Donatien Alphonse Francois deSade wrote Justine: the Misfortunes of Virtue while in the Bastille justly accused of various non-consensual and gleefully committed cruelties and indecencies. In the forward and dedications to Justine he decries such beliefs and says the book is only meant to encourage virtue by pathos. He doesn’t really mean it. He probably found it legally expedient just then to formally disclaim his true beliefs. His philosophy permitted superficial pragmatism. Why give his enemies more rope to hang him with. And like Machiavelli’s archetypal prince, he clearly didn’t regard lies for self-preservation as wrong. And yet, why did he write such exhibitionist books at all? DeSade apparently considered exposition of his philosophical convictions important. He didn’t wish to be seen proposing his radically libertarian philosophy solely as an apologia
for his cruel libertine excesses. However, he also appears to have been unable to avoid obsessive (and from the standpoint of self preservation, inconvenient) sharing of his tastes with his readers. Though he failed to avoid publically miscendi utile dulci
, he enthusiastically depicted characters in Justine who did. Ironically, Justine’s fictional tormentors invariably had better sense than their creator. Though they share deSade’s de gustibus extremis etiam non est disputandum
, they keep it to themselves and their victims. DeSade certainly realized his own rather grievous Achilles heel, and his failure to reconcile his pragmatism and exhibitionism is the central contradiction in Justine.
Justine was written twice, the second time with a companion piece, Juliette. The plot is rudely based on a dark perversion of Samuel Richardson’s saccharine Pamela. In the first version, Justine was one of two daughters of a prosperous businessman fortune suddenly deserted. His death left his daughters impoverished. Practical Juliette, turned immediately to prostitution, and, wildly successful, soon made a fortune, quit and entered unquestioned into aristocratic society (très cynique!
). Virtuous Justine sought work instead as a servant for well-to-do households. One master ordered her to help steal a client’s property. She refused, and the owner stole the property anyway, accusing Justine. Arrested, she escaped jail with duBois, a harlot with a band of thieves. The thieves unsuccessfully demanded Justine’s sexual favors. Their captain proposed sodomy (deSade just couldn’t resist) in lieu of Justine’s losing her treasured virginity and Justine consented, but was saved by the arrival of wealthy captive St Florent. She helped St Florent escape, but he raped her, taking her prized virginity. She was found by Compte Bressac, an amoral homosexual nobleman with a rich aunt. Justine had served his aunt for 5 relatively pleasant years, when Bressac tried to talk Justine into poisoning her. Justine refused. Bressac had his dogs maul her savagely and then freed her – inexplicably - except deSade intended she have further adventures. She went to work for schoolmaster physician Rodin who flagellated and molested his pupils mercilessly. He decided to vivisect his daughter and Justine, powerless to intervene, fled.
In woods near Auxerre she sought refuge in the hidden convent Ste Marie desBois, ruled, unbeknownst to her, by four savage brutal priests. Justine, with other captive women, was daily raped, beaten and made to perform unspeakably degrading tasks for the priests’ gratification. She escaped before her turn came to be murdered. She took service with the miniscule Marquis of Gernande near Dijon, who liked to bleed his wife - finally to death. Justine escaped to Grenoble and was captured by counterfeiter Roland. In addition to beating and raping his female captives, he liked to asphyxiate them. Roland was eventually arrested, and Justine freed, but, sadly, she met Mme duBois, now an apparently respectable matron procuring victims for St Florent. Ever virtuous, Justine refused to join willingly duBois’ schemes and so was framed for murder. Bound for the guillotine, she was discovered at an inn by Juliette and her minister-of-state paramour. Confessing all, she was believed (Encore, le cynisme superbe!)
and exonerated, only to die in a freak lightning accident hours later. Clearly, de Sade relishes the pointlessness of devotion to virtue.
In the second version, Justine keeps her virginity: her tormentors (like deSade), oblivious of the charms of conventional intercourse, insisted upon sodomizing her. She attained a certain unwilling licentious expertise. DeSade, in this version, gleefully catalogues and describes in knee weakening detail the specific practices of his rogues. The arguments supporting deSade’s philosophy of “do what thou wilt” (how like Crowleyanity) by Justine’s tormentors are, as deSade admits, stilted and specious, except the second argument of duBois at Dauphine, where she argues cogently for freedom of action and from guilt by those with courage and strength, such that the reader can comprehend if not necessarily acknowledge. However, de Sade’s other characters inevitably confuse Rousseauvian Lex Naturae arguments with their own hedonistic, survival-irrelevant and decidedly sadistic practices. The fallacy is that although stronger beings are capable of destructive wasteful practices, they thus weaken and ultimately undo themselves. Nature is cruel only of necessity, but its objective is always survival. Even Machiavelli only condones cruelty for rational, if sometimes amoral, objectives. De Sade was certainly aware of this philosophical inconsistency, but I don’t believe he ever rectified it or cared to. Unlike Aleister Crowley, deSade was not evil by conscious effort to be evil in a kind of Miltonian rebellion, but since deSade’s fondest joy was to injure and dispirit others, irrespective of the undoubted contributions of his philosophy, he was evil, and perhaps far more genuinely so than Crowley.