When a friend sent me a news item that a handwritten manuscript by the Marquis de Sade has been returned to France and said, “When I saw this I thought of you” I wanted to say, “Gee, thanks,” but I knew what he meant. Maybe I knew a little too well what he meant. In college I went through a phase of reading everything I could find by and about Sade. I even read a paper on his work to a local chapter of the Samuel Johnson Society. After I was done the members took me out to dinner and the vice president laughed as she paid my bill, saying, “It’s so funny that I’m sponsoring scholarship of the Marquis de Sade.”
I’m not sure I really got across just what a terrible person he was, or how terrible his writings are, but that was my fault. I wasn’t into his kinks—he’s the source of the term “sadism” after all—but I was enthralled by just how extreme his works were. He covered subjects I didn’t think people in the 18th century even thought about, much less wrote about. He took the idea of “natural man”, unfettered by the laws and standards of civilization, that Rousseau wrote about and Voltaire parodied, to its extremes, asking, what does absolute freedom look like? How much he did personally isn’t clear–he was smart enough not to put too much of his personal life to paper, at least in prison, or maybe but he did but a lot of his work was burned after his death. I’m pretty tolerant of what consenting adults do among themselves but he didn’t seem to care about consent, or limit himself to adults. He beat several prostitutes, was accused of poisoning some with what he probably thought was an aphrodisiac, abducted his sister-in-law, and tried to molest some peasant children. Being a nobleman he might have gotten away with all that too in pre-revolutionary France, but he had a wealthy mother-in-law. His own family was aristocratic but bankrupt and his mother-in-law used money to keep him locked up for various reasons including blasphemy. It didn’t help that some of his exploits got enough public attention that authorities felt compelled to act, and, after the revolution, he still represented the excesses of the aristocracy to many and that Napoleon ordered him arrested for some of his published books.
Anyway there’s no book of his that tries to answer the question of absolute freedom as much as the one that’s just been returned to France: Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage. He wrote it, and several other works, while imprisoned in the Bastille. Some of those works he published but Sodom, written in tiny letters on a scroll more than twenty feet long, he kept hidden in his cell. It was unpublishable, maybe even unprintable—at least at the time, and part of me wonders if it should have stayed that way.
On July 2nd, 1789, Sade started screaming from his window that the prisoners were being murdered and the people should rise up and free them. He was taken out and moved to the Charenton asylum where he’d spend the rest of his life. Twelve days later French revolutionaries would storm the Bastille. I don’t think there’s any evidence Sade had anything to do with that, and I doubt he did ; the prison had become a symbol of the monarchy and a raving nobleman probably didn’t get much sympathy. Sade thought his manuscript was destroyed in the attack ; in fact it was found and passed through various collectors.
As fascinated—even charmed—as I was by Sade Sodom was a hard book o get through. Like all his works the plot, if you can even call it that, is pretty simple : four noblemen, a duke, a bishop, a judge, and a banker spend five months in a remote castle where they rape and abuse each other’s wives and children while being entertained with tales of increasing sexual depravity by four prostitutes. The whole thing ends with a murderous orgy, the noblemen marry the prostitutes, having killed their own wives and children, and return to their respectable lives. It sounds almost like satire, and Sade definitely intended it as an attack on the nobility, but even his notes—he didn’t finish the book and most of it is a rough outline—are so detailed it seems like he took real pleasure from what he was supposedly condemning.
It’s a book that pushes boundaries, and it’s so full of rape, torture, and murder I had to skip parts of it, and it really broke any romantic notions I had of him. He could be charming both in life and in his writing but in both he also had a very, very dark side. And his philosophy has some major weaknesses. Sade was interested in defining freedom but his idea of freedom was limited to men of a certain social class; almost everyone else was disposable. When the French Revolution happened he claimed to support it but really, I think, just hoped to be freed from the asylum. He also wanted to return to his luxurious castle and the life he’d enjoyed before prison—he never directed his hatred of the nobility toward himself; when he could get away with a crime he was proud, when he couldn’t it was someone else’s fault, which is ironic for a guy who wrote so scathingly about hypocrisy.
The Marquis de Sade is less famous for who he really was than what he represents—freedom, especially sexual freedom—but who he really was, and what he wrote, raises complicated questions about what freedom means and what its limits should be. So I’m glad Les 120 Journées de Sodome now belongs to the French government. They can keep it.