Thursday, May 30, 2013

The Director of the Theater of Horror

What was it like to be an executioner in the 16th century?

The only fully reliable portrait of Frantz Schmidt that has survived, drawn in the margin of a legal volume of capital sentences by a Nuremberg court notary with artistic aspirations.
The only fully reliable portrait of Frantz Schmidt that has survived, drawn in the margin of a legal volume of capital sentences by a Nuremberg court notary with artistic aspirations. At the time of this event, the beheading of Hans Fröschel on May 18, 1591, Meister Frantz was about 37 years old. Courtesy of Staatsarchiv Nürnberg
This is an excerpt from The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington and out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
In the medieval era, public executions were meant to accomplish two goals: first, to shock spectators and, second, to reaffirm divine and temporal authority. A steady and reliable executioner played the pivotal role in achieving this delicate balance through his ritualized and regulated application of violence on the state's behalf. The court condemnation, the death procession, and the execution itself constituted three acts in a carefully choreographed morality play, what historian Richard van Dulmen called “the theater of horror.” The “good death” Meister Frantz Schmidt, an executioner in 16th-century Nuremberg, sought was essentially a drama of religious redemption, in which the poor sinner acknowledged and atoned for his or her crimes, voluntarily served as an admonitory example, and in return was granted a swift death and the promise of salvation. It was, in that sense, the last transaction a condemned prisoner would make in this world.
Let us take the example of Hans Vogel from Rasdorf, who, as Schmidt wrote in his extensive journals, “burned to death an enemy in a stable [and] was my first execution with the sword in Nuremberg” on Aug. 13, 1577. As in all public performances, the preparation behind the scenes was crucially important. Three days before the day of execution, Vogel was moved to a slightly larger death row cell. Had he been seriously wounded or otherwise ill, Frantz and perhaps another medical consultant would have tended to him and perhaps requested delays in the execution date until Vogel regained the stamina required for the final hour.
While awaiting judgment day, Vogel might receive family members and other visitors in the prison or—if he was literate—seek consolation by reading a book or writing farewell letters. He might even reconcile with some of his victims and their relatives, as did a murderer who accepted some oranges and gingerbread from his victim's widow “as a sign that she had forgiven him from the depths of her heart.” The most frequent visitors to Vogel's cell during this period would be the prison chaplains. In Nuremberg the two chaplains worked in concert and sometimes in competition, attempting to “soften his heart” with appeals combining elements of fear, sorrow, and hope. If Vogel couldn't read, the clerics would have shown him an illustrated Bible and attempted to teach him the Lord's Prayer as well as the basics of the Lutheran catechism; if he was better schooled, they might engage him in discussions about grace and salvation. Above all, the chaplains—sometimes joined by the jailer or members of his family—would offer consolation to the poor sinner, singing hymns together and speaking reassuring words, while repeatedly admonishing the stubborn and hardhearted.
Whatever their success in effecting an internal conversion, the clerics were at minimum expected to sufficiently calm the condemned Vogel for the final component of his preparatory period, the famed “hangman's meal.” As in those modern countries that still maintain capital punishment, Vogel could request what ever he wanted for his last meal, including copious quantities of wine. The chaplain Hagendorn attended some of these repasts and was frequently appalled by the boorish and ungodly behavior he witnessed. One surly robber spat out the warden's wine and demanded warm beer, while another large thief “thought more of the food for his belly than his soul … devouring in one hour a large loaf, and in addition two smaller ones, besides other food,” in the end consuming so much that his body allegedly “burst asunder in the middle,” as it swung from the gallows. Some poor sinners, by contrast (especially distraught young killers of newborns), were unable to eat anything whatsoever.
Once Vogel was adequately satiated (and inebriated), the executioner's assistants helped him put on the white linen execution gown and summoned Frantz, who from this point on oversaw the public spectacle about to unfold. His arrival at the cell was announced by the warden with the customary words, “The executioner is at hand,” whereupon Frantz knocked on the door and entered the parlor in his finest attire. After asking the prisoner for forgiveness, he then sipped the traditional Saint John's drink of peace with Vogel, and engaged in a brief conversation to determine whether he was ready to proceed to the waiting judge and jury.
A few poor sinners were at this point actually jubilant and even giddy about their imminent release from the mortal world, whether out of religious conviction, exasperation, or sheer intoxication. Sometimes Frantz decided that a small concession might be enough to ensure compliance, such as allowing one condemned woman to wear her favorite straw hat to the gallows, or a poacher to wear the wreath sent to him in prison by his sister. He might also ask an assistant to provide more alcohol, sometimes mixed with a sedative he prepared, although this tactic could backfire, leading some women to pass out and making some of the younger men still more aggressive. Once confident that Vogel was sufficiently calmed, Frantz and his assistants bound the prisoner's hands with rope (or taffeta cords for women) and proceeded to the first act of the execution drama.
The “blood court,” presided over by a patrician judge and jury, was a forum for sentencing, not for deciding guilt or punishment. Vogel's own confession, in this case obtained without torture, had already determined his fate. At the end of Nuremberg's chamber, the judge sat on a raised cushion, holding a white rod in his right hand and in his left a short sword with two gauntlets hanging from the hilt. Six patrician jurors in ornately carved chairs flanked him on either side, like him wearing the customary red and black robes of the blood court. While the executioner and his assistants held the prisoner steady, the scribe read the final confession and its tally of offenses, concluding with the formulaic condemnation “Which being against the laws of the Holy Roman Empire, my Lords have decreed and given sentence that he shall be condemned from life to death by [rope/sword/ fire/water/the wheel].” Starting with the youngest juror, the judge then serially polled all 12 of his colleagues for their consent, to which each gave the standard reply, “What is legal and just pleases me.”
Before confirming the sentence, the judge addressed Vogel directly for the first time, inviting a statement to the court. The submissive poor sinner was not expected to present any sort of defense, but rather to thank the jurors and judge for their just decision and absolve them of any guilt in the violent death they had just endorsed. Those relieved souls whose punishments had been commuted to beheading were often effusive in their gratitude. A few reckless rogues were so bold as to curse the assembled court. Many more terrified prisoners simply stood speechless. Turning to Frantz, the judge then gave the servant of the court his commission: “Executioner, I command you in the name of the Holy Roman Empire, that you carry [the poor sinner] to the place of execution and carry out the aforesaid punishment,” whereupon he ceremoniously snapped his white staff of judgment in two and returned the prisoner to the executioner's custody.
The second act of the unfolding drama, the procession to the site of execution, brought the assembled crowd of hundreds or thousands of spectators into the mix. Typically, the execution itself had been publicized by broadsheets and other official proclamations, including the hanging of a bloodred cloth from the town hall parapet. Vogel, his hands still bound in front of him, was expected to walk the mile or so to the gallows. Violent male criminals and those sentenced to torture with hot tongs were bound more firmly and placed in a waiting tumbrel or sled, pulled by a work horse used by local sanitation workers. Led by two mounted archers and the ornately robed judge, also usually on horse back, Frantz and his assistants worked hard to keep up a steady forward pace while several guards held back the teeming crowd. One or both chaplains walked the entire way one on either side of the condemned, reading from scripture and praying aloud. The religious aura of the entire procession was more than a veneer, and in Frantz's career only the unconverted Mosche Judt was “led to the gallows without any priests to accompany or console him.”
Satisfying his superiors' expectations of a dignified and orderly ceremony put even more pressure on the “theater of horror's” director. In addition to fending off derisive shouts and thrown objects, the executioner needed to maintain the somber mood of the proceedings. Frantz was understandably frustrated and embarrassed when one incestuous old couple turned their death procession into a ludicrous race, each attempting to outrun the other: “He was in front at the Ladies' Gate, but from here on she frequently outpaced him.” Frantz often laments when a prisoner behaved very wildly and gave trouble, but his patience appears to have been especially tried by the arsonist Lienhard Deürlein, an audacious knave who continued to drink hard from the bottle during the entire procession. Deürlein bestowed curses—rather than the customary blessings—on those he passed, and upon his arrival at the gallows handed the wine bottle to the chaplain while he urinated in the open. When his sentence was read to him, he said he was willing to die but asked as a favor that he should be allowed to fence and fight with four of the guards. His request, Meister Frantz drily notes, was refused. According to the scandalized chaplain, Deürlein then seized the bottle again “and this drink lasted so long that at last the executioner struck off his head while the bottle was still at his lips, without his being able to say the words ‘Lord, into thy hands I commend my spirit.' ”
Outward signs of contrition carried particular significance for Frantz, especially during this third act, at the execution site. He writes with approval when one remorseful murderer wept all the way until he knelt down or when a penitent thief took leave of the world as a Christian.
The greatest terror for any executioner—particularly a young journeyman—was that his own errors might effectively ruin the carefully managed drama of sin and redemption and endanger his own job or worse. The large crowd of spectators—always including many loud drunks among its number—put immense performance pressure on the sword-wielding executioner. Long farewell speeches or songs with multiple verses helped build suspense for the crowd, but also tried the patience and nerves of the waiting professional. Elisabeth Mechtlin started out well on the path to a good death, weeping incessantly and informing Magister Hagendorn “that she was glad to leave this vile and wicked world, and would go to her death not otherwise than as to a dance [but]… the nearer she approached to death, the more sorrowful and faint-hearted she became.” By the time of her execution procession, Mechtlin was screaming and yelling uncontrollably all the way to the gallows. Her continued flailing while in the judgment chair even apparently unnerved a by then very experienced Frantz Schmidt, untypically leading him to require three strokes to dispatch the hysterical woman.
Fortunately, Hans Vogel's execution passed without any incident worthy of note. Bungled beheadings, though, appeared often in early modern chronicles, in Nuremberg several times before and after Frantz Schmidt's tenure. During his own 45-year career and 187 recorded executions with the sword, Meister Frantz required a second stroke only four times (an impressive success rate of 98 percent), yet he dutifully acknowledges each mistake in his journal with the simple annotation botched. He also refused to fall back on the usual excuses proffered for a bungled beheading: that the devil put three heads in front of him (in which case he was advised to aim for the middle one) or that a poor sinner bewitched him in some other way. Some professionals carried with them a splinter from the judge's broken staff of justice to protect them against just such magical influences, or covered the victim's head with a black cloth to forestall the evil eye. Frantz's well-known temperance had fortunately immunized him from the more mundane explanation favored by contemporaries, namely the executioner “finding heart” for the big moment in the bottle or an alleged “magical drink.” Most crucially, his slips did not occur during these journeyman years or even his early career in Nuremburg, but rather long after he had become a locally established and respected figure, his reputation and personal safety both secure.
Mishaps leading to mob violence and lynch justice jeopardized the core message of religious redemption and state authority. In some German towns an executioner was permitted three strikes (really) before being grabbed by the crowd and forced to die in place of the poor sinner. Frantz recognized the constant danger to my life in every execution, but whether by skill or luck, he himself only faced one such total breakdown in public order—a flogging that turned into a riot and fatal stoning—and that came long after his journeyman years. Every beheading, by contrast, ended like his dispatch of the arsonist Vogel, with Frantz turning to the judge or his representative and asking the question that would complete the legal ritual: “Lord Judge, have I executed well?” “You have executed as judgment and law have required” came the formulaic response, to which the executioner replied, “For that I thank God and my master who has taught me such art.” Still at center stage (literally), Frantz then directed the anticlimactic mopping up of blood and appropriate disposal of the dead man's body and head—always fully aware of the hundreds of eyes still upon him. As Heinrich Schmidt had taught his son, the public performance of the executioner never ended.
From The Faithful Executioner: Life and Death, Honor and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth Century, written by Joel F. Harrington and out now from Farrar, Straus and Giroux. Republished with permission.

