U.S. Government Funding Translation of Marquis de Sade

By Fred Lucas | October 15, 2010 | 2:39 PM EDT

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade by H. Biberstein, Bibliothèque des Curieux, Paris, 1912 (Wikimedia Commons image).

(CNSNews.com) - The U.S. government is funding a translation of a novel by the Marquis de Sade that, according to the National Endowment for the Arts, “is replete with Sade's black humor, unique philosophy, and original thought.”

The term “sadism,” which Merriam Webster’s dictionary defines as “a sexual perversion in which gratification is obtained by the infliction of physical or mental pain on others,” is derived from Sade’s name because of his notoriety for engaging in such behavior and celebrating it in his writings.

Sade, who lived in France from 1740 to 1814, wrote the novel in question, Aline and Valcour, when imprisoned in the Bastille. It was published in French in 1795.

The $12,500 NEA grant to translate this work into English went to author John Galbraith Simmons, who told CNSNews.com: “Sade is a figure who belongs with Shakespeare, with the greatest of authors.” Simmons is undertaking the translation with his wife, Jocelyne Geneviève Barque.

Critics of Sade have pointed out that he was not merely an advocate of sexual perversion. In 1966, The Antioch Review published an essay—“Marquis de Sade—the Cult of Despotism”--by the late former Communist Lewis Corey that addressed the impact Corey believed Sade’s writing had on modern political ideologies.

“His writings are in a turgid, pedestrian prose,” wrote Corey. “The characters are two-dimensional people who act and are seen from the outside, and who, in the midst of their orgiastic activities, break forth into long 'philosophical' speeches in justification of what they are doing.”

“Sade,” said Corey, “was a libertine who practiced whipping, blood-letting, and sodomy and who debauched little girls and boys. His writings portray virtually all the sexual perversions, including lust-murder, necrophilia, and anthropophagy; if he did not practice all of them, he wanted to do so and justified them all. They emphasize Satanism, crime, and sacrilege as a piquant sauce for debauchery. The overmastering theme of Sade's writings is the pleasure a man derives from degradation of the sexual objects with whom he disports, especially women but including men and boys.”

In Corey’s view, Sade’s writing helped spawn a philosophy that gave rise to Communism and Fascism. “The Marquis de Sade was no mere pornographic writer,” said Corey. “He was a ‘philosopher of perversion’ whose philosophy is more terrifying than his pornography. The philosophy influenced ‘left’ and ‘right’ radicals of the nineteenth century and later, while in recent years its anti-humanist, anti-liberal, and anti-democratic moods appear in the psychopathology of Communism and Fascism and in their ideology of despotism.”

In 1980, the Journal of Medical Ethics published an essay by A.D. Farr arguing that Sade—who defended murder and infanticide—was in fact the founding father of the movement to normalize abortion in Western society.

“In 1795 the Marquis de Sade published his La Philosophie dans le boudoir, in which he proposed the use of induced abortion for social reasons and as a means of population control,” wrote Farr. “It is from this time that medical and social acceptance of abortion can be dated, although previously the subject had not been discussed in public in modern times. It is suggested that it was largely due to de Sade's writing that induced abortion received the impetus which resulted in its subsequent spread in western society.”

Sade, Farr said, was an “arch-priest of the new libertinism” who “held all life cheaply and who, for most of his adult life, was obsessively concerned with making attacks upon God and the Christian church.”

For Farr, Sade’s philosophy had a more significant impact than his pornography.

“La Philosophie dans le Boudoir is notable for the violence of its attacks upon established religion, morality, family ties and social structures, and for its advocacy of sodomy, incest, lust and cruelty for their own sakes,” wrote Farr.

“It can be argued that the pornographic content of La Philosophie is less important, in terms of potential effect upon its readers, than the lengthy philosophical monologues in which de Sade incorporated his views on morality,” said Farr. “It was de Sade's belief that as destructiveness is one of nature's first laws, to destroy can never be a crime - and as murder is no more than a form of destruction it is thus to be approved:itfollowed that abortion is no less acceptable.”

