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.

When the war ended in 1763, Donatien returned to civilian life and continued to sow his wild oats with the same abandon. In the hope of calming him down, Jean-Baptiste went to great trouble to arrange a marriage with a suitable heiress, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, whose father, the Président de Montreuil, belonged to the no-blesse de robe. The account of Jean-Baptiste’s struggle to get the bridegroom to the wedding on the right day and in an acceptable venereal condition reads like a darker version of a Labiche farce. He confessed to a correspondent that he felt sorry for Donatien’s future in-laws, and the remark was prophetic since, as it turned out, Donatien’s mother-in-law, the Présidente de Montreuil, was to carry the main burden of coping with him during the next phase of his life.

Marriage did nothing to restrain Donatien; on the contrary, new financial resources allowed him to give full rein to his inexhaustible libido, in addition to which his father’s death in 1767 left him master of the family estates. At first, he was sexually active on two levels. Like other young nobles, he had open affairs with actresses and courtesans, one of whom he actually took to the Château de La Coste shortly after his marriage and passed off as his wife, leaving Renée-Pélagie behind, blissfully ignorant, in Paris. At the same time, he organized more private, sadomasochistic sessions with prostitutes in premises he rented for that purpose. The police were aware of this well before the first major scandal in 1768 (l’affaire d’Arcueil), when a prostitute laid a complaint about maltreatment, and started the tenyear game of hide-and-seek between Donatien on the one hand, and the police and his mother-in-law on the other. This was an extraordinary, and sometimes hilarious, period of arrests, incarcerations, escapes, disguises, and flights to Italy, with, as a sort of basso continuo, the heroic efforts of the Présidente de Montreuil to limit the damage to the family reputation and protect the future of Sade’s three children. Her plight will touch the heart of any grandparent, particularly since she had been charmed by her son-in-law when she first got to know him.

A second, more serious scandal (l’affaire de Marseille) occurred in 1772, when the four prostitutes involved testified that, among other things, Sade and his manservant had engaged in sodomy, an act then officially punishable by death. The two men were in fact condemned, but—again a comic touch—only burnt in effigy after they had fled to Italy, Sade, in his incorrigible way, taking with him, as his traveling mistress, his unmarried sister-in-law Anne. The third and final scandal was associated with the Château de La Coste where, in 1775 and 1777, Donatien, still on the run as a condemned criminal, organized orgies with boys and girls recruited ostensibly as servants, and this time with the complicity of his wife, who by now had been sucked into his peculiar universe. The police caught up with him in 1778, just when the Présidente had finally managed to get his death sentence quashed and commuted into a fine. But he was not released; the Présidente, having had enough, obtained a lettre de cachet which was to keep him shut away for the next twelve years, until the Revolution abolished the royal prerogative.

It is impossible, in a short space, adequately to summarize all the ins and outs of the tangled tale, but some general conclusions can be suggested.

Sade was not so much a “free spirit” as a driven man, whose recurrent monomania was reinforced by a delusion of aristocratic autonomy, which made him behave with astonishing carelessness. Lever refers to his “insouciance suicidaire.” It seems never to have occurred to him that prostitutes might complain; they were the lowest of the low, they had been paid, and they had the impudence to make a fuss! He was so blinkered as not to grasp that the Présidente’s repeated negotiations, distributions of bribes, and even her first use of the lettre de cachet were intended to protect him against the normal course of justice, in the hope that he might stop misbehaving. She was not narrow-minded; she could overlook affairs with actresses, but the death sentence for sodomy had been a tough nut to crack, just when she was engaged in the delicate matter of arranging a suitable, redemptive marriage for her second daughter, whom Sade had so inconsiderately deflowered. As for Donatien, he seems never to have understood the law as something that might apply negatively to himself, although he could see its positive advantages; he was loud in his demands for his feudal rights, and eagle-eyed in respect of any prospective, marginally legitimate, inheritance.

In short, he was a monster of selfcenteredness. Lever speaks of his “autisme” and his “isolisme,” that is, his conviction—which, indeed, he himself presents as a law of Nature in La Philosophie dans le boudoir—that the individual’s only duty is toward himself, in order to ensure his own acutest sensation of enjoyment. In the hypocritical part of his correspondence, and in his nonclandestine, soft-porn works, such as Aline et Valcour, he can pour out streams of eighteenth-century sensibilité larmoyante at will, but that does not offset his basic pathological assumption that le droit du seigneur is paramount. In my view, it is this single-minded expression of selfish dominance which, independently of the scabrous physical details, makes his most characteristic works so unpalatable. Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome and La Philosophie dans le boudoir are dreams of absolute, destructive power, manifesting itself through rape, mutilation, and murder, and exercised by groups of seigneurs over their helpless victims. These fictions are just as much wish-fulfillment fantasies as sentimental novelettes of the romantic kind, only they are black fantasies instead of white ones; it is perhaps not too much to say that the structural opposite of Les Cent Vingt Journées is Paul et Virginie.

