The SandMUtopian Guardian Magazine

ding Room

This piece is the Cover Article of Issue #29 and praised as a "definitive" compilation of information about the elusive Marquis de Sade. There are a number of other interesting features in this issue. Check it out.

De Truth about De Sade

by Mitch Kessler, Editor of The SandMUtopian Guardian.

   Why bother with de Sade? He died centuries ago, right? Besides, his writing is mostly trite and boring except when it violates Safe Sane and Consensual standards. Why? -- Because we’re stuck with him!

    In his landmark tome, Psychopathia Sexualis, police doctor Richard von Kraftt-Ebbing, in the late 19th century, chose to equate the Count Donatien Alphonse François deSade’s personal “libertinism” and his literary excesses with criminal atrocities. As a result, the terms, "Sadist" and "SadoMasochist," can be applied equally well to psychotic criminals, abusive parents, and ... well ... you and me — people who eroticize consensual power exchange, or take pleasure in strong sensations.

     “Not much of a problem,” you would think, until you find yourself trying to explain yourself and your feelings to a psychologist, parent, peer, police officer ... or sex partner. Likely as not, these people never hear what you have to say, once they have identified “The Villainous Marquis” as your patron saint.

    In addition, anti-feminist sentiments have been detected in Sade’s work in the past quarter-century and, worse yet, these sentiments persist in the work of otherwise laudable authors such as Guy de Maupassant, Alexandre Dumas, indeed most French and English writers a century before and after Sade’s death.This too is blamed on the Malign Marquis, and forms one of the most cogent arguments against the legitimacy of consensual sadomasochist sexuality.

    There is an alternative version of Sade as a cultural icon, sporadically embraced by Impressionists, New Leftists and anti-censorship scholars. Their focus shows Sade to be, among other things: an early Libertarian philosopher and “small R” republican, a pioneer of the Novel, and Martyr of Intellectual (or Sexual) Freedom. Stress is laid on his misadventures in the Revolutionary period and the Reign of Terror.

     In his capacity as Citizen Sade, Revolutionary, the former Marquis is instrumental in rallying the people to storm the Bastille, is rewarded with a seat on the Revolutionary Tribunal, but is discharged and imprisoned for showing too much mercy! Imprisoned for his politics and his pornography, Sade is confined at Charenton Insane Asylum for the rest of his life and dies in 1814. In accordance with his Last Will and Testament, Sade was given a vampire’s funeral and oak trees were planted over his unmarked grave.

     Among BDSM people this view lays a foundation for a third construction of “The Divine Marquis.” This incarnation adds Archetypal Dominant, and Subjugator of Women, to de Sade’s avatars of Romantic Rebel, Philosopher and Martyr.

   Most of what has been written about Sade and his work reveals more about the authors than about Sade. Each legend has some facts to support it; and each contains glaring errors and omissions. You almost get the feeling that Sade’s role notoriety gave two centuries of academics the permission they needed to read some dirty books, and write dissertations which would not be subjected to overly critical peer review ... so long as they refrained from expressing actual approval of the man himself — or a personal interest in the same kind of pleasures.

    What was there about this man that so beclouds the judgment of otherwise honest, and even kindly-disposed historians? If the subject of their attentions were anyone else, their accounts would be unconvincing to a reasonably fair-minded police detective, or moderately skeptical twelve-year-old child.

Here is a simple example of the process:

    Nearly every Sade biographer dutifully relates the tale of the four-year-old Sade’s banishment from the Palais de Condé. The story goes that young Donatien was born at the palace, his father, Jean Baptiste Francois, the Count de Sade, being on diplomatic assignment in Germany. Quite naturally, young Sade became the playmate of his Cousin, the Prince de Condé, Louis-Joseph de Bourbon. One day a scuffle broke out between the two children and the four-year-old attacked and beat his eight-year-old cousin so savagely that for safety’s sake, the younger child had to be sent away immediately! Sade himself liked the story and repeated it in his memoirs, remembering what a “good drubbing” he gave his cousin. The tale presents credibility problems only to those who have observed the relative size and physical abilities of children at the ages of four and eight years. Or was it that the two young noblemen were discovered engaging in some kind of sex play/exploration. When this explanation is offered, Sade is identified as the instigator and the aggressor. Even at the age of four, young Sade had been chosen as a scapegoat for the behavior of others.

