The Marquis de Sade was born into a position of superior social standing which was torn from his grasp in the prime of his years. In his private life, Sade sought to explore liberty in an effort to stretch its bounds, to erect new edifices in the name of Man's freedom. Sade's was often a life in which reality and fiction were intertwined. As a passionate libertine and lover that he was, the time he spent in prison must have been devastating.
A common theme in his work was one of authority being perverted by those who had it by birthright. In Silling Castle (the setting of 120 Days of Sodom), he had imprisoned libertinism to explore its extents. This was similar to the "petite maisons" that Sade enjoyed in his private life, where he experimented with the real thing. Both his past and the escapism of his literature failed to give him the freedom to practice the philosophy he espoused. His works were his prison bars (his obsession with concepts such as depravity, human nature and liberty got him into more trouble than his massive ego) and yet they operated as his wings toward a more complete freedom (in his writing, he had revenge on all that had put him in prison and in madhouses). In his imprisonment, his sexual drive became a sickness through which he strove to extend from the very body, which kept it captive. The body Sade had such control over had become a prison much as Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally Charendon. The depths to which he fought to escape his body compared, and not unreasonably, to the Psychopathia Sexualis of Krafft-Ebing.
In the world of fiction that Sade created, there is no God, no morality, no rule which the body itself does not contain. Libertinism, in Sade's view, was driven by desire, not by an identity of the free man. It was the desires and controlling actions in the name of power that set Sade's place. He was born the son of nobility and descended from that very Laura whom the poet Petrarch wrote of. Donatien Alfonse (as was Sade's birthname) had all he could ask for. His father, the Comte de Sade, was a cold man unmoved by much of life and more a diplomat than a parent. His mother was equally distant and hardly saw her husband or child, living in a private apartment in France as the Comte travelled. Donatien lived a life of making trouble, and even beat Prince Louis-Joseph de Bourbon when the pair were children under the misunderstanding of privilege given by rank.
In an attempt to control the child, he was sent under the care of his grandmother, and then to his uncle, the Abbe Francois de Sade. The Abbe was scholarly, but it was not academic affairs that lead the Abbe into being one of the probable sources for a member of Sade's "Friends of Crime" from 120 Days of Sodom. The Abbe's notorious sexual life was no secret. Even as the age of libertinism was coming into age, with sexual promiscuity more prevalent, the Abbe's sex life was considered… unusual. Donatien watched his uncle enact every whim and desire he wished, while under the man's care. He learned then that this was the way the world worked for a select few. Donatien served successfully in the Seven Year's War. His daring service earned him the rank of Captain of the Burgundy Horse. This rank did not gain him power, however. It did, in fact, restrict his access to debauchery. He had written several letters indicating that he would try harder to abstain from such behavior.
Apparently his sexual promiscuity found itself at the age of fifteen. He was married off to Claude Renee Cordier de Launay, a member of a family whose titles and honors had been bought rather than passed through blood. Donatien's mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, did not exactly approve of the marriage in particular, though it did give her family political power. This may be accounted to two items: (1) she had learned of Sade's proposal to Madame de Lauris, his mistress, and (2) Madame de Montreuil was reported as resisting Sade's propositions to her body and erotic charm. She became, in time, his worst enemy.
A very specific flaw plagued Sade's erotic crimes. He believed he was granted rights far above and beyond the commoner. This is not surprising given his experience, but he believed it to be not merely a privilege, but a law. If there was anything that could be indicative of his egotism, it was in that he truly believed that his rank allowed him to perform any act he wished.
His creative imagination fueled his desire and created a list of sexual explorations that he and neighboring girls were apt to analyze. His wife, apparently dutiful to the last, observed these experiments and assisted in whatever way she could. Reported as being a rather homely woman, it would not be surprising that this attractive, charismatic man would enamor her. The misconception of 'life as art' brought Sade to incarceration time and again. It was his wife's undying devotion which allowed her the role of confident and supporter of Sade. She was always there for him in every time of need, no matter how he treated or mistreated her. The debauchery Sade explored in his 'petite maisons" was of a type not atypical to the aristocratic lifestyle of the time. The aristocracy had recently lost some of its valued authority and sought ways to win it back, even if only in the bedroom. Yet it was Sade's defilement of the prostitutes that resulted in his first incarceration in Vincennes. His release is comical, as he writes, "I deserve the vengeance of God and feel it: to bemoan my sins weep over my faults are my only employ. Alas, God could have annihilated me without giving me time to repent: what thanks must I give him in allowing me to return to the fold. Sir, I pray you to allow me the means to accomplish this by permitting me to see a priest. Through his good offices and my own sincere repentance I hope soon to be fit to approach the Holy Sacraments…(Gorer, 24)"
This letter to M. de Sartine, the police lieutenant, played on exactly those sentiments that ensured his release. Such tricks would scarcely hold back the hand of the law in what was to come, however.
