Though his name has also become part of our sexual vocabulary, the exploits of Donatien Alphonse François, the Marquis de Sade, were not the scandal of France because of their uniqueness. Other libertines also derived pleasure from inflicting pain, but their influence at court made them immune to prosecution. Other libertines likewise wrote florid letters pledging their love (such as it was) and fortunes to opera singers, ballet dancers and courtesans, but they did not always ruin themselves with debt, as Sade did. Other libertines, secretly yearning for their own debasement, likewise paid money to be whipped bloody by prostitutes (or to whip the prostitutes themselves), but they were clever enough not to be arrested for it. Rather, Sade is remembered today both because of his indiscretion, which, coupled with his lack of friends to help him cover his tracks, led from one legal disaster to another, and also for the particular flair for theater that he exhibited in his writings and in his life. Whereas Casanova may have seen himself as an actor in a play, Sade’s self-image was that of the auteur. Constitutionally incapable of performing in any social situation where he was not the alpha male, the marquis preferred directing his family and servants in amateur theatricals to paying court to the king (who was, after all, the source from which all authority and reward in France flowed). To Sade, the appeal of theater was the possibility of all-encompassing power, which he carried to the extent of reviving obsolete feudal ceremonies when he inherited his Proven?al domains in 1767. Even his sexual fantasies, recorded for posterity in his writings, were as elaborately staged as grand operas.
Born in June of 1740 to an ancient Provençal family (Petrarch’s beloved Laura was an ancestor), Sade was a spoiled only child who learned the ways of libertinism early in life.
Like Casanova’s, Sade’s mother was cold and distant; his father, the Comte de Sade, once himself a notorious debaucher who had almost bankrupted the family with his excesses, was occupied in Paris unsuccessfully attempting to secure a future for his son. Therefore, from the ages of five to eleven, the young marquis lived with his uncle, the abbé de Sade, at the family estate at Saumane in the south of France. (It was common for younger sons to enter the Church, so as to leave no legitimate heirs to inherit and divide the family property. In the case of abbé de Sade, Saumane was to revert back to his brother’s family after his death.) Like many well-born churchmen, the abbé did not let his ecclesiastical office keep him from worldly pleasures: He corresponded with his free-thinking friend Voltaire, made free use of his resident pair of mother-daughter mistresses and kept a library stocked with titles such as History of the Flagellants, Aretino’s book of sexual positions, Venus in the Cloister, and The Brothel, or Every Man Debauched — all of which were, no doubt, closely studied by his bright young nephew. Sade, who remained close to his uncle until the latter’s death in 1778, once pointed out in a letter to a pious aunt that, keeping a “bordello” like Saumane, the abbé was in no position to complain about his nephew’s mores.
At the age of eleven, Sade went from his uncle’s house to the Jesuit school of Louis le Grand in Paris, where he studied Latin, drama, sodomy and corporal punishment until the age of fourteen, when his father bought him a commission in the army. During the Seven Years War, Sade distinguished himself both by his bravery in battle and the dissolute life he led at
all other times. His bad reputation, in fact, made it difficult to find a good marriage for him, and it was not until 1763, when Sade was almost twenty-three, that his father finally managed to find a suitable candidate in Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. What she lacked in looks, Renée-Pélagie made up for in money: The daughter of a judge from a recently ennobled bourgeois family, her dowry gave some much-needed liquidity to the down-at-the-heels Sade clan. However, the young marquis, still on the rebound from being rejected by a famous Provençal beauty who had both broken his heart and (according to his own account) given him a venereal disease, and furious at the father who had married him into what he considered a family of bankers, almost missed his own wedding. Considering its inauspicious beginning, therefore, it was a matter of some surprise to everyone involved that the marriage seemed to be a success. Sade charmed his in-laws and fell into the role of the perfect husband with ease, and the devout Renée-Pélagie quickly developed feelings of what in those days was called “devotion” but which we today term “codependence” — qualities she would manifest all through her husband’s long spells in prison.
The first of Sade’s run-ins with the law occurred a scant five months after his marriage. The details of the incident, which were only rediscovered in the 1960s, have since become well-known: On October 18, Sade brought a twenty-year-old part-time prostitute named Jeanne Testard to one of the numerous rented lodgings he maintained around Paris. Locking the door of the second-floor apartment, he asked her if she believed in the teachings of the Catholic Church. When she answered that she did, the marquis launched into a stream of profanities, cursing God, masturbating into a communion chalice and describing how he had desecrated two communion wafers by inserting them into a woman’s vagina and then having sex with her. He then pushed Testard into another room, decorated with an odd mix of instruments of torture and religious trappings, where he had her whip him with a heated cat o’ nine tails. After she declined to have the same done to her, Sade took two crucifixes from the wall, using one to anally masturbate himself while stomping on the other, and then, menacing Testard with his hand on the hilt of his sword, forced her speak blasphemies, as well. Sade then amused his guest for the rest of the evening by reading obscene poetry and proposing to sodomize her.