   It appears equally likely that his Mother preferred to join her husband in Germany rather than raise princelings and arranged for little Donatien to live with his grandmother. There, he would be be cared for by her own mother and sisters, and have both cousins and other children as playmates. After a year, Grandma de Sade, is said to have “tired” either of the boy’s rambunctious ways or of the ongoing responsibility for the child, and sent him off to be cared for by her brother, l’abbé de Sade.

The World in Turmoil and Change

   In any event by 1744, France was beginning to need scapegoats. Following a series of economic and military disasters the French Crown was on the verge of bankruptcy, and the Nobility was thought to be on the verge of Revolution. In addition, a profound philosophical transformation was occurring ... a general secularization called “The Enlightenment.” Science was replacing Theology as the principle means of understanding the world. Philosophy was replacing Liturgy as a means of expressing it. A romanticized “Nature” was occupying the mythic place formerly occupied by The Virgin, and “Reason” the place of the Holy Spirit. The Diety was coming to be understood as a kind of Celestial Clockmaker who set the gears of the Universe in motion and then retreated to observe the result. The Devil became a comic opera character in red tights, or a darkly handsome nobleman in an opera cape. Sade, the savage four year old, would grow up to be one of these aristocratic caped devils.

   Worse, through his writings he would acquire a reputation as a heretic. In his own time his rebellion offended the Christian Faith. A century later his writings would challenge Naturalist philosophy and sentiments. As Sade grew to adolescence, the rules of aristocratic behavior were changing. Young Donatien failed to learn that the unbridled license of the previous Court of Louis XIV was being brought under control, or at least driven into hiding. Throughout his life Sade would be “hypocrisy-challenged.” He seemed constitutionally unable to cloak his own behavior in culturally required “discretion,” nor was he inclined to leave others the comfort of their denials.

   Without a doubt, he was a libertine. He craved sex. In his later years he wrote about sex. He paid for the pleasure of spanking and being spanked and he enjoyed both ends of the birch broom and the flogger. At the time, that made him eccentric and somewhat comical. However, he also especially craved anal sex; and was possibly bisexual — which made him a criminal Sodomite!

   In a world that granted women no rights and few protections, he was branded an “enemy of women.” Yet, he attracted women who gave him lifelong devotion. In addition, he may have been the first European writer to show an understanding of masturbation and the clitoris in women’s sexuality, or to acknowledge actively sensual and erotic feelings in women. (Casanova ‘s Autobiography was published a few years after Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.) His fault was not so much that he did or desired what others did not; it was that he didn't conceal it.

   At the age of fourteen, Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade began a mildly promising military career as a cavalry officer. In an earlier time he might have become an adequate soldier -- for an aristocrat. Still small and slender, he was distinguished for “reckless courage” in combat. Although he once extricated his troops from a disaster which routed the units all around him, he was singled out as being “scatter-brained,” and, “inflammable where women are concerned.” On at least one occasion he took it upon himself to pardon a deserter which made him unpopular with his superiors. By the end of the Seven Years War, Sade had risen to captain.

   But so had many others. Between 1759 and 1762 young Sade spent as much time as possible in Paris trying to advance his career, with little success. There were many young officers equally brave, enterprising, and battle-tested who were better liked, better connected and better able to pay the rising fees and bribes required for promotion. Sade also spent a large portion of his time cavorting with prostitutes in the afternoon, and attempting to cut a dashing figure in society at court. This left little time for career-building.

Time to Settle Down

Back home at La Coste, all was not well. His mother Gabrielle-Eleonore, Countess de Sade had retired to a Convent for reasons never adequately explained. The Count’s health was failing, and unknown to anyone, he was deeply in debt. He recalled his son to his dynastic duty to oversee the family holdings, marry and provide heirs.The ensuing events combined elements of French Farce and Soap Opera.

