Marquis de Sade  

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Ruins of the Château de Lacoste of Marquis de Sade
Ruins of the Château de Lacoste of Marquis de Sade

"I dare say […] that Byron and de Sade […] have been perhaps the two greatest inspirations of our moderns, one openly and visibly, the other clandestine - though not too clandestine."--Sainte-Beuve, 1843, tr. Geerinck

"Il était intelligent ; il y a , dans son "Idée sur les Romans, des observations judicieuses et un sens littéraire."--Anatole France

"Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change."--letter from Sade to his wife

"In many ways Sade anticipated the investigations of the nineteenth-century sexologists, and his descriptions of sexual perversions, techniques and beliefs were without doubt based on his own experience and observations."--The English Vice (1978) by Ian Gibson, p. 27

"One is not criminal for painting the strange tendencies inspired by nature"--Marquis de Sade

"Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans"--Marquis de Sade

"La philosophie doit tout dire"--Marquis de Sade

"Cruelty, very far from being a vice, is the first sentiment Nature injects in us all" --Marquis de Sade[...].

"Oh, Juliette! forget it, scorn it, the concept of this vain and ludicrous God. His existence is a shadow instantly to be dissipated by the least mental effort, and you shall never know any peace so long as this odious chimera preserves any of its prize upon your soul which error would give to it in bondage. Refer yourself again and again to the great theses of Spinoza, of Vanini, of the author of Le Systeme de la Nature."--Juliette (1797–1801) by Marquis de Sade, tr. Austryn Wainhouse

"Sade and Goya lived at about the same time. Sade, locked up in his prisons, sometimes at the extreme edge of madness; Goya, deaf for thirty-six years, locked up in a prison of absolute deafness. The French Revolution awakened hope in both of them: both men had a pathological loathing of any regime founded on religion. But more than anything else, an obsession with excessive pain unites them. Goya, unlike Sade, did not associate pain with sensuous pleasure. However, his obsession with death and pain contained a convulsive violence that approximates to eroticism." --The Tears of Eros (1961) by G. Bataille, Peter Connor translation, p. 132-133

This page Marquis de Sade is part of the Marquis de Sade seriesIllustration: Portrait fantaisiste du marquis de Sade (1866) by H. Biberstein
This page Marquis de Sade is part of the Marquis de Sade series
Illustration: Portrait fantaisiste du marquis de Sade (1866) by H. Biberstein

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Marquis de Sade (1740 – 1814) was a French aristocrat, revolutionary and writer known for his libertine sexuality and lifestyle; and novels such as Justine (1791).

His works include novels, short stories, plays, and political tracts; in his lifetime some were published under his own name, while others appeared anonymously and Sade denied being their author. He is best known for his clandestine novels, depicting bizarre sexual fantasies with an emphasis on violence, crime, and blasphemy against the Catholic Church. He was a proponent of extreme freedom, unrestrained by morality, religion or law. Sade was incarcerated in various prisons and insane asylums for 29 years and a half (out of a total of 74, see Sade in prison) of his life; much of his writing was done during his imprisonment.

Depending on one's point of view, his writing is either philosophical laced with erotica, or just pornography. The term "sadism" is derived from his name and the French literary prize Prix Sade has been installed in his honour. Recent appreciation for the thought of Marquis de Sade has been professed in "Return of the Great Mother: Rousseau vs. Sade" by Camille Paglia in Sexual Personae (1990). A highly praised film on the subversive qualities of Sade can be found in the film Marquis (1989).



The women in the life of Marquis de Sade

Early life and education

Sade's youth

The Marquis de Sade was born in the Condé palace, Paris, to Comte Jean-Baptiste François Joseph de Sade and Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, cousin and Lady-in-waiting to the Princess of Condé. He was educated by an uncle, the abbé de Sade. Later, he attended Jesuit lycée, then pursued a military career, becoming Colonel of a Dragoon regiment, and fighting in the Seven Years' War. In 1763, on returning from war, he courted a rich magistrate's daughter, but her father rejected his suit, and, instead, arranged a marriage to his elder daughter, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil; that marriage engendered two sons and a daughter. In 1766, he had a private theatre built in his Château de Lacoste in Provence. In January 1767, his father died.