Géricault's Portraits of the Insane 

After The Raft of the Medusa
At the end of 1821 the leading Romantic painter in France, Théodore Géricault, returned from a year long stay in England where crowds had flocked to see his masterpiece The Raft of the Medusa displayed in the Egyptian Hall in Pall Mall, London. Despite the success of the exhibition, the French government still refused to buy the painting and his own prodigious spending meant that he was strapped for cash and in no position to embark on another ambitious and expensive large scale project like The Raft. His health too was soon to suffer. On his return to France, a riding accident led to complications, causing a tumor to develop on the spine that proved fatal. He died, aged 32, in January 1824.

Géricault, Portrait of a Woman Addicted to Gambling, 1822, Oil on canvas (Musée du Louvre, Pari)sPerhaps the greatest achievement of his last years were his portraits of the insane. There were ten of them originally. Only five have survived: A Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command; A Kleptomaniac; A Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy; A Woman Addicted to Gambling and A Child Snatcher.
No information is available for those that have been lost. According to the artist’s first biographer, Charles Clément, Géricault painted them after returning from England for Étienne-Jean Georget (1795-1828), the chief physician of the Salpêtrière, the women’s asylum in Paris. The paintings were certainly in Georget’s possession when he died.
Théodore Géricault, Portait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822, oil on canvas, 72 x 58 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons)

Three Theories for the Commission
How the two men met is not known for sure. Possibly Georget treated Géricault as a patient, or perhaps they met in the Beaujon Hospital, from whose morgue Géricault had taken home dissected limbs to serve as studies for his figures in The Raft. What is more debated though, is Georget’s role in the production of the paintings. There are three main theories. The first two link the portraits to the psychological toll taken out of Géricault whilst producing his great masterpiece and the nervous breakdown he is believed to have suffered in the autumn following its completion in 1819. The first theory runs that Georget helped him to recover from this episode and that the portraits were produced for and given to the doctor as a gesture of thanks; the second puts forward that Georget, as the artist’s physician, encouraged Géricault to paint them as an early form of art therapy; and the third is that Géricault painted them for Georget after his return from England to assist his studies in mental illness.
It is this last that is generally held to be the most likely. Stylistically, they belong to the period after his stay in England, two years after his breakdown. Also, the unified nature of the series, in terms of their scale, composition and color scheme suggest a clearly defined commission, while the medical concept of “monomania” shapes the whole design. 

Géricault, Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command, 1822, oil on canvas (Sammlung Oskar Reinhart, Winterhur)Early Modern Psychiatry
A key figure in early modern psychiatry in France was Jean-Etienne-Dominique Esquirol (1772-184), whose main area of interest was “monomania,” a term no longer in clinical use, which described a particular fixation leading sufferers to exhibit delusional behavior, imagining themselves to be a king, for example. Esquirol, who shared a house with his friend and protégé Georget, was a great believer in the now largely discredited science of physiognomy, holding that physical appearances could be used to diagnose mental disorders. With this in mind, he had over 200 drawings made of his patients, a group of which, executed by Georges-Francoise Gabriel, were exhibited at the Salon of 1814. As an exhibitor himself that year, it seems highly likely that Géricault would have seen them there.

Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Man Suffering from Delusions of Military Command, 1822, oil on canvas, 81 x 65 cm (Sammlung Oskar Reinhart, Winterhur)
Georget’s work developed on Esquirol’s. An Enlightenment figure, he rejected moral or theological explanations for mental illness, seeing insanity, neither as the workings of the devil nor as the outcome of moral decrepitude, but as an organic affliction, one that, like any other disease, can be identified by observable physical symptoms. In his book On Madness, published in 1820, following Esquirol, he turns to physiognomy to support this theory,

In general the idiot’s face is stupid, without meaning; the face of the manic patient is as agitated as his spirit, often distorted and cramped; the moron’s facial characteristics are dejected and without expression; the facial characteristics of the melancholic are pinched, marked by pain or extreme agitation; the monomaniacal king has a proud, inflated expression; the religious fanatic is mild, he exhorts by casting his eyes at the heavens or fixing them on the earth; the anxious patient pleads, glancing sideways, etc.
The clumsy language here—“the idiot’s face is stupid”—seems a world away from Géricault’s extraordinarily sensitive paintings, a point that begs the question whether Géricault was doing more than simply following the good doctor’s orders in producing the series, but instead making his own independent enquiries.

Géricault, Portait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822, oil on canvas (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyon) Géricault had many reasons to be interested in psychiatry, starting with his own family: his grandfather and one of his uncles had died insane. His experiences while painting The Raft must also have left their mark. The Medusa’s surgeon, J.B. Henry Savigny, at the time Géricault interviewed him, was writing an account of the psychological impact the experience had had on his fellow passengers and, of course, there was Géricault’s own mental breakdown in 1819. It seems only natural then that he would be drawn to this new and exciting area of scientific study. 
Théodore Géricault, Portait of a Woman Suffering from Obsessive Envy (The Hyena), 1822, oil on canvas, 72 x 58 cm (Musée des Beaux-Arts, Lyons)
Alternatively, some critics argue that Géricault’s work is a propaganda exercise for Georget, designed to demonstrate the importance of psychiatrists in detecting signs of mental illness. In their very subtleties they show just how difficult this can be, requiring a trained eye such as Georget’s to come to the correct diagnosis. According to Albert Boime, the paintings were also used to demonstrate the curative effects of psychiatric treatment. If the five missing paintings were ever found, he argues, they would depict the same characters—but after treatment—showing their improved state, much like ‘before and after’ photographs in modern day advertising. 

This, of course, is impossible to prove or disprove. What is more challenging is Boime’s general criticisms of early psychiatry which, he argues, by classifying, containing and observing people was effective only in silencing the voices of the mentally ill, rendering them invisible and therefore subject to abuse. The fact that the sitters of the paintings are given no names, but are defined only by their illnesses would seem to confirm this view and, for that reason, many modern viewers of the paintings do feel disconcerted when looking at them. 

Géricault, Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, 1822, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent)The Portraits
The five surviving portraits are bust length and in front view, without hands. The canvases vary in dimensions but the heads are all close to life-size. The viewpoint is at eye level for the three men but from above for the women, indicating that the paintings were executed in different places. It seems likely that the women were painted in the women’s hospital Salpêtrière, while the men were selected from among the inmates of Charenton and Bicȇtre.

None of the sitters is named; they are identified by their malady. None look directly at the viewer, contributing to an uneasy sense of distractedness in their gazes that can be read as stillness, as though they are lost in their own thoughts, or as disconnectedness from the process in which they are involved. These are not patrons and have had no say in how they are depicted. 
Théodore Géricault, Portrait of a Kleptomaniac, 1822, oil on canvas, 61 x 50 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Ghent)

Each is shown in three-quarter profile, some to the left, some to the right. The pose is typical of formal, honorific portraits, effecting a restrained composition that does not make it apparent that they are confined in asylums. There is no evidence of the setting in the backgrounds either, which are cast in shadow, as are most of their bodies, drawing the focus largely on their faces. The dark coloring creates a sombre atmosphere, evocative of brooding introspection. Their clothing lends them a degree of personal dignity, giving no indication as to the nature of their conditions, the one exception being the man suffering from delusions of military grandeur who wears a medallion on his chest, a tasseled hat and a cloak over one shoulder, which point to his delusions. The medallion has no shine to it and the string that it hangs from looks makeshift and worn. 
Géricault, Portait of a Child Snatcher, 1822, oil on canvas (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, MassachusetsThe paintings were executed with great speed, entirely from life and probably in one sitting. Critics often remark on the painterly quality of the work, the extraordinary fluency of brushwork, in contrast with Géricault’s early more sculptural style, suggesting that the erratic brushwork is used to mirror the disordered thoughts of the patients. In places it is applied in almost translucent layers, while in others it is thicker creating highly expressive contrasts in textures.
Théodore Géricault, Portait of a Child Snatcher, 1822, oil on canvas, 65 x 54 cm (Museum of Fine Arts, Springfield, Massachusets)
Romantic Scientists
What perhaps strikes one most about the portraits is the extraordinary empathy we are made to feel for these poor souls, who might not strike us immediately as insane, but who certainly exhibit outward signs of inward suffering.
John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, oil on paper laid on board, 47.6 x 57.5 cm (Tate Britain)In bringing the sensitivity of a great artist to assist scientific enquiry Géricault was not alone among Romantic painters. John Constable’s cloud studies, for example, were exactly contemporary with the portraits and provide an interesting parallel. Both artists capture brilliantly the fleeting moment, the shifting movements in Constable’s cumulus, stratus, cirrus and nimbus, in Géricault the complex play of emotions on the faces of the insane. Not since the Renaissance has art illustrated so beautifully the concerns of the scientific domain; in Géricault’s case teaching those early psychiatrists, we might be tempted to think, to look on their patients with a more human gaze.
John Constable, Cloud Study, 1822, oil on paper laid on board, 47.6 x 57.5 cm (Tate Britain) 

Text by Ben Pollitt

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

De Sade

The United Sades of America

[from The Baffler No. 22]

