Violence and abjection are often–or should I say constantly–co-mingled with sexuality in the work of the Marquis de Sade. After all, sadism usually implies a specific sexual gratification that goes hand in hand with cruelty and someone else’s pain. Although he may be best known for his extensive and lengthy erotica, it is highly worth thinking about these works in regard to bondage and prison. The man spent years of his life behind bars at the Bastille and other prisons and/or mental institutions, and today these biographical enclosures represent Sade just as much as a feisty libertine on holiday.
One of the greatest films about imprisonment from the twenty-first century so far is Steve McQueen’s 2008 picture Hunger. It shows a great preoccupation with the human body, much like Sade’s work, but frequently with different results. While Sade became notoriously corpulent while in prison because of a combination of sweets delivered to him by his family and a lack of exercise, Hunger tells the story of Bobby Sands (Michael Fassbender) and other revolutionaries in the Irish Republican Army going on hunger strike in 1981. In addition to highlighting bodies that refuse to eat, the film also focuses on the grotesque mode of protest which involved using that expelled from the body as a weapon. These IRA political prisoners literally sat in prison cells smeared from top to bottom with their own shit.
Anyone familiar with Sade’s work, or the more famously adapted moments like the “Circle of Shit” sequence in Pasolini’s Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), knows that wallowing in one’s own feces plays an important part in his lore. Of course, shit plays various different roles, depending on the political situation. Even as recently as two years ago, Pope Francis warned fake and sensationalist news agencies of the sin of coprophagia. Just last month a fan of super bowl champions, the Philadelphia Eagles, celebrated by eating horse shit on video. The president of the United States called African nations “shithole countries,” inspiring political personalities to go on TV and awkwardly say things like, “I am a proud shitholer.” Shit is an undeniable part of life. Some people do everything they can to wash it away and pretend it doesn’t exist, others use it in an attempt to create something out of nothing.
The reality and myth of Sade as revolutionary are some of the most captivating parts of his life story and French history. In some ways he happened to find himself caught up in the French Revolution, but seemed to be more preoccupied with writing erotica than chopping heads off. As a member of an aristocratic family, he found himself on the losing end of battles like many people of the upper classes, but also supported the proletariat, if not because of political beliefs, than for the sake of survival. While revolutionary mobs of sanscullottes brought on rivers of blood with the newly invented guillotine, Sade wrote rousing passages against capital punishment. It is both surprising and logical that a man who’s fiction and philosophy that encouraged murder and the utmost in debauchery would be against the institutionalization of such things–killing may be part of nature, but institutionalizing it is a whole other issue. His atheism jived with the new secularism running rampant, but much of his writing would continue to upset via its obscenity. Sade’s libertinage may have been his most revolutionary quality, although historically some choose to believe he incited the storming of the Bastille, on July 14, 1789, using a makeshift mega-phone to alert those outside of the real and fake atrocities occurring within. By the time the prisoners were freed, Sade had already been taken to the Charenton mental asylum.
The experiences of Sade and IRA prisoners were quite different, the latter not directly in line with the former, although they both share some common denominators. For a number of reasons it seems like the French Revolution was a far more chaotic time as compared to the Troubles in Ireland, partially because the former did not have certain knowledge, information, and strategies that had become organized nearly two centuries later. What happened with the IRA political prisoners may have been far more calculating, but still visceral and chaotic. As Hunger illustrates, the political prisoners refused to wear the uniforms of criminals, going completely naked instead. The obvious difference between uneaten food and digested shit becomes blurred when they use mashed potatoes, etc, to fortify the crack below the door in order to pour their waste into the hallway for guards and custodians to clean up. When all else is taken away, the body and what it produces are the last things prisoners can use to fight back with.
In Hunger there are a number of scenes showing what I’ll call “instances of the living body,” for lack of a better term; these are moments when we are reminded of the simultaneously mundane and fascinating things that the body does. We see the long hair of a prisoner with full beard early on, looking like Rasputin on a bad day, only to be contrasted that much more by his new cellmate who just entered, sporting shaggy hair and a groomed mustache. Messages are rolled up and hidden in the nasal and rectal cavities, and in the vagina of a prisoner’s visiting girlfriend. These messages are transferred through a deep kiss. Once the paper is unrolled and read, it is rolled into a cigarette and smoked away. One scene shows the practical awkwardness of a prisoner trying to relieve tension through masturbation, which proves to be awkward when sharing a room with someone every moment of the day. In another scene we are left to wonder what must go through the mind of the custodial worker assigned to power-wash the shit out of some walls, literally. There is one gag-inducing moment when a guard searches a prisoner’s rectum, followed by his mouth, using the same finger.
Of course the most astounding and horrifying bodily spectacle in Hunger is the emaciated frame of Michael Fassbender, as he portrays Bobby Sands on hunger strike. There is always something shocking about seeing a starving person, perhaps partially because the bones, muscles, etc inside of the body become far more prominent. Over the period of 66 days, Sands’ outer body became so sensitive that even the touch of a bed sheet would cause pain. The fortitude and commitment one must have toward a cause, in this case independence for Northern Ireland, is virtually impossible to imagine, and it left me wondering if there are any other animals as strange as a human who literally uses every last bit of will power to slowly wither away and die.
The asceticism of Sands and the nine other prisoners who died during the strike seems partially like the opposite use of the body when compared to the Marquis de Sade, although the extreme importance of communicating through the body is essential to both. The IRA members shriveled up, while Sade embodied a persona that became larger than life. However, in both cases the abject body is a vessel for a fantastic kind of hope. Sade is not often remembered for his optimism, but he and Sands both harbored unyielding desires for freedom and happiness. The abject takes many forms, and prisoners–especially ones allegedly involved in terror–epitomize abjection. These are humans who, for whatever reason, are deemed unfit to live in society because of potential dangers or threats. Quite often these threats are Orwellian thought crimes of sorts. Sade’s whole erotic agenda contributed to the length of his imprisonment. For the IRA, their struggle was very much about having their political beliefs officially recognized, in contrast to criminals who have more ambiguous motives.
Steve McQueen has a tendency to create films that exist in the same realms of physicality, pleasure, and bondage that Sade was preoccupied with for so long previously. Michael Fassbender appears in front of McQueen’s camera again in Shame (2011), a miserable and modern story of sex addiction and physical pleasure via pornographic aides. Critics and audience members spent quite a bit of time anticipating and analysing the size of Fassbender’s penis, which had previously been obscured in Hunger. Certainly Sade would have had his ruler and other instruments out (no pun intended) ready to mark down the actor’s measurements as well, as virtually all men are so examined in the author’s work. The unspoken and unacted upon incestuous desires of Shame may be the film’s trait most synonymous with Sade. However, it may be the contrast of the overarching and eponymous feelings held by the protagonist that is so divergent from Sade, whose characters are basically shameless.
In 12 Years a Slave (2013), violence and slavery are examined within the sphere of the black experience in the antebellum south, to serious and occasionally over-sentimental effect. Dealing with such nationally and individually traumatic subject matter with aesthetics and talent that sometimes render the images beautiful is also quite Sadean. Enthusiasts of the Divine Marquis should keep their eyes out for McQueen’s next picture, scheduled to come out later this year.