This promoter of the sexual macabre spent 32 years of his adulthood in either prisons or insane asylums due to his predilection for sexually molesting young members of his household staff and pushing the limits of propriety with prostitutes. Now, I suspect you had to push the limits pretty far in eighteenth-century France to be hauled in for abusing a prostitute, but there you are. He was particularly fond of sodomy–with either men or women. In this regard, he was an equal opportunity molester. His early life seemed relatively normal. He was born into a noble family, well educated, and was a colonel in a dragoon regiment where he fought in the Seven Years’ War. Later, he married the daughter of a rich man and had two sons and a daughter by her. His first serious brush with authorities occurred when he was 28; he locked a woman in his chateau and physically and sexually abused her. She climbed out of a second story window and reported his behavior to the police. Other naughty antics followed and soon he was traveling about from locale to locale to avoid capture. One outraged father managed to find the marquis in his chateau and tried to shoot him at point blank range, but the gun misfired. Eventually he was imprisoned in the Bastille where he remained for a number of years, only to be removed several days before the fortress was stormed, which contributed, of course, to the French Revolution. The new government released him because he said all the right things at the right time, and he began referring to himself humbly as “Citizen de Sade.” He was even elected to the National Convention. Sade anonymously published two of his most famous books, Justine and Juliette, and these publications would ultimately lead to his final downfall.
Napoleon Bonaparte ascended to the throne, so to speak, and, reading Justine, declared it “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination.” He ordered the immediate arrest of the anonymous author, which was done with alacrity–at de Sade’s publisher’s office of all places–, causing our hero to be summarily whisked off to prison and eventually to an insane asylum. The asylum wasn’t so bad: his mistress, the actress Marie-Constance Quesnet, was allowed to accompany him, and the director of the institution permitted him to stage several of his plays, with inmates as actors. And there he remained, writing furiously.
De Sade’s wrote prolifically during his life–novels, short stories, plays, dialogues, and political tracts. It is estimated about half of his works were destroyed or disappeared, but today his most famous books are Justine, Juliette, and 120 days of Sodom. Of the three, Justine is probably the best–if one can call it that–in that it contains a legitimate story line with less digression for rants, ravings and philosophizing. I remember getting my hands on this novel in the 1960’s, but was surprised to find that the editor, in translating the book from its original French, left some of the more prurient passages untranslated. This was not only annoying, but amusing. Why translate the damn thing at all if you’re going to censor passages that you, the translator, feel would shock my system or undermine my moral values? Come on, Frodo, translate the whole thing or shut up altogether.
Today, fortunately, the book is available to all and sundry who wish to delve into the sewer of degraded sensibilities. The novel is about Therese, a sweet, adorable creature, virtuous to a fault, who undergoes one horror after another at the hands of cruel and depraved people, demonstrating that, according to the author, goodness and purity should never be rewarded.
Juliette takes a major step downward (or upward if we are using a scale of sado-masochism). Juliette, who happens to be Therese’s (or Justine’s) sister, is the absolute opposite of her where moral depravity is concerned–and she’s rewarded for it. The book is a journey through rape, torture and murder, interspersed with philosophical musings about religion, politics, etc., long enough for the main characters to rest up and then continue their debaucheries. The bottom line is: if it feels good, do it. The fact that it might not feel good to somebody else is largely irrelevant in the grand scheme of things.
One wonders how much of this unbridled violence and blasphemy (the latter being a big no-no during this period) was truly adopted by de Sade and what kind of behavior he would have indulged in had he truly had complete freedom to behave as he pleased. Remember, he had a mistress who remained with him for over twenty years. Could he have been that bad? And what was the nature of their relationship?
Lastly, we come to his so-called magnus opus, The 120 Days of Sodom. Justine is a charming stroll in the woods surrounded by pleasantly scented flowers compared to Sodom. De Sade himself described the book as “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began”– a declaration with which I must agree. This book is less about sex and more about pure sado-masochism, in that there is urination, defecation, torture of every sort, and murder–ultimately the defiling of human beings in every manner possible. Quite frankly, it gets boring after a while.
During the final four years of his life de Sade was given the 14-year-old daughter of an employee to do with as he pleased (France must have had a much more libertine attitude toward child sex abuse in those days as opposed to the present era), and it is said that he committed sodomy on the girl just hours before his demise at the age of 74–certainly a fitting end to a life of debauchery.
People who are easily shocked need not read these books. But there is certain educational value in being exposed to them. If you wish to explore how depraved a person’s thinking can get, de Sade is the place. His name and the word “sadism” are terms that shall always be with us. So, as dubious as his impact might be, he definitely made one.