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Jonathan Bowden’s Sade

bowdensade1,150 words

Jonathan Bowden
Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2013

Sade was first published in 1992 by Egotist Press. It is a long essay (about 30,000 words, by my estimation) published as a short book (120-odd pages of text in 5 x 7.5 inch format). Bowden’s early works are as rare as hen’s teeth, so I eagerly awaited this reprint by Nine-Banded Books, which also reprinted Bowden’s Mad (Charleston, W.V.: Nine-Banded Books, 2009), which was originally published by the Egotist Press in 1989.

Sade takes its name from “the” Marquis de Sade, the infamous Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740–1814), the French libertine, philosopher, pornographer, revolutionary, and criminal, for whom the sexual perversion of sadism is named.

My interest in Sade was piqued by Camille Paglia’s brilliant chapter on Sade in Sexual Personae, which treats him as a critic of one sort of modernity: optimism, progressivism, and the Rousseauian notion of man’s natural innocence. Sade can also be read a reductio ad absurdum of another kind of modernity: Hobbesianism and rationalism.

So I picked up a couple of Sade biographies: Maurice Lever’s Sade: A Biography and Francine du Plessix Gray’s At Home with the Marquis De Sade: A Life. But the picture that emerged was not of a misunderstood genius, but of a loathsome, pathetic lunatic. I also picked up Sade’s major writings, which have racy titles like Justine, or the Misfortunes of VirtueThe 120 Days of Sodom; and Philosophy in the Bedroom. But Sade’s pornography is about as erotic, prolix, and literarily stupefying as Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, yet without the intellectual payoff.

Nevertheless, in the 20th century, particularly in France, philosophers and “theorists,” all of them on the Left, have promoted the rehabilitation of Sade. It began in 1947 with Pierre Klossowski’s Sade My Neighbor, which argued that, in the heart of the Enlightenment, Sade already anticipated Enlightenment’s inversion into barbarism. (This is pretty much the argument of Horkheimer and Adorno’s chapter on Sade in their Dialectic of Enlightenment, which also appeared in 1947.)

Soon, all the usual suspects had to have a take on Sade: Simone de Beauvoir, Jacques Derrida, Michel Foucault, Gilles Deleuze, Georges Bataille, Maurice Blanchot, and Jacques Lacan. Sade was hailed as a precursor of surrealism, of psychoanalysis, of Existentialism. Susan Sontag found Sade “transgressive.” It was all quite shocking to the Bourgeoisie.

Enter the young Jonathan Bowden, who was fascinated by Sade, aware of the intellectual cachet of contemporary Left-wing Continental Sade scholarship, hankering after literary fame, and hoping to score a few points for the Right by penning his own take on Sade. Unfortunately, Bowden believed that the luminaries of the French Left were in large part cynical frauds who cloaked the vacuity of their thought in obscure language to wow gullible middlebrow pseudo-intellectuals.

Bowden lacked the graduate-level education in Western philosophy necessary to understand Foucault, Deleuze, Derrida, etc. They may be hard to read and understand. They may be deeply wrong-headed. Their politics may be repugnant. But French postmodernism has its own rigor and dignity as a rejection of a particular conception of modernity that the New Right and Traditionalists also reject. One is not entitled to dismiss such writers before one understands them. Nor is one entitled to dismiss them based on secondary or tertiary sources, or middle-brow neocon hatchet men like Roger Kimball. Because teaching is a form of acting, every academic is a bit of a posturing phony, no matter what his field or nationality. But the posties are not just a bunch of posturing phonies.

But Bowden thought they were. At least that is my hypothesis for understanding this book. Sade reads like a Right-wing Anglophone version of a Left-wing Francophone essay on Sade, written on the assumption that the latter were arbitrary, asseverative, digressive, name-dropping, intentionally obscure, slapdash, stream-of-consciousness productions. And Bowden succeeds brilliantly in this ambition — unfortunately.

I am inclined toward this hypothesis, because it allows me to say that Sade succeeds at something. An alternative explanation is that it is just a failed literary experiment, a Benzedrine-fueled all-nighter, banged out on a typewriter and bundled off to the printer without a second glance or any editorial input. It may be a precursor of his brilliant spoken improvisations after the turn of the millennium, albeit a dim one.

I could not help reading this book with an editor’s pencil in hand. There are historical and biographical tidbits, but not enough to create a meaningful context or clear portrait of Sade. There are many interesting assertions, but as an editor I would have demanded that Bowden provide citations if they were facts, or arguments if they were deductions, or some other indication of their epistemological status. Otherwise, it is hard to know if he is just making things up. There are many beautiful and terrifying turns of phrase throughout, but they should have been used, as in Schopenhauer, to concretize and illustrate an argument, not as a substitute for such reasoning.

There are digressions on the history of the French Revolution which, if original, should have been cut and saved for later. There are interesting remarks on feminist discussions of Sade which should have been amplified. There are interesting asides on William S. Burroughs that should have been developed. There is a good long section on sexual perversions on the far Right, which might have been the whole point of the essay, but it is hard to tell what the point really is. It could have been the seed of a whole book, sort of a Right-wing version of Colin Wilson’s The Misfits: A Study of Sexual Outsiders, although I am too much of a prude to read it either.

The most cringeworthy parts of Sade, however, are Bowden’s repeated stabs at writing pornography. I have listened to so many of Bowden’s lectures that I can conjure up his voice in my head. As I read his words, I imagine how he would have said them aloud. Imagine my horror, then, when I turned the page and heard Jonathan going on about cocks and cunts and spooge. Perhaps you will be relieved to hear that it is more in the vein of Penthouse Letters than the Divine Marquis or Georges Bataille. Bowden relates it all blow-by-blow, in a matter-of-fact manner, as if he were just reeling off more biographical details. This is one reason why I began to wonder just how much of the rest of the book is also made up. Whatever the truth, I am just glad that the voice has stopped.

