No Light at the End of the Tunnel: Horkheimer and Adorno’s Misreading of Sade

A recent film illustrates destructive psychodynamics surrounding dependent strivings.  Supplemented by the example of a clinical dream vignette, I use it to consider a shortcoming of Horkheimer and Adorno’s Dialectic of Enlightenment, specifically, their use of the example of the Marquis de Sade to demonstrate a regressive component of the Enlightenment project. I argue that Sade’s destructiveness, however much it appears to draw from the desacralizing rationality of the Enlightenment, is in fact determined by motives external to the Enlightenment project: a radical negation of both object ties and the self that is their grounding. Far from representing an epitome of ego aggrandizement, Sade’s project aims at its erasure.   

Ink, a 2009 film directed by Jamin Winans, portrays the travails of a successful business executive torn between investment in his investments and investment in his family. The accidental death of his wife throws him into an even greater preoccupation with work, so much so that he loses custody of his daughter for neglect. His daughter’s subsequent life-threatening seizure brutally forces him to recognize the life-denying nature of his commitments, and his turn back to her enables both of them to survive.

Of course, the above summary leaves out how much of the film unfolds in a mysterious dreamworld parallel to our own, across which ninja gangs struggle to stop or advance the journey of a little girl, led by a rag-covered, mega-schnozzed nemesis who is somehow under the control of smiling “incubi” wearing plate glass face shields. That these representations manage to be more than simply new, dramatizing riffs on cinematic clichés, and that they somehow work to make the basic story line substantial and at times poignant is not simply a product of their kinetic energy and snappy technics. The film works because it expands the scope of a broken family drama into a full-fledged war illustrating a form of psychological structure that tempts and, literally, bedevils us.

That structure, termed a “narcissistic organization” by Herbert Rosenfeld, the psychoanalyst who first described it in his clinical work, is oriented to warding off and, at the extreme, destroying dependent strivings that are associated with agonizing vulnerability by the patient. In the film, a constellation of flashbacks provides a minimal orientation to how the protagonist, John, becomes ensnared.

First, we see him as a boy being ridiculed by classmates for his “trashy” poverty. This shameful wounding doesn’t seem to immediately instantiate a narcissistic organization, but rather creates a potential to be realized in later life. Thus he enters adulthood as a shy but talented man, capable of falling in love, albeit also quite capable of working as a junk bond trader. It is only when he turns out to be  successful at the latter that the intoxicating possibility of a retrospective triumph over his childhood tormentors arises: incredibly rich, he will never have been poor. Over time, hanging out with his drinking buddy workmates to gloat over his victories increasingly competes with the solace of family life, love is conquered by conquering. Tensions with his wife grow as she accuses him of failing his family. She then dies in a car accident.   Ashamed and bereft, he organizes against emotional loss through a ruthless focus on work and the power it offers. It is then that the narcissistic organization becomes ascendant: his self-representation morphs into the deformed “Ink,” slave to the sadistic figures who hold out the promise of perfection — he will no longer be ugly, smelly shit — if he sacrifices what he loves to the organization. And so he brings not only his daughter, but also her female protector to the gang stronghold, and he offers no resistance when the protector, a replacement for his wife, is stabbed to death by a male ringleader with flashing eyes.

Love within a Gang

The gang is a particular form of narcissistic defense. In a 1964 paper Rosenfeld succinctly describes the problem — here cast in terms of the infant’s situation — addressed by narcissistic defenses:

In narcissistic object relations defences against any recognition of separateness between self and object play a predominant part. Awareness of separation would lead to feelings of dependence on an object and therefore to anxiety. Dependence on an object implies love for and recognition of the value of the object, which leads to aggression, anxiety, and pain because of the inevitable frustrations and their consequences. In addition dependence stimulates envy, when the goodness of the object is recognized. The omnipotent narcissistic object relations therefore obviate both the aggressive feelings caused by frustration and any awareness of envy. When the infant omnipotently possesses the mother’s breast, the breast cannot frustrate him or arouse his envy… All these patients seem to have in common the feeling that they contain all the goodness which would otherwise be experienced in a relationship to an object. We usually encounter simultaneously a highly idealized self image, which dominates the analytic situation, and anything interfering with this picture is rigorously defended against and omnipotently denied. (Rosenfeld, 1964, p. 333-4)

In these terms, Ink’s complicity in the murder of the idealized version of his wife reflects his wish to destroy his dependence on her, trading it for the subjugated relationship to the gang leader who promises to elevate him.  The fantasy recasts the real life outcome of fighting with his wife over his intoxication with financial power; this time around he submits to an Other who demands the destruction of those he loves and, simultaneously, his need for them.  His subsequent defense of his daughter — not shown in the clip, we only need say they escape to happiness after a showdown —  superficially appears to herald a break with the shame-driven repudiation of dependence and a revival of his capacity for love.

However, in embracing the role of ferocious protector of his dependent daughter, as protector he projects his dependency into her and omnipotently kills on her behalf.  In this way his defence – projective identification — against the experience of dependency actually remains intact and his victory, while nominally destroying the destroyer, actually reflects a compromise with the destructive option. He does not achieve a full-blown negation of the narcissistic defence, but rather an aufhebung retaining some of its central features.  With his wife out of the way he can experience dependence in projected form as a protector of his daughter, which also allows enactment of what the start of the clip shows, his attempt to retroactively protect himself as a child.  The film offers a happy ending very different from what it intends.  (In passing, it’s worth considering how much the many “father and child alone without mother” scenarios of popular entertainment draw on this dynamic.)

