the den named horror held a man Chain'd hand and foot, round his neck an iron band, bound to the impregnable wall. ... And the man was confin'd for a writing prophetic. -- William Blake, French Revolution
Wealth and Pleasure be yours! If my scribblings have brought you a measure of both, set me to advantage on your bookshelf. If I have bored you, accept my apologies and consign me to the flames. -- The Marquis de Sade
Yes, I am a libertine, I admit it freely. I have dreamed of doing everything that it is possible to dream of in that line. But I have certainly not done all the things I have dreamt of and never shall. Libertine I may be, but I am not a criminal, I am not a murderer. -- The Marquis de Sade
The scandalous, the long-ignored, the at last all but unnameable author. -- Henry James
The Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), was born in a palace and ended his life in infamy in a lunatic asylum. Twenty-seven years of his life was spent in gaol for mentioning the unmentionable.
Few have read the Marquis de Sade, yet few are unaware of his nature, the desire to inflict pain for pleasure, especially sexual pleasure. His diabolical nature has become embedded in the language - sadism, sadist, sadistic.
The Marquis de Sade lived under three regimes, Monarchy, Revolution, Napoleon, he was unacceptable and beyond the pale under all three.
Sade lived the same life he wrote of. In The 120 Days of Sodom Sade list 600 'passions' ranging from the mere shocking to murder. If you are rich and powerful enough these pleasures are for the asking. Sade was not so rich and powerful. When he cut up the prostitute Rose Keller he was arrested, charged and subsequently gaoled. Sade picked up Rose Keller, Easter Sunday 1768, a few years earlier he had physically abused prostitute Jeanne Testard and indulged in 'horrible impieties' (October 1763). Police warned Paris brothel-keepers not to supply Sade with girls. Several more incidents became public knowledge, four prostitutes engaged in Marseilles and handed sweets which appeared to be some form of aphrodisiac (June 1772), an orgy at the family palace of La Coste (end of 1774).
Sade's novels include The Misfortune of Virtue (1787), The 120 Days of Sodom (1785) and The Crimes of Love (1800). Short stories can be very funny like 'The Windbags of Provence', modern parables like 'Émilie de Tourville' or caustic comments on Parisian society like 'The Confidence Men'. 'Augustine de Villeblanche' contains a very moving plea for tolerance of homosexuals. In 'Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man' (1782) Sade spells out his philosophy of life.
The Misfortune of Virtue places Sade fair and square with fellow Gothic novelists Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) and Mathew Lewis (1775-1818). Sade praised the work of Ann Radcliffe, but the book he greatly admired was The Monk (1796) by Mathew Lewis, which he saw as a response to the excesses of the French Revolution.
The Misfortune of Virtue (1787) follows the sufferings of Justine, a young girl who suffers for her virtue, while her sister Juliette profits through debauchery. Justine was punished for her virtues - chastity, piety, charity, compassion, prudence, the refusal to do evil, and the love of goodness and truth. The Misfortune of Virtue went through several revisions, Justine (1791) and The New Justine (1797). At the turn of the century a new edition of Justine was published with obscene illustrations. Copies were seized by the police and in 1801 Sade was imprisoned. The story of Juliette is told in The History of Juliette (1797).
The Marquis de Sade:
From start to finish, vice triumphs and virtue is humiliated, and only at the end is virtue raised to its rightful pinnacle; there will be no one who, on finishing this tale, will not detest the false triumph of crime and cherish the humiliations and misfortunes which virtue undergoes.
Justine inhabits a labyrinth, a labyrinth of mind and geography. Sade anticipates the work of Franz Kafka (1883-1924) by a century and a half.
After the fall of Napoleon, Sade's books were banned in France. In Victorian Britain, it was pornography for the drawing room. Not until 1983 were his books allowed into Britain.
Was he an evil genius? A man who carves up a prostitute for his own sexual gratification is evil whether she consented or not. His writings indicate he was a genius.
The philosophy of the Marquis de Sade was that Man was governed by his Nature. There was little he could do about it therefore he should simply enjoy life to the full, whatever his intrinsic nature dictates, to do otherwise is to deny ones self. Man can only exhibit and enjoy to the full his true nature when he is freed from all moral and social restraints. Quite rightly Sade dismissed morality as fashion, that it was Man's artificial laws that dictated what was right and wrong. In expressing this opinion he was not alone, the French philosopher Diderot (1713-84) in Supplement to the Voyage of Bougainville (written 1771, published 1796) expressed similar views, but it does beg the question as to what are the limits? Is rape, torture, murder, genocide acceptable?
The Marquis de Sade was a product of his times, the French Revolution, the Terror that followed, though that is not to excuse him. During his lifetime, 1 in 7 of the women in Paris were prostitutes, there were 40,000 practising homosexuals. His habits were the norm for many. A Police report commented on the high sales of brooms to brothels. The crime of the Marquis de Sade was not what he did, but that he spoke of it publicly.
The question that has to be asked is should his works be banned. Until 1983, they were banned in England. The same question can be asked of violence in films for public titillation. The snuff movie the ultimate wet dream. The film industry argues vehemently that has it has no effect. If so we have to ask why are our lives saturated with advertisements, why is an organisation like AdBusters denied media slots? The works of Sade may not lead people astray, but his cogent arguments and philosophy adds legitimacy to the perverse. The perverted may feel that they themselves are not abnormal, thus their actions become okay if they are not alone, when others share their traits. What leads the Turks to carry out atrocities in occupied Kurdistan or the Serbs in Kosovo?
A world that followed Sade would be a world in which evil rules the land, where the rich and powerful can do as they please, free to steal, rape and murder, to satisfy their lust. All that would bar them would be a counter attack by their intended victims. A world of gruesome barbarity, brutality and cruelty, social Darwinism writ large, a world not very different from the world of today.
Sade died suddenly at the end of 1814. His will dictated that he be buried in an unmarked grave, allowed to grow wild, so that 'all trace of of my resting-place should disappear from the surface of the earth as I flatter myself that my memory will disappear from the minds of men.'
Monk Lewis (1775-1818), educated at Westminster and Christ College, Oxford, was author of The Monk (1796). In the first half of the 20th century The Oxford Companion to English Literature described The Monk as unreadable due to its mix of the indecent and supernatural 'The mixture of the supernatural, the horrible, and the indecent makes the book unreadable to-day'.
Ann Radcliffe (1764-1823) wrote several Gothic novels, the best known being The Mysteries of Udolpho (1794) and The Italian (1797).
Margaret Crosland (ed), The Passionate Philosopher: a Marquis de Sade reader, 1993
Marquis de Sade, The Misfortunes of Virtue and Other Early Tales, trans & ed David Coward, Oxford University Press, 1992
Donald Thomas, The Marquis de Sade, 1993