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Tabula Rasa

Sade But True

The Life and Crimes
of the Divine Marquis

by David Carroll

First Appeared in Tabula Rasa#4, 1994

...a physical explanation will without doubt be found as easily, and when the study of anatomy reaches perfection they will without any trouble be able to demonstrate the relationship of the human constitution to the tastes which it affects. Ah, you pedants, hangmen, turnkeys, lawmakers, you shavepate rabble, what will you do when we have arrived there? What is to become of your laws, your ethics, your religion, your gallows, your Gods and your Heavens and your Hell when it shall be proven that such a flow of liquids, this variety of fibres, that degree of pungency in the blood or in the animal spirits are sufficient to make a man the object of your givings and your takings away? We continue. Cruel tastes astonish you.
When we were writing our initial timeline we had some misgivings including the Marquis de Sade in a history of horror. Those misgivings remain, but have changed in substance somewhat. Horror, to speak broadly for a moment, is a conservative genre, it doesn't seek to redefine anything, but offers warnings about the current institution.

de Sade's work is neither conservative nor offers a warning. It is an exploration of concepts that verge into fantasy for sheer excess... yet are always pertinent, often persuasive. My best analogy is that de Sade is Lovecraft, except that we are the Old Ones.

His work and intentions never stray beyond defining what is human. We are told it precedes the relevant areas of psychology by many, many years, and that the surrealists recognised him as one of their own. We are also told, if we look in the right places, that he was 'the freest spirit who ever lived', and somewhere along the line he was a young soldier who gambled and whored too much, and an obese old man who had spent half his adult life in ill-health and in one jail or another.

And of course the popular view is that Sade is just some guy who lent his name to a certain word and is one of several prime candidates for evoking man's evil for comparative purposes.

The majority of this article will be spent showing de Sade the man, attaching years and figures to his deeds to contest that popular view. He led an extraordinary life, and lived in extraordinary times -- but not that extraordinary. Many people have lived through war and revolution, many have been imprisoned for large portions of their existence. Many people share his lusts (and compared with his later imaginings and certain contemporaries they were a tawdry lot, if enthusiastically pursued). It is his literary life that has given him his status -- not necessarily his skill with words [1] but the scheme of his fantasy.

All his most important work was published anonymously (if at all, and only one quarter of his writings have survived the shavepate rabble), and he spent much time later in life denying the authorship of works such as Justine for reasons of personal safety. But well before the hardships of prison lent him the impetus to those works he was set on becoming an author and playwright. Directly after 120 Days he wrote one his most successful and restrained public novels, and he always worked hard to get his fiction published. Then there are the essays, political pamphlets and a swathe of correspondence to his name. He was well-read, and loved reading, and knew the classics as he kept up with the modern novel.

It is the novels undiluted by fear of the public that shows Sade's full potential, his detail, his intelligence. As obscenities the work is simply boring, explicit but mundane, as a carefully constructed philosophy of 'non-logic' it is a bit of a hard slog, but magnificent. This private world of his was started at the age of forty-two, four years into one of his prison sentences. It was Dialogue of a Priest and a Dying Man, a short work that preceded his masterpiece The 120 Days of Sodom, and then his later works such as Philosophy in the Bedroom. But perhaps his most famous, interesting (and certainly accessible -- more so than 120 Days) novels are Justine and Juliette.

Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Juliette, or the Triumph of Vice.

The two girls are sisters, orphaned in their early teens and making their separate ways into the world. Some fifteen years later they meet again, Juliette a lady of means, Justine a condemned prisoner, the novels are the two catching up on each other's progress. And naturally Justine is pure of heart, her sister the most wicked of creatures.

Without the room to go into a detailed account of either novel I will try and convey some of their impact by reactions to them. Justine in particular is interesting because she is the only major character of the author's that spends any time at all expressing virtuous ideals, and she manages a pretty good job at it despite all her good intentions turning on her resoundingly.

To Gilbert Lély, Justine is 'almost entirely devoid of psychological importance... a mere concept, an abstract construction, who would seem only to have been thought up by the author to prove his pessimistic thesis about the consequences of virtue' [143]. To Jean Paulham [144], Justine is de Sade, beset by the world but unshakeable in faith, whereas Simone de Beauvoir does 'not recognise him at all... in the bleating Justine, but there is certainly something of him in Juliette, who proudly and contentedly submits to the same treatment as her sister' [150]. On a more general level, some see Sade the feminist -- Justine as the down-trodden masses, Juliette as the potential woman has when taking her destiny in her own hands. Others maintain that Sade is essentially anal, and treating the other half with contempt and disgust throughout. Certainly the women in his novels are the ones who seem free to make the moral choices, the men set in their (usually lecherous) ways. And he re-wrote Justine two or three times from its original novella length, so he obviously had some interest in the matter.

In the end we must recognise that the Marquis de Sade's work is a fantasy, a reflection of a certain perspective that is no more the sum and substance of reality than anyone else's attempt to make sense of it all. Indeed the thought of many of his constructs given actual flesh is a revolting one. But the work exists, the sentiments exist, and if horror illuminates the darkness of the world, this man's career is a pinnacle in its history.



