Imprisoned again in the Bastille, de Sade wrote the first draft of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue in 1787 – and this time he managed to hold on to the draft long enough to expand it, increasing the quotas of both intellectual discussion and anatomical detail, and publish it in 1791. De Sade expanded it again, lengthening and further intellectualising it, before publishing it together with its ‘vast’ sequel, Juliette, or The Prosperities of Vice. This omnibus edition was described as ‘the most scandalous book in the whole of literature’ by the critic Maurice Blanchot.
Justine can be seen as an extension of Clarissa Harlowe, the heroine of Samuel Richardson’s archetypal novel. Clarissa is the persecuted anima, tormented by the gentleman-libertine Lovelace, who is modeled at least in part on the founder of the original Hellfire Club in London, the rake and political rebel Philip, Duke of Wharton. Now, reincarnated as Justine, she faces not one persecutor but a world of sadistic (of course) rapists, enslavers and torturers, who are unanimous in blaming her naiveté for their abuse of her – like Shakespeare’s arch-hypocrite Angelo in Measure for Measure. Her persecutors are generally wealthy and members of the establishment; in de Sade’s world, as in ours, there is an equation between psychopathy, wealth and power.
Her misfortunes are not caused by any single villain, they are caused by the Nature of Things and more especially human society. Justine is a Christian in the style made fashionable by Rousseau, swayed by ‘goodness of heart’ and virtuous ‘feelings’; and she becomes a Christian Quixote, because she never faces the fact that Nature is against her, that persecutors are the rule and not the exception, and that the more brutally self-seeking their behaviour, the stronger, better off and more unassailable they are likely to be.’ (Geoffrey Ashe, The Hellfire Clubs, or A History of Anti-Morality, The History Press 2000)
Justine and Juliette are lost and separated sisters, daughters of a bankrupt who are thrown on the world while still of school age. Unlike poor Justine, the amoral Juliette does extremely well for herself. In Justine, Juliette is only a framing device; her career is briefly dealt with, then we are told that while travelling with her current sugar-daddy she meets a young woman under guard as a criminal, and asks to hear her story. Justine (for it is she) then narrates her misfortunes, which make up the rest of the novel. She describes ‘a long series of encounters with people who have swindled her, ill-treated her, raped her in various ways, and got her into all sorts of undeserved plights, meanwhile lecturing her, interminably and improbably, on Nature and atheism and kindred topics.’ (Ashe)
In the first two versions of Justine, Juliette rescues her and her rich lover uses his influence to free Justine. But just when all her ordeals are over, she gets struck by lightning, which, ‘enters by her right breast and leaves by her mouth, converting her into a repulsive corpse.’ Juliette, shocked and saddened, repents and enters a Carmelite convent. However, in the third, 1797 version, even this Fanny-Hill-style moral ending has disappeared. This time there is no compassion: Juliette’s friends ‘put the corpse to unpleasant uses and then leave it by the roadside’ (Ashe).
The world Justine is lost in is run by sexual (and financial) predators. Many of them run institutions such as schools or monasteries for the purposes of procurement. In the neighbourhood of Auxerre, Justine arrives at a monastery in a forest. She knocks at the door, asking to be let in to pray, and is surprised to be greeted by several naked girls. ‘Predictably, the monastery is a haven of secret vice. In fact it is a reduced version of Durcet’s castle in 120 Days of Sodom, with four monks taking the place of the four profiteers, and maintaining a constantly renewed harem with a strict timetable and a rota. Justine is trapped.’
The monks rape her together, in various combinations. None of the first three monks ‘employs the normal mode of access. That is left to Antonin, who deflowers Justine at last with “furious cries”, “murderous excursions” over every part of her body, and “bitings like the bloody caress of a tiger.”’
