Jonathan Bowden’s Sade

Note: An interesting essay, from a very naughty website – so naughty that prim libertarians like Yours Truly should not admit to knowing its existence, let alone to reading its articles.

Jonathan Bowden and I were contemporaries, and I believe we were several times together in the same room – he used to attend Libertarian Alliance conferences in the early 1990s. If this latter is so, we must have said hello once or twice. But I have no recollection of having met him. Then again, people whose writings are interesting often come over in person as terrible bores.

Now to the Divine Marquis. Along with Voltaire and Bayle et al. and Margarite Yourcenar, he is one of the few French writers I know well in the original. I read him in my teens for the porn. When I found that to be a gigantic trade misdescription, I turned to sneering at his philosophy. A few years ago, I looked again at his Philosophie dans le Boudoir. It bounces along from one utterance to the next, and is shorter than the novels. But the utterances are still piffle, and he writes in the style of a verbose bureaucrat. You can almost hear him licking a pencil between sentences. I am sure the occasional flash of comedy is unintentional.

Therefore, while I haven’t read it, I agree with the main thesis of Jonathan’s book, as described in this review. De Sade is at best silly. He did himself no favours by spending so much time away from playing with himself. His reputation survived through the 19th century because he had the misfortune to be locked away by every French Government from the ancien regime to the Restoration, and because the notoriety this gave to his name became an opportunity for poseurs like Swinburne to look shocking. His reputation is high today because he was taken up by a group of French lefties even more piffling and verbose than he was. If the European New Right wants to claim him as a luminary, my opinion of the European New Right will only tend to sink lower than it already is.

Most philosophical and political wisdom is to be found in – Epicurus, Sextus Empiricus, Bacon, Locke, Berkeley, Hume, John Stuart Mill. There are valuable insights beyond this progression. But these are the writers who asked the only questions that matter. If their answers are often conflicting, they all dance close by the probable truth. SIG

Jonathan Bowden
Charlestown, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2013

Sade was first published in 1992 by Egotist Press. It is a long essay (about 30,000 words, by my estimation) published as a short book (120-odd pages of text in 5 x 7.5 inch format). Bowden’s early works are as rare as hen’s teeth, so I eagerly awaited this reprint by Nine-Banded Books, which also reprinted Bowden’s Mad (Charlestown, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2009), which was originally published by the Egotist Press in 1989.

Sade takes its name from “the” Marquis de Sade, the infamous Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740–1814), the French libertine, philosopher, pornographer, revolutionary, and criminal, for whom the sexual perversion of sadism is named.

My interest in Sade was piqued by Camille Paglia’s brilliant chapter on Sade in Sexual Personae, which treats him as a critic of one sort of modernity: optimism, progressivism, and the Rousseauian notion of man’s natural innocence. Sade can also be read a reductio ad absurdum of another kind of modernity: Hobbesianism and rationalism.

So I picked up a couple of Sade biographies: Maurice Lever’s Sade: A Biography and Francine du Plessix Gray’s At Home with the Marquis De Sade: A Life. But the picture that emerged was not that of a misunderstood genius, but of a loathsome, pathetic lunatic. I also picked up Sade’s major writings, which have racy titles like Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue; The 120 Days of Sodom; and Philosophy in the Bedroom. But Sade’s pornography is about as erotic, prolix, and literarily stupefying as Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, yet without the intellectual payoff.

Nevertheless, in the 20th century, particularly in France, philosophers and “theorists,” all of them on the Left, have promoted the rehabilitation of Sade. It began in 1947 with Pierre Klossowski’s Sade My Neighbor, which argued that, in the heart of the Enlightenment, Sade already anticipated Enlightenment’s inversion into barbarism. (This is pretty much the argument of Horkheimer and Adorno’s chapter on Sade in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, which also appeared in 1947.)

Soon, all the usual suspects had to have a take on Sade: Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Lacan. Sade was hailed as a precursor of surrealism, of psychoanalysis, of Existentialism. Susan Sontag found Sade “transgressive.” It was all quite shocking to the Bourgeoisie.

