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.
Happily, du Plessix Gray treats Sade’s subconscious with a light hand. She takes us rapidly through his childhood, noting how he was “spoiled rotten” by a succession of substitute mothers—his grandmother, his aunts, and his father’s mistresses—while his mother withdrew to a convent and his father to the boulevards and salons of Paris after failing to make it as a diplomat. After three brisk chapters, we reach the main subject of the book, Sade’s marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil.
By then, not yet twenty-three, Sade had acquired such a reputation for debauchery that he had put himself out of contention for a match in the court aristocracy to which his family belonged. His mother, a descendant of the princely Condé family, provided the better part of his pedigree. His father, a count from the ancient feudal nobility of Provence, took charge of the fortune hunting. His in-laws supplied the fortune. Newly ennobled and enormously rich, the Montreuils wanted their children to marry up in the world. Renée-Pélagie, their older daughter, was a plain Jane, good at splitting wood, as it later turned out during a hard winter at the Sade estate in Provence, but not at anything else. Her mother, however, made up for what she lacked, notably wit and worldliness.
At first, Mme. de Montreuil was fascinated by her handsome and rakish son-in-law. When he was arrested, five months after the wedding, for a brutal, sacrilegious orgy with a prostitute (“the Jeanne Testard Affair”), she used her husband’s connections with the police and the courts to get Sade released from prison; and she welcomed him back to her country estate in Normandy. Perhaps, du Plessix Gray speculates, Sade touched some sexual chord that had remained dormant in her throughout the later years of her marriage to her boring, passive husband. Perhaps she derived some voyeuristic excitement by following Sade’s misbehavior and, as a parvenue, enjoyed playing substitute mother to a hot-blooded blueblood. Whatever the state of her subconscious, Mme. de Montreuil persuaded herself for five years that her son-in-law was merely indulging in the youthful libertinism typical of great aristocrats, while he cut an increasingly wide swath through the demimonde of Paris, flagellating and sodomizing so violently that he appeared in police files as a mortal threat to prostitutes.
On Easter Sunday, 1768, Sade lured a beggar named Rose Keller to a petite maison that he had rented for his orgies in the Paris suburbs. He locked her in a bedroom, threatened to kill her, stripped her, tied her face down on a bed, and whipped her mercilessly while shouting obscenities. According to some versions of this incident (“the Arcueil Affair”), Bongie’s among them, Sade cut into his victim’s back with a knife and poured hot wax into the incisions. In any case, when he left the room, she escaped; and the story spread, arousing such indignation that Sade stood in grave danger of being condemned in the criminal courts. Again, Mme. de Montreuil intervened, this time by soliciting a lettre de cachet, or royal order, for his detention in one of the King’s prisons. Aristocratic families often used this device to protect their name by removing wayward sons from the normal judicial system. Sade spent only seven months in captivity before being released to his estates in Provence and resuming his sexual escapades.
The third incident, known as “the Marseille Affair,” finally convinced Mme. de Montreuil that her son-in-law was a moral monster. Having failed to be accepted back into his regiment, Sade withdrew to his medieval fortress at La Coste in Provence with Renée-Pélagie and her sister, a nineteen-year-old canoness, whom he promptly seduced. In June 1772, he set off with his valet Latour on a “hunting” expedition in the brothels of Marseilles. He hired four prostitutes and after some mutual whipping had himself sodomized in front of them by Latour. He also induced them to take an overdose of Spanish fly disguised as candy, but it touched off such stomach pains that they believed themselves poisoned and denounced him to the police. Rumors spread about a fantastic, satanic orgy. Sade ran off to Italy, accompanied by Latour and the canoness. The parlement of Aix-en-Provence sentenced him in absentia to death, then had him beheaded and burned in effigy for the capital crimes of sodomy and poisoning.