Not long after I took refuge from the academy to work in the policy centers of Washington, I visited one of D.C.’s landmark bookstores, Politics and Prose—a literary venue known, as its name suggests, for furnishing customers with the conceit that they’re browsing and shopping in a vaguely subversive fashion. But as I walked up to join the store’s cultivated and edgy communitas, I committed a terrible error: I asked a clerk where I might find the works of the Marquis de Sade. My request made its way up through an increasingly consternated group of shop assistants; I had to repeat it several times before they fully registered what I was asking for. At that point, I was told to leave the store immediately. The scene concluded on a perfect grace note when I was sternly conducted to the store’s exit by a female employee who was obviously French. It was as if I had asked for a how-to manual for murder, kidnapping, or child abuse—or, at a minimum, the most objectionable form of pornography.
That scene spoke volumes about the curious legacy of Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, the great and demented aristocratic theorist of unrestrained desire, in our own republic of consumer longing. Here, in the self-regarding intellectual center of a city justly famed for the free play of unleashed personal ambition and the basest kinds of instrumental manipulation of others, Sade was a four-letter word. Nor can I say that I was entirely taken aback by this reception; as I completed work on my doctorate, my professors took me aside to warn me that I should never attempt to teach any of Sade’s work until I was securely tenured—and even then, they stressed, I should proceed with enormous caution.
On one level, of course, it’s clear enough why Sade and his work make people squeamish: that was often his goal. To a degree not even rivaled by Sigmund Freud and other later explorers of the id (and its indispensible partner, the sadistic superego), Sade seemed to insist that the darkest, most destructive urges of humanity are core elements of our nature—that the drive to inflict pain, to dominate, even to murder, needs to be affirmed as part of the same complex of erotic and creative desires that keep human society viable and individuals “free.”
This is perhaps why, despite the careful strictures against uttering his name—let alone marketing his work—in polite consumer society, the shade of Sade is a markedly unquiet one in our America. Like other repressed ideas, Sade is everywhere and nowhere—indeed, there appears to be a strong inverse proportion between the popular reach of his name and image and actual familiarity with his writings and thought. (In an irony that Sade himself would likely have appreciated, the only European thinker with a similar universal-yet-unread profile in American intellectual life is probably the great Puritan theologian John Calvin.)
It’s difficult to imagine anyone, then or now, reading Sade and experiencing profound sexual excitement.
Sade is, indeed, enough of a household name among us that he functions as a sort of shorthand consumer brand for transgressive naughtiness, and the outright flouting of civilization’s taboos. He is commonly associated with sexual sadomasochism as a commodity, and pornography in general—including the mommy porn marketing phenomenon Fifty Shades of Grey. He’s popularly synonymous with cruelty and evil, much like the “murderous Machiavel” of the Renaissance English-speaking world. And he is also frequently, and reasonably, cast as the most extreme of misogynists. At the same time, Sade is also often represented as a proto-Romantic rebel—among the first, and certainly the most radical, protesters against the rational certainties of Enlightenment humanism (this was indeed the basis of the largely sympathetic portrait of Sade in Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade). A bowdlerized version of Sade has cropped up occasionally as a generic embodiment of artistic and intellectual freedom struggling against authority and restriction—a Larry Flynt of the eighteenth century, as it were. This was the Sade featured, for instance, in Philip Kaufman’s 2000 film Quills.
And this is all to say nothing, of course, about the sprawling popcult traffic in the graphically violent genre we might dub thanato-porn: the voyeuristic cult of invasively depicted death experiences as famously anticipated in the 1973 J. G. Ballard novel Crash. David Cronenberg’s 1996 film adaptation of Ballard’s book reveled in the erotic allure of death while affecting to critique its exploitation, but by now we’ve dispensed entirely with the conceit of critique; thanato-porn now runs the gamut from the Saw movie series to Grand Theft Auto videogaming and the latest network TV spinoff of the CSI franchise. If the point of much of Sade’s work was to marry the most intense modes of sexual frustration and release to the practice of interpersonal violence, he could confidently gaze out on the landscape of our popular culture, and declare much of this project a fait accompli.
But there was always much more to Sade than the simple lionization of the urges to objectify and dominate—and Sade’s legacy assuredly doesn’t end here, in the overstimulated agoras of our media world. If we broaden the aperture a bit to take in the official scenes of governance—a procedure that Sade himself strongly encourages—we can also see that he haunts our political culture in all sorts of unacknowledged ways. While many on the intellectual left have sought to grapple with Sade more directly, Sade also exerts a suitably perverse influence on the present-day American right. To take just one example, elements of Sade’s thought—via an embarrassingly reductive caricature of Nietzsche—thrive in the robust American cult of Ayn Rand.
Mitt Romney’s running mate Paul Ryan frequently cited Rand as his most important inspiration, and Rand’s unabashed championing of economic elites was also echoed by Romney’s own notorious dismissal of the 47 percent of Americans who don’t earn enough money to pay income tax and therefore needn’t be bothered with. At least one of Sade’s fictional monsters, Roland, anticipated this Randian attack on all forms of socially conscious responsibility to others as pathologically self-indulgent. In Justine, Roland rebuffs Justine’s plea that she be spared since she saved his life. “What were you doing when you came to my rescue?” he demands. “Did you not choose [this] as an impulse dictated by your heart? You therefore gave yourself up to a pleasure? How in the devil’s name can you maintain I am obliged to recompense you for the joys in which you indulge yourself?”
Similarly, there are echoes of Sade’s celebrations of personal violence (as opposed to the state-sponsored variety) in National Rifle Association chief Wayne LaPierre’s infamous response to the 2012 Sandy Hook school massacre. LaPierre suggested that the appropriate response to the epidemic of gun violence is increased gun ownership in a country already awash with firearms of every variety. One could easily imagine Sade also making the argument that the only rational or natural response to violence is additional and opposing violence—with the sole exception of the death penalty, which he opposed with all-encompassing passion.
Indeed, Sade’s deeply idiosyncratic views on the morality of personal violence are probably Exhibit A for why he cannot pass muster as any kind of guide for left-liberal cultural resistance. If we take his work at face value, he was not opposed to individual murders. He frequently had his characters argue that murder should not be punished by the state at all. Yet there probably has never been a more passionate opponent of capital punishment—the only form of premeditated homicide that normative “rational” thought typically considers potentially justifiable. This is Sade’s challenge to his readers in a nutshell: he specializes in justifying the conventionally unjustifiable while absolutely and passionately condemning what many would regard as, at least plausibly, defensible and rational.
There is, however, a much surer gauge of what might be called a vulgar Sadean legacy: the mainstreaming of American porn. Pornography is now so ubiquitous in contemporary American culture—so impossible to get away from—that the two things one may be assured of being offered in even the cheapest motel are pay-per-view porn on the television and a Gideon Bible in the bedside table, should you find yourself in sudden need of one form or the other of shameless mystification. I’m sure I’m not the only frequent traveler who has never availed himself of either of these kindly offerings, but they’re always there. One can’t help but imagine both Sade and Calvin bitterly grousing, in whatever mutually disappointing afterlife to which they’ve been jointly consigned, about how their intellectual legacies have been downgraded into all-but-interchangeable items of consumer convenience.
Can’t Touch This
There’s an especially bitter irony in Sade’s image as a cheap pornographer: he was not in any recognizable sense creating pornography at all—nor can he be neatly pigeonholed into any other literary tradition. Sade was an astonishingly prolific writer who produced an enormous oeuvre covering a huge variety of genres. Much of it is mediocre to the point of being unreadable, particularly his conventionally sentimental or comedic dramas and stories. There seems little doubt that without his notorious “libertine novels,” most notably Justine, Juliette, Philosophy in the Boudoir and, especially since its rediscovery in the early twentieth century, 120 Days of Sodom, Sade would have been quickly forgotten. Instead, these works, and a few others, have assured him of a profound—albeit highly contested and unstable—artistic and intellectual influence.
Because of the centrality of his erotic novels to his legacy, later critics have often caricatured Sade as not only a pornographer, but as the arch-pornographer, representing either the worst or the best of the genre. But this is deeply misleading. Insofar as pornography is a commodity of mass-marketed and stylized representations of sexual practices, Sade is better seen as an anti-pornographer. His work is unquestionably obscene, and transgressive in the extreme, but its impact is neither conventionally pornographic nor erotic. Although much of his fiction bears a great deal of similarity to the Gothic novel genre (of which he was a noted and serious critic), his best work, in the “libertine” series of fiction, is sui generis. It doesn’t correspond or submit to the stylistic or thematic patterns established by any previous writer—nor has it been successfully reproduced by any successor. Though stultifyingly repetitive in themselves, Sade’s most provocative works are simply not containable or assimilable by others. They subvert themselves in an infinite loop of contradiction, contortion, and, in many ways, ultimate incomprehensibility.
A powerful strand of masochism in our political culture has pushed many toward the overtly avaricious and predatory, and indeed sadistic, thought of Ayn Rand.
To see how completely Sade fails to permit even highbrow visual interpretations of his work, one need look no further than Pier Paolo Pasolini’s 1975 film Salò, a loose adaptation of 120 Days. As any patient reader soon discovers, Sade’s project is an exercise in stretching, in certain very limited directions, language and imagination (and repetition) beyond all conceivable boundaries. His images of unimaginable, and physiologically impossible, cruelty, indulgence, and excess belong entirely to the medium of the wordsmith. Any graphic representation transforms Sade’s literary surplus into heavy, grounded imagery, unmoored from the fantastical lightness of prose. It inevitably literalizes, contains, and forestalls Sade’s overflow of deranged fantasies and rhetorical overkill.
In Salò, we see Sade’s scenes staged with graphically represented bodies—a process that makes the horrible more horrible, but also much more mundane, and empties Sade’s grotesque fantasies of all their dark humor. Salò tries very hard to be funny, but it just can’t. By contrast, no matter how horrible the images described by Sade’s unnamed narrator in the first part of 120 Days, he rarely fails to amuse. In his effete verbosity, one can almost smell the powdered wig, see the over-rouged cheeks, and feel the faint, exasperated swishing of the handkerchief before the face of the world-weary, jaded, and supremely haughty late eighteenth-century aristocratic storyteller (yet another of Sade’s outlandish fictional characters).
