According to Peter Swirski in Stanislaw Lem: Philosopher of the Future (Liverpool University Press, 2015; on Google Books; emphasis mine),

The author [Lem] himself eloquently argued on behalf of employing game-theoretical tools to literary analysis in his 1968 compendium on literary theory, the untranslated Philosophy of Chance, not to mention our interviews in A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997). In his 1979 essay "Markiz w grafie" he even employed concepts from game theory in the discussion of the writings of Marquis de Sade.

The essay is in Polish and I am not aware of a translation. What did Lem find when he applied game theory concepts to the writings of Marquis de Sade?

2 Answers 2


To say that Lem applied game theory to the writings of the Marquis de Sade is a little bit of an overstatement. In the essay Markiz w grafie (“The Marquis in the Network”) he first argues how game theory can be used in general to understand the world, ranging from industrialisation, philosophy, theology, and religion. He then moves on to literary analysis of works of fantasy, and divides them into four categories: utopias, fairy tales, dystopias, and “anti-fairy tales” . He initially thought that the final, most unusual category, of “anti-fairy tales” would not have any examples, but on reflection found that de Sade’s works fitted perfectly into this category and added the final two pages to the essay to make this point, almost as an afterthought. In the essay he certainly does not analyse de Sade's works in detail - he actually discusses them more thoroughly in the interview quoted in Rand al'Thor's answer. Indeed Lem writes:

My argument would not have the value it proposes - to show a blank space on the table of fantasy types, coinciding with de Sade's writings - if that was my intention in writing… Although I know de Sade's work, I did not think about it when I started to classify the elements of fantasy under the aegis of game theory… and it was only at the very end of the analysis that I was surprised by the analogy of "anti-fairy-tale" and de Sade's writings. However, I put aside the unfinished text and only now added the last two pages to close it. Of course, I could no longer return to the original ignorance of said similarity. Nevertheless, the thing seems worth publishing.

If we look in detail into the essay, it begins by introducing Lem’s concept of game theory:

While living, man constantly makes decisions both in thought and in deed. These decisions are never supported by complete knowledge. The person has to decide on the basis of incomplete information whether to take risks. This is a typical game situation. Upon entering the world, a person is thrown into a game whose rules are unknown to him. But also at the lowest levels of development, life is tangled in a conflict situation, and thus in a game where the victory is the deferment of death. Therefore, all the phenomena of life, from the simplest to human, can be investigated with decision theory, especially in its section on conflict situations, namely in game theory.

Lem goes on to to consider various kinds of works of fantasy by considering them as games played between the protagonist and the rest of the world. The first step is to decide whether the world is favourably or unfavourably disposed towards the protagonist (“The overriding question of the ontology seen through the glasses of game theory is the attitude of the inhuman partner”). This bifurcation is the first step in the analysis shown in the graph below:

Lem's analysis of fantasy literature. Above: translated from the Polish, below: the original figure.

On the positive branch, the world can either be favourably disposed to all the inhabitants, making a utopia, or to just a few inhabitants, which produces a fairy tale. On the other side of the divide, where the world is negatively biased against the inhabitants we have the same argument:

the world acts negatively against individuals, or for entire communities. The second option is the world of dystopia. The first has not filled by collective works: in folklore there is no such thing as an "anti-fairy tale"

Lem finds utopias boring, because everyone is equally blessed and there is no dynamic:

Utopia is that everything can be unsurpassedly good at the same time, that there are no values to be given up in favor of the values of others. Being such an ideal of collective life, utopias must be unchanging. Therefore, it is not as compelling as a fairy tale: an ideal is not a wonderful adventure.

In a fairy tale, though, only the hero is the recipient of good fortune. In his language of game theory:

Whatever such a hero does, he will kill the dragon, marry a princess, he will become king. This is because when you look at the whole thing, there is no losing strategy in the fairy tale. This is understandable as an attempt at the efficiency of this world… At the same time, according to the principle of symmetry in the game structures, there is no winning strategy for negative characters in a fairy tale.

In the light of game theory, a fairy tale is a zero-sum game, because the hero's win equals the antagonists' defeat. What the bad guys lose, the good win. It is probably not an arithmetic sum. It is hard to say whether the relationship with the hideous dwarf would be as unpleasant for a princess as it is delightful to marry a beautiful knight, but since it is commonly believed that this is the case, the equation holds true.

