Yoram Gross was Australia’s foremost animator. For three decades he... | Books / Reviews | Coagulopath
Yoram Gross was Australia’s foremost animator. For three decades he directed and produced cartoons such as Blinky Bill and Dot the Kangaroo, many of which I watched as a child. He made cheap and charming pictures about kids who never grew up.
Gross, too, was almost a kid who never grew up. This memoir from 2011 reveals a side to him that I never knew existed.
He was born in 1926, and spent a childhood in Krakow and then an adolescence on the run, fleeing from town to town as Hitler declared them Judenrein (“Jew-free”). He moved from hiding spot to hiding spot, was on Oskar Schindler’s famous list, discovered a mass grave of decomposing bodies, was nearly killed himself several times, etc. It’s a fascinating and disturbing tale, and shines a new light on his art.
Did Gross’s experiences as a Jew in Nazi Poland shape his kid-friendly films? He says they did, and I’ll admit that it’s now hard not to see Blinky Bill as Gross in koala form: chipper, happy, optimistic…and with his iconic knapsack slung over one shoulder, so he can quickly flee.
Gross had a quick wit, and an acute sense of empathy. One of his earliest memories is of seeing a strip of flypaper, heavy with the corpses of helpless insects. He felt sad that the flies would never see their families again. Anthropomorphism is common among children, but it’s usually directed at a cat or dog. It takes imagination look at a disturbing thing with glistening jewel-like wings and swivelling compound eyes and see a consciousness inside.
His emotional sensitivity would later help him as an artist, but first it helped him survive. An Animated Life is filled with picaresque ugly details of 1930s Poland. Such as how, if you were the Jewish student at school, you had to be careful around stairs. Someone might push you down them, because you’d killed Christ.
As Hitler’s fist tightened around Poland, Gross and his family developed an “ear” for knocks on the door. A polite knock? A neighbor on a social call. A hard, officious rap? The Polish police. A hammering fist? The Gestapo. He describes how a German officer entered their house one day uninvited, sat down at the grand piano in their living room, and began playing. Gross’s mother hesitently complimented his technique, and was ignored. The Nazi officer then closed the lid and ordered them to either sell or destroy the piano. Why? Because he was taking possesion of the house and didn’t want a piano in his living room.
Gross was lucky to survive. He met some nice people, such as family who fed him when he was starving; and some not-so-nice people, such as a corrupt “shmaltsovnik” who extorted his family for tens of thousands of zlotys. He outright picked death’s pocket several times, and his narrow escapes can have a sense of Fellini-esque absurdity.
One day, a group of a group of cops held him up. They were not duped by his blond hair and pretense at being a Catholic, and threatened to shoot him for some imagined offense. Gross begged to be let go—”I have vodka! I’ll share it will you!” They agreed with this plan, and Gross ran back home, wondering if he did have vodka in the pantry. Luckily, there was some. The men got blackly drunk, and forgot that they’d ever intended to kill him.
Gross entertained them by playing his mouth organ, which is another thing I learned in the book: Gross never intended to be a filmmaker but a musician. He backed into movies largely by mistake. How did he end up as the director of children’s movies about animals? Was this, too, informed by his experiences?
Animator Ralph Bakshi once said “The idea of grown men sitting in cubicles drawing butterflies floating over a field of flowers, while American planes are dropping bombs in Vietnam and kids are marching in the streets, is ludicrous.” For some of us, though, butterflies and flowers are a correct response to the horrors of war; as is studied lightness, and the mysterious world of animals. No kangaroo will push you down stairs because you killed Christ. Gross has a lot of trouble with religion in general, and the idea of a loving God (as do many Jews who lived through the Holocaust—“If there is a God, He will have to beg my forgiveness”), and there is nobody more devotedly atheistic than an animal. A Holocaust survivor drawing “butterflies floating over a field of flowers” might not be as surprising as it sounds.
Gross’s movies often incorporate incongruous sinister moments, dark pits of lingering shadow. Things such as the House of 100 Doors in The Magic Riddle and The Bunyip sequence in Dot and the Kangaroo still echo in my memory. The bush is bright and sunny, but lift up a stone, or put your foot through a rotted log, and see the crawling, chitinous underclass. Underneath everything is a dimension of slime and mold and bugs, holding the daylit world aloft on its shoulders.
And perhaps Gross never wanted to make children’s films at all. He started out as a musician, playing mouth-organ for a Polish radio station. In his earlier years in Israel, he made experimental, arthouse films. Some of these won awards, but are now very hard to track down. He moved to Australia in 1968 with his wife Sandra, and continued making obscure “film festival” fare. He learned simple stop-motion animation techniques, and then progressed to 2D drawings.