In February 2009, John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Geneviève Barque published an English-language excerpt from Sade’s Aline and Valcour—the book they are now fully translating with $12,500 in assistance from the National Endowment for the Arts--in The Brooklyn Rail. In the introduction to this excerpt, they said of the book: “Not explicitly pornographic but implicitly sexually graphic, Aline and Valcour, wrote critic Geoffrey Gorer, although slightly overlong, ‘could stand with against any other product of its country and century.’”

When asked by CNSNews.com about this statement that the book is “implicitly sexually graphic,” Simmons said that the book is not pornographic. “It deals with sexuality throughout the book,” he said. “The main characters remain virgins throughout the book in spite of a variety of sexual situations.”

On it website, the NEA describes Aline and Valcour as a “600-page epistolary novel” that “is replete with Sade's black humor, unique philosophy, and original thought.”  The book, says the NEA grant description, “consists of three interrelated stories that include unrequited love, perilous journeys to Africa and the South Seas Islands, and utopian and dystopian interludes.”

NEA spokeswoman Victoria Hutter declined to talk about the grant, and referred CNSNews.com to the online grant description quoted above.

CNSNews.com asked Simmons why tax dollars should subsidize a translation of Sade.

“He’s a pretty controversial guy but he wrote a novel of tremendous brilliance that was published in 1795 in France that has never been translated and does not have the explicit sexuality of his books, and he deserves to be translated,” Simmons said. “I commend the NEA panel, both for recognizing the value of this particular work and the courage of the people who decided to give us the grant. I think they recognized that Sade is a controversial figure and they needed the assurance that the book is not in any way pornographic.”

Simmons believes that Sade is a literary giant.

“One thing that American readers are unlikely to realize, Sade is not simply an important figure,” he said. “Sade is a figure that who belongs with Shakespeare, with the greatest of authors.”

“I don’t think Sade should inspire such controversy today,” said Simmons. “One could understand how this could be a controversy 50 years ago, but today I would think he shouldn’t be such a controversial author. He’s very current.”

Simmons said he and his wife began the project of translating Aline and Valcour two years ago and expected it to be completed in 18 months. The NEA announced its grant of $12,500 to support the project on Sept. 7.

The novel is relevant to contemporary political issues, Simmons said.

“There is a social and political context to it,” Simmons continued. “In the first pages, for example of Aline and Valcour one of his characters is defending torture. And that theme is something in today’s news constantly. Issues over sexuality and religion remain constant areas of conflict. The need to understand why cruelty is pervasive in the world in which we live, something that I think is more current now in the globalized world in which we live than it ever has been before.”

Simmons also said the book deals with issues of religion and sex.

“This novel examines the rule of law and what today we would call sexual politics and aspects of cultural anthropology. It examines the role of religion in creating moral constraints that run up against fundamental human desires,” said Simmons.

“The characters in the novel include some that are vicious and cruel but also others that are deeply religious and pious and all of them highly believable,” he said. “There are a number of them and a range of them. The major characters are portrayed as religious and pious and sometimes not very smart.”

Simmons has also posted a statement about Sade’s novel on the NEA website. “The great themes that pervade Aline and Valcour, the beauty of the French prose, and its insistent relevance with respect to contemporary dynamics of personal, social and political conflict make the project of translating it a rare privilege and a durable pleasure,” he wrote. “Jocelyne Barque and I undertook this translation with only a glimmer of understanding what a complex task it would be in terms of length and demanding prose. We are deeply gratified by what we can only take to be wisdom and courage at the NEA for providing a grant to bring into the English language a major and long-neglected work by an author whose brilliance and stature are surpassed only by his notoriety.

Simmons has written four novels and has translated Return to Vietnam, a travel memoir by French journalist Jean-Claude Guillebaud.