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…
This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!
Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.