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I. Introduction: Burned by Sade

I’ll wring the truth/Out of those nerves and sinews, groan by groan

— Percy Bysshe Shelley, The Cenci (1819)

James Steintrager’s clever title, “Liberating Sade,” is a double-entendre playing on the way that the Marquis de Sade, author of seemingly-endless passages of rapes, dismemberments, necrophilia, flayings, bestiality, cannibalism, and coprophagia—in short, a visionary in non-consensual and eroticized torture—has paradoxically become an icon of philosophical, political, and sexual freedom.[1] In the twentieth century, and especially since the 1960s, the man imprisoned in the Bastille has stormed the popular and theoretical imagination—securing his literary and cinematic reign either as a “homeopathic” remedy for the blackness of humanity, or as a languishing eighteenth-century heroine in need of rescue. As Steintrager puts it:

Sade, who had penned the Misfortunes of Virtue, quite literally becomes Justine, the character who undergoes one cataclysmic reversal after another and somehow withstands each torture only to move on to the next.

360 my emphasis

In the first case, Sade’s fiction “bring[s] the evil that lurks within us all into the light” (360), forcing us to confront the horrors of genocide and war—the Holocaust or Hiroshima, for example; in the second, the brutality of his work is read biographically as a warning against libidinal and emotional repression.

Both Sades, the sage heroically exhibiting our wickedness and the martyr begging for deliverance, are inadequate caricatures, as I will argue, because they offer utopian fantasies of getting at the truth of human nature by examining the body in pain. In Bataille’s estimation, “Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome [is] the first book to express the true fury which man holds within him and which he has to control and conceal” (108), and is therefore “the only [one] in which the mind of man is shown as it really is” (121-122). By unveiling what Annie Le Brun terms the “potential criminality hidden inside all of us,” Sade unshackles us all from “the sentimental trappings with which men adorn themselves” (73). Above all, his barbarity “teach[es] us a trifle more about ourselves” (Seaver and Wainhouse xxi). Thus Krafft-Ebing’s original sadist rises out of the ashes of his homicidal fantasies as a phoenix of salvation and transcendence; at their worst, his scenes of carnal mayhem “teach us a trifle”; at their best, they free us from the “sentimental trappings” that sanction a saccharine disconnection from reality.

Yet this investment in naming our “true fury” and “potential criminality”—one somehow illuminated by consuming Sade’s anarchic persecutions—produces an impossibly limiting and even naive vision of the psyche. Such a self-loathing insistence on our fundamental “evilness” is not merely essentializing, but does little to make sense of the intersubjective process that occurs when we watch others suffer; nor does it account for the very real ways we manage to transform, if not entirely transcend, individual and collective pain into creativity, intimacy, insight, sophisticated play, and/or beauty. Thus, even Steintrager’s recent corrective to long-standing assumptions about Sade’s pedagogical gift to the world falls short of making sense of our love/hate romance with the deranged writer. If not a demigod with supernatural powers of emancipation, Steintrager believes that “Sade really does have something to teach us [through his] consistent refusal to allow lust to be mistaken for love” (351-52). Yet can this answer satisfy? Were such a “refusal” not the most glaringly obvious motif in the Sadean cosmology, the Marquis can hardly lay claim to a literary or biographical monopoly on the distinction between sexual pleasure and emotional intimacy.

If his hard-core erotica is going to “teach” us about anything, then, we need to revisit the idea that reading Sade is a torture, as most theorists of his work confess: “Short of being insensate, nobody finishes 120 Days of Sodom without becoming ill,” Bataille laments, “and the person who suffers most is the one who is sensually irritated by the reading” (qtd. in Le Brun 13).[2] The impenetrable walls and claustrophobic seclusion of Silling, Sade’s notorious death-palace, mar anyone who dares to enter there, leaving us, in Le Brun’s poetic articulation, with a “huge bruis[e] of the soul” (1). For Bataille, “the cries, the blood and the stench, everything [we read] contributes to our nausea” (121). In these ways, in spite of the author’s purportedly freeing qualities, encounters with 120 Days of Sodom leave readers unbearably conscious of, and even ensnared inside, their own physicality. These powerful somatic and sympathetic identifications with his fiction force a revision of de Beauvoir’s famous question: we must ask not only “must we burn Sade,” but how have we been burned by him—rendered “ill” and “irritated”; our “souls bruised” by the violence we have witnessed? And even more pressing, what are we “sensate” readers supposed to do, exactly, with the unsettling nature of what we have undergone inside the Marquis’ imaginative hell?

In this paper, I will press the issue of where the anguish induced by the torture of experiencing Sade—Bataille’s nausea; Le Brun’s bruise; and our own flinching at mutilated and mangled bodies—goes. I will trace the history of what I am calling tortured sensibility; that is, a problematic refiguration of sympathy that obscures the revolting inconsistency that witnessing the suffering of others both implicates us in that suffering AND allows us to escape our own. In this piece, I want to lay bare and anatomize our quest to unearth what Sade “really does teach us”—to open up and scrutinize that ever-nagging need to foreground morality in what might otherwise be seen merely as a pathological indulgence. The trouble with “liberating Sade,” as well shall see, is that he may not want to be liberated in the first place, or at least not in the ways we might expect. As I will demonstrate, at the heart of the desire for Sade to serve as an ethical salve for the secreted darkness within our consciousness lies the eighteenth-century discourse of sensibility’s insistence on the tortured (often female) body as a readable text that can be made to “confess” its veracity pulsating beneath the skin. This essay delineates the fine line between empathy and the masculinist liberation fantasies present whenever we romanticize Sade—fantasies the author himself is at horrific pains to annihilate.

