‘THE DIVINE MARQUIS’:
THE MARQUIS DE SADE
Is the ‘Divine Marquis’ more sinned against than sinning?
Does De Sade deserve his evil reputation?
Andrew Darlington weighs the evidence…
The Marquis de Sade was caught up at the storm-centre of social convulsions. As an aristocrat born into the despotism of the corrupt, cruel and venal Ancien Régime of pre-revolutionary France, he yet later became a magistrate under the founding father of state terror, Maximilien Robespierre. And as a writer, his legacy remains muddled. His biographer Donald Thomas points out ‘for the few who regard him as a materialist philosopher using the literary devices of pornography to embody his views,’ there are as many who see him as ‘a pornographer self-justified by philosophical pretensions.’
Those who make claims for his work as a philosophy at the roots of Existentialism, can be explained largely through his antagonism to the hypocrisy of organised religion. He aims his blasphemously satiric attacks at priests and the religious establishment to the extent that Thomas claims ‘his greatest mania was religious rather than sexual.’ But the Church was also the revolution’s primary target. It was the bastion of irrational belief and superstition. It insisted on blind, unquestioning obedience to apparently absurd dogmas while obstructing by censorship and persecution the spread or even the holding of other opinions.
The problem is that de Sade frames his justifiable rejection of theology in a way determined by the religious binary of good and evil. Without god there’s only the laws of nature, red in tooth and claw, but by denying the existence of a deity, he moves not to a sensible middle ground of rationalism, but to its farthest opposite pole. In a calculated act of defiance, he shakes his fist at an absent god, by purposefully embracing every aspect of a mirror morality. Without religion, there can be no moral absolutes, and no behavioural restraint. In a valueless cosmos, acts of goodness are as essentially meaningless as acts of evil. As Dostoevsky says, ‘if god does not exist, everything is permitted.’ But no, it isn’t.
William Blake’s ‘Orc’ – the spirit of revolutionary energy, proclaims ‘sooner murder an infant in its cradle than nurse unacted desires.’ As a literary gesture or artistic pose that works just fine. But no further. Such an argument admits no possibility of social self-interest or co-operation through mutual need in ways that are not enforced by conformity to religious belief. In this extreme reductionism, human beings are ‘miserable creatures thrown for a moment on the surface of this little muck-heap.’ We are ‘matter in motion’ with no spark of divinity and no eternal soul. We are what we are, until death extinguishes us, and we become nothing. Our only duty is to the enlivenment of the senses, to what de Sade calls ‘the divine laws of pleasure.’ In this way, yes, he anticipates elements of Existentialism.
His name may have become shorthand for a kind of moral poison, but the extent to which he lived the philosophy he claims is debatable. It’s more likely that his writing is predominantly fantasy. Donatien-Alphonse François, the Comte de Sade was born 2 June 1740 into one of Provencal’s premier aristocratic families, he died in the Charenton asylum 2 December 1814 after having spent more than twenty-seven of those years in various kinds of incarceration under both royal and revolutionary regimes, including confinement in the Bastille, where much of his writing was done. There are early behavioural clues in tales of abusive behaviour inflicted on his domestic staff. Young de Sade certainly had a Parisian mistress, as well as engaging prostitutes for more extravagant sexual experiments. Although that was hardly unusual for his time or social class. He was unwillingly married to Renée-Pélagie Cordier in May 1763, but promptly ran off with her sister Anne-Prospére, which earned him the eternal enmity of his influential mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, who was responsible for many of his subsequent travails. It has been suggested that his wife, and her sister, were the source of his ‘Juliette’ and ‘Justine’ characters.
His documented, but subsequently embellished offences include stripping and whipping a woman called Rose Keller. Inevitably, their accounts of the event differ. He claims she consented. She says otherwise. She claims he cut her buttocks with a knife, then poured melted wax into the incisions. He says there was no knife, and the ‘wax’ was ointment for her abrasions. An examining surgeon confirmed beatings had occurred, but the skin was not broken. Regardless of the degree of consensuality, she seems not to have suffered unduly and was well-recompensed by the fine imposed on de Sade. So, no angel, but hardly the monster of myth either. And despite such ghoulish exaggerations, both of his wives continued to be loyal and affectionate to him.