    In the Spring of 1763, the 23-year-old Marquis became engaged to Lauré-Victoire de Lauris of Provence, seemingly a decent enough match. Letters from that period show that the 22-year-old gentlewoman was perhaps the, “greatest and most genuine passion,” of Sade’s early life, despite the fact that the young man was simultaneously supporting a number of ballet girls and actresses.

   (One of these, a Mlle. Beauvoisin deserves a special mention. This was a fairly long-lasting involvement. The young woman had previously been under the protection of an older, more powerful nobleman before Sade displaced him. English biographers report that like the other entertainers in Sade’s life, Beauvoisin was supported by him. However the 1972 Gilbert Lély edition of Oeuvres Complètes states that Beauvoisin, “was different ... in that she gave Sade money” – a sum equal to his father’s annual income. It was recorded as “a loan,” but borrowing and failing to repay was an aristocratic trait and the Sades had it in abundance.

   It may be that the de Lauris family’s inability to pay for a highly titled son-in-law disappointed the Count, who then turned his attention to the House of Montreuil which had two eligible daughters and a very satisfactory income. M le president de Montreuil was essentially a Tax Assessor. He and his wife, "Mme la presidente" had done extremely well in the speculations that had devastated most of the older aristocratic houses.

   The match was ideal. Not only did each family gain what it lacked — land and titles on one side and ready cash on the other— young Sade would be able to live with his wife in Normandy and Paris where he could continue his frolics with hired companions while maintaining Laure-Victoire as his mistress. (Apparently such arrangements were fairly common and acceptable so long as they were maintained discreetly.)

   Arrangements proceeded smoothly. The Montreuils were perfectly satisfied with young Sade as a son-in-law, though he expressed some misgivings about the strong-minded presidente de Montreuil as his mother-in-law. He was very much taken with the lively and child-like younger daughter, Anne-Prospère but Papa de Sade preferred the tall, stately and rather plain, older sister, Renée-Pelagie. It was Papa’s opinion that counted and the pair were married. The Count lived to see the birth a grandson in 1868, and died soon after. Within five years the pair had produced two sons and a daughter to ensure the continuation of the House of de Sade.

    Until his death, it was the Count (le Comte)de Sade and not his son the Marquis who was the writer in the family. Plays were his favorite medium. His brother, the abbé, was more a scholar and correspondent, exchanging letters with literary men such as his lifelong friend Voltaire. While most historians like to assume that the theatrical presentations young Sade mounted at La Coste between 1865 and 1868, were both his own work and pornographic, there is little to suggest that this is true. Indeed the fact that de Sade senior was living in the house, and that mother-in-law de Montreuil is known to have taken part in the productions, suggest that it was the rather unexceptional and quite proper verse dramas and Bourgeois Comedies written by the elder de Sade that were performed.

   Plays produced in 1771-1772, both at La Coste and at Mazan, the estate where Sade’s uncle, the abbé, lived, had the benefit of seven actors, five actresses and a musician from Marseilles (generally assumed to have been hired for sexual as well as theatrical entertainment, but without evidence). Only one play in the repertory was Sade’s own, "The Marriage of the Century," an innocent bit of self-aggrandizement in which both he and Renée-Pelagie performed.

Family Discord

    But, Mme de Montreuil was becoming outspokenly critical of her son-in-law in correspondence both with the de Sade family lawyer and with uncle l’abbé. By this time, the young man had been arrested three times: twice for sexual scandals and once for debts. He had seduced his sister-in-law, Anne-Prospere, perhaps with his wife’s help, most likely with her tacit approval, certainly with her knowledge. He was spending money quite freely. Madame the Mother-In-Law was most vocal in her objections to the last of these offenses.