Because Sade can’t be successfully reproduced, he can’t be mass-marketed. Beyond simply being pornographic, erotic words and images require the fetishism of branding to become viable commodities. This means there must be a recognized set of styles of pornography—or of any commercial genre, for that matter—that are easily reproducible and that will at least promise the consumer some foreknowledge of the product in question. To be successfully mass-marketed, porn is best watered down or sprinkled into other well-established genres of fetishism, especially what’s now called romantic fiction. Fifty Shades of Grey, for example, boils down to an execrably written version of “Cinderella” for our time—a familiar and reassuring fairy tale, albeit larded with a supposedly edgy brand of erotica.
Porn is particularly prone to sub-generic classification, for the simple reason that it’s intended to reproduce a given set of symbolic fantasies, some of which are already psychically or socially fetishized before they become commodified. Hence pornographic novels or videos within a given subgenre are not merely allowed to repeat, in effect, the same book or film over and over again; instead they must be quite monotonously re-created. Endless, precise, and meticulous reproduction is required by the audience. This is, to some extent, true of any genre of popular fiction, but porn’s commercial impulse to be innovative is even more deeply suppressed than it is in other highly repetitive genres such as action thrillers or romantic comedies. And even the silliest, most repetitive genre can, under the right circumstances, open up the possibility for real subversion of its central tropes and motifs.
Porn, of whatever variety, seems to foreclose that prospect. It is designed to meet an audience’s expectations and satisfy its fantasies, certainly not to complicate them or subject them to critical examination. These fantasies are not meant to have any broader personal, social, or political significance, and their pornographic representations must never imply that they do. They are presented and used as if they really were merely ends in themselves.
In this context, it’s painfully evident that pornography that subverts or implicitly critiques the fantasies it reproduces—the sort of sexual writing, in other words, that Sade specialized in, to the ruthless exclusion of anything resembling standard-issue titillation—will fail in its overt mission by provoking reflection rather than arousal. This would have a self-defeating effect similar to that of an insomniac trying to remedy his or her condition by assiduously taking notes on the experience while trying to fall asleep. It’s difficult to imagine anyone, then or now, reading Sade and experiencing profound sexual excitement. A plethora of other affects are infinitely more plausible: fascination, boredom, amazement, amusement, disgust, horror, frustration, anger, admiration, or indifference are all more readily produced by his baroque narratives and verbose prose style than erotic arousal.
This effect turns up on nearly every page of the libertine novels. If we avoid the more ghastly passages—which, believe me, is not easy—we can see how deliberately counter-erotic Sade’s thought is by simply pointing to his persistent predilection for the foul, as exemplified by this passage from 120 Days: “Beauty, health never strike one save in a simple way; ugliness, degradation deal a far stouter blow, the commotion they create is much stronger, the resultant agitation must hence be more lively. . . . [A]n immense crowd of people prefer to take their pleasure with an aged, ugly, and even stinking crone and will refuse a fresh and pretty girl.” The description of the crone Fanchon that follows makes the point even more vividly. And the murder of Augustine in Part the Fourth is virtually unreadable, and unsurpassed in its unmitigated horror.
Sade not only invites the reader to reflect on the nature and origins of the sexual acts, deviations, and perversions that he so exhaustively catalogues, he demands it. And he insists that they have profound philosophical and political implications. Commercial porn, since at least the late nineteenth century, has been based on the most straightforward possible commodity fetishism, and is not only intended, but fully expected, to mask the power relations it represents. By contrast, Sade’s best work coldly and unflinchingly lays bare those relations—but only for sustained consideration, not in any neatly programmatic prescriptive or political schema.
Far from presenting any actionable or even coherent model for liberation, Sade’s work resists the reader’s effort to draw any stable conclusion at all. For good or ill, Sade cannot be appropriated politically, or even philosophically, because of the internal inconsistencies, incongruities, and contradictions that make up the core of his thinking and writing. He raises an infinite loop of questions, but neither offers nor allows any answers.
The Cunning of Unreason
If we cannot view Sade as an apostle of political deliverance or personal liberation, he nevertheless was far ahead of his time, in subject matter if nothing else. His writings anticipate a huge cross-section of twentieth-century Western art, scholarship, and politics. Indeed, we could reasonably posit that his work laid the cornerstone for the entire anti-humanist project. Surely Sade’s most important contribution, at its high point, lay in dragging Enlightenment reason to absurdist logical conclusions, spelling out the method of its implosion, and anticipating the backlash against it that culminated in the sixties and seventies. What he bequeathed us was nothing less than a slow-growing but highly malignant, if not terminal, cancer buried deep in the corpus of Enlightenment rationalism.
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. They appear to champion reason, based on quasi-philosophical sophistry, but their arguments seem deeply arbitrary and profoundly irrational. Whether Sade intended to create a systematic satire of the philosophies of Rousseau and Kant or sought simply to take the logic of the laws of nature and the categorical imperative to their unsustainable conclusions in a mad trajectory of narcissism and self-gratification, his writings delved one yard below the mines of the Enlightenment’s humanist conceits, even though his own ordnance exploded more than a century later.
All of Sade’s major works pursue—and, indeed, relentlessly repeat—his anti-Enlightenment arguments. But he airs them most compellingly in the demented and appalling, but also absurd and hilarious, introduction to 120 Days, and, above all, in the claims made by its leading character, the Duc de Blangis. They are further elaborated in a lengthy polemical pamphlet, “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans,” that Sade shoves incongruously into the middle of Philosophy in the Boudoir by simply having its leading character, Dolmancé, read it aloud to the other characters. The pamphlet, she tells them, argues that “murder is a horror, but an often necessary horror, never criminal, which it is essential to tolerate in a republican State.”
Insofar as they can be coherently summarized, Sade’s monstrous antiheroes’ ideas—constantly restated—are of a piece with such horrific broadsides. If one laid them side by side, their message would amount to this: individual liberty and autonomy are absolute; anything that interferes with the use of an object (including another human being) to satisfy one’s caprices, whatever they might be, is immoral; human impulses of all kinds, including theft, rape, and murder are the dictates of “nature,” and hence no law should forbid them; private property is an intolerable evil as it deprives others of that property’s use, thwarting their “natural inclinations”; religions, especially Christianity, are monstrous evils designed to justify the repression of individuals’ “natural rights”; atheism of the most iconoclastic variety is, therefore, the only defensible religious attitude; and the accumulation of power by elites should be constantly and violently resisted by bloodthirsty and “immoral” citizens eager to defend their individual prerogatives by smashing any social or political institution that might restrain them.
This logic explains Sade’s apparent defense of murder but passionate opposition to the death penalty. Individual murders are “natural,” because the blood-thirsty impulses behind them arise spontaneously from organic being. Therefore, it is tyranny to punish them. The state, however, is an artificial and inorganic structure that has no vital being in nature—and it therefore has no right to take a life, even under the most extreme circumstances. It is natural for individuals to objectify each other for whatever purpose, but it is intolerable for the state or any inorganic institution to do so. In short, Sade created a reductio ad absurdum of Enlightenment rationality that—as the limitations of reason became increasingly apparent toward the end of the nineteenth century and throughout the twentieth—became increasingly powerful.
It is, of course, extremely difficult to know to what extent Sade agreed with these precepts, though he goes to great lengths to encourage readers to assume that he does. In Philosophy in the Boudoir, some characters accuse Dolmancé of being the secret author of “Yet Another Effort,” a sly suggestion that identifies the author with the character, and both with the pamphlet’s arguments. In 120 Days, Sade uses similar feints with Blangis, who is often cast as an ironic self-portrait of the author. The novel even makes reference to “the brave Marquis de S*** who, when informed of the magistrates’ decision to burn him in effigy, pulled his prick from his breeches and exclaimed: ‘God be fucked, it has taken them years to do it, but it’s achieved at last; covered with opprobrium and infamy, am I? Oh, leave me, for I’ve got absolutely to discharge’; and he did so in less time than it takes to tell.”
Such self-distancing irony again raises the question of authorial intent: How seriously did Sade mean to be taken? Even if he was mad and dangerous, Sade was certainly no hypocrite. He paid for his chosen way of life, and dearly. Sade proved utterly unable to live in accordance with any of the social or political systems of his times. He was jailed under the ancien régime for eleven years, ten of them in the Bastille, for various forms of libertinage and criminal abuse. He was released after the Revolution and became a member of the extreme Left, but was imprisoned and sentenced to death by the Jacobins. After the Reign of Terror, he was again released, only to be ordered arrested in 1801 by Napoleon for his “immoral writings”; declared insane, he was held at the Charenton asylum for the remainder of his life. Sade spent at least twenty-six of his seventy-four years in incarceration of one kind or another. That he sacrificed such an exceptionally large swathe of his adult life to confinement by the state strongly suggests that although much of Sade’s work is based on a dark and twisted humor, he wasn’t simply kidding.
Likewise, even if we view him in earnest, doesn’t Sade simply end up reinforcing the kinds of cultural authority that he professes to attack head on? Don’t his arguments remain trapped in a binary from which he cannot escape—in which vice, in order to be praised, must remain clearly identified as vice and opposed to virtue? How can one transgress without acknowledging the moral authority of the forces that one is transgressing against? Don’t his extensive arguments in favor of blasphemy all, in effect, come full circle to make him, de facto, a defender of the spiritual legitimacy of the Church? Blasphemy requires some acknowledgment that what is being profaned is, at some level, actually sacred. Many of his fictional outrages, for instance, involve the abuse of a consecrated host. To everyone but the faithful, this “host” would appear to be some sort of damp wafer, the sexual use of which would be odd but inconsequential and hardly scandalous.
Sade must have seen this tension himself, since it appears in his novels time and again. After a lengthy diatribe in which Blangis defends theft and other crimes, Sade’s narrator in 120 Days dryly observes, “It was by means of arguments in this kind the Duc used to justify his transgressions, and as he was a man of greatest possible wit, his arguments had a decisive ring.” Sade’s antiheroes are often described in his narratives—sometimes even by themselves—as “criminal,” “sick,” “depraved,” and other adjectives obviously designed to appall the reader, but that are incompatible with any sincere philosophical defense. Are they good because they are evil? Or does that make them, in the end, simply “evil” after all? Or are they beyond good and evil—in which case, why the remorseless cat-and-mouse game with readers over his antiheroes’ moral nature and their endless depravities and crimes?