Enter the young Jonathan Bowden, who was fascinated by Sade, aware of the intellectual cachet of contemporary Left-wing Continental Sade scholarship, hankering after literary fame, and hoping to score a few points for the Right by penning his own take on Sade. Unfortunately, Bowden believed that the luminaries of the French Left were in large part cynical frauds who cloaked the vacuity of their thought in obscure language to wow gullible middlebrow pseudo-intellectuals.

Bowden lacked the graduate-level education in Western philosophy necessary to understand Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, etc. They may be hard to read and understand. They may be deeply wrong-headed. Their politics may be repugnant. But French postmodernism has its own rigor and dignity as a rejection of a particular conception of modernity that the New Right and Traditionalists also reject. One is not entitled to dismiss such writers before one understands them. Nor is one entitled to dismiss them based on secondary or tertiary sources, or middle-brow neocon hatchet men like Roger Kimball. Although every academic is a bit of a posturing phony, no matter what his field or nationality, the posties are not just a bunch of posturing phonies.

But Bowden thought they were. At least that is my hypothesis for understanding this book. Sade reads like a Right-wing Anglophone version of a Left-wing Francophone essay on Sade, written on the assumption that the latter were arbitrary, asseverative, digressive, name-dropping, intentionally obscure, slapdash, stream-of-consciousness productions. And Bowden succeeds brilliantly in this ambition — unfortunately.

I am inclined toward this hypothesis, because it allows me to say that Sade succeeds at something. An alternative explanation is that it is just a failed literary experiment, a Benzedrine-fueled all-nighter, banged out on a typewriter and bundled off to the printer without a second glance or any editorial input. It may be a precursor of his brilliant spoken improvisations after the turn of the millennium, albeit a dim one.

I could not help reading this book with an editor’s pencil in hand. There are historical and biographical tidbits, but not enough to create a meaningful context or clear portrait of Sade. There are many interesting assertions, but as an editor I would have demanded that Bowden provide citations if they were facts, or arguments if they were deductions, or some other indication of their epistemological status. It is hard to know if he is just making things up. There are many beautiful and terrifying turns of phrase throughout, but they should have been used, as in Schopenhauer, to concretize and illustrate an argument, not as a substitute for such reasoning.

There are digressions on the history of the French Revolution which, if original, should have been cut and saved for later. There are interesting remarks on feminist discussions of Sade which should have been amplified. There are interesting asides on William S. Burroughs that should have been developed. There is a good long section on sexual perversions on the far Right, which might have been the whole point of the essay, but it is hard to tell what the point really is. It could have been the seed of a whole book, sort of a Right-wing version of Colin Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders, although I am too much of a prude to read it either.

The most cringeworthy parts of Sade, however, are Bowden’s repeated stabs at writing pornography. I have listened to so many of Bowden’s lectures that I can conjure up his voice in my head. As I read his words, I imagine how he would have said them aloud. Imagine my horror, then, when I turned the page and heard Jonathan going on about cocks and cunts and spooge. Perhaps you will be relieved to hear that it is more in the vein of Penthouse Letters than the Divine Marquis or Georges Bataille. Bowden relates it all blow-by-blow, in a matter-of-fact manner, as if he were just reeling off more biographical details. This is one reason why I began to wonder just how much of the rest of the book Bowden was making up. Whatever the truth, I am just glad that the voice has stopped.

I tried to like this book. I read it carefully twice. I hope there is a reviewer out there who is much cleverer than me, who can give an interpretation of this book that makes it worthy of Jonathan. Of course Jonathan’s fans will want to read it no matter what I say. But as far as I can see, Sade works only as a parody, albeit an unwitting one.

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3 responses to “Jonathan Bowden’s Sade

  1. I agree that De Sade was a waste of space – to treat him as a serious political philosopher is indeed absurd.

    However, the list of thinkers given as who we should be following is very much an establishment list (a university-R-us list).. Some good, some not good – but often (oddly enough) leading (possibly by misinterpretation of their works) to errors similar to De Sade himself – certainly they are not a clear alternative to De Sade.

