Rake, rou, libertine, reprobate, voluptuary -- the 18th century left us a wealth of half-admiring epithets to describe the figure, usually young and male, often well-born, who chooses to dissipate his health, fortune and reputation in the pursuit of pleasurable vice.
The Marquis de Sade, who was born into the aristocracy, and who died broke, obese and disgraced in a madhouse, was thought of by his contemporaries as the author of a few scandalous novels, his life a cautionary tale of ancien regime excess. But at the end of our own century, he is esteemed, especially in academic circles, as a visionary genius, a peer of Blake and Nietzsche.
In immensely long, static works that alternate passages of philosophical dialogue with scenes of ever escalating cruelty and violation, Sade spelled out a worldview: that the will to cruelty is man's strongest drive; that the violation of taboos -- sexual, social and religious -- is liberating and deeply pleasurable (Sade had what we might call boundary issues); that our institutions and their trappings exist for the purpose of fetishized brutality; that the unrestricted satisfaction of their desires is the privilege of a select few; that love and empathy are sentimental fictions; that God does not exist, and not only that, but He is the greatest destroyer of all.
All this was not new to the moral philosophers who preceded the marquis: they simply encircled these thoughts with a moat filled with dragons and a wall of fire and called them wickedness. What Sade brought to the table, besides a new weapon in the sexual arsenal, was an access to his own unconscious that was unprecedented, expressed in a language that drew upon the concerns of the Enlightenment: the perfectibility of man, the ideal society, the limits of knowledge.
"Evil, be thou my good," swears a character in Titus Andronicus, Shakespeare's most Sadean play. Sade was an immoralist, not an amoralist. He depended upon a rigid caste society, a centralized government, a powerful Catholic Church, and strong family structures to make his transgressions felt. When the French Revolution appeared to sweep everything in its wake, Sade was overjoyed, then inconsolable.
It is at this point in his life, powerless and locked up as an enemy of the revolution that we find Sade in Rikki Ducornet's The Fan-maker's Inquisition.
The novel, which takes place at the height of the Terror, interweaves several different inquisitions: the first is an interrogation by a revolutionary tribunal of the title character, who is charged with crimes Against the People and collaborating with the marquis on a depraved work of fiction; the second inquisition is the Spanish inquisition, which is the subject of this (fictional) collaboration, a fantasia on Bishop Landa, the cleric responsible for the destruction of Mayan civilization in the 16th century; the last inquisition is the fanmaker's questioning of herself, her meditations on the power of books and the freedom of imagination.
The Fan-maker's Inquisition is a novel of ideas; plot, suspense, dramatic plausibility are not its concerns, or its strengths. What it has is a real thematic suppleness and, from the opening paragraph, a vivid tactile sense of 18th century life:
From his prison cell, Ducornet's marquis evokes the delights of food in a language so lighthearted, metaphorically rich and innocently ribald, that it reminds the reader more of Rabelais that the marquis' usually turgid writing:
For gleaming like smiles, bedded down like houris within the mound of glistening cabbage that rises like the tits of la Doulce France in my mind's eye, are chunks of fat-studded pork loin smoked and fresh, grilled and boiled, and slices of fried bacon as thick as dictionaries and pork chops broad enough to sail the Seine on, and ... a steaming heap of potatoes ... sweet as honey and as firm as my buttocks once were and are no more.
Except for the dubious notion that Sade, that most isolated of all literary figures, would ever choose a collaborator, The Fan-maker's Inquisition, which intermingles real and fictional characters, is a scrupulously researched and powerfully imagined novel.
Perhaps with the intent to provoke, Ducornet dedicates the book to her father, "... who trusted me with Justine; I was sixteen." At the core of the book is a belief that the unfettered imagination, rather than calling our worst horrors into being, can disarm them. Defending herself against the tribunal, the fan-maker declaims:
Sade had dared take the imagination's darkest path. I thought that if I could follow that path with my own mind, I would come to understand the forces that rage about us, the terror that, even in times of peace, is always a possibility.