Marquis de Sade: Pervert or hero?
The young boy peeked through the heavy drapes and saw his uncle, as he has seen him uncountable times. The woman lay on the bed. She was naked, but his uncle had not taken off his habit. They kissed, they laughed, and did the same thing as always. The young Marquis, although he was not yet 10, felt it was false. He knew he could never believe in the righteousness of any abbot he would ever encounter.
Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, shortly Marquis de Sade, was born a son of a noble family and spent the first years of his life in Hôtel de Condé, which was the main Paris seat of the princes of Condé. From age five to fourteen, he lived with his uncle, who was an abbot. The dark dungeons of the abbey in Ébrueil probably inspired him for the rooms in the books Justine and Juliette. At very young age, De Sade learned that men of the cloth are certainly not necessarily free of sin, or, more detailed, of sexual escapades. His uncle had a mistress living in the abbey, and it is likely he also had a sexual relationship with his mistress’s daughter. This greatly affected the young Marquis in his opinion of the church. He hated and condemned its hypocrisy, and would express this in many of his writings.
He started a military education after four years of boarding school and then fought in the Seven Year’s War. When he was dismissed from his military duties, he spent lots of money on gaming and many hours in so-called petite maisons, which were private brothels kept by noblemen in the 18th century. His reputation was that of a wild, young boy without any moral. His father hoped that a marriage would tame the Marquis, and thus a marriage with Renée-Pélagie de Montrueil was arranged.
A couple of months after his marriage in 1763, the marquis was first imprisoned for several sexual escapades. He was being released again after two weeks, but he did not change his habits in the least. The young Marquis was in his early twenties and didn't even think of settling. Instead, he celebrated life and his self-declared freedom. He owned several apartments, in which he enjoyed the company of other women, and he often left home to enjoy girls in other parts of the country. In fact, he would spend more nights outside the house than with his wife.
In 1768, De Sade held an extravagant party in one of his petite maisons. He had invited people of both sexes, and it was during that party that he started his sadistic practices. In that same year, he hired a beggar woman named Rose Keller, who offered him work in change of alms. She believed he would hire her as a housekeeper, but he, however, wanted her as a prostitute. She managed to escape and charged him for abuse – she accused him of having beaten and whipped her, and she claimed he had even dripped hot wax in wounds he had cut. He again was arrested and imprisoned. After seven months of captivity, he was released, but exiled to his castle La Coste in the Provence region. His sister-in-law Anne-Prospère soon followed him to the castle and they started an affair. De Sade's mother-in-law, who had thus far protected the Marquis in order to keep her family’s reputation at high, lost her patience when she heard of this new scandal. On her command, the Marquis was arrested once more. In the following years, a couple of imprisonments, releases and new arrestments would follow, until De Sade was finally sent to the prison of Vincennes in 1777, and moved to the Bastille in 1784. He would stay in captivity for almost fourteen subsequent years.
Almost everything De Sade wrote was written during his prison stays. Since he was a nobleman, his cell was equipped rather luxuriously. He could bring his own furniture and his extensive library. 120 Days of Sodom and The Misfortunes of Virtue; an early version of Justine, came into being while he stayed in the Bastille. Interestingly, he had made a copy of the manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom in tiny, almost microscopic handwriting on small paper that he pasted together to a twelve meter long paper roll which he hid in the wall.
Despite his imprisonment, he certainly knew of the unsatisfied atmosphere in Paris, which probably provoked him to encourage the rioters.
‘To the rescue!’ he yelled from his cell on one of the upper levels of the fortress, using a pissing tube as a megaphone. ‘They are killing us in here! They want strangle us all!’ Innerly, he smiled satisfied when he saw the staggered faces of the people of Paris, who stood and looked up to him. Then, a couple of furious guards brutally removed him from the window. He was moved to the asylum of Charenton, but his work was done – a couple of days later, the Bastille was stacked.
De Sade's library, his furniture and all of his manuscripts were burned and destroyed by the raging crowds of Paris. The paper scroll, however, had been discovered by a guard, who took and preserved it. The long lost copy of 120 Days of Sodom was kept in private hands and appeared again for publication in the early 20th century.
In 1790 the National Assembly abolished the official letters with which De Sade was imprisoned without trial at King’s order. He was free at last – but his wife plead for separation directly after his release. Soon after their separation, he started a relationship with Marie-Constance Quesnet, a 29-year-old actress. There seemed to be real affection between the two: they would stay together until the end of De Sade's life. His financial situation was very bad in that time, and he eventually had to sell his property in the Provence region. Probably more for his own security than by conviction, he supported the patriots, called himself 'citoyen de Sade' and obtained official positions in the Republic - which was remarkable for an aristocrat. Then, however, he became a public critic of Robespierre and his Reign of Terror and received the death sentence for this reason. It was De Sade's luck that Robespierre was executed before him.
The first fifteen years of imprisonments were all due to his sexual escapades, and because his mother-in-law was hunting the man that scandalized her and her family. In 1801, under Napoleon’s rule, he was first arrested for his pornographic writings, i.e. the Nouvelle Justine and its sequel; Juliette. De Sade did not believe in God, nor in any moral values, and he detested the church. He plead for complete freedom. He did see and admit that people were born with savage desires - so how could there be anything like innate virtue? In Justine he demonstrates his scepsis towards virtue. Justine is a naive, angellike girl, who believes that the good will triumph, no matter what. But it doesn't, shows De Sade in his book: one of the reasons why the government tried to ban the work.
Again, there was no trial, but De Sade was put into the prison of Saint-Pélagie, although he strongly denied having written Justine. In 1802, he demanded a proper trial or freedom, but of course he did not get any of these. One year after, De Sade tried to seduce young boys that stayed in the prison for a couple of days. This scandal lead to a replacement to the prison of Bicêtre, and one month after, in April 1803, De Sade's family achieved that the Marquis was declared insane. He was moved to the asylum of Charenton near Paris, where he would stay until he would die a natural death in 1814.
In Charenton, he enjoyed several freedoms. He had a large room, his girlfriend joined him voluntarily in 1806 and he was allowed to continue writing, although many of his manuscripts were confiscated by the police due to their obscene and blasphemic content. However, he succeeded to publish and sell the Nouvelle Justine as well as Juliette. Moreover, De Sade led a theatre group in the asylum and his plays were staged by the inmates. Though the police tried to forbid these plays, the leader of the institution defended De Sade by saying theatre would support the healing process of the patients. He died on December 2, 1814, having spent half of his life in captivity, but since he had always stood by his morals, he died as 'the freest spirit that has ever lived'.
We can conclude De Sade was extremely modern for his time - his works are seen as precursors of Freuds theories of psychoanalysis. Despite the heavy reactions his works provoked in his own time, he has eventually found respect in popular culture. His idea of freedom was inspiring to surrealists such as Man Ray and Salvador Dalí. Today, now the question of freedom of expression is a burning hot topic, we should highly respect his progressiveness.
Gilbert Lely - Leben und Werk des Marquis de Sade (ISBN: 978-3491960251)
Marquis de Sade (Wikipedia)
Neil Schaeffer - Marquis de Sade: A Life
Who was Marquis de Sade (Smithsonian Mag)
Letters from prison
Book picture: Pillorying Justine