In the eyes of his mother-in-law, he also stood condemned for incest, because it was considered incestuous to have sexual relations with sisters in eighteenth-century France. Mme. de Montreuil now turned from protector to persecutor. She pursued Sade like a fury, sicking the police on him and deploying all her contacts among French and foreign authorities to put him behind bars. After a series of manhunts, ambushes, and escapes, she finally got him locked up in Vincennes and then the Bastille, always by lettre de cachet, in order to minimize the damage to the family’s reputation.
What did Renée-Pélagie do throughout this Sturm und Drang? Innocent and ignorant at first, she eventually acquired so much carnal knowledge that she became an accomplice in Sade’s crimes. She, too, was eroticized by his satanic energy, according to du Ples-six Gray. Renée-Pélagie switched roles with her mother, taking on the mothering and the domestic arrangements at La Coste, where Sade engineered his last orgies from 1773 to 1777. He got away with them, despite his notoriety as an outlaw, because he still ruled the back country of Provence as an anachronistic version of a medieval baron. The drawbridge of La Coste went up at dark, trapping guests and servants in a world of Gothic horror, the kind that was just beginning to appear in novels and that would haunt the European imagination for the next hundred years.
Sade created it in real life, and his wife collaborated, hiring a boy “secretary” and five young girls in 1774 to serve as household staff—that is, in effect, as sexual slaves. Exactly what happened in the secret inner room of the chateau (“the Little Girls Affair”) remains a mystery, because Mme. de Montreuil later had its paraphernalia destroyed. It probably contained sacrilegious props and torture devices of the sort used by Sade in Arcueil and the other petites maisons that he furnished for his orgies. In any case, the children eventually had to be sent away for medical treatment or shut up in convents where they could be prevented from talking.
Renée-Pélagie handled the mopping up. She even arranged for the “chambermaid” Nanon, who had helped recruit the children, to be imprisoned on a trumped-up charge of domestic theft. Eighteen months later, Sade hired another harem. But when they understood the services required of them, the new staff fled, all except a maid whom the Sades had renamed Justine. Her father tried to rescue her, bearded the marquis in his den, and drew a pistol on him; but it misfired and he retreated, spreading another wave of rumors about crime in secret torture chambers (“the Catherine Treillet Affair”).
A few days later, Sade received a letter from Mme. de Montreuil informing him that his mother was dying. He and Renée-Pélagie, accompanied by “Justine,” rushed off to Paris. He may have hoped to negotiate a deathbed pardon from his mother and a reconciliation with his mother-in-law. But the police picked up his trail as soon as he arrived, having been mobilized, he believed, by the perfidious Mme. de Montreuil; and on February 13, 1777, they locked him up in the prison of Vincennes. Except for a short interlude in the summer of 1778, he spent the next thirteen years in captivity, cursing his mother-in-law and demanding sympathy from her daughter.
Sade’s prison years, vividly documented in his correspondence, provide the finest chapters in du Plessix Gray’s biography. She shows how he coped with his confinement by venting his rage at Mme. de Montreuil, devising ever more ingenious means of torturing her in his imagination, and ultimately tranferring his fantasies to his fiction. On the receiving end of his letters, Renée-Pélagie found herself ordered not merely to abominate her mother but also to do chores. Fetch food! Sade thundered—and not ordinary food, either, but the finest delicacies in Paris: “quail en brochette wrapped in vine leaves, pots of beef marrow, pâtés of fresh salmon, little grilled cabbages, madeleines.” When the dishes failed to meet his standards, Sade sent an epistolary rap on the knuckles: “The Savoy biscuit isn’t at all what I’d asked for: I wished it to be iced all the way around its surface, on top and underneath.” Or sometimes a slap in the face: “Let me have a response to what I ask for in this letter, if you are capable of it, so that I can say at least for once that you were good for something during my detention.”
He demanded finery, too, in the latest style: “Send me a little prune-colored redingote, with suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but most specifically not made out of linen; as for the other costume, make it Paris Mud in hue with a few silver trimmings, but definitely not silver braid.” The marquis also ordered ribbons for his hair, pomade for his skin, and powder for his face. Not that he had anyone to impress with his finery: he dressed for himself; sinking into narcissism that deepened with each year.
