sexual metaphysics


Marquis de Sade by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo (c. 1761).

“What else can I do but examine the abrupt ending of a discourse in which we all entered?”

—Jacques Lacan (after the death of Merleau-Ponty in 1961) (71).

“O charming sex, you will be free: as do men, you will enjoy all the pleasures of which Nature makes a duty, from no one will you be withheld.”

—D.A.F. de Sade / “Philosophy in the Bedroom” (323).

Human sexuality had to run through the 18th century gauntlet of the Marquis de Sade. Then, it became poignantly reified with Maurice Merleau-Ponty in his short chapter “The Body as a Sexed Being” from his Phenomenology of Perception of 1945. It is with the unlikely circumstance to pair Sade to Merleau-Ponty where we can see what is to be found when they are bound together. The unholy union should demonstrate that Merleau-Ponty’s elegant words can be used to contemplate problems with Sade the super-libertine, his life, his perpetual incarceration and his literary exploits. This should offer an excuse to think of a brief phenomenological approach to the repellent Sade.

As it was, phenomenology after Edmund Husserl just couldn’t stay harnessed in its full complexity as he originally conceived it. There were many transformations it took on, and it seemed destined to become modified in new and highly innovative ways, probably as a result of the difficulties reading Husserl. There were Heidegger’s modifications, Sartre’s existentialism, and Merleau-Ponty’s phenomenological embodiment, along with other thinkers along the way. After reading Husserl’s philosophy, it makes sense that anyone would want to find a reason to divorce precious parts of its essence away from the frustration of his admirable philosophical entanglements. Merleau-Ponty’s variation of phenomenology loses all the insurmountable Germanic summits as it warms and flows into a rush of philosophical sensations, perceptions, and observations about the lived body. This is coupled with a literary style that explores and identifies supposed boundaries of the body and into a field of description, investigation, and elaboration of the body as existing consciousness. To read Merleau-Ponty is to think of essential comportments of the body as vital to the way we understand the world, aside from the presupposition of a pure mind that is somehow separate from the body. Saying it another way, stale Cartesian dualism is dethroned in favor of aiming to resituate the understanding of our world as sensuously occupied by this ever changing corporeal matter we call the flesh.

“The body is our general means of having a world” (Merleau-Ponty 147). Only when we start to take him seriously on this point will the meaning of what it is to be a whole body comes to fore of our experience. It is for this reason we have to include our sexual comportment as it is a fusion with the everyday physicality of existence. The Finnish philosopher Sara Heinämaa in her paper “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir” tells us that it is only through Merleau-Ponty’s “[…] study of sexual and erotic relations can we come to understand how objects in general are given to us in experience” (142). She adds later that “[h]er erotic life realizes the style that is also manifested in her other relationships, practical, theoretical and aesthetic” (143). We already know, the instant we read it, what she means to describe here, and that’s the remarkable part of Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy: we are sexed beings who engage the communal world that cannot be unsexed. We (effortlessly or strenuously) work to define ourselves within the perplexing confines what it means to be a man or a woman. If sexuality goes beyond the vulnerable nudity of the bedroom then we have the opportunity to find its self-given power in the recesses of our day-to-day activities. In other words, sex is both profound and trivial as it inscribes itself onto everything from our romantic pursuits then into our intellectual involvements. A style of life is a way of life. We as sexual creatures are profoundly affected by the absence of sex when it’s withheld from us, and we are greatly affected by the presence of it materialized in the sexual act. Sex is an excellence of the corporeal exchange with another’s body.