Gross wasn’t personally religious, but he did have a sense of Tzedakah—charity. In 1977 he made his first feature-length animated movie: Dot and the Kangaroo. A girl is lost in the woods, and is saved by a kangaroo, with whom she shares a special bond. The film was partly made out of a desire to depict Australia, and to give something back to a country that had been good to him.
Good intentions can backfire. Dot and the Kangaroo is the kind of movie that gets called “problematic” today. The film’s depictions of Aboriginal Australians are stereotypical. The bunyip, a figure in Wemba-Wemba mythology, is reduced to a horror movie monster. And Gross doesn’t appear to know a whole lot about kangaroos. The animated kangaroo that accompanies Dot is female. But the live-action kangaroo they filmed at the end is…uh…conspicuously male. Nevertheless, Gross was onto something with Dot. It’s one of his better-known films.
His other early films include the Mia Farrow-narrated Sarah/The Sixth Match, which might be his most direct treatment of the Holocaust, The Little Convict (starring Rolf Harris, hyuk-hyuk), along with a seemingly endless stream of Dot sequels. Budgets expanded modestly, from low hundreds of thousands to about a million dollars each.
I should say here that Yoram Gross’s films are not masterpieces. When I watch them, my prevailing thought is “I wish this was better.”
Even when I was a child, Dot seemed shoddy and cheap, with cut-rate animation and sentimental, mawkish storytelling. Gross did the best he could with the little he had, but both then and now, I have little love for his movies. I’m sorry.
I dislike Gross’s signature style, which is “animated cels over live-action backgrounds.” This saved money—the Dot and the Kangaroo cost just $200,000 in 1977, at a time when Disney films were budgeted at twenty to forty times that—but mires the film in an unbelievable half-reality that has no chance of ever engaging the viewer. It takes a lot of technical skill to seamlessly merge 2D-animation with live action, otherwise all you see is how wrong the pieces fit together. Dot and the Kangaroo is no Who Framed Roger Rabbit. It’s not even Cool World. Dot never inhabits the Australian outback. She floats on top of it, as unconvincing as a mustache scrawled on a billboard.
These films, however flawed, are a foundational brick in the childhood of many people. Gross opens the book by reading some appreciative Youtube comments. He seems pleasantly shocked that his work still continues to touch people. I was shocked by the idea of a Holocaust survivor on Youtube, reading comments by TAYLORLAUTNERFAN69 and xXNyanCatXx. Not that there’s anything weird about that. It just seems like certain worlds should never intersect.
I was curious to hear what it was like running an animation studio in 1977, and I wish the book had spent more time on this. From where did Gross recruit artists? Who sold him equipment? How did he negotiate distribution deals with European and American companies? How did he make it all work?
I’m guessing the answer was “right place, right time”. Animation was moribund in the 70s—even Disney was in the doldrums—and this allowed a tiny studio like Gross’s to hack away some market share. You could shelve Dot and the Kangaroo besides Pete’s Dragon and Bedknobs and Broomsticks and it wouldn’t seem out of place. The emergence of foreign markets allowed Gross two (or three or four) bites at the apple: if a film bombed in Australia, it might sell in Germany or somewhere. The stars were aligned for a studio like Gross’s to exist.
All of that changed in the late 80s and 90s. Disney got their shit together and went on a blazing hot streak. Don Bluth and Warner Bros weren’t far behind. The first CGI films appeared, along with technical masterpieces like Who Framed Roger Rabbit and The Thief and the Cobbler. Western TV animation resurged, and anime hit the mainstream: I remember the day I walked into the Mascot Blockbuster and the shelves were laden with weird but interesting-looking things like Captain Harlock and Vampire Hunter D.
Competition was suddenly much fiercer, and Gross was unable to compete either at home or abroad. He didn’t have the money, and Australia has never been a hotbed for top-shelf animation talent. The “Australian” animated film that most people remember, FernGully, was actually made in America. Gross himself increasingly began to outsource labor to foreign studios such as Colorland Animation.
Gross kept his studio afloat in the 90s by merchandising the Blinky Bill character, which raked in about three million dollars a year. It was a bittersweet way to go out—no artist wants an empire built out of school lunchboxes and T-shirts—but at least it put his creative work in front of a new generation of children.
Yoram had come a long way from making experimental art films about the Holocaust. This creative shift is seen in the Dot movies. Nine were made from 1977 to 1994: the last few were bombs, and their repeated commercial failures forced the studio to cut their losses and focus on Blinky Bill.