Moreover, by contextualizing Shakira’s “La Tortura” (2005) within this legacy of tortured sensibility, I will elucidate how the transnational artist taps into a Sadean aesthetics of resistance to eighteenth-century and contemporary figurations of the heart and skin as sites of geopolitical and individual transcendence. In other words, Sade and Shakira slice through an enduring voyeuristic fixation with an ever-elusive “secret”: that psychic authenticity can somehow be extracted through anatomical and scopophiliac violence. In her videos for “La Tortura,” Shakira follows Sade in deflecting Enlightenment epistemologies that terrorize the heart and skin. Looking at the erotic “tortures” of Sade and Shakira side by side, and particularly at how these artists have been positioned as barometers of insight into humanitarian crises and the estranging effects of globalization and colonialism—including the horrors of slavery, The Reign of Terror, the Holocaust, the atrocities of the Iraq conflict, the so-called “enervating”[3] effects of the music industry, and even the most personal disasters of intimacy gone awry—allows us to rethink not only the culture of sensibility, but also the interlocking discourses of race, gender, and sexuality we have inherited from Sade’s Europe, especially from the early sentimental novel.

II. Heart, Skin, and Eye/I

My heart is bent upon having her. And have her I will, though I marry her in the agonies of death—Lovelace, Clarissa

She eyes me like a pisces when I am weak/ I’ve been locked inside your heart-shaped box for weeks/I’ve been drawn into your magnet tar pit trap/I wish I could eat your cancer when you turn back (when you turn black)[4]

Nirvana, “Heart-Shaped Box” (1993)

The elusive “discourse of sensibility” has been intelligently discussed in full-length-studies by R.F. Brissenden, Janet Todd, G.J. Barker-Benfield, Adela Pinch, Ann Jessie Van Sant, Markman Ellis, Claudia L. Johnson, and Jerome McGann, to name a few. In a recent tour-de-force, Christopher C. Nagle captures Sensibility’s intangible contradictions and omnipresence in eighteenth-century life:

Represented as a mode of spontaneity at the same time that it was understood to be cultivated; seen as too excessive and self-indulgent in its pleasures to produce any social good, while serving as the “heart-faith” of its many socially conscious practitioners; reduced in some analyses to a sort of masturbatory self-enclosure doomed to die from nonreproduction, yet serving to stimulate so many myriad forms that it was self-evidently reproductive; simultaneously socially and politically progressive in its desire to bring people together and to establish ties through benevolence and sympathetic attachment, yet equally condemned for being purely indulgent, ameliorative, and inherently conservative, or at least the very least reactionary in addition to reactive”


As a critical apparatus for aesthetics and reading practices, a system of ethics, a muse for moral philosophy, a religious guide, a medical hypothesis of how the nerves and the nervous system experienced its shocks and shivers, an expression of fashion and haute-couture, a concept of sociability and sexual relations, and an artistic movement towards refinement and manners—sensibility permeated the cultural and political landscape. Distilled to its essence, however, sensibility was comprised of theories about how and why we feel for others. In spite of the harshest criticisms, both in its own time and in ours, this discourse and its incongruities continue to pulsate through the heart of our own conversations about empathy—particularly in those surrounding what to do about how Sade makes us feel, and about what he does to the heart itself.

In Reflections on the Novel [1800], the Marquis de Sade praises British novelists for their familiarity with the human heart: “’Tis Richardson, ‘tis Fielding, who have taught us that the profound study of a man’s heart—Nature’s veritable labyrinth—alone can inspire the novelists,” emphasizing that “the most essential requirement for the novelist’s art is most certainly a knowledge of the human heart” (106 and 110, emphasis added). In 120 Days of Sodom, however, such knowledge takes on a sinister edge, as the following spectacle shows:

The 15th. 81. Formerly he used to fuck very youthful mouths and asses; his later improvement consists in snatching out the heart of a living girl, widening the space that organ occupied, fucking the warm hole, replacing the heart in that pool of blood and fuck, sewing up the wound, and leaving the girl to her fate


Cherished as the center of sociability, affective relationships, individuality, and interiority in the eighteenth-century by the very writers Sade commends, the female heart here is “snatched out” from a nameless girl by an anonymous libertine in a calculated procession of massacres, and replaced with meaningless liquidity—a “warm hole”—opened to swallow “a few drops of thin, discolored sperm” (422).[5]

Sade’s anatomical devastation, his “widening the space” where a heart used to be, grotesquely literalizes a desire for novels to reveal the essence of character. In these ways, the dénouement’s tightly-framed vignettes of corporeal torment shatter, with disconcerting precision, the fleshiness at the core of everything recognizable about the discourse of sensibility’s idealizations of the feeling body—the tears, blushes, convulsions, fainting fits and voluminous sighings—that were thought to bring clandestine sentiments to the body’s surface.[6] Yet what could Sade have expected a reader to discern from the lacerated complexion of a still-breathing écorché?

The 14th. 87. A fustigator flays the girl thrice over; he soaks her fourth layer of skin with a devouring escharotic which brings about death accompanied by hideous agonies.


In this “murderous passion,” the skin—so frequently romanticized in Gothic, epistolary, and sentimental fiction for sporting the crimson “confessions” of the heart’s deepest emotions—is thrice sliced and then burned. Rather than a parchment inscribed with meaning, the victim’s flesh, here and elsewhere in Sade’s writing, is inscrutable and mute. Death eradicates lucid correlations between outside and inside, as both are laid bare to the bone—and we find ourselves in a world where, much like Percy Bysshe Shelley’s The Cenci, the afflicted body can no longer tell the truth.