This helps to explain why we can bring in the aberrant Sade. Sade represents a defiled version of Enlightenment ideals. An idealization of reason becomes a reason to use others to satisfy the pleasures of the flesh. We are reluctantly acquainted to Sade by his monstrous sexuality as it made itself known via the perilous extremes of his writing style. In a two-page essay from the 1964 book, Signs by Merleau-Ponty, he writes about literary eroticism, alluding to Sade “[c]onsider the fact that our great erotics always have [a] pen in hand: the religion of eroticism could well be a literary fact” (310). Yes, there is no doubt that Sade was a libertine par excellence, but most of all, he was an incredibly prolific writer. His fervent imagination often ran away with itself. This was no academic coming to us from a cloistered Parisian university, his debauched writing happened behind the bars of various prisons, including the Bastille during the French Revolution, and his noteworthy stay at the insane-asylum at Charenton. To be sure, if his sexual exploits went unpunished, if his debauchery remained hidden, or if his voracious sexual appetites were satisfied (try imagine that impossibility), it is questionable that his writings would’ve reached the voluminous depravity that they did. The literary critic/philosopher Maurice Blanchot (a friend of Merleau-Ponty’s) wrote of the effect Sade’s paradoxical incarcerations had on Sade’s fame “[n]ow the strange thing is that if the guardians of morality who, by containing Sade to solitary confinement have thereby made themselves the most faithful accomplices of his immorality” (38). Hiding Sade away from potential victims redirected his sexual enforcements onto the page and into the words of those endless perversions.

We try to make sense of Sade with respect to Merleau-Ponty’s philosophy, for instance in the explicit way he (Merleau-Ponty) writes about the sexual body inhabiting an environment “[t]here must be an immanent function in sexual life that guarantees its unfolding, the normal extension of sexuality must rest upon the internal powers of the organic subject […]” (158). This normal sexual extension becomes Sade’s radical profligacy. Sade took total advantage of his aristocratic birth to ab/use people in whatever way he saw fit. But what use is Sade’s horrible example? The avowed philosophical radical Georges Bataille, (also a friend of Merleau-Ponty’s), was keen to ask this very question in his dark essay “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade” to which he simply answers “[t]he life and works of D.A.F. de Sade would thus have no other use value than the common use value of excrement […]” (92).

In a later chapter from the Phenomenology of Perception, where Merleau-Ponty is doing the phenomenological work of freeing up the ‘cogito’ from the entrenched parochialism of Descartes, he mentions sexual perversion and its direct relation to desiring “[w]hat is desiring if not consciousness of an object as valuable (or valuable precisely insofar as it is not valuable, in the case of perverse desire) […]” (396). In one charged example from the Philosophy in the Bedroom, among the thousands, we find Sade’s characteristic sexual derangement to compare with Merleau-Ponty’s suggestion of how the ‘not valuable’ is valued in perversion “[i]s incest more dangerous? Hardly, it loosens family ties and the citizen has that much more love to lavish on his country […]” (324). We almost can’t believe certain lines like this. It must in that relished provocation where Sade got his salacious power. There are plenty of reasons to hate him, and this overshadows our ability to understand him.

We do find piquant echoes of Sade with Merleau-Ponty, of course, in reference to the objectification of body that is so hugely problematic in our sexual relations with other people and other bodies. “To say I have a body is thus a way of saying that I can be seen as an object and that I seek to be seen as a subject, that another person can be my master or my slave” (170). We don’t have to look for long to find similarities to this sexual objectification with Sade,

The act of enjoyment is a passion which, I confess, subordinates all others to it, but which simultaneously unites them. This desire to dominate at this moment is so powerful in Nature that one notices it even in animals (345).

As if he were reacting to Sade’s overly confident stratagems, Merleau-Ponty readily attests to the ambiguity of sexuality (171). We already know what’s meant when he binds sexuality to ambiguity, since our sexualized body is never fully comprehended at face value. All we have to do is recall the full range of problems and misunderstandings about sex, to know, or at least partially grasp the implications. Once we think we can grasp the permutations of sexual appetites we must acknowledge that parts of the field will remain oblique and irrational. We strain to think of the manifestations sexual perversion encompasses. To be sure, we find it tough to reconcile our distaste for someone like Sade. He becomes the best of the worst examples. His libertinage promised freedom, but granted him decades of institutional confinement.