The movies have no continuity, aside from the fact that they star a girl called Dot. In some films, she is transported into the (cartoon) animal world by eating a magic root. In others she’s a cartoon from the start, with no explanation given. In a couple of films (Dot and Keeto and Around the World With Dot), she has a brother, in others she doesn’t, etc. They are most interesting for the live-action segments, which give glimpses into regional Australian life at the time. The outback parts were filmed in the Blue Mountains, where my grandmother lived for decades. I wonder if she ever saw Gross or his crew…
The last film in the ennealogy, Dot in Space, finally puts Dot in a fully-animated world, but that animation remains as cheap as ever. It looks like a TV special and has a running time to match—counting the intro and outro credits, it barely limps over the sixty minute line. The series had lost whatever small gravitas and dignity it had long ago, and fully devolved into a sequence of idiotic capers.
Dot (now drawn by Nobuko Burnfield) got a makeover, and her new design was visibly anime-inspired. But we’re talking 70s Tezuka-style anime, with big eyes and circular construction, not 90s anime. The Yoram Gross Film Studio was playing catch-up and still ending up decades behind the times.
Gross launched a single desultory attempt at competing with Disney. 1991’s The Magic Riddle is weird and twisted, and not always in a fun way. Essentially a Cinderella re-telling with lots of other fairy tails shoved in, the film has a very nasty streak: the stepmother is a revolting harridan, her daughters are brain-damaged floozies, etc. “Cindy” herself is virginally pure and possesses nary a whiff of characterization or agency. It’s like a film conceived with the purpose of giving Germaine Greer a brain embolism. The film made a modest amount of money within Australia but failed overseas. This and Dot in Space mark the point where Gross abandoned making feature-length films, and focused on TV. Some of his former employees did interesting things. Longtime Gross artist/writer Ray Nowland (who may or may not have had a falling out with Gross) broke away and made the cult obscurity Go to Hell!!, which rides the 90s aesthetic as far as it will go into the sunset.
None of the above is found in the book. An Animated Life has little to say on the topic of animation. It’s primarily a memoir of Gross’s childhood years, and his experiences in the Holocaust.
How could it be otherwise? Gross witnessed years of unimaginable, nearly unparalleled horror. A grave opened in the earth, its black and hungry mouth swallowed six million…and he lived. Death passed him by, like the angel of the Lord. That’s the story his publisher wanted him to tell. It would be anticlimactic to spend the back half of the book talking about how he drew a cartoon koala.
And yet I’m struck by the sense that Gross shortchanged his own life. He was much more than just a Holocaust survivor. I’m glad he made it out…but what about his remaining fifty years? A boy became a musician. That musician became a filmmaker. That filmmaker became an animator.
The Holocaust might be most interesting part of Gross’s life, but it’s also the part he had the least control over. Mostly he’s just getting tossed about randomly by the Fuhrer’s winds. He’s not a hero. He’s a survivor. They are not the same thing. This book is not a tale of perseverence in the face of adversity. It’s a record of bad things happening to a nearly helpless child.
The bitter pill we have to swallow is that most Holocaust survivors, Gross very much included, survived by being lucky. You see this play out in the book, again and again. A kind stranger feeds him when he’s starving, clothes him when he’s cold. Remember the story about the police who were threatening to shoot him? It was quick thinking to bribe the soldiers. But suppose his mother had forgotten to stock the pantry with vodka?
Here is a quote from Roger Ebert that I think about often. (from his review of Elephant Man).
Wilfrid Sheed, an American novelist who is crippled by polio, once discussed this distinction in a Newsweek essay. He is sick and tired, he wrote, of being praised for his “courage,” when he did not choose to contract polio and has little choice but to deal with his handicaps as well as he can. True courage, he suggests, requires a degree of choice. Yet the whole structure of The Elephant Man is based on a life that is said to be courageous, not because of the hero’s achievements, but simply because of the bad trick played on him by fate.
I do not regard survivors of the Holocaust as heroes, or figures of inspiration, simply because they lived. Where does that line of logic take you? That the people who died deserved it, for not being brave or clever enough? I’m sure high intelligence would mitigate your chances of escape, but the Holocaust was not an IQ test, and geniuses died in Treblinka 2 and Chelmno along with all the rest. Perhaps it’s as the writer of Ecclesiastes 9:11 said: “The race is not to the swift or the battle to the strong, nor does food come to the wise or wealth to the brilliant or favor to the learned; but time and chance happen to them all.”
What about Yoram’s life after the Holocaust? The years when he had power, and expressed agency? There must be a story there, too. But as Gross passed in 2015, that story may remain forever untold.
