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…

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