The Pier with Chains, from Carceri d’Invenzione by Giovanni Battista Piranesi, 1761

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, born in 1740 of a distinguished Provençal family, was not the man he wanted to be. For one thing, he spent half his life in prison, and for another, according to a police description of him, he was physically repulsive – short, pudgy, and ugly as sin. The sexual infamy that surrounds him is not without foundation: he was ‘a psychopathic pervert, but of an ineffectual kind’. His nemesis was his wife’s mother, Madame de Montreuil, whose implacable enmity, aroused no doubt by the fact that de Sade spent most of his time living with his wife’s younger sister, was a major influence in securing his various prison sentences. De Sade was a minor aristocrat, not privy to the inner circles of the elite, and where a wealthier nobleman of higher station might buy immunity, he was endlessly tantalised by his own vision of unaccountability, and never realised it except on paper.

This is how Geoffrey Ashe portrays him in his book, The Hellfire Clubs or A History of Anti-Morality (The History Press, 2000). It’s a brilliant destruction laced with absurdity, though set against a nyktomorphic background of considerable darkness.

While name of de Sade carries a certain fascination or horror in the public mind, the fact is that as a sexual abuser, a predator, as a Sadist, the man was a comical failure. For the Divine Marquis, the sublimation of power into sex was often frustrated, requiring a further sublimation into fiction, and it is this that gives us a window into the ethics of those like him, men like the ‘notorious Duc de Charolais, who found women exciting only when he was shedding their blood.’ While de Sade, in prison, whiled away the time by imagining such atrocities, we must imagine that others with greater immunity carried them out.

De Sade’s wealth and nobility were able to buy him a certain amount of immunity, but by no means all of the time. His mother-in-law was roused to war by his infidelities with her other daughter. Her curse endured, trumping him time and again, and he spent a total of twenty-seven years in prison and insane asylums, ten of them in the Bastille. And so he remains a comic figure, not a tragic one. But it is a dark comedy, which gives us access to a bigger picture. Ashe writes, ‘Sexual infamy was the basis of the reasons alleged [for his imprisonments], but would not have condemned him in itself. Other French aristocrats of his time went further.’ He then floats an interesting speculation:

The plain priapic energy of an earlier generation, the Duc de Richelieu’s, was souring into passions of a nastier kind. Having lost status at home and prestige abroad, the nobles were tempted to sexual barbarities, explicit or disguised, as the only means of recapturing a sense of power.

De Sade, like his characters, had no problem ridding himself of conscience, but unlike them he could never remove himself beyond the reach of the law. The Marquis, writes Ashe, ‘believed at heart in Liberty without either Equality or Fraternity’; therefore Liberty would only be enjoyed by power; this is his definition of Libertinism.‘ Libertine’ is the epithet given to the characters in his books who act out de Sade’s desires.

Ashe describes three incidents which cumulatively and progressively reveal both de Sade’s character and the reasons he spent so much time behind bars.

The first has de Sade, in 1768, picking up an unemployed Parisian seamstress by the name of Rose Keller, and taking her to a country house for sex. She later claimed that he had offered her a job; de Sade asserted that he had made his purpose clear. Once at the house he ordered her to undress, and threatened her if she refused. He tied her up and whipped her, then treated her wounds and offered her food. She escaped, and reported de Sade to the police, accusing him of cutting her with a knife as well as flogging her. The episode cost de Sade 2,400 francs in damages.

The second scandal occurred four years later in Marseilles, and Ashe describes it as “hardly more spectacular, but much more revealing”. This time de Sade and his valet hired the girls, four of them, from a brothel, and then drugged them with Spanish fly. ‘Various permutative exercises ensued’, as Ashe puts it. ‘These included the flagellation of the Marquis himself, who (and this is one of the characteristic touches) got up every so often, went over to the mantlepiece, notched it to record the number of lashes he had received, and then went back for more.’

Again, despite his precautions, the plan backfired when the aphrodisiac poisoned one of the prostitutes – might he, in his comic anxiety, have overdone the doses? This time de Sade was actually given a death sentence, for sodomy and attempted poisoning, but managed to escape and headed for Italy with his wife’s sister. When he returned he was, for the first time, imprisoned, but again escaped, as Ashe notes, “with absurd ease.”

The third documented practical attempt on the part of de Sade to realise his Rabelaisean fantasies began at La Coste, his Provencal home, in the winter of 1774. This was his closest attempt to establish a little sexual community of his own along the lines of Rabelais’ Thélème, in Book 1 of Gargantua and Pantagruel (1532), which describes a fictional pseudo-monastic enclave of elite libertines, where the only rule is, Do As Thou Wilt (“Fay Ce Que Vouldras”). The hand-picked harem he attempted to set up, with the knowledge, apparently, of the Marquise, included a chambermaid and other young female staff, manservants, secretary and cook, ‘all chosen for their appearance and physique. But the sultan couldn’t control his harem, which grew unruly and gradually disintegrated. The servants gave notice. The secretary’s parents told him to come home, and he did. The chambermaid left in an advanced state of pregnancy, blaming the master, and the cook’s father appeared on the doorstep with a gun.’

Three, according to Christopher Booker, is ‘the trigger for a transformation’1; de Sade’s trio of farcical attempts to turn fantasy into reality turned him into a perpetual prisoner in the Bastille for twenty-seven years of his life, which he spent scribbling pornography on smuggled paper. This was where he wrote 120 Days of Sodom, a novel in which the only difference between his protagonists and himself was that they were men powerful enough to stay out of prison. In Juliette, which Ashe calls ‘the Bible of Sadism in its true sense’, such characters prey on a society whose values they despise. They enjoy themselves at the expense of no matter whom, and the ruthless pursuit of wealth is undertaken precisely for this end, and no other. Elsewhere, in Justine, de Sade causally equates psychopathy and wealth: it is not that power corrupts; corruption, rather, seeks power. Except that the word ‘corruption’ would mean nothing to de Sade, regarding it as he does as purity, reason, and birth-right.