The sixties were years of sexual revolution, but doesn’t “revolution”... | Reviews / Books | Coagulopath
The sixties were years of sexual revolution, but doesn’t “revolution” imply a rotation of three-hundred-and-sixty degrees? In other words, you’re back where you started?
As the decade progressed, second-wave feminists began to suspect they were agitating gender dynamics without actually changing them. Did the pill just enable men to have destructive fuck-and-chuck relationships? Would no-fault divorce be taken advantage of by all-fault men? Was pornography another avenue for the exploitation of women? Would all of this social turbulence settle with Tarzan still on top and Jane still at the bottom?
Consider Hugh Hefner, and consider Playboy. In the 50s and 60s, Hef cultivated an image as a progressive titan, publishing fearlessly about race and sex and drugs. His first interview was of Miles Davis. His lithographic abysses of skin were sold as a form of female sexual liberation.
Playboy Enterprises operated a line of gentleman’s clubs, which hired attractive female help known as “bunnies”. Advertisements were everywhere: as a bunny, you would travel the world, meet celebrities, and earn up to “$200-$300 a week”—a fantastic sum for a young woman with no qualifications in the sixties. Gloria Steinem (then a freelance writer) became curious about the reality of a bunny’s life, and applied for a job at one of Hef’s clubs.
Steinem’s adventures down the rabbit hole were published in the the May and June 1963 issues of Show. They are now regarded as early examples “New Journalism”, personal accounts where the reporter’s voice melds with (and becomes) the story. A Bunny’s Tale pre-dates Hunter S Thompson’s Hell’s Angels and Normal Mailer’s Miami and the Siege of Chicago by about five years, although obviously Sinclair, London, and Orwell published similar material in book form decades earlier.
Things start the way they continue: deceptively. Steinem fills in an application at the Club’s 59th Street office, giving her age as 24. The hiring manager cautions that this is awfully old to be a Playboy bunny but she might squeak in under the wire. Good news for Steinem, who was almost thirty at the time.
She gets the job, and then comes Bunny School: which is a crash-course in mixology, deportment, and how to perform the “bunny dip” without splitting your corset. Steinem was really annoying here, to be honest. She’s just smug as a peach, and the article has a tone of “Isn’t it funny that an overeducated Jewish gal like me is doing something like this?” We get contempt-dripping anecdotes about how dumb and shallow the other girls are. The applicants take an exam, and Steinem makes a point of mentioning that she got the highest score despite answering seven questions wrong on purpose. She may not think much of the girls, but the more experienced bunnies still have much to teach her.
There’s more to bunnying than stuffing your corset and hoping clients don’t pinch your tail: the job has multiple layers to it. Your technical job is to do typical “hired gun” type stuff like greeting customers, running the hat check desk, and waitressing the floor. Your theoretical job is to represent the Playboy brand. Your actual job is to inspire men to drink as much alcohol as is medically possible.
Steinem must navigate these conflicting requirements. Bunnies are forbidden from dating Club members—a private detective agency is shadowing them, making sure they don’t do this—but Steinem hears of a girl who was fired for not going out with a high-status Club keyholder. Sometimes you can refuse to tell a customer your last name, but other times, you can’t. Rules apply, until they don’t.
Years ago, Andrea Donderi wrote a now-legendary comment about “Ask Culture” vs “Guess Culture”. Essentially, in Ask Culture you are allowed to ask questions. In Guess Culture, however, you are supposed to intuit and “feel” your way around issues—you actually get penalized for asking questions, because they mark you as a social simpleton. “If you have to ask the price, you can’t afford it.”
The Playboy Club is Guess Culture: Hard Mode. Steinem has a Bunny Bible with all sorts of rules she’s meant to follow, but those aren’t the actual rules. The real rules are as invisible as phlogiston, and must never be spoken aloud. Girls are just supposed to know them.
One unspoken rule is “build a good rapport with the busboys”. Bunnies need tips. An efficient busboy will clean your table and make it look presentable for new customers. A faster turnover of customers means more money in your pocket. But if you get on a busboy’s bad side, he can find all sorts of ways to fuck with you—like pocketing your tips, and insisting that the customer stiffed you. You will have no way of proving otherwise.
Some other things Steinem noticed about bunnying.
It’s physically exhausting. Hours range from “long” to “what the fuck”. She describes being on her feet from 7:30pm to 4:00am, and then having to go to a photoshoot at 11:00am. She loses five pounds. Her feet swell. Some of the other girls recommend rolling bottles under her feet, to relax the arches.
Is she allowed to take a break? Again, that’s the “Guess Culture” thing I mentioned. You might be allowed or you might not be.