This is precisely the kind of systematic self-subversion that makes Sade so slippery, difficult to systematize, and impossible to appropriate. Such incoherencies and contradictions in Sade’s work have led a number of scholars, including Laurence Bongie, the prominent historian of Counter-Enlightenment thought, to deny almost any value in his libertine fiction (although Bongie does highly praise his famed prison letters). But the temptation to dismiss Sade’s work, whatever its merits as literature, has to be tempered by a realistic assessment of the profound influence it has exerted on the Western world over the past century and a half.
Choosing Sades
Critical elements of Nietzsche’s attack on Enlightenment “reason” appear to be rooted in Sade, although scholarly opinion is divided over how direct this influence may have been. The imprint of Sadean precepts can be seen clearly in Nietzsche’s 1887 On the Genealogy of Morals and, above all, in his bitter denunciations of Christianity, which seem to mimic in both substance and language those of Sade’s antiheroes. And Nietzsche obviously originated almost all of Ayn Rand’s ideas, though she pompously claimed to have been influenced only by Aristotle. Rand essentially popularized a distorted version of Nietzsche and therefore some elements of Sade’s legacy. She notably claimed to have been the most implacable philosophical enemy of Kant, a title that surely belongs to Sade and not Nietzsche, let alone Rand.
Ironically, while Sade, Nietzsche, and Rand all champion the primacy of the individual will, Sade’s antipathy toward all forms of private property could not have been more absolute. Sade’s contempt for property and the rationalist philosophical system derived from its defense indeed places him well to the left of the Jacobins and most other French revolutionaries. For Sade, property is the essence of despotism. Conversely, Rand and her present-day followers on the American right (along with many others) cast private property as the essence of liberty.
Like so much else having to do with Sade, his historical descent into present-day influence doesn’t follow anything resembling a straight line. Sade is so subversive that all efforts to directly appropriate him politically have been entirely restricted to the Left, usually as a vehicle for attacking the Right.
Sade has managed to get his tentacles so deeply into our narcissistic, self- and other-devouring culture that traces of his influence are almost ubiquitous.
Scholars began to systematically rediscover Sade’s work, after decades of censorship and obscurity, in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This recovery took place in two related contexts. The first was the growth of interest in the full range of human sexual behavior, most notably through the work of Richard von Krafft-Ebing. His 1886 Psychopathia Sexualis popularized the term sadism (derived from Sade’s own name, of course). Soon thereafter, Freud famously began excavating the psychic origins of sexuality, often drawing on the same primal fantasies that inform the Sadean landscape. Here, modern interpreters have cast Sade’s writings, particularly 120 Days of Sodom, with its obsessive lists of and commentaries on paraphilia, as precursors to both Krafft-Ebing’s documentation of human sexual behavior and Freud’s investigations into its deeper psychological origins. Sade’s novels are also rightly regarded as neurotic symptoms, par excellence, in and of themselves.
Freud’s work exerted a strong ideological influence on the early twentieth century Left, which viewed his brand of psychoanalysis as fundamentally subversive of the dominant bourgeois social order (though Freud made it amply clear that his system offered little hope for a more democratic alternative). But Freud’s ideas also informed the strategies of corporate mass culture and advertising—particularly through their practical application in propaganda pioneered by his American nephew, Edward Bernays, the founder of the new twentieth-century discipline of public relations—as well as those of the fascist Right. With “mass society” increasingly subject to manipulation at the unconscious level, often through highly sexualized imagery, Sade—with his “eroticized” fantasies of harsh punishment and arbitrary, rigorous discipline—was to some degree rehabilitated as a writer who channeled a crucial subconscious dynamic. Sade eventually became identified in a good deal of psychoanalytic thought as the voice of the shadowy “obscene superego” that regulates the libidinal economy by prompting and structuring enjoyment while simultaneously enforcing the “law” that prohibits it.
Likewise, various artistic and intellectual movements, especially the Surrealists, rediscovered Sade’s shortcuts to the unconscious—and embraced them. Existentialist, structuralist, and poststructuralist critiques that expand on the anti-humanism pioneered by Nietzsche’s Genealogy of Morals all have roots in elements of Sade’s writings. Sartre and Camus, and even Kierkegaard, Heidegger, and Dostoevsky, all expanded on themes originating in Sade—wittingly or unwittingly. In her 1955 essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir wrestled with the fact that, in spite of existentialism’s obvious debt to Sade, as a feminist she found his writings deeply troubling. Somewhat grudgingly, Beauvoir concludes that Sade was indeed engaged in an existentialist project avant la lettre, and takes him seriously as a moralist, but ultimately she condemns his ethics and artistic values. The anti-humanist agenda, arguably initiated by Sade, culminated in French poststructuralism, and above all in the work of Michel Foucault (who reveled in homosexual sadomasochism in his personal life).
The Left has been drawn to Sade’s attack on Enlightenment reason from two perspectives. The first values Sade’s anticipation of the logic of various contemporary evils, including fascism and Nazism, Stalinism, or corporate-driven mass consumer culture. In their influential 1944 study of the limitations of the rationalist tradition in capitalist economies, The Dialectic of Enlightenment, Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno were probably the first to draw a direct link between Kant and Sade. Sade and Nietzsche, they wrote, “both took science at its word,” and pursued “the implications of reason still more resolutely than the positivists.” Moreover, they added, “because they did not hush up the impossibility of deriving from reason a fundamental argument against murder, but proclaimed it from the rooftops,” they are “still vilified, above all by progressive thinkers.”
If the point of Sade’s work was to marry sexual frustration and release to the practice of interpersonal violence, he could confidently gaze out on the landscape of our popular culture and declare it a fait accompli.
Horkheimer and Adorno argue that Kantian rationalism, taken to its logical conclusion, lends itself perfectly to totalitarian systems. They further note that Sade’s arbitrary but rigorous and ruthlessly imposed sadomasochistic orders prefigured the elaborate mechanisms of repression that flourished under totalitarianism, which (much like their Sadean predecessors) vacillate between utopian and dystopian impulses. They hold that Sade’s anti-heroine Juliette already explains and enacts the ruthless but logical consequences of a purely rational categorical imperative when such ideas are placed in the wrong hands. Horkheimer and Adorno see Sade’s protagonists as callous automatons of alienated, but rational, Kantian orders, as well-developed proto-fascists—or, indeed, as modern bureaucratic functionaries of any ideological persuasion.
A similar argument by the structuralist psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan holds that Sade, in effect, “completes” Kant by monstrously closing the circle left gaping by the open-ended categorical imperative. Moreover, Lacan identified the categorical imperative as simply another term for the superego itself. Ever the surrealist of theory, Lacan argues that Sade can be presented as if he were Kant. If Sade’s arbitrary but rigorously enforced imaginary social systems are a parody of law, Sade himself can therefore be cast as a parody of Kant.
A different, though happily much less influential, strand of left-wing thought has identified in “Sadean” violence, if not a liberatory potential as such, at least a necessary revolutionary impulse. In 1930, Georges Bataille cited Sade as the exemplar of the “ecstasy and frenzy” that characterize “the urges that today require worldwide society’s fiery and bloody Revolution.” Michel Foucault, greatly influenced by Bataille, seemed to see in the 1978-79 Iranian revolution an eruption of the kind of spontaneous revolutionary violence envisioned by Sade in “Yet Another Effort,” and defended in the name of virtuous “immorality.” Sade appears to be arguing through Dolmancé that “insurrection . . . indispensable to a political system of perfect happiness . . . has got to be a republic’s permanent condition,” and that “the state of an immoral man is one of perpetual unrest that pushes into, and identifies him with, the necessary insurrection in which the republican must always keep the government.” Foucault’s woeful misreading of revolutionary violence in Iran as exemplifying these “virtues” has done lasting and significant harm to his reputation.
Assume the Position
While Sade cannot be successfully appropriated, let alone commercialized, he has slowly but surely managed to get his tentacles so deeply into our narcissistic, self- and other-devouring culture that traces of his influence are almost ubiquitous. These Sadean echoes are hardly restricted to—and probably not even mainly to be found in—commercial pornography. By linking Enlightenment and mythology at the hip in their pioneering and still relevant critique, Horkheimer and Adorno identified traces of Sade’s obscene, highly regimented social orders not just in the horrors of fascism and Stalinism, but also in the more mundane tyranny of industrialized mass culture. They repositioned for us the ongoing conundrum, apparently inherent to modernity, that people demand their own subjugation at least as much as they yearn for their own empowerment. And they found, at the core of this problem, Sade and Nietzsche’s critiques of reason.
The heavy tension between egalitarianism and egoism is common to both Sade’s thinking and contemporary American political culture. As Julie Hayes notes, after the French Revolution, Sade “was prey to conflicting notions of society, government, and class structure. He hated the abuse of power, particularly as it applied to him, but his sense of class consciousness was stronger than ever.” In a letter to his attorney at the end of 1791, he confronted the “mobility” of his perspectives, asking him, “What am I at present? Aristocrat or democrat? You tell me, if you please, lawyer, for I haven’t the slightest idea.” This irresolvable tension between radical egalitarianism and radical individualism in Sade is precisely what makes him and his work politically and philosophically “impossible.”
What could be a more resonant puzzle for the way we live now? Is anything, in this sense, more Sadean than self-negating Tea Party slogans such as “keep your dirty government hands off my Medicare?” Much of American culture is committed to egalitarianism, and demands and expects certain social and economic protections from government. But simultaneously, and often in the same breath, it venerates extreme wealth, individual privilege, and the prerogatives of the rich.
This dichotomy is driven, at least in part, by the classic American illusion of widespread social mobility and the idea that anyone can join our morally unrestrained power elite by hewing to the character-defining virtues of hard work, while also incongruously courting the favor of fortune. Meanwhile, a powerful strand of masochism in our political culture has pushed many toward the overtly avaricious and predatory, and indeed sadistic (though hardly Sadean), thought of Ayn Rand. Economic Darwinism is thus bizarrely repackaged as a corrective for corporate amorality—as well as the cure-all for absurd social injustices such as bailouts for financial institutions deemed “too big to fail.”
So to rephrase Sade’s quandary slightly, what are we, Americans, at present? Oligarchs or egalitarians? The normative response to the tension between individual rights, which protect the prerogatives of the powerful, and collective rights, which protect those of the general public, is that we seek to find a balance between the two. This is the consensus view of both the notional “center-right” and “center-left” in our punitive-minded political culture—and this may really be the only politically plausible or reasonable answer in this otherwise untenable standoff. But Sade, that shadowy doppelganger of the Enlightenment, still lurks in the dark corners and liminal spaces of our culture, whispering that reason often carries a very hefty price tag—and with ever more elaborate punishments to come.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