Renée-Pélagie dashed about Paris, catering to his whims and accumulating debts. To pay for the biweekly care packages, she finally had to sell the silver buckles of her shoes. And when at last she received permission to visit him, she put on some finery of her own—only to receive a lecture about looking like a tart: “If you’re a decent woman, you must solely please me, and the only way you’ll please me is through the greatest decorum and most perfect modesty…. I demand that you come…coiffed with a very large bonnet…without the smallest hint of curl in your hair, a chignon and no braids…. Conserve your virtue!” An odd homily from the high priest of satanism.
But Sade’s prison letters are full of surprises. He prided himself on avoiding sex with married women and expressed horror at the notion of female adultery: “Woman’s infidelity…has such fatal and dark consequences that I’ve never been able to tolerate it.” He subscribed to such an extreme version of the double standard that he sounded puritanical in comparison with his peers among the aristocracy. Although he professed atheism and practiced sodomy with persons of his own sex, he forbade his wife to frequent the freethinking salon of the marquise de Villette, because she was reputed to be “a bit of a Sappho.” The fear of cuckolding drove him wild. He tortured himself by imagining that Renée-Pélagie had betrayed him with his secretary and sent her a slashed drawing of the innocent young man with a note: “Here’s how…a riffraff of this species merits to be treated when he forgets the respect he owes his master.”
Renée-Pélagie finally calmed him by moving into a miserable apartment in a convent, which cost half of what she paid for his room and board in prison; and even then, he berated her in patriarchal fashion: “Above all, love God and flee men! I consign you to your room and, through all the authority that a husband has over his wife, forbid you to leave it, for whatever pretext.” At the same time, Sade ordered Renée-Pélagie to go around Paris procuring not only pastry but dildoes, so that he could stuff himself from both orifices. Nothing but the best would do—smooth, ebony devices carved by the best cabinetmaker in the city. Sade was remarkably frank about his sexual activities—his preference for anal intercourse, his masturbating, and his difficulty in reaching orgasm. Far from sounding like one of the virile monsters of his novels, he appears in the correspondence as weak, obese, and perhaps, as Simone de Beauvoir maintained, semi-impotent.
Renée-Pélagie responded to Sade’s complaints with tenderness, though that did not prevent him from complaining about her prose: “You’ve sent me three pages of idiotic ramblings…. But it’s in your nature to say stupidities.” Far from being stupid, she seemed to have had an intuitive understanding of his psychological infirmity. She filled her letters with expressions of love, some sexual, most maternal: “My good friend, I beg you most ardently to…not give in to your depressions. Adieu, my good little boy. I kiss you.” “I love you and will never cease loving you…. I kiss you with all my soul.”
Sade, too, expressed genuine affection, as far as one can tell, but his letters rarely strayed from the only subject that truly interested him—namely, himself. He railed at the injustice of being imprisoned, he, a marquis, for giving a few spankings to some well-paid whores. He wailed about the conditions of his confinement. And he ranted at Renée-Pélagie for failing to provide relief: “Bedded on the floor like a dog, treated like a savage beast, perenially alone and locked up,…my health is all but gone and your infamous conduct is finishing me off.”
In fact, Sade enjoyed quite comfortable conditions, especially after his transfer from Vincennes to the Bastille in 1784. He had a large, well-lit room sixteen feet in diameter, hung with tapestries and family portraits, fragrant with fresh flowers, and furnished with a library of six hundred volumes. He was allowed to take walks in the prison courtyard and to see Renée-Pélagie once a week. Transferred to the madhouse of Charenton ten days before the storming of the Bastille, he was finally released on April 2, 1790.
Once he was a free man, Renée-Pélagie refused to see him. Their relationship—all giving on her part and receiving on his—had nothing to sustain itself in the new regime of liberty. Taking advantage of the revolutionary legislation on the family, Renée-Pélagie obtained a divorce and passed out of Sade’s life.