The psychological emptiness of Sade’s fictions becomes immediately obvious when they are compared with a genuinely literary work about sex and power, Les Liaisons dangereuses by Choderlos de Laclos, which belongs to the same gamy period of French culture. Here the interest lies in the subtle, and ultimately tragic, battle of wits between the two strong characters, Mme de Merteuil and Valmont, and in the very delicate way in which the ordinary human emotions of love and jealousy are shown to be affecting the action, despite the conscious intentions of the protagonists.

“Love,” as a concept, is missing from Sade’s writings, as it seems to have been from his life, and this is perhaps his main pathological trait. It dehumanizes him in comparison with saner heterosexuals or homosexuals, about whom it is probably safe to say that they prefer the sexual function to be accompanied by some shared feeling of communion. The letters quoted by Lever contain no trace of genuine human warmth, only outbursts of conventional, sensible rhetoric, when it might serve a particular purpose, or sardonic good humor, if Sade has reason to be pleased, as when he congratulates his wife, Renée-Pélagie—coarsely but wittily, it must be said—on being so amenable to sodomy.

Even sex, for him, is never a private physical and mental relationship between two persons. In real life, as in his writings, his ideal seems to have been the orgy, that is, a theatrical group event, in which the dominant performers are both agents and voyeurs. In the writings, one sometimes gets the impression that the ultimate audience of the mise-en-scène is meant to be God, and that the intention is to shock Him by negating the forward flow of His creation through the exaltation of sodomy and coprophagy, practices which, in effect, amount to going backward up the one-way street of life. However the intention is not constant, because, in a flash of sanity, Sade admits through a character in La Philosophie dans le boudoir that since God does not exist, there is no point in trying to offend Him. He is not often so percipient; in Justine, he argues that the strong have every right to persecute the weak, since this is in accordance with the trend of Nature; apparently it never occurred to him that the doctrine nullified his own noisy protests when the strong, in the shape of the police or the Présidente, got the better of him.

His monotonous obsession and his crude simplification of certain features of Enlightenment thought make it virtually impossible to take him seriously as a writer. What, for instance, is Justine if not a sort of demented rewrite of Voltaire’s Candide, which could also have been subtitled “The Misfortunes of Virtue”? Voltaire, an Absurdist avant la lettre, gives a brilliantly witty and poetic representation of the tragi-comic struggle, on the part of the instinctively decent members of mankind, to evolve a human morality within the amorality of general Nature; this is the point of the refrain at the end of Candide, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” The garden is the enclave of civilization that man tries to make inside the jungle of Nature. Sade sees the amorality of general Nature, but he simply espouses it with mad intensity as if he did not belong to humanity at all. When he argues that killing is a useful and even virtuous activity, since it releases elements which can then re-enter life in new combinations, he runs directly counter to the Voltairean spirit; he is like a crazy gardener hacking down his plants in full bloom in order to convert them more quickly into compost.

The mystery is: Why, when he was so ferocious in his writings, was he comparatively innocuous in his real-life orgies, which seem to have been rather bungled affairs in which no one was seriously hurt, or if so, only by accident. He was no Gilles de Rais or serial killer, and he expressed dislike for the wholesale slaughter of the Revolution. Since as regards physical cruelty his imaginative excesses were translated only feebly into action, he is no more than a pretend monster, and this enables one to take a relaxed, even amused, view of the commotion he caused. It may also explain why two women—first his wife, and then the actress, Marie-Constance Quesnet, who took over from her in 1790—appear to have put up with him quite willingly in spite of his antics. It is, of course, an observable fact that some women enjoy sacrificing themselves to impossible men.

There is a second, minor mystery: Why did Renée-Pélagie, who had been his masochistic slave for years, turn her back on him and ask for a divorce when he was released from the Bastille? Lever can only suggest exhaustion and a possible revival of religious scruples. He doesn’t mention Yukio Mishima’s curious attempt to provide an explanation in his 1965 play, Madame de Sade. In the long, ecstatic speeches which close the last act, Renée-Pélagie says she has come to understand that her husband is no ordinary man, but “a pious knight” bathed in a celestial glow, who has “created an imperishable cathedral of vice” and “built a back stairway to Heaven.” She can no longer bear the iron pressure of his presence and she is retiring to a convent, where she will spend the rest of her life asking God if He sent Donatien as His envoy. In other words, Sade becomes a Lucifer/Christ, presumably in accordance with Mishima’s own mystic sado-masochism, which ended in suicide. It is doubtful whether Donatien would have approved of this transcendental interpretation, flattering though it may seem, but he would no doubt have made some lewd comment on “a back stairway to Heaven.”

