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The Sadeian Woman by Angela Carter

TheSadeianWomanAndTheIdeologyOfPornography.jpgThe Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography
Angela Carter
Pantheon Books, 1978

A friend of mine showed me this book back in the '80s sometime. I read a bit of it and took an immediate dislike to it. My guess is that I thought it was anti-pornography. This was the era of Andrea Dworkin, and feminists were arguing with each other about pornography. I was anti-anti-pornography. Ole tried to tell me that my reading was completely orthogonal to what Carter was up to in the book, but my mind was made up.

Fast forward thirty years, and now I come to The Sadeian Woman with fresh eyes. What we have here is Carter's attempt to wrestle with Sade's pornography, which she finds both liberatory and ultimately solipsistic. Maybe I should mention that I've never read any Sade myself. The closest I've come to his own work is Pasolini's Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom, which is an adaptation of one of his novels and one of the most disturbing movies I've ever seen. I've also read Samuel R. Delany's Sadeian pornography (Equinox, Hogg, The Mad Man) and his writing about Sade. All of these things I find very challenging and difficult and unpleasant.

Likewise Carter's book, which is polemical and for example considers "masturbatory" a dismissive adjective, which is pretty demeaning to an old bachelor like myself. But I can take it. I'm all too aware of my flaws and limitations. Some of her demolitions are more pleasant to me, as when she levels her critical weapons on the mythos and iconography of Marilyn Monroe. In fact the section of the book on the iconography of Mae West, Greta Garbo, Marlene Dietrich, and Monroe was probably my favorite part of The Sadeian Woman. Unfortunately, much more of the book is dedicated to the description and analysis of Sade's depictions of sexual terrorism.

On an intellectual level I can appreciate that Sade was attacking the hypocrisy of state, church, and society, and it's fascinating to see just how far he took his taboo-busting. It's also fascinating how this taboo-busting allowed him to imagine much greater freedom for women than most of his contemporaries, and for that matter allowed him to understand the nature of the clitoris, which is knowledge that was lost to men in the 19th century. However, as I long ago discovered with Delany's porn, there's a limit to my ability to view this stuff intellectually and philosophically, so I found long sections of Carter's short book to be an ordeal to read. What I hadn't expected, however, is the way that in the end she seems to agree on some level that Sade's moral radicalism is inhuman and abusive. Or maybe she embraces the moral radicalism but simply finds Sade's radicalism limited. In brief, she finds Sade lacking love and mutuality, which is a surprisingly humanist criticism to discover at the end of an intensive exploration of narratives of pain and degradation.

I'm honestly not sure what to make of her argument, or how much of her argument I actually understand. She's clearly and consciously trying to be provocative, and I was suitably provoked. I did wonder sometimes what she would think of contemporary pornography. The book feels very much of its time. Yet even though I'm less of a fan of literary criticism than I once was and even though I've never had much interest in Sade (sadly proving my conventionality as a thinker), I admire Carter's intelligence and eloquence and fierceness. Now I need to read some more of her fiction to see how this analysis played out in the stories she told.

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