On Easter Sunday in 1767, what became known as the "Keller Affair" took place. There is much inconsistency between her account of the event and Sade's. It is known that a servant in anticipation of a "partie de libertinage" brought her to the house. She claimed that she was to serve as a housekeeper and expected only activities pertaining to this role. She was welcomed from the streets as a publicly virtuous widow, begging for alms by the side of the road. Yet, even considering her temperament, this is what occurred; Sade used her in a manner she found distasteful and he allowed her to rest after he applied what he believed to be a helpful balm (most likely self-created) which scalded her. He also fed her and left her to herself, giving her time to bolt out the window. The first person she encountered was the lawyer Jouette. The judge de Mapeou presided over the case with a staunch puritanical air that would haunt Sade over the coming years.
As for the "distasteful manner"... She claimed to have been asked to confess her sins to Sade, was tied down, severely beaten and escaped within an inch of her life. The surgeon's report showed some sign of flagellation, yet no marks of binding. The trial also posed the question that if she was beaten so severely, how would she have had the strength to escape? During his subsequent years of exile due to the "Keller Affair," Sade worked heavily in amateur theatricals, accompanied by his sister-in-law, Anne-Prospere de Launay. It was said that Sade dearly loved Anne-Prospere, which may account for his good behavior until the "affair of the sweets" in 1772. Sade's servant Latour (who was constantly at his master's side) was scouring the streets for lovely bodies with which Sade would engage with in some debauchery. After finding a healthy group of specimens, they retired to the cottage where Sade was beaten with a twig broom an accounted 800 times (he kept track of the blows by carving notches in the banister). He then fed his playthings sweets composed of aniseed, which created a lubricity in the anus, and catharides that operated as a simple aphrodisiac. This was to ease the pain of anal intercourse. One woman of the group, Margueritte Coste, ate an entire boxful and was dangerously ill. She consulted a physician and a lawyer, which lead to a warrant for Sade' arrest.
Sade and his servant fled the country before they were lynched for poisoning Magueritte Coste. Burning effigies hung in the town in the form of Sade and Latour. The Marquis de Sade was no longer merely a perverted sexual criminal, he was now a murderer. Perversity was its own end to de Sade. He saw no reason not to bend the world into his vision of desire. It was his right. If we are driven to do good by the beliefs and virtues of a Judeo-Christian society, Sade would have us believe that it is only by striving to break these bonds that we could reverse this psychology and be free. But, it was not the time for such thoughts. He was a wanted man.
It was at the Parliament of Aix, where the same figure of puritanism who had judged Donatien four years previous condemned the libertine at last. Sade's capture was distorted into a Bluebeard tale, with bodies found and a mad lunatic to blame. Sade became a criminal outside of human proportions. De Mapeou was the individual responsible for the reputation de Sade carried into prison; he had changed from an overly promiscuous aristocrat to a kind of Spring Heeled Jack of the countryside.
Sade escaped from his five-month stay in Miolans by use of a bedsheet rope (yes, people actually do that), leaving a note of apology to the governor. The Marquis then trekked the land with a motley crew including a dancer who kept human bones with her as a kind of grotesque joke. He enjoyed the company of the Pope and Rosseau, and was presented at the Court in Naples. His journeys were cut short by a desperate request for him to return home. Sade's mother was in ill health, it was said, but it was actually a clever trick devised by Madame de Montreuil, his wicked mother-in-law. Sade was captured and imprisoned for fifteen months in Vincennes, where his keepers treated him very badly and his health deteriorated. He tried to clear his name by requesting a hearing from the Court at Aix. His charge was changed from that of sodomy to "debauchery and excessive licentiousness." During a reprieve, Sade made an attempt to escape the law and was captured after gaining freedom for a mere 39 days.
