Contra Mundum chose wisely to publish the first complete English translation of Aline & Valcour in three volumes. Each volume is distinctly different in tone and focus. The first letters between Aline and Valcour, the eponymous lovers, are sweet and full of hope despite serious obstacles in the way of their union. The middle part of the novel is a side story that also deals with two lovers—Sainville and Leonore, separated from one another, but who have greater control over their fate. The final volume, which tells Leonore’s adventure and the tragedy of Aline and Valcour’s ending, is by far the darkest and most philosophical of the narrative.
Although not as graphic as Sade’s later novels, one will find among the pages of this narrative plenty of libertine behavior—incest, rape, necrophilia, and pedophilia. But Sade uses these horrors, and both the perpetrators and victims, to philosophize about fate, religion, free-will, suicide, and capital punishment. Sade reminds us in the story that he himself felt that he was a victim of a corrupt justice system. Men in any position of power—both secular and religious—are the most depraved and hideous characters. All males who hold a position of authority are sexually deviant and ready to attack any woman with whom they come into contact. Aline’s father, Monsieur Blamont, the worst offender of them all and a judge for the courts of France, has a voracious sexual appetite and enjoys it more when he tortures his victims and they cry. He keeps Aline apart from Valcour because he wants to marry her to his equally depraved friend, Dalbourg, so the two of them can share her.
But Sade’s tale is not a black and white, the bad get punished and the good get rewarded, type of moral. Throughout all of these episodes Monsieur Balmont holds true to the philosophy that pity, empathy, and human affection are worthless in this life and the only thing that matters is satisfying his pleasure. It is longing, love, and feelings that cause so much grief for people like his wife, daughter, and her lover. His arguments are cold and chilling:
…one must know how to lift one’s soul to a sort of stoicism that enables us to look upon everything that happens in life with indifference; that, for himself, far from letting anything afflict him, he took joy in everything; and that if we carefully examine what would seem at first to be an obligation—to be cruelly distressed, for example—we would quickly find a pleasant aspect to it. It’s a question of seizing upon that and forgetting the other; by such a system we can succeed in turning aside all life’s darts. Sensitivity is only a weakness to be readily cured by the forcible repulsion of anything that too closely besets us, to immediately assuage with some voluptuous or comforting idea those barbs that sorrow would inflict.
Monsieur Blamont’s speech has elements of Epicurean philosophy in that sentimental love causes pain and ought to be avoided. But is Blamont’s callous and cruel behavior really something to which we want to aspire? The obsession with satisfying his physical desires brings him a certain state of contentedness throughout the novel and although he is never punished for the suffering he inflicts on others, his eroticism is the cause of what small distress he experiences.
In addition to love the other thing that causes distress in the character’s lives is religion. Aline, her mother, and Valcour are all deeply pious people and no matter how much they pray or do good deeds, they are not better off than those who are atheists or deists in the narrative. Aline becomes a Lucretia-like figure who sacrifices herself to her God rather than have her innocence ruined. Her last letters are full of prayers and hopes for finding a more peaceful afterlife. But who really knows what becomes of the soul in an afterlife? Will she really be any better off by escaping a miserable existence?
In the end Sade is not truly didactic—he is not proposing we follow a specific religion or philosophy, but he lays out a serious of arguments and possibilities from which we can choose. Leonore, after she is kidnapped by a deranged Italian Count, is helped by a poor and selfless man who argues that God is indifferent and prayer is useless: “Let us stop, in short, insisting on a God made from the same stuff as us, a God irritated by invective, fond of praise, and obliging of our prayers. We forever want to see Him as a human monarch who must listen to us and judge. In that way we diminish His views and his most celebrated worshiper becomes finally nothing but an idolater.” This description of a distant and unconcerned deity recalls the same one described by Lucretius who, like Sade, is trying to dispel a fear of death and judgment in the afterlife. It feels as if Sade is pressing towards atheism, but didn’t quite go that far either to retain some semblance of respectability against any religious censors or to cover himself just in case there is an afterlife.
The most remarkable piece of writing in the final volume is when Leonore’s friend puts forward a compelling argument against transubstantiation which also borrows ideas of materialism from Lucretius:
After corporal introduction, the host must be enlarged or, in the instance of a spiritual junction, it must be enlivened. Complete metamorphosis is absolutely impossible; no change of any kind operates by ideas alone; and any such mutation implies extinction of visible parts of the original body and a swift conjuncture of the elements of the second body in the decomposed parts of the first—a process that can only succeed through the force of atoms in the former operating upon those of the latter.
The Church and organized religion are a particular target of Sade’s philosophical diatribes throughout the novel. In the end, what type of a life should we choose to live in this chaotic, painful, unjust, fucked up world? Sade gives us the worst of humanity, he brings forward taboo subjects—as Lucretius—so we will be better prepared to face these circumstances in our own lives. My thoughts go back to Sade’s epigram in which he quotes Lucretius; I see Aline and Valcour as the author’s attempt to dispel the fears of our mind—especially fears concerning love and religion—by encouraging us to use our own reason and nature.
One final note, the Contra Mundum books also include nice copies of the illustrations from the original publication.