The famous poet Petrarch sights 'Laura' for the first time and writes a series of poems about her -- this is actually Laure de Sade. Otherwise, the line is a series of important political and church officials.


de Sade born June 2nd. His name was to be Louis Aldonse Donatien, but became Donatien Alphonse François instead (due to a mix-up).


Educated by the Jesuit Louis le Grand College, after six years with his (somewhat licentious) uncle, the Abbé de Sade.


Enrolled in cavalry training at the Light Horse School. He was appointed unpaid sublieutenant in the King's own infantry regiment the next year.


Discharged with the rank of cavalry captain (after the end of the seven year war). Had spent some time gambling and 'never miss[ing] a ball or show: outrageous!'. De Sade's parents were in a sorry financial state at the time, and they had plans for him -- marriage. Indeed he was engaged simultaneously to Lady Laure de Lauris and Lady Renée Pélagie de Montreuil -- the first of his own choosing, the second as arranged by his family -- a choice significantly down the ranks of nobility, but which involved large sums of money. Lots of wangling was done, with Sade's parents trying to hide their son's conduct from the Montreuil family and Sade himself trying to arrange to be with Laure. He was married to Renée on May 15th. Despite being forced into the union, the two seemed quite fond of each other (and though she did not share his libertine leanings she seemed to understand them), and Laure had found someone else.

Later he was imprisoned in Vincennes Fortress for fifteen days on charges of excessive behaviour committed in a brothel.


de Sade was made Lieutenant-General of four provinces, and was acting as producer at a private theatre. His wife also helped at the theatre. His mistress for the next year or two was a Lady Beauvoisin.


Louis Marie de Sade, our man's first son, was born on August 27th. The second was Donatien Claude Armand in 1769 and Madeleine Laure came in 1771.


The flagellation of Rose Keller took place on April 3rd, Easter Day. The woman had been picked up by Sade and taken back to a house in Arcueil, where she was bound and flogged. Whether this was rape or not was contested in court. Physical evidence seems to support de Sade's story, but it's impossible to tell either way. Certainly he was made an object of public scorn over the affair. He was imprisoned but later released by Royal Order.


Rejoins the army, becoming a Colonel.


He spent a week in Fort l'Évêque prison for debts. He and his family moved to a country manor at La Coste. Lady Anne, younger sister of Renée, joined them, and already there is evidence of sexual relations between her and her brother-in-law (not to mention the Abbé, Sade's uncle).


He had a comedy of his own writing staged.

Half-way through the year he engaged four prostitutes who, along with himself and his manservant Armand, engaged in an orgy with much flogging all round (including of the Marquis). During the event Sade offered the girls a number of aniseed sweets which seem to have been doctored somewhat inexpertly with Spanish fly and possibly another substance, anodyne. Instead of the desired aphrodisiac affect, the prostitutes became quite ill. The Marquis was brought to trial for poisoning and sodomy. Avoiding the law he skipped off to Italy and spent several months there, accompanied by Anne whom he passed off as his wife. While Sade was executed in effigy in Aix, the King of Sardinia had the man himself arrested and imprisoned at the Fortress of Miolans. The arrest was made at Marie Montreuil's request -- this lady, Sade's mother-in-law, no stranger to social climbing and intrigue, was to be Sade's eternal nemesis.


After some five months captivity (in a room known as the Great Hope [2]) Sade, along with two others, escaped the fortress simply by climbing out a window and running for the border. He left a note thanking the Commandant for his kindness (followed by a request to send his belongings, including his quite new blue frock cloak and two recumbent china dogs, back to his manor at La Coste). After some weeks the Marquis returned to La Coste himself, instigating legal proceedings to get his name cleared, and on careful guard against the occasional raids made on the property to recapture him.


He held a series of orgies with his wife and young girls at La Coste.


Arrested in Paris and taken to Vincennes Fortress. He wife petitioned long and hard for his release, but was not even told where he was being held.


Refusing to plead insanity, the Marquis' 1772 case was retried and he managed to clear himself of the charges -- legally making him a free man. But he remained in prison due to a lettre de cachet in force -- an arrangement by which a prisoner's family (in this case his wife's parents) would pay for his 'rent' as a tenant of the system. While being transferred to Vincennes he contrived to elude his four guards, returning to La Coste. A month later he was rearrested.


Sade writes the first real attempt of his infamous style, Dialogue of a Priest and a Dying Man. He started work on 120 Days.


The prisoner was removed from his prison as the building was being closed. He was taken to the Bastille, still under the lettre de cachet.


He started work on 120 Days of Sodom in the form we see it in today.


The Marquis was making as much a nuisance of himself as possible by this time, and had taken to drawing crowds outside by shouting (through an impromptu megaphone) from the windows that the guards were slaughtering the prisoners.

For his trouble he was transferred to Charenton Asylum (who weren't too happy about it either). Ten days later the Bastille was stormed, his possessions ransacked and scattered, and 120 Days lost to him forever.


