Luna Nájera’s comments on Gille Deleuze’s “Coldness and Cruelty”
For Gilles Deleuze, the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895) were clinicians of civilization. Writing in the aftermath of the French Revolution and the Revolutions of 1848, respectively, both writers addressed politics and the problems of revolution, using counter-languages that involve violence and sexuality to describe a form of being (see chapters 1–2). The significance of this, says Deleuze, lies in the fact that: “In principle violence is something that does not speak, or speaks but little, while sexuality is something that is little spoken about” (16).
“Coldness and Cruelty” (1967) represents an early phase of Deleuze’s study of desire. Among the questions he asks are: “What is the meaning of the meeting of violence and sexuality in such excessive and abundant language as that of Sade and Masoch? How are we to account for the violent language linked with eroticism?” (17). A response to these questions is indicated in his comments on the function of literature in the writings of Masoch and Sade, which “is not to describe the world, since this has already been done, but to define a counterpart of the world capable of containing its violence and excesses” (37). Deleuze treats the distorted mirror reflections produced in the works of the two writers as the signs and symptoms of the social and political problems of the time. This approach is in sharp contrast with the clinical approach of Krafft-Ebbing, Havelock Ellis, Féré, and Freud, according to which masochism and sadism are two poles of one perversion (known as sadomasochism). Deleuze recognized that the universe of each of the two writers had nothing to do with that of the other. Commenting on their differences, he declared that “Their techniques differ, and their problems, their concerns and their intentions are entirely dissimilar” (13).
For Deleuze, Sade and Masoch are “great anthropologists, of the type whose work succeeds in embracing a whole conception of man, culture and nature; they are also great artists in that they discovered new forms of expression, new ways of thinking and feeling and an entirely original language” (16). As stated earlier, Sade and Masoch each create a counter-language that involves the function of erotic language and its effects on the senses. Deleuze shows that they deploy the linguistic functions of imperatives and descriptions (features of pornographic literature) in distinctly different ways to create counter-languages that “challenge any attempt to think of politics in legalistic or contractual terms” (79). Thinking about the political through a modality that eschews morality and rationality is in fact what makes a reading of “Coldness and Cruelty” a possibly fruitful approach to Etienne de la Boétie’s question of why subjects desire their own repression.
In his account of the formal differences between the sadistic and masochistic ideals, Deleuze observes that one of the formal elements of Masoch’s fictional art that has escaped critical attention is the form of the contract. The model of the contract, which the subject draws up with the torturer, is a juridical aspect of masochism that generates law and that, along with the work of art, is instrumental for the transition from “a lower nature to the great Nature” (76). Deleuze explains that although it would appear that the masochistic subject submits to the law by entering into the contractual relation, the subject actually subverts the (moral) law: “The essence of masochistic humor lies in this, that the very law which forbids the satisfaction of a desire under threat of subsequent punishment is converted into one which demands the punishment first and then orders that the satisfaction of the desire should necessarily follow upon the punishment” (88–89). Deleuze traces the curious process by which the law generated by the contract leads to ritual and myth (Chapter 8).
Just as the subversion of the law is a feature of the masochistic ideal, in Sade’s fiction both contract and law are repudiated in favor of institutions. Deleuze observes that in the absence of a higher principle and a good that can no longer provide a basis for law and the justification of power, Sade repudiates contractual relations and the law because he views natural, moral, and political laws as representing “the rule of secondary nature” (86). (In Sade’s work secondary nature is bound by its own rules and its own laws.)
The most cutting and perhaps thought provoking observations about law arising from Sade’s fiction raise questions about whether contractual relations and law necessarily entail a master/slave relation. He says: “It is irrelevant whether we see the law as the expression of the rule of the strongest or as the product of the self-protective union of the weak. Masters and slaves, the strong and the weak, all are creatures of secondary nature; the union of the weak merely favors the emergence of the tyrant; his existence depends on it. In every case the law is a mystification; it is not a delegated but a usurped power that depends on the infamous complicity of slaves and masters” (86).
While the consideration of the symptoms registered in Sade’s and Masoch’s fiction does not imply an endorsement of the perversions to which their work gives voice, might what they say about the law and contractual alliances generate new questions in our approach to literature and history? Here are some examples:
In thinking about the contract between sovereign and subject, how do we account for the role of desire?
What is the role of desire in the political fictions (e.g., social contract) that we study and how do we trace desire? Are desire and affect distinct? Are they interrelated and if so, how?
What might it mean to approach the notion of social contract as a fiction? Are contractual alliances by necessity conducive to repressive/ oppressive social structures?
At a time in which some world leaders are actively subverting law and undermining governing institutions, as well as questioning the validity of facts, how can we characterize the comparative viability of laws and institutions for modern democracy in the U.S.?
How do the symptoms described by Sade and Masoch help us explain the desire for subjection?
In the context of the 2020 elections, how do we explain the desire of a major percentage of the population for an authoritarian regime?
What contemporary works of art and performances reflect (in however distorted forms) the symptoms of our times? (E.g., “Lovecraft Country” and its deployment of the genre of horror to reflect on the legacy of slavery in America, or Sarah Cooper’s “Everything’s Fine.”)
- Viewing Lucrecia Martel’s Zama as a mode of thought about the present, what does her film enable us to perceive about bureaucracy, desire, and governance?
Deleuze, Gilles. “Coldness and Cruelty.” Masochism. New York: Zone Books, 1991.