Narcissistic defenses vary greatly in their working over of agonizing lack and envy. Milder narcissistic solutions, involving transient disruption of awareness of painful object ties in favor of omnipotent fantasy, are ubiquitous. As examples we could point to such common maneuvers around frustration as lapsing into a satisfying daydreams about winning the lottery or basking in the love of benevolent parental divinities. But in extreme forms such transient, flexible narcissistic escapes are not sufficient. Instead of serving as an occasional thermostatic escape valve, narcissistic defense becomes a primary structure of the object relational field. The most extreme example would be someone who psychotically believes himself to be a god and so who is without need. Ink’s solution before the transformative finale is not so immediately omnipotent — he himself is shamed, depleted — but retains an orienting hope for omnipotence by accepting the control of an “incubus” who has everything and whose orders Ink must follow if he is to be elevated.

Why a gang?  A dream illustrating the formation of a gang nucleus

Because the film foregrounds Ink’s humiliation by school children to suggest why he ends up trapped in a gang framework, it suspends a more thorough charting of how  psychological and social processes interwork. Most importantly, the Ink presentation elides the question of Ink’s life prior to the elementary school encounter. John Steiner, the analyst currently doing the most work in this area, offers this developmental sketch:

The basic structure of the organization, as we have seen, is represented as a group, gang, or network of objects in a relationship. This organization originates in the nuclear family and begins with the Oedipal trio, but extends to the wider family and from them to other objects in the patient’s surroundings. (Steiner, Psychic Retreats, p. 105)

Given that Ink’s family is hidden by the film, we can turn to a clinical vignette to illustrate how the foundations of a gang structure might be established:

The mother of the patient, Mr. H, became depressed following the death of her own mother when Mr. H was about two years old. Although her depression was apparently not severe and she was able to attend to the basic needs of Mr. H and his younger sister, her depressive response was prolonged. Mr. H recalled being made anxious by both a sense of his mother’s frailty and also her tendency to become irritable and “sharp-tongued.” His father, preoccupied with work, seems to have been somewhat aware of his wife’s state and Mr. H recalls him being solicitous with her, but his father was “clueless” concerning the impact on his children.

At around the age of six Mr. H made friends with a boy in the neighborhood, N, about two years older, who strongly impressed Mr. H with his bold, daredevil ways. They spent a lot of time together in a nearby woods. N would be drawn to dangerous exploits, like cliff climbing, that Mr. H always felt obliged to follow him in. N frequently talked in a ridiculing way about his own mother, about her clingy worries for his safety and her sentimentality. Mr. H found himself copying this attitude, especially when he was in the company of his friend.

As an adult in therapy Mr. H struggled centrally with a distrust of women that reflected his earlier experience with his mother. He was acutely alert to any sign of a woman’s “neediness,” an alertness that blurred into vague anxieties regarding the urgency of his own needs. As he was finally starting to develop a relationship with a woman that was less disrupted by this distrust, he began to experience some hopefulness about the future of the relationship. As he put it, maybe his tendency to “fuck and flee” might be at an end.  He then brought in the following dream:

“I’m with S [his new lover], and we’re camping in woods like the ones near where I grew up. N is with us. N gets into an argument with S. I try to stop them, but N keeps at it, making fun of her. He gets into a fight with her and she is killed when she falls down and hits her head. I’m watching, horrified, speechless. He says we’re going to get rid of the body and makes me help him set it on fire.”

In analyzing the dream Mr. H was struck by the extent to which his attitude towards women and the emotional needs he brought to a relationship was governed by an identification with N.  The appealing idea of going camping with S seems to have brought out in horribly clear form a kind of supervision that an internal N had exercised over all of his relationships with women.  The longstanding stereotype of the “needy woman” whom he would routinely flee had been analytically weakened, in part because he had understood how he had projected his own dependent wishes into her.  Because his relationship with S would allow him to experience them more fully as his own, a crisis ensued.  In the dream the murderous N figure attacked not only S, who currently encouraged threatening dependent wishes, but also expressed Mr. H’s past rage at both his depressed mother and his younger sister whom he’d had to defer to.  And the dream seems to go farther than murder, with S’s body being destroyed, a concrete depiction of the elimination of needs experienced in relation to her.  Her psychic trace is eliminated and Mr. H is left alone with N.

To refer back to Steiner’s developmental sketch, we can see how Mr. H’s difficulties in his family had a significant pre-Oedipal basis in that he experienced his depressed mother’s limitations early and directly.  At the same time an Oedipal third was anticipated; the more evident anger with his sister served to mask anger with Mr. H’s father, who was also demanding mother’s limited attentions.  Mr. H’s intrafamilial  experience set up an extrafamilial figure, N, to serve as a model of dependency-transcending power.  At least as evidenced in the dream, a more ramified gang structure had not developed.  The exterminator of a psychic representation of dependency seemed to have remained concentrated in a single figure, but the destructive outcome was much the same as in the film.  Like Ink, Mr. H was ready to subordinate himself to a tyrannical figure offering the fantasy of an escape from dependent “weakness.”

