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The Real Marquis


A few years ago a sharp-eyed researcher spotted a curious dossier about an eighteenth-century traffic jam. The streets of Paris often clogged with gridlock under the Old Regime, because carriages drove on either side of the road and got stuck in face-offs, unable to back up, owing to the vehicles behind them and the difficulty of putting horses into reverse. The result was road rage. In one particularly nasty incident at the Place des Victoires in 1766, a furious nobleman leaped out of his carriage, drew his sword, and buried it in the belly of the horse attached to the carriage blocking his. He was the marquis de Sade.1

We are now getting to know another Sade, less divine than the sublimely immoral marquis who has fascinated the literary imagination since the time of Baudelaire. He has emerged from the archives. After several generations of digging through new sources, we are ready at last to take the measure of the man. That is the goal of two recent books published within a month of each other.

They belong to a genre that could be called negative biography. It recounts the story of a life in the manner of ordinary biography, but it makes the hero look bad; and that creates problems. If you present your subject as an antihero, expose his feet of clay and kick them out from under him, your reader may walk away from the rubble asking, “Why did I bother with this book?”

The best way around this problem is to scandalize the reader. Choose the right target, preferably something overvalued or overblown, and knock the stuffing out of it. Lytton Strachey first proved the effectiveness of this strategy by puncturing Victorians in the biographical sketches that he published in 1918. Lillian Ross borrowed it in order to debunk Hemingway. Since then Tom Wolfe has mau-maued Leonard Bernstein; Robert Caro has skewered Robert Moses; Jeffrey Masson has stomped on the grave of Sigmund Freud; and now the negative biographers have taken on the divine marquis.

They face a peculiar version of the negativity problem: Sade was the antithesis of everything respectable, and he served as an ally for everyone in the avant-garde or on the left who wanted to play that favorite French sport, épater le bourgeois. How can one take the mickey out of the marquis in view of the fact that he was used to play the same game? The answer to this dilemma can be found among the twists and turns of literary history, a story worth studying in itself because it shows how literature and history are being combined in an assault on the cultural trends that drew most heavily on the Sadean heritage.

At first, Sade’s works remained underground. Printed in dark corners of Brussels, sold “under the counter” in France, circulated “under the cloak” among aficionados, locked into the “hell” section of the Bibliothèque Nationale, hidden on “the second shelf” of private libraries, and read “with one hand” by naughty boys and revolutionaries (Restif de la Bretonne claimed that Danton aroused himself by reading Justine), they remained at a suitable distance outside the law. The legal barrier suited the nineteenth-century bourgeoisie, because it had enough fissures for the books to reach the right sort without falling into the wrong hands. And it also suited the bohemians, because it marked off the borders of bourgeois society, where inhibitions could be flouted and an imaginary world, charged with libidinal energy, waited to be explored.

Sainte-Beuve, who mapped the literary landscape in the 1840s, placed Sade along a crucial line of demarcation:

I dare affirm without fear of contradiction that Byron and Sade (my apologies for linking them together) have been perhaps the two greatest sources of inspiration for our modern writers, the one quite visible in public, the other clandestine—but not too clandestine. If in reading certain novelists now in vogue you want to get down to the bottom of the trunk, to the secret staircase to the alcove, don’t ever lose that latter key.2

Baudelaire, Flaubert, Huysmans, and other “modern writers” situated themselves on the Sadean side of this division; and in 1909, Apollinaire identified it as the line that divided the nineteenth from the twentieth century. Hailing Sade as “the freest spirit who has ever existed,” he took the newly “divine” marquis out of the closet. “Ideas that ripened in the infamous atmosphere of the ‘hells’ of our libraries have now come into their own,” he proclaimed, “and that man who seemed to count for nothing during the entire nineteenth century could very well dominate the twentieth century.”

Apollinaire’s prophecy has come true. From realism to surrealism and from modernism to postmodernism, Sade has to some degree inspired nearly every movement of the French avant-garde. How could the biographers not take notice? After World War I, a Sade industry began to develop. Scholarly editions of his novels—restricted at first to psychiatrists and specialists permitted access to the caged-in sections of libraries—succeeded one another, thanks especially to the efforts of Maurice Heine. After World War II, the publications poured out: multivolume editions of his works, his correspondence, his family papers, accompanied at every stage by new biographies and critical studies. As the torch was passed from Heine to Gilbert Lely, Maurice Lever, Jean-Jacques Pauvert, and Annie Le Brun, the scholarship was dominated by keepers of the flame. It finally attained such monumental proportions that Sade himself took on the air of a monument historique—that is, a canonized author of classics.3

The state did not stand idly by while the Sadeans flooded the bookstores. French courts had condemned Sade’s work since 1814; and they reaffirmed its illegality in 1957, when the Chambre correctionnelle of Paris rejected the testimony of some leading men of letters—Jean Cocteau, Georges Bataille, André Breton—and condemned Pauvert to a 120,000-franc fine for publishing Les 120 Journées de Sodome, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, La Nouvelle Justine, and L’Histoire de Juliette. But new legislation opened the market to Sade’s works in the 1960s. A colloquium held at Aix-en-Provence in 1966 put them at the top of the agenda for scholarly study. They began to appear on reading lists for courses on literature. Students devoured them, having whetted their appetites with readings of Bataille and Marcuse or talk of sex and revolution in the corridors of Nanterre.

