In the era of Jeffrey Epstein, today’s reader of Justine, will come away with a broader perspective on how stuck humanity is between the beauty and depravation of our sexual nature. This book, penned by the lecherous, 18th century debaucher Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), the “the father of written eroticism,” is rare in more ways than one.
Throughout his life, the Marquis promoted his philosophy of libertinage, and Justine, one of many of his books, was not only a social commentary on his theory of human nature but also the way he actually led his personal life. He believed our virtuous and noble impulses were not only fake but misleading, and that cruelty, crime and sexual violence were the reality of the human condition. And for more than two centuries his writing has been the study of scholars and the quest of collector’s and the intellectually curious. You can buy a rare edition of Justine from Christie’s auction for about £ 13,750. Or just buy it at the Love & Sexcess Bookstore for $16.
Today, sadomasochism and sadism (named after de Sade) is accepted within personal boundaries and we write popular books and movies wrapped in pseudo-love stories about it (i.e., Fifty Shades of Grey), and more than 70 million people watch pornography online, every month. Obviously, the story of our dark sexual needs is no different now than what the Marquis was promoting two-hundred years ago.
“Marquis de Sade is known as the father of written eroticism. What many don’t know is that the nobleman’s life was more sadistic than his work.”
Some things never change
Marquis de Sade’s writing was ostensibly intended to poke, prod and liberate the prude elite of his time, whereas today’s sexual explicitness is accepted – by most – as a core ingredient in the entertainment industry. Most people no longer blink at explicitness and our insatiable appetite for all things sexual is as rampant today as it was in de Sade’s socially secretive and perverted era.
When, if ever, will we accept with open minds and hearts the reality of our deep sexual nature? When will we read stories like Justine as social insight, as well-written commentary rather than what Napolean called, “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.” Conversely, literary scholars call it classic erotic fiction.
The Marquis was a well-to-do nobleman, attended a Jesuit school, joined a military academy, served in the Seven Years War and then … “lost his way.” Or as he might say, found himself and became a prolific writer of reality and a disciple and perpetrator of the natural human inclination toward violence, cruelty and sexual debauchery. He had the courage and “imagination” to expose what he saw as the flawed relationship among human beings, claiming that we were idiotic to believe in a divine someone who would reward our virtues in an after-life rather then face the reality of violence and brutality that we meted out to our fellow humans.
”The merit of Sade is not only to have cried loudly what all confess shamefully to themselves: it is to have taken sides. Instead of indifference, he chose cruelty. And this is why he finds so many echoes today, when the individual is aware of being the victim not so much of the malice of men as of their good conscience.” – Simone de Beauvoir
de Sade was exiled, imprisoned and sentenced to death for his vile depravities and yet, he never stopped. Nor stopped writing about them. At one point in his life, his wife and man-servant helped him hold five young girls, and a young man, in one of his chateaus, where he repeatedly sexually abused them (think maybe Epstein read de Sade?). Later he was caught and sentenced to death for these acts, although he got off because of his social position and “friends in high places”
High places and the low life of reality
Today, the same power and money provide modern day sadists the same protections. Epstein had Alex Acosta, a bevy of billionaires and many women (e.g., Sarah Kellen, Adriana Ross, Lesley Groff, Nadia Marcinkova and, of course, his alleged Madam, Ghislaine Maxwell). Trump had Michael Cohen, David Pecker, Roger Ailes, and still has female mouthpieces Kellyanne Conway and daughter Ivanka. Roger Ailes had his wife, Rupert Murdoch and dozens of male sycophants at Fox. Bill O’Reilly had Roger Ailes. And Harvey Weinstein had half of Hollywood. And David Koresh at Waco and John Humphrey Noyes at Oneida, each had a house full of men and women agreeing to – wanting to – live in sexual debauchery. All of them are just the tip of the sexual-deviant iceberg and all confirm the reality the Marquis de Sade tried to expose and yet, his writing was banned for two hundred years and is still considered “unacceptable” in a myopic society hiding behind a crumbling facade of false virtue. Justine doesn’t simply represent victims, she’s the virtuous hypocrisy the rest of us live by, affirming our endless denial of human sexuality.