Reason, Autonomy, and Ruthlessness in Dialectic of Enlightenment

Not only is domination paid for with the estrangement of human beings from the dominated object, but the  relationships of human beings, including the relationship of individuals to themselves, have themselves been bewitched by the objectification of mind. Individuals shrink to the nodal points of conventional reactions and the modes of operation objectively expected of them. (Horkheimer and Adorno, Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 21).

The dialectic of external and internal representations of dependent need we are considering resonates with one of the main organizing motifs of Horkheimer and Adorno’s  Dialectic of Enlightenment,  how the “objectification of mind” proceeds in tandem with the domination of external nature.

First, an outline: Horkheimer and Adorno  hold that the Enlightenment’s critique of mythological thinking resulted in a new mythology.  The Enlightenment pursued a liberatory, anti-anthropomorphic goal, to unmask the false subjectivity projected onto the natural world in premodern mythology and subsequently maintained in religion.  It revoked the omnipotence bestowed on gods by a vulnerable humanity.  But, they argue, this was carried out as a mythic deanimation, a qualitative purging of Nature preparatory to its instrumental use.  Replacing a construction of Nature to be feared and propitiated, humanity constructed an empty Nature, one that could be thought of in any way that facilitated prediction and control.

Their thesis has been criticized on various grounds.  The most trenchant attacks have – correctly, in my view – focused on an unwillingness to acknowledge how their characterization of science as an imperial-ontological project draws its observations from the practice of science as it has been implemented in capitalist society.  Recalling objections to Weber’s Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism, critics argue that Horkheimer and Adorno  fail to see how the ideas they foreground – particularly the Enlightenment’s emphasis on interpersonal and intellectual autonomy and a technical stance towards Nature — do not univocally determine practices. Instead, the hollowing out of nature is driven by other action logics that are not associated with the Enlightenment per se, most importantly a drive to accumulate capital that limitlessly promotes both nature’s commoditization and an organization of society and psyche devoted to it.

Yet Dialectic of Enlightenment  is still valuable for its dialectical approach to the analysis of subject-object interaction, particularly regarding the manner in which the subject’s self-understanding is tied to the terms of their engagement with the object world. The above quotation puts it clearly: once external Nature is reduced to a freely schematizable object subject to control, that project of control readily extends to back into humanity’s internal nature qua the objectification of mind.  The instrumental emptying out of Nature entwines with an instrumental desiccation of our self-understanding.

The Marquis de Sade: emancipated autonomy vs. flight from dependent passivity

Horkheimer and Adorno preface their development of a Sadian moment of the Enlightenment with an account of how the universal liberatory aspirations of the Enlightenment came to take on a truncated, self-interested form.  A maturational, autonomy-asserting intent strongly animated the Enlightenment.  Humanity was to escape its “minority” – its  fear of nature led it to imagine itself to be under the domination of a magical-religious, external power  – by establishing “Reason” as a regulatory idea.  Reason essentially amounts to scientific understanding, logically-guided praxis elaborating a hierarchical conceptual order through which the world is known and controlled.  As the benefits of this  scientific understanding, put into practice by the rising bourgeoisie, accumulated,  mythology and religion withered to irrelevance.  This passed over into a delegitimation of the worldly power of church and nobility.  What had been a social second Nature became a parasitic obstacle, and the bourgeoisie’s productive success established the material base for a mandate to rationally redesign society to better address common needs.

But this opportunity was missed.  Politically, a period of universalist hopes, borne out of the anti-aristocratic coalition of the Third Estate —  the bourgeoisie, laborers and peasants — dissipated as class antagonisms broke the coalition and the bourgeoisie asserted its interest as that of the social order as a whole.  Philosophy – and here Horkheimer and Adorno blend Kantian and positivist themes confusingly –  could only gesturally preserve these universalist aspirations in the idea of the categorical imperative.  But the categorical imperative is merely formal, lacking substantive content;  as class antagonisms reappeared, it seemed that there is no logical connection between “do unto others” and a guaranteed well-being.  A secular “substantive reason,” a reason that can, to put it briefly, compellingly motivate a claim for a general good, appears to be logically unwarranted, categorically absurd.  All that retained any philosophic dynamism was an autonomy-seeking, self-preservative motive that readily enlisted itself to any dominant material interest:

For enlightenment, reason is the chemical agent which absorbs the real substance of things and volatilizes it into the mere autonomy of reason.  In order to escape the superstitious fear of nature, enlightenment  has presented effective objective entities and forms without exception as mere veils of chaotic matter and condemned matter’s influence on the human agent as enslavement, until the subject, according to its own concept, had been turned into a single, unrestricted, empty authority.  The whole force of nature became a mere undifferentiated resistance to the abstract power of the subject.  The particular mythology which the Western Enlightenment, including Calvinism, had to do away with was the Catholic doctrine of the ordo and the pagan popular religion which continued to flourish beneath it.  To liberate human beings from such beliefs was the objective of bourgeois philosophy.   However, the liberation went further than its humane originators had intended.  The market economy it unleashed was at once the prevailing form of reason and the power which ruined reason. (Dialectic of Englightenment, p. 70)

Excursus:  sentimentalized Nature, a dialectic in reverse

Before we turn to Sade, exemplar of Reason bringing ruin to society, let’s consider — only briefly and just enough to complicate matters — a depiction of Reason ruining Nature. The famous “Crying Indian” ad from 1971 tried to capture the idea that a potential form of engagement  with Nature has been lost in the rush to industrialize and enjoy the commodities that come with it.  The Indian’s tearful expression conveys a mourning of both lost qualities in Nature and his lost relationship to it; his tears try to break us out of commoditized joys and recover similar sentiments in us.