Title and heirs

The Sade men alternated using the marquis and comte (count) titles. His grandfather, Gaspard François de Sade, was the first to use marquis; occasionally, he was the Marquis de Sade, but is documentarily identified as the Marquis de Mazan. The Sade family were Noblesse d'épée, claiming at the time the oldest, Frank-descended nobility, so, assuming a noble title without a King's grant, was customarily de rigueur. Alternating title usage indicates that titular hierarchy (below duc et pair) was notional; theoretically, the marquis title was granted to noblemen owning several countships, but its use by men of dubious lineage caused its disrepute. At Court, precedence was by seniority and royal favour, not title. There is father-and-son correspondence, wherein father addresses son as marquis.

Twentieth-century descendant, the Comte Xavier de Sade, was the first to defend the family name and be interested in the Marquis's controversial work. Until 1948, Comte Xavier had known little of his ancestor because the Marquis de Sade's works went unpublished and unread in France until the 1960s. Thus, when he found a trunk containing journals, letters, manuscripts, and legal documents, he granted access to biographer Gilbert Lêly; the works were published from 1948 to the 1960s. The Comte Xavier and his descendants claim to own the copyrights and the family name, a peculiar legal manoeuvre because the Marquis de Sade died and his copyrights expired two centuries earlier.

To avoid association with the Marquis de Sade, descendants have refused the Marquis title. Bibliographically, the Sade family have some original manuscripts, others are in universities and libraries, or were destroyed in the eighteenth century. Moreover, the Comte Xavier de Sade founded a winery, honouring the Marquis de Sade, vinting champagne and claret, introduced to market in the late 1980s. Before Comte Xavier, most descendants were against using any of the Marquis's names, yet he named a son Donatien.

Scandals and imprisonments

Sade in prison, Sade's scandals

Sade lived a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly procured young prostitutes as well as employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste. He was also accused of blasphemy, a serious offense at that time. His behavior included an affair with his wife's sister, Anne-Prospère, who had come to live at the castle.

Jeanne Testard

Jeanne Testard

Beginning in 1763, Sade lived mainly in or near Paris. Several prostitutes there complained about mistreatment by him and he was put under surveillance by the police who made detailed reports of his escapades. The affair with Jeanne Testard in October of 1763 led to several short imprisonments.

Rose Keller affair

Rose Keller

The second of Sade's major scandals occurred on Easter Sunday in 1768, in which he procured the sexual services of a woman, Rose Keller -- whether she was a prostitute or not is widely disputed. He was accused of taking her to his chateau at Arcueil, imprisoning her there and sexually and physically abusing her. She escaped by climbing out of a second-floor window and running away. It was at this time that la Présidente, Sade's mother-in-law, obtained a lettre de cachet from the king, excluding Sade from the jurisdiction of the courts. The lettre de cachet (a royal order of arrest and imprisonment, without stated cause or access to the courts) would later prove disastrous for the marquis.

Marseille affair

Marseille affair

An episode in Marseille, in 1772, involved the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the supposed aphrodisiac Spanish fly and sodomy with his manservant Latour. That year the two men were sentenced to death in absentia for sodomy and said poisoning. They fled to Italy in July, and Sade took his wife's sister with him.

Sade and Latour were caught and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans, in late 1772, but escaped four months later.

Time at Lacoste

Catherine Trillet (or Treillet), Château de Lacoste

After his escape from Miolans in April 1773, Sade hid at Château de Lacoste where he rejoined his wife who became an accomplice in his subsequent endeavors. He kept a group of young employees at Lacoste, most of whom complained about sexual mistreatment and quickly left his service. Sade was forced to flee to Italy once again. It was during this time he wrote Voyage d'Italie, which, along with his earlier travel writings, has never been translated into English. In 1776 he returned to Lacoste, again hired several servant girls, most of whom fled. In 1777 the father of Catherine Trillet, one of those employees came to Lacoste, to claim his daughter, and attempted to shoot the Marquis at point-blank range. Fortunately for Sade, the gun misfired.

Back in Vincennes

Sade and Mirabeau

In February 1777 Sade was tricked into visiting his supposedly ill mother, who in fact had recently died, in Paris. He was arrested there and imprisoned in the Château de Vincennes. He successfully appealed his death sentence in 1778 but remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet. He escaped but was soon recaptured. He resumed writing and met fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works. Despite this common interest, the two came to dislike each other immensely. He would stay in Vincennes until 1784, when he was transferred to the Bastille.

Bastille and Charenton

In 1784 Vincennes was closed and Sade was transferred to the Bastille. On 2 July 1789 he reportedly shouted out from his cell, to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!" causing something of a riot. Two days later he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the start of the French Revolution, occurred on 14 July.)