I tried to like this book. I read it carefully twice. I hope there is a reviewer out there who is much cleverer than me, who can give an interpretation of this book that makes it worthy of Jonathan. Of course Jonathan’s fans will want to read it no matter what I say. But as far as I can see, Sade works only as a parody, and an unwitting one at that.


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  1. Petronius
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 8:49 am | Permalink

    I felt the same about the other 9BB Bowden volume, “Mad”.

  2. FrankC
    Posted January 31, 2014 at 6:09 pm | Permalink

    Jonathan Bowden was a brilliant and truly gifted orator. His other talents, however, paled in comparison.

  3. Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:06 am | Permalink

    I love this review. The background is usefully supplied and Greg’s appraisal is refreshingly clear-headed and transparently (I mean that in a good way) sincere. I don’t argue with sincerity. I feel bad that he felt compelled to read the book twice.

    Being Bowden’s publisher (of this and one other book to date), I am nevertheless inclined to defend the work — or to offer, however cursorily, an alternative interpretation that might sway those whose curiosity is sufficiently piqued. This I think I can do, albeit not in a manner that will advance the notion that Bowden was, exclusively or conveniently, a creature (solely) of the Right.

    “Sui generis” is one of those suspect terms that applies when it does. And so it does, I insist, where Jonathan Bowden’s “early” critical and literary experiments are concerned. If he misapprehended postmodernist discourse (and I am not sure of this at all), it is just as clear that he was attuned to the spirit of modernism that informed and animated radical expressions from from Lautréamont to Céline. His innovation, on full display in MAD and SADE was to transmit a purely modernist sensibility into a kind of crypto-scholarly form of seismic expression. This alone invites misapprehension. And this is — or should be — the sell. Because it simply isn’t done.

    Yet Bowden did it. He did it in measures of density and insight and whim, according to a muse that might resemble, or have been, speed. He re-wrote the rules in the manner of an outsider artist cum scholar and you sense the fervor, the unbridled passion and urgency, in every line and passage.

    Allowing that “success” will be subjectively descried (Q.E.D.), I can only say that I find his restless study of the Grand Marquis to be at once entrancing and provocative and seared — in contradistinction to the contributions of many named critics and champions (Klossowski notwithstanding; I like his essay very much) — with terrible, illuminating honesty. That it may be suspect as scholarship is part of the game. That it incorporates a mad litany of digressive turns, just the same. It’s the difference between an Ubu play and an Adorno essay — only you don’t have to lose your bearings to enjoy the ride. In either case, which would you rather read — or see performed?

    The “pornographic” ornamentation. Well, you decide. I think it works efficiently in context and serves, as Greg tacitly admits, to arouse due suspicion as to the emphatic narrative voice that circles back. Is that clever — or “cleverer”? A failure or a wink?

    Read this unusual and incomparable book and decide for yourself.

  4. Steve
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 1:49 pm | Permalink

    Greg Johnson: what would you recommend as a good introduction to the French post-modernists for us mortals? I never could make head or tail of Derrida, etc.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 1, 2014 at 3:10 pm | Permalink

      It depends on your needs. None of these quys are exactly sources of worldly wisdom. Honestly, I wish I could get back all the hours I wasted reading Foucault and Derrida. But I was a philosophy major, and I needed to know what they were about. I think that Deleuze was a really interesting, rigorous metaphysician of sorts. (See Michael Hardt’s Gilles Deleuze: An Apprenticeship in Philosophy) And Georges Bataille has enduring value as a writer.

      I never really “got” postmodernism until I read Alexandre Kojeve’s Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. But that book is formidably difficult. So, my admittedly controversial suggestion is that you begin with Shadia Drury’s axe-grinding critique of Kojeve and his legacy: Alexandre Kojeve: The Roots of Postmodern Politics. The book is clearly written, and Drury puts her own agenda on the table, so it is easy enough to see her biases.

      • Steve
        Posted February 1, 2014 at 6:11 pm | Permalink

        Cool, thanks!

  5. Randall Crowley
    Posted February 1, 2014 at 2:17 pm | Permalink


    Your comment that only graduate students in Philosophy can reliably interpret Philosophy is damning of the discipline that you love. What you are implicitly admitting is that academic Philosophy is completely cut off from practical culture, politics and life. How many graduate students in Philosophy exist in the country? That little community is so precious in its elitism that it no longer has any relationship to the rest of us, hence arguably Philosophy is not even properly understood as a discipline of the humanities any longer. It is a condition that I’ve always rather suspected was the case. Thankfully, a writer such as Nietzsche is not only a philosopher, but is also a philologist, a poet, and a thinker, hence I can harvest, and thoughtful people in general can harvest, something valuable from his work.

    • Greg Johnson
      Posted February 1, 2014 at 3:13 pm | Permalink

      Yes, philosophy has become formidably technical and professionalized and cut off from ordinary life. Oddly enough, though, in France and Germany, where philosophical style is maximally hermetic, philosophy enjoys a much greater public status than in Anglophone countries.

      Fortunately, the philosophers who have the most to offer in terms of worldly wisdom are much easier to read, e.g., Plato, Aristotle (Nicomachean Ethics, Politics), Seneca, Marcus Aurelius, Epictetus, Montaigne, Schopenhauer, Nietzsche.

    Posted February 6, 2014 at 8:06 am | Permalink

    The more of The Great Jonathan Bowdens material being published the better.

    btw here a the torrents that people have been asking for:

    They seem to need more hosts so Greg should make a post calling on people to help out.

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