Having described the first two branches of his diagram, Lem briefly considers worlds where everybody is equally oppressed, dystopias, and then goes onto the final category in his classification, “anti-fairy tales”, and notes that there appear to be no examples of this genre:

one is struck by the absence of anti-fairy tales - in folklore there has never been such a genre. Nevertheless, we can describe its features precisely. The world of anti-fairy tales should be biased against an individual, and the sum of good and bad is also constant, as in a fairy tale, but with a reverse distribution: good will be punished, and evil rewarded. There are no winning strategies for the heroes, but all the strategies of the rogues are optimal. The payout function is a reverse ethics function. The sum of the game should also be zero, since good losing equals evil winning. The questions are, what is the price of the game, what should be the strategies and what distribution reveals the payout function.


The pleasure in fairy tales is only felt at the end, because it is not pleasant to sit in a witch's cage, in the belly of a wolf, or to fight a terrible monster. It is done either out of need or out of self-denial. The noble and the weak succumbs to evil temporarily, and the strong hero rushes to their aid for higher reasons… A fairy tale postpones the reward for kindness; the anti-fairy tale temporarily rewards evil in the course of inflicting it, because the suffering of others is the protagonist's joy. This changes the course of the game. Usually, fairy tales start with an evil attack that ruins the state of the opening, and the game is about fixing it. Thus, the trajectories of the game must be different: in a fairy tale there is little evil first, then a lot, and finally there is none at all. In the anti-fairy tale, however, there is a constant surge of evil.

Lem goes on to contrast the structures of fairy tales and these anti-fairy tales, and concludes that an anti-fairy tale is intrinsically contradictory, and should not exist because of its lack of internal logic:

While in a fairy tale the game is about happiness deferred to the end game and there is a payoff, in an anti-fairy tale the happiness must be the misfortune of others, and thus happiness ceases when that disappears. Thus, an inalienable contradiction appears in the structures of the game. The virgins prey on the dragon, but when they eat all of them, they will starve to death.

A further drawback is how the world of the anti-fairy tale must have an “arbitrary unreality”. While fairy tales naturally contain fantastic elements, we can willingly suspend our disbelief in a way that Lem thinks we would not do for anti-fairy tales:

anti-fairy tales cannot retain even a trace of conventional naivety and innocence, which soothes the often present manifestations of cruelty in fairy tales (e.g. in the fairy tales of the Brothers Grimm). Here is another paradox that we encounter: the atmosphere of anti-fairy tales will not be fairy-tale-like. And even what is emphatically fantastic will be perceived as a bloody dream or a nightmare.

The second consequence is that the anti-fairy tale will teeter on the edge of self-parody, with the antihero furiously indulging in evil.

Having built up this argument, Lem then makes an almost parenthetic remark:

It is puzzling that our - after all logical - reconstruction of the genre, which has never been created, corresponds to the work of the Marquis de Sade.

but does not give any further discussion of de Sade's works.

  • Please not that all the quotes from the essay have been (amateurishly) translated by me. It's entirely possible that errors of emphasis and meaning have occurred. Nov 4, 2022 at 10:25
  • "To say that Lem applied game theory to the writings of the Marquis de Sade is a little bit of an overstatement." Obviously. I chose a rather click-baity title ;-)
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 4, 2022 at 11:22
  • I imagine Lem is thinking of Justine when he suggests that de Sade's works resemble his idea of anti-fairy-tales. Voltaire's Candide is maybe another example. Nov 4, 2022 at 20:39

In lieu of an actual translation of the essay "Markiz w grafie" (which is available online for anyone who reads Polish), we have some description from Lem himself of the game-theoretic ideas that he used in analysing Marquis de Sade's writings, from the interviews in Peter Swirski's A Stanislaw Lem Reader that are mentioned in the paragraph you quoted. Here is the passage in question, from a June 1992 personal interview with Lem (bold emphasis mine; any typos are mine but grammar errors are in the original).

Swirski: In Philosophy of Chance you point to game theory as a promising tool in literary studies. Could you comment on it now, from the perspective of twenty-five years?