They were violent times, ferocious beatings were routinely administered as disciplinary measures in the Army and Navy. Corporal, as well as capital punishments were accepted aspects of the judicial system. Not that that exonerates Sade. The other authenticated case is when he administered the supposed aphrodisiac cantharides – ‘Spanish Fly’, to three willing Marseille brothel-girls who accepted his gift while exceeding the stated dosage. One of them – Marguerita Coste, became violently ill as a result. Although she speedily recovered with no long-term effects, Sade – accused of sodomy and poisoning, was forced to flee the country to escape legal retribution.
By the autumn of 1772 he had set up a refuge in Savoy as the ‘Colonel Le Comte de Mazan’ alongside his loyal Anne Prospére. He was briefly imprisoned, escaped, and returned to France. Again there was outrage, the so-called ‘Scandal Of The Little Girls’ during the winter 1774-5 in La Coste – a six-week debauch involving a fifteen-year-old male secretary, five servant girls of a similar age and a twenty-four-year-old nanny, after which he was again forced to flee to Italy. Strangely he declared himself shocked by the degenerate sexual dissolution he encountered in Florence and Naples.
He was tricked into returning to Paris where he was finally arrested in 1777 under a Royal ‘lettre de cachet’, and imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes, then the Bastille. It was during this long period of incarceration that his frequent letters developed into florid fiction. Days before the revolutionary masses tore the Bastille down, de Sade – as one of the agitators who helped incite it, had been transferred to the Charenton asylum. He was freed as part of a revolutionary amnesty, but penniless, moved in with a new mistress, former actress Marie-Constance Quesnet. As a magistrate under Robespierre’s Committee Of Public Safety, he actively opposed the guillotine, saved enemies from prison, campaigned fearlessly against state terror and injustice, and as an exemplary democrat supported the direct vote. Unlike other philosophical fathers of the revolution, he didn’t anticipate instant utopia, but believed that with economic and sexual equality, the human lot could be greatly improved. Hardly the actions of the monster portrayed by his legend.
His novels ‘Justine: The Misfortunes Of Virtue’ and ‘Juliette: The Prosperities Of Vice’ contrast the diverse fortunes of two sisters, the former who attempts to retain her virtue but is systematically debauched, and the latter who embraces vice, only to thrive and prosper. With Juliette just fifteen, and Justine twelve, their father is made bankrupt and flees to England, and with their mother dead they’re thrown back on their own resources. ‘Juliette’ has early experience of lesbian attentions and those of diabolic priests in a convent, so goes on to spend two years in a brothel, selling her virginity eighty times in four months while perfecting her erotic skills. Relying on her own ruthless energies she climbs from one man to another, from Noirceuil to Saint-Fond ascending the corrupt social ladder. She marries a nobleman, poisons him, runs her own brothels and gambling dens, organises a ‘Theatre of Cruelties’ for the King and Queen of Naples, attends a Papal Black Mass, and ends up the Countess de Lorsange.
As a fugitive she stays with Rodin, a surgeon who at first offers her asylum, until she observes him abusing children in his care. Attempting to save Rodin’s daughter, Rosalie from abuse, Justine is captured and tortured. A toe is severed from each foot, teeth are torn out, she’s branded and then abandoned in the forest. While Rodin prospers, appointed as surgeon to the King of Sweden at a considerable salary, she seeks sanctuary with Father Clément at the monastery of Saint-Marie-des-Bois where she is systematically debauched by four monks – the first takes her anally (he ‘satisfied himself outrageously, without my ceasing to be a virgin’), the next orally (‘in a place which prevented me, during the sacrifice, from expressing any complaint as to its irregularity’), only then does she finally lose ‘the treasure of my virginity, for which I would have sacrificed my life a hundred times.’
She becomes one of four prisoners held in their seraglio, although there are suggestions of other girls held in other towers. The inconvenient pregnancies that result are treated with a ‘tisane’. But Justine is fearful of what happens to the girls they tire of, the first – Omphale, disappears after just six weeks. Presumably they are killed. After two years, with Justine the only survivor of the original four, they are liberated only when the monks themselves move up the church hierarchy, and are to be replaced.