Pop Goes The Easel

May 21 2013 @ 9:44am
Image Duplicator is an exhibition featuring artists who have re-appropriated the works of Roy Lichtenstein, the pioneering appropriator of comic book art:
According to the Tate Modern – home to an exhibition of his work until May 27 – he is one of the true greats of the twentieth century. His paintings are worth millions, and even those with little knowledge of or interest in art will instantly recognise prints such as Whaam! and Drowning Girl.
But the trouble with Lichtenstein’s work, says [curator] Rian Hughes, is that most – if not all of it – is appropriated from comic book artists without credit or compensation. “Almost every painting [Lichtenstein] ever did was appropriated without asking permission or paying royalties. If he was a musician, he would be facing a copyright lawsuit,” claims Hughes. …
So why has this been allowed to continue for so long? Hughes believes it’s symptomatic of a widespread snobbery towards commercial art. “If you unearthed a rare song and sampled it, people would take great delight in pointing out the source material. Yet in the art world, the source material – particularly when it is created by commercial instead of fine artists – is often treated as if it is some kind of cultural clip art – “low” art that fine artists will elevate to “high” art,” he says. “[W]hat we’re really hoping to do [with Image Duplicator] is encourage people to celebrate good art regardless of where it came from,” he says.
(Image: Dave Gibbons’s re-appropriation of Whaam!, inspired by illustrations by Irv Novick, courtesy of Orbita

