Incest, by the Marquis de Sade

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Given the cover (a naked woman of no more than twenty, crouching forward on a pedestal) and title, Incest is not a book for reading on the train; not unless you wish to be the recipient of a few odd looks. But, as they say, never judge a book by its cover. You would be forgiven for thinking that it is a tale of a cruel, forced love by a father unto his daughter, or that as it was penned by the notorious Marquis de Sade, that it is a celebration of incest, complete with plenty of lascivious detail on this taboo. But instead, it is a tale of morals and corruption, with a smattering of philosophy thrown in.

Incest is a short novel, only 87 pages in length. In this case though, size does not matter, rather it’s how you use it. De Sade paints a desperately tragic tale, of a father who abandons his beautiful, angelic wife and totally corrupts his beautiful daughter from birth, with dreadful consequences for all involved. In doing so, the issue is raised of whether the daughter is a willing accomplice or not; despite giving herself willingly to her father, the question exists that was she really willing when she had been raised all her life with this aim in mind? De Sade hints as much in places, and leaves it to the reader to draw their own conclusions.

The question is also raised of what really is a taboo, and whether there really is such a thing in the first place. de Sade raises an interesting point that taboos may be social in their nature when he says “Would not a man have a conscience that never varied? From one end of the earth to another, would not all actions be the same for him? But is that actually the case? No, there is nothing real in the world, nothing which… though unjust here, is not legitimate five hundred leagues away.” Thus, the act of incest is nothing more than natural, that society over time has unjustly demonised. The protagonist even found a biblical precedent to argue the legitimacy of incest, quoting the example of Lot and claiming to hold such great respect for the Holy Scriptures by emulating its heroes. This throws up further interesting ideas regarding the legitimacy of incest and taboos in general.

We also discover smatterings of de Sade’s personality reflected in the characters. Marriage is decried as something done by the stupid or lazy, “You never marry… unless you do not know what you are doing, or what to do with your life.” Religion is also besmirched as something solely designed “to frighten people without ever being of use to them.” The devout suffer equally, devoutness being described as “a weakness that affects particular ages and particular states of health.” Knowing what we do about de Sade, this probably shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone, but it can be of interest, especially with regards to the development of the main characters.

As for the actual cases of incest in Incest, they are handled very tastefully. This may be to help depict incest as a natural form of love, as there are no graphic descriptions or sexual violence involved; rather any mention is presented no differently from a typical love affair in a romance novel. Despite the very nature of the story being shocking to many, the tale itself manages to avoid this for shocks sake. In fact it is a very well constructed story, with only one thing missing. That is regarding a particular incident around two-thirds of the way into the book. This incident could, one imagines, have been stretched decidedly a bit longer than the paragraph or two that were granted to it. But when the main complaint about a novel is that one incident could be lengthened, it is easy to surmise that this is a book that could and should be read.

In summary, Incest is a near-forgotten classic. Published by Hesperus Press (who make a thing out of publishing the unremembered books by noted authors), it should be sought by anyone seeking an intellectual stimulus, or by those seeking curious glances on the busy morning commuter train.