COMES NATURALLY #104
December 15, 2000
Copyright © 2000 David Steinberg
MORALITY, YES; MORALISM, NO: AN ODE TO THE MARQUIS DE SADE
After two weeks of watching the machinations by which the next President of the United States was rather randomly being selected, I needed an antidote.
I pried myself away from Al Gore and Dubya Bush's dueling press conferences -- each laying pious claim to the purple robes of social virtue, respect for the will of the people, and common sense -- and went to see "Quills," Doug Wright and Philip Kaufman's cinematic celebration of the Marquis de Sade. It was exactly what the doctor ordered: a soothing, comforting purgative -- a film that could not have been released at a more perfect moment.
Sade, whose name generally calls up images of wild and cruel sexual depravity, was indeed a sexual profligate. More significantly, he was also a brilliant and uncompromising social critic whose greatest crime was that he extravagantly exposed the hypocrisy of French aristocratic society, both before and after the revolution of 1789. For his insight, obstinate integrity, and unflagging commitment to his unpopular vision of human nature (sexual and otherwise), Sade spent most of his life in confinement. Before the revolution, Sade was defined as a criminal and therefore sent to prison, nominally for abusing a chambermaid. (Abusing servants was not uncommon among the French aristocrats, certainly not something a gentleman should be sent to prison for. Sade, however, was a great social embarrassment to his mother-in-law because he would not keep his sexual adventuring under wraps. Consequently, she used her social status to arrange for Sade to be confined.) After the revolution, when the Age of Reason replaced the Age of Privilege, Sade was again declared a social misfit, this time as a madman. He was confined to the asylum of Charenton.
It is within the walls of Charenton, a liberal institution for those times, where the compassionate Abbé Coulmier tried to rehabilitate his insane charges rather than simply control them, that the drama of "Quills" is set.
There are good people and bad people in this world, we are reminded quite pointedly early in the film. The trick is telling which are which because, contrary to public posturing, these things are not at all as clear as they might at first appear. Indeed, to the Marquis de Sade -- and apparently to Doug Wright and Philip Kaufman as well -- it is the self-proclaimed Good People who most adamantly deny their darker urges and natures who are most likely to behave badly, while the people who are socially condemned as immoral who often display true virtue. This moral inversion lies at the heart of the Sadean world view and provides the core of both Sade's social critique and "Quills," a delightful film that devotes itself, without apology, to expounding Sade's philosophy as it dramatizes his life.
For Sade, Kaufman, Wright -- and, let's be clear, for me as well -- the real moral issue staring all of us in the face is not which bible, preacher, or teacher we should consult to properly separate right from wrong. A real code of ethical behavior requires us to distinguish between the complex question of morality and the more simple-minded concept of rigid moralism. True ethics are founded in the muck of responsible personal choice, rather than in the rigid behavioral codes and supercilious social pretense that are more aligned with fraud and hypocrisy than with any real concern for social or personal virtue.
Sade hated nothing more than the pious moralism he knew to be a veil for widespread personal cruelty and sexual hypocrisy. In his novels, it is always the paragons of society -- the priests and the aristocrats -- who, behind the facade of their pious sanctity, perform the cruelest, most despicable acts, sexual and otherwise. Sade knew perfectly well that the moralists who declare themselves most loudly to be defenders of righteousness are exactly the people who cause the most mischief in the world, both to people close to them and in society as a whole. He knew that those who bat their eyes sanctimoniously while they plead personal purity are most likely to be the agents not of virtue but of true vice. And he knew that those who, in the name of social propriety and superiority, deny their own vital nature, particularly their sexual nature, complete with its darker and more devilish impulses, are the people who are truly unnatural and therefore socially and sexually dangerous to themselves and others.
It must be said that "Quills" tends to reduce its tale of good and evil a bit too easily into its own version of a morality play. But it is so refreshing to enter a world of alternative morality in which the smug glad-handing of preachers and politicians is turned on its ear that it becomes easy to forgive the film its occasional oversimplifications.
