Monday, 26 August 2013

Not so Tender-hearted Fucking: the Marquis de Sade on Happiness, Nature, and Liberty (Part 2)

The Marquis de Sade was perhaps not much of a philosopher, but what philosophy there is in his work is clearly the brain-child of the enlightenment. It is as if the age of reason has gone a bit senile after all those years and has now, shortly before her final demise, decided to present her dirty backside to the public. The Marquis de Sade is Voltaire’s ugly little brother, the Mr Hyde to his Dr Jekyll, urging us to be reasonable, to pay no attention to the “heart”, to seek out and kill off all prejudices, to claim our political and intellectual freedom: “Ah, smash those chains – nature wants you to smash them! You should have no other limits than your leanings, no other laws than your cravings, no other moral than nature; stop languishing in those barbaric prejudices that caused your charms to fade and imprisoned the godly surges of your hearts.”

Some of Sade’s demands appear downright progressive, even today. You can find passages in his work that could easily be cited by gay rights campaigners and feminists. He argues vehemently against the death penalty and the right of any government or state to inflict capital punishment on its citizens. He defends the right to freely pursue one’s own sexual orientation, especially homosexuality (but also incest and paedophilia), without fear of punishment. He demands that every woman should be granted the right to decide what happens to and with her own body. Women should be allowed to express their sexuality just as freely as men, and abortion is absolutely fine if that is what a woman wants, because this decision is only hers to make: “A woman is always the mistress of what she carries in her womb, and there is as little wrong with destroying this kind of material as there is with purging the other kind with medicaments, if we feel the need.” He also rejects the institution of marriage on the grounds that a woman should never become, or be seen as, the possession of any man. Marriage binds a woman unjustly to a man, makes her his property, which violates the rights of men and nature: “No act of possession can ever be perpetrated on a free being; it is as unjust to own a wife monogamously as it is to own slaves. All men are born free, all are equal before the law (...) The act of possession can be exercised only on an animal or an immobile object, but never on an individual that resembles us”. Therefore women, being neither animals nor things, should be free to do whatever they want, which of course for Sade means especially to have sex whenever and with whomever they want: “Fuck – in a word – fuck! That’s why you were put upon this earth!” “Fuck, Eugénie, fuck away, my dear angel! Your body belongs to you, to you alone. You are the only person in the world who has the right to enjoy your body and to let anyone you wish enjoy it.”

Yet despite all his talk of human freedom, all the exuberant liberationist rhetoric, the world that Sade seeks to create is in fact deeply oppressive. By granting so much freedom to the individual, he effectively proposes to leave the weak and vulnerable without protection. He argues against the death penalty, but mainly because he feels that individual (not state-committed) murder and theft should not be seen as crimes, but as natural, and hence ought not to be punished, which of course is not exactly good news for the victims of such crimes. He imagines a completely free society, a kind of republican utopia: “Citizens, remember: in granting freedom of conscience and freedom of the press, you must also allow freedom of action, with few exceptions”, and killing other people is not one of them: “The freest nations are those that welcome murder.” He denies that parents have any duties towards their children, but also that children have any duties (of gratitude) to their parents, which leaves not only the unborn, but also all children who are not yet old enough to fend for themselves entirely at their parents’ mercy (infanticide is just as permissible as abortion). It also leaves those same parents free to pursue their pleasure without having to care for their own ageing parents. In fact, they would be perfectly in their rights to get rid of them for good.  

