“Put a pen in Satan’s claw […] and he could do no worse”—Louis-Sébastien Mercier, of Sade’s
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.
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“O liberty! What crimes are committed in thy name!”—former revolutionary Marie-Jeanne ‘Manon’ Roland de la Platière, as she was led to the scaffold
The Ancien Régime imprisoned people. The First Republic imprisoned other, different people. The Napoleonic Empire imprisoned still different people. Marquis de Sade achieved the singular feat of being imprisoned by all three.
The ancient alchemists theorized in the existence of ignis gehennae, or universal solvent. Sade was a universal convict. Anathema to all creeds, curse on all lips, breach of all laws written and unwritten; he increasingly seems made-up: a boogeyman for thought experiments.
“Oh, you think your hypothetical utopian society is hot shit? Well, suppose Sade comes along…”
His books are grotesque nightmares, and his real life frequently matched them. Even by the low standards of the 18th century French gentry, Sade was a depraved human being, wretched down to his bones. There are probably no good answers to “why did you torture that prostitute?” but “Which of several prostitutes are you referring to?” seems like a particularly bad one.
At least he had amibtion. I watched a TV documentary on Jared Fogle, and found it a dismaying exercise in Hannah Arendt’s banality of evil. He was dull and drab and spiritually small. A pallid white lump, his face perforated by a horrible toothy little smile, existing like a smear of phlegm that I couldn’t wipe off my screen. He seemed bled dry of anything hale and human; a monster made of skim milk and tofu. Can’t the twentyworst century produce better bad guys than fucking Fogle?
The Marquis dreamed big dreams. His crimes (both fictional and otherwise) have a bloody, artistic grandeur. He was a Matisse of Misery, a Picasso of Pain. I’d prefer it if neither Sade nor Fogle existed, but if I had to choose one or the other, hail Sade.
Juliette (1797) is a sister book (literally) of his earlier Justine (1987). They describe the adventures of two destitute young women who seek their fortunes in Paris, taking different paths, and experiencing different outcomes.
Justine is saintly and pure and devoted to virtue. She is repaid with beatings, rapes, and degradations. Nature abhors goodness, a subtext made crystal-clear in the book’s final scene. Justine is finally rescued from a life of torture by her sister…and then a bolt of lightning strikes her down.
Juliette, meanwhile, is a sociopathic harlot who sins her way upward into the highest echelons of society. What’s interesting is how her character changed with time. In Justine (which Sade wrote inside the Bastille), she’s an opportunistic chancer who commits crimes out of necessity, rather than choice. She might still be able to redeem herself, and at the book’s end she appears to do so by (humorously) becoming a nun.
Madame de Lorsange [Juliette’s title – ed] left the house at once, ordered a carriage to be made ready, took some small provision of her money with her, leaving the rest for Monsieur de Corville to whom she gave directions concerning pious bequests to be made, and drove in haste to Paris where she entered the Carmelite Convent there. Within the space of a few years, she had become its model and example, known not only for her deep piety but also for the serenity of her spirit and the unimpeachable propriety of her morals
But in Juliette (written when Sade was free), she’s portrayed as comically evil and disgusting. She murders a lot of people, participates in a plot to cause a famine in France, and has sex with about five to ten thousand men, including the pope. She’s Messalina, Lucrezia Borgia, and Jeffrey Dahmer rolled into one—a character so ridiculous that she’s kind of funny.
The Justine/Juliette diptych mixes styles and affects. First, it’s porn. Second, it’s parody, mainly of romance “manners” fiction and books like Jean-Jacques Rousseau’s Julie. Third, it is an exposition of Sade’s worldview and philosophy: good is stupid, morality is stupid, and the purpose of life is to drench your hippocampus in pleasure, no matter who suffers for it.
“Before you were born, you were nothing more than an indistinguishable lump of unformed matter. After death, you simply will return to that nebulous state. You are going to become the raw material out of which new beings will be fashioned. Will there be pain in this natural process? No! Pleasure? No! Now, is there anything frightening in this? Certainly not! And yet, people sacrifice pleasure on earth in the hope that pain will be avoided in an after-life. The fools don’t realize that, after death, pain and pleasure cannot exist: there is only the sensationless state of cosmic anonymity: therefore, the rule of life should be … to enjoy oneself!”
