From Lapham's Quarterly:
In the mid-eighteenth century, the term bureaucracy entered the world by way of French literature. The neologism was originally forged as a nonsense term to describe what its creator, political economist Vincent de Gournay, considered the ridiculous possibility of “rule by office,” or, more literally, “rule by a desk.” Gournay’s model followed the form of more serious governmental terms indicating “rule by the best” (aristocracy) and “rule by the people” (democracy). Yet bureaucracy quickly developed a nonsatirical life of its own once the French Revolution got under way. The Terror was, of course, infamously bureaucratic, with dossiers the way to denunciation, condemnation, and execution.
On July 2, 1789, as legend has it, a voice rang out from the interior of the Bastille into the street below: “They are killing prisoners in here!” Two weeks later, citizens stormed the Bastille, inaugurating the long and complex series of events that would constitute the French Revolution. The alleged yeller, one Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, had been removed to the insane asylum at Charenton ten days before the siege, thus having miraculously galvanized his potential liberators or murderers and evaded them. It is a singular piece of luck that Sade was not present for the storming, for it is likely that, descending upon the marquis’ luxuriously appointed cell, the sansculottes would have had some difficulty differentiating Sade from his oppressors, much less from their own.
As this series of apocryphal events intimates, the Marquis de Sade occupies an unusual place in French letters. He is at once the paradigmatic aesthete to end all aesthetes, a supreme materialist and spendthrift, an aristocrat determined to organize his life around complexly choreographed orgies (and the eccentrically appointed locations necessary for these performances), and an iconoclast, if not a revolutionary. Though the paper trail that emerges from his early life includes at least three accusations of flaying, stabbing, poisoning, and other unusual forms of physical and emotional abuse—leveled by prostitutes and other women poorly protected by the law—Sade has been held up as a beacon of sexual liberation during an era benighted by Christian repression and hypocrisy. Susan Sontag and Julia Kristeva have praised the freedom of his writing and thought. As the myth of his cry to action from within the Bastille indicates, Sade’s readers are willing, in spite of his title, to receive him as an anarchist hell-bent on upending the feudal order of his day.
But for all Sade’s aristocratic indulgence of peculiar whims and profligate spending on whips and whores, he is also one of the first major authors of what we might term modern bureaucratic literature. His writings are extraordinarily, pruriently concerned with acts that can be accomplished only by people working in groups who follow, in an orderly fashion, arbitrary rules and regulations. These secular constraints not only defy common sense but fly in the face of what we usually think of as basic respect for the sensations and lives of others. Thus another neologism: sadism. The writings of the Marquis de Sade describe dispassionate intimacy in the plural. In this sense, they foreshadow the social world of the contemporary office.
Like the word bureaucracy, sadism is a neologism that has taken on a life of its own. Today, according to the Oxford English Dictionary, sadism is an “enthusiasm for inflicting pain, suffering, or humiliation on others.” Yet Sade’s notion of dispassionate intimacy is quite particular. His sadism is less concerned with pleasure in the pain of others than with a lack of feeling regarding the pain of others. Though many of Sade’s writings describe characters who engage in cruel and murderous acts of sexual congress, few if any seem to enjoy the pain of others, no matter how necessary the mutilation of flesh to the act in question. Sade’s embodied economic processes, his sometimes rather less than mutually consenting coworkers, labor to produce orgasm—which is really just a route to apathy. After orgasm, Sade’s libertines are briefly freed from the confusing sensation of need. The libertine looks dispassionately down upon the flayed corpse in which he has just succeeded in ejaculating and experiences clarity. The corpse cannot, reasonably, be the object of affections or emotion; it holds no spell of either generosity or dependency over the Sadean character who has just made use of it. A corpse, even if nominally endowed with life, can inspire nothing other than apathy in the libertine. And apathy is the aesthetic mode that, for Sade, correlates with the best forms of agency, since it demonstrates the libertine’s freedom from Christian sympathy and its attendant hypocrisies. An absolutely liberated, absolutely impersonal pleasure testifies to the libertine’s refusal of insincere social bonds. “Virtue suffers the punishment of crime,” wrote Simon-Nicolas-Henri Linguet in 1771, “even as crime enjoys with impunity the pleasures that should be the rewards of virtue.” Sadean sex is, to inject a contemporary term, the fuck of the spreadsheet, in which all markers of identity and sentimentality are like the footlong dildo the eponymous libertine heroine of The History of Juliette uses to impale a nine-year-old girl: detachable, iterable, and sortable by size. Anyone can be a libertine, provided she or he is willing to be systematic.
