Marquis de Sade
Marquis de Sade; drawing by David Levine

This, it would seem, must count as a historic volume, since it is the first serious, non-clandestine edition of the Marquis de Sade’s writings ever to appear in America. The translation reads well, in spite of a number of perhaps misleading archaisms or gallicisms, such as “luxury” for “lust” (luxure) and “inconsequent” for “inconsistent” (inconséquent). The choice of texts is quite representative; in addition to seven letters by Sade and a dialogue on atheism, there are two “black” items, Justine, in one of the later, fuller versions, and La philosophie dans le boudoir, and one “white” item, Eugénie de Franval, a tale of incest and murder with a conventional moral ending. Eugénie is rather a bore, but at least it shows that Sade could bow to the moralizing conventions of the eighteenth century when he chose to do so, just as he could deny authorship of the “black” works with a fine display of moral indignation worthy of Diderot or Rousseau. Justine and La philosophie are not quite so overpoweringly ghastly as Les 120 journées de Sodome, which has been omitted; still, they are obscene and sadistic enough to give a fair idea of the Marquis in his most typical mood and to put any homme moyen sensuel completely off sex for a day or two.

The volume also contains a chronological list of the principal external events of Sade’s life, a Foreword by the translators, a Preface by the publisher, as well as two essays by Jean Paulhan and Maurice Blanchot, which were landmarks in the twentieth century rehabilitation of Sade in his native France as one of the neglected glories of that already richly endowed nation.

It is easy to see why Sade, after a hundred and fifty years of clandestinity, has been finally brought out into the open again. With the recent development of sexual frankness from André Gide to Proust and Jean Genet, or from D. H. Lawrence to Henry Miller and Norman Mailer, it was to be expected that the Marquis would eventually come into his own as the most concentrated and forceful exponent of the sexual obsession. As far as my reading goes, in his own particular line there is no one to touch him; he ranks as King Phallus. Shut a man up for some thirty years in jails and asylums and, if he does not rot, he is likely to work out such thoughts as he has to their ultimate conclusion. Sade had an obsession and he had ideas about it, and for the better part of his adult life he lived in the sort of confinement that could be imposed on an eighteenth-century French gentleman. He did not go into a decline, his spirit was not broken, and he wrote at such length and with such gusto that one even suspects he enjoyed the transcribing of his erotic dreams as much, or perhaps even more, than he would have enjoyed erotic practice. It has been suggested that all his stories are masturbation fantasies; I doubt whether they would be so vigorous and exultant if they were. My impression is, rather, that they represent a quite exceptional case of verbal and imaginative sublimation. Sade seems to write with his penis, as Renoir said he painted with his. As Blanchot claims, he is the embodiment of an absolute; his books are the apotheosis of obscene graffiti.