It’s expensive. Bunnies get nickeled and dimed to death. Each girl has to kick in $2.50 a day to cover costume maintenance (a hard sneeze can break the zipper), and $5 a pair for nylons. The Playboy Club, of course, will not compensate anyone for anything, although there is a 25% bunny discount at a local beautician.
Steinem does not earn the advertised $200-300 a week or anything close. Bunnies make a flat $50 a week (NYC’s minimum wage), plus maybe $30 a day in tips, of which the club takes 50%. Hat check bunnies have it the worst. They make no tips, and are paid $12 a night. Steinem doesn’t now how this is legal, and maybe it isn’t. Later, she encounters a girl who made $200 in one week. Steinem regards her as a freakish lottery winner.
Bunnies are not above ripping off the Club. On her first night, she gets a dollar tip. Like a rube, she asks a fellow bunny who she should give it to. She’s told to store it in “the vault”—ie, stuff it down the front of her corset, out of sight.
Bunnies trash-talk the clients constantly behind their backs. One of Steinem’s new friends refers to Club keyholders as “suckers”. Another indicates she preferred working at the Chicago club because the men there were stupider, and more inclined to think they’d gotten “in” with you.
Bunnies break the “don’t date keyholders” rule constantly, particularly in the case of rich ones. There are ways to make money from men that technically aren’t prostitution. Maybe he will buy you an expensive fur coat, and you will be so smitten that you will ask for his apartment number.
Bunnies will stuff the front of their corsets with socks, tissue paper, and spare bits of hose. Plastic garbage bags are frowned upon, because it won’t allow your skin to “breathe”, meaning you’ll sweat more and (it’s theorized) your boobs will shrink.
There is an atmosphere of suspicion hanging over the bunnies. They come and go, and are not to be trusted. In particular, Hefner is terrified that the bunnies will start “merchandizing” themselves and get his clubs busted for prostitution. Private detectives will occasionally approach off-duty bunnies and pose as johns, offering them hundreds of dollars for sex. Girls that accept are fired, and added to a company-wide blacklist. Yet at the same time, they are clearly supposed to use their physical appeal to get men to buy drinks. The subtext is clear: bunnies are supposed to appear available, but not actually be available. As Dworkin once said, the only fiction in pornography is the smile on the woman’s face.
As a bunny, you lie a lot, and are lied to in return. Steinem is told by a (male) doctor working for Playboy Enterprises that she must receive an internal examination before the Club can hire her as a waitress. This sounds so obviously suspicious that she calls the Health Board to check, and sure enough, New York has no such requirement.
Any nightclub of any size is a Darwinian jungle, with management as the apex predators. They survive by winnowing deserving and undeserving humans as ruthlessly as Dachau in 1933. Essentially, your position in the club (or even whether you’re allowed in the door) depends on where you stand in what I call the Nightclub Pyramid.
The top of the Pyramid? Rich men. Nightclubs love guys who drop a thousand dollars on bottle service, who tip $100 just so they’ll have an excuse to flash the gangsta roll in their pocket. They rely on rich men to survive.
(Also in this group are status-rich men—ie, club promoters, D-list celebrities, and the owner’s annoying twerp brother. These do not contribute to the club’s bottom line in the same way, but are nevertheless considered rich-man adjacent).
The next level? Beautiful women, who are necessarily to attract rich men. This can be problematic, because such women (or at least the subset that go nightclubbing) are capricious. If a club has bad vibes they just bounce: beautiful women are desired everywhere, and club doors fly open for them. Without beautiful women, you don’t have rich men, and then you don’t have shit.
Most nightclubs hack the system by hiring beautiful women. The Playboy bunnies occupy a confused social position: they are nominally high status, but work at the club’s mercy, and are vulnerable to economic exploitation.
(If you’re wondering about the rest of the Nighclub Pyramid, the third level is “plain women”, the fourth level is “whale shit”, and the fifth level is “poor men”.)
Steinem soon discerns that there is no career track for Bunnies, and no upward mobility. Despite the superficial glamor (and the fact that a PI agency is stalking you), it is a waitressing job with an uncomfortable uniform. Steinem soon quits because she has an article to write (and also, they’re beginning to ask questions about her failure to provide a social security number for her fake identity), but turnover is high in any event. A lot of girls seem to entertain dreams that they’ll meet some dashing and unattached movie star, but this is like Hefner’s “posing for Playboy helps your film career!” line—at a certain point, you’re a sucker if you believe that will happen.
Despite all of this, it does seem like an action-packed and distinctly unboring job. Probably a step up from working in a secretarial pool or selling Avon or whatever most women did in 1963. Even dissatisfied bunnies are dissuaded from unionizing by the fact that it’s an extremely attractive job. If bunnies enacted a strike, the club could fill their positions in two shakes of a lamb’s tail.
