In fanaticism, superstition, prejudice, and intolerance French Enlightenment philosophes found various forms of dogmatic thinking that they attempted to counter in a new, paradoxical way. Instead of drawing clear, rigid distinctions between the various realms of nature, the classes of Old Regime society, or classically dualistic concepts such as the body and soul, they intentionally blurred the boundaries between categories. In so doing, they hoped to put an end to the excesses of dogmatic certainty. Faced with the formidable obstacle of censure in their writings, these thinkers adopted what I call a poetics of confusion to achieve the kind of progressive society they sought by introducing, little by little, their new perspective. The marquis de Sade profoundly understood Enlightenment thinking: its logic, its philosophical tendencies, and its paradoxes. In his own writing, he exploits its seeming confusion, accepting or pushing to an extreme some Enlightenment concepts while rejecting others. He discerns the entire century's dynamism --- its spirit of endless possibilities open to humankind that should, he felt, be explored to their ultimate consequences --- and puts that dynamism to a new, albeit sometimes bizarre, use. His novel Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu offers numerous insights beyond the moral and psychological and into the physical, social, cultural, and aesthetic realms of the world he envisions. However much one may recoil before the image he holds up, it clearly corresponds in many respects to what we now recognize in today's modernity.
O'Neal, John C.
"Sade's Justine: A Response to the Enlightenment's Poetics of Confusion,"
3, Article 3.
Available at: http://digitalcommons.mcmaster.ca/ecf/vol21/iss3/3
John C. O'Neal is professor of French at Hamilton College; he is the author of Changing Minds: The Shifting Perception of Culture in Eighteenth-Century France (2002).