But this suppresses the fact that the Indian is inescapably mourning the loss of his civilization, a hunter-gatherer society, that made Nature what it was for him.  By obscuring the Indian’s lost social matrix, one that contemporary viewers might scornfully dismiss as his — primitive, barren of cars and television — the ad enhances the potential for the viewer to imbue Nature with their own nostalgic, sentimentally-charged content, also freed of any reference to mourned social relations and embodied in “Nature.”  The Crying Indian’s abstracted engagement with Nature models an abstracted engagement with Nature for the viewer. His imposed silence regarding his destroyed society models much of the environmental movement’s silence regarding capitalism and its deformation of society.


To resume: Horkheimer and Adorno introduce Sade as a radical exemplar of this rump, “functionalized,” anti-sentimental reason.   However, in their recourse to Sade, they don’t appreciate how a personalized, despoiling aim turns the principle of autonomy against itself. The Sadian ego, parading the exercise of reason as it concocts degradations, does indeed nominally represent a self-interest free of regard for the Other.  And, it also militantly patrols itself internally, on the lookout for any impulse that might emotionally tie ego with Other.  But Horkheimer and Adorno essentially accept his rationalizations at face value, as reflecting conclusions derived from the Enlightenment ideal of a subjectivity free from constraint.

However, what drives the “chemical agency” of Sade’s reason is not an extrapolation of the principle of self-interest as it is commonly understood. As we will see below, it depends on a particularly immiserated experience of dependency whose solution ultimately leaves Sade on the brink of self-annihilation as he tries to eradicate it.  Because of his internal plight, Sade’s pursuit of self-interest turns into self-negation.  This movement is not organically related to the Enlightenment, it merely seeks to justify itself in its terms.  His speaking to us turns us into witnesses of yet another demonstration of the weakness of the Enlightenment as a mere “philosophy,” rendered ineffective through Sade’s  perverse use of it.  He invokes Reason to resolve an internal agony that is just as indifferent to philosophical reflection as is the commercial warfare of the universalized market outside.  Just as profit-oriented production overrides all orientation to the needs it claims to serve, Sade’s formulation of lust negates all desire.

Pity, love, motherhood and all that stuff

We can trace how Horkheimer and Adorno wind up essentially taking Sade at his word by considering the relationally-oriented concepts he turns into gravestones for a substantive reason oriented to the common welfare.  Sade’s discussion of “pity,” a “vice interfering with the laws of nature,” stands out, not only for the intensity of his scorn, but because it also presages trends in Nietzsche’s thought that Horkheimer and Adorno stress in their connection of the two thinkers.   Here is one of Sade’s characters justifying his cruelty:

“Where, I ask you,” cries Verneuil, “is the mortal stupid enough in face of all the evidence to claim that all men are born equal, in law and in fact?  It was left to a misanthropist like Rousseau to put forward such a paradox, since, being extremely weak, he wanted to pull down those to whose level he was unable to raise himself. What effrontery did it take, I ask you, for this pygmy four feet two inches tall to compare himself to the model of stature and strength whom nature had endowed with the strength and figure of a Hercules? Is that not the same as comparing a fly to an elephant? Strength, beauty, stature, eloquence: Those are the virtues which were decisive when authority passed to the rulers at the dawn of society. ” (Justine, p. 4)

It is striking how both Nietzsche and Sade – though perhaps more so in Nietzsche’s case – denigrate pity, a sentiment that is usually most poignantly evoked in an individual, personal encounter, by arguing from models of class relations.  In this quotation, the prospective singular encounter with a helpless human being sends Verneuil into a rush of “logical” argumentation taking us back to an imaginary social dawn when authority “passes to” rulers.  Overlapping  schemata of hierarchically arranged identifications —  both natural and social —  work in concert to break any empathic link between Verneuil and his victim in the here and now; at the same time, he banks on a narcissistic payoff in a fantasy of solidarity with venerable elites.  With these countervailing identifications in place the experience of pity appears only incredible and self-denying.

Of course, Sade is not out to affirm logic, only to use it opportunistically to open the field to his lusts.  But what is lust about?  Horkheimer and Adorno don’t appreciate the gamut of autonomy’s possible connotations.  They tend to think of Sade’s autonomization of sexual pleasure in relatively mundane terms, as unbounded sensual self-interest, along the lines of an unusually sensual bourgeois who not only cheats on his wife but might also enjoy murdering her if she were to protest.  Thus when Horkheimer and Adorno  take up Sade’s pronouncements on love, the encounter with an Other that defines the upper limits of the Other’s affirmation,  their own views on the practice of love settle into commentary on how a declaration of love only conceals domination:

In love, pleasure was linked to the deification of the person who bestowed it and was the truly human passion. It is being finally revoked as a value judgment conditioned by sexuality.  In the enraptured adoration of the lover, as in the boundless admiration shown in return by the beloved, the actual servitude of the woman was endlessly transfigured. Again and again, the sexes were reconciled on the basis of their recognition of this servitude: the woman seemed freely to accept her defeat, the man to grant her victory. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, p.  87)