This is not to say that we need adopt the current attitude of some of the Marquis’s French or foreign admirers and look upon him as the poète maudit of sex who was locked up by a hypocritical society because he dared to tell the truth about human nature. This attitude is reflected in the Foreword and the Preface to this volume and it lies behind the whole of Paulhan’s essay. It is strange that people should be so sentimental about the Marquis when he himself, in his genuine works as opposed to his conventional declamations, is so ferociously unsentimental. True, his actual misdemeanors—flogging prostitutes, upsetting their stomachs with Spanish fly, bisexual copulation in his Provençal chateau, running off with his sister-in-law—can be looked upon as the minor indiscretions of an eighteenth-century French aristocrat. But it was natural enough in the circumstances of the time that his mother-in-law should use the device of the lettre de cachet to restrain so embarrassing a character, and it is rather comforting to note that the eighteenth-century police considered even prostitutes to have some rights as citizens. In any case, Sade’s admirers cannot have it both ways; if his vision of human nature is true, his mother-in-law was perfectly entitled to persecute him as much as she liked, and there can be no appeal to humanitarian principles on which he himself poured scorn. However, it seems obvious to me that he was crazy. I think his contemporaries knew that he was and that he himself sometimes suspected he was. To refer to him as “a clear-minded and eminently sane rebel,” as Paulhan does, is to indulge in a silly paradox. Leaving aside the works themselves, the seven long letters reproduced in this volume show many signs of mental derangement. M. Gilbert Lély, the most eminent living Sadist and the author of the apparently definitive two-volume biography, is said to have a hundred and fifty manuscript letters by the Marquis in his possession; since fifty-nine of these still remain unpublished, one wonders if they do not contain still more emphatic evidence of Sade’s madness. Nor do we know how mad were the manuscript volumes that were burned, with the agreement of Sade’s son and heir, after the Marquis’s death. Perhaps the eighteenth century did not find the best way of dealing with this madness, although, after all, shutting him up and allowing him pen and paper may not have been such a bad solution. At any rate, those people who romanticize about him now and turn him into a martyr who suffered in the cause of sexual or spiritual emancipation either have not read him very carefully or themselves have rather aberrant ideas about freedom. It may be a fact that each of us, in the depths of his unconscious, has a Gothic castle in which he works his will on an endless supply of appetizing victims of both sexes and eventually finds his supreme pleasure in self-immolation; if so, it is to Sade’s credit that he exteriorized this fantasy in the completest manner possible and so allows his readers to grasp it objectively; it is hardly to his credit that he seems firmly to have believed in the fantasy as a valid way of life, or death.


Paulhan and Blanchot set Sade in his eighteenth-century context to some extent and make a number of interesting points about the way in which he anticipates Nietzsche, Freud, and Kafka, Paulhan, especially, compares and contrasts him with Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau, implying that he is more interesting, because more radical, than any of these three. In a sense, this is true, although Voltaire, Diderot, and Rousseau in their best works are great writers in a way that is quite beyond Sade’s scope. Yet at the same time Sade can be considered as being much more typically eighteenth-century than either Paulhan or Blanchot admit. It is difficult to imagine him occurring with the same peculiar concentration of characteristics at any other point in history. Only in the mid-twentieth century have we returned to something approaching the intellectual extremism and emotional ambiguities of late eighteenth-century France.

To begin with, Sade’s headstrong character and the ruthless egotism he preaches may not be unconnected with his aristocratic birth; he belonged to one of the last generations of the ancien régime, that is, to a privileged class that had been ripening in idle eccentricity for about a century-and-a-half, and it contained a great many weird individuals. Then, for reasons which have never been fully elucidated, the diabolical libertine who gloried in wickedness, especially of sexual kind, had been developing as a European literary figure for quite a long time. There had been the various types of Don Juan, Richardson’s Lovelace, Prevost’s bold, bad barons, Diderot’s Rameau and Mme. de la Pommeraye, Crébillon’s seducers and then, in Sade’s own day, the devilish hero and heroine of Laclos’s Les liaisons dangereuses as well as Restif de la Bretonne’s villain, Gaudet d’Arras. All these characters are obviously first cousins to the male and female monsters in Justine, La philosophie dans le boudoir, and Les 120 journées. Sade removes all the psychological subtleties present in the other writers, endows his heroes and heroines with supreme power and superhuman genitals, and describes their complex orgies with an appalling zest for detail. To read him after reading the others is to feel that a historical tendency has been taken to a dreadful, logical conclusion.