The oppressive nature of Sade’s libertarianism is also due to his peculiar understanding of the normative authority of nature, according to which every right that nature bestows on us is also a duty: what we are allowed to do is also what we are meant to do. “We obey its laws if we yield to the desires that nature alone has placed in front of us; and we outrage nature if we resist it.” Thus the allegedly natural right to satisfy one’s desires and to take pleasure wherever one finds it is transformed into a holy duty: “Let pleasure be the sole god of your existence. It is to pleasure alone that a girl must sacrifice everything, and nothing should be as sacred to her as pleasure.” And what if she doesn’t want so much pleasure? Well, then she needs to be forced. Nature must be obeyed, which is certainly very convenient for men: “In whatever state a woman may be, my darling – whether girl, woman, or widow – she must never have any other goal, any other occupation, any other desire than to be fucked from dawn till dusk. It’s toward that single end that nature has created her.” For this reason, “we even have the right to pass laws that compel a woman to yield to the ardour of the man who desires her, whereby violence itself, as a result of such a right, can be used legally by us.” “A woman’s fate is to be like a she-wolf, a bitch: she must belong to everyone who wants her.” Sade denies that this contradicts what he said earlier about women never being the property of any man. It is true, no woman belongs to any one man, but that doesn’t mean that she cannot be used by any man who wants her. In other words, she can never be private property because she is meant to be public property. And because this is in fact what she wants anyway, that is, what her nature commands her to do, men do not really wrong her by forcing their will upon her. They just help her being what she is meant to be. They allow her to exercise her rights: “First of all, by what right do you demand that a woman should be excepted from the blind submission that nature prescribes for her in male caprices? And then, by what other right do you demand that she should surrender to a continence that is impossible for her body and absolutely hopeless for her honour?” So by a happy coincidence both men and women get what they want. And this will certainly, Sade claims, increase universal happiness.

Yet Sade goes even further than that, invoking yet another (and of course equally faulty) argument from nature: “If nature didn’t mean for man to be superior, then it would not have taken the creatures given to him for this instant and created them weaker than man. The debility to which nature has doomed women proves incontestably that it intends for man, who delights more than ever in his power, to exercise it with all the violence he prefers. Indeed, he can even torture the woman to death if he so wishes.” Not much is left here of the rights of women that Sade seemed to be defending earlier.

Sade was certainly a misogynist, but I suspect that underlying Sade’s whole philosophy is a deep-seated hatred not only of the female sex, but in fact of the whole human race. “The entire human species could be snuffed out, and the air would be no less pure, the constellations no less radiant, the rhythm of the universe no less exact!” It would certainly be no great loss, assuming that the universe is indeed as cold and empty as Sade believed. Born out of self-loathing, a human-nature disgust that Sade may have inherited from Jonathan Swift, what he proposes is essentially a recipe for self-destruction. Because what nature ultimately wants is us gone.

Sunday, 25 August 2013

Not so Tender-hearted Fucking: the Marquis de Sade on Happiness, Nature, and Liberty (Part 1)

The Philosophy in the Boudoir or, The Immoral Mentors, ironically subtitled Dialogues Aimed at the Education of Young Ladies and published anonymously in 1795 in the aftermath of the French Revolution, is the most philosophically reflective of all the Marquis de Sade’s pornographic works. Absurdly hyperbolic sex scenes (“The sperm jumped more than ten feet! Fucking God! The room’s filled with it!”) are interspersed with theoretical reflections about the human condition, about religion and morality, nature and freedom, happiness and suffering. The sex itself, the cold-hearted, self-centred way it is practised, is presented as a practical application of a particular, libertine philosophy of life and the accompanying political and moral philosophy.

For Sade and his mouthpiece Dolmancé the world is a bleak place. We have been “tossed reluctantly into this dismal universe” and are forced to lead a miserable existence. There is no God, no afterlife, no hope, no meaning. Religion is a mere superstition and morality has been invented by the weak to put and hold the strong in shackles. The only thing that matters in such a world is that one does everything in one’s power to be happy, as much as possible in such a world, and happiness consists in nothing other than the satisfaction of one’s own passions and desires. “Don’t I have enough misery of my own without burdening myself with the misery of others?” The pleasure and pain of others is (or should be) nothing to me: “isn’t everyone out for himself in the world?” Sade’s world is the cruel world of Hobbes, characterised by “a state of perpetual and reciprocal warfare”, where everyone is by nature everyone else’s enemy. Real love between people, or even friendship, is an illusion. Everyone has to take care of number one, and only number one. Just as Kallikles in Plato’s Gorgias, who argued that morality and law had no authority over the strong who by nature had a right to suppress the weak and take what they want without paying any attention to the interests and the welfare of others, Sade invokes the normative force of nature to show that nothing can be wrong that allows people to satisfy their wants and needs. “Nature, the mother of us all, never speaks to us, except about ourselves. Nothing is as egotistical as nature’s voice. And what we hear most sharply in that voice is the holy and immutable advice to enjoy ourselves, no matter what it costs others.” And what we enjoy most is completely unrestrained and copious sexual activity, dominance over others, and violence.