Of course, Sade is not the first to parody expectations for fiction to simulate psychological and physical transparency. The narrator of Tristram Shandy dreams of a “Momus’s glass, in the human breast” through which tourists could have “look'd in [and] view'd the soul stark naked” (65). In reality, Laurence Sterne’s vision of a window to the heart is only partially sardonic since it accurately reflects the literary tradition he and Sade had inherited from Samuel Richardson. Esteemed as a tour-guide par excellence through the heart’s labyrinth, Richardson’s epistolary technique was hailed as just such a glass, and he was likened to a kind of anatomist-voyeur capable of plunging into the depths of women’s hearts and excavating the stuff the overstrained organ was thought to conceal. Women writers, such as Frances Sheridan, reveled in her fellow author’s surgical abandon: “No body, like you … has the art to penetrate into the secrets, and unwind the mazes of the female heart” (Correspondence IV, 162)—a sentiment echoed later by Anna Letitia Barbauld who proclaimed that Richardson’s “business was not only with the human heart, but with the female heart” (Correspondence I, clxii-xxv). At stake in this “art” or “business” of literary scopophilia was nothing less than the aesthetic theorization of the early novel—made clear in debates surrounding authors’ stylistic differences. Take, for example, Samuel Johnson’s harangue against James Boswell’s preference for Henry Fielding: “Sir, there is more knowledge of the heart in one letter of Richardson’s, than in all [of] Tom Jones” (Life 238).

In granting this elite entrée to the breast, however, Richardson incited the very lascivious desires he had aspired, beginning with Pamela, to refine. In spite of efforts to temper readers’ lustful engagement with novels and elevate narrative above the sensationalism of the tales of amorous intrigue popularized by Aphra Behn, the early Eliza Haywood, and Delarivier Manley—all of whom, as William Warner explains, “staged scenes of sexual arousal that are clearly pornographic”—Richardson managed, like his female predecessors, to generate “voyeuristic pleasure for an absorbed reader” (Licensing 217). As Shamela (1741) makes clear, the optimistic printer-turned-author could not avert the seductive slippages between his servant’s imaginary letters and the real eighteenth-century bodies they electrified.[7] If Fielding amplified Richardson’s salacious escapes, Sade’s pornographic exposure of the heart gruesomely destabilized the entire epistolary project at its very core. [8]

Moreover, Sade capitalized on eighteenth-century conflations between the heart and the genitals, hyperbolizing Lovelace’s pathological desire to possess Clarissa’s inner-corporeality—his “heart bent” on having hers—even “in the agonies of death” (1184).[9] Despoiling a “snatched out” vaginal void accentuates how the infamous libertine must “transfer his attentions from [Clarissa’s] genitals to her heart” (Gwilliam 105) in order for Richardson to reestablish the sentimental plot after the rape.[10] In Justine; Ou Les Malheurs de la Vertu (1791), Sade plays up the sentimental novelist’s piercing exploration of the heart—killing his inviolable protagonist with a phallic thunder bolt through the breast at the exact moment she has finally been rescued.[11] Here, Justine’s maddening complicity in her victimization finds none of Pamela Andrews’ rewards. In addition, sentencing Justine—and her heart—to execution via a cosmic rape significantly undermines Clarissa’s spiritual proclivities, and reinforces the arbitrary cruelty of an author-god-creator who sexually violates his heroine, forces her to expire of a broken heart, and then subjects that organ’s fleshy remains to her rapist-lover’s fetishistic enjoyment: upon her death, Lovelace boasts to Belford, “But her heart, to which I have such unquestionable pretensions, which once I had so large a share, and which I will prize above my own, I will have. I will keep it in spirits. It shall never be out of my sight.” (1384). The haste to get his hands and eyes on his “prize”—“I will have possession of her dear heart this very night” (1384)—bestows a prophetic quality on Clarissa’s chilling dream earlier in the novel: “[Lovelace] stabbed me to the heart, and then tumbled me into a deep grave ready dug, among two or three half-dissolved carcasses” (342). More striking, Lovelace’s sadomasochistic pursuit of Clarissa’s quadrivial-chambered catacomb parallels what sentimental readers would have considered their own “unquestionable pretensions” to the glistening viscera of their most venerated protagonists. Inadvertently or otherwise, Richardson embellishes and irradiates sensibility’s insidious epistemological crusade.

Through the desecration of his female characters’ hearts, therefore, Sade transmogrified Sterne’s “Momus’s glass” into a funhouse mirror and duplicated, albeit by means of blasphemous distortion, the prurient appeal of Richardson’s heart-pierced ladies—their taunted purity; their love-sick ravings; their near-nakedness tantalizingly miniaturized through key-holes; their arms held down against their will; their drugged, fainting, frenzied, phlebotomized, and even lifeless bodies—served up like aphrodisiacs to be devoured.[12] For obvious reasons, it is tempting to classify Sade as an obscene parodist only; to write off his collection of defenseless (feminized) bodies as a mockery of Richardson’s infatuated gaze masquerading as a moral imperative. Yet to do so is to miss everything the Romantic pornographer got right about the eighteenth-century sentimentalist: namely, a substantiation of the fact that reading is an intersubjective process, the pains and pleasures of which inevitably write themselves across the reader’s body. What’s at stake in Sade, or at least in our appropriation of him as a discloser of “secrets”—is nothing less than a re-theorization of sympathetic identification, one that accounts for the many ways that representation can take over and forever alter the viewer-reader, in body and mind.

Take Sade’s request, for example, that we seriously consider the affective power of Richardson”s aesthetics:

Imagine for a moment: if the immortal Richardson, after twelve or fifteen volumes, had virtuously concluded by converting Lovelace, and by having him peacefully marry Clarissa, would the reader, when the novel was thus turned round, have shed the delightful tears it now wrings from the every sensitive soul?