But as the shock of May-June 1968 subsided, Sade seemed less shocking. Endorsed by Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Lacan, he began to look like a prophet of postmodernism and a fixture in a new intellectual orthodoxy. In 1990, he made it into the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, the ultimate stage of canonization. In an introduction to the Pléiade edition of his works, Michel Delon sounded embarrassed: What was an immoralist like Sade doing in a nice place like this? The answer was clear: He had arrived.

Enter the negative biographers. Sade had had his detractors, of course, going back to his own contemporaries, who had nothing good to say about his avowed writing and knew next to nothing about the anonymous works later judged to be “sadistic” (the term “sadism,” for pleasure in inflicting pain, first made it into a dictionary in 1834). But he could not be knocked off a pedestal until he had been placed on one. Now, after some hard knocks delivered in the two recent biographies, he is tottering badly.

The first, by Francine du Plessix Gray, is the gentler of the two. It does not attack Sade directly, but it nudges him from the center of the story in a way that makes room for a substitute hero: his wife. Not that the marquise had any claim to be divine. She was neither attractive nor witty, nor even very interesting. But she stood by her man. While he spent half of their married life in prison, going to seed and feeling sorry for himself, she labored selflessly to supply his needs and get him released. When he finally waddled out in 1790, she had had enough. He got what he deserved, a contested place in literary history. She got what she wanted, liberty and obscurity—and an uncontested divorce.

The second book, by Laurence Bongie, illustrates negative biography at its most extreme. Bongie finds nothing good to say about his subject. As a child, he argues, Sade was a spoiled brat. As an army officer, he was a misfit; as a husband, a brute; as a philosopher, a plagiarist; as a prisoner, a self-pitying hypocrite; as a revolutionary, a trimmer; and as a figure in literary history, a mistake. Bongie’s all-out, undisguised hostility to Sade gives his story energy, despite its detours and excessive detail. It is less a biography than an indictment; and to the reader familiar with the heroic version of the story, it has an irresistible fascination: What damning piece of evidence will turn up next? And what is driving it all?

Taken together, the two biographies provide a fresh view not only of Sade, but also of the current state of literary studies. Du Plessix Gray and Bongie organize their narratives in the same manner as their predecessors: childhood, the five notorious criminal “affairs,” the prison years, the Revolution, and old age in the madhouse of Charenton. But they focus on the women in Sade’s life. Du Plessix Gray concentrates on his wife, Bongie on his mother and mother-in-law.

Du Plessix Gray begins with two questions: “What was it like to be the marquise de Sade?… What was it like to be Sade’s mother-in-law?” They are not academic questions, to be sure, but du Plessix Gray does not intend to write an academic book and does not pretend to produce new research. Nor does she break new ground, for the Sadeans have already turned out a small library of monographs on Mme. de Sade, the Sade marriage, and the Sadean woman.4 Du Plessix Gray is a storyteller, and she tells her story with consummate skill, keeping up the pace and the reader’s interest through thirty-one chapters of domestic drama. At the bottom of it all, she finds a love-hate triangle, composed of the marquis, the marquise, and the mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil.

This interpretation involves some psychologizing. Following her mentor, the dean of Sadean studies, Maurice Lever, du Plessix Gray roots sadism in the “negative Oedipal complex,” a malignant condition first diagnosed in Sade by the French critic Pierre Klossowski in 1933. According to Klossowski, Sade as an infant could not work through the normal Oedipal rivalry with his father, because he saw his father as weak, a sacrificial victim of “that false idol,” his mother. By identifying with his father, Sade turned his libido against his mother and, once he began to write, punished her endlessly in the mother-torture fantasies of his fiction.

  1. 1

    Arlette Farge, Le Goût de l’archive (Paris: Seuil, 1989), pp. 84-85. Laurence Bongie reprints some of the police reports on this incident in his biography, pp. 264-265.

  2. 2

    Quoted in Françoise Laugaa-Traut, Lectures de Sade (Paris: Armand Colin, 1973), p. 132. This book and Michel Delon’s introduction to the Pléiade edition of Sade, Oeuvres (Paris: Gallimard, 1990), are the main sources for the following remarks.

  3. 3

    For surveys of the vast literature on Sade, see Ronald Hayman, DeSade: A Critical Biography (1978; Dorset, 1994) and Michel Delon, “Dix années d’études sadiennes (1968-1978),” Dix-Huitième Siècle (1979), XI, pp. 393- 426. The Oeuvres complètes du marquis de Sade (Paris: Jean-Jacques Pauvert, 1966) edited by Gilbert Lely came to sixteen volumes, and the Correspondances du marquis de Sade et de ses proches enrichies de docu-ments, notes et commentaires (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1991-1997) edited by Alice M. Laborde has now reached volume 27.

  4. 4

    See especially Jeanine Delpech, La Passion de la marquise de Sade (Paris: Editions Planète, 1970); Margaret Crosland, Sade’s Wife: The Woman Behind the Marquis (London: Peter Owen, 1995); Alice M. Laborde, Le Mariage du marquis de Sade (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1988) and Le Marquis et la Marquise de Sade (Paris: Champion-Slatkine, 1990); and Angela Carter, The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography (Pantheon, 1978).

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