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The Human Comedy of the Divine Marquis

Sade: A Biography

by Maurice Lever, translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 626 pp., $35.00

Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, the most extreme of Donatien Aldonse de Sade’s surviving works, is not yet, so far as I know, prescribed reading for students of eighteenth-century French literature, but soon it may well be, since the status of its once-reviled author has undergone a striking change during the last half century. From being almost totally banned, the Divine Marquis—so called, it appears, because some of his early clandestine admirers believed in the religious intensity of his satanism—has moved to the position of a late-recognized classic. As recently as 1957, Jean-Jacques Pauvert was prosecuted for publishing his works; in 1990, Les Cent Vingt Journées was peacefully reissued in volume one of the Pléiade edition of Sade texts now being brought out by Gallimard, and admission to the Pléiade series is the usual sign of literary consecration. In presenting Sade, the editor of the volume, Michel Delon, adopts a respectful, even reverent, tone, and Jean Deprun contributes an essay entitled “Sade philosophe,” which purports to take the Marquis seriously as a thinker.

This development leaves me wondering because, in the various encomiums of Sade I have read—be they by emotional Sadophiles such as Gilbert Lely or by more sophisticated critics like Jean Paulhan—I have found plenty of fuzzy rhetoric but never any compelling argument to convert me from the view that Sade, although a fascinating phenomenon in cultural history, is not a great literary figure, but rather a pathological case of sexual obsession and distorted philosophy combined with a remarkably fluent pen.

It is not a question of adopting an a priori moral stance; still less of approving of censorship, which is always a bad thing insofar as it obscures the realities of human psychology. As Sade himself said more than once, he was as Nature had made him, and his one valid insight was that Nature in general has no regard for human morality. In this respect, he stood at the opposite pole from his contemporary Bernardin de Saint-Pierre, the author of the once famous sensible novel Paul et Virginie, who carried Rousseau’s Nature philosophy to ludicrous extremes of sentimentality. The point is rather that the distinction between the truly literary and the pathologically bizarre has been blurred in French literature, ever since Rimbaud advocated le dérèglement systématique de tous les sens, and his call has been echoed by other writers too numerous to list in detail. The result has been a nostalgie de la folie, comparable to the earlier nineteenth-century nostalgie de la boue. Patently deranged eccentrics, such as Raymond Roussel and Antonin Artaud, have been elevated to the rank of important writers, and the Marquis de Sade has become the subject of a flourishing academic industry that does not ask crucial questions about the literary and intellectual quality of his work.

This new biography by Maurice Lever is obviously a product of the industry but, surprisingly, while it puts the value of the works “entre parenthèses” (in brackets), as the Barthesians say, it gives a refreshingly shrewd and impartial account of the bizarre details of the life, and so illuminates the corresponding pathology of the works. True, Lever makes a few superficial concessions to Sadophilia. He uses as his epigraph a quotation from Lely: “At the highest point of solitude, an unheard-of accent of grace and fury.” He quotes, with apparent approval, Apollinaire’s dubious remark: “The Marquis de Sade, the freest spirit that has ever lived,” and he refers at least once to the “Luciferian grandeur” of Sade’s writings. But, in practice, he has nothing to say about them as literature, and is perhaps not greatly interested in them. He is a social historian, dealing with le phénomène Sade in its eighteenth-century context, and he tells the story with great zest and a wealth of new material.

He expresses his gratitude to the present members of the Sade family, who appear to have put more documents at his disposal than were vouchsafed earlier to Gilbert Lely for his biography of the Marquis. Incidentally, the history of the Sade archive is an intriguing question in itself. Why are we not told the identity of “the Genevan collector,” the present owner of the manuscript of Les Cent Vingt Journées, which was purloined from Sade’s room in the Bastille and never restored to him by the taker? How did so many documents survive, given the chaotic circumstances of the Revolution and the Napoleonic era? Why did Mme de Sade and Sade’s son Claude-Armand, who are both said to have burned papers they thought too scandalous to keep, not carry the holocaust further? Are the letters and diary extracts that have been published in dribs and drabs during recent years all absolutely authentic, or is there a clandestine trade in Sadiana, which may have prompted forgeries? Lever refers rather mysteriously to texts being “found,” and he quotes from others said to be in anonymous hands, as if there were a secret brotherhood of Sadian devotees.

He also acknowledges the help of a whole team of collaborators—“l’équipe Sade“—at the Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique. They are no doubt responsible for culling so many illuminating references from the police and state archives of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Not only does the book contain ample quotations from the main actors in the Sade drama, who were all, including the police officials, admirable and indefatigable letter-writers; even minor figures are brought to life in notes and appendices, so that we can follow in detail the extraordinary agitation which surrounded the Marquis at every stage in his career. The French original reads, then, like an absorbing picaresque novel, with the comfortable long-windedness that gives the grain of life. It is a pity that the American publisher has taken fright at its length; the English-language edition is an abridgment, made with the author’s approval, but it has lost a lot of the rich, gossipy substance of the French text.

