The Sadeian Woman – Angela Carter

April 8, 2010 § 19 Comments

The entire title of this book reads The Sadeian Woman: An Exercise in Cultural History. Interestingly enough, though, my library has it recorded as The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography. Taking into account that Carter is quite the feminist, put both titles together and you know you have one potentially bombastic book.

To put it simply, Angela Carter deconstructed a couple of Marquis de Sade’s influential works: Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, and Juliette, or The Prosperities of Vice. Barring the fact that Sade lent his name to the word ‘sadist’, I know nothing else of this man, much less his work. So I was not sure if I would at all be able to understand or appreciate what Carter was setting out to achieve in this book.

What I got, was four pages worth of quotes from the book followed by my thoughts on them, in my notebook.

Pornography is not an easy subject, not for me at least. And to read a whole book, though short it might have been, about pornographic literature by Sade (which I’m sure is obvious is not very flattering, considering how ‘sadist’ it is) really felt quite heavy for me. It was definitely very interesting to read about what those two novels were about, and what might have been the underlying concepts behind those stories. And the language was anything but clean, because seriously, how does one write about pornographic literature if one is to censure words like prick and clitoris and arse and buggering and f*ck?

To be very very honest, it was not an easy read for me. The language was not a problem, but it was the ideas Carter presented to me, and perhaps also because the very subject of pornography is still something I’m not quite so comfortable with. Given that there were so many things that could turn the book sour for me, I just couldn’t stop reading it. I would read a couple of pages, then turn back and re-read a paragraph or two, copy something down and jot down my spontaneous response to what I just read. Then I’d continue for a while more, and suddenly something else would pop up, grabbing my attention, and out comes my notebook again.

Sometimes the things Carter talked about were things we already know; they’re so obvious that we completely miss them. And the way Carter wrote about these things just made me think, how exactly could I have missed them?

I cannot say I loved this book, because the truth is that it was difficult for me. But really, though, this book has potentially changed the way I look at women, at our relationship to men, our relationship to ourselves.

Rating: 4.5

Some quotes:

In common speech, a ‘bad boy’ may be a thief, or a drunkard, or a liar, and not necessarily just a womaniser. But a ‘bad girl’ always contains the meaning of a sexually active girl.

The victim is always morally superior to the master; that is the victim’s ambivalent triumph. […] Virtue is thrust upon us. If that is nothing, in itself, to be proud of, at least it is nothing of which to be ashamed.

And, because she is beautiful, she arouses concupiscence. Therefore she knows in her heart she must be bad. If she is bad, then it is right that she should be punished. She is always ready for more suffering. She is always ready for more suffering because she is always ready to please.

Beauty, youth and innocence in a woman give them an artificial ascendency over a world that allots them love and admiration to precisely the extent a beautiful, young and innocent woman is deprived of the ability to act in the world.

* Note: Claire at Paperback Reader is hosting the Angela Carter Month. I have her to thank for giving me the final push to pick up a book by Carter, especially because I’ve been interested in reading Carter since I’ve read some very good reviews of her fiction works at Another Cookie Crumbles.


§ 19 Responses to The Sadeian Woman – Angela Carter

  • Nymeth says:

    Pornography is certainly a hot topic in feminist circles (well, not just, but you know), and if I remember correctly, this book was a bit controversial even among Carter supports. I’ve yet to read it myself, but I’m intrigued.

    • Michelle says:

      I can imagine why it would be controversial. But then again, Carter has a way with her words that is really quite absorbing. She doesn’t mince her thoughts, but there’s an honest ring to her work. I can’t wait to read her fiction.

  • JoV says:

    4 pages of notes. Wow!

    I must say that was a commendable effort. Maybe I could have a look at the note and save me the trouble of reading the book? 🙂

    • Michelle says:

      Haha! I would have loved to share those notes, only they got a little personal at some point. Which is really quite amazing, because I hardly get that personal when taking notes while I read. Just goes to show how powerful the book really was for me.

      • JoV says:

        I think if you inject your personal thoughts on the books you read it just goes to show you had a good and thoughtful read from the book.

        I always have much to gain by taking notes of a book I read, which is not always possible. I hope you do too.

        • Michelle says:

          I don’t always take that many notes when I’m reading, especially when it comes to really engrossing books. But sometimes, like what you said, if the book provokes a lot of thought, I tend to try and take down as many notes as I go along, just so I can read and reflect back on how the book made me think and feel.

  • Iris says:

    I wouldn’t be comfortable with reading about pornography, but this sounds really interesting!

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks for dropping by Iris. Like I said in my post, it’s not an easy read, especially since so many of us are still so uncomfortable with the topic. But I’m really glad I picked it up.

  • chasing bawa says:

    That’s a good review on a difficult and controversial topic. I find that the more I read and think about feminisim, the spectre of sex and the role and definition assigned to women is a hurdle that is hard to get over. Your first quotation is apt. In this age, you have to wonder why men are applauded for being sexually active and women derided for it.