Anyone well-versed in Sade’s orgies—with their improbable theatrics and impossible arrangements—might laugh at this claim and feasibly interpret Reflections as a satire of Richardson and the period’s confidence in literature to inspire moral, philosophical, or theological refinement. Virtue, benevolence, altruism, religious and familial devotion—all of these depended on a complex appropriation of characters and stories—to transgress the imaginative gap between reality and fiction. The goal of Romance, in Clara Reeve’s formulation, is to stimulate the sympathetic nervous system into a suspension of disbelief:

…the perfection of [sympathy], is to represent every scene, in so natural and easy a manner, to make them appear so probable, as to deceive us into a persuasion (at least while we are reading) that all is real, until we are affected by the joys or distresses, of the persons in the story, as if they were are own”.


As for the first part of Reeve’s equation, Sade seems to enjoy botching it in every possible way. In his thousands of pages of écriture, he never adheres to his own pronouncement that novelistic endings should fulfill “the requirements of verisimilitude” (112). In spite of this obvious incongruity, however, the French aristocrat appreciates how Richardson has mastered her second requirement of emotional “persuasion,” and accurately retrodicts how and why a sweetened conclusion would have forestalled the bittersweet responses of Clarissa’s devotees. Lady Bradshaigh, for one, a beloved correspondent of Richardson’s, dispatched a frantic letter beseeching her friend to amend her adored heroine’s fate the instant she predicted her impending doom. When the recalcitrant author refused to close his story advantageously by marrying Clarissa to the reformed and repentant Lovelace, Lady Bradshaigh chastised him for his barbaric treatment of his protagonist, as well as for a lack of sympathy towardsher. She expostulates:

I verily believe I have shed a pint of tears, and my heart is still bursting … Had you seen me, I surely should have moved your pity. When alone, in agonies I would lay down the book, take it up again, walk about the room, let fall a flood of tears, wipe my eyes, read again perhaps not three lines, throw away the book, crying out excuse me, good Mr. Richardson, I cannot go on; it is your fault, you have done more than I can bare.”

IV 240-41

Her conflation of fictive death and real-life release is remarkable, expressly because Lady Braidshaigh's salty-sweet cascading gush—her “flood of tears”—metonymically connotes la petite mort, her orgasmic response a rapturous “heart-bursting” surrender to ecstatic grief. If sensibility’s aim is “to please, instruct, and come alive contagiously for its readers” (Nagle 5), then, in a Humean sense, Lady B “catches” the novel’s gratifying and pathetic strains. She then assumes, in a visceral way, the protagonist’s unheeded pleas for mercy; and finally reprimands the author in absentia for wronging both the character and herself. Lady Bradshaigh participates in Reeve’s ideal sentimental scenario, willingly colliding with the broken world inside the novel. Entirely under Richardson’s spell, and (in)voluntarily pressed to the boundaries of what she can tolerate emotionally, Lady Bradshaigh falls into a lachrymose stupor, a common extravagance of the period: “Grief, combining pain and the relief of being alive, was one of sensibility’s most frequent indulgences” (Barker-Benfield 223).

In 120 Days, Sade emulates Richardson, exercising comparable authorial command over his readers’ bodily outpourings. For the king of pain, this means alchemically transmuting the “delightful tears” of “sensitive souls” into the sexual fluids of forced orgasm. The narrator menaces:

friend-reader, you must prepare your heart and your mind for the most impure tale that has ever been told … Many of the[se] extravagances … will doubtless displease you …. but there are a few which will warm you to the point of costing you some fuck, and that, reader, is all we ask of you.


Appealing to a spermatic and/or ejaculatory economy of climactic surrender, Sade stretches the unspoken contract between the sentimental reader and writer to its logical conclusion. The confidence that his depictions of abject horror will push us over the edge is less a reflection on humanity’s clandestine love of torture (Sade realizes that we will inevitably be “displeased”), than a boisterous assertion of the narrator’s mastery over our erogenous susceptibilities—a promise, a threat, really, to get us off in spite of our deepest resistances. Set against sensibility’s obsession with the heart and skin, Sade’s unifying principle of “preparing the heart” to be manipulated into losing control, of being taken over and made to take it, produces a radical disintegration of normative fantasies of bodily autonomy. In Undoing Gender, Judith Butler fleshes out the ways in which the skin is a symbol of political and personal fragility:

The body implies mortality, vulnerability, agency: the skin and the flesh expose us to the gaze of others, and also to touch and to violence. The body can be the agent and instrument of all of these, or the site where “doing” and “being done to” become equivocal. Although we struggle for rights over our own bodies, the very bodies for which we struggle are not quite ever only our own.


Although Butler is addressing tensions surrounding intersexuality and transgendered subjectivities, she effectively revitalizes David Hume’s philosophy of feelings as contagious, and consequently gives a voice to the precariousness of entangling ourselves with others, even if such affective syntheses are crucial for a meaningful existence. Hence, while the modern day consumer of Richardson is unlikely to be thus stricken when Clarissa dies, Lady Bradshaigh epitomizes Judith Butler’s poignant articulation of what it means to be “beside oneself” with mourning:

If we ... return to the problem of grief, to those moments in which one undergoes something outside of one’s control, and finds that one is beside oneself, not at one with oneself, then we can say that grief contains within it the possibility of apprehending the sociality of embodied life, the ways in which we are from the start, and by virtue of being a bodily being, already given over, beyond ourselves, implicated in lives that are not our own.