Sade was, like everyone else, first and foremost a genetic accident, but he also happened to be born into a setting which allowed his peculiar, innate tendencies to blossom abundantly. Owing to the historical circumstances of the Old Regime, the French aristocracy of the eighteenth century, despite its stylishness and wit, produced some of the most arrogant, extravagant, and dissolute individuals imaginable, and Sade was one of them. He certainly had style; several of his contemporaries mention his aristocratic mien, and some of his letters are marvels of impertinence and vituperation. However, he carried the more unpleasant features of his class to crazy extremes.

His sense of aristocratic superiority was absolute, and he displayed it openly and unwaveringly right up to the Revolution, when, being a consummate liar as well as something of an actor, he suddenly changed tack and managed to pass himself off as le citoyen Sade long enough to survive. He treated money as if a plentiful supply were always his by right, and constantly dunned the long-suffering stewards of his neglected estates in the haughtiest terms and from wherever he might happen to be. His constant refrain was: “Don’t presume to bother me with details. Just send the cash.” He had no sense of financial responsibility; he left his three children to be brought up by his in-laws, he failed to pay the allowance due to his mother after he inherited his father’s estates, and he reneged on his financial commitment to his wife after their separation.

As for his sexual obsession, on the practical level, it went well beyond the licentiousness of the average French nobleman, who reserved some of his energies for hunting, gambling, and jockeying for position at court: and, on the imaginative level, it was, and perhaps still is, unparalleled. Apart from sex, Sade was mainly interested in amateur theatricals (for a short period he maintained his own private theater, regardless of expense), and had he not been dominated by his monomania, he might have remained an obscure author of indifferent plays and society verse, like some other noblemen. But sex eventually led to his twelve-year confinement from the age of thirty-eight, and confinement turned him into a writer whose principal subject was sex.

He himself mentions a special cause, which contributed to his sense of rank. He was born in a particular corner of the lap of luxury, and in circumstances which might have provided the subject for one of his milder bawdy tales. His father, Jean-Baptiste, was a southern nobleman who inherited three châteaux with their accompanying estates—La Coste, Saumane, and Mazan—in the Avignon area. There is a family tradition according to which an ancestress, Laure de Sade, was the Laura whom Petrarch glimpsed in Avignon one day in 1327, and thereafter extolled in his sonnets. Lever says that the tradition cannot be substantiated, which is a pity; it would have been a nice poetic irony to have the two opposite extremes of courtly love and very noncourtly sex associated within the same family.

As a young man, Jean-Baptiste came up to Paris and Versailles to play his part as a rake, spendthrift, and placeseeker in and around the court. Of his several mistresses, the most illustrious was the Princesse de Condé, the wife of a prince of the blood. To provide a cover for their liaison, and also no doubt with the hope, later dashed, of consolidating his position in such high circles, Jean-Baptiste conceived the idea of marrying one of the princess’s ladies-in-waiting, Marie-Eléonore de Maillé. The wedding took place with the connivance of the princess, and Marie-Eléonore, it seems, did not discover the truth of the matter until some time later. She provided Jean-Baptiste with a son, the marriage was not a success, and, after a few years, she retired permanently to a convent. But whether or not Donatien ever knew that he was the incidental byproduct of a royal adultery, he never forgot his early sojourn in the grandeur of the Condé household, where he was the playmate of the heir to the title. It gave a firm foundation to his later excessive belief in le droit du seigneur.

According to the surviving accounts, as an adolescent he was fair-haired, handsome and charming, a cherubin doted on by two of his father’s exmistresses. But his ungovernable character and exceptional appetites already began to manifest themselves during his short period of active service with the army, around the age of twenty and in the last phase of the Seven Years’ War. Lever quotes plaintive laments by the elderly roué, Jean-Baptiste, about the behavior of the young roué, his son, and these bring the first touch of comedy into the story. Jean-Baptiste himself was no saint; he had a taste for male prostitutes as well as princesses, and is mentioned in the police records through having made the mistake of picking up a police decoy. Also mentioned is his younger brother, L’Abbé Jacques de Sade, a worldly priest who was caught with a female prostitute in flagrante delicto and in ecclesiastical dress. Clearly, Donatien’s two nearest male relatives were not overburdened with morality, and the fact that they gave him up quite early as a hopeless case shows that they found something odd in his mentality. It is also significant that both Jean-Baptiste and Jacques, in their brushes with the police, were released without being charged, this being the usual privilege enjoyed by noblemen, whereas Donatien offended too blatantly for the police to be able to respect the convention.

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