Sade insists that we should not let ourselves be hampered by the usual moral considerations. There are several reasons for why morality should not concern us:

1)      Conventional morality places constraints on the expression of our passions, which is highly unnatural. Not only are all restrictions per se bad for the individual, suppressing one’s passions also violates the laws of nature, which (for some unexplained reason) have normative priority. 

2)      Giving in to moral demands robs us of a lot of pleasure that we could otherwise enjoy, and pleasure is far more valuable than anything else in this world. In fact, it is the only thing valuable in and by itself. So foregoing or giving up a pleasure for whatever reason (unless it were in order to gain an even greater pleasure) can never be good. 

3)      An adherence to moral norms, or moral behaviour, is usually motivated by certain passions such as pride, ambition, greed and vanity, and is hence no better than the immorality of the libertine, which is simply guided by other passions: “Benevolence is more a vice of pride than a true virtue of the soul. A person comforts his fellowmen purely in order to show off and never simply to do a good deed.” Nobody ever does anything except out of self-love, so all virtue is ultimately a sham.

4)      Morality is culturally relative: “the words ‘vice’ and ‘virtue’ supply us only with local meanings. There is no action, however bizarre you may picture it, that is truly criminal; or one that can really be called virtuous. Everything depends on our customs and on the climates we live in.” 

5)      By violating moral norms we only do what nature does all the time, for instance by robbing us of our possessions or killing us through natural disasters, and if nature does it, then we must assume that doing so somehow serves nature (e.g. by making room for new life) and is hence good: “Since destruction is a primary law of nature, nothing destructive could be a crime.” 

6)      A lot of what if supposed to be morally wrong is immensely pleasurable, which shows that nature welcomes it, and if it is all right with nature, even rewarded by it (with the pleasure it incites) then it can’t possibly be bad.

Sade’s strategy (which foreshadows Nietzsche’s project of a “revaluation of all values”) is, however, not entirely consistent. On the one hand he denies that what we are used to regard as crimes or immoral behaviour is in any way wrong, on the other he delights in the idea of wrong-doing and seems to believe that the pleasure we derive from certain activities depends to a considerable extent on our knowledge that we are doing something very bad indeed. Thus when Eugénie wonders whether incest is not a crime, Domancé answers: “Can we regard the most beautiful natural union as a crime, a union that nature prescribes and so warmly recommends?” And similarly: “Cruelty is nothing but human energy that hasn’t yet been corrupted by civilization. Hence, cruelty is a virtue and not a vice.” Yet there are other passages where it is pretty obvious that the crime committed really needs to be seen as a crime, as some kind of violation (and not only of human laws) in order to do its job, namely to excite and arouse: “May the horrors, the atrocities, the most odious crimes no longer astonish you, Eugénie. The foulest, the filthiest, the most forbidden things are always the most exciting.” And: “Oh, Lucifer! Lone and single god of my soul! Inspire me more!”

In any case, however, it is the law of nature (be nature bad or good or simply neutral), which alone commands authority. “Nature has acted according to its goals, its plans, and its needs. We must submit.” But why exactly must we submit? Sade does not mean that we have no choice. What he means is rather that to act in accordance with nature is what we should do. But the only reason that emerges from what Sade says about the matter is that there is no other possible authority. There is nothing but nature. Nature is all there is, so if anything has normative authority, then it must be nature. Sade’s frequent use of arguments from nature in order to justify certain practices, however, is entirely arbitrary – as arguments from nature tend to be. Natural, and hence desirable or at least defensible, is basically whatever Sade happens to be in favour of, and unnatural whatever he happens to dislike. But his arguments serve very nicely, intended or unintended, as a parody of the kind of physicotheological argument for intelligent design and (as a corollary) the existence of God that was popular at the time (culminating in William Paley’s famous version in his Natural Theology, published in 1802). Here are my two favourite examples:

1)      “Had nature wanted us to hide certain areas of our bodies, it would have done so itself. But nature created us naked. So it means us to go naked.” 