In these ways, impassioned reactions to Clarissa (Lady Bradshaigh’s was only one of many) persuasively illustrate how Butler’s collapsing of boundaries works with both imaginary and actual bodies. Lord Braidshaigh, whom Lady Braidshaigh likens to Belford agonizing over Clarissa, experiences his wife’s shocks and disappointments, and implores her, “for God’s sake,” to abandon the book! But on she goes until she is quite undone:

I am grateful the heavy task is over; tho’ the effects are not …. My spirits are strangely seized; my sleep disturbed; waking in the night, I burst into a passion of crying; so I did at breakfast this morning, and just now again.


The traumas of Richardson’s characters literally cannot be contained within the novel’s tear-stained pages. In compelling ways, then, Lady Bradshaigh’s wild paroxysms and her husband’s emphatic “for God’s sake” evocatively link Sade, Richardson, and Butler—all of whom reach the same profound conclusion: that the pain of the other is always-already ours; that instead of liberating us, representational voyeurism transfers that pain palpably onto our bodies; and finally, because that pain has to go somewhere, we, as reader-voyeurs, must cope with it somehow. Perhaps it is not surprising that Judith Butler, with her stunning veneration of interconnectedness, is the only theorist who has ever brought me to tears.

Lady Bradshaigh “shedding a pint of tears” for Clarissa. Lord Bradshaigh fretting over his spouse. Butler advocating for those condemned to sexual identities without “possibility” (29). My weeping with Butler. The limitless occasions in which compassion carries us “beyond ourselves”. All of these spontaneous outbursts of empathy set the stage to reevaluate the bruises and illnesses Sade causes. To this end, I propose grafting Butler’s impression of our skin as “the site where ‘doing’ and ‘being done to’ become equivocal” onto critical accounts of the Sadean touch—of the author’s eerie propensity to sear and engrave us—to create a second-skin theory of mimesis that magnifies the dilemma at the heart of tortured sensibility. On one hand, Sade-induced sicknesses bear a disconcerting resemblance to eighteenth-century abolitionism in which British subjects—staring at something like Stedman’s eroticized portrayals of slave life, in Marcus Wood’s words—were encouraged to see “the real victim as Stedman, because of his painful susceptibility to emotional empathy. It is not the black who feels the death pangs, but Stedman himself” (98). Clearly, feeling disgusted at Sade is problematic if we use sympathy, as Mary Favret suggests, to echo how the anti-slavery movement wrote pornography: that is, to free ourselves by eroticizing the chains of others. On the other hand, there is a devastating urgency to the queasiness aesthetic torture produces—one that seizes and inspires us to try to lessen suffering in the real world. The challenge lies in bridging the imaginative gap between cloying commiseration—the kind of condescending, detached attitude mocked by William Blake: “Pity would be no more/ If we did not make somebody Poor”—and more conscientious, empathetic attempts to intervene in, and moderate, the pain of other people and animals.

Highly aware of this quandary, Sade purposefully thrusts us into its baffling complexities. His emphasis on the “bottomless superficiality” beneath the skin—one that he hopes will “shatter the limits,” in Marcel Hénaff words, of a sentimentalized interiority—only reanimates the desire for bodily and emotional coherence. When readers arrive at a dead-end of “more surfaces,” wherein bodies turned inside out still resemble empty signifiers, they are left to turn their gaze inward to try to recover what they had hoped to find by observing persecuted flesh from afar: a mystery brought to view via the pen-knife. Paradoxically, it is by estranging the emoting body from any possible signification; by peeling the skin ad nauseam; and in repeatedly emptying out the over-invested heart as the object of sensibility’s libidinal fascination, that Sade exposes sensibility’s legibility as hollow. As 120 Days eviscerates the living, it simultaneously deconstructs the very notion of latent textual meanings. As Marcel Hénaff explains:

Once exposed […] the bodies and organs [throughout Sade’s oeuvre] offer still more surfaces, obscenely exhibited—exhibited that is, in an unmediated nakedness, a bottomless superficiality.[13]


In turn, to avoid the existential crises engendered by an endlessly unfolding exterior, scholars understandably reinscribe the “missing” meaning onto their own bodies, specifically onto their skin. We can see this transference in Bataille’s notion that “however slender the human element in [120 Days], it strikes us like a blasphemy; whatever there is that is precious and holy, it appears to us like a skin disease, marking all that we hold most sacred and most dear.” (121, 81). “Marked” on a collective flesh, present-day consumers of Sade are all-too-willingly flayed by his sadistic rhetoric because, in stripping us of a protective ideological casing, Sade is believed to leave us raw and bleeding for our own good—so that we can rise above the flesh. The problem, of course, is that these intersubjective moments have to be imagined. There is a deep fissure between what Sade the man does, or has done to him, by real people with actual whips, candle-wax, or other implements of torture; between what Sade the author does to his characters; and between what both the man and the author do with words to their reader-victims. In trying to burn our skin to escape it, we simply repeat eighteenth-century models of sympathy wherein torture continues to be the ground of sensibility without seeming to violate the goals of sensibility.

Extricating ourselves from this Sadean predicament is a matter of surrendering, in the way the narrator of 120 Days would like us to, and consenting to the impracticality of “escaping the consciousness of our flesh”—as Simone de Beauvoir avows:

Sade needed deviations to give to his sexuality a meaning which lurked in it without ever managing to achieve fulfillment, an escape from consciousness of his flesh, and understanding of the other person as consciousness through the flesh. Normally, it is as a result of the vertigo of the other made flesh that one is spellbound within one’s own flesh.

