s a product of consciousness. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 56)

Romantic irony revolves around de Sade and the so-called “Romantic agony,” the sense of the interpenetration of pleasure and pain, beauty and evil, intensity and destructiveness. There are two chief recurring characters. One is an exile or outcast figure similar to the one that we find in tragic stories, except that he is without the support that nature gives to the more genuinely tragic hero’s contest with society. The ironic outcast is rather a desdichado figure, a sad Quixote whose aristocratic pretensions are an illusion. His female counterpart is an elusive or sinister femme fatale, the Romantic embodiment of the cruel mistress of Courtly Love.

So from Rousseau through the Romantics, the framework of imagery behind poetry began to turn into something very different.  Human civilization, with its laws, its reason, its social discipline, its clothes, and its figures of authority, still sits on top of what in previous ages was the “fallen” or alienated world of physical nature.  But the latter world is now thought of increasingly as something containing a nonhuman Other which is needed to complete human nature itself, and yet is not God.  The relation of this natura naturans to ordinary human civilization may vary according to the poet’s temperament: in Wordsworth it is profoundly benevolent for the most part; in others it may be sinister and terrible, even the kind of thing it is in the Marquis de Sade.  Meanwhile, the stars in their courses can no longer symbolize the original divine creation with any real convincingness.  (“Vision and Cosmos,” CW 18, 227–8)

But what does Wordsworth’s gentle goddess who never betrayed the heart that loved her have to do with Tennyson’s nature red in tooth and claw, with its ferocious and predatory struggle for survival? Even more, what does she have to do with the narrators in the Marquis de Sade, who, after some particularly nauseating orgy of cruelty and violence, appeal with equal confidence to nature to justify their pleasure in such things? Are there two natures, and if so are they separable? It is obvious that Wordsworth’s teacher-nature is an intensely humanized nature, even the Lake country and the Alps being dominated by human artifice. And yet one feels that it would be oversimplifying to call Wordsworth’s nature a mere projection of human emotions on nature, even though there often seems to be more evidence for de Sade’s view of nature than for his.) (Words with Power, CW 26, 213)

The fact that Prometheus and Dionysus are tragic figures raises all the ambivalent aspects connected with tragedy, the one we are concerned with now being the duality within nature, discussed in the previous chapter, the contrast between Wordsworth’s nature and de Sade’s. This duality is what links together the titanic and the demonic. A cat knows when it is warm and well fed; if we add human consciousness to that feeling, we may get the beginnings of a Wordsworthian view of nature. A weasel is a ferocious predator, and if we add human consciousness to its ferocity we may get the beginnings of malice and a psychopathic pleasure in cruelty. This would be a fusion of reason and nature on a genuinely demonic level, of the sort that Gulliver’s Houyhnhnm master suggests: (Words with Power, CW 26, 238)

In the fifth book of Paradise Lost we see the passing over of Lucifer by God the Father in honour of the newly begotten Christ. This story is of course not in the Bible, but it fits very well into the Biblical mythical pattern we are noting. Romanticism included a movement of diabolism which made Lucifer into a heroic and sympathetic figure, or even the true God. Many examples can be found in Mario Praz’s Romantic Agony, which traces various subsidiary trends like the reversal of good and evil in followers of de Sade. The feeling is usually directed against the sky-god of authoritarian Christianity, and idealizes a figure who partakes of human nature, including its evil aspects, on the ground that the moral conformity demanded by the sky-god deprives humanity of its essential creative energies. (Words with Power, CW 26, 241–2)

By the eighteenth century it becomes obvious that the cult of Eros is not just a determination of poets to sing of love: it’s also an insistence on the natura naturans aspect of nature, which the heavy emphasis on natura naturata leaves out.  So Eros turns into a force that expresses man’s essential unity with nature, benevolent with Wordsworth, sinister with de Sade.  For the first time there’s an otherness to be reckoned with that isn’t God (of course there’s Milton’s In Adventu [Adventus] Veris and the last two lines of Epitaphium Damonis). At the same time, after Newton the heavens closed down as an image of divine forethought and became one of alienation; the dream world and various Atlantis symbols opened up below, and the Eros world was thought of as under the world of experience.  So the traditional order got stood on its head, in a cosmos of revolt directly reversing the cosmos of authority.  (Late Notebooks, CW 6, 486–7)

I suppose Sade is about as far as one can go in the Romantic glorification of natura naturans: there’s nothing left of the structure or system of nature at all. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 66)

Sade’s nature and Wordsworth’s nature; Eros and Thanatos, or rather, sublimating Eros according to Freud and going toward Thanatos. (“[Paul de Man,]” CW, 25, 349)

