“Scientist Sade” and discovery in the High Enlightenment
Blessin, Joseph Richard
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Sade has had many titles over the centuries. He was ‘Marquis’, a noblesse d’épée, sitting in his château atop Lacoste; ‘Wolf-man’, on the run from the authorities, a cause célèbre for his notorious sexual adventures; ‘Citizen’, a turncoat royalist, a functionary within the bureaucracy of the new French Assembly, eulogizer of the revolutionary heroes, Marat and Le Pelletier; and ‘Divine’, a patron saint of Romantic poets like Flaubert and Baudelaire, and later, the same for the Surrealists. Sade has yet to be given the name: ‘Scientist’. In my dissertation I lay out the ground work for defending this choice of designation by situating Sade and a sampling of his works within a defining period in the history of the object of scientific inquiry: from the eve of the 1789 French Revolution until its dénouement following the death of Robespierre. The three works of focus are Les 120 Journées (1785), Aline et Valcour, ou le Roman philosophique (1795) and La Philosophie dans le Boudoir (1795); and each one is strategically selected to bring to light singular events, marking important changes in humankind’s relationship with the natural world. This intense focus on Sade magnifies many times over the position Foucault had already assigned him in Les Mots et les chose (1966) when, in offering his own version of the evolution of the object of scientific inquiry from the Classical to the Modern Age, he isolates Sade as a heuristic bridge linking the two eras of his focus, using Sade’s erotic novels Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797) to support his argument. However overly pithy Foucault’s application of Sade may have been, it is felt that he lays a sufficient groundwork, one that I take up in my dissertation and push to even further depths. More than simply conforming to Foucault’s employment of Sade as the “midwife” to Modern science, I do two things of notable difference: 1) I take up the challenge Foucault set in the “Foreword to the English Edition” of Les Mots et les chose when he professes “embarrassment” over not being able to account for how “[…] instruments, techniques, institutions…” (p. xiii) of empirical sciences came to match in complexity those individuals and societies that would come to use them. On the one side, Foucault expresses a clear limitation; on the other, he offers up what he believes is half of what it takes to get at this limitation: “I left the problem of cause to one side. I chose instead to confine myself to describing the transformation themselves, thinking that this would be an indispensable step if, one day, a theory of scientific change and epistemological causality was to be constructed” (p. xiv). This dissertation offers up a heuristic framework to account for the relationship between both these sides Foucault can only adumbrate: the side of an emergent scientific knowledge and the ontological status of the producers of this knowledge. 2) I position Sade as a representative of an older scientific tradition, one overshadowed in Foucault’s emphasis on Sade and Modern science. Since Iwan Bloch compared Les 120 Journées to Psychopathia Sexualis, Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s 1886 manual of sexology, dedicated to documenting qualitatively all possible sexual deviancies in human behavior, most readings of Sade in the History of Science have taken him to be on the modern most end of the timeline of the History of Science (Foucault, 1966; Harari and Pellegrin, 1973; Morris, 1990; Vila, 1998; Polat, 2000; Quinlan, 2006; Quinlan, 2013). Some writers in recent years, however, have had the acuity to highlight older scientific influences on Sade’s oeuvre. Armelle St-Martin is one such example, who has written extensively on the influence of Italian science on Sade. Such a focus is a departure from a trend that sees English empiricism defining the scientific mindset in France that, it is believed, would have influenced Sade’s ideas. This would have included the “spirit of exactitude and method” (p. 91) D’Alembert (1751) speaks of in his panegyrics of Bacon, Locke and Newton in Discours préliminaire de l’Encyclopédie de Diderot or Voltaire’s popularization (1763) of all things English in Dictionnaire philosophique. The legacies of both these perspectives have weighed heavily on Caroline Warman’s reading of Sade, who sees him (2002) through a more “positive” prism of “sensationist materialism” in Sade: from materialism to pornography. St- Martin sees Sade’s scientific orientation directed rather towards much older and ulterior forms of scientific “objects”, ones much less “positive”. Casamaggi and St-Martin see pneumatological themes like miasmas and corruptions in Histoire de Juliette, arriving from Sade’s own explorations in such places as amongst the swamps and famously licentious denizen of Venice, the namesake for that special contagion: “maladies vénériennes”. Both these departures from Foucault’s conceptualization imply the need to articulate what I call a “negative” trajectory within the History of Science. This term plays an important part in how I engage with Sade and his contemporaries and its explication constitutes a significant aim throughout the course of my dissertation. Sade’s own inquiry into the object of scientific inquiry came at a time of great upheaval and he relied on one approach hitherto capable of articulating such “negativity”: metaphysics. The very notion of metaphysics was anathema for many, such as D’Alembert who even labeled it a despicable science in the relevant entry in L’encyclopédie de Diderot. This dissertation will situate Sade within this battle over the future of science in what was that all crucial period of history when the die was cast in favor of Modern science and its penchant for “positivity”; the period of the French Revolution.