The Marquis de Sade plucked reluctant virgins, debauched serving girls, beat his wife, practised sodomy and wrote stories featuring rape, incest, necrophilia, torture and bestiality. He was also a war hero, lent his name to the word sadism and practically invented the erotic genre.
More two hundred years after his death in 1814, the Marquis de Sade’s books are still in print and are being reassessed by academics who see him first as a philosopher whose belief in living life in absolute freedom resonates more strongly today than ever before. He viewed morality as meaningless and saw immorality as being in our own best interest. ‘Either kill me or take me as I am, because I’ll be damned if I ever change.’
After two centuries in the shadows, the de Sade family are reclaiming their heritage, and the current heir, Elzear de Sade, is using the title Marquis, though purely honorary in Republican France. In our age of celebrity, infamy is merely another shade of fame. A more concrete sign of de Sade’s new respectability was the Orsay Museum in Paris in 2014 paying $7 million for the original manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom. It was written while de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, and was described by Napoleon (a frustrated writer) as ‘the most abominable book ever conceived.’
The Marquis had plenty of time to write, passing as he did almost half his 64 years in various prisons. He penned Justine, considered his best book, in an insane asylum. The pages were smuggled through the bars a folio at a time, printed and sold in secret to an insatiable readership. Banned, burned and censored, there has always been a market for erotica.
The Making of a Hero
Donatien Alphonse François (1740 – 1814) was the son of Comte Jean-Baptiste François Joseph de Sade and Marie-Eléonore de Maillé, the Lady-in-Waiting to the Princess of Condé.
De Sade’s parents lived at the House of Condé, the 16th century palace where their son grew up and would come to set many of his stories: the Gothic chambers connected by candlelit corridors, grim stairways and shadowy dungeons nurturing his macabre imagination and planting the seeds of the literary genre he took to new extremes.
At the age of sixteen, de Sade joined the military. His baptism of fire occurred in June 1756 at the start of the Seven Years’ War, when the armies of the Maréchal de Richelieu stormed Port-Mahon. Wearing a scarlet uniform with a plumed helmet, de Sade was in the vanguard of the attack. Following ‘fierce and murderous combat,’ with a lone companion, he secured an enemy stronghold and his bravery was ‘mentioned in dispatches,’ according to Gilbert Lêly, de Sade’s biographer.
De Sade later wrote that during the skirmish ‘his soul was on fire.’ He saw death all around and felt no compassion bathing his sword in the blood of enemy soldiers. Not since the Crusades had warfare been so bloodthirsty and merciless. Cities were destroyed, women and girls raped, entire populations were slaughtered.
It was in this furnace of carnage where de Sade’s soul was forged and the map of his future began to form. Climbing the ranks to Colonel, his diary through those years changed from heroic accounts of battles won and soldiers meeting death in a noble cause to a mocking criticism of the military high command, the futility of war, and the corruption and duplicity at the heart of government. He came to view the ethics and morals of his times, and of life itself, as hollow, hypocritical and meaningless, a grand existentialist lie perpetrated by Church and State.
The only way to endure this absurdity, he reasoned, was to live in freedom without value judgments, religion or morality. He saw all existence as a struggle between master and slave, predator and prey, and determined to enjoy his own good fortune as one of the hunters.
Marquis de Sade – the Writer
Arriving in Paris a war hero, de Sade began to put his theories into practice. Within months, several street walkers had protested to the police over his ‘unmentionable’ acts, whipping and bondage. The perversions and brutality he had witnessed in the wake of battle transformed in gory relish on to the pages of his books.
After spending a few nights in the jailhouse, de Sade realised that his pleasures were going to cost him a great deal more than he could afford on his family allowance. Tall, good-looking, if ravaged, he courted and married the heiress Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a magistrate. They made their home at the castle above Lacoste, a spectacular hill town overlooking the Provence countryside. Today, the partially restored edifice is a place of pilgrimage for admirers of de Sade’s writing, philosophy and, no doubt, his lifestyle.
De Sade’s father died in 1767, when he assumed the title Marquis and had more cash to explore his predilections. He constructed a theatre within the castle walls and the plays written by an ‘anonymous’ author began to acquire loyal patronage. The productions were bizarre, as well as blasphemous, in that, while the performers portrayed perverse and vicious acts, they discussed political, religious and philosophical issues.
As he watched the burgers of Lacoste glued to their seats in his theatre, it struck him that aspects of his own nature existed in every man – and woman. While a few prostitutes reported his depraved deeds, far more did not. He discerned from this that, on his erotic journey, his companions would have different levels of tolerance and, more important, that tolerance to pain both increases and reaches a point when pain becomes pleasure.
Nudity, corporal punishment, multiple partners, slavery, every form of role play we can imagine today has always been with us. Erotic composition survives from the first Chinese dynasty. From Ancient Greece we have collections of erotic verse including the work of the first ‘lesbian’ writer, Sappho of Lesbos, who died around 570 BC. The great Roman thinker, Ovid, dabbled in the erotic, as did Shakespeare; best known for his love elegy Romeo and Juliet, he also turned his quill to the sensuous poems Venus and Adonis and The Rape of Lucrece.
Modern erotic writers from Anaïs Nin to EL James have continued to reshape the erotic genre while sticking to the blueprint set down by the Marquis de Sade: submissive females drawn to dominant males who discover sensual pleasure through acts involving restraints, gagging and punishment by hand, whip, strap and cane. To quote the master: ‘True happiness lies in the senses, and virtue gratifies none of them.’
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“Infamy is just another shade of Fame.” I’ll remember this!
It’s taken me a while to get around to this actual question [“Do you think Sade is worth studying?”] that arose in a recent conversation about Sade. I had ended-up feebly defending him from a suggestion that he “celebrated” the evil of his cultural milieu as much as—if not even more than—“exposing” the reality of it—and I’d essentially left it at that, rather than come to grips with the more important question I’d managed to slither over with no real response: “Is Sade worth studying?” In my own other words: Is there any reason why students, whether in high school or at university should be asked to read Justine along with Adventures of Huckleberry Finn?
By the time I retired from classroom teaching, Huck Finn had become a real issue—this was in, what? The early years of the current century. At that time I was the only American Lit teacher/prof—in my personal context—who still even tried to teach Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. Along about that time an editor/expurgator had published a version of Twain’s novel that replaced the N-word with slave for purposes of college classroom use. I offered students an (elective) option to write an important paper about not only Twain’s novel but this particular current development. Strangely, many students opted to do so. One of those students was an editor of the student newspaper and went ahead and published her own essay, even before I had graded it. That got a journalism teacher fired, before it was all over. I hear occasionally from that journalist [not the one that got fired, but the student whose essay put an end to his career] on Meta from time to time, as it happens. But I bring it up because I think Sade’s work manages to deserve similar intellectual attention. Twain, I would argue, does not celebrate racism in the American nation that was his milieu. It was where he’d grown up, after all; it was where he came to be a person who felt and knew what he felt and knew. I won’t go on with this particular line of reasoning simply because I’m retired and not writing something to be published in an academic context. That’s not at all to slight present company.
My actual point in all this is to say, I think Sade, like Twain, was as much a victim of the evil of his world as any other victim. Actually, I think Hegel has something to say about this sense that “Masters” are victims of their own conditioning, but I’ll save that conversation for another context, another day.
I remember reading Desade in college (1961) whe the books were first available. Thought: “There will be no pornography written to top this”.
Perhaps Anais Nin came close.