Sade viewed pleasure like rays of sunlight gathered by a lens. The more rays are focused by the lens, the more it burns and destroys the ground beneath. If you want to know pleasure, you have to be prepared to know (and inflict) pain. Sade was a living Pyreliophorus, a colossal burning glass that incinerated everything it touched. Nobody (except maybe Ayn Rand) was ever such a dark, living embodiment of their own philosophy.
Juliette is a better book than Justine. The main character controls her fate, instead of being a punching bag. Sade has a troubled relationship with feminists (in the sense that fire has a troubled relationshp with TNT), so it’d be ironic if he created possibly the most agentic female character in all of 18th century literature. As surrealist writer Guillame Apollionaire once said:
“The Marquis de Sade, that freest of spirits to have lived so far, had ideas of his own on the subject of woman: he wanted her to be as free as man. Out of these ideas—they will come through some day—grew a dual novel, Justine and Juliette. It was not by accident the Marquis chose heroines and not heroes. Justine is woman as she has been hitherto, enslaved, miserable and less than human; her opposite, Juliette represents the woman whose advent he anticipated, a figure of whom minds have as yet no conception, who is arising out of mankind, who shall have wings, and who shall renew the world.”
And if you want nastiness, Justine‘s horrors are limited by the fact that the heroine must survive her abuses (although it’s still implausible that she doesn’t die at certain points), but because Juliette is the perpetuator, not the victim, and the gloves can come further off.
Juliette also shares many of Justine’s flaws. For one thing, it’s incredibly long—my English Austryn Wainhouse translation is about 450,000 words. There’s just too much book in this book.
For another, Juliette’s conflicting goals—satire, versus philosophical treatise—weaken each other. Often it’s not clear how serious he is. Are Sade’s endless rants (delivered through the mouth of some character or another) meant to be funny, or not?
“Before going farther, let us here observe that nothing is commoner than to make the grave mistake of identifying the real existence of bodies that are external to us with the objective existence of the perceptions that are inside our minds. Our very perceptions themselves are distinct from ourselves, and are also distinct from one another, if it be upon present objects they bear and upon their relations and the relations of these relations. They are thoughts when it is of absent things they afford us images; when they afford us images of objects which are within us, they are ideas. However, all these things are but our being’s modalities and ways of existing; and all these things are no more distinct from one another, or from ourselves, than the extension, mass, shape, color, and motion of a body are from that body. Subsequently, they necessarily…” [blah blah blah for another thousand words]
These ludicrous speeches are inserted in inappropriate places, frequently run for multiple pages, and stop the novel in its tracks like a bolt-gun to a calf’s brain. Eventually you just stop reading them—you see an ominous mass of text hanging on the page like a stormcloud, and skip it. They are pointless.
Is he convincing anyone? He could have written “feels good bro” and then found a more stimulating use for his wrist. The longer and louder you have to argue for something the less persuasive it seems. If libertinism is truly natural and right, he shouldn’t need to justify himself so much. He sounds like a lawyer bolstering a weak case. What would a psychiatrist make of Sade’s psyche? Did he know, deep down, that there was something pathological about him? In other words, who’s this justification for—us, or himself? “I’m normal! I’m normal!” is the battle cry of the person who’s absolutely not normal, and Sade’s appeals to universal human nature fall flat. His inhumanity was deeply unnatural.
(Incidentally, my favorite piece of Sade trivia is that they performed phrenology on him after he died. His skull was the perfect shape for a priest.)
Digressions aside, Juliette is an endless list of sins and outrages, mostly involving sex and blasphemy. It reminds me of those 90s porn videos series, where they go on and on, until you have Barnyard Sex Adventures #45 or something. It’s a long series of repetitive fantasies, unvarying in tone and content, delivered with the obsessive rhythm of an autistic child’s stimming.
Juliette’s endless escapades eventually provoke boredom, and then a coma. The book basically starts at self-parody and goes on from there. “Juliette gets buggered by a million trillion men while spitting on a cross while stepping on orphaned puppies”…much of the book is simply a permutation on that.
Yet Sade can actually write affectingly (and disturbingly) when he wants to. I enjoyed the moments where he transcends himself, and offers up something incalescently disgusting.
