The Marquis de Sade (or Compte de Sade, Donatien Alphonse François, 1740-1814) has been remembered for 200 years as the first sufferer of that perversion which takes sexual pleasure in causing pain to others. Like most reputations this one is misleading. That failing was exhibited by characters in books he wrote, not in de Sade’s own behaviour (though unsupported allegations were made about his ‘sadism’, no proof was ever bought forward). De Sade’s own failing was arrogance. As a highly intelligent nobleman of the Old Regime he advocated revolution and the abolution of that order; as a revolutionary official he decried the Terror and advocated moderation; and as a subject of Napoleon he criticised his assumption of absolute power. He seemingly would not learn to negotiate with those who held differing views and positions of power. As a result he spent much of his life in prison.
De Sade made enemies: he was good at it. His family began matrimonial negotiations on his behalf with a wealthy family in 1763. De Sade was in love with a younger daughter, but his suit was denied, so he married the elder (he needed the money). Later he eloped with the girl of his first choice, and made a lasting enemy of her mother. His wife forgave him, and later became very supportive, but her family did him what harm they could. Stories began to circulate of his licentious and deranged behaviour, which included both blasphemy and sodomy – and sadism. The allegations were all made by servants and working class people who may have been paid to make them, and were not necessarily true. As a result de Sade was imprisoned in 1777 and spent the next 13 years chiefly in the Bastille under royal lettres de cachet. He was not charged, merely held in custody at the pleasure of the king. This was likely the revenge of his wife’s family for the dishonour he had bought them. He was released under a resolution of the revolutionary government in 1790 abolishing lettres de cachet.
During the Revolution Sade served as a citizen official, despite his aristocratic background, and wrote a pamphlet calling for the abolition of capital punishment and the enfranchisement of women. As a revolutionary he could not abide the carnage of the Terror and was imprisoned by the revolutionary government in 1793, charged with ‘moderation’. His attitudes and actions gained him the hatred of Maximilien de Robespierre. He was saved from the guillotine only by the timely death of Robespierre. One of his letters, of May 1790, says: “despotism never used to open so many (letters) as liberty does”.
Sade was again arrested in 1801 for being the supposed author of a scandalous pamphlet against Napoleon. Buonaparte presumably thought anyone who criticised him must be mad. De Sade spent the rest of his life at Charenton insane asylum, writing and producing plays, and where he died on 8 December 1814.
The man was undoubtedly arrogant, opinionated, intransigent. He offended many. His reputation as a sexually deranged madman has to be limited to his free years, approximately 1760-1777, 1790-1793, 1795-1800, during which time he was active both as a pamphleteer and a playwright. As a prisoner he apparently behaved himself, and the governor at Charenton both encouraged his writing and allowed him to stage his plays. As all the allegations made against him were made by those whom he had offended in person or by his writings, it is doubtful if they have any substance. He was an embarrassment because of his views and writings and was simply put out of the way (just as an heiress then might be placed in a lunatic asylum so as her guardian could have unimpeded access to her fortune).
As a writer de Sade pioneered sexology, and was an early advocate of revolution as a solution for the inflation, social injustice and corruption rife under the Old Regime. As a person he was humane to his enemies. His age did not have the sqeamishness about sex of latter ages, and de Sade was able to use sex in his writings as a metaphor for political power and ridicule its excesses. He wrote pornography as a result and some of his characters were ‘sadists’. That’s the bit that has been remembered.
De Sade’s pamphlets didn’t affect the course of the French Revolution, but they were symtomatic of the ideas and unrest which bought it about. His plays have been little studied, but his novels, all written in prison, have been abhorred, and read surreptitiously, for 200 years. De Sade appears to have enjoyed his power as an aristocrat yet been able to see that that power had been used to excess and had to be abolished. He expressed this in sexual terms, yet the ideas were a continuation of those in his revolutionary pamphlets. Dismissing him as a ‘sadist’ has been a way of negating his subversion of social and class structures.
The novels are long, well written but, like all pornography, repetitious and eventually tedious – if one simply dismisses them as pornography. De Sade is actually depicting a society which has lost all values and is busy destroying itself. He showed no awareness as to how his books would be read, just as he showed no awareness as to how his parents-in-law would regard his incest with his wife’s sister. He simply did what he wanted to do, regardless. This is the real reason for his reputation, both as madman and sadist.
Pasolini updated de Sade’s depiction in his last film, Salo, which was set in Nazi Germany. A key element of sadism is that it is accompanied by sexual pleasure. Take away this component, then a glance at any newspaper shows that taking pleasure by causing pain to others is a widespread element of human behaviour.
©2009 Original material copyright Phillip Kay. Images and other material courtesy Creative Commons. Please inform post author of any violation.