In writing, mental imbalance usually leads to boringness, but in real life it can give rise to situations with an undeniably comic element. Sade, in prison, was more a victim of his own temperament than of the police or the Présidente, because he had pushed his luck beyond all reasonable limits. He never recognized this, and even in confinement continued to behave as a grand seigneur. It has to be remembered that imprisoned nobles, whose upkeep was paid for by their families, were treated with deference. They could furnish their accommodation to their taste, correspond with the outside world, and have their food sent in. Donatien’s letters to Renée-Pélagie, describing in minute detail the menus he needed to keep up his strength, make fascinating reading, as does the one in which he crossly reprimands her for not paying enough attention to the correct measurements when ordering him a masturbatory aid from a specialist craftsman; her reply is a model of wifely dismay. He treated prison officials like servants, wrote endless complaints full of lies and half-truths to any authority he could think of, and so harassed prison governors that two at least pleaded with their superiors to be relieved of his presence.

The high point of his prison life, which has sometimes been presented solemnly as an episode in humanity’s long march to freedom, was his behavior shortly before the storming of the Bastille. He was in a room next to an outside wall, and a pipe overhanging a ditch and topped by a funnel served him as a urinal. Hearing the beginnings of a disturbance outside, he pulled up the pipe, reversed it, and used it as a speaking trumpet to urge the mob to action. Monsieur le Marquis, inciting the rabble to revolt, and through a reversed phallic tube! It sounds like one of God’s little jokes. The prison governor had him hurriedly transferred to the mental asylum at Charenton, so that he was not actually present in the Bastille on the historic day but, understandably, he later made full use of the episode to give himself totally fictitious republican credentials.

By this stage in the story, one almost feels a sort of affection for him as an unpredictable eccentric who will get up to any prank and produce any argument to justify his behavior. Lever’s chapter on his adventures in the aftermath of 1789 is entitled “La Farce patriotique.” Sade survived the turmoil of the Revolution by flatly denying that he had ever been an aristocrat, and by putting his eloquent pen at the service of the Republic. At the same time, as lord of his southern domains, he was still writing haughty, sardonic letters to his land-agent, and boasting jovially that, being now the president of a revolutionary tribunal, he would certainly have him condemned to death if he delayed sending the required funds.

Strangely enough, it was at this time that he performed his one good action. The Présidente de Montreuil and her husband, who had not escaped from Paris, came within an inch of being sent to the guillotine, but Sade, after receiving a courtesy visit from the Président, somehow managed to get their names removed from a certain list, and they survived. Lever, no doubt rightly, sees this action on Sade’s part not as a sentimental weakening but rather as the supremely elegant, condescending gesture of a member of the noblesse d’épéep toward the inferior noblesse de robe. In the last days of the Reign of Terror, Sade himself was arrested and condemned to death as a moderate, and was only saved in extremis by Robespierre’s fall. He thus acquired the rare distinction of having, in his lifetime, narrowly escaped both the executioner’s axe and the guillotine.

A little later, he had the further distinction of falling foul of the third political regime under which he had lived. His three scandalous works, La Philosophie dans le boudoir, Justine, and La nouvelle Justine, had been published anonymously in 1795, 1791, and 1797 (Les Cent Vingt Journées was, of course, unknown and would not resurface until 1904), and although he had strenuously denied that he was the author, he had a solid reputation as a pornographer by the time Napoleon came to power. It was on this ground that he was arrested in 1801, but he was held arbitrarily without ever being brought to trial. Lever suggests that he was probably suspected, perhaps wrongly, of being the author of Zoloé, a scurrilous lampoon on Joséphine and other Napoleonic ladies. If he wasn’t the author, this was the only unjustified arrest in his whole career.

Running true to form, he again caused trouble by trying to seduce some young fellow-prisoners, and in 1803 he was transferred once again to Charenton. Here he was to spend his last thirteen years, organizing amateur theatricals under the supervision of an enlightened director, and writing both non-pornographic works and Les Journées de Florbelle, of which nothing is known except the title, since his son burned the manuscript. It is typical of him that, in his very last two years, he both composed a pious verse cantata in honor of a visit to Charenton by the Archbishop of Paris (from whom the author’s name was prudently concealed), and kept a diary of his erotic games with the sixteen-year-old daughter of one of the asylum servants.

There can be no doubt that, in the all-too-human comedy of his life, Sade is on a par with those other two great writer-adventurers of the eighteenth century, Jean-Jacques Rousseau and Pierre-Augustin de Beaumarchais. He produced no literary masterpiece worthy to be mentioned in the same breath as the Confessions or Le Barbier de Séville, but his writings must be a happy hunting-ground for pathologists, and that may be counted an achievement, although an extra-literary one. He gave his name to a particular form of behavior, but the term “sadism” does not do justice to his full range; he was a masochist before Sacher-Masoch, and if sodomy ever needs a patron saint, he could be canonized at once. Judging by the vivid extracts quoted in this volume, his letters are probably his most interesting productions, and it is welcome news that Maurice Lever is now preparing a complete edition of the correspondence.

This Issue

September 23, 1993