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Marquis de Sade: depraved monster or misunderstood genius? It’s complicated

Profile portrait of young man in 18th-century wig.
Portrait of the sadist as a young man by Charles Amédée Philippe van Loo (1719-1795). Author provided

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a bestselling author in his day and yet he spent most of his life behind bars. His novels inspired the term “sadist” - “a person who derives pleasure, especially sexual gratification, from inflicting pain or humiliation on others” – and yet, in 2017, France declared his work a “national treasure”. So, was Sade a pornographer or a philosopher – and why does his name continue to cause such heated debate?

Two centuries after his death, Sade (1740-1814) remains a figure of controversy. On the one hand, his name is associated with the French Revolution and the storming of the Bastille, on the other, with rape, sexual terror and torture. During his lifetime, Sade was found guilty of sodomy, rape, torturing the 36-year-old beggar woman Rose Keller, imprisoning six children in his chateau at Lacoste, and poisoning five prostitutes with the aphrodisiac “Spanish fly”.

He managed to avoid the death sentence but still spent 32 years in prisons and insane asylums, partly due to the intervention of family members who kept him locked up to avoid disgrace. Momentarily freed under the French Revolution, he became “Citizen Sade”, participating in some of the key political events of the era, only to see his works seized, destroyed and banned under Napoleon Bonaparte.

His work remained censored throughout the 19th century and most of the 20th – but in 2017 the French State declared his 120 Days of Sodom (1785), written in the Bastille on a 12-metre scroll, to be a “national treasure”. So what happened between his lifetime and ours to change his profile so radically? Here are five things we should all know about the Marquis de Sade.

1. The most disgusting books

Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue (1791), Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), The New Justine (an extended version of Justine published in 1797) followed by the Story of Juliette, Her Sister (1797) and The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage (1785) – these are the works that led Napoleon Bonaparte to call Sade an author of “abominable” books and to have a “depraved imagination”. But they were penned behind bars and are the products of an incarcerated imagination – not accounts of his personal life and crimes.

No one escapes the satirical power of Sade’s pen – young or old, virtuous or corrupt, rich or poor – although his narratives are dominated by certain types, especially bankers, clergy, judges, aristocrats and prostitutes.

2. Philosopher of the bedroom

Sade lived in a time of terror. His writings may be read as a knowing inversion of Enlightenment high ideals as they were penned in France at the end of the 18th century in the shadow of the bloody guillotine. For example, Philosophy in the Bedroom – which contains a mock political pamphlet: “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans” – was written shortly after the fall of the leading radical Robespierre and it offers an absurdist take on the rhetoric and promises of the French Revolution.

In it, Sade also reminds us that “were it among Nature’s intentions that man be born modest, she would not have caused him to be born naked”.

3.Sade and sadism

Sade’s taste for sodomy, paedophilia and flagellation, in addition to his fictional accounts of excessive orgies, which describe sexual cruelty and murder in excessive detail, led many to presume he was deranged. This status was magnified by the fact that he ended his life in the asylum of Charenton, although a scientific examination of his skull by a Dr Ramon after his death showed no physical or mental abnormalities - phrenology determined the skull “was in all respects similar to that of a Father of the Church”. Casts were even made of his skull, one of which now sits in the Musée de l'Homme in Paris.

In Sade’s writings, however, the clergy are typically amoral characters and by the 19th century, the term “sadism” was coined by psychoanalysts to denote the experience of pleasure through the infliction of physical pain.

4. Pornography at the service of women

The feminist philosopher Simone de Beauvoir defended Sade in a 1951 essay entitled: “Must We Burn Sade?”.

Cover for 2020 book about Sade by the author Alyce Mahon.
Controversial study: the author’s recent book about Marquis de Sade. Author provided

She argued that his novels’ exploration of the idea that “in a criminal society, one must be criminal” was never more relevant and that his life story and increasing perversity in his fiction was a symptom of society’s increasing attempts to control him.

In the 1970s and 1980s, feminists engaged in heated debate over Sade and his philosophical value. Angela Carter defended him for putting pornography “at the service of women” while Andrea Dworkin insisted his fiction only defended the male sexual desire to “possess” women.

5. ‘Divine Marquis’

By the 20th century, Sade was deemed “divine” by many intellectuals and artists who interpreted his writings as a dark mirror of man’s inhumanity to man. From Man Ray’s imaginary portraits of Sade in the late 1930s, portraying him as a paragon of liberty beside the burning Bastille, as war loomed in Europe, to Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Saló (1975), which restages Sade’s 120 days of Sodom in fascist Italy, Sade’s name and writings offered modern artists and writers a means to address the horrors of war and totalitarian regimes. These are themes American artist Paul Chan explores in his mixed-media installations “Sade for Sade’s Sake” (2009) by conflating Sade and the “War on Terror”.

Sade’s writings may seem cold and cruel, but they can but leave a mark on the reader. Surely that is the power of art and why we must continue to read Sade.

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