We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

This is the first English translation, expertly and smoothly rendered from the French by Jocelyne Genevieve Barque and John Simmons,  of Marquis de Sade’s epistolary novel.  Written in 1786 while he was locked in the Bastille, this book is very different from Sade’s later, more pornographic, writings.  Contra Mundum Press has, wisely, decided to break up the novel into three volumes—easier to carry and nicely displayed on one’s shelves.  My impressions of the first volume are ones of astonishment—at the riveting adventure story, the slowly unraveling mystery, and a philosophical statement on Epicurean/Lucretian philosophy.

Aline and Valcour are young lovers kept apart by Aline’s vicious and depraved father, President Blamont,  who wants to pawn her off to his equally sadistic friend, Monsieur Dolbourg.  Blamont and Dolbourg take extreme pleasure in keeping young women as sex slaves and doing unspeakable things to them—although, as I mentioned, Sade’s descriptions of these debaucheries is minimal compared to his later writing.   The mental and physical pain that Blamont causes for his wife, daughter, and victims is a theme that occurs constantly in the letters and his choice of epistolary style allows Sade to struggle with the concepts of pain and pleasure on a philosophical level.  Madame Blamont writes to Valcour :

Can I justly pretend to some perfect happiness?  Does it exist anywhere beneath the heavens above? To be put on earth to suffer is the simplest thing in the world.  Are we not here as gamblers around the table? Does Dame Fortune favor everybody seated there? By what right dare they accuse her of squandering their gold instead of winning it?  The hand of the Eternal One suspends above our heads good and evil in equal portions and they spill indifferently upon us.  I might have been happy just as, so it happens, I’m miserable—a question of chance.  And the greatest fault of all is to complain.  Moreover, can’t we imagine taking pleasure even in extreme unhappiness? But dint of sharpening our soul, unhappiness intensifies sensitivity; its impressions, by developing in a more vigorous way all manner of feeling, bring about pleasure unknown to those who are cold-hearted and unfortunate enough to have experience only tranquility and prosperity.

Sade’s vision of a deity is Epicurean in the sense that this being is indifferent to our fmisortunes.  Pain and pleasure for Sade are very closely related and one cannot experience happiness without first being exposed to extreme forms of pain.  Does Sade see his novel as didactic, as a way of teaching us this lesson?  Is he trying to dispel our fears of pain and death?  The epigram that Sade writes at the beginning of Aline & Valcour in which he quotes Lucretius, De Rerum Natura, 2.55-61 gives us a a small clue (this translation is my own; in the Contra Mundum version, the authors use R.C. Trevelyan’s 1937 translation):

Just as small children tremble and fear everything in the blind darkness, so do we, as adults, fear in broad daylight things that are just as irrational as the fears of children in the dark when they imagine things before their eyes. Therefore, it is necessary for us to shake off this terror and gloom of the mind, not by the rays of the sun or the brightness of daylight, but by the appearance and reason of nature.

 

Lucretius sees poetry as a way of tricking people into dispelling their fear of pain and death.  In his most famous metaphor, poetry is the honey we rub on the edge of a bowl in order to coax a child into  taking his bitter medicine.  One other, quite obvious allusion, to Lucretius in Aline & Valcour also gives us a clue as to Sade’s philosophical motivations with his writings.  Once again, it is Madame Blamont that writes to Valcour on behalf of herself and her daughter:

I ought not to have allowed you to come to know Aline or her unfortunate mother; today, we would certainly all have less pain; and for the pain we inflict upon others we can never be consoled.  But all is not lost—no, Valcour, not all. My barbaric husband, who torments you so, might yet reconsider, so too the ridiculous monster who trails his every step. It might dawn on him that he’ll reap non of the hoped-for pleasure from she who hates him so. That much, at least, I can only hope and believe, though I know illusion is to unhappiness as honey rubbed round the rim of a glass of absinthe, offered to a child in pain: we mislead, but sweetly.

Sade, however, has a more sinister view of this deception.  How much is an author or philosopher really fooling anyone with this “honey?”

Will the lovers eventually be together?  Will Blamont’s victims escape his torments?  And who are the mysterious house guests that appear at Madame Blamont’s at the end of Volume I?  These plot considerations as well as Sade’s philosophical threads have me eagerly reading Volume II.

 

10 Comments

Filed under Classics, French Literature

10 responses to “We Mislead, but Sweetly: Aline & Valcour, Volume I by Marquis de Sade

  1. Jonathan

    I’ve been reading some of Sade’s shorter works recently and I’ve found them surprisingly well-written and interesting in their own right. Previously I had only read some of his more explicit works. I do wonder what his reputation would have been if he had concentrated on his less explicit material; not so well-known I expect, but forgotten?

    I found it odd that Contra Mundum were publishing A&V in three (?) volumes. Do you have any idea when the next ones will be published?

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Sade is probably one of the most original thinkers Europe has produced, and his works (and life, by the way), if read properly, can illuminate how we have learned to think & how we may need to change. He’s a very funny writer, and it’s worth remembering the amount of books by Voltaire in his personal library at the time of his death. I highly recommend the short dialogue “Dialogue between a priest and a moribond”. There is a new book which has just been published in French explaining why now, more than ever, we should read Sade.

    Liked by 2 people

    • This book has given me such a different view and better appreciation of his writing. Thanks for the recommendation. I also ordered Annie Le Brun’s book, A Sudden Abyss which comes highly recommended.

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  3. I’ve only read one of his books, La Philosophie dans le boudoir and I can’t say it pushed me to read more by him.

    Now this one seems closer to Les Liaisons dangereuses and a lot more attractive.
    Thanks for reviewing it.

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  4. John Galbraith Simmons

    Greatly appreciate this insightful and illuminating review. More on Lucretius, Sade, and the Enlightenment together with implications for the world today can be found in a fine book by Natania Meeker, Voluptuous Philosophy (fordham U Pr, 2006).

    Liked by 2 people

  5. John

    Thanks for the review, Melissa, really enjoyed reading it. There is so little information online about this book, it’s great to come across a review like this.

    I am also reading the english translation of Aline and Valcour for the first time and am enjoying it very much. I’m nearly finished the 1st volume and hope to start the 2nd volume this week and finish the 3rd volume by the New Year.

    I’ve read quite a lot of Sade’s work already (120 Days of Sodom, Justine, Juliette, Philosophy of the Boudoir, Eugene de Franval, short stories etc.) as well as his letters from prison and a biography on the man by Francine du Plessix Gray. It is great to add this new translation to the list. It is quite a different reading experience – especially when compared to some of his more notorious texts – but for me, it is still unmistakably Sade.

    I see that the translators John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Genevieve Barque were interviewed on 7th December in Brooklyn, New York as part of their book launch. Anyone know if it was recorded and whether it will be made available in the future?

    Looking forward to your reviews for volume 2 and 3, Melissa.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Hi John! Yes, it is unmistakably Sade, just a bit toned down. I’m impressed with the story as well as his philosophical ideas. I’ve started Volume II and it’s just as good, if not better, than the first.

      I did see that there was a book launch with the translators hosted by Contra Mundum Press. I wish I could have gone. I’m not sure if that press ever records and publishes their events. I was thinking about possibly doing an interview with them for my blog. Stay tuned.

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