The Decree of Assembly released the majority of prisoners held under lettre de cachet. After some fourteen years of imprisonment, Citizen Sade walked free -- into the middle of the French Revolution. In grave financial circumstances, and with Lady de Sade demanding a separation, he spent much time writing plays, to variable success (he was much enamoured by the theatre but never seemed to master the art -- his best received play is Oxtiern, or the Effects of Libertinage). Later that year he would meet the last, greatest (and non-sexual) love of his life, Marie Constance Quesnet.


The anonymous publication of Justine.


After 'proving' himself a loyal member of the revolution with a series of political pamphlets (one of which he later claimed to have had thrown into the King's own coach) Sade was made Commissioner (whose duties consisted of management of the hospital system).


Aline et Valcour is published under his own name, a novel of psychological rather than physical cruelty, with its fair share of suspense and social criticism to boot.

Held in contempt by one of the leaders of the Revolution, Jean-Paul Marat, Sade unknowingly escaped the guillotine only because of a mix-up in which the Marquis de la Salle was renounced by mistake. Before he could correct the error, Marat was killed.

The Montreuils, his former parents-in-law that had kept him a prisoner for so long, came under Chairman Sade's judicial power -- and he acted to clear them of any charge. Indeed he was loathe (discretely so) to apply the death penalty to anyone.

He was arrested on suspicion of being an émigré (someone who had escaped from the country!), and betrayed by his colleagues because of his lax attitudes to 'law-enforcement'.


Sade escaped execution again -- because the sheer number of prisons and confusion of paperwork meant they couldn't find him. Later that year he was released.


Philosophy in the Bedroom is published, a 'posthumous work by the author of Justine'.


Justine was published in its final form (La Nouvelle Justine), quickly followed by Juliette. Sade and Mme Quesnet were having severe financial difficulties.


The Crimes of Love, a selection of stories and novellas, was published.


Sade was arrested and refused trial (because of the uproar it would cause) for being the author of Justine and Juliette.


He was moved back to Charenton Asylum. Over sixty and in poor health, he would stay here until his death. Marie Quesnet was allowed to spend some time living with him whilst so incarcerated, and he spent much of his time writing plays to be performed by the inmates for the public. One of his doctors tried to have him transferred to a proper prison since he wasn't actually insane...


Writes Les Journées de Florbelle, his last great work, now only existing in fragments.


The Marquis de Sade died on December the 2nd, aged 74. His will left most of his money to Marie, though was contested by one of his sons (who would later attend further book burnings).
Once the grave is filled in, acorns are to be scatted over it, so that in time the grave is again overgrown, and when the undergrowth is grown as it was before, the traces of my grave will vanish from the face of the earth as I like to think memory of me will be effaced from men's minds, save for the tiny band of those who were kind enough to be fond of me to the end and of whom I carry a very warm memory to the grave.


[93] The One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom and Other Writings, The Marquis de Sade, compiled by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver, Arrow Books, London, 1966.

[141] Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings, The Marquis de Sade, Arrow Books, London, 1965.

[142] Juliette, The Marquis de Sade, Arrow Books, London, 1968, c1797. These three enormous books are excellent compilations of the major works and critical essays by and about our man.

[143] The Marquis de Sade: A Biography, Gilbert Lély, Elek Books, London, 1961, c1957. Much of the timeline is a select summary of this book. While I cannot find myself agreeing with the author on all of his conclusions, the evidence he presents is painstakingly compiled. A (much) shorter version of his chronology appears in [141].

[144] The Marquis de Sade and His Accomplice, Jean Paulhan, of l'Académie Française, 1946, reprinted in [141]. Don't you love essays that start off by saying Jesus had a sense of humour?

[148] The Passionate Philosopher: A Marquis de Sade Reader, edited and translated by Margaret Crosland, Minerva, London, 1993, c1991. A short and useful book with extracts from many of Sade's works, as well as his letters and journal, though a comparison with [93] shows the translation is less interesting.

[150] Must We Burn Sade? Simone de Beauvoir, in Les Temps Modernes, 1951-2. Reprinted in [93].

* The Skull of the Marquis de Sade, Robert Bloch, adapted into The Skull, directed by Freddie Francis.

* Nightmare (aka Tobe Hooper's Night Terrors) directed by Tobe Hooper, 1993. Much the same sort of thing, with no real hint of the man or his work given.

* 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 (or The Marat/Sade, Peter Brook, 1966). Fascinating and wonderful.

* Quills (Philip Kaufman, 2000). Covering the same basic territory as the Marat/Sade, but in a less focused way. Nonetheless, very interesting.


[1] I have already quoted Simone de Beauvoir on the subject in my article including a lengthy discussion of The 120 Days of Sodom in #2, if you remember.
[2] Interesting in a vague sort of fashion, his prison's levels included Hell at the bottom, up through Purgatory, the Treasure, the Hopes and Paradise.

Voltaire's version of man may explain how humankind came to invent the spade; Jean-Jacques', the hayloft; Diderot's, conversation. But ogres and inquisitions and wars? "Eh," replies Voltaire, "those poor people were mad. We shall correct all that." "That is exactly what I call cheating," rejoins Sade; "we set out to understand man, and before we have even begun you are already trying to change him."
Jean Paulham [142]

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