Even then, what would seem to be a promising conclusion is frustrated when Justine is killed in a meaningless way by a random lightning strike. Even when I first read these books as a sexually highly-suggestible teenage apprentice it was impossible to see them as anything other than horror-comic cartoons. In their grotesque absurdity the two novels can be read as tales of amusing excess in the strangely Gothic fashion of Matthew Lewis’ ‘The Monk’ (1796) or Ann Radcliffe (‘The Mysteries Of Udolpho’, 1994). Everyone – except Justine, are corrupt and vile. Juliette’s career forms an argument that women have as much right to cheat and scheme, and to be as sexually devious as men. Both Simone de Beauvoir (‘Must We Burn Sade?’, 1955, Grove Press) and Angela Carter (‘The Sadeian Woman’, 1979, Virago) have portrayed de Sade as an advocate of individual liberty above gender, or gender orientation. Absolutely free. Parallels can be drawn between him and ‘Les Liaisons Dangereuses’ written around the same time, in Aix between 1780-’81 and published in Amsterdam a year later. Choderlos de Laclos’ theme is also sex and malice – with playful flourishes such as Valmont lying in bed writing a letter, using the naked body of a girl as his writing desk. Although malice and viciousness triumph, de Sade’s bleaker perspective contrasts its more frivolous cruelties.
‘La Philosophie Dans Le Boudoir (The Philosophy Of The Bedroom)’ (1793) is more philosophy than it is bed. In the preface – ‘Aux Libertins’, de Sade declares, in a very 1960’s way, of a youth ‘for too long restrained by the dangerous fantasies of grotesque and absurd virtue, by the chains of a disgusting religion,’ and urges them to ‘destroy and trample on those ridiculous precepts inculcated in you by imbecile parents.’ Right On! Yet there’s unbridled nastiness as fifteen-year-old Eugénie is given a moral and sexual education by three older libertines at the request of her father. When her mother, Madame de Mistival, attempts to intervene she’s hideously punished by having her vagina symbolically sewn up, and expelled from the ongoing activities.
There’s also a shower of bawdy de Sade short stories, farces and sketches collected into ‘Les Crimes L’Amour (The Crimes Of Love)’ (1800), with “The Self-Made Cuckold”, translated by Margaret Crosland, still considered racy enough to qualify for inclusion in ‘Penthouse’ (August 1965, Vol.1 no.6). But ‘Les 120 Journées De Sodome (120 Days Of Sodom)’, although fragmentary, flawed and incomplete, is a more conscientiously offensive work detailing the inexcusable torture and murder of children. But again, the purpose is less pornographic in the sense of inducing arousal, and more a deliberate exploration of the most transgressive, the most forbidden, the most morally repugnant outer limits of unfettered human appetites. What he proclaimed as ‘the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists.’ Both the ultimate in morbid gothic excess, and a precursor to the torture-porn of twenty-first-century CGI-effect splatter- horror movies.
Four nobles – the Duc de Blangis, Président de Curval, a Bishop, and banker Durcet, travel to the gloomy gothic Château de Silling in the depths of trackless forests and surrounded by mountains, to indulge in their systematic orgy. In a later study Havelock Ellis numbers six-hundred distinct deviational activities, calculated from the narratives of four procuresses who preside over the fetishistic debauch, each describing 150 perversions to be acted out on the retinue, which includes entrapped boys and girls chosen for their beauty. It’s an almost mathematical exercise in configurations after which, at the end of the 120-days of continual incarceration and depravities, the survivors are massacred.
How is it possible to defend a man who advocates such unmitigated horrors? In fact, there’s never a suggestion of approval, on the contrary, the protagonists are never portrayed as being anything less than repugnant. And why a Bishop? Because, to de Sade, such status equates with the greatest hypocrisy. He had no illusions about human ‘natural goodness’. While – let’s be absolutely clear about it, this in no way constitutes child-abuse. Unlike online kiddie-porn, no child is involved. Everything happens inside the confines of de Sade’s head. These are wild fantasies written by a man in the Bastille during the thirty-seven days following 22 October 1785, charting the very extremes of human vileness. And if it’s masturbatory in nature, then it’s on an exhaustively epic scale. De Sade initially believed the forty-foot manuscript-scroll lost, but it was retrieved and first printed in 1877. In fact, the first fully unexpurgated version was only published in New York as late as 1989. Yet the scenario portrayed is sufficiently timeless for director Pier Paolo Pasolini to recast it as ‘Salò – The 120 Days Of Sodom’ (1975), setting its coprophiliac excesses within the last outpost of Italian Second World War fascism.
De Sade academic Alan Hull Walton emphasises, ‘there is nothing aphrodisiac in Sade.’ The Marquis treats sex with brevity and a ‘cold and cynical objectivity.’ Aldous Huxley agrees that, although sex permeates de Sade’s writing, there is ‘more philosophy than pornography.’ Walton points out that there were sadists long before de Sade’s name was first grafted onto the psychopathic condition as a clinical term of description by Richard Freiherr Von Krafft-Ebing. He lists the likes of ‘Bluebeard’ Gilles de Rais, the lives of the Caesars as recorded by Suetonius and Tacitus, and Ivan the Terrible.