The Met The Best

May 20, 2013

The Met’s New European Galleries

Something monumental has been happening, by stealthy stages, to art in New York. On May 23rd, it will stand fully revealed: the architectural renovation and wholesale rehanging of the Metropolitan Museum’s core collections of pre-modern European art, enlarged by the annexation of galleries formerly devoted to temporary exhibitions. The revamp has added or moved hundreds of paintings. New, subtle wall colors and enhanced lighting grace thoroughly rethought, cunningly dramatized histories. I had an eerie sense, while surveying the results the other day, that here was a brand new major institution which, somehow, had plundered the holdings of the Met.
The new order may eventually take on the encrusted familiarity that can dull our repeated experience of museum collections. But, for now, it amounts to a sparklingly fresh, re-educative crash course in the standby and, often, the unjustly neglected glories of the Western tradition. It will overwrite what you think you know of European art, from Giotto to Goya. Surprises cascade. Go with a friend. You will want to jabber.
Start in the big room of the Italian Baroque, just beyond the uniquely unchanged Tiepolo gallery at the top of the grand staircase. The Italian Renaissance beckons from the two railroad ranks of galleries dead ahead, debouching in a great hall of the sixteenth-century Venetians. (Tintoretto especially—and at last—registers with fitting majesty.) To your right lies more Italian Baroque, with Caravaggio ascendant, and then the Italian eighteenth century and the unfolding heydays of French and Spanish genius. To your left, in the repurposed spaces, is a tremendously invigorated representation of Northern European art, from van Eyck to the eighteenth-century English and climaxing in sky-lighted splendors of Rembrandt and Hals.
A frisky museum press release terms the leftward itinerary the Beer Tour and those on the right the Chianti, Frascati, Burgundy, and Rioja Tours. I plan to forget that as soon as I can. But the twee taxonomy reflects a marvellous feat of storytelling installation. It will henceforth be possible, as it never was before, to close your eyes and picture, in your mind, a roughly accurate map of the layout’s forty-four galleries. Thematic groupings here and there—portraits, altarpieces, decorative arts—afford rhythmic relief to the masterpiece parade. Naturally, the Met’s aesthetic onslaught will still exhaust your powers of attention, but not nearly as fast as it used to.
In this world and time of so much going wrong, our local old-master franchise models how to get something, which matters, just about perfectly right.

Friday, May 17, 2013

I Have Become Very Hairy

I have become very hairy all over my body.
I’m afraid they’ll start hunting me because of my fur.

My multicolored shirt has no meaning of love —
it looks like an air photo of a railway station.

At night my body is open and awake under the blanket,
like eyes under the blindfold of someone to be shot.

Restless I shall wander about;
hungry for life I’ll die.

Yet I wanted to be calm, like a mound with all its cities destroyed,
and tranquil, like a full cemetery.
Yehuda Amichai
Do Not Accept

Do not accept these rains that come too late.
Better to linger. Make your pain
An image of the desert. Say it’s said
And do not look to the west. Refuse

To surrender. Try this year too
To live alone in the long summer,
Eat your drying bread, refrain
From tears. And do not learn from

Experience. Take as an example my youth,
My return late at night, what has been written
In the rain of yesteryear. It makes no difference

Now. See your events as my events.
Everything will be as before: Abraham will again
Be Abram. Sarah will be Sarai.

 Yehuda Amichai

The Pakistani artist Imran Qureshi was invited to create an installation on the Metropolitan Museum’s roof. The work’s title, “And How Many Rains Must Fall Before the Stains Are Washed Clean,” comes from a poem by the Urdu poet Faiz Ahmed Faiz (1911-1984).

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Double figurine composed of the fore-quarters of facing cervids Bronze Iran in the Iron Age (14th–mid-6th century BC) and during the Neo-Elamite dynasties

Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres: Kitten Sleeping in the Arms of Madame Ingres

Lee Krassner: Dichotomy 1963

ULTRA-now and forever

God's Gif

    “Did you ever think of me? … Only when I was sad.”

    Solyaris (1972)

Maru. Always Maru

Utterly stupid porn...just imagine what type of person would find this erotic


Minoans Came From Europe, Not North Africa, Ancient DNA Suggests

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By Ewen Callaway

When the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans discovered the 4,000-year-old Palace of Minos on Crete in 1900, he saw the vestiges of a long-lost civilization whose artefacts set it apart from later Bronze-Age Greeks. The Minoans, as Evans named them, were refugees from Northern Egypt who had been expelled by invaders from the South about 5,000 years ago, he claimed.
Modern archaeologists have questioned that version of events, and now ancient DNA recovered from Cretan caves suggests that the Minoan civilization emerged from the early farmers who settled the island thousands of years earlier.
The Minoans flourished on Crete for as many as 12 centuries until about 1,500 bc, when it is thought to have been devastated by a catastrophic eruption of the Mediterranean island volcano Santorini, and a subsequent tsunami. They are widely recognized as one of Europe's first 'high cultures', renowned for their pottery, metal-work and colourful frescoes. Their civilization fuelled Greek myths such as the story of the Minotaur, the half-man, half-bull creature who lived in a labyrinth.
Evans was among the first to explore Crete after it gained independence from the Ottoman Empire in 1898. His team discovered the 4,000-year-old Palace of Minos, and uncovered artefacts very different from those of Bronze Age Greece, including thick-walled circular tombs that bore a resemblance to those of ancient North Africans, and still-undeciphered scripts dubbed Linear A and Cretan hieroglyphs.
Others have suggested that the Minoans originated in the Middle East, modern-day Turkey or the Mediterranean. Genetic studies of modern Cretans have come to little consensus.
George Stamatoyannopoulos, a geneticist at the University of Washington in Seattle who has been working on the problem for more than a decade, hoped that he could settle the debate by looking at the DNA of the long-dead Minoans. “One of my motivations when I started the whole thing was to see whether Sir Arthur Evans was right or not,” he says.
Stamatoyannopoulos's team assembled bone and tooth samples from more than 100 individuals who lived on Crete between 4,900 and 3,800 years ago. Of these, 37 yielded mitochondrial DNA, which is passed down in the maternal line. The team analysed the samples in two different laboratories — a quality-control method common in ancient DNA work.

Cultural exchange

The Minoan samples possessed 21 different mitochondrial DNA markers, including 6 unique to Minoans and 15 common in modern, Bronze Age and Neolithic European populations. None of the Minoans possessed mitochondrial markers similar to those of present-day African populations. The results are published online today in Nature Communications1.
It is likely, says Stamatoyannopoulos, that the Minoans descended from Neolithic populations that migrated to Europe from the Middle East and Turkey. Archaeological excavations suggest that early farmers were living in Crete by around 9,000 years ago, so these could be the ancestors of the Minoans. Similarities between Minoan and Egyptian artefacts were probably the result of cultural exchanges across the navigable Mediterranean Sea, rather than wholesale migrations, he adds.
Wolfgang Haak, a molecular archaeologist at the University of Adelaide in Australia, thinks that Crete’s early history is probably more complicated, with multiple Neolithic populations arriving at different times. “It's nevertheless good to see some data — if authentic — from this region of Europe contributing to the big and complex puzzle,” he says.
Stamatoyannopoulos notes that his team’s findings are limited, because mitochondrial DNA represents only a single maternal lineage for each individual — a mother’s mother, and so on. With Johannes Krause, a palaeogeneticist at the University of Tubingen in Germany, the team now plans to sequence the nuclear genomes of Minoans and other ancients to learn more about their history.
“For the last 30, 40 years there’s been a growing sense that Minoan Crete was created by people indigenous to the island,” says Cyprian Broodbank, a Mediterranean archaeologist at University College London. He welcomes the latest line of support for this hypothesis. “It’s good to have some of the old assumptions that Minoans migrated from some other high culture scotched,” he says.

This story originally appeared in Nature News.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013