Bataille referred to what Klossowski called Sade’s “crimes” as the violence he saw at the very foundation of civilization itself, although human beings persist in seeing it as outside of culture. Violence exercised or justified in the name of the state, such as capital punishment or war (forms of legal murder), is simply not perceived as violence; all violence manifested in rational or institutional structures is dissimulated. Violence obviously exists in so-called civilized cultures, but as a secret. Violence, according to Bataille, is essentially a “profound silence … which never declares it exists, and never affirms the right to exist, which exists without declaring it exists .” Sade’s work deconstructs this cultural fantasy that violence is outside or elsewhere because it gives violence a voice. In so doing, Sade’s work refuses what Bataille called the “trickery” of the state because it names violence, refuses to pretend that it is somehow outside of the proper limits of what we refer to as civilization, and insists, on the contrary that violence structures all our political and social institutions. But to the extent that Sade spoke to others, he partook in the very civilization that dissimulates the violence at its foundations. “If Sade’s characters had really lived, they would have lived silently,” said Bataille. “The violence Sade expressed transformed violence into what it was not, into something to which it was necessarily opposed: into a reflective, rationalized violent wil1.” Because it names violence, Sade’s language is not that of the state, of the executioner, but that of a victim who could not keep silent about the injustice done to him. And unlike the executioner, the state that commits murder in the name of  justice, Sade doesn’t try to fool anyone. By refusing to hold his tongue he betrays the solipsism proper to the libertine and speaks not in the name of justice but in the name of an impossible desire for justice, impossible, Bataille argues, because it is both proclaimed and silenced by language, because Sade names violence but by naming it also transforms it into “what it is not.” Sade certainly did not keep quiet. And yet, as Bataille saw it, Sade’s writing was compelled by a death wish, an impossible desire to be “released” through self-destruction: “In an endless and relentless tornado, the objects of desire are invariably propelled towards torture and death. The only conceivable end is possible [sic] desire of the executioner to be the victim of torture himself. In Sade’s will … this instinct reached its climax by demanding that not even his tomb should survive: it led to the wish that his very name should ‘vanish from the memory of men.’ ” Like Klossowski, Bataille believes that Sade’s writing forecloses the drive to self-annihilation which compels it and enables Sade to live what real human beings could live only silently. Because to live as absolute master, one would have to be dead  –  to be, we recall from Klossowski, a “pure organ of experience without consciousness.” Sade’s absolute mastery is thus made metaphor, lived, and yet infinitely deferred. The transgressive, self-dissolving potential of violence (if we are to believe Bataille) is never realized, because it is always transposed into a “reflective, rationalized violent wíll” that depersonalizes human interaction, turns human beings into executioners.

It is interesting to note Gilles Deleuze’s strikingly parallel reading: “Pornological literature is aimed above all at confronting language with its own limits, with what is in a sense a ‘nonlanguage’ (violence that does not speak, eroticism that remains unspoken). However this task can only be accomplished by an internal splitting of language: the imperative and descriptive function must transcend itself toward a higher function, the personal element turning by reflection upon itself into the impersonal.” Deleuze, Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty.

This image of depersonalization also resonates well with Borch-Jacobsen’s discussion of Lacan’s ego-world in terms of a “statue man”: “The ego-world is a statue: as hard as stone, as cold as ice, it is standing in front of the ego that is petrified there  –  that is, in the ego-world it both gazes at and petrifies itself.” One could easily argue that Sade’s self resembles this statue man: an always already foreclosed self that, like Juliette, is perpetually in search of what it has lost but can never attain. Borch-Jacobsen notes, furthermore, that “the eye of paranoid knowledge, in its tireless self-curiosity rises up against itself in a monstrous, persecutive erection, and it must be castrated with a vengeance.”

Carolyn J. Dean


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