Sade’s take is quite different. He disparages love, not as a phony compensation to women for their subjection, but because it rests on fear of them:

It is certain that our spirit of chivalrous courtship, which comically offers our homage to an object made only to satisfy our need – it is certain, I say, that this spirit stems from the reverence our ancestors once had for women because of their profession as prophetesses in town and country.  Through terror, aversion became worship, and chivalry was nurtured in the womb of superstition.  But this reverence never existed in nature, and it would be a waste of time to seek it there.  The inferiority of that sex to ours is too well founded ever to give us a sound motive to respect it, and the love which arises from that blind reverence is, like it, a prejudice. (Juliette, p. 178)

Sade’s use of reverence in this context is revealing: following a brazen characterization of women as simply need-satisfying he abruptly jumps to consider reverential affection, often thought of as the ideal terminus of a man’s relationship with his mother.  But he grounds reverence in a fabricated history of terrorizing prophetesses.  He thus sidesteps evocation of an experience of the benign mother and, using the prophetess figure,  mobilizes universal memories of another side of the maternal relationship, of the fear accompanying inevitable infantile conflicts with the powerful, controlling mother.  This reference is carried out sub rosa, his unconscious chatting with our unconscious about those really bad times of childhood we’ve repressed. Primed by a dim memory of fear of maternal power, he moves to bestialize women:

Let us not doubt that there is a difference between man and woman no less certain and important than that between man and the apes of the forest.  We would have just as good reason to deny woman membership of our species as to refuse to acknowledge brotherhood with the apes.  Examine carefully a naked woman beside a man of the same age, naked like her, and you will be readily convinced of the considerable difference (disregarding the sex) which exists between the two creatures and will clearly see that the woman is merely a lower degree of the man. (Juliette, p. 188)

In a certain sense Horkheimer and Adorno themselves recapitulate Sade’s defensive dodge of the experience of helpless dependence on the mother.  In part this reflects their fidelity to the course of Sade’s “enlightened” argumentation.  But it also reflects their reading of Sade, and of their own experience, through the psychoanalytic theory of their time, which tended to suppress the mother-child dyad with an emphasis on the Oedipal triad.  As many authors have argued, this narrowed reading of childhood development played down helpless dependence on mother in favor of the more delimited fear of castration by the father.  All of the confused, barely expressible, let alone articulable, conflicts with the powerful mother vanish behind an affirmation of her desirability, framed in genital terms. The salient problem for the boy then becomes a matter of learning to control his impulse to avoid father’s attack.

This reinforces a simplistic  isomorphism between fear of internal nature and external nature; like fearsome Nature, human beings are creatures of impulse that must be controlled.  Within this tiresome scenario, so fundamental to the fundamentalisms, women are then projectively blamed as stimulators of the impulse bedeviling men, and the failure to control the impulse is a weakness brought on by them.  Any ambiguity in the notion of weakness that might connote infantile passivity is resolved by defining it as inability to control one’s own appetites.  Those can be managed through proper education or, in a reversal, triumphed over by flying into rapacious “potency.”

All of this readily serves to cover over the problem of more passive states and related wishes — to be nursed, to be taken care of, to be contentedly at the world’s center  —  that to be tolerable require some anticipation of other-directed empathy and interest on the part of the powerful woman/mother. But when – not if –  this woman/mother shows interest in someone else, or in herself, “his [her] Majesty the baby,” in Freud’s terms, is shockingly deposed, his status unknown. The baby’s “resourceless dependency” is all too clear and, given the rudimentary nature of the baby’s development, is immediately overwhelming.  Once we remind ourselves of this universal developmental fate, any summarization of the full range of internal experience as “nature” must become suspect.  All renderings  that tend to highlight, to put it one way, nature as burbling activity (the impulse that must be controlled) over passivity (the need/wish to be cared for) may serve as a defense.  And let us note that even to call it a “wish to be cared for” can blur into voluntarism.  There’s really no choice, it is an absolute requirement.  The struggle to wish that away leads to what Freud sought to conceptualize as the death instinct.  And, it leads to Sade.

Equalizing reduction, prior to flushing

For Sade, enlightenment was not so much an intellectual as a social phenomenon.  He carried forward the dissolution of bonds – which Nietzsche idealistically believed could be overcome by the higher self – and the critique of solidarity with society, office, family to the point of proclaiming anarchy.  His work lays bare the mythological nature of the principles on which civilization was based after the demise of religion: those of the Decalogue, of paternal authority, of property. (Dialectic of Enlightenment, p. 90)

In the above Horkheimer and Adorno review Sade’s social criticism and find him something of an anarchist.  They ignore that Sade’s social imaginary is highly controlled; to make him a purveyor of Enlightenment critique they ignore what Sade is setting the stage for.  Sade’s a Leveller on the way to being a Defiler and a Destroyer.  His utopia does not enable social love, but is rather filled with enactments of shaming, humiliation, and eventually death.  The elaborately contrived scenes in 120 Days of Sodom follow one another in a rising crescendo of despoilation:

