Two biographies of the Marquis de Sade aim to set the record straight about the depraved nobleman
Financial Times, weekend section, July 17/18, 1999
Above the tiny French hill town of La Coste stands a small stone structure that might once have been a castle. In its dilapidated state, it is hard to imagine that it was once home to one of France’s most infamous characters, the Marquis de Sade.
Sade, who lived with one foot in the ancien regime and one in Republican France, has come down to us with a mixed reputation. Now, two new biographies hope to set the record straight. Happily, they succeed in giving us a more nuanced portrait of one who has been variously described as a great man and an immortal (by Gustav Flaubert) and as one possessed of “the most depraved heart” and “most degraded spirit” (by a French columnist of the late 18th century).
The citations are from Francine du Plessix Gray’s book (At Home With the Marquis de Sade), which gives an insightful and balanced account of a complex life. Sade’s childhood was shaped by doting aunts and a libertine uncle (whom Sade would go on to outdo), and by his station in the nobility, which gave Sade an outrageous sense of entitlement that would stay with him even through his darkest days.
It is Sade’s relationships with the women in his life—not the courtesans with whom he famously frolicked, but his wife and mother-in-law, and two later female companions—that provide the grist for Gray’s volume. These women showed Sade amazing devotion, even as he careened from scandal to scandal, and only abandoned him long after most spouses would have fled.
The scandals, which began when Sade was just 23, were truly monstrous. But they are also revelatory. Picture the nobleman forcing a Parisian prostitute to witness him masturbating over a crucifix while raving about the non-existence of God, and you get some idea of the psychological contortions Sade must have experienced.
While Sade was certainly perverse, both Gray’s book and that of Brooklyn College professor Neil Schaeffer (The Marquis de Sade: A Life) make clear that he was not a sadist in the modern sense of the word, or at least not exclusively. For Sade, sexual gratification came in countless forms, and his appetite for it was similarly insatiable. A prison diary in which Sade recorded his masturbations counts 6,536 episodes in two and a half years. Yet for the mid 18th century, most of Sade’s antics would not have seemed unusual. Flagellation and sodomy were common practices among the nobility. But Sade larded his versions of them with a subversive rhetoric—railing against the Church, against the Crown, against even the loose morals of the day—that made him anathema to the French authorities. As a result, Sade would spend almost a third of his days in more than a dozen prisons in France and Italy, and his experience behind bars was to shape much of his thought and give rise to the writings by which he is best known today.
Those writings, while certainly shocking—though not in the coldly graphic manner of today’s pornography—show us a mind concerned with the nature of morals and of humanity itself. To Sade, men were born to satisfy their deepest urges, and if those urges included all manner of sexual practices that many would find aberrant or repugnant, so be it. While it may flatter Sade’s writing to call it philosophy, his work raised questions about Enlightenment thought and general morality that would be taken up only many years later by thinkers such as Freud, Georges Bataille, and Roland Barthes, and artists such as Baudelaire, Luis Bunuel, and Pier Paolo Pasolini.
The narrative of Sade’s life is replete with jailbreaks, sumptuous orgies, and a cast of characters ranging from Petrarch to Robespierre. While Gray expertly places Sade within his historical context (even giving us a look at his contemporary descendants, something Schaeffer wither neglects or was unable to accomplish), both authors provide the minutiae that bring Sade’s story to life, from the long lists of foodstuffs and furnishings he demanded his wife deliver to him in prison, to his constant money problems.
While both books cast Sade in a sympathetic light (it is perhaps time to forgive his pornographic rantings, after all, even if not his actual cruelties), Gray’s formidable powers of intuition and synthesis make more satisfying reading. Schaeffer, who gives us a psychological analysis based on the small handful of facts that are known about the marquis’s early life, makes a slightly too enthusiastic biographer, and his fascination with his subject seems at times to cloud some of his judgments.
Whether you read one or both of these books, though, Sade’s life makes a compelling, perhaps even an edifying tale. A man of seemingly limitless enthusiasm for the world, Sade never stopped working on his novels and devoted himself to his first love, the theater, until the end of his days. Still, he managed to die penniless and infirm after decades of oppression, and without recognition in his own time as the original thinker that he was. As the apotheosis of ancien regime libertinism, Sade’s transgressions have always overshadowed the philosophical aspects of his work. As the original libertarian, Sade was in many ways far ahead of his time.