This is the first in a series of Friday posts on this blog called Friday Thoughts, or #Foughts, an in depth discussion on a character or topic I have found particularly interesting, or has divided opinion. The Marquis de Sade, although he was born over 200 years ago, is still a subject of debate today.
French aristocrat of a depraved family, philosopher against the restrictions on society, writer of ‘the most impure book ever written’, favourite author of Moors Murderer Ian Brady, and sexually violent criminal Donatien Alphonse François de Sade is still a widely speculated figure in history. Feminists either love or hate him, Napoleon wanted him executed, he spent 32 years of his life imprisoned; was (and is) the Marquis de Sade a misunderstood revolutionary or a deranged sexual abuser?
Born in 1740, Sade’s early life paved the journey into his obsessive study of sex. He was his only parent’s surviving child. His father, Jean-Batiste François de Sade was a diplomat in the court of Louis XV and a disgrace to the family as he was bisexual and had numerous affairs with either sex. He abandoned his family when Sade was young and only dealt with his son when he was spending the family’s limited fortune later in life. Sade’s mother, Marie Eleanore de Maillé de Carman, sought sanctuary in a convent when her husband left. It is the roots of Sade that will shape his psychological nature, for his father’s debauchery shamed the family but meant that he was free of family life and society’s paternal demands, and his mother was a cold detached woman who showed her son very little affection, and caused him to hate mothers. In Sade’s writings, he often brutally had mothers killed off by their children, perhaps a vision he had teased in his own mind from an early age.
With the absence of parents, Sade was left in the care of servants who were ‘stupid enough’ to give him anything he demanded (he later wrote while imprisoned) and led him to be a spoilt child with a temper. While squabbling over a toy, Sade beat the Prince of Conde with such venom that he was sent away to live with his Uncle, the Abbé de Sade. This was a blow to his mother who had believed that a friendship with the Prince would have secured him a successful (and potentially wealthy) future.
The Abbé de Sade was a Priest but he was far from holy, and living under his roof would introduce young Donatien to a lifestyle that would lead him to countless incarcerations and eventual death in an insane asylum. During his stay with his Uncle, he read his complete porn collection at the age of ten, met the mother and daughter who lived in the home for his Uncle’s sexual satisfaction, and witnessed many orgies that happened there with other men of the cloth. This time in his life had a profound effect on Sade: he lived the rest of his life hating religion and aristocracy because of its hypocricy. Priests judged and punished others for not following the rigid constraints of religion, but they did as they wished in their private lives. This exposed Sade to the hypocricy of the church and he held no beliefs in God or respect for religion, the basis of his radical libertine sexuality because if there is no God, there are no morals, and man has no greater purpose than an insect. In the same vein, he would grow to hate royalty and believe that society was led by the weak to stop the progress of the strong, and that political power was the same as moral corruption.
Four years later, Sade was sent to the Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. A recurring pattern in his life: he is sent to another place with no control or real supervision. Here he was subjected to flagellations for his unruly behaviour, an act he would later obsess over with prostitutes (philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau also became fixated on the gratification this act arose). At the age of 15 Sade was a soldier during the Seven Years War and became a respected Colonel. However, his bravery was marred with debts as he threw money at gambling and prostitutes. His father stepped in to protect the family’s finances, and paired him with the older sister of a girl he had been courting. Renée-Pelagie de Montreuill, being the eldest daughter of a rich magistrate, meant that she was the heir to his fortune, unlike her younger sister whom Sade felt great affection for. Although he continued to see her in private, his marriage to Renée produced three children.
It could be said that this was the point that Sade finally regained control of his life. He began to explore his sexuality with the aid of prostitutes, carrying out sexual acts like a crazy scientist carries out studies in the privacy of his castle. He experimented on prostitutes, beating them, using aphrodesiacs such as Spanish Fly, sodomy (which was illegal), in the study of pain and pleasure. His fascinations had started in the classroom as he was struck by the teacher in front of his classmates, that sting and shame but also wicked arousal. He believed pain and pleasure were entwined, famously remarking: ‘it is always by way of pain one arrives at pleasure’. One extreme experiment clearly indicates his position on religion: he pleasured a prostitute with a crucifix and cursed God, an event that housed him in jail for blasphemy, although it could have had him beheaded, (his hatred for aristocracy didn’t stop him from receiving short term punishment in accordance with his own aristocracy). This didn’t halt Sade’s sexual practices, even though he felt prison was like ‘a tomb where I have been buried alive‘. He was imprisoned for many offences as a result of his ‘debauchery’, and was equally reviled for his published works. He was imprisoned for 13 years after Napoleon Bonaparte publicly ordered it for the publication of Justine and Juliette.
Justine told the story of a girl who is virtuous, pure, and naive, and Juliette is the story of her half-sister, (separated at birth), who is sexually liberated, violent, and blasphemous. Justine is repeatedly promised salvation by men in the story but is tortured and abused, parallels with Sade’s view of society and religion perhaps? Follow a life of virtue and purity in line with what society and church tells you, and you shall be mistreated throughout your life. Juliette, on the other hand, is taught at an early age that there is no God and you should live your life as you wish as there is no judgement in the end, and she lives her life in bliss, following Sade’s personal mantra of living to no morals.
His treatment of prostitutes is viewed as brutal and depraved, and many feminists despise of the Marquis for this, but in 18th century France prostitutes were ‘the target of God’s wrath‘ and were exposed to beatings from ‘men who are more vile than pigs‘ so much so that their lives were in constant danger. Although it does not condone the extreme sexual acts these women encountered at Sade’s hands, it does not stand him as a uniquely tortuorous man, as the attitude that a well-paid whore should do anything a man of nobility wished was commonplace in the 18th century.
Once explored, the Marquis de Sade becomes less ‘famous French pervert‘ and more a revolutionary seeking freedom in a restricted society determined to accuse and punish the lowly. Some see Sade as a feminist – understanding that women are constrained by what society expects of them (motherhood) when they should embrace their sexuality and reject the idea that reproduction is their only purpose, and that they should only serve men. His view on society, women, sexual freedom and being true to oneself is inspirational for those who are worried about the pressures of society on their personal needs and wishes. Even if you find the Marquis de Sade’s actions unforgiveable and tasteless, his quote to future philosophers can be related to everybody on some level; ‘[write] as though you are alone in the universe, or as though you had nothing to fear from man’s jealousy and prejudice’.
What are your thoughts on the Marquis de Sade? Has your view changed since reading this discussion? Do you agree with his point of view on society?