From Maurice Blanchot's 1947 essay 'A la recontre de Sade' (translated here as 'Sade's Reason'):
"La nouvelle Justine ou les Malheurs de la Vertu, suivi de l'Histoire de Juliette sa soeur appeared in Holland 150 years ago. It was a monumental work of nearly 4000 pages. The author had rewritten it several times, greatly increasing its size. Overwhelming and almost endless, it immediately threw the world into a panic. If there is a department of forbidden books in every library, it is for such a book. We may as well admit that no literature of any epoch has ever produced so outrageous a work and that no other volume has ever wounded people's thoughts and feelings more deeply. In our age, which shudders at Henry Miller, who would dare to compete in license with Sade? Yes, we can safely say that here we have the most scandalous book that has ever been written, and surely this is a reason for taking interest in it. (...)
It is an outrageous book because it is hard to get at and cannot be made public. But it is also a book that proves that there is no outrage where there is no respect, and that were the outrage is immense the respect is proportionate. Who is more respected than Sade? Even today many people still believe that they would only need to have this accursed work in their hands for a few minutes to make Rousseau's boast - that any virgin who reads a single page of it will be undone - come true. Certainly such respect is a trophy for a literature and a civilization. And we can hardly resist a longing to whisper to all his present and future critics and editors: when dealing with Sade, at least be respectful to the outrage."
Reading Blanchot's essay, I was struck by the question why there is no composer or musician comparable to De Sade's? Why is there no composer or musician whose Evil is of the same stature?
Sure enough, there have have been many highly controversial composers and musicians. Stravinsky, whose Le Sacre du Printemps was scandalous at the time, springs to mind as one example; more recent examples include The Beatles, Throbbing Gristle and Burzum. And there have been many musicians who identified with Evil - this blog is full of them.
But no piece of music has ever wounded people's thoughts and feelings as deeply as the writings of De Sade. No piece of music has been regarded as an outrage for as long as De Sade's work.
Le Sacre du Printemps is now regarded as Classical music. The Beatles have been knighted. Throbbing Gristle, once deemed "wreckers of civilization", now play at Tate Modern. Even Burzum is in the process of becoming legitimate - the fact that his music is reviewed in The Wire is surely a sign of that. The outrage over these musics has lasted only a comparatively short time.
Why? Why can't music claim such a trophy of Evil?
It is tempting to hypothesize that the reason for this is that music and literature are essentially different, that music - exactly because it is music and not literature - can impossibly cause a moral panic on the scale of De Sade's literary work. In such an hypothesis, music would be an innocent art form, compared to literature. Nonetheless, I feel I should first try and find a socio-historical reason for the absence of a musical Marquis.
Blanchot notes, "...no literature of any epoch has ever produced so outrageous a work...", thus implicitly suggesting that only the epoch in which De Sade lived could have produced such a work. Indeed, the numerous theories De Sade produces are indelibly connected to the moral, legal and political ideals of Enlightenment. Even if De Sade's theoretical though is elusive, chameleontic, inconstant and contradictory, it is more than merely a sardonic perversion of these ideals. In a strange way, his work is still loyal to Enlightenment. Surely this is the reason why the work of De Sade has stayed so unnerving for such a long time: the moral, legal and political ideals of Enlightenment form the foundation for our current liberal democracy. De Sade corrupts these foundations from the inside out. Thus, he is more effective than his heirs, the Romanticists and the Decadents: they had already become disloyal to Enlightenment and could therefore not anymore infect Enlightenment at the root. Such Evil as De Sade created, could only be created when our present society was still in its formative stage.
During this formative stage, music was not in a position to produce such Evil as De Sade created.
The literature produced by De Sade was not only informed by Enlightenment. More ambiguous than that, it was just as much informed by Absolutism, and especially by the despotic tendencies in that form of government. The protagonists of De Sade's writings are Absolutist despots, even if they speak the language of Enlightenment. In this, they are phantasmatic proxies for the aristocratic author himself - even if De Sade was very different from his protagonists and (unlike his heroes) capable of displaying human feelings. While writing literature was an acceptable passtime for the aristocrats of the Absolutist era, making music was not. Music was made by servants, not by masters. Classical music of the era could speak the language of servants exalting the masters; it could not yet speak the language of the masters themselves. De Sade's heroes were no and could be no musicians. And where the writings of De Sade could speak from the perspective of the despot, music could not.
Furthermore, De Sade's writings are the product of a profound loneliness. As Blanchot notes, the censors and judges who claimed to have immured De Sade are really in his service, and are in fact fulfilling the liveliest wish of his libertinism. "For Sade always longed for the solitude of the Earth's entrails, for the mysteries of a hidden and solitary life. Time after time he formulated the idea that man's greatest excesses demand secrecy, the darkness of the pit and the inviolable solitude of the cell." Secrecy, darkness and solitude may well be circumstances under which a Sadean literature can flower; but these circumstances did not at the time favor the production of music. Though is it not entirely inconceivable that one would compose music in secrecy, darkness and solitude, certainly orchestration and the actual playing of music demand interaction with musicians. Today, of course, technological developments permit music to be made in secret, in the pit, in the cell: the legions of one-man Black Metal bands testify to that.
In this post, I've concentrated on the circumstances in which De Sade's oeuvre was produced, and in which a comparable musical work was not produced; while perhaps I should have focused on the circumstances in which De Sade's oeuvre was received and in which music did not get the same same reception. What is needed to answer the question posed in this post is historical-comparative research into the reception of transgressive music and literature, based on reception theory. Of course, such research presents immense theoretical problems, not to speak of the practical difficulties one would face.
In the mean time, only our imaginations can create a music which a composer comparable to De Sade might have created. I imagine it to be created by a vast orchestra, consisting of hundreds or even thousands of musician slaves; I imagine it to be at once repetitive to the point of boredom, and as frenziedly festive as the storming of the Bastille. De Sade: “How delightful are the pleasures of the imagination!... [where] the whole world is ours; not a single creature resists us, we devastate the world, we repopulate it with new objects which, in turn, we immolate.”