But to state the obvious, characters on paper feel no pain. As fictional characters in misery-memoirs, Justine and Juliette feel no more real pain than the eternally tormented souls in Hieronymus Bosch’s painting ‘The Garden Of Earthly Delights’. Certainly de Sade witnessed acts of unbridled vileness and immorality during the ‘Reign of Terror’ to equal anything in his writing. And, although monstrously exaggerated, the acts he portrays can in no way be equated to the real inhumanities inflicted on the real victims of – say, the Catholic Inquisition, the Moors Murderers, or the cruelties perpetrated by Irish Catholic clerics of the Christian Brothers upon their charges into the mid-twentieth century.
Yet for the Marquis there was worse to come. With the revolutionary ‘Reign Of Terror’ fervour extinguished by Napoleon’s return to moral normality, he was re-arrested. In a timely intervention by his family he was declared insane and returned to Charenton. This is the period envisaged by director Philip Kaufman in the film ‘Quills’ (2000), with de Sade (played by Geoffrey Rush) subject to the strange asylum regime where he’s initially able to direct plays involving the inmates. This has also been dramatised by Peter Weiss as ‘The Persecution And Assassination Of Jean-Paul Marat As Performed By The Inmates Of The Asylum Of Charenton Under The Direction Of The Marquis De Sade’ (1963). Ironically it was due to the enlightened François Simonet de Coulmier – a Catholic priest, that de Sade was able to continue writing, and was permitted to have his wife live with him. Although Coulmier was later replaced and de Sade endured fresh periods of solitary confinements, he developed a relationship with fourteen-year-old Madeleine LeClerc, the daughter of a Charenton employee, which lasted for the four remaining years of his life. De Sade shared the same time period as another destined to give his name to a branch of sexuality. Giacomo Casanova died in 1798, de Sade 2 December 1814, aged 74.
Ever the subject of fascination as well as repulsion, his skull was removed for analysis, providing Robert Bloch with the theme for his short story “The Skull Of The Marquis De Sade”, inevitably filmed as ‘The Skull’ (1965), with both Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing, by Amicus. While the advent of Freudian analysis and Surrealism shone new light on the legacy of the ‘Divine Marquis’. Poet Guillaume Apollinaire not only rediscovered ‘Justine’, but helped rehabilitate de Sade’s reputation with his hefty ‘L’Oevre De Marquis de Sade’ in 1909. While in the fictional subworld of Gothic pornography, and the highly ritualised S&M subculture, dungeons, manacles, flagellation and total slave-control maintain their online currency in ways that de Sade would surely recognise, in new media-forms he might not.
De Sade remains on the very bleeding-edge of what should, and should not be expressed. Cicero suggests that ‘if we are not ashamed to think it, we should not be ashamed to say it.’ Correct, irrefutably so. Until we get to Somerset Maugham who puts such open idealism into some kind of social context by pointing out that if thoughts were subject to the law, he – Maugham, would spend most of his life in prison! Or unthinkably worse, to poet/artist Jeff Nuttall ‘to Ian Brady, de Sade was a licence to kill children’ (in ‘Bomb Culture’, 1968) – which is also true, but it’s surely impossible to police the media to eliminate everything deemed likely to corrupt the vulnerably impressionable?
And as recently as October 2011, the fiftieth anniversary Royal Shakespeare Company’s production of the ‘Marat/ Sade’ provoked eighty walk-outs at the preview show. Jeanie O’Hara who curated the programme justifies the play’s inclusion by stating the obvious, that the de Sade ‘philosophy is alive and well and streaming into our teenagers’ phones in the form of pornography. He is the ghost text behind every pornographic film ever made. He is alive and well in our culture…’
Yet in crime fiction, serial killers leave a grisly trail of mutilated corpses. But no-one actually dies. In Science Fiction civilisations fall, worlds explode and entire species are exterminated. But the ecological balance of the cosmos remains serenely undisturbed. It’s worth remembering that in pornographic fiction there’s lots of sex, but no-one actually gets fucked. It all happens on the page, and in the mind of the reader. As the tagline for ‘Quills’ phrases it, ‘there are no bad words… only bad deeds.’