    Bacon was an open statist – not just in his fictional writing (the infamous “New Atlantis”),but in his practical work as a judge – denying there was any limit to the power of the state (in this case the King) and mocking the defenders of the traditional doctrines of the Common Law.

    This unfortunate political stance seems to have been directly linked to Bacon’s philosophy, with its denial of basic principles of right and wrong – and its vision of a materialist universe (with little room in it for such things as honour – or standing for the right for its own sake), with everything a matter of experiment and cynical calculations of personal advantage. No wonder the man took bribes – with a philosophy like this why would he not?

    Francis Bacon leads directly to the statism of Sir William Petty and Thomas Hobbes, also based on treating human beings as so much “scientific” data – and denying the basic idea of moral right and wrong. Seeing themselves as bold “rebels” against the Great Tradition (of belief in morality and human moral freedom – agency but leaving nothing but tyranny, ashes and dried blood (so much for “scientific state planning” in Ireland or anywhere else).

    The family of Sir William Petty were (no surprise) the funders of the late 18th century “Bowood Circle” (with Lord S. trying to play the same role in this country that the Duke of Orleans played in in pre Revolutionary France) – pushing Benthamite notions of the denial of honour (and all other moral principles not based upon calculations of advantage) and 13 departments of state covering every major aspect of life – in the early 19th century the Bowood Circle mutated into the Westminster Review crowd (James Mill being the bridge). with a similar denial of moral principle (not just of God – but also of natural law) and similar cries of support for “freedom” which, when one investigates them. turns out to be demands for a bigger (not a smaller) state – with professional (paid) officials replacing unpaid J.P.s , the state replacing the church., and a professional “Civil Service” (bureaucracy) to be created. Law to be based on calculations of advantage – with a denial of the principles of natural justice.

    The Classical Epicurians were better (much better) in that they do not seem to have written on politics. So why are they on the list?

    Could it be because of their reputation for denying the divine? Not true in the case of Epicurus himself – as he did not deny the divine (although he downplayed it). Nor did Epicurus deny the capacity of humans to make moral choices (no was no Hobbesian) – humans were very much moral beings (not just brutes) to Epicurus.

    Nor did Epicurus ever suggest sensual indulgence – his “pleasure” was calm and controlled by a rational (and benevolent) mind. The “friendship” of Epicurus was not the “friendship” of Lord Keynes and his Cambridge “Apostles” and London “Bloomsbury Set” (a conspiracy to undermine morality in the pursuit of political power – see Hunter Lewis “Where Keynes Went Wrong”).

    But this was not the reputation of Epicurus in 18th century France – not what De Sade would have heard in the gossip of the salons.

    To De Sade – Epicurus may have appeared an ally in the war against moral principle (against the foundations of society) and in the pursuit of sensual indulgence. Epicurus was no such thing – but the salons of late 18th century France were not known for their careful and restrained scholarship.

    France in this period was also known for its systematic misunderstanding of both David Hume and John Locke.

    Hume is not a system building – the idea of basing a philosophical or political position upon Hume is absurd. We know this because Hume told us so – repeatedly. David Hume (as Dr Gabb rightly says) asked questions – he did not answer them (which is what a constructive political philosopher must try and do) – he was a critic, a “Sceptic” (the capital S is from Human himself). Someone who inspires others to try and answer fundamental questions (notably in their very different ways Thomas Reid, and the main stream of the “Common Sense” Scots philosophy – and, the very different, German philosopher Kant and the tradition he inspired). Perhaps Hume believed the fundamental questions simply could not be answered.

    This, sadly, did not stop French late 18th century thinkers trying to build systems upon Hume (in ways that would have horrified him) – even in the 20th century the Logical Positivists (the destructive “scientific” thinkers of the Vienna Circle and their English speaking hangers-on made the same fundamental blunder of trying to build a system on a negative, upon a void, – see Joad “A Critique of Logical Positivism”).

    John Locke comes in for a similar treatment at the hands of the late 18th century French thinkers (for how they treated Locke see James McCosh “The Scottish Philosophy” 1877)..