2)      “If nature didn’t intend to have us fuck the ass, then would nature have so precisely adjusted the hole to the forms of our members? Isn’t this orifice round like them? What enemy of common sense can imagine that nature can have created an oval hole for a round member?”   

(to be continued)

Sunday, 18 August 2013

D.H. Lawrence on Tender-Hearted Fucking

We all want to be loved for who we are. We don’t want to be seen and loved as a nice piece of ass, as just another cock or cunt, as essentially replaceable. We ask our beloved: do you love me or just my body (or even worse, only the pleasure that it can give you or that you can get out of it)? But who exactly are we? Who is this “me” that we want them to love, or that we want to be loved for? Well, it seems that what we are referring to can best be described as a particular set of thoughts and feelings, memories and experiences, values and interests, or perhaps that elusive substance that all of these things or processes are expressions or articulations of, some kind of underlying unifying principle, a unique essence. Whatever it is, we are largely convinced that our body is not part of it, so that the love that we wish for is one that, as it were, sees right through the body and connects directly to our personality. This wish is of course tied to the fear that once our body changes and loses its sexual or aesthetic appeal, we will no longer be loved. For bodies change quickly, personalities less so (or so we think), and even though we may not mind so much being identified with our body while we are young and our flesh is still fresh, we find it increasingly difficult to do so once we get older. Being loved for what we are insures us against the potentially love-destroying effects of our ageing bodies.

In D.H. Lawrence’s notorious novel about the dying world of an industrialised England between the wars and the liberating and invigorating power of uninhibited sex, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, which I have just read for the first time, the unhappily married and sexually unfulfilled Constance Chatterley slides into a passionate love affair with her husband’s gamekeeper, Oliver Mellors. After their first sexual encounter, Constance reflects on what happened, and she realises that she hardly knows her new lover and wonders what kind of man he actually is. She finds their encounter strangely impersonal, even doubts that he likes her very much. She thinks that he is kind and passionate, but then again, for all she knows he might be kind and passionate with any woman. “It wasn’t really personal. She was only a female to him.” Too bad. But then, rather surprisingly, this seemingly devaluating assessment is turned on its head. After concluding that there was nothing personal about her affair with Mellors, she continues: “But perhaps that was better. And after all, he was kind to the female in her, which no man had ever been. Men were very kind to the person she was, but rather cruel to the female, despising her or ignoring her altogether. Men were awfully kind to Constance Reid or to Lady Chatterley: but not to her womb they weren’t kind. And he took no notice of Constance or Lady Chatterley: he just softly stroked her loins or her breasts.”

I think this is more than just male wishful thinking (expressing the male author’s desire for a woman who actually doesn’t mind being treated as a sexual object and who doesn’t expect any interest in her as a person). For Lawrence the sex act leads us, or should be leading us, or has the potential of leading us, beyond the existential separation that characterises our individual personalities. The individual person is defined by its apartness, by detachment. And when we love each other as individuals we maintain and reaffirm this detachment. “All that weary self-consciousness between a man and a woman! – a disease!” What the sex act should be is the union between not a female and a male, but between the female and the male. Who we are as individuals is no longer relevant then. I am no longer I, and you are no longer you, which not only means that the difference between you and me is obliterated, but also the difference between you and others that I might love in your stead. In loving you I in fact love all the women in the world, whose representative or ambassador you are.

What Lawrence reminds us of is that we exist in and through our bodies, and that it is through our bodies, and not through our minds that we are connected to the natural world to which the body belongs just as much as it belongs to us. The mind sets us apart, the body makes us a part. Our individual personalities have only a fleeting existence. They are a surface phenomenon. Dig a little deeper and what you find is a living, sexual body, and it is the loving acknowledgment of this bodily existence that we secretly long for, though also, fearing for our treasured autonomy, shy away from: “Sex is really only touch, the closest of all touch. And it’s touch we’re afraid of. We’re only half-conscious, and half alive.”

