Sometimes a distant memory can seem strong and insistent, but strangely lacking in detail. I remember as an occasion of significance one conversation over a dinner table that took place almost forty years ago. But when I try to dig out the soundtrack, I find myself largely at a loss. Though I recall the positions taken in the discussion, which at the time seemed to me important. They still do.
The table belonged to that lovely man Anthony Arblaster, then a respected and radical lecturer in the Politics Department at Sheffield University where, in the English Department, I was struggling to complete (I never did) a thesis on the late 18th and early 19th century gothic novel. Alongside our respective partners, the fifth chair was occupied by the novelist Angela Carter (Nights at the Circus, The Company of Wolves, etc). She was then writer in residence at the University, though this was my first and only meeting with her. At a ghostly sixth chair sat the presiding spirit of the occasion, and our main topic of conversation – the Marquis De Sade.
It had seemed to me that in the stock narrative of the gothic novel, the extreme meeting of vice (villain) and virtue (heroine), enacted dumbly and symbolically as emotional / sexual encounter, must have personified a historical point of moral shift – a moment of synthesis in the cultural dialectic at which the established realms of good and evil collided, were fused and became weirdly inverted. At the time I saw this not as a logical development of enlightenment rationalism, but as a challenge to it, a welling up of the popular repressed. (It was actually both at once.)
Angela, Anthony had told me, was “interested in Sade”, and this implicit moral inversion, of course, pretty much resembled Sade’s agenda, though he had squeezed it into an explicit and extraordinarily fierce, specialised, pornographic version. Appropriately enough, the paraphernalia of the gothic – castles, secret societies, monks, etc – also furnished him with the dramatic clutter for his fantasies. So if Sade’s writings were in some ways gothic, and if gothic taste was in some way Sadeian, albeit in a popularised, weakened and unselfconscious form, we clearly had something to talk about.
I can’t remember what we ate. No, it wasn’t human flesh, but certainly it was good. Over the meal, Angela and I rehearsed our respective points of view, but were unable to splice them. We were on common ground when it came to Justine and the misfortunes of virtue, but I felt myself overtaken and floundering when it came to Angela’s championing of Justine’s monstrous sister Juliette. In the popular gothic novels I was studying, cruelty was entirely a male prerogative (or to put it another way, maleness stood for vice and femaleness for virtue), and the symmetrical entrance of the femme fatale would have to wait a century for the yellow climate of ‘nineties decadence. I could see that Sade was ahead of his time in his invention of the female libertine, and that his feminisation of vice took the moral inversion of his private gothic a stage further than my mass culture version, but I was not particularly interested in the female dimension, given that the virtuous female in the popular gothic mode was merely feeble, acted upon, discredited. The dynamic of the era lay with the dark and brooding villain – that was the whole point. He was revealed as attractive and attracting, sympathetic in his animal drives, homme fatale but also, more importantly, the enlightenment homme naturel. For me, this was the progressive thrust of the gothic theme, and of its Sadeian caricature, that the evil man became a new type of good. For Angela, through her feminist lenses, the progressive thrust of Sade was that woman could become a new form of evil, and thereby emancipate herself from an oppressive goodness. This was the gap between us.
For whatever reason, the popular gothic context of Sade’s era did not find a way into Angela Carter’s definitive summary of her theme in The Sadeian Woman, which appeared a few years later in 1979, and has been reprinted endlessly ever since, despite (or maybe because of) its allegedly “difficult” and “provocative” character. But on one point she and I were in agreement: that Sade, despite the impossibly disgusting nature of his appetite, had had the dialectic on his side, and in one sense or another had voiced the forward movement of history. But here the conversation turned triangular and took another direction, as it became clear that Anthony saw Sade as in no sense progressive, but as a stumbling block and a historical dead end. It seems to me now that he was right.
In his textbook 1984 dissection of the contradictions and fault-lines of historical liberalism, The Rise and Decline of Western Liberalism, Anthony kicks off, predictably enough, with the likes of Hobbes and Adam Smith, but on page 30 – no doubt to the amazement of those of his readers who expected their philosophy well outside the boudoir – he plunges into an extended discussion of Sade. Rather brilliantly, he shows how Sade is what you end up with if you take enlightenment liberalism at face value, how Sade exposes its inherent contradictions, its anti-social implications: pleasure as the driving force, an egotistical individualism, sanctified by the appeal to “rights”, that makes other human beings means and not ends, and the corresponding weakness of supposedly restraining notions of natural “benevolence”, or of the “hidden hand” of Adam Smith’s marketplace general good. What we actually get, in the end, is unrestrained criminality. (Interesting that the later Moriartys of detective fiction are essentially de-sexualised versions of Sade’s criminal libertines.)
Anthony was not prescient in the sense that, in the early ‘eighties, he saw liberalism as a largely spent force. Even under the rise of Thatcherism, which he associated mostly with a slide towards political authoritarianism, he did not quite anticipate, at the time, the imminent and de-fettered resurgence of the market. But how prophetic he was in his analysis of the unacceptable face of liberalism. The monster libertines stalk and plunder our world today, but their pleasure is money; they are the bankers, the hedge fund managers and the media moguls. Yes, Angela; Juliette was re-born as late twentieth century woman, emancipated into criminality, but her name was Margaret.
All roads lead to original sin. For Hobbes, only an absolute authority could prevent the disintegration of human society. As the twentieth century slid into its first major conflagration, T E Hulme reached the same conclusion. There you have it: the choice is between criminality or fascism. There is no progressive perfectibility of human nature. Not, at least, without the intervening, historical, redemptive project of Christianity. If Jesus hadn’t existed, it would be necessary to invent him.
A few years ago, on a trip to London (whose other highlights included a return visit to Kew Gardens and an Italian restaurant where we sat, bizarrely, at the next table to Edwina Currie) we took in the new British Library. Mooching along the display of historically significant manuscripts in the Sir John Ritblat Gallery, I was horrified to find myself staring at the first page of Angela Carter’s Nights at the Circus. I had known that she had died in 1992, though it had not touched me greatly at the time. But in the face of her pitifully small handwriting, now untouchable behind sheer glass in this massive mausoleum of dead verbs, I felt the pure, cold, sorry weight of mortality settle around me.
“Our flesh arrives to us out of history,” she had written in The Sadeian Woman. Yes, and our history arrives to us out of flesh.
* * *
Rescue me, lover, from my oubliette. I lie
incarcerated by Time’s cruel conjurings.
Odd how it seems no time at all since I found quite hard
Ms Carter’s forceful advocacy of De Sade.
But now I see, behind this British Library glass,
pale Angela’s spent, exhibited manuscript. We passed
in gothic conversation one late afternoon,
and here I meet her words entombed as heritage.
Faces that ride the decades – vanished politicians,
faded minor actors – make their hopeful comebacks
in the casting of my daily waking dream.
They sweat to invest their fragile traces in the culture;
some may stick, while others, thinner than they seem,
must melt as pitifully sure as sugar. Now
I grip your hand in terror at these botoxed ghosts
and hold your face, the single flesh I trust to last.
Rubbery leaf fills every corner of the palm house.
Glass and iron (whitewashed, cast) seem much the same.
With shrinking years the plants seem fractionally taller.
Since you ask, I can’t recall when last we came
to Kew, though one thing I remember crystal clear –
that you were standing with me in this glass house then,
on these wet tiles, as now but half my life from here:
same face, same hand, same heavy, humid, living air.