The Marquis de Sade 200 years on
The Marquis de Sade by Charles Van Loo, 1760–62
By ADRIAN TAHOURDIN
It’s just over 200 years since Sade’s death (December 2, 1814), and the divine Marquis is far from being consigned to outer darkness, as many would wish. In fact, the date has been acknowledged in the recent opening of an exhibition in Paris, at the Musée d’Orsay no less, Sade: Attacking the sun, curated by the Sade specialist Annie Le Brun. It’s on until January 25, 2015. I haven’t been able to see it, but note that Le Monde’s art critic Philippe Dagen, who describes it as “exploring Sade’s “impact on the visual arts”, rates the show as “exceptional”. The museum’s website warns, however, that “the violent nature of some of the works and documents may shock some visitors”.
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was not a very nice man. There can be little disputing that. In 1763, he was jailed for two weeks for the mistreatment, including flagellation, of a prostitute in a Parisian brothel. Then there was the notorious occasion in 1772 when he and his valet Latour holed up in the Marquis’s chateau at La Coste in Provence with four young prostitutes from Marseille, whom they force-fed aphrodisiacs. Sensing trouble, the two men fled to Italy, accompanied by the younger sister of Sade’s wife, whom he had seduced. The two men were sentenced to death in absentia for attempted poisoning and sodomy, and their effigies burnt in Aix-en-Provence. The sentence was later quashed.
Considered irremediable by the authorities of the ancien régime, and those of the Revolution that toppled it and the Empire that followed, Sade was locked away in prisons and mental asylums for roughly a third of his long life, first in the fortress of Vincennes, then the Bastille and finally the lunatic asylum at Charenton outside Paris, where he remained until his death. When the crowds stormed the Bastille on July 14, 1789, Sade was no longer a prisoner there, having been transferred some ten days before; the governor of the Bastille (what happened to him?) thought it best to get Sade out of the way as he had been shouting out to the rioters outside the prison walls that the prisoners were being murdered.
Even in France, a country not noted for literary prudishness, Sade’s work has not had an easy ride. In 1815 Justine and other works were banned. In 1954 the late Jean-Jacques Pauvert was found guilty of obscenity for publishing an edition of Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, a work Sade composed in thirty-seven days on both sides of a 12-metre roll of paper while in the Bastille (Sade thought the work destroyed when he was moved to Charenton; it was in fact lost until a certain Iwan Bloch rediscovered it in 1904). As the TLS columnist J. C. noted (NB, October 10), Pauvert was “responsible for plucking the Marquis de Sade from infamous oblivion and setting him on the course to literary respectability”.
Sade finally gained a cast-iron seal of literary approval in France with his appearance in the prestigious Pléiade series in 1990 (what would he have made of that, I wonder) – in three volumes, all edited by the pre-eminent Sade scholar Michel Delon.
Reviewing the first of these in the TLS (February 15, 1991), the eighteenth-century expert David Coward wrote: “Sade’s books are turgid and his ideas as watertight as the muslin cloth in which they deserve to be boiled. Yet he still retains the power to transfix. That he should still do so in the late twentieth century is remarkable”. When he moved on to the second volume (TLS, August 2, 1996), Coward pointed out that Sade “stole ideas shamelessly”, Delon’s “meticulous annotations” revealing the writer’s “indebtedness” to Voltaire, Buffon and Helvétius among others.
The third volume, which came out in 1995 and wasn’t reviewed in the TLS, consists mainly of Histoire de Juliette, an interminable story in which virtue goes unrewarded and vice unpunished – over a thousand pages of closely printed text. This is preceded by La Philosophie dans le boudoir, which appeared in 1795 as a “posthumous work by the author of Justine”. The book’s full title La Philosophie dans le boudoir ou Les Instituteurs immoraux – Dialogues destinés à l’éducation des jeunes demoiselles leaves little doubt as to its content. It takes the form of a dramatic dialogue in the course of which a thorough sex education is handed out to fifteen-year-old Eugénie by the twenty-six-year-old Mme de Saint-Ange (who was herself married at fourteen) and her brother the Chevalier de Mirvel, both acting on the instructions of the homosexual Dolmancé, who sometimes seems like a cruder version of the amoral Valmont in Laclos’s Liaisons dangereuses (1782) – a work that Sade would have known.
It's notable that even Delon struggles to place Sade politically. As he points out, the son of a libertine aristocrat has been held up as a revolutionary and a counter-revolutionary. His status is said to have saved him from the scaffold, and he himself opposed the death penalty. And of course he despised the Church, a sentiment that may have had its origins in his harsh Jesuit education. La Philosophie dans le boudoir contains the reading of a pamphlet entitled “Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains” (one more push if you want to become republicans); yet, as Delon points out, in that story Augustin the gardener is confined to the role of a “sexual animal” – shades of the ancien régime.
Meanwhile John Phillips, the Sade expert and translator of the Oxford University Press edition of Justine, reminds us that the Surrealists had championed the “divine Marquis” as an “arch-transgressor and apostle of freedom”. Phillips nicely characterizes Sade as representing “the dark side of the Enlightenment”.
In a recent article in Le Monde, Delon wrote that Sade’s work has frequently been condemned by those who haven’t troubled to read it and that it took the obstinacy of poets like Apollinaire, Paul Eluard and René Char to bring him out of the shadows.
Delon describes the writer’s style as “mêlant le langage de la philosophie au vocabulaire des bordels” (mixing the language of philosophy with the vocabulary of the brothel). And he’s surely right, too, to ask: “Two centuries after his death, is it not time to move beyond the quarrel between right-thinking condemnation and lyrical exaltation?” He goes on to say that, aside from the pleasure yielded by an exceptional literary style (I agree), Sade’s work has great historical interest, crucially sending the reader back to that turning point represented by the passage from a feudal to a liberal society.
To the famous question posed by Simone de Beauvoir in 1952, “Must we burn Sade?”, the answer is unquestionably no.