Booker also tells us that obsession is a key element in the tragic archetype. Hamlet, Victor Frankenstein, Humbert Humbert, Jay Gatsby – it’s easy to multiply examples of works where this element is uppermost in the tragic character. These are such powerful figures that it’s easy to forget that obsession is also an archetypal element in comedy. De Sade was certainly obsessed; but he was tragic without tragic stature – pathetic, though impossible to pity. He wrote 120 Days of Sodom ‘in a microscopic hand on both sides of a hundred-odd small sheets’ which he glued together to make a forty foot strip, which could be rolled up. Whatever programme he was running, he couldn’t stop running it. He had a vivid imagination, you could say. And he never stopped thinking about the man he wanted to be:

He who has succeeded in ridding his heart of every idea and trace of God or religion, he whose gold or influence removes him beyond the reach of the law, he who has toughened his conscience and brought it firmly into line with his attitudes and cleared it utterly and for ever of guilty remorse; he, I say, and be certain thereof, he may do whatever he pleases and whenever, and never know an instant’s fear.” (Juliette)

His obsessive fantasy is crueller than Rabelais’s Thélème and more grandiose that the Hellfire Clubs of the earlier eighteenth century, but continues the tradition of a select community of the chosen, outrageously asserting their liberty at the expense of no matter whom. It was in his novels that he built his Thélème – but there is no doubt that he would have built it in stone if he could.

Prison made his imagination more inhuman and vengeful than it might otherwise have been. When he took up literature, the groups of libertines in his chief works were sinister as no Hell-Fire Club was, and he drew on grim literary models to provide settings for them: Rabelais, Fielding’s Jonathan Wild with its apologia for crime, and Richardson’s Clarissa with its motifs of tormented maidenhood and male persecution by Lovelace-Wharton. […] Finally – and with a good deal of critical acuteness – he read Gothic romances in the Walpole-Radcliffe stream. These could be related to the Chateau life of his earlier years, and to the Bastille itself, and they helped him to conceive citadels of torture and terror, secret fastnesses cut off from the prying world. There – almost outside the everyday map and calendar – a few rich, relentless, experimentally-minded characters could be portrayed gathering in privacy, to live as he would have wished to live.

120 Days of Sodom was structured to display every sexual possibility except normal intercourse. The story is set towards the close of the reign of Louis XIV, ‘when profiteers had made fortunes out of the King’s wars and could enjoy themselves opulently amid public distress’ (Ashe). A Duke, a Judge, a Bishop and a fourth character, described as ‘le célèbre Durcet’, set up a series of orgies lasting a hundred and twenty days.

Having formed themselves into an ad hoc family by marrying one another’s daughters (except that the bishop, being celibate, forms an incestuous partnership with an illegitimate daughter of his own), they start assembling a team. Well-paid procurers are sent out who, by various illicit methods, collect a hundred and fifty boys and girls of good family. The candidates are brought to the organisers, who pick eight of the best-looking of each sex and put the rest to death’. Ashe describes what ensues as ‘a prison-fantasy charged with hate for mankind. All the main characters are psychopathic and some are diseased. The four leaders stand for the Establishment – aristocracy, religion, justice, finance – and are therefore ‘respectable’, but respectability is sick, secretly despising the society it maintains. Judge de Curval wishes he could blot out the sun, or use it to burn the earth and destroy humanity. He and his friends, with their carefully selected party, form a hidden community in a Gothic setting – a super-Bastille to keep the world out, not to keep prisoners in.’

He rounds off his summary by dwelling on the numbers involved, an act of accountancy not numerology; the arithmetic, in characteristic Sadean style, is precise and deadly – prissily Sadistic, in fact.

(The) recruits make up the number to twenty-four. To them are added eight giant manservants – all sodomites – all superbly equipped, exact measurements being given – plus ten miscellaneous staff and four elderly retired prostitutes. […] The programme is carried out, though Sade’s paper-shortage reduces the later parts to a bare summary. Every day has a time-table, with a good deal of semi-ritual nudity and fancy-dress. […] The practices, which are coolly described, grow more bizarre, more complicated, with an anal and excremental bias. Many combine mental cruelty with physical. One form of Sadean entertainment is to involve people who do have scruples, and force them to commit acts that revolt them, more or less at gun-point. Brother-sister and father-daughter rapes, for instance, are dwelt on with pleasure. Mortality is high, but it doesn’t matter. On the hundred and twentieth day most of the survivors are to be massacred anyhow. Forty-six people entered the castle, sixteen come out.

We know about de Sade only because of his failure to realize his power fantasies. The wider picture as pertains to human society remains obscure, though progressively less so in the current era. Was de Sade an aberration in the class into which he was born, or in any ruling class since? Or do the comic frustrations of his power-urges, and their sublimation into the obsessive creation of pornography, give us a window into the true psychopathy of power?

1 The Seven Basic Plots, by Christopher Booker


  1. Another fascinating read. I am curious as to why you mention the word ‘comic’ in association with de Sade as other epithets might be more apt for such a consummate narcopath. Was he an aberration? I suppose it depends on whether you see the behaviour of such a society in terms of a Bell Curve or a linear progression. If a Bell Curve he is merely within the top percentile, if seen within a linear progression the note he strikes is solidly dissonant to the societal melody and harmonies. If we think of the alleged behaviour of world leaders at Bohemian Grove or the likes of Strauss-Kahn and who knows where and who else, then one might say others found inspiration at least from his written legacy. Apparently power is a great aphrodisiac.

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