On Romanticism: Rousseau, Sade And The Resurrection of the Mother Colossus

All mythology commences at cosmogony, the forging of Nature from totalising origins. Man and his grand chronical has generally fathomed two orders of genesis. For the Pagan (polytheistic), he confines everything absolute and sovereign exclusively to Nature and all Her moulding forms, but for the Judeo-Christian (monotheistic), the absolute and sovereign is exclusively confined to the heavens, to Logos. All cosmogonies are thus divided in terms of either being Earth-Cults or Sky-Cults.* For the Pagan, man comes forth from Nature and Her eternal flux. Man is a product of the mother’s seed and substance. There is no decision or independence from Her. No division or severance. What primitive man first realised, in the drama of forms and processes, what vexed and terrified him beyond all imagination, was the inextricable link between mother (mater) and matter. The etymology is no coincidence. The genesis of all life springs forth from the female colossus. Her rhythms and cycles are the rhythms and cycles of Nature. Mother Nature. Earth-Cult is the Cult of Mother. She births and devours all. Woman being simultaneous to Nature was universal; it was the de facto presuppositional default of the pagan thought process. What transcended this mentality was the Western Ethic, the transcendence of Nature to Logos. Tragedy is almost exclusively Western, it is a mass-scale response mechanism to pagan cosmogony; an endeavour to become fully independent from the Mother-Cult, which was the essence of primitive consciousness. She is the bane of the western masculine persona, of his freedom, but the venue of all his dependencies.

The mistreatment of Women in Western Tragedy emerges from Nature’s mistreatment of man. Much of Western women of tragedy exemplifies this deathless will, this immortal spirit to escape the all-encompassing, all enthralling inevitability of matter, of Pagan Mother-Cult. From Euripides’ Madea and Phædra, to Shakespeare’s Cleopatra and Lady Macbeth, the hovering theme ensouled in man is an avoidance complex and the conquering of his male identity; the need to become independent from the ever-so engulfing inevitability of matter, of Mother Nature. Feminine men are the antithesis of Western Tragedy, but the glittering ornaments of Greek pagan lore. For men, in these Western scenes, are always valiant, brave, vanquishing. Women, on the other hand, always less moral than their counterparts, less heroic, less wanton and willed at every moment. Their actions are questionable to underworldly. We need not recount the tales of Lilith, the fables of the Harpies, Sirens, or the Sphinx. Clytemnestra, who like the maidens of Lemnos, murdered her husband. Athæna, the murderess of her son, and Scylla, that of her father. In the lines of Æschylus, the fatal women shine with all the dark splendour of comets, for she has always been fatal in Western Tragedy, she has always been Nature. Medusa, with the vines of the earth as serpents in her hair, never turns women into victims – she feeds the Western male spirit by having exclusively male prey. It is an organic cycle, for we all come from female origins, from the jellies of watery amnion, from the belly of liquid Nature – the impulse has always been into self-identity. It was Œdipus who tried with all might to escape his mother, only to find himself back into her arms. The birth of Western Tragedy, is the birth of the determined masculine soul to escape the pagan consciousness, to finally defeat and transcend Mother Nature. Western Tragedy thus is the fuel by which Man reclaims his independence from the unrelenting womb of the Feminal Earth, from the black gullet that has spat him forth and would digest him anew. For we are all born female. The transition from Earth-Cult to Sky-Cult, from Pagan to Jew, is the transition between Man’s indecipherable dependance on Nature, to his realised independence from Nature. From birth, the male impulse has always been to escape the mother into self-identity – the female doesn’t need to become, because she already is. The book of Genesis marks the first step at this Western process, at Man’s absolute freedom from the overwhelming oblivion that is Mother Nature. For she is the abyss of chaotic balances, the labyrinthine Hortus Conclusus. Reducing the ineffable spirit and form of the Pagan Mother Colossus to but the splinter of Man’s rib was the first proclamation of absolute male autonomy. Mother was Nature but now God is Father. This is the Fons Et Origo of Western Civilisation, the moment at which the transcendence of Nature unfolded and the sovereignty of the individual emerged. ‘Have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over every living thing that moveth upon the earth.’ The birth of individuality from the cast conglomerate of the ceaseless environment results from this Freudian drive, this organic urge away from Mother-Cult – the need to transcend and overcome Nature. As Jane Harrison tells us, ‘Man cannot escape being born of woman, but he will, as soon as he comes to manhood, perform ceremonies of riddance and purgation.’ Arising from this compulsion, we see that all modes of athletics, philosophy, science, art and politics were invented by men, for these are his mechanisms of independence. Man, repelled by his dependence on a physical mother, on the cold voluptuous Earth, has finally conjured a new substituted reality, one of his own making, a heterocosm and its fundamental substrate was the masculine liberated élan vital.