    I read Justine many years back but don’t recall being that shocked by it. There’s also a film called Quills (starring Geoffrey Rush as Sade, Kate Winslet and Joaquin Phoenix) which came out a few years ago that you might be interested in.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks. I’ve hardly read enough about feminism, so I can’t really comment much about what you’ve said, but it does seem that sex is something everyone is just unwilling to approach as a serious subject. And thanks for the movie suggestion. I’ll definitely look into it.

  • It’s a fascinating book and subject, isn’t it? It certainly challenged me and the way that I looked at pornography and gender.

    As Nymeth points out, Carter was not popular amongst her fellow feminists; if I remember correctly, Andrea Dworkin was her harshest critic.

    • Michelle says:

      Thanks for coming by Claire. And thanks also for hosting the Angela Carter Month. This book has definitely had quite an impact on my thinking, and I’m wondering if I shouldn’t go get myself a copy of this book. It seems like the kind that with every re-reading, I’ll find something new. And I really don’t think I fully understood the whole text.

  • Vishy says:

    Interesting review. I liked all your favourite quotes – they are powerful and thought-provoking. I loved the fact that you made four pages of notes and quotes! It will be nice if you can post an image of it so that your readers can read it. You also didn’t say what Carter finally says about Sade’s books. Is her conclusion simple or does she give complex reasoning? Would love to know that.

    • Michelle says:

      The thing about what Carter finally says about Sade’s work, is that I really don’t think she was judging his work. It was more like trying to dissect his thoughts as he was penning those works, and really just exploring the implications they had on our world, or what they implied.

      As for an image of my notes, refer my reply to JoV. =)

  • I have this book and am thinking about giving it another go, as so far I’ve struggled to get into it. I read Dworkin on pornography a while ago and found her views extreme but persuasive. Thanks for sharing and inspiring.

  • Anushka says:

    I’m usually very disturbed by attempts to eulogise or even re-appropriate Sade, because I simply CANNOT reconcile the love of cruelty with love of liberty. It seems to me that Sade’s admittedly candid vision of power politics in sexuality is fraught with difficulties, because it calls for a kind of living by the rules of nature which is IMPOSSIBLE in a world as sophisticated as ours is today without trampling over real feelings of insecurity, anxiety and lack of physical desire. As though now, in a world where power hierarchies are already established, people have to be in a constant state of war to retrieve their unquestioned right to orgies. Weak people, poor people, shy people, and most of all-UNWILLING people aren’t even considered. I feel he represents the danger that sex too can be a hegemony and a dystopia.
    But Carter’s views seem interesting, objective and signficant. I’ve already started making enquiries into where I can find the book. I do feel though, from my limited reading of extracts and criticisms of it, that there’s one basic problem in Sade’s sexual views of women itself which is overlooked. There’s a male presumption of masochism in women, which seems to be the author’s own which far outshadows examples of mashochism in men. In the pursuit of sexual libido, it appears that women will be happier being whipped than whipping. This can easily lead to the premise that women must be liberated through violation. Am I right, and if so, how does Carter deal with this? That’ something I really want to know.
    Moreover, to acknowledge Sade was a sick, cruel man who mistreated women AGAINST their wishes is only fair, why NOT draw from his life to support this when they are more real than fiction will ever be? To save literature from being swallowed up by biography is essential, but when literature is overtly moral and propagandist, we must look at the principles by which the author lived his own life. Is so, Sade’s liberating aspects are in grave danger of being part of a worldview that would ultimately keep men at the top of the power structure, no matter how sexually active the women are.

  • Anushka says:

    I can also understand Dworkin’s perspective- the realities of rape and abuse in today’s world are SO sordid, so stark and so tied up with issues of poverty, neo-imperialism and lack of education (take the issue of black women being raped by white and black diamond hunters in the Congo), that Sade seems almost unimportant and absurd in the face of those things. Take Indian villages which aren’t bourgeoise at all, where women are more subjugated than in urban societies without such complexities of sexual discourse. These require action at urgency but ALSO call for a social restructuring, which seems to demand a vision far more humane and practical than libertine ones or rabidly defensive Dworkinian activism.

  • Anushka says:

    Correction: my first line makes it look like those things were pointed out by Dworkin. Whether they were or weren’t is not point, I was putting the focus on the starkness and despair of rape in the REAL world, which affected Dworkin deeply. The socio-economic perspectives have been offered by many people, and they lend strength to the vision of rape and sex as something to be looked at outside the veils of theory or fiction (no matter how explicit and shocking that theory or fiction may be.) And how a complicity with patriarchy on the part of men isn’t always linked to pleasure in cruelty. Many men are possessive and conservative, but they couldn’t dream of physically hurting a woman or tolerating an instance of this. To presume we understand the deep dark recesses of their unconscious is yet another trap of pyschoanalysis. It tends to take the focus away from lived experience. I don’t know how all of this relates to Carter, they’re just issues which have plagued me for a long time in context to women’s issues.

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