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The New Libertine.

By Anthony Howell.

HOWEVER PRIVILEGED HIS POSITION, the libertine remains irrevocably a rebel, and for Albert Camus, the Marquis de Sade epitomises this condition.  As Gilles Neret puts it in Erotica Universalis, ‘Sade brought together in a single system the arguments of 18th century libertine thought, creating a titanic engine of war that led directly to the monumental upheaval of the French Revolution.’

But Sade was an armchair terrorist.  His excesses were limited to the realm of the imagination.  In The Rebel, Camus observes:

An addict of refined ways of execution, a theoretician of sexual crime, he was never able to tolerate legal crime. ‘My imprisonment, with the guillotine under my very eyes, was far more horrible to me than all the Bastilles imaginable.’  From this feeling of horror he drew the strength to be moderate, publicly, during the Terror, and to intervene generously on behalf of his mother-in-law, despite the fact that she had had him imprisoned.  A few years later, Nodier summed up, without knowing it perhaps, the position obstinately defended by Sade:  ‘To kill a man in a paroxysm of passion is understandable.  To have him killed by someone else after serious meditation and on the pretext of a duty honourably discharged is incomprehensible.’ [trans. A. Bower, Penguin Modern Classics, 1953]

Sade demonstrated the extreme consequences of a rebel’s logic.  The rebel is ‘in denial’.  For Milton, Lucifer was the arch-rebel, exiled for denying God’s omnipotence.  These days, it is possible to feel that, rather than the devil, it is God who is in exile.  Clearly Al Qaeda feel this way and seek isolated retreats since ‘Farthest from him is best.’  However the ‘him’ in question is now ‘Uncle Sam’ – or the secular order imposed by forces united in the name of democracy rather than the divine order imposed by God.  It is the terrorist who seeks to re-establish the power of God.

SADE WAS IMPRISONED for his writing.  Nowadays, it is easier simply to ignore radical literature.  At the International Writers’ Program in Iowa, back in the ’60s, I can remember being told by an Ethiopian author that he was not allowed to use the phrase ‘old man’ in his books because the Emperor was approaching senility.  But you, he said, in a tone akin to reproach, you have freedom of speech.  He was a published author, translated into several languages.  I told him that censorship in Britain worked by ignoring authors.  Yes, they could write what they liked.   There was simply no way they were ever going to be published.  As a system, ignoration, to invent a word for it, is more effective than censorship, since it successfully keeps the public in ignorance of the author’s existence.

Ignoration is on the increase.  The UK Arts Council has recently reduced the grants of many arts organisations and small presses, thus reducing the number of outlets for thought that may seem too extreme.  Rather than impose a percentage cut across the board, they have chosen to completely cease funding for some while increasing the funding for others.  Enitharmon, a publisher of some of Britain’s best innovative writing has had its grant cancelled.  Faber, one of the world’s most powerful publishing houses, awash with funds from the legacy of T.S. Eliot, has however been awarded a grant.  But then, Andrew Motion, a Faber author, was practically a member of the New Labour cabinet – a position he is equally able to occupy in the cabinet of the present coalition.  Thus small outlets for radical thought are eschewed in favour of monstrous purveyors of bland, politically safe writing.

As a poet, I find myself accumulating manuscripts which may never be of interest to such a publisher.  Rather than imprisonment, I feel exiled.  But exile is imprisonment on the edge – in my case, N17.   A cherry tree completely obscures any view I may have of the street, but the tree also functions as a curtain.  I am walled in by leaves, in a garden prison.   Like Sade, I vent my spleen, in obscene writing.  This pornography is not sadistic.  Nevertheless, it constitutes  a system of thought.  In my case the system is inspired by a phrase I recall from my adolescence:  ‘Submission to indecency leads the human creature to love.’  A misquote probably of something Gide might have said.

I AM LEFT ALONE, in my luxuriously padded cell,  while outside, in the world of the ghettos that comprise the majority of this world’s dwellings, unscrupulous masters (living elsewhere, in impregnable enclaves), send out their underlings to rob, murder and maim, in the name of laws by which they do not abide.  This chimes in with what Camus has to say:

The universal republic could be a dream for Sade, but never a temptation.  In politics, his real position is cynicism.  In his Society of The Friends of Crime, he declares himself ostensibly in favour of government and its laws which he, meanwhile, has every intention of violating.  It is the same impulse which drives the lowest criminals to vote for the conservative candidate.