Justine (Or The Misfortunes of Virtue)
“Don’t you see, Justine? Man does not repent of what he is in the habit of doing. Get used to evil, and remorse will vanish.”
Make no mistake, the Marquis de Sade was one vile man. Perhaps he posited an “interesting” social and human behavioral theory and a talent for writing, but nonetheless, he was a monster, a criminal and an outrageous breaker of all moral conventions.
Justine is the story of an orphaned, innocent young girl caught between what de Sade declares are the laws of nature and what most people considered violent immoral behavior. The story puts her through a lifetime of “imprisonments” at the hands of priests, gypsies, noblemen – all degenerates – and she is witness to a litany of sexual abuses – whippings, flayings, poisonings, beatings – and is raped and charged with criminal offenses. At one point, she is persuaded, albeit she does not have many options, to help one of the men given to protecting her to assist him in the murder of his mother, and de Sade crafts a noble rationale for the taking of a life in the pursuit of personal sexual pleasure.
There isn’t much of a plot, just a rolling out of Justine’s miserable conditions as an unrealistic backdrop for de Sade’s abhorrent sexual appetite. But it’s all written in the finest metaphorical and euphemistic style of the era and today it’s a collector’s treasure. Some would say it’s a sadists attempt to create a literary work of sexual conquest, others would categorize it as an adult version of The Emperor’s New Clothes (1837), depicting a society afraid of admitting the reality staring them in the face. The Marquis is the child, willing to say, ‘we wear no clothes.’ As in Epstein’s lawless debauchery, many knew, no one spoke out.
“I fell to the floor in front of him: such was his design: and my forehead, my breast, my cheeks received the proofs of a delirium he owed to none but this mania.” – [de Sade’s metaphorical scene describing masturbation]
Although the story reflects de Sade’s real-life behavior, most reviews agree that he was attempting to shine a light on, or at least rationalize, a human and social reality: This is who we are and the pursuit of virtue is a losing proposition. To that end, the Marquis was a precursor, a prescient literary talent, who had the courage, the social position and the power of the pen to publicly talk about the Jeffery Epsteins of his era. The fact that he lived the life he wrote about does not make it “right,” but it does make the tearing back of the cultural curtain far more authentic.
”Don’t you see, Justine? Men are not disturbed for doing what they do by habit.”
The Marquis did not have the benefit of Charles Darwin’s fundamental premise of “survival of the fittest” and the innate selfishness embedded in our human genome, but, in the face of centuries of Judeo-Christian propaganda, de Sade dared to “out” men’s carnal reality. Unfortunately, today, few have read his storytelling in the context of a historical exposé, an analysis of human nature, a confession of sins and an attack on hypocrisy.
It’s a hypocrisy we continue to foster today, under the umbrella of altruism and universal community while being indifferent to what is self-evident: We treat our fellow human beings like animals, from wars and genocide to murder, rape and sexual debauchery. The crime is not simply what the Jeffry Epsteins and Marquis de Sades do – of course, they go too far – rather it’s that the rest of us, from billionaires, politicians and priests to Hollywood stars, employed sycophants and abused wives, cover it up with feigned ignorance painted in bright hues of fake virtue.
What’s Justine trying to say?
Is Justine’s story art imitating reality, a symbolic reflection of humanity? Is her life more like ours than we care to see? Is she an 18th century doppelganger of the MeToo movement? Is her fate no different than our fate? Are we no more morally and sexually advanced than two centuries ago? Is the Marquis de Sade reincarnated in Epstein, Ailes, Weinstein, John Humphrey Noyes, Charles Manson and cult leaders everywhere?
The ceaseless depravity is hard for most of us to naturally fathom, which is perhaps the main point of the story.
“If history were taught in stories, we would never forget it.” – Rudyard Kipling
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