Simone de Beauvoir, El Marques De Sade
“Beauvoir’s essay, “Must We Burn Sade?” (1951, 1952), written in response to a request to write an introduction to Sade’s Justine, details the effects Beauvoir’s changed position on the relationship between freedom and intimacy has on her ethical reflections. The central ethical question, “the problem of the true relation between man and man”, remains unchanged. Indeed what interests Beauvoir about Sade is that, “[he] posed the problem of the Other in its most extreme terms”. What has changed is Beauvoir’s understanding of the drama of intersubjectivity. Marking this change, this essay also marks a return to the question of the responsibility of the artist raised in The Ethics of Ambiguity.
“Must we Burn Sade?” identifies the Marquis’s decision to write as an existential project, an authentic ethics and a politics of rebellion. Beauvoir credits Sade with uncovering the despotic secrets of the patriarchal political machine. She is sympathetic to his utopian appeal to freedom. She finds, however, that Sade perverted the meaning of freedom. Thus Beauvoir identifies Sade as a great moralist who endorsed an unsatisfactory ethics.
Sade is Beauvoir’s Janus-faced ally. She does not refute his claim that cruelty establishes a relationship between the self and the other. Sade is correct. Cruelty reveals us to each other in the particularities and ambiguities of our conscious and fleshed existence. The tyrant and victim, Beauvoir tells us, are a genuine couple. They are united by the bonds of the flesh and freedom.
Sade is the epitome of maniacal passion dedicated to the project of cruelty. Because he takes full responsibility for his choices, he must be credited with choosing freedom and accepted as being authentically ethical. This does not, however, make him either an ethical or moral figure; for his choices destroy the intersubjective bonds of humanity. Though his account of the power of cruelty provides a convincing critique of our social, political and personal hypocrisies, it does not critique the ways that cruelty is a perversion of freedom and an exploitation of the vulnerability of the flesh. Thus his descriptions of the powers of cruelty and the meaning of torture are incomplete and inadequate. The case of the Marquis de Sade makes it clear that authenticity, assuming responsibility for one’s choices, is a necessary, but not sufficient, condition of an existential ethics of freedom.
In the end, Beauvoir finds that Sade was misled (which does not mean that he was innocent). He mistook power for freedom and misunderstood the meanings of the erotic. In his fascination with the conflict between consciousness and the flesh, Sade exposed the failure of the sadistic enterprise; for in attempting to lose himself in the pleasures of the flesh and in this way to experience both the ambiguity of his being as consciousness made flesh (or flesh made consciousness) and the reality of his being for and with others, Sade substitutes the spectacle for the lived experience and accepts counterfeit transactions of domination and assimilation/incorporation for genuine relationships of reciprocity and gratuitous generosity. He never reaches the other.
Centering his life in the erotic, Sade missed the truth of the erotic. This truth, Beauvoir tells us, can only be found by those who abandon themselves to the risks of emotional intoxication. Living this intoxication we discover the ways that the body turned flesh dissolves all arguments against the immediacy of our bonds with each other and grounds an ethic of the appeal, risk and mutual vulnerability.
Between the early Pyrrhus and Cinéas and the later “Must We Burn Sade?” we discern the impact of what might be called Beauvoir’s phenomenological turn to the body. Once she abandons the idea that our freedom, as absolutely internal, is immune from an assault by the other, and accepts the radical vulnerability of our lived embodiment, questions of violence and desire cannot be severed from the question of our shared humanity or questions of ethics and justice. In condemning Sade for his perversion of the erotic, Beauvoir also faults him as an artist. Though she accuses him of being a technically poor writer, the heart of her criticism is ethical not aesthetic. Sade, according to Beauvoir, violated his obligations as an author. Instead of revealing the world to us in its promise and possibilities, and instead of appealing to us to work for justice, he took refuge in the imaginary and developed metaphysical justifications for suffering and cruelty. In the end, Beauvoir accuses Sade of being the serious man described in her Ethics of Ambiguity.” (tratto da SEP)