The most famous of Sade’s narratives, 120 Days of Sodom, is also the most explicit about the Sadean protagonist or sadist. Here again liberation through apathy, rather than through cruelty or enjoyment, is key. The four friends who convene at Château de Silling for a four-month debauch are not so much interested in harming others as they are in orchestrating an experience that will be beyond anything they have previously enacted. This experience will, therefore, culminate in their absolute liberation from moral order. Drafted during Sade’s incarceration at the Bastille in microscript on a forty-foot roll of paper pieced together from smuggled scraps, 120 Days was a physical labor of desperation, passion, and personal and political rage, the composition of which was apparently accompanied by elaborate masturbation rituals. Sade never completed the manuscript, so we do not know what will happen to the libertines on day 120—but it seems to be a matter of little difference if they were to walk away from their fortress of horrors with plans to reconvene the following year or if the secluded castle were spontaneously engulfed in flames, taking all occupants to their deaths. (Manuscript notes suggest that sixteen people will survive the events at Silling and return to Paris, but who knows what, in a final draft, might have occurred.) Our own ambivalence regarding the book’s actual ending, which Sade sketches out in his notes as a series of coordinated imprisonments and executions, is not accidental. It results from Sade’s skillful cultivation of simultaneous prurient interest and utter apathy in the reader of 120 Days of Sodom.
We are fascinated by the four libertine friends’ stats, by their personal deterioration or fortitude, by their ability to orgasm repeatedly or not at all, by the revolting details of body hair and the shapes of their buttocks. But beyond their appetites, appearances, and aristocratic titles, we know little of the friends save what they do in the fortress. And because what they do in the fortress is determined by a set of laws drawn up at the outset of their macabre vacation, plus narratives supplied by ancient procuresses invited expressly to narrate acts of debauchery, our psychological understanding of the four friends remains limited. We know that they are very rich, highly sexed, extraordinarily well organized, and thoroughly apathetic. Of the victims we know significantly less: they are young, beautiful, soft-skinned....MORE
Within this desert of spiritual detail, one piece of familial backstory is supplied. At the opening of 120 Days, we learn that each of the friends has raped his own daughter and that each has married the unfortunate daughter of another one of the four friends. This arrangement guarantees that Christian marriage has been reimagined as an enterprise of debauchery. Yet this brief peek at a previous arrangement among the four provides a key to the meaning of other relentlessly formal coital permutations set up later on: 120 Days of Sodom is not a novel about the apathy of institutions and how they dehumanize and anonymize their members. It is not about marriage, unless we understand the four friends’ relationship as a kind of marriage. It is, rather, a novel about the apathy of coworking, a description of how individuals collaboratively create codes for behavior and imagine actionable scenarios in an enclosed space—i.e., office, another relative neologism derived from the Latin word for “obligation”—all the while guaranteeing that their actions will be impersonal. This is the sense in which 120 Days of Sodom can be considered an “office novel.” It is also, bizarrely, a comedy; it is the story of a highly successful office and how it works.
If, as in Tolstoy’s formulation, all successful offices are the same, what are the universal qualities of Sodom, LLC? What does this happy office have that other offices also share?...
HT: Arts & Letters Daily (also on blogroll at right)