Marquis de Sade — Life, Books and Debauchery
The Marquis de Sade plucked reluctant virgins, debauched serving girls, beat his wife, seduced her sister, 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.
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 as a philosopher whose belief in living life in absolute freedom resonates more strongly with present-day attitudes than ever before.
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, written by de Sade while imprisoned for debauchery in the Bastille, and described by Napoleon (a frustrated writer) as “the most abominable book ever conceived.”
The Marquis de Sade found a lot of time to write, passing as he did almost half his sixty-four years in various prisons. He was finally sent to an insane asylum, where he wrote Justine, his best book, in my opinion, the pages of which were smuggled out a folio at a time, printed and sold in secret to an insatiable readership. Banned, burned, censored and condemned, there has always been a market for erotica.
Marquis de Sade — A Life
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 resided at the House of Condé, the 16th century palace where their son grew up and which would become the fictionalized setting for much of his later writing: 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 age 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 would later write 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 those enemy soldiers who stood in his way. Not since the Crusades had warfare been so bloodthirsty and merciless. More than a million people were slaughtered. Cities were pillaged and entire populations put to the sword.
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 corruption and duplicity at the heart of government, and the futility of war.
He had seen massacres blessed by the Holy Roman Church and torture executed in the name of the Crown. He came to view the ethics of his times, and of life itself, as hollow, hypocritical and meaningless, a grand 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.
Arriving back in Paris a 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, bondage, torture, the perversions and brutality he had witnessed in the wake of battle and would later appear in gory relish on the pages of his books.
After spending a few nights in the jailhouse, de Sade realized 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 quickly 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 restored edifice a place of pilgrimage for admirers of de Sade’s writing, philosophy and, no doubt, his lifestyle.
De Sade constructed a theatre within the castle walls and the plays written by an ‘anonymous’ author began to acquire loyal patronage by the time his father died in 1767, when he assumed the title, Marquis. 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. The more prurient the work, the more the men of Lacoste clamoured for tickets.
The Marquis watched the audiences watching his work and came to believe that in the soul of those bourgeois tradesmen was a streak of sadism; a hunger for sex. De Sade identified the line between a love story and an erotic story and recognized that, the further that line was crossed, the greater the potential for creating compulsive narratives.
He was conscious of his own erotic nature. As he watched the burgers of Lacoste glued to their seats in his theatre, he became aware that aspects of that nature existed in every man — and woman. While a handful of prostitutes reported his depraved deeds, just as many did not. He discerned from this that his companions on his erotic journey 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 a collection 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; better 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.
In more recent times, erotic writers from Anaïs Nin to EL James, have continued to reshape the erotic genre, while sticking closely 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, punishment by hand, whip, strap and cane.
The consensual aspect of BDSM is the primary difference between contemporary erotic literature and that pioneered by the Marquis de Sade. His stories are decadent and nihilistic, with pitiless protagonists and simpering heroines stripped of their dignity.
Marquis de Sade — Writer
The Marquis de Sade grasped the first rule of the budding author: write about what you know about. As a young man growing up in the House of Condé, he would have seen churchmen and aristocrats seducing young house maids below his very roof.
Added to his experiences on the battlefield slaughtering men with lance and sword, was his careful study of human psychology. He didn’t only whip and unite in coitus with the prostitutes he procured, he observed their reactions and lusts, their greed and hypocrisy.
When his wife’s sister, Anne-Prospère, moved to live at the castle, he seduced her and made her partner in his clandestine orgies. Servants, of both sexes, he saw as fair game.
His writing became more depraved, as did his life, which he led with what he called ‘extreme freedom,’ and what the existentialists more than a century later would call ‘authenticity.’
In Provence, he felt safe from the prying eyes of the capital and, something often forgotten, while his literature became more transgressive, so, too, did his political writing, which he pursued with as much fervour and which would, perversely, save his life.
De Sade’s wife gave birth to three children, two sons and a daughter, while he maintained relations with her willing sister. But two women were not sufficient for his gargantuan appetites. No matter how frequent, or by what multiple the participants, nothing dimmed his lust for the next experience.
As de Sade observed, depravity, what we might call pornography, quickly palls and must be continuously renewed and updated. An erotic book is seldom re-read. Readers require fresh stimulations.
De Sade was charged in 1772 for supplying the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly to some prostitutes in Marseilles. During the investigation, he was further accused of sodomy with his manservant, Latour, and sentenced to death in absentia. De Sade fled to Italy with Anne-Prospère. They were caught, imprisoned by the Italians, and escaped back to France, where the Marquis hid in the castle in Lacoste.
De Sade had always been lucky, but luck’s natural journey is to run out. Later that year, he was captured on a visit to Paris. An aristocrat and war hero, he successfully appealed his death sentence, but was imprisoned finally in the notorious Bastille, where he began his opus Les 120 Journées de Sodome — 120 Days of Sodom.
The manuscript survived his move in 1789 to Charenton, an insane asylum, where, that same year, the French Revolution resulted in the overthrow of the Monarchy. High ranking members of the new Constituent Assembly formed in 1790 were conversant of de Sade’s political writing. They saw him as a fellow traveller and he was immediately released.
The Marquis gathered his manuscripts, each written in gloomy prison cells on scraps of paper. They were edited and he saw several of his books published during the first years of the 1790s. His wife had divorced him and the castle at Lacoste was uninhabitable after being sacked by the mob.
In spite of his aristocratic background, he joined the radicals and was elected to the National Convention representing the far left. He wrote political pamphlets and advocated fairer voting systems for the poor and landless, revolutionary ideas for revolutionary times.
By 1796, all de Sade had to his name was his title and half a dozen novels bound on the bookshelf. When Napoleon came to power in 1801, the general engineered de Sade’s arrest. He was sent to the asylum at Charenton, where he staged his plays with inmates acting the parts and Parisian high society making up the audience.
De Sade’s last great coup, as he saw it, was the seduction of Madeleine Leclerc, the thirteen-year-old daughter of an employee at Charenton, with whom he maintained sexual relations until his death in 1814.
Between the lines of the Marquis de Sade’s novels is an analysis of how power and economics relate. The strong overpowering and abusing the weak is a metaphor for the politics of his time, as he noted, ‘for all times’. De Sade championed erotica as a literary form and can be seen as the definitive symbol of the artist’s struggle against censorship which, it has to be said, he clearly won.
Chloe Thurlow — www.chloethurlow.com