    All that is good in Locke they ignored – and all that is bad they exaggerated and tried to build upon (tried to build upon a negative – a void), thus creating a wildly distorted vision of John Locke. A Locke who is a materialist, a person who believes that only sensory sensation exists, a denying of moral principles (and so on). The sort of thinker De Sade could admire – even though the real John Locke was not like this.

    This one sided (and wildly distorted) view of John Locke did vast harm. But it must also be said that Locke himself did not sufficiently guard against such a misinterpretation of his works. There is a duty to make certain fundamental matters (for example the moral law) very clear – precisely to guard against the misinterpretation (deliberate or accidental) of those seeing to use philosophy as a destructive weapon against the Great Tradition of Western Philosophy.

    If David Hume and John Locke were used (unfairly) to deny moral right and wrong, and even the nature of the human mind (and as “reasoning I” – a moral being) indeed the whole spiritual world – so the Irish philosopher Berkeley was used to deny the physical nature of the universe?

    Why should people who admire Hume and Locke (at least a distorted fun-house mirror version of Hume and Locke) as a way of undermining honour and basic moral principles (including in law and politics – for example pointing at Hume’s mocking of constitutional principles in the United Kingdom and making this mocking a central principle of Hume which it was NOT) also admire Berkeley?

    After all Bishop Berkeley was a passionate supporter of the spiritual world – indeed he thought there was nothing else (no physical world). All mind and no (physical) body.

    Yet there is a reason why the supporters of destruction (the destruction of civilisation) found a use for Berkeley – by undermining belief in a physical (objective) universe, Berkeley could be used (much to his horror) to undermine belief in everything. “If even the nose on your face might just be an idea – how can you believe there is such a thing as right and wrong?” is the trick that they (the enemies of civilisation – the enemies of moral liberty) play here.

    As for J.S. Mill – sadly not much distortion is needed for him to be turned into a destructive force.

    His “harm principle” is not really the non aggression principle of the Common Law (this can be seen, for example, by his claim that regulations restricting sellers are not the same, ethically, as regulations restricting buyers) and his (off hand) statement that people should not be allowed to “parade” their disapproval of moral misconduct. And then there is J.S. Mill’s practice of telling lies.

    And it is a “practice” of lying (based in his utilitarian philosophy – taken from Bentham but developed by Mll). To a utilitarian (of this type) truth has no moral value in-its-self (remember there is no moral law – not natural law, to these people) so if it promotes “the greatest good of the greatest number” (to use Hutchinson’s words in a way that would have horrified him) to lie – one lies.

    One can see this in “Principles of Political Economy” far more clearly than one can in “On Liberty” (although it is there also). For example, the repeated claim that “everyone agrees” with this or that thing being done by local government – J.S. Mill knew very well that this was not true (that there was in fact opposition). So why lie?

    The reason is simple – if one mentions opposition one is then expected to refute it, whereas if one pretends that no dissent exists one does not need to refute it (this is a trick often used by the modern left). And it is not confined to local government matters – it extends to matters even of economic theory.

    We are told (in Principles of Political Economy) that “the theory of value is settled” – everyone agrees with the Labour Theory of Value of David Ricardo and James Mill (the father of J.S. Mill).

    This was not true and J.S. Mill knew it was not true – he knew well that Richard Whately and Samuel Bailey (and many other writers) denied the very foundation of the Labour Theory of Value (just as many denied the Ricardo view of land – with all the political consequences that come from this). But the-greatest-good-of-the-greatest-number meant (to Mill) the falsehood was justified. Again you do not have to argue with dissent – if you pretend it does not exist.

    This can be seen in one of the first bits of writing that J.S. Mill did (under the guidance of his father James Mill).

    It was a comparison of the (supposedly) leading “liberal” thinker with the supposedly leading “conservative” thinker.

    The “liberal” thinker terns out to be J. Bentham – most actual liberals of the early 19th century would not have considered themselves followers of Bentham (not his philosophy or his political and legal thought) – but it is just declared (without evidence) that this old servant of the Bowood Circle is the leading liberal thinker of the age.