I often felt that Steinem was portraying it in the worst light possible. I did find an article by Chialing Young King (breezily referred to in A Bunny’s Tale as a “Chinese Bunny who stuffed her costume with gym socks”), who has markedly more positive memories. She says it was sometimes possible to make $500-1000 a week, and that Hef’s sleazy enterprise was actually the sexually and racially liberated paradise it pretended to be!
But Steinem’s message rings loudly and convincingly from the pages, particularly in a post-Manson, post-Altamont world: always question the counterculture. Don’t let people piss on you and call it rain. Guys are not reading Playboy for the articles, getting naked is not a cheat code for sexual empowerment, and the Easter bunny is not real.
“Put a pen in Satan’s claw […] and he could... | Reviews / Books | Coagulopath
“Put a pen in Satan’s claw […] and he could do no worse”—Louis-Sébastien Mercier, of Sade’s Justine
Justine defies description. Not because it’s disgusting, but because it doesn’t exist. Or, at least, not in the same way that the 2016 Kia Cerato in my driveway exists.
Sade wrote three versions of the book. Each has a wildly different text, and a century-and-half of censorship has caused them to be fragmented, bowdlerized, bootlegged, mistitled, misattributed, etc. There effectively is no “Justine“. Instead, there’s a diffuse nebula of Justinelike texts that share a story (a saintly girl falls on hard times and is abused) but otherwise vary in nearly every detail.
The earliest Justine dates to 1787, and is a mere 50,000 words long. The Marquis was entombed in the Bastille’s Tour de la Liberté for buggery and torture, and wrote it in about two weeks. Titled The Misfortunes of Virtue, it’s uncharacteristically tame. Sex acts are mostly hinted at. Sade alludes to “lewd and exhausting labours”, “foul exercises”, or “the most considered excesses of brutality and lewdness” and lets your imagination fill in the blanks. Instead of a sodomy scene he’ll write “the hapless girl was ignominiously defiled while never ceasing to be a maid”. Ever the pioneer, he knew the “anal doesn’t count” rule long before Catholic schoolgirls got in on the game.
Was Sade censoring his work to appease the Bastille guards? No; he’d already written The 120 Days of Sodom in the same cell. Sade’s prison life, despite his whining to the contrary, was uncommonly comfortable. His social class (and the efforts of his longsuffering wife) meant he was allowed a massive wardrobe, paintings, perfumes, a bookshelf groaning with hundreds of classics, and even a collection of wooden dildos fashioned by a Parisian cabinetmaker. The guards weren’t reading his writing, or didn’t care. Instead, Sade toned down the rough stuff in the hopes that Justine would reach a wide audience. Fate, however, had different plans.
On the 2nd of July, 1789, the Marquis tried to incite a riot. As punishment he was transferred to an insane asylum, and had to leave his possessions behind (including his manuscripts, which his wife was unsuccessful in retrieving). When the Bastille was stormed on July 14, the contents of Sade’s cell (including the dildos, presumably) were “burned, pillaged, torn up and carried off”. Justine was lost, spun away into the winds of the 19th century. How it survived is unclear to me, but Guillame Apollinaire rediscovered the manuscript in a collection of papers at the National Library in 1909, and it was finally published in 1930.
Back to Sade: he was released from the asylum as a virtual pauper. His chateau had been seized, his wife had finally kicked him to the curb, and he was forced to work as a prompt in a Versailles theatre for 40 sous a month. In an attempt to make money, he rewrote the lost book as Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu (“The woes of virtue”), and in 1791 published it anonymously.
This new Justine was much longer (120,000 words), and more explicit. It was a bestseller by Sade’s standards: it saw five printings in the 18th century alone, and has been widely translated into other languages. If someone in the Anglophonic world references Justine, this is probably the one they’re thinking of.
The new Justine both gains and loses. Sade’s prose is sharper and the scenes hit harder. But where the 1787 manuscript moves through the story at a gallop, the 1791 gets bogged down in pornography and philosophy (for Sade, the two were largely interchangeable). It’s hard to read at times, like a Playboy where each page is made of iron and weighs five pounds.
Justine always had problems, and they’re harder to ignore when the book is a double feature starring itself. For one thing, it’s written in first person perspective. It doesn’t make sense that prudish Justine would describe her abuse in such obscene, titillating detail. And sometimes less is more—depravity has the curious property of seeming more awful when it’s not described on the page.
And because it’s Sade, the action is frequently interrupted so a villain can deliver a long speech denouncing morality and religion, and then Justine will respond with an equally long speech defending those things, and so on, back and forth for several pages. It’s like reading an insufferable debate on an internet forum (“BIBLE CONTRADICTIONS-MAGIC SKY FAIRY DEBUNKED!”), where everyone is an annoying seventeen-year-old with a good vocabulary.