Although the manuscript is completed only in outline, Sade had worked out the placement of 600 passions and made notes for himself on their very carefully arranged progression. On examination, the passions of Book I can be seen to consist essentially of pregenital polymorphous perversions with a primary coprophagic and masochistic emphasis. This theme is continued in Book II with the use of multiple subjects of all kinds. Book III begins with homosexual and bestial sodomy, both punishable by death in Sade’s day, and proceeds to more and more explicit tortures of the victims. In Book IV pleasure is essentially obtained through murder, after having subjected the victims to the most excruciating tortures.  (Bach and Schwartz, p. 462)

Three psychoanalytic writers, Sheldon Bach, Aaron Schwartz, and Janine Chasseguet-Smirgel, interpret Sade’s utopia as anal.  In one respect, geography replicates physiology: Chasseguet-Smirgel details how across his writings Sade repeatedly takes the reader through laborious journeys across dark, confining landscapes to an enclosed terminus from which escape is impossible.  It is worth quoting Sade extensively (here, from 120 Days of Sodom) in order to convey the force of his imaginative effort:

To get there, it was necessary first to go to Basle, where one crossed the Rhine, beyond which the road got narrow until it was necessary to leave the coaches. Soon after, one entered the Black Forest, and penetrated for about fifteen leagues by a difficult, tortuous path, impossible to follow without a guide. A miserable hamlet of charcoal burners and foresters appeared at about that level: the frontier of Durcet’s territory [all the villagers being thieves and smugglers, Durcet, one of the four libertines, bribes them so that after the 1st of November they allow no one at all to reach the castle] … and the gate was closed. … After we had passed the site of the charcoal-burning, we began to climb a mountain nearly as high as Mount Saint-Bernard and infinitely more difficult of access, for it is possible to get to the top only on foot. It is not impossible for mules, but the precipices that surround our path on all sides are such that there one exposes oneself to the greatest danger. … The mountain … shows here another kind of peculiarity which, because of the care required, became a new barrier, so insurmountable that only the birds could clear it. This strange whim of nature is a crevasse of more than thirty fathoms, on the summit of the mountain, between its northern part and its southern part, such that without great cunning, once having climbed the mountain, it becomes impossible to get down again. Durcet had connected these two parts, which left between them a precipice more than a thousand feet deep, by a very beautiful wooden bridge which was destroyed as soon as the last carriage had arrived, and from this moment onwards there was no way whatsoever to communicate with Silling’s castle. For, on descending the northern part, one arrives at a small plain of about four acres, surrounded everywhere by rocks which entirely cover the plain like a screen and do not leave the slightest gap between them. … Now, it is in the middle of this little plain, so completely surrounded, so well protected, that the castle of Durcet is placed, a wall thirty feet high further surrounds it, and beyond the wall a moat, full of water and very deep, still further protects a last enclosure, making a circular gallery. (Chasseguet-Smirgel, (1991) p. 403.) (An episode of the 2014 HBO show, True Detective, offers a version of this journey. More on this page.)

Secondly, distinctions are eliminated: in the gallery the victims are forced to carry out acts in which all class, status, sexual and, most importantly, generational boundaries are de–differentiated and dissolved.

We find that in the works of Sade the erogenous zones have become interchangeable: there is defecation into the mouth and the vagina, milk is introduced into the anus, etc. The woman’s vagina is repulsive, and she is sodomized (as if she were a man). Man is penetrated (as if he were a woman). Marriages take place between children. Boys and girls are dressed “in the opposite fashion” (Sade’s own words). One has sexual intercourse with the aged. Mother, daughter, son, sister, brother, and father are raped. There is profanation of the Host and God is blasphemed. It is as if everything—the body, parts of the body, men, women, children, values—has been thrown into a gigantic grinding machine and reduced to identical homogeneous particles. This is a process that I …  identify with digestion, the end result of which is fecalization. (Chasseguet-Smirgel, (1991) p. 404.)

…The object is then, for Sade, subjected to a process of slow digestion. We know how important it is for him, in The 120 Days especially, to graduate its effect, how many times he repeats that he will only reveal certain details later, when the time comes. On several occasions it is a matter of ‘the order of things’. For example: ‘We added to that several other episodes, which the order of things does not allow us yet to reveal’. Parallel to the suspense in which Sade tries to make his reader live, he describes a ‘code of laws’ or ‘regulations’ drafted by the libertines, organizers of debauchery to which all the participants, including the drafters themselves must submit. These regulations are very strict and very precise timetables, a programming of slow and successive debaucheries. … it appears, on reading it, that it is a question of the ‘order of things’ (‘ordre des matières’) not only of the contents of reported events but of the order in which the objects, transformed progressively into excrement (another meaning of the French word matières) glide slowly down the digestive tract until their totalfaecalization and expulsion. (Chasseguet-Smirgel, (1978), p. 30)

This recalls  what Horkheimer and Adorno criticize as the arbitrary schematizing quality of Enlightenment thought, its “chemical agency,” that makes the status of life-affirming values precarious.  The banner of Marx’s “ruthless critique of everything existing” that Marx confidently believed would clear the way for a social order generously distributing the fruits of human toil even as it provided freedom from it, appeared to Horkheimer and Adorno as either a limp rag that blows in any direction or, with Sade, the declaration “all that is holy is profaned,” full stop.

