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SHOCK APPEAL / Who Are These Writers, and Why Do They Want to Hurt Us? : The New Fiction of Transgression

August 01, 1993|MICHAEL SILVERBLATT | Silverblatt is the host of KCRW's Bookworm, Mondays at 2 p.m. He is also the moderator of the Lannan Foundation's Readings and Conversations series

The chic underground has been featuring piercings and tattooings. Whips and chains are prevalent in fashionable photography. The shocking self-penetrations of recent body-centered performance art are being rationalized by concepts of "empowerment," of "owning" our bodies. We hear references to Rome in its decline, primitivism and savage mutilation rites.

At a recent writing workshop in Los Angeles given by Dennis Cooper (author of the explicit novel "Frisk" among other works), I was not surprised to hear what the young writers are interested in. There was no talk of minimalism (the parade is past), or postmodernism (an aberration of the academy); the talk was all about the new new thing: transgressive writing. Exploring the sexual frontiers implicit in Mapplethorpe's photographs or Karen Finley's performances, transgressive writing has violation at its core: violation of norms, of humanistic enterprise, of the body. Really, it's the Marquis de Sade who officiates at the American orgy.

Who are these young writers reading? A variety pack. In alphabetical order: Kathy Acker, Roland Barthes, Georges Bataille, Jean Baudrillard, Dennis Cooper, Joan Didion, Bret Easton Ellis, Michel Foucault, William Gass, Jean Genet . . . but over and over again the transgressive classics: William Burroughs and Sade.

This month, a new biography of the Marquis de Sade arrives on the scene. Monumental in size, the product of extensive scholarship, "Sade" by Maurice Lever (Farrar, Straus & Giroux: $35; 568 pp.) is the first major biography since Gilbert Lely's windy old classic came out in 1948,and the first to benefit from the Sade family's recent willingness to make available their complete archive.

Born in 1740 to a noble family, Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was also born into the traditions of libertinism. His father was a rake, his mother a lady-in-waiting. He was sent to be raised in one fortress after another--a remote castle and an abbey in whose library he would find the essays that examined the dangers of flagellation as a form of religious privation (too much whipping can lead to sexual excitation).

If you have read his "120 Days of Sodom," this new account of Sade's life can come as an awful letdown. There are niggling debates over whether, after flagellating a woman who may or may not have been a prostitute, Sade cut her with a penknife and filled the wounds with wax (as the woman claimed in court), or used a wax emollient of his own invention to heal the wounds from the whipping (as Sade claimed), or whether the wax, in fact, was from the candle Sade was holding to illuminate the proceedings (the biographer's helpful suggestion).

Libertine excess opened to him in the way drugs and sex have opened to American teen-agers, and in this biography his progress has a familiar ring. Sade seems like a drug-addicted teen-ager whose family is spending endless amounts of time and money to keep him out of jail, out of the hospital, out of the mental wards and the morgue, while the kid takes advantage of everyone's distracted attention to escape to a club and shoot up. Sade's family indulges in ritual hand wringing and sighing. I particularly liked the coining of the lovely excuse that the boy is just "hot-headed."

Swinburne (his pen dipped in blood?) celebrated the ghastly absolutist--"a blasted head flashing, a massive chest crossed by lightning, the phallus-man, an august and cynical profile grimacing like a ghastly and sublime Titan . . . the vast and sinister figure of the Marquis de Sade appear(s) above a whole epoch sewn with stars."

This Sade is absent from the tedious itemization that Lever chronicles of trials and pardons, wheedlings and lies, escapes and constant requests to all and sundry for a little bit of money just to get by.

Think of all the essays, brilliant and dense, by virtually every literary French intellectual of this century, in which Sade is a god: Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, Simone de Beauvoir. Muscular essays bulge with the effort to reconcile the intellectual thrill of Sade's writing with the undeniable shock of his ugly and tireless imagination. For them, Sade is unreadable, but this excruciating form of unreadability is singular. And Sade is disgusting, but the disgust he inspires is absolute and therefore valuable.

The gap between Sade's pathetic life and the intellectual fireworks that his writings inspire leads us to the true Sadeian subject: the realm of the hypothetical, where Sade lived for most of his writing life. It is Sade's ability to disown his body and live in the mayhem of the intellect that gives his work its character.

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