Mother nature is partly a revolutionary force & partly Sade’s old tormenting hag.  The latter, the devil’s dam, is left behind in Thanatos; the former turns into the redeemed bride. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 187)

In the second place, Blake became, for Swinburne, an exponent of the “romantic agony,” maintaining that conventional or moral good was evil and that the salvation and freedom of man lay in the recrudescence of long suppressed instincts. The chief document used in this presentation of Blake was The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, apparently the most explicit of the Prophecies, but actually, because of its highly ambiguous irony, one of the most elusive. (It is in fact Blake’s second prose satire, and it is significant that his first, An Island in the Moon, was unknown to Swinburne and despised by Symons.) Swinburne interprets this work as a document falling within his own conception of the sadist tradition—Swinburne refers to Sade, though not by name, in a long footnote. The influence of this sadist or diabolist Blake is visible in Bernard Shaw, who seems to have made some use of Blake for The Devil’s Disciple, and in André Gide. The same view of Blake was evidently accepted by Mario Praz in his influential Romantic Agony (1933), and it is still doing duty, though largely for schematic reasons, in D.G. James, The Romantic Comedy (1948). It would be convenient enough to have a genuine example of what Swinburne calls a “dysangel,” if only as a clay pigeon, in the ultrarespectable English tradition, but criticism is reluctantly forced to say that this conception of Blake could hardly be more mistaken. (“William Blake (I),” CW 16, 274)

Moral ambiguity of nature (Wordsworth & Sade) based on close intertwining of creative & demonic descents. [See WP, 246, 279.]  Similarly with the doppelganger, who may be an evil spirit or Jungian shadow (Poe’s William Wilson, etc.).  Narcissus is deceptive, the male counterpart of the siren.  The Biblical pattern is the first Adam of ordinary consciousness & the buried second one who plunges up out of death & hell. [See WP, 266–71.]  The Resurrection comes from & through hell: that’s all the “Bible of Hell” amounts to. (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 387)

In One [Words with Power] I introduce the theme of the double heroine: this gets picked up again in the Rcsm. [Romanticism] chapter where a female Nature is either cherishing with Wordsworth or sinister with Schopenhauer (and Sade). (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 175)

The general argument of Seven-Eight is: Rousseau started the revolutionary drive toward incorporating nature (as in the identification with reason; and in the educational argument of Emile) [That is, natura naturata, as opposed to natura naturans.] into the spirit of man.  But the Biblical tradition had always warned against the evils inherent in nature, and the bottoms-up 19th c. thinkers repeated the ambivalence.  Hence Wordsworth & the Marquis de Sade both appealed to “nature”; Schopenhauer recognized its dangers; Nietzsche recognized them and glorified them; Huxley warned against them.  The strictly revolutionary position in Marx & Freud was “godless” because it saw only the incorporating of nature, & with that “revolution” acquired its other meaning of a change toward the same thing. [These themes are hardly what turned out to be the “general argument” of chs. 7 and 8: they are treated in WP, 241–7.] (Late Notebooks, CW 5, 388)

In mimetic times there’s a social establishment in the middle of society, with an upper & a lower class both dependent on it, parasitic to that extent, and hence, qua classes, essentially animal classes.  The aristocracy acquires a powerful sexual smell from Romanticism once Lord Byron & the Marquis de Sade inherit the devil, along with the Gothic heroes.  They get this partly from the fact that Eros has shifted from pastoral & garden metaphors to the numinous nature of forest and wilderness.  The sexual symbolism of a lower class is less easily established, but there are traces of it in [Wyndham] Lewis’s Paleface images: Nazi sadism & the whipping of Jewesses ([Robert] Briffault’s Europa); the black man as a sexual symbol; the virile worker & the effete bourgeois (Lawrence’s gamekeeper; even Heathcliff).  The beat & hippie people revive the childlike radical of aristocracy which makes it an Eros symbol, including the cavalier symbol of long hair.  The “artist” too, of course, is an intermediate figure between aristocrat & beat, with the same satyrical display of balls. (Third Book Notebooks, CW 9, 140)

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2 thoughts on “Frye on de Sade

  1. Gene Phillips

    Thanks for assembling these.

    For some reason I wouldn’t have thought Frye had written this much on Sade.

    It’s interesting to see him comparing Sade and Rousseau. Much later that would become a key trope in Paglia’s Sexual Personae. Did she get it from Frye? I don’t think she ever mentions him, and her critical aims are certainly very unlike his.


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