At one time or another, philosophical questions arouse in the mind of any individual. By the way, these questions do not change, no matter whether it is the French Revolution or the 21st century.
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In his play The Persecution and Assassination on Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade, Peter Weiss also makes an attempt to answer some philosophical questions such class conflict, life and death by means of the main characters – Jean-Paul Marat and Marquis de Sade. From the two positions presented in the play, I am more inclined to support Marquis de Sade and his moderate and more humane ideas.
In fact, both Jean-Paul Marat and Marquis de Sade were real historical figures. Jean-Paul Marat was one of the most famous and important people in France in times of the French Revolution. He was better known for his radical journalism, support of radical social changes and reforms, uncompromising position towards French authorities and enemies of the Revolution.
In 1789, Jean-Paul Marat established own paper that was called “The Friend of the People” where he attacked and expressed suspicion to the influential French officials and those in power. Marat was assassinated in 1793 exactly for his too radical views by a young woman Charlotte Corday, whose main motivation was to save thousands of people from Marat.
Marquis de Sade is another character of the play and another famous historical personality. We all know de Sade for his liberal sexual views, lifestyle, and his erotic novels. He used to support freedom, life free from restrictions imposed by morality or religion. De Sade had the same liberal political views. He opposed radical measures that were taken in the name of the French Revolution.
He hated tyranny, was a strong opponent of the death penalty and mass executions, which were so popular during the Reign of Terror. These are the main reasons why his writings were condemned and de Sade was imprisoned for several times. Charenton asylum was his last prison where he directed several plays and died.
In his play, Peter Weiss describes events, which take place in 1808 in that asylum. As one of asylum inmates, de Sade decides to make own play and chooses Jean-Paul Marat as the main character. Throughout the play, Marat and de Sade discuss various philosophical issues, express and exchange their ideas. Some of those ideas I will consider in my essay.
Class conflict was one of the biggest problems and, actually, one of the main causes of the French Revolution. This is also one of the main themes de Sade and Marat discuss in the play.
As I have already mentioned, Marat was an advocate of the Revolution and supported radical revolutionary methods. He did not trust authorities, and through his paper expressed his distrust so that people were also aware the government’s dishonesty. Marat did not believe in fairy tales about the ideal state. He would never believe that rich people could feel compassion towards poor or would “give away their property of their own free will” (Weiss 54).
Marat also did not believe in some slight improvements that took place in the revolutionary times. From his point of view, it was just another insidious plan of the authorities on how to deceive people. Marat calls people not to “be taken in when they pat you paternally on the shoulder” and not to believe politicians when they say there is nothing to worry about (Weiss 55).
It should also be pointed out that all these were not just empty words of Marat. As a real patriot, he was not only ready to talk, but also take necessary actions. Such ideals of Marat characterize him as an idealist and voluntarism advocate, and Weiss puts such words into Marat’s mouth, “Against nature’s silence I use action. In the vast indifference I invent a meaning” (26). At a glance, Marat’s views indeed seem a bit idealistic, but maybe idealists who blindly believe in something are those who actually can make changes.
Now, people might wonder what de Sade thinks about the class conflict, Revolution, struggle? Actually, he shares a lot of Marat’s ideas. He supports the Revolution and quite the same as Marat hates aristocrats, “monstrous representatives of a dying class” (Weiss 46). In the play that he is directing in the asylum, de Sade reveals all the flaws of the Napoleonic France, describes bad conditions in which people live, which is much disliked by the director of the asylum Coulmier.
However, de Sade is not ready for some concrete actions. At least, he is not ready to kill people in order to achieve revolutionary goals. De Sade admits that “I couldn’t bring myself to deliver the prisoners to the hangman” (Weiss 48). Marquis de Sade simply realizes that revenge and revolutionary ideas are only so romantic in his fantasies.
When it comes to the real world, Revolution appeared so bloody and horrible. Marquis de Sade definitely was not ready for “a bath full of blood” and “the bloodbaths still to come” (Weiss 15). He did not want to see thousands of corpses, unlike Marat who was sure that “thousands were still too few” (Weiss 15).
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To sum everything up, both men can be called patriots who cared about the destiny of France and its people. Yet, one of them was strong in his actions, while another one, probably, only in his thought.
Should we blame de Sade of being too weak or should we accuse Marat of being too cruel and bloody? These are not easy questions to answer. On the one hand, Marat’s views can be shared and supported by somebody. At least, it is pretty obvious that only strong intentions and concrete actions can change something. It is also obvious that such events as revolutions cannot go without blood and people’s deaths. Those who are not ready for this should just stay away.
On the other hand, I am sure that a lot of people will agree with Marquis de Sade as well. Humanism and pacifism are not the worst features in person’s character. When de Sade was asked about his tailor who actually in a very brutal way killed a man, the answer was “a gentle cultured man who liked to talk philosophy” (Weiss 32). As for me, it means de Sade simply realized that judging and deciding someone’s destiny is not one his rights. It is God’s privilege.
Life and Death
In Act 1, Scene 12, Marat and de Sade had a conversation about life and death. From my point of view, it was one of the central conversations in the play.
So, once Marat asked Marquis a question concerning the meaning of his writings. De Sade’s explanations of his works ended up into a log speech about life and death. By the way, it seems like in his speech, de Sade contradicts his own beliefs. In the example with his tailor, we can see that de Sade looks like rather a compassionate man.
Yet, in his speech, we see quite a different attitude of de Sade to life and death. He views death as just another aspect of nature, as a pretty normal process that we should not pay so much attention to. He even provides a very detailed example of how nature “a passionless spectator” (Weiss 25) works. De Sade describes an execution very explicitly, meaning that death can be so easy and quick. Just in a couple of minutes, a human life means nothing any more, and nature goes on.
It seems like such words of de Sade sound a bit weird even for Marat who says that de Sade lacks of compassion. De Sade answer was “Compassion is the property of the privileged classes” (Weiss 26). Besides, Marquis is surprised a little with such a reaction of Marat and says that they “both know he is really an extremist” (Weiss 27).
How such attitudes of de Sade to life and death can be explained? The answer is simple. Like Marat was a Revolution extremist, de Sade was an extreme materialist. He believed only in the real body, its pain, even when he described the horrors of the revolutionary events like “women running by, holding in their dripping hands the severed genitals of men” (Weiss 49).
So, whose attitude to life and death is more acceptable or, to be more specific, can be understood? Or, there is even a better question. Who can be called a monster – de Sade with his passionless attitude to death or Marat who was ready to kill hundreds of people in order to achieve his goals?
I think none of them is monster, and positions of both men can be understood. Marquis de Sade is certainly right in his materialism. After all, body is just a capsule, a capsule for our soul and spirit, which can be much stronger. If a body dies, then perhaps it should be this way indeed.
While for somebody Marat can be a monster, and this is why he was killed, I can understand his actions, but do not justify them. It is true that radical changes require radical steps and methods. Yet, can peace, justice, prosperity be built on so much blood and deaths? Marat/Sade can give answers to some philosophical questions, but a lot depends on who reads the play and his/her own worldviews.
Weiss, Peter. The Persecution and Assassination on Jean-Paul Marat as Performed by the Inmates of the Asylum of Charenton Under the Direction of the Marquis de Sade. London: John Calder, 1964.