In an era when both Church and State assigned gender roles and defined sexual practices in terms of male/female, lawful/illicit, Sade’s extensive accounts of sexual activity were categorized as deviant, prurient or provocative. William F. Edmiston explores how Sade’s unique challenge to sexual, moral and social taboos anticipates the discourses of queer theory.
Following an overview of queer theory, Edmiston examines the categories of sex, gender and sexuality as treated in some of Sade’s best- and lesser-known works. He demonstrates the extent to which Sade erodes the boundaries of sexual opposition through discourses justifying rather than illegitimizing ‘unlawful’ sex. The author reveals the coexistence of two competing discourses on sexuality: a proclivity that cannot be eradicated, and a habit that one can choose to adopt. This pioneering re-reading culminates with an examination of how recent biographies attempt to force Sade into a normal/abnormal dichotomy, manipulating police reports, personal correspondence or narratorial interventions to establish (or not) the author’s homosexuality.
Through revealing Sade’s attempts to undermine prevailing gender roles and sexual identities, Edmiston uncovers a ‘queer’ discourse that challenges the still common assumption that heterosexuality is exclusively natural and normative, and that nature has always prompted humans to reproduce, rather than to seek pleasure.
Edmiston’s articulate argument [leaves] the reader [...] not so much with the perception or label of Sade as an ‘eighteenth-century queer theorist’ (p.228-29), but rather with the impression of the man’s brilliance and audacity as a depicter of the complex nature of human sexuality
- New Perspectives on the eighteenth century
It responds to the double exigency of a history shaped by present concerns, and does so in a conscientious, scholarly manner.
- The modern language review
‘C’est une analyse détaillée et profonde de l’influence mutuelle entre le contexte général des Lumières et la philosophie de Sade […] L’analyse d’Edmiston, bien documentée, est absolument en ligne avec les tendances générales de la recherche queer’.
- Studi francesi