He had been working on his magnum opus Les 120 Journées de Sodome (The 120 Days of Sodom). To his despair he believed that the manuscript was lost during his transfer; but he continued to write.

He was released from Charenton in 1790 after the new Constituent Assembly abolished the instrument of lettre de cachet. His wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Return to freedom, delegate to the National Convention and imprisonment

During Sade's time of freedom, beginning on April 2 1790, he published several of his books anonymously. He met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress, and mother of a six-year-old son, who had been abandoned by her husband. Constance and Sade would stay together for the rest of his life. Sade was by this time extremely obese.

He initially ingratiated himself with the new political situation after the revolution, supported the Republic, called himself "Citizen Sade" and managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background.

Due to the damage done to his estate Château de Lacoste which was sacked in 1789 by an angry mob, he moved to Paris. In 1790 he was elected to the National Convention where he represented the far left. He was a member of the Piques section, a section notorious for its radical views. He wrote several political pamphlets, in which he called for the implementation of direct vote. However there is much to suggest that he suffered abuse from his fellow revolutionaries due to his aristocratic background. Matters were not helped by the desertion of his son, a second lieutenant and the aide-de-camp to an important colonel, the Marquis de Toulengeon, in May 1792. De Sade was forced to disavow his son's desertion in order to save his neck. Later that year his name was entered - whether by error or willful malice - on the list of émigrés of the Bouches-du-Rhône department.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism" and imprisoned for over a year. This experience presumably confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty. He was released in 1794, after the overthrow and execution of Maximilien Robespierre had effectively ended the Reign of Terror.

In 1796, now all but destitute, he had to sell his ruined castle in Lacoste. The ruins of the castle were acquired in 2001 by fashion designer Pierre Cardin who now holds music festivals there.

Imprisonment for his writings and death

In 1801 Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette. Sade was arrested at his publisher's office and imprisoned without trial; first in the Sainte-Pélagie prison and, following allegations that he had tried to seduce young fellow prisoners there, in the harsh fortress of Bicêtre.

After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred once more to the asylum at Charenton. His ex-wife and children had agreed to pay his pension there. Constance was allowed to live with him at Charenton. The benign director of the institution, Abbé de Coulmier, allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays, with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition. In 1809 new police orders put Sade into solitary confinement and deprived him of pens and paper, though Coulmier succeeded in ameliorating this harsh treatment. In 1813, the government ordered Coulmier to suspend all theatrical performances.

Sade began an affair with 13-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, daughter of an employee at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until Sade's death in 1814. He had left instructions in his will forbidding that his body be opened upon any pretext whatsoever, and that it remain untouched for 48 hours in the chamber in which he died, and then placed in a coffin and buried on his property located in Malmaison near Épernon. His skull was later removed from the grave for phrenological examination. His son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned, including the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle.

Selected works

Marquis de Sade bibliography

The majority of Marquis de Sade have gone unpublished for many years. De Sade wrote close to twenty plays, but only two were performed in public. Of his other writings only a few were published under his name, of which Les Crimes de l'Amour, prefaced by the essay Idée sur les romans, is best-known.

The works that made him famous were all published clandestinely. He would deny authorship until the end of his life. These include the well-known novel sequence Justine and Juliette, the pornophilosophical Philosophy in the Bedroom and the posthumously published extremely transgressive The 120 Days of Sodom.

Works published anonymously and clandestinely

The object of scandal and fear when they were released, banned until the 1960s, these are the cause of Sade's fame and earned him his last years in prison. Sade has always steadfastly maintained that they were not written by him.

Official works

Recognized by Sade, of an erotic but not pornographic character - "gazées" - to use the expression of Sade.

Political pamphlets

  • Idée sur le mode de la sanction des lois novembre 1792
  • Petition des Sections de Paris a la Convention nationale juin 1793
  • Discours aux mânes de Marat et de Le Pelletier septembre 1793
  • Petition de la Section des Piques aux représentans du peuple français novembre 1793


Praise and criticism

19th century

In 1843 French literary critic Sainte-Beuve wrote that Byron and Sade "are perhaps the two greatest inspirations of our moderns, the first openly and visibly, the second clandestinely, but not very."

However, Jules Janin in the Dictionnaire de la conversation et de la lecture (1850s) stated:

"The novels of the Marquis de Sade have killed more children than could kill twenty Gilles de Rais, they kill every day, they will continue to kill, they kill their souls as well as their bodies. What's more, while Gilles de Rais has paid his crimes during his lifetime: he died by the hands of the executioner, his body was delivered to the fire, and his ashes were scattered to the wind, what power could incinerate all the books of Marquis de Sade? That is what nobody can do, these are books, and thus crimes that will never perish." --

Also, Sade is mentioned in L'Espion anglais and in Bachaumont's memoirs.