But Horkheimer and Adorno fail to appreciate how Sade’s anti-dependent base, as it were, drove his idiosyncratic Enlightenment superstructure.  The centrality of psychic routines dedicated to projective identification – which in Sade’s case involves suffusing the Other with the dependency-permeated scraps of his narcissism so that, now safely outside of him,  he can debase and obliterate them  – mean his remythologization of the world is compelled, dead set.  He is no longer freely schematizing in the service of life-oriented need, however questionable.  He is reducing the world to the immediacy of exciting stereotyped interactions that cover over a deadness.

Sade’s dream

Bach and Schwartz begin their paper with a dream recorded by Sade that reveals to us what the sensual Blend-o-matic cannot free him of.  He dreamt it on the night of February 16, 1779, the second anniversary of his incarceration at Vincennes prison.  During the day he had been reading Petrarch and daydreaming of his beloved Laura, a woman who had broken off their relationship weeks before his marriage to a woman chosen by his father.   He describes the dream in a letter to his wife:

Listen to a dream I had of her yesterday, while all the world was taking its pleasure.

It was about midnight. I had just fallen asleep with the Life of Petrarch in my hand. Suddenly she appeared to me … I saw her! The horror of the tomb had not impaired the brilliance of her charms … She was draped in black crepe with her lovely blond hair flowing carelessly above it. It was as if love, to preserve her beauty, had tried to soften the funereal form in which she appeared to me. “Why do you groan on earth?” she said to me. “Come and join me. No more ills, no more sorrows, no more troubles in the vast expanse that I inhabit. Have the courage to follow me there.” At these words I flung myself at her feet calling:  “O my Mother! …” And my voice was choked with sobbing. She held out her hand and I covered it with my tears; she too shed tears. “When I dwelt in the world which you loathe,” she said, “I used to enjoy beholding the future; I counted my descendants until I reached you, but I did not see you so unhappy.” Then, engulfed in my tenderness and despair, I threw my arms about her neck to hold her back or to follow her and water her with my tears, but the ghost had disappeared. All that remained was my grief. (Bach and Schwartz, p. 451)

Bach and Schwartz note that in the preceding pages of the letter he has written of his anger at his wife for her betrayals and his helpless anguish in prison, condemned to solitary confinement (a meager seven minutes a day with his jailer) and with no end to his incarceration in sight.  On previous occasions he has written of ending his misery by cracking his head against the stone wall.   It is in these immediate circumstances that Sade dreams of his former lover, whom he conflates with his mother, beckoning him to join her in death to escape a loathsome world.

What else we know of Sade’s life – a close, then interrupted relationship with his mother, a cold father, an aristocratic ancestral lineage rich in potential for both bounding self-importance and grievance over disrespect, imprisonment for sadomasochistic behavior  –  deepens, however sketchily, our impression of him as a man socially and psychologically disposed to respond to his prison deprivations with world-destroying rage.  The dream is Sade when he has not, as it were, pulled himself together in his sphincteral castles.  All of the longing for a state of being-alone-with-Mother, a Mother who is only interested in him, comes out in a scene that can only end in despair, withdrawal into psychotic fantasy, or death. The dream is like the scene from Ink, with the beautiful maternal protector, without the gang, without the daughter.


Horkheimer and Adorno’s thesis of the “objectification of mind” reflects despair over the failure of a project of universal subjectification.  To reprise Feuerbach and Marx:  Once humanity breaks the thrall of a domineering subjectivity projected onto nature, it is more free to reflect on its own subjectivity.  By emancipating itself from a self-conception that was by and large reciprocally grounded within worked over parental representations inflated into gods and kings, compelling universals – for example,  a “citizen of the world” – are indeed made available.  But other institutional logics subvert this goal and, given the heartlessness of those schemata – formally, the “seller of labor power” and, informally, “cannon fodder” come to mind —  a nostalgia for the premodern familial derivatives of religion persists, even to the point where they appear to be essential guarantors for substantive reason.  Habermas’ trajectory – from Marxism to ideal speech theory to affirming the necessity of religion to preserve what is human in humanism – exemplifies this.  Like the original mythology, his nostalgia expresses a wish that everyday relational models reflecting a durable valuation – or “recognition” — of the subject might be conclusively resistant to inhumane institutional logics.

Instead of being in any way conclusive, Horkheimer and Adorno’s critique of the Enlightenment via Sade falls into the sort of error that I try to bring out in my criticism of Jameson’s handling of Warhol in his treatment of postmodernism.  There I argue that Jameson failed to appreciate how certain features of Warhol’s art  reflect a perverse, counterdependent stance that made Warhol quite distinct from the orientation of other artists Jameson discussed, particularly van Gogh and Munch.  There I found it remarkable that, although Jameson had directed our attention to  this perversity, he was unable to identify it as such.  If he had done so, the fact that perversity specifically reflects a rigid, desperate way of handling despair over object relations might have led him to remain less “on the surface” of his discussion of some trends in postmodernism. The qualitative distinction between postmodernism’s indiscriminate antihierarchical disposition and Warhol’s corrosive attack on humane sentiment would have become apparent.