Sade could be the most fascinating of men, but he could also be the most tedious. Justine captures his dual nature well. His mordant wit was always his best side, and this is foregrounded in the new edition. The original 1787 manuscript ends with Justine dying horribly—immediately after being rescued!—and a (sarcastic) moral lesson.
And now, reader, having read this tale, may you extract the same profit from it as this reformed woman of the world. May you, like her, be persuaded that true happiness lies in virtue alone and that, though God allows goodness to be persecuted on earth, it is with no other end in view than to prepare for us a better reward in heaven.
The 1791 manuscript ends the same way…but more so.
O you who have wept tears upon hearing of Virtue’s miseries; you who have been moved to sympathy for the woe-ridden Justine; the while forgiving the perhaps too heavy brushstrokes we have found ourselves compelled to employ, may you at least extract from this story the same moral which determined Madame de Lorsange [Juliette]! May you be convinced, with her, that true happiness is to be found nowhere but in Virtue’s womb, and that if, in keeping with designs it is not for us to fathom, God permits that it be persecuted on Earth, it is so that Virtue may be compensated by Heaven’s most dazzling rewards. [emphasis mine]
If you don’t get the joke, Justine has been killed by a bolt of lightning.
In 1797 Sade was evidently still broke or still unhappy with Justine (or both), because he rewrote it a third time. Now it ballooned into a four volume, 290,000 word orgy of excess, complete with fascinating illustrations (whose artist is still unknown). It was published in a ten volume edition, with the other six volumes being a companion book Juliette.
This monstrosity remains untranslated to this day. As I don’t read French, I can’t comment on what he changed. Apparently the viewpoint shifts from first person to third, which is a good idea. Sade originally wanted Justine to be an epistolary novel similar to Rosseau’s Julie. This aside, there’s no reason we need to hear the story from her perspective, and it limits the possibilities.
The 1797 Justine/Juliette wombo-combo is famous for attracting the ire of Napoleon, who described it “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination” (lucky he never read Spare by Prince Harry) and ordered the anonymous author’s arrest.
Sade thought his identity was safe. As usual, he was his own worst enemy. He feuded with a prominent literary critic, who publically exposed him as Justine’s author. The Paris Gendarmarie raided his publisher’s office soon after, and caught Sade with a manuscript of Juliette in his hand. Sade boomerang’d back into prison, and his books were burned en-masse.
(Incidentally, I’ve read that the police found notes hinting that that Sade was attempting to write a fourth version of Justine. Why did he spend so much time on this one book? He never attempted to rewrite The 120 Days of Sodom or Philosophy in the Boudoir, to my knowledge. Did he consider Justine his masterwork?)
There’s a kind of irony to Justine’s history. The book that destroyed its author. Sade comes off as a Frankenstein-like figure, undone by his own creations. His scandalous defiances (of church, state, family, and the Revolution) plunged him into circumstances, that seem…well, Sadean.
On 8 December 1793, Sade was arrested for counter-revolutionary activities. […] Shuttled from prison to prison during the early months of 1794, Sade finally ended up at Picpus near Vincennes, a well-appointed former convent. It was here, from his cell window, that the devant or ‘former’ Marquis watched as many of his fellow aristocrats mounted the steps of the guillotine, which had been moved to the Picpus location from Place de la Révolution (the present-day Place de la Concorde) because of the stench of blood, their corpses piled into a mass grave that had been dug in the prison gardens. A large lead urn placed under the guillotine to collect the blood was emptied at Picpus every evening.
Sade, The Libertine Novels – John Phillips, Pluto Press
…as well as comical. Isn’t this literally a joke in Monty Python’s Life of Brian?
Sade himself escaped the guillotine thanks to bureaucratic confusion. In July 1794 his name appeared on a list of prisoners to be collected from Paris jails for judgement and execution that day, but as he failed to respond when his name was called, he was marked down as absent. Within a short time, the political climate had changed again with Robespierre’s own fall from grace and execution, and Sade was freed on 15 October 1794.
Justine offers itself as a case study in the futility of censorship. Napoleon tried to stamp it out. For a hundred and sixty years, you could get arrested for publishing Justine in France. But each chop of the axe that fell on Justine only succeeded in multiplying it. It’s probably the most widely translated and read of Sade’s work.
But it’s also not quite the book Napoleon—or Sade—believed it to be.