Here, for once, the good people are not those who suppress their sexuality in the name of a long list of hollow social graces, but the people who honor the lustiest of their feelings and thus bestow vibrant respect and appreciation on friends and lovers alike. Here it is the natural, unpretentious acceptance of our complex sexual natures that shines with the light of wholesome vitality -- sometimes in open flirtatiousness, sometimes in sex outside of marriage, sometimes in the enjoyment of Sade's bawdy tales. Here the reek of perversion is assigned to those who contort themselves by trying to trim their sexual vitality to the confines of ill-designed social forms -- and to those who relegate women to pedestals of asexual self-denial.
In "Quills," it is Sade, social leper extraordinaire (played with brilliant, playful wickedness by Geoffrey Rush), who treats the people around him with real respect, bringing joy and pleasure to everyone even as he delights in violating every rule of social-sexual conduct that seems to stand in his way. Real cruelty is hardly the domain of this man whose name has become the legal and therapeutic definition of the pathological desire to inflict pain. In " Quills," real cruelty is embodied instead in the character of sanctimonious investigator Royer-Collard (a cold, measured Michael Caine) who has been sent by Napoleon to suppress Sade's writing by whatever means necessary. (Kaufman has said that he modeled this character rather deliberately after Kenneth Starr.)
Sade plays lecherous seducer to his virtuous and lustful maid, Madeleine (Kate Winslet has never been more winsome), but only because he can see in her flashing eyes how much she enjoys their erotic game of cat and mouse. Sade's lusty play with Madeleine, and the overflowing, easy-going sexual play of all Charenton's commoners, win our hearts and our groins. By contrast, the mantle of real sexual cruelty is placed squarely across the supposedly virtuous marriage bed, where Royer-Collard forces his innocent, voluptuous bride (a succulent Amelia Warner), "young enough to be his daughter twice over," to perform her wifely duties, despite her obvious and complete disgust with him.
Is there potential danger in Sade's erotic obsessiveness? Yes, of course, but (we are told) it is the danger of any life fully lived, and certainly a lesser danger than the perversion and hypocrisy of the likes of Royer-Collard. Indeed, Sade is less problematic than even the benevolent sexual confusion of Charenton's well-intentioned Abbé Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who must reframe his attraction to Madeleine as nothing more than the love of a "child of God" rather than acknowledge his natural and generous sexual feelings for her.
"Quills" is not so idyllic as to suggest that it's possible to inhabit a Sadean world of antisocial sexual sanity without suffering dire consequences. While the Marquis, powered by both brilliant creativity and manic desperation, keeps finding ways to outwit his suppressers, he is (I can tell you, giving away only the obvious) inevitably defeated by all the social power arrayed against him. Society's twisted definition of reality and morality will have their say; platitudes do still win elections. But "Quills" is not a film without hope for integrity and true virtue. Even as he is forced to endure physical limitation and ultimate capitulation, the spirit and integrity of the Divine Marquis remain as irrepressible as sex itself. Here is a man who, even at the point of death, would rather choke on Coulmier's crucifix than turn to it for hypocritical salvation.
If "Quills" makes its points a bit too tidily, its messages are exactly the ones we need so badly to hear in these times of sexual and moral hypocrisy that are not so unlike those of Sade. Is Sade responsible for the acts of the troubled people driven over the psychological edge by his words, as Coulmier claims (echoing the well-worn argument that pornography is a cause of violence against women)? "You might as well blame the Bible for every poor soul who thinks he can walk on water and drowns," Sade responds. Are we as a society to regulate the worlds of sexual fantasy the same way we regulate actual sexual behavior? "Some things belong on paper," says Madeleine, "others in life. It's a blessed fool who can't tell the difference."
Regardless of which sanctimonious prig gets installed in the White House on January 20th, these are exactly the sorts of arguments we are going to have to remember in the years ahead, as free-thinking Sade's run across Royer-Collard's trying so hard to purge the devil from their conflicted s ouls.
God save us all.
[This column was originally published in Spectator Magazine (see www.spectator.net). Three books by David Steinberg -- "Photo Sex," "Erotic by Nature: A Celebration of Life, of Love, and of Our Wonderful Bodies," and "The Erotic Impulse: Honoring the Sensual Self," are available from David by mail order at email@example.com. If you would like to receive Comes Naturally columns, and other writing by David Steinberg, regularly via email, send your name and email address to David at firstname.lastname@example.org. Columns are sent as blind carbon copies, meaning that no one will have access to your name or email address.]
If you're new to this site, we recommend you visit its home page for a better sense of all it has to offer.