Perhaps all systems of libertine thought are retreats in the face of incarceration, rejection or exile: retreats into the interior.  For many of us, sex is such a retreat – very pleasant when shared with someone else  for thus we share interiority.  What we get up to may be accompanied by a sense of transgression, so there can be something rebellious about having sex.  Here, our denial may appertain to some quotidian notion of decency.

But there is no ‘our’.  The urge comes in a myriad monstrous ways, some of them ugly.  Typically though, they follow a fairly orthodox line into greed, if I am anything to go by, but that’s the problem.  Each of us just goes by their own propensity.  Still, I will hazard a generalisation and aver that most people’s fascination is based on a fairly infantile conception of rudeness – and it takes a mild form – owing more to the singer of ‘Smooth Operator’ than to the chronicler of viciousness under the ancien régime.

THIS ENJOYABLE RUDENESS STANDS in for anti-social behaviour.  But since the only taboos it violates are moderate, its transgressions remain innocent.  It’s a far cry from Sadeian pleasure, which confuses bliss with triumph derived from the use of force and is ultimately bonded with the will to power.

A fairly standard version of mutual love seems rather to delight in acquiescence; and an itinerary of shameful tasks may be followed by the lover, at the behest of the beloved. Ultimately the lover is the slave, the child, the submissive one, while the beloved is the adult, the masterful one, the one it is good to  obey.  Oedipal relations can be thrown in, and bisexual relations add spice.  This amounts to a soft version of the system articulated by the Marquis.

In addition, the roles can be exchanged:  the child can be in charge, the adult can become the shameful one, the female can dominate as often as the male.  There is a general compliance, an agreement to adopt the roles chosen. The key is the sharing of pleasure, rather than pleasure achieved at the expense of the other’s well-being.  And so it is a retreat into play, into the realms of ‘as if’.  It liberates us from the intellect, allowing us to let our manes down, romp and roll, unbridled.  Sade, for whom enjoyment must always be prevented from degenerating into attachment, would have rejected this shared bathing in obscenity.   But then, it is not a system generated out of sufficient agony to require blood (though some people really like bridles, and saddles too).   And when some brain-sapped, sexed-up self finds itself eagerly indulged by a reciprocal impulse, then the experience, and the release that it brings, relaxes more than the body alone.

But humanity has diverse interiors, and it is undeniable that some individuals retreat into mania, or perhaps it is their mania which corals them away from their natural sexuality.

WHAT INTERESTS ME, is that for Sade, literature provided the retreat.  Extreme libertinism is essentially a literary affair.   Of course there have been emperors who have employed ‘minnows’, countesses who have bathed in gore, castellans  who have done away with hitch-hikers.  Such humans have been taken over by characters.  The ability to distinguish between action and fiction is, for humanity, a crucial attribute.  In Wandsworth gaol, a boy came into my writing class who had glassed someone in a pub brawl.  His own thumb had been severed and had had to be sewn on again.  I suggested that he write about it, as if he were telling a story.  He wrote furiously for an hour, and afterwards he told me that writing about this event as if it were a narrative was the most exciting thing that had ever happened to him.  One of the grossest failures of our current education system is that it fails to deliver literacy, and this means that many people find it hard to think through the difference between virtual and tangible violence.

The fact that Sade intervened on behalf of his mother-in-law during the Terror shows that he did understand this difference.  He was well aware that he was a writer, not the protagonist in one of his novels.

THE LIBERTY CLAIMED by the libertines and dandies of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries is claimed by Swift in his Modest Proposal.  It is essentially the freedom to think, the freedom to dream up the wildest crimes and pursue the most extreme philosophies to their absolute conclusions.  For them, nothing that can be thought should be suppressed.  This tenet led directly to the people questioning the ‘divine right’ of monarchs.  So from an aristocratic point of view, such as Sade’s, writing was the worst crime of all.

Management constitutes the contemporary aristocracy.  It has laid down a whole regimen dictating what can be said and what can’t, avowedly in the name of social hygiene, but in actuality it reinforces the status quo.  The war on terror has compounded the strictures by asserting that we are not a free society but ‘on a war footing’.  The assault on what can be said is of course an assault on what can be thought.  The restraints on articulation have led to a dearth of opinions.  Well, we can still be opinionated about food, fashion and celebrities, but not about immigration, education, blood-sports, punishment, sexual difference, race, terrorism, religious custom, class or caste.