Burn 22

As an attempt at meaning-making, algophilia ricochets us outside of and then back into our own skin—so that we must slice ourselves to bits and then resuture our wounds. Ultimately, scholars who regard the Sadean experience as a release from suffering are actually reenacting the self-mortification rituals de Beauvoir attributes to the Marquis:

If the aim is both to escape from one’s self and to discover the reality of other existences, there is yet another way open: to have one’s flesh mortified. Sade is quite aware of this. When he used the cat-o-nine tails and the switch in Marseilles, it was not only to whip others with, but also to be whipped himself. All of his heroes happily submit to flagellation.

Burn 23

What Sade finally teaches us, if we concur with de Beauvoir—that “every person is imprisoned in his own skin” (61)—means there is no way out of pain, not out of our own or anyone else’s. Instead, we must use our skin/bodies to reify or convert its subcutaneous energy—a fairly doubtful feat if all we presume to locate beneath the fleshy veils of Sadean darkness is the truth of our stagnant and stagnating malevolence.

In her video “La Tortura,” to which I will soon return, the Columbian-born singer Shakira Isabel Mebarak Ripoll resists the invasion of her heart’s “every fold” as a viable way of coming to terms with erotic loss. Since the debut of her platinum album, Laundry Service (2001), the self-proclaimed “rockera” has been an international sensation, alternately censured and acclaimed by critics for her ambition to “conquer the world”. María Elena Cepeda discusses how the “The Latina of Lebanese decent” has been suspiciously regarded in a post-9/11 US for her associations with her “terrorist” origins: her cosmopolitan successes—labeled as “Latino and Middle Eastern ‘invasions’”—have been viewed as “a significant … threat to the ‘mainstream American’ way of life” (“Latina Hips” 239). In these ways, Shakira’s sexuality and public persona are examined for the alleged wisdom they offer into transnational and geopolitical catastrophes, and the artist—mostly reduced to a spectacular body—has been subject to significant critical flayings as a result. In her follow-up albums, Oral Fixation Volumes 1 & 2 (2006), as I will show, Shakira emulates Sade in interrogating the spectatorial politics of bereavement. Reclaiming her domestic pain from global liberation fantasies hyper-present in Sade’s Europe, contemporary pornography, and the music industry—Shakira revitalizes the heart and skin as sites to work through her own trauma, and reminds viewers of the intersubjective nature of tortured sensibility.

III. Onions, Grease, Tears and Hips: Shakira’s Torture

If I say my heart is sore/sounds like a cheap metaphor/I won’t repeat it no more

—Shakira, “Poem to a Horse” (2005)

In the original “La Tortura”— —and the remix— —both directed by Michael Haussman, Shakira performs a duet with Alejandro Sanz, both of whom are mourning their broken relationship. After having cheated on her, he struggles to woo her back, while she agonizes to reclaim her separate identity and move on. The two versions of the song double and extend the cathartic process, giving the artist ample space to make a production of—and to work through—her torture in love. In the opening shots of the first video, the viewer watches Sanz, playing her ex, as he watches Shakira walk down the street, enter her apartment, take off her clothes, and begin to cry. Here Shakira and Haussman create a clichéd scene of masculine scopophilia, aligning the viewer with Sanz’s gaze to eroticize her grief from a distance. Although the other woman is still lying in his bed, Sanz is hypnotized by Shakira’s despondent sensuality as he savors her parted legs and private tears from afar. As voyeuristic framing devices that recall Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954), the curtains, slatted windows, and soft-core strip tease encourage Sanz and us to (mis)read her bodily effusions as visible proof of his power over her—of his absence made present on her tear-stained cheeks. [14] But when the camera pans over and tilts down on our modern heroine in distress, a partially-chopped onion mocks our previous assumptions about the source of her weeping, and Shakira surprises us with a playful subversion of literary, artistic, and cinematic conventions of distraught femininity.[15] Historically, female subjects forsaken by their lovers are fundamental to the mythos of tortured sensibility because, concomitantly innocent and experienced, they activate desire and pity in a way that augments fictions of masculine supremacy and autonomy. Intercourse, the trite story goes, touches a woman internally and eternally, leaving her permanently open to the eye/I both of the man who penetrated her (a figure, ironically, who is no longer there, but haunts her from afar) AND of a public who turns her body into a site of eroticized communal mourning and didacticism.

Figure 1

Jean-Baptiste Greuze (French, 1725-1805), A Girl with a Dead Canary (1765). Oil on canvas, Oval: 53.30 x 46.00 cm (framed: 79.00 x 71.30 x 10.00 cm).

Edinburgh: National Gallery, Scotland

-> See the list of figures

In these ways, Sanz’s captivated stare recalls the kind of fixation behind Diderot’s obsession with Jean-Baptist Greuze’s Young Girl Mourning her Dead Bird: “Her pain is profound, she feels her misfortune fully, she is entirely absorbed by it … Delicious! … Delicious! Delicious!” (179). Mary Sheriff rightly suggests that Diderot’s enchantment with the young woman’s sexual fall demonstrates how often “sympathy slides into seduction” (221) in eighteenth-century France.[16] Yet such tropes of ruined beauty and sexed-up heartbreak are ubiquitous, then and now. As a case in point, “We Belong Together” (2005)——features a lingerie-adorned Mariah Carey “coping” with amatory abandonment by lolling in satin sheets, brushing her hair, pouting at her vanity mirror, almost marrying someone else, and begging for her sweetheart’s return. In essence, in her uncomplicated performance of titivated neglect, Carey offers a modernized adaptation of Greuze’s figure—a woman “entirely absorbed by her misfortune”—whose body is never quite her own. Conversely, Shakira refuses to give up her real grief to Sanz. Enigmatic and coy, those basal tears say one thing, while her mouth swears another: “yo no voy a llorar por ti” (“I’m not going to cry for you”). Through the displacement of her somatic secretions onto an onion—or an onion-heart, in this instance—the pop star mischievously sabotages the potential for her romantic calamity to become nothing more than someone else’s “delicious” optical indulgence.