Merleau-Ponty also offers the idea that sexuality is metaphysical “[t]he importance attached to the body and the paradoxes of love are linked […] to […] the metaphysical structure of my body, at once an object for others and a subject for me” (170). We can hardly ever promise to know the ‘paradox of love’ as it plays out in the drama of a sexual deployment and romantic fulfillment. The enormous and ungainly fantasy of sex will be exponentially thrown out of any conventional proportion under Sade’s domain. The metaphysical for Merleau-Ponty is “[…] the emergence beyond nature […]” (171). Sade writes “[i]s it not to wish to linger in a burning fever [of lust] which devours, consumes us, without affording us other than metaphysical joys […]” (285). The metaphysical, in Sade’s clutches, becomes something like madness. And for all intents and purposes he was mad.

We couldn’t walk away without mentioning freedom. Which, in a way, becomes that all important paradox in Sade’s life. He was a libertine, an atheist, a perverse anti-hero, but most of all he was a prisoner. In the last chapter of the Phenomenology of Perception entitled “Freedom”, Merleau-Ponty wants to demonstrate the way in which freedom is also embodied. “We are mixed up with the world and with others in an inextricable confusion” (Merleau-Ponty 481). We are mixed up with the world and so our freedom is likewise mixed up in the world. Our particular circumstance is a bounded condition for any freedom we might envision. The decisions we make have to take into account all that surrounds us, our friends our family and our community. In an effort to talk about freedom as inseparable from our lives, and to dispel the illusion the consciousness itself is free (unencumbered by situation, the body, people, etc.), Merleau-Ponty writes about a resistance to talk under torture, whereby the tortured remains silent. The choice to stay silent is not some pure freedom. It choice has to do with the man to cling to his cause and his group’s agenda. He can also have an arrogant wish maintain an idealized solitude whereby his problem becomes amplified and enclosed “[i]t is, of course, the individual alone in his prison who reanimates these phantoms each day, and they give him back the strength that he had given them […] (Merleau-Ponty 480). This is Sade’s recurrent dilemma. His demons dis/comfort him and us. “Harken only to these delicious Promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness” (180). This is Sade’s dubious promise from the opening lines of his Philosophy of the Bedroom. Sade’s unbridled freedom was a fantasy. It takes the morals of his day as a challenge to destroy them.

The intellectual and artistic (Surrealist) circles of Merleau-Ponty’s day were concerned with Sade for a reason. Sade represents a conflict of interest between a conservative morality and a libertine freedom, but there has to be more than that. We have to (again) stay with Merleau-Ponty “[i]f the sexual history of a man gives us the key to his life […] this is because his manner of being toward the world […] is projected in his sexuality” (161). Sade’s writing has everything to do with his past and his over-sexed ways. It is in his extreme sexualized creativity where we find fascination and repugnance, an ambivalence we have with own bodies. We can only touch parts of his sexualized hell, because most of it was locked away in his body.

Aurelio Madrid

Works Cited

Bataille, Georges. “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade.” Visions of Excess: Selected Writings, 1927-39. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minneapolis Press, 2003. Print.

Blanchot, Maurice. “Sade”. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse, 37-72. Print.

Heinämaa, Sara. “The Soul-Body Union and Sexual Difference from Descartes to Merleau-Ponty and Beauvoir.” Feminist Reflections on the History of Philosophy. Eds. L. Alanen and C. Witt. The Netherlands: Kluwer Academic Publishers, 2004, 137-151. Print.

Lacan, Jacques. “Merleau-Ponty in Memoriam.” Merleau-Ponty: Critical assessments of Leading Philosophers. Ed. Ted Toadvine. New York, NY: Routledge, 2006, 74-81. Print.

Merleau-Ponty, Maurice. Phenomenology of Perception. Trans. Donald A. Landes. New York, NY: Routledge, 2012. Print.

—. “Eroticism.” Signs. Trans. Richard C. McCleary. Evanston, IL: Northwestern University Press, 1964, 309-310. Print.

Sade, the Marquis de. “Philosophy in the Bedroom.” The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. Trans. Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York, NY: Grove Press Inc 1965, 177-367. Print.

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