REVIEW: Anti-Justine by Nicolas-Edme Rétif

Inspired by the presumed poison of De Sade’s violent and licentious masterworks ‘Justine’ and ‘Juliette’, Nicolas-Edme Rétif (also known as Rétif de la Bretonne) wrote this antidote; a work which morally defends the debauchery therein graphically depicted and shows us that even the most libidinous of lifestyles can have a happy ending.

Enter Cupidonnet and Madeline; siblings with a singular passion for all manner of deed and device. Amongst maids, Marquesses, Lords, and lawyers, the pair will seek pleasures unparalleled and spend profusely therefrom. Front and back, all will saviour the forbidden delights that draw those of like demeanour.

Warnings: noncon, dubcon, coercion, incest, underage sex

Category: M/F

Anti-Justine is, interestingly, a work that functions as a response to a previous work. Rétif was writing specifically as a form of protest against the seven years earlier work Justine by the Marquis de Sade. Justine is not merely an erotic novel, but a philosophical novel that delves into de Sade’s views on morality and ethics. Rétif found these musings to be quite offensive, as well as the overly violent content of the book, and endeavoured to write his own novel as he was concerned that reading Justine would cause men to become violent and abusive in turn. Thus, Anti-Justine is a novel exploring libertinage from a softer, though no less sexually indulgent, viewpoint.

Much like Justine, the prose is of course quite archaic to a modern reader, and takes some getting used to. Sentence structure and vocabulary is often hard to parse, so it takes a bit longer to read than a more modern novel of the same concept. There is not a whole lot to the narrative; we follow the sexual exploits of Cupidonnet, from his childhood sexual awakening through his life. He’s a complete playboy kind of character, who is so good at sex that all the ladies in his general vicinity want him desperately, and so he has many sexual adventures and eventually orgies the more be embraces sexual libertinage. Some short stories are related by various characters as well, and in general it’s mostly just a collection of sexual scenes that the author says are intended to help men rediscover their sexual virility and passions for their wives. In essence, it’s a marital aid and censorship piece; considering it’s intended purpose in “combating” the earlier Justine’s violent content, and often reads very self-righteous, but more on it’s sexual philosophy later.

Unfortunately there isn’t a whole lot of character development or growth. The book is nothing more than a sequence of sexual events and escapades, and none of the characters have much in the way of distinctive personalities. They all share the same fetishes, the same voracious sexual appetite. The men are all dominating and virile and the women are all bashful but hungry for sex. Obviously the purpose of this book was not of course to explore in depth characterization, but I at least wish that the characters had had a little bit in the way of unique traits that could set them apart. As it was, they were all mostly interchangeable and learning the names of them all didn’t really mean anything. This is not the novel you want if you are looking for a more nuanced take on humanity and sexuality. That said, it’s relationships read quite sweet and tender, so there is at least an emotionally compelling aspect there, as long as you aren’t squicked by the entire premis of incest.

Much like the Marquis de Sade’s Justine and Juliette novels, Anti-Justine is both a pornographic novel as well half of a philosophical debate. While there is certainly much less in the way of philosophy and ethics discussions interspersed throughout the sex scenes than in Justine, making it much more strictly a porn book, there are at least a few times that the author does an aside for the sake of morality rants to the reader. Although I thoroughly disagree with de Sade’s overall philosophical point throughout Justine, Rétif’s is a little harder to understand. His work may not feature the violence, rape and murder copious to de Sade’s, but he still has numerous scenes of sexual coercion, abuse of power, and incest featured in his. At one point he remarks that he knows quite well that these things are shocking and immoral fantasies, but that they are “better” than de Sade’s simply by virtue of not being physically violent. This makes it rather hard to take him seriously, and I believe that his philosophy lectures through this book are flawed or at the very least, not as comprehensible as de Sade’s, who while I disagree with, I at least understand what he was getting at quite clearly. Where de Sade comes off as utterly reprehensible, Retif comes off as well meaning but ultimately hypocritical.

Being that this was written in the 1700s, it is hard to really comment on how “sexy” the sexual content in this book is. It’s very high energy, and displays a lot of movement and very enthusiastic fucking from everyone involved. Most of its content is orgies, if that’s your thing. But it also uses so many incredibly old and outdated words and terms (like “discharge” for orgasm or the use of “fuck” as interchangeable with the act as well as for semen) that reading it nowadays is more humorous than erotic. And while the book’s description makes it sound like the main pair will be a brother sister incest pair, it is actually most focused on the developing sexual relationship between a father and his daughter. It also features quite a lot of shoe and foot fetish content, all of the characters sharing a predilection for feet and ladies shoes. Lots of tickling their feet, caressing their thighs ect. In fact, Rétif is the man for whom shoe fetish (retifism) is named, and although it is not the principle star or point of this particular novel, it is fairly well included.

Altogether a fascinating example of 1700s erotica, and sexually libertine ideologies. It is certainly softer and more enthusiastic about women’s sexual pleasure than it’s opponent Justine, but it still includes quite a bit of old timey ideas about women and the place of women and such. If you can stomach that, it is an interesting little piece, even without the broader context of reading Justine first which is even less for the faint of heart.

Have you read Anti-Justine? Let me know what YOU thought by leaving me a comment!

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