Du Plessix Gray’s narrative continues through Sade’s revolutionary career and his liaison with the actress Marie-Constance Quesnet to his last period of captivity back in Charenton. But the rest of the book reads like a postscript to the prison years of 1777-1790. With the disappearance of Renée-Pélagie and also of her mother, who had nothing more to do with Sade after his release from prison, the mother-daughter-husband triangle ceased to exist; and the story loses much of the tension that makes it so gripping.
Why consider her book a negative biography? Du Plessix Gray treats Sade sympathetically, staying close at key points to the heroic version of his life propounded by Maurice Lever, the leading Sadean today. But by making Renée-Pélagie the heroine of the story, she dissipates the aura of satanic divinity surrounding the marquis. In the end, he appears pitiful—weak, whining, spoiled, pretentious, self-indulgent, self-pitying, infantile, and frequently ridiculous.
He looks noble, however, in comparison with the figure conjured up by Laurence Bongie. Like du Plessix Gray, Bongie tries to identify the woman behind Sade’s crimes, but he comes up with a different suspect: Sade’s mother, born Marie-Eléonore de Maillé de Carman, a member of the Condé branch of the reigning Bourbon family. What were Sade’s feelings toward her? The question is far more important than it appears, according to Bongie, because it provides the key to the central theme of Sade’s novels, mother-hatred.
The theme certainly can be found everywhere in the works of the marquis. In La Nouvelle Justine, for example, de Bressac, the magnificently wicked hero of the story, harangues his mother, an infuriatingly virtuous victim, as follows:
—Be silent, Madame! Do not imagine that this illusory title of mother gives you any rights over me. Allowing yourself to be fucked in order to bring me into the world is not a great qualification in my eyes. These absurd ties of nature have no hold over a spirit such as mine.
He then sodomizes her, has her torn apart by ferocious dogs, and in a paroxysm of pleasure plunges a knife into her heart.
Mme. de Mistival, the equally virtuous mother in La Philosophie dans le boudoir, has an even more horrible death. Her daughter sodomizes her with a dildo, has her raped by a syphilitic servant, and sews up her orifices so that she will die in agony, ravaged from within by excrement and disease. Mothers undergo similar punishments, one more hideous than another, in Les 120 Journées de Sodome. The theme is so obsessive that biographers have generally traced it to Sade’s relations with his own mother, a very devout and very aristocratic matron, who eventually separated from his father by withdrawing to a convent. The most common view, propounded by Maurice Lever and other orthodox Sadeans, derives from Klossowski’s negative Oedipal complex: young Sade developed a fixation on his father and an obsessive desire to punish his mother for abandoning both of them.
Whatever its validity as a theory, this view fails to confront an obvious objection: perhaps Sade’s mother was not absent from his childhood but merely missing from the archives. The fact is, we know little about her, and what we do know does not suggest that any abandonment occurred during the first four years of Sade’s life—the most important years, according to the Klossowskians.
At four, the little marquis was shipped off to his relatives in Provence, but not, Bongie insists, because his parents’ marriage had already fallen apart. On the contrary, such documentation as exists, notably some new evidence turned up by Bongie himself, indicates that Sade’s mother consistently supported his father while he made a hash of his diplomatic career and that she did not withdraw to the Carmelite convent until he had given himself over to full-time libertinism and idleness on the fringes of the court. The argument sometimes gets lost in arcane detail and empty speculation, but enough of it sticks to damage the conventional view that sadism took root from maternal neglect.
Having rearranged the pieces in the story of Sade’s childhood, Bongie then realigns the facts about the rest of his life. He selects the damning detail at every point, like a prosecutor arraigning a criminal. Sade’s supposed heroism at the battle of Port-Mahon in 1756 was a case of mistaken identity. A case of gonorrhea nearly forced a postponement of his marriage in 1763, and his military career was hampered by a case of hemorrhoids compounded by debauchery.
By 1770, when he had repaired his body well enough to sit a horse, Sade had acquired such a reputation as a reprobate that his fellow officers would not take him back into their regiment. He was also blackballed in the better brothels, because the police had warned the prostitutes that his taste for kinky sex had degenerated into torturing. When he shifted the scene of his crimes to his château in Provence, he favored child abuse. The drawbridge went up and the servants went down, scarred by whips and knives for life.