Incarcerated once more in Vincennes, he began to suffer both physically and mentally. He grew of the opinion that everyone was against him and that the slightest anomaly, such as the number of syllables in a letter from his wife, meant a message of freedom. But freedom never came during these long cold years. His life deteriorated. His very licentious behavior that had landed him in such a predicament, was too confined. He grew quite fat from lack of exercise and the very body he prided himself on, betrayed him in the end.
It was at this time that the stage was set for him to begin writing what the world would one day recognize as his legacy. His mind turned inward. Driven by the need for revenge, he turned to the word, abstracting physical into the verbal. He presented mankind as what he had seen them as all through his life, depraved animals.
Sade chose to personify and identify the animal world with that of mankind. He saw that "…in everyday erotic language and life, the participants recreate the roaring, snorting, yelping and murmuring of all sorts of animals… Humans imitate the complexity of animal sexuality and copy its graceful, terrible and ferocious gestures because they want to return to the state of nature (Paz 16-17)." It was this natural state that Sade saw as all encompassing. Man was an animal that had such desires and wants that must be answered. In everyday life, it is this primal nature that helps us survive, sense danger and perceive others as friends or enemies. We may rely on our cerebral skills and devices to connect or express ourselves, but they are not the cores of our beings as humans. The freedom in the animal world was what Sade saw as unattainable in such a stringent society that would not allow such behavior.
We wish to be free animals, to act upon our every whim, but it is this behavior that society deems improper. Sade himself stated that "there are heaven knows how many people in the world who turn criminal on their own account simply because an undiscerning government ignores their worth and neglects to put them to work… (Murder) is one of the sweetest penchants, one of the keenest he (mankind) has received from Nature; cruelty in man is simply an expression of his desire to exercise his strength (Juliette, 778)."
Sade's pessimism in humanity came from his own persecution and imprisonment at the hands of the elite aristocracy. But what is more, he was himself one of those privileged few who held such power. He saw that if there had been anything in his want, it would be granted him. As such, he was free to pursue his erotic needs (until his arrest, that is). This persecution of a personality that was allowed to act as a being outside of the common law, lead him to discover that Mankind consisted of "…miserable creatures thrown for a moment on the surface of this muck-heap-where it is laid down that one half of the herd must persecute the rest… You decide what is a crime and what is not, you hang men in Paris for what would win them crowns in the Congo (Thomas, 169)."
Though a close reader and acquaintance of Rousseau's, his knowledge that Mankind could fit in this philosopher's view only lead to distress. Sade was not pleased with the rot of morality that he saw in the world and could only ask its limits of cruelty and inhumanity. Sade's libertine is "a reasoning beast… a philosopher-ogre… when one of these anchorites leaves his retreat the result is not the Social Contract, but the statutes of the Society of the Friends of Crime (Paz, 27)." This contract is one in which the law is explicitly defined as one of desire.
The Society of the Friends of Crime believes that any and all demands of the flesh be met, and without question. To view such a society as being in control, one must seek escape from such laws and restrictions. But to possess a body and a mind makes one a commodity to the ruling class' manipulation.
To attain reality beyond flesh, one must find escape through another body. This was the heart of Donation's explorations of the erotic. He was in constant search for an escape route from his body using voyeurism and study of the effects of his sexual manipulation. The process was identical to Alice walking through the looking glass, with the glass being another body and walking being a far crueler act. De Sade failed at this escape which gave him such distress. He tried to keep a log of his explorations of the human body that was both his criminal history and his literary legacy.