The standard line on Justine (which I believed myself before reading it properly) is that it’s a sarcastic, didactic anti-morality tale showing how “crime doesn’t pay” philosophy itself doesn’t pay, and it’s best to be evil. Justine’s goodness does her no good. Instead, we should be wicked, like her sister Juliette.
…But if you actually pay attention to the book, you’ll see that few (if any) of Justine’s problems are caused by her moral principles. She’s simply getting unlucky, over and over again. Juliette wouldn’t have fared much better in her shoes.
This is a scenario that repeats throughout the book: she accepts someone’s help because she has no choice, and it turns out that her savior is a villain. But that’s not a failing on her part. Alone and destitute, Justine stays with a group of monks. They turn out to be running a sex cult, imprisoning young women who (it’s implied) they murder once they’re too damaged to be of further use. How is Justine to blame for not knowing that? Or for the bolt of lightning that delivers her to her grave? Sade rails and vituperates against Rousseanian morality. But the only through-line you can take from Justine is “never let bad luck happen to you”.
And she’s strong. Her sister Juliette abandons her principles. Justine doesn’t. Her arguments are mostly intelligent and reasonable, and although Sade seems to think that the male libertines are demolishing her naive worldview with Facts and Logic, they aren’t. Once or twice, a libertine even admits that she makes a good point.
You can’t pervert morality without, on some level, accepting it as true. And although lots of writers regard Sade as the first truly modern writer (Barthes regards the lightning bolt as a symbolic “killing” of classical and romantic literature, as represented by Justine), a more complicated picture emerges from his books. Sade was artistically indebted to the same past whose values he rejected.
120 Days of Sodom is basically The Decameron—a census-like listing of earthly pleasures and pains at a remote villa. Likewise, Justine is quite Gothic in character. It’s a “damsel in distress” story that whisks the reader through a variety of settings (castles and dungeons and monasteries) that remind of The Castle of Otranto as much as anything. Sade was a modern man, but we got modernity directly from the past, and you can see old ideas (both literary and otherwise) sewn like whipstitches through his work.
A big part of Gothicism is the sense of rotting glory. And rotting religion. Even when Gothic mainstays like Lewis and Shelley aren’t explicitly blasphemous, they subtly communicate that religion’s certainties are becoming old and tattered. Does Frankenstein’s monster have a soul when he’s made of spare parts? Isn’t Dracula simply a perverse Christ (note that Bram Stoker capitalizes Dracula’s pronouns…), albeit one who seemingly gives his followers far more power than Christ gives the Christian?
Sade never went “full Goth”—he shunned the supernatural and employed romanticism only to mock it—but he never went full modernist, either. How could he? The past was too rich a source of absurdity and horror for him to ignore.
In the end, he’ll be remembered the way he wanted: as a provocateur. Like any troll, the point of Sade isn’t his writing, it’s our reaction. He lives in our outrage. Condemning him makes him stronger. He never met a fire that didn’t turn him into a phoenix. Sade himself called for his books to be burned!
An article of 27 September 1792 praises the author’s ‘rich and brilliant’ imagination, while exhorting young people to ‘avoid this dangerous book’ and advising ‘more mature’ men to read it ‘in order to see to what insanities human imagination can lead’, but then to ‘throw it in the ﬁre’. In a letter to his lawyer, Reinaud, Sade himself conceded the immorality of his new novel: They are now printing a novel of mine, but one too immoral to send to a man as pious and as decent as you. I needed money, my publisher asked me for something quite spicy, and I made him [a book] capable of corrupting the devil. They are calling it Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu. Burn it and do not read it if by chance it falls into your hands: I renounce it.
The Marquis de Sade: A Very Short Introduction by J Phillips · 2005 Oxford Academic
We live in permissive times. You don’t go to prison for sodomy anymore. Authors still deal with outrage mobs, but usually it’s white women with weird hair explaining that YOU DID A RACISM and YOU DON’T EVEN UNDERSTAND THE INTERSECTIONAL NATURE OF THE MULTIPLICITY OF YOUR OFFENSES. While this is terrifying, it is very hard to get arrested for writing a book today.
This should have been the golden age of Sade. The moment where the world finally caught up with him.
Instead, his dark grandeur has completely collapsed. All that’s left is anticlimax and bathos. He’s now a literal cartoon character. His descendants have reclaimed the title of Marquis, and are now busy whoring out the family name to things like champagne and “sinfully rich” chocolates. Sade was valuable as forbidden fruit. Now that he’s legal…nobody wants him. Johnny Rotten was right. If you want to destroy the power of a swastika, wear one.
Sade often said that the more criminal his behavior was, the more it excited him. And us too, apparently. Ultimately, bland cultural amnesty was precisely the hell Sade did not believe in.