Sade got away with his crimes by exploiting his power as an aristocrat and his in-laws’ connections in the law courts. He felt nothing but scorn for persons of inferior birth, notably his wife. “How your baseness, your low birth and that of your parents shows through in everything!” he wrote her, when at last the authorities got him behind bars. And even his imprisonment was an instance of aristocratic privilege, because it took place by lettre de cachet, saving him from a death sentence in the ordinary courts.
Although Sade presented himself as a martyr of royal despotism after 1789, he remained a secret royalist right through the Revolution and never really modified his caste-ridden scorn for the common people. He especially loathed people who tried to improve their lot in life:
Without their realizing it, everything plunges them back into the stinking mud pit to which nature has condemned them, and when they raise their noses above the mire, they resemble to my mind, nothing so much as disgusting and filthy toads who try momentarily to rise from their muck, only to sink back into it once more.
During the Revolution, Sade claimed that he had been transferred from the Bastille, ten days before it was stormed, because he had incited the crowd outside his window to revolt. In fact, he was moved to Charenton because he had thrown a tantrum after being denied the privilege of taking the air on top of a tower where the cannon were trained on the citizens below.
After his release from Charenton, Sade turned his coat to save his skin. Dressing down as Citizen Sade, he denied his aristocratic origins and forged a new identity as a writer—not of Justine, his first “sadistic” work, which he never acknowledged, but of second-rate, sentimental plays and novels like Aline et Valcour, Comte Oxtiern, and Le Suborneur. In politics, he howled with the wolves. He passed himself off as a Jacobin, wrote a eulogy of Marat, and got elected secretary of his district in Paris, but never took part in any carnage. Charged with “moderatism,” he escaped the guillotine by one day, thanks to the fall of Robespierre.
Sade sank into poverty under the Directory and was sent back to Charenton under the Consulate. Though confined as a criminal madman, he was treated with indulgence and permitted to stage plays in the asylum until 1813. In that year, at age seventy-three, he bought the sexual services of Madeleine Leclerc, the daughter of an employee at Charenton, and continued to dally with her until a week before his death, on December 2, 1814.
As Bongie tells it, two themes stand out in this unedifying tale, sexual abuse and aristocratic hauteur; and both derived from Sade’s parents. The sex he got from his father, a sodomite and libertine, who rented the first petite maison for his son’s orgies when the boy turned sixteen. The abusiveness had deeper sources, if not the dread negative Oedipal complex, at least some unresolved hostility to the mother, which Sade later transferred to his mother-in-law. Sade blamed Mme. de Montreuil, often quite rightly, for his arrests and imprisonment. He imagined her pursuing him into his sexual hideouts and snatching him away from his pleasure. Then he sought compensatory pleasure by imagining how, if he could ever get free, he would torture her:
Gods of Hell, teach me all your torments, come whisper to me in my innermost being all the odious secrets of your art, let your barbarity be multiplied, inflamed by the venom of this embittered heart! And for my only satisfaction, for my only favor, grant me the opportunity to combine all these torments and to inflict them on this abominable sex which has made a sacrifice of me, and which I loathe!
Oh, powers from Hell, grant me Nero’s wish, that all women have but one head and that this head belong to the shrew who tyrannizes me; then grant me the pleasure of chopping it off!
From the prison letters to the novels, from Mme. de Montreuil to women in general, the trajectory of sadism seems clear. The marquis cultivated the greatest case of mother-in-law hatred in recorded history. But he may have derived some of his sadism directly from his own mother. When she learned of the scandal caused by the Arcueil Affair in 1768, she wrote to the lieutenant general of police that the real villains, those who deserved the severest punishment, were the journalists who had dared expose it to the public:
It is an outrage that brings universal dishonor to a person, and the scoundrels who have committed such an odious act deserve to be locked up for the rest of their days. No one can be allowed to sully with impunity the name of someone so closely related to me!… My race has no dishonorable stains to reproach itself for, and people must be taught to show regard for a family that is respectable in every way. How dare they speak of mine in such terms! These wretches and beggars deserve to be hanged!
