In the Maquis de Sade’s short story, “The Lady of the Manor of Longeville, or a Lady’s Revenge,” there is a particularly unsettling scene in which the aristocratic Lord of the manor, upon discovering that his 26 year-old wife is having an affair with an eighteen year-old miller, bids Clodomir (the head cook of his kitchen) to rid him of the young peasant:
‘Clodomir,’ said he one day to his head cook, ‘I want you and the rest of the kitchen staff to rid me of a vassal who is fouling Madame’s bed.’
Imagine what it would be like to, out of the blue, receive instructions from one’s superior to do away with a man.
Why would Clodomir, a man not of independent means (for he is, afterall, just a cook) wish to do the bidding of his rich and pampered employer, and against a man like himself, someone from the servant classes of the poor?
One would think that Clodomir would at least have some ambivalence about the request, but to the contrary, Sade depicts Clodomir as enthusiastically, well, sadistic, creatively going beyond what is minimally required of him:
‘At once, your Lordship,’ replied Clodomir. We’ll slit his throat if you like and serve him up trussed like a sucking pig.’
‘No, nothing like that,’ said Monsieur de Longeville. ‘It will suffice to put him in a sack with some stones and drop the sack and him with it into the moat.’
‘It shall be done.’
The military-like efficiency and obedience of Clodomir is troubling, to say the least, and can lead to a number of inferences about his character, such as this one:
- Clodomir is a social conformist, without class-consciousness, and a “yes man”—which may account for his rise in the manor to head cook. The Lord of the manor knows this, and must also know of Clodomir’s competence, and that he will, without question, efficiently carry out any deeds requested of him.
Clodomir, in other words, has thoroughly internalized his own exploitation and oppression, and sides with his exploiter and oppressor in all things.
It follows that he thus has no compunction about putting a poor miller in a sack and drowning him for his employer.
It should be noted that Sade came from an aristocratic family and that this story is being written just prior to the French Revolution, and so the irony of a working man complicitous in his own oppression, and the oppression of men like himself, would likely not have been lost on Sade’s readers.
A similarly obedient and conformist character appears in Herman Melville’s better known short story, “Bartleby the Scrivener.” In that story Bartleby, who is passively resisting his Wall Street employer’s demands with his famous and disorienting response, “I prefer not to,” arouses the resentment of his fellow scriveners, particularly Turkey, who offers, on behalf of his employer, to beat up Bartleby:
Turkey sat glowing like a brass boiler; his bald head steaming; his hands reeling among his blotted papers.
‘Think of it,’ roared Turkey; ‘I think I’ll just step behind his screen, and black his eyes for him!’
These two stories—both Sade’s and Melville’s—raise issues surrounding responsibility, complicity, and participation in acts of injustice.
If the employers in these two stories are responsible for the tragic fate of those below them in the social hierarchy, there are others who have internalized obedience to authority, and do not question orders given to them, or the way things are, and so become complicitous and participatory in unjust structures and actions.
One cannot help but think of a contemporary example: the relationship of George Bush, who authorized torture at Abu Ghraib, to Lindy England, who followed his authorizations:
George Bush was responsible; Lindy England was participatory; and the rest of us have been largely complicitious.