Sodomy, though officially punishable in France by death, was a common enough transgression that it was hardly ever prosecuted, and for Sade, who in his writings and his life was later a great advocate of both the active and passive positions in the act (so much so that it may have contributed to the hemorrhoids he suffered from later in life), to have merely proposed the deed to a prostitute was hardly cause for alarm. Nor were kidnapping and terrorizing a defenseless woman crimes for which an aristocrat would ordinarily be punished — a bribe here, a letter to a judge there, and it would all be swept under the rug. Rather, it was both Sade’s blasphemy — an interesting fetish, considering he was an avowed atheist — as well as the fact that he indulged his peculiar tastes in a solitary fashion, that is, without the company of other men of his class, that were so shocking. Thankfully for the marquis, aristocrats were still (much like O.J. Simpson) innocent until proven bankrupt, and so his family was able to arrange for his release from Vincennes prison after only three weeks. However, Sade had acquired a permanent police tail, Commissioner Louis Marais, whose reports reached the ears of Louis XV and his official mistress, Madame de Pompadour — as well as those of Sade’s mother-in-law, Marie-Madeline de Montreuil.
Sade’s second arrest in April of 1768, on charges of kidnapping and dreadfully abusing a thirty-six-year-old widow named Rose Keller, was a different story. Once the press got hold of it, the story became something of a showcase of the conflict then raging in France between the court system, which was controlled by the upwardly mobile middle class, and the old aristocracy. The facts are these: On Easter Sunday, 1768, Sade approached Keller outside the church of the Petits-Pères in Paris. According to him, she was soliciting (the church being a notorious gathering place for prostitutes); according to her, she was begging. Sade offered to bring Keller back to one of his rented houses, but, according to her police statement, she demurred, saying she was a beggar, not a whore. Sade replied that he only wished to employ her as his housekeeper, and she agreed to get into a coach with him. After an hour’s journey, they arrived at a small house in a suburb north of Paris, where Sade locked Keller into an elegantly appointed second-floor bedroom. Some time later, after enjoying himself with two prostitutes on the ground floor, Sade returned for Keller, threatening to kill her and bury her body in the garden (or so she claimed) unless she accompanied him to a small, dark room, where he stripped her naked, threw her face-down on a bed and proceeded to flagellate her until he came to orgasm. (According to Keller, Sade also lacerated her back with a small knife and poured wax into the wounds, but a doctor was later able to find no evidence of this.) The deed done, Sade returned her to the upstairs room, served her some food, and promised to release her soon. However, as soon as she was alone, Keller knotted the bed sheets together and escaped from the window.
Sade’s attitude toward Keller was typical of his class: He would never have whipped any of the actresses or courtesans he so ardently pursued, but common prostitutes, or, indeed, anyone of the lower classes, were fair game. Casanova had solved Tiresias’ ancient dilemma by writing that his partner’s pleasure was four-fifths of his own, but, for Sade, others existed solely for his own amusement. (Sade had curious ideas of boundaries, however: Unlike Casanova, he would never seduce another man’s wife.) This attitude was not so different from that of his upper-class peers, but what Sade neglected was the axiom that power must always hide its workings. It was the marquis’ misfortune that his treatment of Keller quickly became one of the infamous causes célebres that
helped to contribute to the downfall of the French monarchy — and, now that he had fallen into their hands, the morally conservative, upwardly mobile bourgeois who controlled the courts were only too eager to make Sade into the whipping boy of the aristocracy. It was only by the smallest of margins that Renée-Pélagie and her mother managed to save his skin.
It was not until her son-in-law’s excesses became so outrageous as to threaten her family’s upward social mobility that Madame de Montreuil began to look for ways to permanently eliminate him. In the winter of 1771, Sade, having wisely fled Paris for his domains in Provence, simultaneously occupied himself with staging a series of amateur theatrical performances between his estates at La Coste and Mazan and seducing his free-thinking sister-in-law, Anne-Prospére, who had come straight from the convent where she was being kept until marriage. Madame de Montreuil should have known better: Putting a beautiful, coquettish, twenty-year-old woman in a nun’s habit — who, even better, was his relative — before Sade was like waving a red flag in front of a bull. Their dalliance did not reach the ears of his mother-in-law, however, until after Sade’s famous misadventure in the port city of Marseilles in July of 1772, in which he once again came to the attention of the judicial system by accidentally poisoning four prostitutes with an overdose of candies containing Spanish fly, the rather toxic ground-up mortal remains of the cantharides beetle. (A supposed aphrodisiac, Spanish fly is actually highly caustic, and, when ingested, causes an extreme irritation of the gastrointestinal tract — which would have tickled the fancy of an avowed sodomite, though Sade might have been using it for a different purpose, since the cantharides candies were also coated in anise, which produces flatulence.)