    And conservative thinker?

    The most read conservative thinker in England at the time was Edmund Burke (the Rivington Edition of his collected works comes out in 1829).

    So J.S. Mill compares Bentham to Burke?

    Of course he does not. Mill presents the poet Coleridge.

    No surprise that in the comparison Bentham (the “liberal”) gives a better impression that Coleridge (the “conservative”) although Mill makes a great show of finding things of value in Coleridge.

    If one can not pretend that no dissent exists – then pick a weak and confused opponent (in order to make one’s own side look strong). The “Straw Man” trick.

    One can see all these tricks (such as either denying dissent exists, or ignoring the real “strongest opponent” [On Liberty] instead picking on a weak and confused opponent and presenting him as the leading voice of the other side) in the Fabians and other radical groups – but they are there in J.S. Mill. As is the fundamental false economic claim.

    The fundamental false economic claim being that there is a “distribution” problem – that the poverty of “the people” is someone because land owners and factory owners get too much (it is not and they did not) – hence the support for unions and (especially) cooperatives.

    Does all this mean that J.S. Mill is worthless – of course NOT, on the contrary his defence of freedom of speech (and so on) has profoundly moved vast number of human beings and has been a great influence for good, Although to a traditional Whig (Mill would have said “conservative” even thought most Whigs were still supporters of the Liberal Party during his life time) the consequentialist nature of Mill’s position on freedom of speech is rather disturbing.

    There is also much else that is good in J.S Mill – even though the tradition that comes from him (the tradition of radical, ANTI Whig, liberalism) seems to lead to the Fabians and so on. Although their top-down collectivism (rather than the coops and so on that Mill favoured) is really more in line with Bacon (The New Atlantis), Sir William Petty, and Bentham – with the line being the partial collectivism of people such as Sir Edwin Chadwick being gradually transformed into the full collectivism of people such Mr and Mrs Webb, H.G. Wells and G.B. Shaw.

    A similar denial of the moral law (moral principle) and traditional liberties can be seen in the leading Fabians – taking to an extreme the philosophical and personal corruption in Bacon.

  2. It should be said that a person can believe both in the moral principles of right and wrong (of honour) and the ability of human to choose between them (the existence of human agency – the reasoning “I”) without having any religious faith.

    As the old Scholastics often said “natural law is the law of God – but if God did not exist, natural law would be exactly the same”.

    Still if the thinkers suggested by Dr Gabb are not really a good foundation for a OLD WHIG (what Mill would have called a “conservative” – even though most Whigs were still supporters of the Liberal Party in his lifetime), what thinkers are?

    One should start with Aristotle – not because he is always right politically (far from it – as Lycrophon pointed out at the time). But because he gets both the nature-of-man and the laws of logical reasoning right.

    And if one starts without a true view of human nature (what people are) and a true grasp of reasoning…… – well everything else is going to go wrong. Here (n the fundamental nature of man and of reasoning) Aristotle is strong and should be followed – in the natural sciences (even in his beloved biology) Aristotle is weak and must be rejected. The 17th century thinkers were right about that – although (oddly) Bacon was also wrong about natural science (and more intolerant than Aristotle – for example both men believed that the Sun went round the Earth, but it was Bacon, not Aristotle, who demanded that the teaching that the Earth went round the Sun should be forbidden).

    The methods one uses to investigate the natural world should be different than the methods one uses to investigate the human mind or the laws of reasoning. Aristotle tried to use the same methods for both – and was mistaken, and Bacon (and others) tries to use the same methods for both (in the other direction) and were also mistaken.

    As James McCosh (the great defender of biological evolution in 19th century American thought) explained……

    The method one uses to investigate the human mind is (has to be) introspection (but in a very formal and planned way), and the method one uses to investigate the laws of reasoning (logic – in the old sense of the word logic) is also internal – one looks for contradictions and so on. The method one uses to investigate the physical universe is quite different – it is based upon experiment (although as Karl Popper was to make clear a century later – it is experiment based upon rational thought, just any old “induction” will not do).