Nobody saw this narrative with such illumination as did Rousseau (1712 – 1778), for he was the great revivalist of the grand Pagan atmosphere, of that Mother Colossus slain by the advent of Man’s new Western heterocosm. Rousseau’s feminine grandeur and piercing emotional wit catalysed the enormity of what came to be called Late Decadent Romanticism, a ceaseless imperative to return back to Mother Nature from the Western long-standing Sky-Cult, from logos. Rousseau was the ultimate androgyne, he effeminised the Western Male anima; he was Castiglione’s courtier, without the vigour or gallantry. Always deserting society for the sybaritic earth, Rousseau ran to Nature with every drop of his blood impassioned and hysterical. This handling of the living world, this seeing the order of things through undivided lucid feminine sensibility is the central animating force behind all Romanticism. For Rousseau, the immediate simultaneous analogue to Nature was Woman, that fallen pagan tutelary of primitive consciousness. His theory of Nature is the theory of Her all-embracing spirit, of man’s complete dependance and subservience to Her. Masochistic dominance and submission are thus inherent in Rousseau; worshipping and capitulating the sum-total of mind and body to the Pagan Earth-Cult is expressed in his Confessions:

‘To fall on my knees before a masterful mistress, to obey her commands, to have to beg for her forgiveness, have been to me the most delicate of pleasures, sometimes I cried out with emotion: ‘O Nature! O my mother!’’

One of the driving impediments of Rousseau’s theory of Nature, was the blind insistence that Nature was good, for there was no Færie Queene in French Romantic Literature to reveal that Nature needed only to blink for all chaos to ensue. Rousseau believed that devoid of Mother-Cult and poisoned by Sky-Cult – of Logos, aggression, violence, and crime become the norm. Hierarchies, for Rousseau, are but only social fictions instantiated and normalised by society, for it is society that is criminal and it is the beneficence of Nature that keeps brute impulses at bay; when social controls increase, man’s animality ruptures forth. Society, for Rousseau, is the toxic asp whose venomous discharge courses through the beating heart of humanity.

Mocking, deriding and scoring at all this, was the Marquis de Sade (1740–1814), a creature of myth, a monster of literary genius and scale. He was the optimum preeminent omen to Rousseau but the shining Saint and Jewel to Voltaire. The silence of his presence from the common curriculum shows the bigotry of the Humanities departments, for he must be squared in all his monstrous glory and no course on Western Literature is complete without his name. Sade is the ultimate satirising antipode to Rousseau, for his arrows of wit and ridicule, dipped in the proto-spirits of Darwin, Neitzsche, and Freud, always struck the centre of Rousseau’s benevolent Madonna. For Sade, violence and sex were the animating principles of the living world, the corrupting forces organically imbued in the psyche of Man, not products of society. Rousseau revives the Great Mother, but Sade reinstates her callous temperament. She is for Sade the demoness Lamashtu, the source of Man’s inbred turpitude.

‘Cruelty is natural,” he says in Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). ‘Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all. The infant breaks his toy, bites his nurse’s breast, strangles his canary long before he is able to reason; cruelty is stamped in animals, in whom, as I think I have said, Nature’s laws are more emphatically to be read than in ourselves; cruelty exists amongst savages, so much nearer to Nature than civilised men are.’

Like Rousseau, Sade is a romantic, he sees Nature as a theatrical continuum of impulses, imagination and pure energy. Sade, coming to terms with the Great Mother Cult, took the elements of Rousseau and only inverted them. Rousseau, following the spirit of Masoch’s ‘In Venus in Furs,’ creates a world of female-dominance, where fleeing society for the all-embracing arms of the macrocosm renders Man pure. Rousseau and Masoch, submitting to ‘the tyranny and cruelty that constitute woman’s essence and her beauty’ are submitting themselves to Nature as the source of goodness in Man.