Here the similarity lies in the way in which Horkheimer and Adorno underweight an idiosyncratic, personal driver in Sade’s formulations.  Instead of Sade being an exemplar of tendencies in Enlightenment thought or, so to speak, its accomplice, Enlightenment rationality is a disposable factotum of Sade’s project.  His wide-ranging references to an assortment of class-based and natural hierarchies suggest a hodgepodge of rationales that are intended to simply fill dialogic space with models of domination that, as he escapes into identifications, help Sade forget his loss.  It is remarkable that the salience in Sade of these hierarchical models did not give Horkheimer and Adorno pause, for a main tendency in Enlightenment thought was to stress the role of education, not to promote conformity, but to promote a generalized coequal participation in social life and the determination of social goals.  However much this was not realized, social hierarchy — at least domestically — was hardly central to the Enlightenment project.

Adorno’s subsequent writings illuminate this underweighting.  In his essay of 1955, “Sociology and Psychology,” a critique of Talcott Parsons’ program for a psychoanalytically-informed sociology serves as a platform for Adorno to describe the dialectical interplay and interpenetration of both domains.  The essay stands as a remarkable effort to protect the conceptual specificities of sociology and psychology while simultaneously discussing their codetermination, not only in a causal sense, but also their internal character.   But in registering the overwhelming force of  social institutions, Adorno tended to think of psychological forms as created through the internalization of social structure. What remains of psychology per se tends to come across as amorphous discontent struggling to find expression.  Within this framework, what I am referring to as a “personal driver in Sade’s formulations” is only diffusely rendered as impulses incongruent with mandated superego functioning and mandated character types, the discontent that accompanies civilization.  Once those impulses achieve some degree of organization Adorno is inclined to regard them, appropriately enough, as socially mediated.  But, in turn, his conception of the social is so undifferentiated that it is hard to discern anything other than its most general forms.  For example:

‘Psychodynamics’ is the name given to the reproduction of social conflicts in the individual, but it is not a mere mirror-image of existing social tensions. Its development in isolation from society reproduces from within the pathogenesis of a social totality over which the curse of lonely individuation hovers. (Sociology and Psychology I, p. 77.)

Adorno makes it clear that,  unlike Fromm, he does not see the social order as producing, cookie cutter fashion, personalities functionally congruent with social relations.  But he summarizes the nexus of this relative independence as “isolation from society,” a formulation that elides reference to a complicated network of institutions and linked discourses – the family, friendship networks, etc.  — encompassing the site  of “lonely individuation.” Crucially, this also leaves out an account of the development of individual representational capacity.  This is particularly relevant when we consider how children represent powerful conflicts in simplified terms, using intellectual capacities that are literally organically undeveloped, and which yet are foundational, original frameworks that continue on in syntheses developing over the course of life.  Faced with the shock of narcissistic mortification they may contrive “solutions” that trap them in a stance of hostility they feel they cannot relax.  As with MacDougall’ s patient, K, to salvage something of themselves they may then be left only with the option of glorifying  their omnipotent hostility to avoid feeling like shit.  The terms in which they do this are infantile.  While not transhistorical, the framework is primitive, couched within rudimentary, binary logics that that do not define social rationality as Horkheimer and Adorno claim in their elevation of Sade.

In a certain sense Sade attenuates to the point of severance the loose relationship between this developmental matrix and dominant institutions.  Though we can discern some thematic resonance, his psychodynamics can be said to truly reflect neither possessive individualism nor the desacralizing processes of capitalist accumulation, in which profit-seeking drives cultural obsolescence; his project is more thoroughly extirpative  than that of the Law of Value.  He specifically rejects whatever functional regulation society might seek to exercise over the outcome of individual development.  But his “Great Refusal,” to recall Marcuse, does not involve a revolutionary preservation of value or even the assertion of novel ones. It is negative, destructive of both objects and object ties, in some ways like escapist childhood vandalism but absolute in its object and aims.

I thank Irene Padavic and Tod Sloan for their helpful critical readings of this essay.


Adorno, T. W. Sociology and Psychology, part I. New Left Review, I/46, November-December 1967, pp. 67-80. Originally published in 1955 as “Zum Verhältnis von Soziologie und Psychologie.”

Bach, S. and Schwartz, L. (1972). A Dream of the Marquis De Sade—Psychoanalytic Reflections on Narcissistic Trauma, Decompensation, and the Reconstitution of a Delusional Self1. J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 20:451-475.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1978). Reflexions on the Connexions Between Perversion and Sadism.Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 59:27-35.

Chasseguet-Smirgel, J. (1991). Sadomasochism in the Perversions_ Some Thoughts on the Destruction of Reality J. Amer. Psychoanal. Assn., 39:399-415.  I would encourage interested readers to not be put off by Chasseguet-Smirgel’s lack of caution regarding homosexuality and psychoanalysis’ delay in challenging its pathologization.   The interpretation of perversion she sets out addresses object relational dynamics that undermine a capacity for any relatedness, and thus are in a strong sense prior to any questions of sexuality and gender identity.

Horkheimer, Max and Adorno, T. W. Dialectic of Enlightenment: Philosophical Fragments. Edited by Gunzelin Schmid Noerr, Translated by Edmund Jephcott. Stanford: Stanford Press. 2002.

Rosenfeld, Herbert. (1964).  On the Psychopathology of Narcissism a Clinical Approach.  Int. J. Psycho-Anal., 45:332-337.

de Sade, Donatien Alphonse François (1797) citations are drawn from the original 1797 edition of Sade’s works published in the Netherlands.

Steiner, John. Psychic Retreats. (1993). Psychic Retreats: Pathological Organizations in Psychotic, Neurotic and Borderline Patients. Routledge: New York.