A dim, a lugubrious lamp hung in the middle of the room whose vaults were likewise covered with dismal appurtenances; various instruments of torture were scattered here and there, among other objects one saw a most unusual wheel. It revolved inside a drum, the inner surface of which was studded with steel spikes; the victim, bent in an arc upon the circumference of the wheel, would, as it turned, be rent everywhere by the fixed spikes; by means of a spring device the drum could be tightened, so that, as the spikes grated flesh away, they could be brought closer and contact with the diminished mass maintained. This torture was the more horrible in as much as it was exceedingly gradual, and the victim might well endure ten hours of slow and appalling agony before giving up the ghost. To accelerate or slow the procedure one had but to decrease or widen the distance between the wheel and the compassing drum
Sade had a gift for devising tortures. It’s lucky his relative poverty forced him to keep most of them on the page.
There’s also some parts where he anticipates the decadents, too, particularly a passage that will stay with me for a long time. It’s where Sade basically abandons any attempt at “manners” literature, and starts writing pure fantasy.
Juliette and a few consorts have journeyed deep into Russia. It’s portrayed as a blackened land of volcanoes that spit blue-white fire. Juliette throws a match onto a field. It erupts into flame.
In this improbable landscape, they encounter a literal fairytale giant. “Seven feet and three inches tall, with, behind huge moustaches, a face both swarthy and awful.”
This is Minski, a Russian lord who has established a fiefdom in this harsh land, mostly because it’s a place where the law does not exist.
The giant stoops and lifts a great stone slab no one else would have been able to budge; thus does he uncover a stairway; we precede him down the steps, he replaces the stone; at the farther end of that underground passage we ascend another stairway, guarded by another such stone as I have just spoken of, and emerge from dank darkness into a lowceilinged hall. It was decorated, littered with skeletons; there were benches fashioned of human bones and wherever one trod it was upon skulls; we fancied we heard moans coming from remote cellars; and we were shortly informed that the dungeons containing this monster’s victims were situated in the vaults underneath this hall.
Minski devours the dead bodies of children at his table, which is made from naked girls arranged and twisted together (the chairs and candelabra of his dining hall are likewise made of living nymphets.) Sade really delivers some perverted weirdness here. His descriptions of the giant’s appetites and behaviors are gruesomely earthy. It’s no less unrealistic than anything else in the book—just pure limbic system horror that engages the senses rather than the intellect.
Minski takes a shine to Juliette, and allows her to live and witness his lifestyle (most of her companions are…less fortunate). She soon participates in his barbaric sex-murders. Yet she senses that the giant’s favor will prove a fleeting thing, so she incapacitates him with a near-lethal dose of stramonium, and escapes. She doesn’t kill him, though. A man as evil as Minski doesn’t come along every day, and it’d be a shame to lose him.
So that’s Sade: he’s endless, repetitive, as sadistic to his readers as he is to his characters, and occasionally offers up brilliant visions. So what do we make of him?
A criminal, as I’ve said. Even death didn’t clear his name. His books were banned in France for over a hundred and sixty years. People were prosecuted for selling them in the nineteen-fifties. They were mass-burned in America. For a while, you could acquire yellowcake uranium more easily than one Sade’s books.
His extreme fantasies were clearly and disturbingly connected with real things. There is his real-life crimes to consider. Libertinism was no joke for Sade, no ironic pose. He tried to practice what he preached. Most “edgy” writers are smoke without fire. Marquis de Sade wasn’t just fire, he was thermonuclear plasma.
But even his writing, viewed in isolation, seems to hit a cultural nerve. Inside every priest is a hypocrite, and in every king a tyrant. Thrones are edifices raised atop conspiracy and filicide. “Self-made” men become rich by exploiting those under them. Goodness is a mask for sociopaths too clever to get caught. And the concept of virtue is worse than false: it is a psychosexual weapon wielded to make others (particularly women) easy to control. You should take pleasure wherever you find them. The only law is that there is none. And so on.
All of of this formed the bedrock of the Sadean worldview. Some find it true. Others find it revolting. Still others find it both things. Nobody finds it ignorable or trivial.
Sade’s words leave a shadow in the mind. His bizarre pornographic fantasies are littered with allusions to Hobbes, and Malthus. He presages Darwin, Haeckel, Lamarcke, Hitler. He was an atheist, yet revered nature’s impulses with fanatical zeal. Indeed, he thought they were the only real thing, and human institutions were just thin froth riding atop a dark and deep ocean.
Maybe we hated him because he told the truth? Sade was born in a palace and died in an insane asylum. Perhaps his main observation was that the two places are very much alike.
“Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.”
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If this is a basic bitch album to like, call me a pH 14 female dog, because it’s actually great. Firm handshakes all around!