To become fully alive, we need to stop being ashamed of our bodily existence. For Lawrence, the body is the really real, and sex - the kind that makes us forget, or forget to care, who we are, the kind that Lawrence calls “tender-hearted fucking” – is one way, perhaps the most profound, truthful and blissful way, of exploring it.

Saturday, 10 August 2013

Life in the UK – Taking the British Citizenship Test

I am German, but have been living in the UK for ten years. I’m now thinking of becoming a British citizen. In order to do so, I would have to pass a citizenship test. In that test you are being asked 24 multiple choice questions, and you need to get at least 18 of those questions right to pass the test. If you fail, you have proved yourself unfit to become, or unworthy of becoming, a British citizen, and you have to officially remain a foreigner. So what kinds of things do you need to know in order to be considered worthy of being a Brit?

There’s a lot about Henry VIII and his wives, the Romans and the Norman conquest, the parliamentary system, Christmas, and, rather disproportionately, TV licenses (when do you need one, how do you get one, are there exceptions, etc.). What you apparently don’t need to have a grasp of is grammar. Some of the questions seem to have been written by illiterates: “Regarding to the myth when does father Christmas comes?” (sic!) Some only a complete idiot can get wrong: “People open their Christmas presents during Easter.” Some take statistics very seriously: “In the 2009 Citizenship survey, … of people said they had no religion.” Possible answers: 21, 23, 25, 27. You don’t know the right answer? Shame on you! The right answer is 21, of course. It’s clearly imperative that you know such things if you want to live here.

But of course, as Alfred North Whitehead once said, “the exactness is a fake,” and there are other questions in the test that don’t even bother with the semblance of exactness: “People don’t celebrate Christmas as much as they used to before.” Ergh, when was that again? 1900? 1200? Would that not make a difference? (The correct answer is that the statement is very untrue indeed – and presumably very un-British, too.) Here’s another one: “Very young children believe that Father Christmas (also known as Santa Claus) brings them presents during the night before Christmas Day.” Very young children? What is that supposed to mean? Newborns? Five-year-olds? And are we talking about all of them? Or the majority? Some maybe? In Britain? Also among the Sikh and Muslim communities? Based on which survey?

More interesting, however, is that many questions are openly ideological. This is interesting because the test strongly encourages us to treat ideology as a fact. So according to the test it is just as true that “you must treat everyone equally, regardless of sex, race, age, religion, disability, class or sexual orientation”, as it is true that “the capital city of Scotland is Edinburgh” or that “the Speaker is chosen by other MPs in a secret ballot”. But can we really say that this is true? Is that a moral fact? Universally acknowledged?

What about this one? “Residents who do not respect the law should not expect to be allowed to become permanent residents in the UK.” In what sense exactly is it true that such residents “should not be expected to be allowed”? What a curious phrasing! What kind of “should” is that? Prudential, moral, or what? And who does the expecting? It sounds more like a threat than a statement.

Or consider this one: “When you move into a new house or apartment, introduce yourself to the people who live near you so they can help you.” This is supposed to be the correct answer. The alternatives, to “warn the people who live near you so they do not bang on the walls” or “do not play music”, are seen as incorrect, even though they are not even statements. “A fundamental principle of British life is participating in your community.” Is it really? In what way? Is there an official list of fundamental principles issued by the government, to which “participating in one’s community” belongs? Is “British life” an agent who can act on principles? Do all British people participate in their community? Never mind: for the purpose of the British Citizenship test, the existence of such a principle is to be treated as a fact.

And finally, perhaps the clumsiest and most conspicuous piece of ideology: “All terrorist groups try to radicalize and recruit people to their cause.” Do they really? Is that an empirical fact? Or part of the definition of what it means for a group to be terrorist? Can there not be a terrorist group that does not try to recruit people to their cause? And why would that be something that I needed to know in order to qualify for life in the UK? Suppose that I was of the (allegedly incorrect) opinion that not all terrorist groups tried to recruit people to their cause. Would I then be more likely to commit acts of terrorism myself, or more likely to sympathise with terrorist groups? Or would somebody with terrorist tendencies be more likely to deny the truth of that statement, so that those who did so could easily be weeded out as dangerous and therefore unfit to become a British citizen?