As with the Keller scandal, the Marseilles affair quickly became front-page news, with one newspaper even printing that Sade had held a ball and poisoned the respectable guests’ desserts with Spanish fly, with an orgy of such vigor ensuing that several people died. This time there was no escape from the vengeance of the courts, who, even though the prostitutes had all survived, condemned both Sade and his valet-cum-lover Latour to death for the crimes of poisoning and sodomy. (Part of the particulars of this affair was Sade’s playing the role of the filling in a sodomy sandwich between a prostitute and his valet.) Unfortunately, the people of Marseilles could only burn Sade in effigy, since, still mystified over why anyone should care what happened to a few whores, the marquis had fled to Italy–bringing his sister-in-law with him, the one crime unforgivable to Madame de Montreuil, who was hoping to make a better match for her younger daughter than she had for Renée-Pélagie. Anne-Prospére returned of her own volition after three weeks, but Sade found himself indefinitely imprisoned, at his mother-in-law’s behest, by Charles-Emmanuel III of Sardinia-Piedmont.
Unchastened by the experience, Sade attempted to build another seraglio at La Coste in the summer of 1776 — which led to his ultimate downfall. The following February, the father of one of the harem’s inmates, a young girl named Catherine Trillet, whom Sade had nicknamed "Justine," tried to shoot him in the courtyard of La Coste. Fortunately for the marquis, Monsieur Trillet’s pistol misfired, but the very fact that his stronghold had been violated unnerved Sade sufficiently that he immediately left for Paris in order to make peace with Madame de Montreuil.
Forgiveness proved elusive. Sade was immediately thrown in prison, where he remained, save for a brief escape while being transported in 1778, for the next thirteen years. His incarceration was cheered not only by his prodigious literary output (the 120 Days of Sodom, written on a forty-foot-long roll of paper, was discovered in the wall of Sade’s cell in the Bastille by one of the mob who destroyed the fortress, and, passing hand to hand, was only published in 1904), but also by creature comforts obtained for him by the long-suffering Renée-Pélagie, such as preserved Provençal delicacies, a large library and dildos crafted to his meticulously specified standards. (Sade claimed to have used these devices some 6,536 times in the first two and a half years of his imprisonment.)
Strangely enough, when the Revolution released him in 1790, Sade — who, like many men with strong libidos, proved to be a political animal — quickly rose to a role of leadership in his section of Paris and found himself in the ironic position of holding the power of life and death over his former captors, Monsieur and Madame Montreuil. Less bloodthirsty in real life than in his writings, Sade chose not to send them to the guillotine, though he almost found himself shortened by a head as the nation descended into total anarchy and the regime decided to take exception to his
vehemently anti-clerical speeches. (He was saved by the intervention of the faithful friend and companion of his later years, Constance Quesnet, as Renée-Pélagie had left him for the religious life as soon as he no longer needed her to martyr herself for his benefit.)
Freed once again, Sade tried to scrape by from 1794 to 1801 making a living by his writing, but when it became known that he was the author of Justine and other infamous works, Napoleon’s administration had him committed to the sanitarium at Charenton for "libertine dementia." There, Sade amused himself by writing and mounting amateur theatricals, as well as paying the laundry woman to allow her daughter to sleep with him, until his death in 1814. The term "Sadisme" was added to the French dictionary in 1834, though the world would have to wait until the publication of Leopold Von Masoch’s Venus in Furs in 1870 for "masochism" to join it (and nearly another century before the Velvet Underground recorded the song of the same title as Von Masoch’s book).
Today, opinions on Sade’s legacy are divided. While some, not without justification, see the marquis as nothing more than a callous, narcissistic, egomaniacal playboy, others consider him to have been a man ahead of his time, whose genius it was to apply the more pessimistic precepts of the Enlightenment to the bedroom. His philosophy is that of a world devoid of any sort of divine justice, populated solely by the strong and the weak, with the latter existing to serve the former, and characterized by a Hobbesian lack of belief in man’s inherent goodness. In his writing, Sade seems to suggest that that there is no point to human existence beyond pleasure, and his ideas of the amorality of desire and the interrelation of sex and power, as expressed in such works as Philosophy in the Boudoir, have influenced thinkers from Nietzsche to Michel Foucault. Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, for instance, is a tale of progressive debauchery typical of eighteenth-century pornographic works such as John Cleland’s Fanny Hill — save that, whereas Fanny Hill’s giving in to temptation results in a happy ending, poor, virtuous Justine is struck down by lightning. Contrary to Plato’s legacy of eros-as-transcendence, to Sade, our sexual impulses are only the manifestation of our innermost darkness. n°
©2007 Ken Mondschein and Nerve.com
|ABOUT THE AUTHOR:|
|Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.|