BÖC’s big “eighties” record achieves something remarkable: it combines the good aspects of several genres while avoiding all of their bad parts. Want heavy metal with no lumbering stupidity? Want progressive rock that’s catchy, immediate, and engaging? Want pop music that isn’t shallow? They do it all. The songs are excellently constructed, well-produced, and as compulsively relistenable as your phone banking password read out by an Indian man with a lisp.
The title track: simple and stately. It sets the stage, carving out the space that BÖC intend to explore (synths, guitars, new wave, NWOBHM). The keyboard presence has been greatly increased since their last album, matching the guitars in cut and heft, and J Bouchard offers a walking bassline that acts as the song’s heartbeat.
“Heavy Metal: The Black and Silver”: a big goofy Manowar kind of track. Presumably it’s one of the ones written and rejected for the Heavy Metal movie soundtrack, but BÖC usually have a song or two like this on every album (“Cities on Flame with Rock and Roll”, etc), where they play into the “heavy metal parody” thing suggested by the umlaut in their name. Gloriously stupid, its Black Sabbath-inspired riffs are crushing, and the call-and-response bridge acts as an interesting counterpoint.
“Sole Survivor”: another Bloom-written piece. I like the keys in the chorus. It does sound a bit too close to “Veteren of the Psychic Wars”, which precedes it in the tracklisting. The intro makes me wonder if J Bouchard double-tracked bass for this song. If so, good on him for keeping it as tight as it is.
“After Dark” is a high-velocity rocker, similar to the material found on Cultus Erectus. Relentless. Dare I say that the chorus has some ska influence?
“Joan Crawford”. A big and anthemic peak near the end of side B, with Grand Guignol horror lyrics that separate from the rest of the album. The significance of Joan Crawford coming back to life is lost on me, but if Jewish carpenters can pull it off, I guess 1930s screwball comedy actresses can, too. Maybe BÖC related to the idea of a one-time hitmaker being relegated to obscurity by career mishaps and changing times…and then escaping her coffin. Either way, the song is musically in good order, ending on a fun little JS Bach reference.
“Don’t Turn Your Back” is constructed from layered, ambiguous chords. Is the song sinister? Happy? It teeters between tones, unwilling to commit itself to a single mood. It’s like that moment in twilight where you’re not sure whether it’s dark or light outside. For a band that relied so much on sledghammer heaviness, this is a clever and thoughtful album closer.
“Burnin’ For You” is a goliath of a track, as good a single as they ever wrote. The song is remorselessly catchy yet loaded with complexity: little ideas swirl and eddy within the larger piece. Harmonized twin guitar leads; a quasi-motorik inspired rhythm similar to what the Cars would do, Buck Dharma’s wild shredding; and Sting-styled vocals. Nearly a perfect song.
“Veteren of the Psychic Wars”. AKA, “My name’s Harry Canyon. I drive a cab.” This is the song that Ivan Reitman finally featured on the 1981 film Heavy Metal. Co-written by Michael Moorcock, it has lyrics that could relate to the Vietnam War, the counterculture, or some fantasy scenario. It’s extremely heavy and epic: again, Manowar’s entire career condensed into one song. The keyboards are tastefully used, and the military-style snare fills shuffling in the chorus are great. “Wounds are all I’m made of!”
“Vengeance (The Pact)” is maybe the album highlight. Albert Bouchard delivers a fantastic synth-driven heavy metal song that sounds like Manilla Road with good singing. The tempo picks up in the bridge, entering a Steve Harris-style Iron Maiden gallop (Martin Birch had just finished with Killers before this, come to think of it, so maybe the similarity is more than accidental). If I had to bitch, the lyrics are a bit heavy-handed and expository, basically describing the plot of Heavy Metal‘s “Taarna” sequence beat for beat. I’m not surprised Reitman didn’t use it. Why score a film with music that literally tells you the plot? Moorcock’s more cryptic approach suits the band better.
BÖC were always a little mismarketed. Their “heavy metal” cred was largely tongue-in-cheek, and they never had the patience to stick with it for long. They were a smart, diverse, creative band, touched by a quintessential strangeness. Whatever made them special, this is basically the last chance to see it. After this, A Bouchard is fired, and the band began a rapid descent into the worst excesses of the 80s. BÖC made many albums after Fire of Unknown Origin, but it remains the oyster’s final great pearl.
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