I am in no way suggesting that Shakira is loath to make a spectacle of her sexuality. Obviously, her lips, hips, and gorgeousness dazzle aficionados across the world. But those same assets also wreak havoc on the gendered spectatorial politics at play in the history of tortured sensibility. If the culinary act of dicing an onion with a phallic knife affirms Shakira’s depth and layers, verifying to us/Sanz that her heart-of-hearts cannot be deciphered merely by appearance alone, it also turns the fixated logic of libertine detachment and Enlightenment curiosity—or what poet Suji Kwock Kim terms “the veil of the eye”—back on itself. In Kim’s “Monologue for an Onion,” the speaker proclaims herself “pure onion” to defend against an “idiot”—“a stopless knife” on an endless quest for the “heart of things”—from gouging her “skins”:[17] With uncanny parallels to Sade and to each other, and armed with onion-rapiers that sting the eyes and cloud our vision, “Monologue for an Onion” and “La Tortura” peel away at the sort of fetishistic impulses evident in sensibility’s “fantasy of truth”—a pipedream driving Enlightenment philosophy, early anatomical exploration, the obstetric takeover of the art of midwifery, the epistolary genre’s frenetic lust for the fleshy folds of the (female) heart, and the pornographic imagination’s compulsive preoccupation with the money shot, to name a few. Like Clarissa before her, who similarly denies her lover the unadulterated access to her body that he seems to live for, Shakira here “learns to thwart the workings of the Lovelacian gaze” (Conway 101), hence vanquishing any phantasms of sexual difference—the “secrets” of an embodied heart and skin. Shakira seems almost conscious of employing the symbolic qualities of the allium cepa to confront, in Zizek’s terms, “the panic that seizes the (male) subject [which] … expresses a dread that behind the many masks, which fall away from each other like the layers of an onion, there is nothing, no feminine secret” (151). Nodding subversively at Sanz (3:31-3:37)—a gesture that reproduces Kim’s “union of outside and in, surface and secret core”—Shakira simultaneously perplexes and connects with her voyeur. Consequently, this love-bruised woman pulls off a trompe-l'oeil roughly the modern equivalent of the young girl in Greuze’s portrait glancing up and winking at Diderot.

Meanwhile, Sanz finds himself in a similar position as the addressee in “Monologue for an Onion”: he is now “the one in pieces” with “A core that is/Not one”: he wants to atone and admits, “Y hoy sé que es tuyo mi corazón” (now I know my heart is yours). His torture validates Butler’s aching sense of being “beside oneself” since in human relationships, all parties are subject to the agony of loss, regardless of gender. Moreover, Shakira’s onion-heart shows the gendered limitations behind de Beauvoir’s reasoning that “For the woman, the absence of her lover is always torture; he is an eye, a judge … away from him, she is dispossessed, at once of herself and of the world” (SecondSex 657)[18].

Innovative and savvy in expressing her self-possession rather the dispossession, Shakira, like Sade, queers the spectatorial politics of pain, even in a heteronormative context, by accentuating the frailties of the male body. This is nowhere more apparent than in “Don’t Bother”——a tale of sophisticated revenge. Since her partner is leaving her for a woman he has irrationally idealized—“She’s got the kind of looks/that defy gravity”—Shakira directs her wrath towards his 1967 Ford Mustang Shelby GT 500. As a stand-in for his phallic masculinity and the body that betrayed her, she gyrates against the front seat (1:05-1:27), and then demolishes the entire car, melding metal and flesh to achieve a voodoo-esque torture as he writhes in his sleep. We might pathologize Shakira’s melodramatic good-bye: figuratively “having sex” with, and then crushing, an iconic automobile that represents her boyfriend appears juvenile at worst, gratuitous and ultimately unsatisfying at best. But this compressed Mustang, a prized possession that comes to possess its owner, reassures us that, even if unconscious of the torture he is inflicting, her soon-to-be ex cannot walk away unscathed and marry someone else: “the ring you gave to her /will lose its shine”. She hides her tears from his view—“So don’t bother/ I won’t die of deception/ I promise you won’t ever see me cry”—and fashions his body into a site of psychosomatic legibility instead.

Shakira’s tautological refusal to weep in front of her lovers becomes particularly fascinating when we compare “La Tortura” to “No,” directed by Jaume de Laiguana——wherein a desolate Shakira stares and cries straight into the camera. Inside an abandoned shipping yard—surrounded by water, industrialized materials, and an antique railway cart that goes nowhere—Shakira thwarts the poisonous aftermath of failed intimacy and betrayal: “No se puede vivir con tanto veneno” (It’s not possible to live with so much venom). Throughout her requiem for love’s labors lost, she stitches herself a pair butterfly wings—etymological and mythical expressions of the Greek Psyche and soul—and wraps herself up in her voluptuous woe like a cocoon, ready to take flight in the final scene. Although Shakira’s first-person narrative addresses her beau directly, the glamorized isolation imbues the setting with a sense of aloneness, highlighting the therapeutic effects of independent metamorphosis. “No,” and its pensive black and white exposé of recovery and triumph, complicates her otherwise stoic denunciations of the lachrymose. In their totality, Shakira’s elegies reserve tears for active mourning, leaving us to contemplate the fortitude it may have taken to transform depression into merriment by way of an onion in “La Tortura”. Perhaps Sade would be able to empathize with such a dramatic transformation, having spilled “tears of blood” over the loss of his own beloved manuscript.[19]