20th and 21st centuries

Numerous writers and artistes, especially those concerned with sexuality, have been both repelled and fascinated by de Sade.

Simone de Beauvoir (in her essay Must we burn Sade?, published in Les Temps modernes, December 1951 and January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. He has also been seen as a precursor of Sigmund Freud's psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".

Pierre Klossowski, in his 1947 book Sade mon prochain ("Sade my neighbour"), analyzes Sade's philosophy as a precursor of Nietzsche's nihilism, negating both Christian values and the materialism of the Enlightenment.

One of the essays in Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno's Dialectic of Enlightenment (1947) is titled "Juliette or Enlightenment and Morality" and interprets the ruthless and calculating behavior of Juliette as the embodiment of the philosophy of enlightenment. Similarly, psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan posited in his 1966 essay "Kant avec Sade" that de Sade's ethic was the complementary completion of the categorical imperative originally formulated by Immanuel Kant.

In The Sadeian Woman: And the Ideology of Pornography (1979), Angela Carter provides a feminist reading of Sade, seeing him as a "moral pornographer" who creates spaces for women. Similarly, Susan Sontag defended both Sade and Georges Bataille's Histoire de l'oeil (Story of the Eye) in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination" (1967) on the basis their works were transgressive texts, and argued that neither should be censored.

By contrast, Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. One chapter of her book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright claims that Dworkin's first novel Ice and Fire, which is rife with violence and abuse, can be seen as a modern re-telling of Sade's Juliette.

Cultural depictions

Marquis de Sade in popular culture

There have been many and varied references to the Marquis de Sade in popular culture, including fictional works and biographies. The namesake of the psychological and subcultural term sadism, his name is used variously to evoke sexual violence, licentiousness and freedom of speech. In modern culture his works are simultaneously viewed as masterful analyses of how power and economics work, and as erotica. Sade's sexually explicit works were a medium for the articulation of the corrupt and hypocritical values of the elite in his society, which caused him to become imprisoned. He thus became a symbol of the artist's struggle with the censor. Sade's use of pornographic devices to create provocative works that subvert the prevailing moral values of his time inspired many other artists in a variety of media. The cruelties depicted in his works gave rise to the concept of sadism. Sade's works have to this day been kept alive by artists and intellectuals because they espouse a philosophy of extreme individualism that became reality in the economic liberalism of the following centuries.

In the late twentieth century, there was a resurgence of interest in Sade; leading French intellectuals like Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault published studies of the philosopher, and interest in Sade among scholars and artists continued. In the realm of visual arts, many surrealist artists had interest in the Marquis. Sade was celebrated in surrealist periodicals, and feted by figures such as Guillaume Apollinaire, Paul Éluard and Maurice Heine; Man Ray admired Sade because he and other surrealists viewed him as an ideal of freedom. The first Manifesto of Surrealism (1924) announced that "Sade is surrealist in sadism", and extracts of the original draft of Justine were published in Le Surréalisme au service de la révolution. In literature, Sade is referenced in several stories by science fiction writer Robert Bloch, while Polish science fiction author Stanisław Lem wrote an essay analyzing the game theory arguments appearing in Sade's Justine. The writer Georges Bataille applied Sade's methods of writing about sexual transgression to shock and provoke readers.

Sade's life and works have been the subject of numerous fictional plays, films, pornographic or erotic drawings, etchings and more. These include Peter Weiss's play Marat/Sade, a fantasia extrapolating from the fact that Sade directed plays performed by his fellow inmates at the Charenton asylum. Yukio Mishima and Doug Wright also wrote plays about Sade; Weiss's and Wright's plays have been made into films. His work is referenced on film at least as early as Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí's L'Age d'or (1930), the final segment of which provides a coda to Sade's 120 Days of Sodom, with the four debauched noblemen emerging from their mountain retreat. Pier Paolo Pasolini filmed Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975), updating Sade's novel to the brief Salo Republic; Benoît Jacquot's Sade and Philip Kaufman's Quills (from the play of the same name by Doug Wright) both hit cinemas in 2000. Quills, inspired by Sade's imprisonment and battles with the censorship in his society, portrays Sade as a literary freedom fighter who is a martyr to the cause of free expression.


Marquis de Sade bibliography

Further reading

works on Sade

See also

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