The struggle between virtue and vice is portrayed in the starkest possible way.
I was reminded of this book when I read The Seven Basic Plots: Why We Tell Stories by Christopher Booker. In his account of what he regards as the decline of storytelling since the time of the Romantics, he mentions Justine as a case in point. From ancient times, the character of the innocent young woman has symbolized the highest goal for which a story’s hero strives, which, deep down, means his own maturation and wholeness. In this form she embodied the archetype that Carl Jung called the anima, and since all storytelling was finally about communicating the wisdom of how to live life fully and well, the task of the hero was always to rescue and protect this precious person. In the course of a story the anima-figure might suffer at the hands of villains, who in their turn represented the archetype of the shadow, or those aspects of ourselves that are negative and that we need to master, but she would always be rescued, and those villains would face defeat, punishment, and often death. Harming or violating a virtuous young woman was always the worst kind of injustice, and must be punished, if justice were to be seen as active in the world.
According to Booker, Justine, published in 1791 when its author was 51, turns all these values on their head. The heroine, young, beautiful, virtuous, and defenseless, is repeatedly abducted, violated, and abused in the most atrocious ways, while the rapists who slake their perverted lust on her body not only escape detection and punishment, they also enjoy great prestige and wealth in society. While Justine is convicted of crimes she hasn’t committed, the actual perpetrators garner awards and promotions and acclaim. Justine’s is a world in which no good deed goes unpunished, and that punishment is always both savage and sexual. In Booker’s view, this is, in psychological terms, the triumph of ego—the purely selfish part of ourselves that needs to be tamed and matured—over the Self, which was the name that Jung gave to the greatest and deepest archetype of them all, the ultimate goal to which we are all trying to move, whether we know it or not, and which he termed “the God-image in man.” Booker’s thesis is that true, proper, traditional storytelling has always been about helping us in our journey to realization of the Self, and that the subversion of that aim in the storytelling of the last 300 years has been a sign that writers have rebelled against this ancient program, preferring instead to depict stories of the desecration of the Self and its values and show the ego triumphant. In the world of literature and drama, the inmates have taken over the asylum.
In my opinion, Booker’s argument has a lot going for it, and the Marquis de Sade would seem to make a good example of that last point (which is mine, not Booker’s), for, according to Wikipedia, he spent 32 years of his life incarcerated, many of those in mental asylums. Most of his works, including Justine, were written there. Reading that book, one finds it easy to believe that its author was a madman, specifically what we today would call a psychopath. For it seems clear, upon reading his bio on Wikipedia, that de Sade had much firsthand experience with the cruelties he describes—as their perpetrator. Prostitutes and servants alike charged him with sexual cruelty, and much of the time when he was not incarcerated he was on the run or in hiding. He liked to bind, beat, cut, choke, and sodomize his victims, among many other kinds of violence, which, if his life really did reflect his fiction, may well not have stopped short of murdering them. He was a real piece of work.
But all of this I pretty much expected on my way in to Justine. I knew that the book and its author were infamous, and why. What I didn’t expect was to find a debate on moral philosophy distributed through the story. For many of Justine’s abusers, when she challenges them about the cruelty and impiety of their actions, take the trouble to explain themselves to her. Their brutality and lust is supported, in most cases, by a worked-out philosophy for why what they’re doing is perfectly right and natural; and they are at pains to convince Justine that it is she, and not they, who is mistaken in her view of life.
Their arguments, while worked out at some length, are centered on a few key points. When challenged that what they are doing is against God’s laws, they respond that there is no God. If Justine expects God’s help then she should call on him and see how much help she gets. Religion is a superstition for credulous children, nothing more.
When challenged that what they are engaged in are criminal acts that they themselves take great care to conceal, they respond that the laws and proprieties of society are a veneer over what is actually corrupt from top to bottom. Vice, not virtue, is the rulebook that everyone actually plays by. The hallmark of so-called civilized society is hypocrisy, and only a fool respects the blandishments of hypocrites, which includes the legal code. This argument appears all the stronger since many of Justine’s abusers are themselves people of position and influence, and know whereof they speak.
But what of simple justice, of refraining from doing to others what one would hate to have done to oneself? Justice too is the watchword of the weak and credulous. The lamb cries out for justice when the wolf falls on it, but in nature there is no such thing as justice, and we are all fundamentally natural beings. Just as Nature placed these passions and desires in Justine’s abusers, Nature also gave them the power to act on them, just like the wolf. How can there be any such thing as a crime against Nature, who fashions all just as she pleases, and creates the wolf, as he is, just as surely as she creates the lamb that is his food? Does Nature shed tears over the lamb’s death-agonies?
Justine, who narrates most of her own story, consistently dismisses the arguments of her attackers as “sophistries”—what we would today call rationalizations. And, just as consistently, she refers to her tormenters not as men (or, in some cases, women), but as monsters, criminals, barbarians, and ogres. Occasionally she complies with the perverted wishes of her captors, but only to shorten a session of torture or to mitigate the suffering of one of her fellow victims. But throughout she remains resolute in her belief in the preciousness of virtue, and that God will ultimately reward it. She holds fast to this belief when put under the greatest possible duress to give it up, and always gives it a spirited defence when it is attacked. In Justine de Sade has created a thoroughly virtuous character, and it is thus painful indeed to witness the endless brutalities and injustices she is subjected to.
“The good ended happily, and the bad unhappily. That is what Fiction means.” Thus Oscar Wilde in The Importance of Being Earnest. A hundred years earlier, the Marquis de Sade created a work of fiction that reversed the polarity of that proposition. In the opening chapter of his book, which is a dedication to a woman named Constance, he argues, with seeming passion, that to reward virtue is to degrade it. He appears to be agreeing with a position taken by Marcus Aurelius in his Meditations:
Art thou not content that thou hast done something conformable to thy nature, and dost thou seek to be paid for it? Just as if the eye demanded recompense for seeing, or the feet for walking. For as these members are formed for a particular purpose, so also is man formed by nature to acts of benevolence.
Or, in the pithy words of the ancient proverb: Virtue is its own reward.
In his dedication, de Sade says that his story sets out
to employ the boldest scenes, the most extraordinary situations, the most dreadful maxims, the most energetic brush strokes, with the sole object of obtaining from all this one of the sublimest parables ever penned for human edification.
I think we can say that Justine is not the sublimest parable ever penned. The author takes far too strong an interest in the minutiae of how exquisite sexual suffering can be inflicted on a captive victim, an interest that can only be called macabre. This reader is inclined to think that de Sade was good, as all psychopaths are good, at telling people what they want to hear. That if his story depicts a naked woman being set on by dogs or having boiling water injected in her vagina, it’s all in a good cause.
But while I don’t exactly accept de Sade’s fervent encomium of virtue, I did feel that Justine’s defence and practice of virtue was much more than perfunctory. My sense is that Justine is the document of a man at war with himself. I believe that his head and maybe even his heart affirm that virtue is the highest and best way to behave, but some other, darker part of him craves pleasures—sexual pleasures—that can be experienced only by harming others. As far as he knows, those desires are part of his nature—and if they’re not, then what are they and whence do they come? And if they are part of his nature, then they are part of Nature in general, the same Nature that gives the wolf its appetite for the flesh of the lamb.
It is this confrontation between virtue and vice, between desire and duty, that gives Justine whatever interest it has a work of literature. If you are aroused by scenes of violent nonconsensual sex, then the “sex” scenes may be titillating, but otherwise we have a simple, implausible, and episodic story of a young woman falling from the clutches of one monster into the clutches of another monster, again and again. It’s a work of pornography. Its only saving grace is that it is also a work of philosophy.