In acknowledging the bestial nature of humankind, Sade had created a barrier to transcendence. His transcendental act was to surpass the flesh through the sexual act rather than the spiritual one. Without God, there is no hope or ascension to a higher state of being. In a phenomenological sense, this sensual word that Sade thought of as recognition of Man's nature had become a block to escapism from it. In essence, his very sensing of his body re-enforced its existence and laws. He perceived his body as his own identity. In sex, "…we can manipulate people as though they were tools, but… the libertine does not desire the disappearance of the other consciousness… (It) reflects me but does not allow me to see it, it is invisible… a negative reality (Paz, 54)." In this, the body takes away from identity and in search for synthesis we are left with what Bertrand Russel saw as a whole less than its possibilities. Through the scrutinous perception of another's sensations, we ourselves become lost in the sea of that other. There is only obsession (Sade's notch-keeping of his lashes to release himself from his cage of flesh) and disillusion (the many "petite maison" visits, each promising release, and ending in imprisonment), not transcendence.
This sensationalism through another was what Sade centered on throughout his works while incarcerated. His Friends of Crime, in the Monster work 120 Days of Sodom sought to break the moralistic limits of the world. Due to the storming of the Bastille where his work, meticulously written on a single sheet of paper, was hidden, he had thought lost forever. This was the cause of much pain which caused him to seek retribution through other works, such as the antithesis of Justine (a kind of satire of Jane Austin's Emma), Juliette.
This last work, Juliette, was one of his most ardent attempts to explore the depths of how far the limits of morality could be stretched. However, it was not an abstract morality, but an actual physical consequential world that Sade was concerned with. Hence, we are given Juliette, the libertine of libertines. Her journey throughout the novel is begun as an investigation of the human body. Every inch of the flesh is defiled over and over again in an attempt to find where is the identity? If the human consciousness is housed in this frame, where does its nexus lie? How far can we bring this body to the brink? In one particular disconcerting moment, the house of a Duc is visited where Juliette is flogged and molested to an inch of her life in a room where bodies are thrown as one would treat a stool. Over blood pouring from Juliette's flayed buttocks, the Duc screams, "By the guts of Almighty God, I have no great fondness for women; if God made them, why can't I exterminate them?… I see blood and I am happy… (Juliette, 197)." It is utter and complete destruction of the human form that the Duc seeks, the oblivion of identity, "Burn them, sear them, scorch them, fry them!… burn these fucking whores, I'm discharging! (Juliette, 198)." It is the utter destruction which drives the Duc's orgasm, not union, but the shattering of that very 'mirror' which offers us the glimpse of our own identity.
It is the reaction in the face of another during the sexual act which is our truest self, a kind of fusion between our animal side and the reigns which operate on in our refusal to give in entirely to its demands. Our social and instinctual sides are in opposition and it is in this synthesis that we are whole.
In this journey through the primal act, the pursuit of the limits of human destruction and the depths to which these hidden needs must be expressed, Sade finds the oblivion of the self. In seeking to transcend the body, he has destroyed and left behind the ashes of the past, "… libertinism ins not a school of extreme sensations and passions, but rather the search for a state beyond sensations… it is the final and definite annihilation… insensibility triumphs over the libertine… perfects him as a tool of destruction… perfect as an automaton… (The libertine becomes) the degree of incandescence that destructive energy must attain. The libertine vanishes (Paz, 59)."
It is fitting that Sade wished his body of work destroyed after his death. He wished to vanish as a distinguishable thing, as an entity with corporeal mass. But it was after his death that his voice was heard in literature. His existence was ensured through his failure to transcend the state of physical sensation. He is remembered as a writer of "pornography," and "literature one can read with one hand," but he was much more than that. He predated a philosophy of sexual psychology and his desire to understand and surpass the human body lead to a new view of what drives us as human beings.
His explorations of how far a kick can go was continued by such writers as William S. Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson, who tried to open doors never before examined. It is this very existence, this life, Sade tried so hard to define, itinarize, and obliterate. But he turned out to be a prophet of the modern world. He turned the body into a quantifiable thing; something achieved in the Nazi Holocaust. The obliteration of identity is alive and well in a world that views people as numbers. The quantifiable, hierarchical madness created in 120 Days of Sodom exists in our world as well. When we introduce ourselves to others, it is what we do, our role in the world, which creates our identity.
Urban politics may decide our identity, but it is what drives us through our lives, that engine of primal desire, which does not tire. It rises like smoke from a funeral pyre after the shell of our body is dropped away. This primal engine that Sade was in the throws of all of his life lives on as well. It is indisposable and integral to us as a race, despite the unfortunate elements of our social selves. We may not always be kind creatures, but we are animals.
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