The accent within the monastery is on phallocentric group sex, with mock-Satanic trappings. Father Raphael, the Superior of the monastery, eventually gets promoted to be General of his Order; the new superior disbands the harem, and Justine wanders on. Like the Good Samaritan, she sees a man assaulted and left injured and helpless by the roadside, and attends to his wounds. He takes her to his home, showing every sign of gratitude, but once they arrive there he enslaves her. He is a coiner, and the machinery of the mint is powered by humans – his ex-mistresses, in fact:
Showing me a wide and extremely deep cistern neighbouring on the gate, where two chained and naked women continually moved a wheel which drew water to feed a reservoir – “Do you see this pit?’ he continued. ‘These are your companions, and this will be your work.’
She is told that she will be given six ounces of black bread and a plate of beans once every twenty-four hours, and beaten if she tries to rest. She will never see the sky again. He shows her a pit containing thirty or forty dead bodies, and this is where she too will end up.
Justine is rescued from this miniature Auschwitz by the authorities, who, strangely, let her go without raping her themselves. The money-maker escapes to Venice and retires as a rich man. Justine has various other adventures, including one where she rescues a child from a fire and is then accused of starting the fire herself as well as robbery and murder. It is for these crimes that she is being led away enchained when, finally, she meets her sister Juliette.
Juliette or The Prosperities of Vice was incorporated as the sequel in the 1797 edition of Justine. In it, characters deride and denounce morality, law, society, civilization itself – they ‘enjoy themselves at the expense of no matter whom’ – and pursue the wealth and power necessary to enable them to do so. Juliette is the opposite of her sister, an adventuress and libertine, a sadistic murderer who employs helpers and complicated machinery in her tortures and executions, such as the many-bladed engine that threshes Duke Grillo and his wife to ‘nought but bloody and splintered bone remains.’ (Juliette adds, ‘I need not describe our ecstasy.’) A number of the characters have originals, and in some cases they are named, without disguise: for example the Pope, Pius VI, who was still living at the time; as well as Cardinal Albani and the King and Queen of Naples.
The story begins, as in Justine, at a convent school, where Juliette is initiated into atheism, lesbianism and orgies by the Abbess. When she leaves the convent she becomes a prostitute, and from there the mistress of the Count Noirceuil, who insists on his wife watching and assisting in his antics with multiple partners of both sexes. He introduces her to Saint-Fond, a powerful politician who uses her as a procuress and also, interestingly, a secret agent, poisoning enemies of the State at 30,000 francs per victim. The uncanny foreshadowing of certain contemporary figures is only enhanced by Saint-Fond’s genocidal tendencies, and his project to eradicate two-thirds of the human race.
Juliette marries a respectable count, has a child, kills her husband and goes to Italy with his money, leaving her daughter with a guardian. In Turin she becomes a card-sharp and grows richer still, moving in high society, organising orgies for Ferdinand, King of Naples, and for the Pope in a screened-off section of St Peters. Then she returns to France in triumph.
She is not, in all this, portrayed as a pioneer – she has a mentor, Madame de Clairwil, who belongs to a Paris club called the Sodality of the Friends of Crime (which may be based on the real club of the Aphrodités). Membership of the Sodality is limited to four hundred wealthy men and women, though with a reduced membership fee for a small quota of authors and artists (shades of the Bohemian Grove). Politics, gambling and expressions of love are forbidden, but beyond that, members may exercise within the club’s luxurious premises absolute freedom, except where it would interfere with the libertinage of fellow members. There are two seraglios attached to the building, one containing three hundred males aged seven to twenty-five, the other three hundred females aged five to twenty-one, who are at the members’ disposal. In each seraglio there are twelve torture chambers full of unspeakable equipment, and twelve dungeons. Each seraglio is staffed with four executioners, four jailers, eight whippers, four flayers, four midwives, and four surgeons to assist in tortures.
These Gothic ‘citadels of torture and terror’ are a motif in de Sade, of course. Later in Juliette, we meet the wealthy Russian Minski, who lives in a gloomy castle in the Appenines, situated on an island in the middle of a lake in an inaccessible mountain-range. The castle itself is protected by a moat, a draw-bridge, thick outer and inner walls, a thick hedge, after which lies only a third wall without any door. A stairway is uncovered by lifting a huge slab, and via an underground passage access is gained to a hall littered with human skeletons. The guests find they are walking on skulls, the benches are made of human bones, and they fancy they can hear moans coming from the cellars.