On the other hand, Sade takes the themes of Lacios’ Les Liaisons dangereuses (1782) to emphasise the corruption of man by Nature. For Rousseau, man is accustomed, for Sade, he is congenital. Sade is the Hobbesian spawn who put the scene of approximate darkness back into the bosom of Earth-Cult, of Mother Nature. Fleeing society for the arms of that Great Colossus leads to the full reign of violence and lust. His 120 days of Sodom is a blistering attack and ridicule of the Rousseauian Romantic narrative and the greatest depiction of genuine Nature ever written. Sex, belonging to the baleful sequence of feral Earth, gives rise to the pleasure-pain ecstasy that has taken both Sade’s and Masoch’s names. In 120 days of Sodom, the prevailing theme is completely saturated by the Sadian-Masochian worldview, but synthesised. This sentiment, in common parlance as sadomasochism, is the life force springing forth from the pages of that infamous text. It is the pleasure-pain euphorias that is Mother Nature, that is man, naked of societal forces and pressures. She is death and she is life. She is both feminine and masculine. Sadomasochism is aggression buffered at one instance and released at another, it thus organically consists of the feminine and the masculine in co-contingent union. This Dionysian-Apollonian spectrum fills Sade’s epic, making it whole. The libertines and nobles of his 120 Days of Sodom together form an amalgam of androgyny, of Nature in its purest form. The Bishop (l’Évêque) and Durcet renounce their masculinity by being libidinally receptive and having feminised physiques. Thérèse and the rest of the libertine women are female sodomites, having rejected their bodies into abject deformity, they have the male taste for murder, sex and decay. This androgynous climate engines the pleasure-pain ecstasies that Sade attempts to show only arises from Man’s innate Nature, what Rousseau falsely attributes to society and its mould. Sade is the Epitome of bonafide Nature, for every path to Rousseau seems to always lead to Sade. These two literary giants mark the polar opposites of the Romantic spectrum, but define the movement in its absolute totality. Both used Nature, that Pagan Mastodon, as the norm, but from the same premise arrived at opposite conclusions. For Sade she was that Great Hobbesian Leviathan, with crimson tooth and claw, but for Rousseau She was that Bounteous Madonna, with floret heart and tenour. The sum-total of these Nature worshipers give rise to all themes, motifs, cliché and truisms baked into Romanticism, from early to Late Decadent. Their influence, polarising but unfluctuating, is patently evident in Baudelaire and Swinburne, Wordsworth and Poe, Blake and Coleridge and so many others. Rousseau and Sade, made manifest and incarnate, are the Romantic Movement, the call back to Dame Natura.

*The term ‘Sky-Cult,’ ‘Earth-Cult’ and ‘Mother-Cult’ are very common terms used in the literature treating and concerning symbols and their processes. It all comes down to the term ‘cult’ itself, which, in the sense used here, has been heavily present in works such as E. Neumann’s 1991, Great Mother: An Analysis of the Archetype, and C. Jung’s 1967, Symbols of transformation: An analysis of the prelude to a case of schizophrenia. 

Both these works in unison have systematised the term ‘cult’ as a signifier for the worshiping ethos of whatever archetype is being analysed. It can be mother, sky, earth, hero, etc. It does not mean the derogatory noun suggesting a locus of religious outcasts, which is the layman’s sentiment and used in common parlance. Other scholars whose works are heavily saturated with this technical lexicon include Harold Bloom, Camille Paglia, Marija Gimbutas, and Carla Antonaccion. This is also the case for some of the ancients, such as Cicero and Hippo. 
Cult in the pages of these scholars has always meant the “outward practise” of whatever is being adorned and valued – whether that be mother, earth, sky, heroes, it’s all the same. ‘Sky-Cult’ is the ‘outward practice’ and ritualising of logos, of the individual sovereign. ‘Mother-Cult’ is the ‘outward practice’ and ritualising of Nature, the collective sovereign. Hero-Cult, for an axillary example, is the ‘outward practice’ and ritualising of mortal/divine offspring and so on and so on.

Andrushka L.

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