The copulations and flagellations of Sade’s characters are buttressed by a philosophy of Nature which is a sort of parody of Enlightenment speculation. The literary form used is the eighteenth-century conte philosophique; Justine ou les infortunes de la vertu follows the pattern of, and makes exactly the same basic point as, Voltaire’s Candide, which could have been subtitled les infortunes de l’innocence. Like Candide, Justine always tries to do the right thing and invariably comes to grief, until in the end, just when she thinks her troubles are over, she is killed by lightning, that is by an act of “God.” But Sade, echoing Diderot, says that if God is all-powerful, he is incomprehensibly erratic, and that if he is not all-powerful, he is not God. It is more logical to suppose a Godless Nature, working aimlessly according to its own accidental laws. Sade’s Dialogue d’un prêtre et d’un mourant, which puts forward this view, is almost exactly the same as Diderot’s dialogue between the parson and the blind English mathematician in the Lettre sur les aveugles. In reading La philosophie dans le boudoir, one is reminded of Rousseau’s Emile. Eugénie, the heroine, is carefully instructed in sadistic, sexual horror as Emile is instructed in virtue and chastity, and bang in the middle of all the sodomizings and tortures is a theoretical statement—“Yet another effort, Frenchmen, if you would become Republicans”—not unlike the profession of faith of the vicaire savoyard which occurs in the middle of Emile. Sade’s “black” didacticism is the exact counterpart of Rousseau’s doctrine of Nature. Whereas Rousseau preaches that Nature is good and positive, Sade sees it as a collection of destructive, warring impulses. He therefore advocates complete anarchism; nothing the individual wants to do can be wrong, except in a conventional sense, so let him rob, rape, torture, and murder to his heart’s content. If he espouses all the abominable promptings of Nature, he will achieve peace of mind. As Dolmance, the archvillain of La philosophie dans le boudoir, remarks after indulging in innumerable horrors: “I never dine so heartily, I never sleep so soundly as when I have, during the day, sufficiently befouled myself with what our fools call crimes.”


In defense of this “black” doctrine, we can say that it is just as tenable as Rousseau’s wholesale whitewashing of Nature in his simpler writings. The point is that any didacticism based on the hopelessly ambiguous concept of Nature is self-refuting. For instance, one of Sade’s favorite themes is that sodomy is “good,” because it is an impulse found in Nature. Rousseau, as far as I remember, does not discuss this question, but he says enough on kindred subjects for us to know that, in his view, sodomy would be “bad,” because it goes against the primary arrangements of Nature. The truth surely is that sodomy, like so many other things, is either “good” or “bad,” or at least harmless or harmful, according to one’s assessment of the complexities of the particular human and psychological situation in which it occurs, and the word Nature is rarely of much use in making such an assessment, since Nature has given human beings uncertain guidance on this score. Rousseau is sentimental, because he assumes that the primary arrangements of Nature are always clear and can always be followed. Sade is crazy, because he reduces the individual to a phallus, or to a system of sexual nerves, and decrees that any sexual act is good, especially if it is destructive. He is also crazy in that he wants anarchism and destructiveness to be organized on sound, civic lines. Like practically all other French writers of the eighteenth century, he describes his Utopia, a feature of which would be free, bisexual, municipal brothels, where the clients would be entitled to do as they liked with the inmates, and the inmates would be promptly punished if they tried to resist. However, with the dottiness of the maniac or the assurance of a seigneur, he overlooks the vital issue of deciding who are going to be the clients and who the inmates, or indeed of how to run any institution on a basis of universal destruction. His dream of power is, in fact, just as romantic and unrealistic as the enormous genitalia with which he credits his heroes and their ability to function for hours on end like erotic machine-guns. For this reason he often produces the curious impression of being a cruel little boy in the first flush of adolescence, with a fantastic, intuitive knowledge of the possible varieties of sex.

As a writer, Sade can hardly be counted as belonging to literature at all, since his characters are so wooden, their exploits so specialized and monotonous and the supporting framework of reflection and observation so perfunctory. If Sade is a “great” man, it is because he left behind him an overwhelming pathological document, shot through with intimations of the Absurd and constituting a kind of mad hymn to the mystery of sex, and more particularly to the strange link in the human psyche between creation and destruction. Of course, all obscenity is really mystical; even the graffiti in public lavatories are like pathetic votive offerings to the great god Pan. Sade’s transcendent obscenity is an atheist’s maniacal tribute to sexual energy conceived as an immanent divine, or diabolical, force. This is no doubt why he has excited so many eminent writers whom one would have expected to be put off by the all-pervading stench of blood, excrement, and sperm.

This Issue

August 26, 1965