Minski tells the heroine and her companions that he has ‘traveled through most of the world studying the vices of every nation, and committing every crime under the protection of immense wealth.’ He eats human flesh as an aphrodisiac, and after dinner he rapes a seven-old-girl in front of his guests and then strangles her.
‘Do you then never taste this pleasure’, asks Juliette, ‘…without it costing some individual his life?’
‘It often costs the life of several,’ the ogre replied. ‘If I had no human beings to kill I do believe I would have to give up fucking. For it is death’s sighs answering my lubricity that fetches forth my ejaculation, and were it not for the deaths my discharge occasions I don’t know how I’d be able to discharge at all.
‘But come with me into the next room,’ the Russian continued, ‘ices, coffee and liqueurs are awaiting us.’
Ultimately, libertinage is self-defeating; ultimately, Juliette and Madame Clairwil must arrive at a stage of frustration and ennui. It is not merely that one runs into the limits of outrage; there is a contradiction at the heart of a situation where an amoral being depends on the outraging of morality in order to achieve excitement.
‘When shall I be able to do an authentic evil?’ asks Madame Clairwil. […] Could I set the planet ablaze, even so would I curse the Nature that had provided only one world for my desires to feast upon.’
Juliette continues her quest to know the ‘ultimate horror’ through scenes of incest, necrophilia, coprophilia, bestiality and murder. She and Clairwil take one of their long-term lesbian partners-in-crime, a friend and lover, to the top of Vesuvius. When they get to the crater they jump her, strip her, tie her up and gag her, torture her (including by pulling out her pubic hair), and then throw her into the volcano while masturbating each other. Finally, ‘after two thousand pages of ghastliness, she still manages to create a climax of sorts… literary as well as physical. She goes back to France and recovers Marianne, the daughter she bore, now aged seven. Reunited with Norceuil, she allows her old partner to rape the child. When he has exhausted his brutal perversions, Norceuil throws the child on the fire, and Juliette beats her with a poker to stop her crawling out. Before she is even dead, Juliette leaves with her lover.’
If de Sade was trying to achieve a perverse kind of nobility, a purity of will and desire in his characters, he fails. They are frightening, true, but ultimately they are petty, twisted and doomed to frustration.
De Sade himself is aware of the triviality of his characters’ desires. If he’d been born 200 years or so later, he would have been able to think much, much bigger. De Sade subscribed, unsurprisingly, to a ‘secret society’ view of history, and was naturally a devoté of Machiavelli. At one point in Juliette, his anti-heroine listens to an account of a conspiracy based in Sweden. The plotters are members of an anti-Catholic, anti-royalist Lodge founded by the Knights Templar when their Order was suppressed in the fourteenth century. They have infiltrated the Masons, whom they use as their dupes. They aim to overthrow all kings in the name of Liberty, but with hidden motives.
‘Once upon the throne of kings, there shall never have been a tyranny to equal ours, no despot shall ever have put a thicker blindfold over the eyes of the people; plunged into essential ignorance, it shall be at our mercy, blood will flow in rivers, our Masonic brethren themselves shall become the mere valets of our cruelties, and in us alone shall the supreme power be concentrated; all freedom shall go by the board, that of the press, that of worship, that simply of thought shall be severely forbidden and ruthlessly repressed; one must beware of enlightening the people or of lifting away its irons when your aim is to rule it.’ (Juliette)
Here we have Sadism in its truest and fullest sense – it is not merely the enjoyment of inflicting pain, it is the inversion of every moral and social principle. Its provenance is Rabelais’ Thélème, the death of religion, and the vicious behaviour of powerful noblemen. But none of these fantasies can be achieved without the immunity afforded by power. The Sadist dreams of power, power which puts him above the law – power to build walls as thick as the Bastille, behind which women and children, by their thousands, will enter, and never come out.