Thoughts on Sade’s ‘Justine’

NOTE: This piece contains some spoilers…

Sadism… what a word for a writer to leave as their legacy. A truly evil concept. But we needed a word for it, because sadism has always been there. It’s entirely natural… as Sade (repetitively) points out. ‘Justine’ was published during the French Revolution, putting Sade firmly on Napoleon’s naughty list. I’m not surprised the book went down badly with authority figures – it’s one of the most subversive stories ever written.

The tale is recounted by a young woman, originally from wealthy stock, who fell on hard times after she was orphaned as a child. ‘Hard times’ is a significant understatement – Justine is the unluckiest person anyone could imagine. Everyone she meets is an abominable sadist/ rapist/ serial killer… and they take turns having their wicked ways with her. As soon as she escapes from one villain, she runs straight into the clutches of the next.

The heroine is a deeply religious and moral person, who sincerely cares for other people. She repeatedly tries to help those in need, but the recipients of her charity always turn out to be evil bastards, who jump at the opportunity to rape and defile her. For every virtuous deed, Justine receives a horrific punishment in return. Whilst the psychopaths who inflict all this misery on her (and others), don’t just get away with their crimes… they actively profit from them.

Justine is infuriatingly stupid and bad at life (even by the standards of your average erotica heroine). Her refusal to learn from experience, and her stubborn loyalty to God and morality, quickly become annoying. I’d say she needed a good slap, but she gets plenty of those… and they don’t seem to help.

We meet a lot of bad guys during the story: noblemen, bandits, clergy… villainous ‘libertines’ of every stripe. Most of them are privileged and respected pillars of society, by day… and psychopathic serial killers, by night. They don’t have much colour as individual characters, so they all blend into one: a singular incarnation of ‘sadism’. They all share the same views and speak with the same voice – transparently acting as mouthpieces for the writer to deliver his own lecture to humanity (again and again).

Apart from these interruptions, the book mainly consists of detailed and graphic descriptions of rape and torture. The writer’s depraved imagination certainly comes up with lots of creative ideas for hurting people (physically, emotionally and spiritually). Some bits are quite erotic. Sade can write as if he were a painter, pausing to add more colour, as he vividly captures the beautiful expression of pain, spread over his imagined muse’s angelic face. But generally, I didn’t find it sexy, because it’s much too nasty – what with all the abuse, mutilation and murder.

All this heavy darkness is lightened by the humorous, tongue-in-cheek tone of Sade’s writing. Also, the fact the evil is so ludicrously over-the-top makes it impossible to take it seriously. The descriptions of sex are particularly amusing. The writer pretends to follow convention, avoiding any direct mention of genitalia by billowing off into flowery poetry. Yet somehow he still cheekily manages to graphically describe exactly what goes where (and how badly it fits). And there’s plenty of laughs at the expense of poor old Justine. For example, her repeated surprise that telling men her tragic life-story invariably gives them a hard-on :/

Because the word is named after him, Sade’s description of sadism could, in many ways, be considered definitive. The sadistic libertines like causing physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual pain on others… and get sexually aroused by doing this. In ‘Justine’, all of this is explicitly non-consensual and that’s exactly the way the baddies like it. They want their victims unwilling… and as innocent and undeserving, as possible. They’re certainly not looking to match up with masochists.

Expressed through the mouths of his villains, Sade’s main idea seems to be: There is no God, there is only Nature. Divine justice and morality do not exist. Only the laws of Nature are real… and these real-world rules directly contradict the imaginary rules invented by religion. The rules of Nature are: the strong profit by hurting the weak… and they enjoy it, too. Powerful men should abandon their false consciences and do whatever they like (guilt-free), because we’re part of Nature and that’s the way that Nature made itself.

I can’t say I much like this thesis. And I never like the fake-dialogue style of philosophising, where the writer expresses the counter-argument to their views through the annoying voice of a moron. I agree there probably isn’t a God and thus no pre-ordained morality. And I agree the rules of Nature are brutal and tend towards ‘might is right’.

But I don’t agree the logical conclusion to draw from this is: morality doesn’t matter. The fact mortals invented morality, where there was none before, makes the concept even more sacred, rather than less so. And just because our imaginary Gods don’t exist, it doesn’t mean we should just turn around and bow down to Nature. I much prefer the idea espoused by Masoch (and others): that humanity should progress by moving away from the barbaric laws of Nature. I also don’t agree that Nature generally rewards evilness, whilst punishing goodness. It certainly does sometimes, but not as consistently as Sade implies. There’s no devil of fate flying around doling out anti-justice.

At the end of the story, Justine appears to have been saved from her unhappiness and everything seems to be going well. There’s even the suggestion some of the baddies may get a traditional comeuppance. But then Sade really hams up the anti-religious satire as he strikes his long-suffering heroine down with a bolt of lightning.

Justine’s older sister, Juliette (to whom the story is recounted), has done much better in life than her sibling. She chose the path of evil and therefore enjoys all the wealth, privilege and happiness in the world. However, after her sister dies, Juliette perversely decides to emulate all the traits and behaviours that got her killed. Including Justine’s religious virtue and her insane refusal to learn lessons from life.

This conclusion really drives home Sade’s point: that we should not only abandon morality, we should turn it on its head – encouraging the mighty to crush the weak (and to do it whilst wanking over how powerful it makes they feel). It’s difficult to emphasise quite how subversive this message is. It goes against everything religion, law, decent society and children’s stories have ever taught us.

Ultimately, it’s ‘the story’ that Sade is fundamentally attacking through his cunning satire. He’s going right for the jugular: lampooning ‘the moral of the story’ (or the moral of everyone else’s story). That’s what intellectually justifies the repetitive rants he makes throughout the book… and the transparent and unsubtle ways he expresses his anti-morality. He’s parodying every story that’s ever been written. And saying you shouldn’t believe all their fantasies about baddies getting their comeuppance and goodies living happily ever after… instead you should learn the central lesson that life teaches: might is right.

Although I disagree with Sade’s anti-morality on an intellectual and moral level, on a sexual level: I totally love it. As a submissive masochist, I especially love being punished when I’m innocent. And I love it when my sadistic dominators are rewarded for being mean to me: a massage and blow-job, in return for a caging and caning J Getting turned on by a complete perversion of morality and justice is also described by Masoch. It’s a very interesting aspect of sadomasochism. Perhaps this suggests evolution knows immoral individuals thrive within moral societies and thus we’re naturally pre-disposed to be attracted to such anti-social traits (which kind-of strengthens Sade’s argument, on one level).

At one point in the book, it’s mentioned that sadists like to know they’re causing suffering, even whilst they sleep. This is compared to the ultimate sadistic dream of being powerful enough to cause suffering even after death. These words have a sinister ring to them, as it’s very obvious Sade is giving himself a hard-on thinking about all the corruption his writings could bring to the world, for centuries to come. And, of course, all these wank-dreams ultimately came true… better than he could ever have hoped, perhaps. After all, sadism itself was named after him.

What is it with sadists getting turned on by using novels to spread their corruption? That’s what the man who made me write ‘Mirror Secret Mirror’ wants, as well. He gets off on corrupting the innocent and is using me as an instrument to do just that. What a bunch of bastards these sadists are!

Jessica Seaques
Jessica Seaques

Hi :) I’m Jess. I love traveling, daydreaming, drinking tea and snuggling cats (especially Baggins!). I also enjoy: provoking a response; pretending to be innocent; and getting into trouble. I dislike: forgotten tea that’s gone cold; blushing in public; and not being punished when I clearly deserve it.

I’m in my early twenties, recently finished university and moved to London looking for adventure… of which I found plenty…

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