According to Bongie, Sade inherited this attitude from his mother. Despite his pose as a plebeian during the Revolution, he always thought of himself as an aristocrat. Aristocrats were above the law and therefore could not break it. So Sade never considered his deeds as crimes. As a descendant of a princely “race”—according to the Dictionnaire de l’Académie française of 1762, race meant “lineage, all those who come from the same family”—he could do whatever he pleased to those below him.
To this attitude, already archaic by the time of his birth, Sade joined a more modern notion, one that sounds almost Nietzschean, although he derived it from his reading of d’Holbach and libertine literature: no moral order exists in nature, so the strong should feel no inhibitions about venting their passions on the weak. This leitmotif runs through Sade’s life as well as his novels. When informed of the public outrage over the Arcueil Affair, he reacted with bewilderment. Why should anyone feel “compassion for a street tart’s flagellated arse”? Prostitutes did not count as human: “…How we treat whores is of no more consequence than how we go about emptying our bowels.” But Rose Keller, the victim in question, was a thirty-six-year-old unemployed widow, not a whore.
Sade’s other victims included a great many servants and children, usually female. Although he proclaimed women’s rights to pleasure and included women among the monster heroes of his novels, he especially selected them for torture, in his petites maisons as well as his fiction. The laws of nature decreed that the strong should victimize the weak: “It is unjust to cut short the days of a well-formed individual but it is not unjust, I say, to prevent the birth of a being that will clearly be of no use to the world. The human species must be cleared of weeds, right from the cradle.” We are in eighteenth-century Paris, but we do not seem to be far away from Auschwitz.
Other writers, notably Camus and Queneau, have found a troubling affinity between the fantasies of Sade and the realities of Hitlerism. Many readers have found his books unreadable. Speaking as a reader myself, I find Sade’s writing far inferior to much of the libertine literature of his era, a literature brimming with humor, social criticism, philosophy, and narrative high jinks as well as sex. I would not trade the fourteen-page masterpiece by Vivant Denon, Point de Lendemain, for the entire oeuvre of Sade.
And yet, when faced with the oeuvre, the numbing cruelties of Les 120 Journées de Sodome included, any reader is bound to ask why it set so many imaginations on fire and why great writers like Flaubert and Baudelaire found such inspiration in it. The answer, I believe, is in the sheer audacity and energy of it all. Sade released energy by breaking into inhibitions that seemed to be impenetrable and by saying things that seemed to be unspeakable.
Long before satanism, surrealism, and the theater of cruelty, Sainte-Beuve described Sade’s power over readers. He evoked his own experience, though he ascribed it to a young reader in the forbidden sector of a library:
High up in the library, on a separate shelf in a corner black with dust, there were some volumes whose title was carefully hidden by a repulsive paper wrapping intended to protect—not the book from the reader but the reader from the book. It was, however, this fatal wrapping that determined Julien’s decision…. At first, he hesitated: an inner voice told him that he was about to commit an evil deed; then, little by little, he became more bold. At first, he tore open part of the book’s back cover in order to know its title. The title was simple, the name of a woman…. At last, unable to hold out any more, the child tore away completely the wrapping held by four large black seals. He opened the book…. I leave you to imagine what happened to this young man, so ignorant, timid, and frail, upon reading a book that could easily shake the most solid constitutions…. What was he doing, poor Julien, squared off against the marquis de Sade, head to head with this roaring tiger, this tiger in a fury, this hyena dripping with blood, this cannibal filthy with vice…? Alas! one night of reading aged him by twenty years.
