from Materialism to Pornography

Oxford University Studies in the Enlightenment, 2002:01


January 1st, 2002

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Sade’s personal fate has too long encouraged critics to concentrate on his personal isolation and personal revolt. Extraordinary as his life was, the light that it throws on his work casts into shade the intellectual context that was much more important to its generation than his actual experience.
This book is about how Sade took a pure version of eighteenth-century materialism and rendered it into an even purer form of pornography. The eternal yet unequal clashing of atomic bodies became the endless torture of human ones. It traces the intellectual genealogy that links Sade to his materialist forebears (d’Holbach, Condillac, Buffon, Diderot, La Mettrie, Robinet, Delisle de Sales) and shows how the germs of cruel pleasure were already present in elements of their work, as much in their rhetoric and stylistics as in their arguments. Sade, aided by his grounding in the interpretative techniques of illicit clandestine and libertine literature, read them attentively and developed their presentation as well as their content into a flawlessly logical and self-referential system. Thus the arrogant philosopher (the author / the libertine) did not just mouth his cruel positions but enacted them, proving the behaviour of matter as he/she did so. This reading of Sade’s work refers its principal elements – shape, style and contents – back to the hardcore of materialism, offering an account which, while not making it more tolerable, renders it at once more accessible and more comprehensible.

'Believing that Sade’s corpus should be read “not by itself but according to itself and in its context”, Warman considers how science intermingles with literature, reveals Sade’s intellectual roots, and shows that the Marquis transmuted French eighteenth-century materialism into pornography. […] She convincingly argues that sensationalist materialism provided him a theoretical and stylistic skeleton to flesh out in his libertine œuvre.'
French Review

'La démonstration de Warman ne manque pas de convaincre, d’autant qu’elle s’appuie sur un immense travail dont le mérite consiste à retracer avec précision la dette de Sade envers le “sensationalist materialism”, l’ouvrage offrant une impressionnante synthèse de cette tradition en même temps qu’il montre avec quelle éloquence et quelle licence le célèbre marquis en tire parti.'
Eighteenth-Century Fiction

'The literary scholar Caroline Warman has written the best, most succinct summary of Sade's philosophical system.'
Carolyn Purnell, The Sensational Past: How the Enlightenment Changed the Way We Use Our Senses (New York: W.W. Norton, 2017)

Table of Contents

Table of Contents
Section TitlePagePrice
Title Page4
Copyright Page5
1. Sade and materialism since 194516
2. Sensationist materialism: system and technique32
Sensationist materialism: a working concept32
The theories of sensation-based knowledge36
Techniques and traps57
3. Persuasion: the philosophe's rhetorical profile69
Inftammatory rhetoric71
The rhetoric of insults72
Access to the truthmature74
The philosopher magician75
The web of logic76
Laying down the law76
'Auteur' as divine being77
4. Sade's system80
5. 'Comme fondu dans le fonds commun': clandestine and libertine ingredients in the Sadean melting pot98
Sade's reading98
Sade's use of his reading100
The jewels of virtue: Sade's claim to the legacy of materialism103
Imagery within argument: 'Vautres-toi, comme font les porcs [.. .]'105
Argument within imagery: virtue's jewels108
The story the footnote told109
Clandestine literature111
Libertine literature111
Alchemical theories of matter in materialism115
The violent sexual narrative of the alchemical texts121
6. Literality126
Literality: an introduction126
The literal interpretation ofimagery and figurative language130
The literalisation of ideas136
Literai translation140
Absolutes and superlatives147
The system of absolutes153
7. The drama of matter157
Opposites - active and passive166
Elastic versus brittle bodies - an extension of the active and passive attributes169
Electrical, hydraulic and chemical models of the body171
The electrical stage171
The chemical stage173
The hydraulic alternative173
Materialist regcneration174