* * * *

In the remix, Shakira gets down and dirty with her pain again, and goes to battle for herself—a self embedded in metaphors of the skin and darkness that stage the tension between imprisonment and autonomy, self and other. Maria Elena Cepeda reads “La Tortura” as “a transnational, pan-Carribean, and female-centered performance … that provides a literal and figurative retracing of (im)migration routes and transnational exchanges” (246). Through a racialized and sexualized performance of scarification and primitivism, Shakira complicates cinematic figurations of desire wherein, as Claudia Benthien explains, “the coding of femaleness takes place on the skin, that of maleness, under the skin” (87). As I will demonstrate, Shakira uses black grease paint to take to task what Benthien argues is a double-standard in symbolic flaying: “the skinless body as a positive image in Western culture is still radically masculine [because] the male subject can, as the ultimate liberation fantasy, free itself from its skin, while the female subject remains bound in it” (94).

Women musicians are often “bound” to their skin, of course—their bare flesh set off against the hoodies and sunglasses that cloak their male counterparts. Yet is it enough to simply turn the tables around? Music critics Beauty Bragg and Pancho McFarland are justifiably skeptical of the way Chicana rappers’ employ “hypermasculine metaphors such as soldier, warrior, war and battles” since their implicit violence “calls into question the ability of rap and hip-hop to function as a truly liberating art form and culture” (10).[20] But in this case, Shakira’s black battle armor not only deflects the gaze of an unfaithful lover, but protects her against critics of Laundry Service, her first enormously successful cross-over album. Reducing the global musician to “an oriental Barbie” who is “lacking in moral sense [and] excessively sensual and promiscuous,” for instance, Adel Iskandar attacks her skin and heart as locations of geopolitical disguise and sexual trickery: Shakira’s “subalterity … is camouflaged under a thick skin of misplaced empowerment techniques” which underscore “her half-hearted attempt to represent gendered emancipation” (11 emphasis added). For Iskandar, Shakira—her media persona as a powerful latina—is a blank surface he loathes but desperately wants to inscribe and interpret: “The challenge … is the deciphering of the illusion of agency and the illumination of the imperialist logic behind it” (5). Iskandar is clueless to the fact that any insistence on her “illusory” presence transparently belies a desire to use her as a means of escaping the exact sexist colonialist discourse he employs against her. Iskandar’s patronizing stance aims to silence an artist MTV celebrates as “one of Latin music's most ambitiously poetic lyricists”. In Cynthia Fuchs’ estimation, “the strangeness [of her lyrics] is not so much inelegant as it is weird and endearing, making profound sense” (176). Iskandar only looks at Shakira, not listening to a single word she sings. He misses everything she says.

Bathing in a viscous liquidity—one that drips through her fingers like the blood of crucifixion, yet functions like armor on the body—places her strategically in between ideas of female sacrifice and masculine invulnerability since for Bentien, “armored skin … [evokes] a narcissistic male fantasy of an invulnerable, impenetrable, phallic body”; especially because pigmentation itself can be “a psychological defense that protects a person from the gaze into the inner essence” (Benthien 136, 175). Shakira smears a battle mask on her not-so-blushing cheeks, intimating tribal markings and the intentional scarification practices of “primitive” cultures, as well as eighteenth-century medical therapies that irritated the skin—including the use of leeches, harsh chemicals, and cauterizing—to purge internal illnesses.[21]

Sade’s fantasies and real-life historical pornographies of violence against women and slaves have been demonstrated through the blush and flaying—two tropes Shakira is a pains to undo by blackening her face: “In libertine works of the eighteenth century, flagellant erotica tended to emphasize the blush of blood below the skin … but when flagellation entered the realm of slavery, the blush disappeared … and fascination turned to the flayed skin itself” (Favret 22). Perhaps it is for this reason that in the Sadean system, perfect skin is a liability, predisposed to the exacting and scrutinizing ravages of the meat-market or the slave trade, wherein suppleness and health turn bodies into commodities to be devoured. Diseased, rotting flesh, sported proudly by nearly every libertine in 120 Days, often distinguishes between victimizers and victims. Flawlessness is the role of the helpless, as this excerpt shows:

…[a female libertine] lifted the girl’s skirts from behind, so as to expose her buttocks to the group; this was the first thing it wished to examine. The slightest defect in this part was grounds for immediate rejection; … from one of our libertines to the other, she was turned about, she was handled, they sniffed, they spread, they peeped, they examined the state of the goods….


The four foul “ladies in waiting”—whose buttocks, mouths, and vaginas are rank “receptacles of every horror” (234) marred by abscesses, wounds, and chancres—are among the few women at Silling who are there by choice. According to the narrator, “beauty belongs to the sphere of the simple, the ordinary, whilst ugliness is something extraordinary (233)—a shield.

In these productions, Shakira bulletproofs her radiant skin and naturally pink hues. Blackness seals her skin off from being easily read, and hence negotiates, without entirely surrendering, her “torture” to the viewer’s desire to escape from the “sentimental trappings” of a false identification with a victim of heartbreak. In doing so, the diva radically displaces the erotic “secret” of feminine pain and learns from Sade to reveal masculine liberation fantasies—ones that occur at the cost of injured flesh and extracted hearts—as façades or faux surfaces that endlessly unfold to oblivion. Shakira’s hips may not lie, but neither are they encrypted with a “secret” truth about the pangs of intimacy that will allow us to circumvent them. If we feel Shakira’s pain as she dances in her very tormented way, it is because we have endured something very similar ourselves. From her, as well as from Sade, we just might learn to see our scars of the heart and skin in a new and vividly alternative light.