50 Shades of Grey avec Sade

Nestling in a box of junk I passed on Montpellier Road Brighton yesterday was that popular classic, 50 Shades of Grey, and having seen the cover so often veiling a face on the tube I had to pick it out of the box and have a flick through and it fell open at page …

“RULES
Obedience:
The Submissive will Obey any instructions given by the Dominant immediately without hesitation or reservation and in an expeditious manner. The Submissive will agree to any sexual activity deemed fit and pleasurable by the Dominant excepting those activities that are outlined in the hard limits (Appendix 2). She will do so eagerly and without hesitation.”

“HARD LIMITS
No acts involving fire play.
No acts involving urination or defecation and the products thereof.
No acts involving needles, knives, piercing or blood.
No acts involving gynaecological medical instruments.
No acts involving children or animals.
No acts that will leave an permanent marks on the skin.
No acts involving breath control.
No activity that involves the direct contact of electric current (whether alternating or direct), fire or flames to the body.”

Of course we all know from Freud that when we say NO we are already thinking YES. The Marquis de Sade realised that there was some mileage from exploring fantasy and we know how far he took his fantasy. But the genius of Lacan was to realise that there is a relation between the work of the Marquis de Sade and the ethical imperatives of Emmanuel Kant in his virtually impenetrable essay Kant avec Sade.

Sade’s Philosophy in the Boudoir comes 8 years after Kant’s Critique of Pure Reason and remember Sade lived though the French Revolution and escaped the guillotine only by the fortune of a clerical error.

But how could Lacan connect the ethical work of Kant to the extreme fantasies of Sade … and I won’t go into the ‘Boudoir of Sade’s phantasy’ but suffice to say the “HARD LIMITS” of E L James’ book doesn’t even form an entry point into Sade’s list of sexual acts therein contained.

The connection between Kant’s moral imperatives and Sade’s fantasies is that they are exploring limits, or rather question the function of a limit. For Sade in the limitations of his prison cell, surrounded by fine tapestries, he had no other freedom left to him but the freedom of his fantasy which he explored to the end.

Sade comes across as cold in his description but also brilliantly funny. He was a fine writer and what you come to realise in reading Sade is that although he spent most of his life imprisoned, some of that time in the Bastille, he discovers ‘jouissance’ in the act of writing; it is as if he has discovered that he needs nothing else but his writing; an activity that Freud would come to distinguish as ‘sublation’ – with the erotic pleasure not resulting from the content of the fantasy but the eroticisation of the words themselves.

But what I find truly obscene about this book by E L James (I’m not even going to talk about the quality of writing) is that it attempts to domesticate perversion and thereby renders fantasy moral. The unconscious is the place where the socially unacceptable gets repressed and symbolised and coded and then erupts as symptoms, jokes, and obscenities. Sade, by taking his phantasy to the end, without limit, was performing an ethical act, and he is giving the reader the permission to follow their own phantasy, exhausted to the end.

It is maybe an ignorant cliche to say that the work of Sade, in his inauguration of the subversion of the subject, opened the path to psychoanalysis but nevertheless with the huge interest in the work of E L James, what does that say about contemporary repression/perversion?

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