Wednesday, 4 July 2012

Fifty Shades of Fiction for Book Fiends

In the wake of its success, Fifty Shades of Grey has inspired an awakening of interest in erotic literature since its release and subsequent success worldwide. For those seeking an extra thrill, there are some classic works from the world of erotica to whet the appetite. Justine, The Gothic Tales of The Marquis de Sade and Philosophy in the Boudoir are all excellent novels; appealing for their lavish descriptions and the rich language. 

Philosophy in the Boudoir tells the tale of young, virginal EugĂ©nie who is invited to the house of Madame de Saint-Ange for a lesson in libertinism at the hands of two older men, one of them an atheist and homosexual. The ‘action’ takes place in a bedroom in Madame de Saint-Ange’s house over the course of two days. Although it was initially considered as nothing more than pornographic, Philosophy in the Boudoir has come to be viewed as more of a dramatic socio-political commentary whereby the characters argue that libertinism is the way forward as it reinforces the political revolution of the time in France (de Sade wrote this in 1795, amidst the cacophony of the French Revolution). Should people fail to adopt to the ways and philosophy of the libertine, France will reinstate the monarchy and be reduced to its previous stagnant state. The thing about de Sade’s writing is, it isn’t just sex and violence against women, it’s bursting with metaphors about identity, freedom of speech, freedom of thought and  individuality plus, he writes about sex really well. Of course, as with pretty much all of the Marquis’ writing, he does focus on the idea that the sole goal of human existence is pleasure and feels that morality, compassion and religion are ridiculous ideas that obstruct human pursuit of pleasure. As in most of his work, sodomy is the preferred activity for all concerned, all the characters prove to be bisexual and the female being ‘educated’ is somewhat of a fast learner for someone who’s having her virginity taken by several people all at once in some cases. Unlike most of his work, Philosophy in the Boudoir features no murder but does include torture and plenty of sex. Plenty.

My favourite piece of de Sade’s work is Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue, mainly because I think it’s very well written, the story is entertaining and the characters seem to have been thought out much more clearly than those in his other works. The story concerns a young woman who finds herself caught in situations involving perverse individuals, who subject her to their whims and become her masters. In one way, Justine is quite pitiable as de Sade writes her character as though none of her misfortunes are her fault. On the other hand, her tormentors continually warn her that her worship of virtue will only afford her more suffering at their hands, thus she proves to be an interesting if somewhat thick character, to put it mildly. From the outset, Justine is identified as a lone figure, born with a “melancholy turn of mind." In spirit, she is already doomed to be unhappy regardless of any good fortune that comes her way. Unlike her sister Juliette, Justine will never learn to value survival over providence and this proves to be her biggest misfortune. It makes for a very good read though!

E.L James' Fifty Shades trilogy has proved controversial with critics, just as Sade was controversial in his own time for writing about violent sexual escapades that usually ended in murder. Or at the very least, psychological trauma for the female characters; always the victims and never the masters/mistresses of their own sexuality, a theme that is mirrored in Fifty Shades of Grey. In reality, Sade demonstrated that there were few ways for a woman to earn a living in eighteenth century France, other than through prostitution or perverse forms of servitude. Along the way, he indulged in provocative ideas of role play, sexual mastery and dominance, all notions that probably would have made him quite popular nowadays in the age of pornography and BDSM. The difference between this age of lads mags and de Sade is, he knew how to wield a pen (and probably a few other things if rumours are to be believed) and he did write beautifully about horrible events and vile deaths. He was ahead of his time, in short. I still love his work, not that it’s a pragmatic approach to life or that his views on women are esteemed, they’re not and shouldn’t be. I just love the words, I love the way the words work. It says something when someone can convey an upsetting vision in a beautiful way and in the process, makes a provocative facet of life seem just a little less scary.


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