Lem: Unlike the sciences, the humanities are characterized by a lack of cumulativeness in their search for knowledge. In this respect they resemble the domain of fashion, with only appearances of exactness in their methods. I applied comparatively some elements of game theory to the works of the Marquis de Sade in "Markiz w grafie" ("The Marquis in a Graph," 1979). This extensive study brought me a lot of satisfaction, just because I proved to myself that it could be done. The funny thing about it was that I had initially no interest in writing about de Sade. It was actually the reverse. I was studying the differences between utopia, science fiction, and fairy tale, and the game theoretic schema which I devised for literary zero-sum and nonzero-sum games indicated a narrative "empty spot." This unoccupied place in my system was reserved for an anti-fairy tale. Mark Twain wrote once such anti-fairy tales: in them the nicest boys always end up the worst, virtue is always rewarded by the harshest punishment, and so on. I was quite intrigued by all this, and I started to ponder what this anti-fairy tale - in which evil always wins, and where evil is a virtue pursued by the hero - might look like. And it turned out that this was exactly Marquis de Sade.

Of course, this type of analysis is not axiological per se. In my essay I was after something else. I became interested in determining what value may be dominant in writers' intentions, and how these values could be captured in a game theoretic schema describing particular works and genres. Take fairy tale as an example. The genre represents a kind of literary space in which the laws of physics are subordinate to another type of law. This is fairy tale's internal axiology. It does not allow accidents which would be inimical to the protagonist. It is impossible that the hero who fights the dragon should slip on a banana peel and, as a result, get eaten alive. But, on the other hand, in de Sade's Justine: ou les malheurs de la virtu, when the poor girl runs away during a thunderstorm, after being repeatedly raped and abused, she gets struck by a bolt of lightning. [...]

De Sade is a classic apologist of Evil. For him Evil is something so magnificent that perpetrating it is utterly delectable. All historically infamous perpetrators of evil have almost without exception referred to it as a kind of necessity, which may have brought suffering and pain, but which was carried out in the service of a higher Good. [...] But a defense of Evil which praises and elevates it - this you do not find too often. The exceptional status and the historical context of the "divine Marquis" is responsible for the regard he commands from the critics as a writer worthy of close scrutiny. For myself, I was rather surprised that, using certain concepts from game theory, I was able to reach de Sade through a comparative analysis of various literary genres.

Most of the games taking place in fairy tale are, of course, of the zero-sum type, even though one could never hope to quantify them. You can't say, for example, that when the protagonist awakens a sleeping beauty, or liberates her from the castle of a malevolent witch, he gains precisely as much as the witch loses. There is no way in the world to calculate that. And yet, in the commonsensical perception of the reader, justice is being done. In other words, we have a zero-sum symmetry: first something bad happens, some sort of disruption of harmony of existence, which afterward gets corrected, so that everything is back in order again. In contrast, in de Sade we witness the persecution of hapless victims. The more a saint and a virgin, the more terrible things must befall the girl, the more cruel treatment she must undergo at the hands of villains. This is not a zero-sum game, for we can no longer argue at this point that there is some kind of compensatory force at work.

Another thing to consider are the logical consequences of the narrative, in contrast to the ends demanded by more literary (aesthetic) considerations. In de Sade you get the evilmost monster of all, who has murdered, raped, and slaughtered everybody else, so that he alone remains in the field of corpses. This protagonist finds himself suddenly in a state of insatiability since his raison d'etre is to perpetrate evil, and now there is no one left around for him to persecute. A suicide, of course, would be no solution. In other words, the situation changes from a zero-sum game to nonzero-sum.

Summarising this: Lem had already been performing game-theoretical analysis of literature such as fairy tales, which led him to study the writings of de Sade. In fairy tales, the world is expected to be fair: evil deeds are put right, and people get what they deserve, which Lem likens to the game-theoretic concept of a zero-sum game. In de Sade's work it's closer to the opposite: evil deeds are exacerbated with more evil deeds, and the most innocent people experience the worst suffering, which Lem models as a nonzero-sum game from the game-theoretic viewpoint.

  • Thanks. I'm still hoping for an answer based on the original essay. Could you add the source of the quote? I.e. the interview from 1992 (re)printed in A Stanislaw Lem Reader (1997)?
    – Tsundoku
    Nov 3, 2022 at 16:06

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