    Both Stoics and Epircurians are of profound worth – but if one neglects the Aristotelian foundations of the understanding of the nature of man, and the nature of reasoning, one is very likely to be lost.

    In the Roman world both Cicero (alas – only a small part of his work survives, but that is also true even of Aristotle) and the Medications of Marcus Aurelius should be studied.

    In the Middle Ages – Thomas Aquinas stands as the foremost thinking. Certainly not always correct – but (as Dr Gabb would say) he asks the “right questions” – even if he does not always come to the correct answers.

    In the 17th century the replies (the refutations) of Thomas Hobbes and other would-be subverters of the moral order (and the very nature of human beings as free moral agents) of Ralph Cudworth (well known in the 18th century – but oddly forgotten in the 19h century) should be studied

    Ralph Cudworth was also justly famous for his knowledge of Classical thought – and his ability to see that modern debates are often old debates in new clothing.

    In the 18th century the Scots Common Sense thinkers (Thomas Reid and so on) are at the heart of right thinking – this was well understood even in the 19th century (in both American and France), but is oddly forgotten today.

    The last major representatives of this School being James McCosh (of “The Scottish Philosophy” 1877) and Noah Porter.

    In the 20th century (at least the early 20th century) the three basic principles were not forgotten.

    These three principles (common both to the Aristotelians and the Common Sense School) being ……..

    The objective (physical) nature of the universe.

    The objective (moral) nature of good and evil.

    And the ability of human beings (as moral agents) to both investigate physical matters, and to choose between moral good and moral evil.

    All this one can find in such Oxford thinkers as Sir William David Ross and (especially) Harold Prichard. Just as much as in thinkers of the Great Tradition in previous centuries (as different as they are in so many ways – one can also find the vital three principles among the Randian Objectivists).

    I believe that even economics requires (at a fundamental level) an understanding of the basic truths.

    It was no accident that Carl Menger (the Founder of the Austrian School) was influenced by Franz Branteno (the Aristotelian) in philosophy – not because Aristotle was a good economist (he was NOT) – but because a clear idea of the nature of man and the nature of reasoning is useful (indeed vital) for economics.

    The German “Historical School” in economics is related to the fundamentally mistaken nature of much of German philosophy – the superiority of Austrian (and 19th century French) economics is connected to the superior philosopher then the norm in these lands (19th century French philosophy being profoundly different from 18th century French philosophy – let alone the ravings that passed for philosophy in France in much of the 20th century).

    As for the history of economic thought – I have no hesitation in recommending the historical work of Murray Rothbard (warning I would not recommend his historical work outside the history of economics) – especially his work on the Scholastics in the Middle Ages – but more recent matters also.

    Once it was well known that (for example) that A.L. Perry was the leading American economist of the 19th century (showing that Bastiat’s principles were correct in free trade and so on), and that Frank Fetter continued the pro freedom tradition of thought – refuting Henry George (and the tradition that goes back to David RIcardo) on land, and Irving Fisher (and “price index stability” monetary expansionism) on monetary policy.

    Now it is forgotten (A.L. Perry and Frank Fetter are forgotten names) – as the standard reference works on economics are as bad on the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries as they are on the thought of the Middle Ages.

    In reality the “mainstream” economics reference works are as bad (if not worse – in fact I think are worse) than the “mainstream” teaching of philosophy (including what books get into libraries) that led to Dr Gabb mostly (not totally) recommending critics of the Great Tradition of civilisation – rather than defenders of it.

    The Old Whigs had things less hard than we do.

    Their libraries were full of (mostly) of truth (not of error) on philosophical matters and thus their thought was strengthened.

    This is also true of old Tory folk also.

    After all (for example) what as the modern establishment got to compare to people like Sir Dudley North, and Dean Tucker of G. in economics – and to such figures as Dr Johnson (much as we Old Whigs might disagree with him on some matters) in general thought.

  3. I admittedly found Bowden a rather curious character through podcasts and various YouTube videos. This is about as close to the truth as you’ll probably get: