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Are not laws dangerous which inhibit the passions? Compare the centuries of anarchy with those of the strongest legalism in any country you like and you will see that it is only when the laws are silent that the greatest actions appear.
Nature, who for the perfect maintenance of the laws of her general equilibrium, has sometimes need of vices and sometimes of virtues, inspires now this impulse, now that one, in accordance with what she requires.
Sade’s fiction has been tagged under many different titles, including pornography, Gothic, and baroque. Sade’s most famous books are often classified not as Gothic but as a libertine novel, and include the novels Justine, Juliette, The 120 Days of Sodom, and Philosophy in the Bedroom. These works challenge perceptions of sexuality, religion, law, age, and gender in ways that Sade would argue are incompatible with the supernatural. The issues of sexual violence, sadomasochism, and pedophilia stunned even those contemporaries of Sade who were quite familiar with the dark themes of the Gothic novel during its popularity in the late 18th century. Suffering is the primary rule, as in these novels one must often decide between sympathizing with the torturer or the victim. While these works focus on the dark side of human nature, the magic and phantasmagoria that dominates the Gothic is noticeably absent and is the primary reason these works are not considered to fit the genre.
It is largely assumed that no writer in history has presented audiences with more disturbing vices than Sade. Libertines who possess manic desires and will go to any length necessary for the gratification of their senses pushed the boundaries of moral imagination. Through the unreleased passions of his libertines Sade wished to shake the world at its core. With 120 Days, for example, Sade wished to present “the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists.”
Though much of the fiction written by the Marquis de Sade has been classified as libertine, his tales in The Crimes of Love utilize Gothic conventions. Subtitled “Heroic and Tragic Tales”, Sade combines Romance and horror, employing several Gothic tropes for dramatic purposes. There is blood, banditti, corpses, and, of course, insatiable lust. Compared to works like Justine Sade is relatively tame, as overt eroticism and torture is subtracted for a more psychological approach. It is the impact of sadism instead of acts of sadism itself that emerge in this work, unlike the aggressive and rapacious approach in his libertine works.
An example is “Eugenie de Franval”, a tale of incest and retribution. In its portrayal of conventional moralities it is somewhat of a departure from the erotic cruelties and moral ironies that dominate his libertine works. In its opening Sade begins with a domesticated approach:
“To enlighten mankind and improve its morals is the only lesson which we offer in this story. In reading it, may the world discover how great is the peril which follows the footsteps of those who will stop at nothing to satisfy their desires.”
Descriptions in Justine seem to anticipate Radcliffe’s scenery in Mysteries of Udolpho and the vaults in The Italian but unlike these stories there is no escape for Sade’s virtuous heroine, Sophie. Unlike the milder Gothic fiction of Radcliffe, Sade’s horror ends in sodomy, rape, or torture. To have a character like Sophie, who is stripped without ceremony and bound to a wheel for fondling and thrashing, would be unthinkable in the domestic Gothic fiction written for the bourgeoisie. Sade even contrives a kind of affection between Sophie and her tormentors, suggesting shades of masochism in his heroine.
Sadism in the Gothic novel
Despite the strong adverse reaction to Sade’s work and Sade’s own disassociation from the Gothic novel, the similarities between the fiction of sadism and the Gothic novel were much closer than many of its readers or providers even realized. After the controversy surrounding Matthew Lewis’ The Monk Minerva Press released The New Monk as a supposed indictment of a wholly immoral book. It features the sadistic Mrs. Rod whose boarding school for young women becomes a torture chamber equipped with its own “flogging-room.” Ironically, The New Monk wound up increasing the level of cruelty but as a parody of the genre it illuminates the link between sadism and the Gothic novel.