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.