Du Plessix Gray and Bongie neglect this side of Sade, Sade the writer, who cast a spell over two centuries of literature. But they succeed in comprehending Sade the man; and that is no mean feat, because he represents the ultimate challenge to biography as a mode of understanding the human condition. He doesn’t qualify as “the freest spirit who has ever existed,” but he pursued his peculiar form of pleasure with a remarkable resistance to compromise. How can one understand a man who flaunted the deepest taboos of his time and threw his life away in the pursuit of immorality? Here, if anywhere, the biographer encounters raw libido. But however unbuttoned it may be, libido always comes clothed in some kind of historical costume. Sade, the original sadist and emperor of satanism, was also a man of his time. By exposing the sordid details of the historical Sade, Bongie strips him down to size, but he overdoes it. He tries to deprive the emperor not merely of his clothing, but also of his empire, the erotic energy that he released through his writing.
Bongie finds more thanatos than eros in that dark, satanic world. Perhaps that is why he wrote such a black book, erudite and original but entirely negative and unnuanced. Perhaps he believed that by downsizing sadism he could dissipate the destructive force unleashed by the marquis. But sadism preceded Sade, and it has long outlived him. The actual target of Bongie’s biography, beyond Sade himself, lies closer to home. He directs his argument, he says, against “current fashions in literary criticism,” meaning the postmodernist rejection of an older mode of literary history, which relates the works of authors to their lives. Not that he advocates a return to the great-men, great-books approach to literature (“l’homme et l’oeuvre,” according to the French formula), which dom-inated literary scholarship at the beginning of the century. But he argues that neither Sade nor his works can be understood independently of each other. Just as Sade’s fiction expressed the fantasies of his correspondence, so did the correspondence conform to the facts of his life. The criminality of the man stands as a rebuke to critics who would see literature as nothing but endless arrangements of self-referential texts. Literature, Bongie argues, needs to be rehistoricized. And he deserves high marks for restoring the historical ingredient to Sadean criticism, for he knows his way around the eighteenth century, and he gets the setting right, whatever his success in the attempt to bare Sade’s soul.
Unlike Bongie, du Plessix Gray is not a specialist in eighteenth-century studies, so she sometimes gets things wrong. Sade’s father was not the ambassador to the Elector of Bavaria. The regicide Damiens was not a member of Louis XV’s household. The Châtelet was not France’s highest court. Robespierre and Marat did not belong to the provisional executive that governed France immediately after the overthrow of the monarchy. But these slips do not badly damage a narrative that moves nimbly through a difficult institutional landscape. Du Plessix Gray’s interpretation is less original but more believable than Bongie’s, and it is much more accessible to the general reader.
She gives us a Sade for the 1990s, a Sade suited to anxieties about sex-ual harassment, predatory males, and abused children. Her version of Sade’s life may especially appeal to women, because it puts them at the heart of it and celebrates the quiet heroism of their attempts to save him from himself. Some may bridle at the tendency to celebrate Renée-Pélagie as a backstage wife: “Her marriage had been her work of art: for good or for worse, it was solely through Pélagie’s love and dedication that the Marquis de Sade’s talents were able to flower and become part of the Western heritage.” But there are also elements of Angela Carter’s Sadeian woman in the portrait of Renée-Pélagie—that is, irrational passion and a readiness to defy social convention. In portraying Mme. de Montreuil, du Plessix Gray invokes Aeschylus and asserts, “In every woman there is a potential for destruction and revenge that is part of a far greater communal female energy.” Perhaps because she sympathizes with her subject—with Sade himself as well as his women—she does justice to the passions that pervade it. Instead of cutting it down to size, she celebrates its excessiveness. Her Sade remains bigger than life—bigger, that is, than the lives lived by most of us: “…He refused the Great Neurotic Compromise most of us docilely accept.”
Why then the fuss about Sade? He will survive debunking. He is a huge cultural fact. Whatever the sordidness of his personal life, he created an imaginary world that pulsated with energy. He set flame to the fantasies of readers who entered it. He made its energy available to writers who needed to imagine worlds of their own. For better or worse, he contributed to culture as we know it now; and now we know it better. Negative biography can produce positive results. At the very least, it has got the record straight and has left us with a Sade for our times.
January 14, 1999
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. ↩
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. ↩
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. ↩
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). ↩