We live in a democracy, apparently, and yet there seems to be precious little difference of opinion about many of the issues of the day.  Who defends Serbian rights to Kosovo?  Who asserts that Gaddafi has delivered to Libya a higher standard of living than that of any other African state?  Who sees nothing wrong with youth being courted by age and vice versa?  Who maintains that chemotherapy is not the best or the only way to treat cancer?  Who dares to suggest that one solution to the crisis in education is to cease making it compulsory?  Who considers the Health Service to be an apolitical issue – and private plans a sure way to be rooked for unnecessary treatment?  Who advocates Buddhism for assassins, since the attainment of Satori clears the mind of attachments? Who declares that the girl who walked into Mike Tyson’s bedroom at one o’clock in the morning should have got five years for stupidity?

Management modifies outrageous thought by asserting that the thinker is in denial (i.e. rebellious) and that this is an unhealthy state of affairs.  One friend has been told that she is in ‘in denial’ of the M.S. with which she has been diagnosed.  She goes regularly to the gym, and she is learning the tango.  Daily, she feels more co-ordinated, with better stamina and increased joie de vivre.   Another friend is in denial of her Parkinson’s.  She walks everyday, never baulks at a difficult journey, and while clearly impaired, has travelled a lot less down the line of “invalidity” than she would have done, were she not in denial.

ONE MIGHT ASK, well, what are we in, if not in denial?  Are we in compliance?  Submission? Acceptance?  Surely it is his terror of denying that leads Alberto Moravia’s The Conformist (made into a film by Bernardo Bertolucci) to  assassinate his old friend and teacher, Professor Quadri, the outspoken anti-fascist intellectual.

We might be advised to credit Al Qaeda with some robust thinking.  It is clear to me, if to no one else, that Osama bin Laden was well versed in Hegel (perhaps he still is!).  For Hegel, there are two conditions in any conflict:  there is the rebel, who prefers death rather than enslavement, in contrast to the abject mentality of one who prefers to live in servitude rather than perish.  You can hear Lucifer muttering, ‘Better to rule in hell…”  In Hegel’s view, the protagonist who is prepared to die for his cause will always prevail over the person who opts for slavery rather than death.

This is a good argument to muster, when you have suicide-bombers on your side, while the worst that your enemy can chuck at you is drones delivering destruction; drones whose conductors remain happily out of harm’s way.  We, that is ‘the West’, are quite prepared to cause carnage, so long as it is at little risk to anyone but a few squaddies.  The two conditions are perfectly matched.  According to Hegel, we will lose.

Of course, it should be possible to eradicate the suicide bomber.  One would simply exterminate all members of his family, once it was ascertained that he was responsible for the atrocity.  If this policy were to be enforced, there might be fewer suicide bombers.  The trouble is, the course of action would be too libertine, too extreme for the ‘liberal’ West, since it is the policy Hitler would have adopted.

Muslim extremists are in denial of their defeat.  This makes it difficult to defeat them.

ME, I REBEL against death. I thrill to Rochester’s defiance in The Disabled Debauchee. I make as few concessions to my age as I possibly can.  I treasure memories of my eight year old self, and fully agree with the sentiments expressed by Edna St. Vincent Millay in ‘Moriturus’:

Withstanding Death

Till Life be gone,

I shall treasure my breath,

I shall linger on.


I shall bolt my door

With a bolt and a cable;

I shall block my door

With a bureau and a table;


With all my might

My door shall be barred.

I shall put up a fight,

I shall take it hard.


With his hand on my mouth

He shall drag me forth,

Shrieking to the south

And clutching at the north.


A former dancer with the Royal Ballet, Anthony Howell was founder of The Theatre of Mistakes and performed solo at the Hayward Gallery and at the Sydney Biennale. His articles on visual art, dance, performance, and poetry have appeared in many publications including Art Monthly, The London Magazine, Harpers & Queen, The Times Literary Supplement, and he is a frequent contributor to The Fortnightly Review. In 2001 he received a LADA bursary to study the tango in Buenos Aires and now teaches the dance at his studio/gallery The Room in Tottenham Hale. He is the author of a seminal textbook, The Analysis of Performance Art: A Guide to Its Theory and Practice.

One Comment

  1. wrote:

    I was struck by the talk (writing)of not discussing all ossibilities. Somehow things can be too safe and some subjects never touched upon. Even if it does not change you views of how to live your life you need to look around an issue, even if it is to understand your enemy!! At least if you dare to think, even if you come back to where you started, you will have been thorough, have learnt something.
    “social hygiene” a neat little phrase.

    Tuesday, 5 July 2011 at 13:18 | Permalink

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