   M de Montreuil and M le Comte de Sade had not been entirely open with each other during the marriage negotiations. What had started as a cash-flow problem in the 1720’s had brought the house of Sade to the brink of bankruptcy by the 1760’s. At the time of his son’s marriage, the senior Sade’s personal debts consumed at least one-third of the dowry, which was equal to more than twenty-years’ income from the Sade’s revenues. Upkeep of the four family properties made further inroads on the Montreuil fortune. Combined with a free-spending son-in-law this was more, or rather, much less, than the Montreuils had bargained for!

    For his part, there were some things the newly married Marquis would have been better off knowing too. His father-in-law the Tax Assessor, had a powerful enemy in Chancellor Maupeau of the high court of Paris. It was he who would be most responsible for spreading the story of Sade’s 1768 arrest in the “Rose Keller Affair.” This scandal cast the Marquis de Sade in the role of a diabolical ogre in the tradition of Gilles De Rais. The police Inspector for Public Morals, Louis Marais had begun to take an interest in the Sades as early as 1760. In early 1762 M L’abbe was arrested for enjoying two prostitutes at once. Although Marais later claimed to have extensive information about young Sade’s goings, comings and spankings, he took no action against the young man until after his marriage to Mlle de Montreuil beyond warning brothel keepers of his “excesses.”

    In addition, Sade’s father-in-law’s prosperity may have been based on less-than-honest business practices. Specifically, he may have been involved in forging "assignats,” what we might call “counterfeiting paper money.” He would be charged with the crime during the revolution, and it would be his disgraced and disgraceful son-in-law who would risk his own life to prevent the case from coming to trial.

    Still, Sade’s greatest enemy and the architect of his downfall was his mother-in-law. She had three possible motives:

    The first and most compelling was simple greed. She had paid far more for the Sade estates and family name than they were actually worth. Her son-in-law was no bargain either. Not only did he involve the family name in his Parisian sex scandals, he subverted her influence with both her daughters. The elder defied and obstructed her mother’s attempts to bring the combined Sade-Montreuil dynasty under her personal control while the younger daughter became her brother-in-law’s mistress and even eloped with him to Italy. Essentially bourgeois, Madame may have been emotionally wounded by her children’s disobedience and morally outraged beyond all measure by her son-in-law’s "incest." If she was not, she still had cause to wish him out of the way simply because he was a continuing major expense for the family, and once he had sired “an heir and a spare,” he was no longer needed for any purpose Madame considered important. Whatever her motives, she would in fact eventually gain complete control of the de Sade lands and incomes.

Sade’s “Scandales”

   Between 1763 and 1772 Sade would be tried three times as a sex criminal. In each case he would be convicted and in each case the verdict would be reversed because the evidence would not support the charge, even under the generous rules of evidence the authorities of the anciènne regime enjoyed.

    The first charge in 1763 was trivial, even by the standards of the day. Jeanne Testard, identified as both a fan-maker and prostitute, was engaged through a procurer to service a man whom police identified as Sade. Her story was, in essence, that Sade solicited sodomy, which she refused. He then committed outrages on crucifixes and holy pictures and demanded she do the same, which she also refused to do. He suggested more normal sex. This she declined on grounds of menstrual flow, after which they spent the rest of the night reading impious and obscene poems! Incidently, a search of Sade’s petite maison, conducted by l’Abbé Amblet, revealed none of the sacrilegious objects and documents which adorned Mlle Testard’s account! Sade was imprisoned for two weeks!

   The second scandal was more elaborate but contained similar themes. On Easter Sunday, an unemployed cotton spinner named Rose Keller was begging near Sade’s Parisian apartment, having first been to Mass ... or so she said. First he invited her to an orgy. She refused. Then he offered her work as a chambermaid, which she accepted. Arriving at his establishment demands for sodomy and sacrilege accompanied by threats of death and dismemberment met earnest resistance, at last overcome by force. The woman claimed to have been bound, beaten, cut with knife and burned with sealing wax. There was, however, no sodomy. Left alone and allowed to dress, she made her escape by a second-floor window. As proof, she showed the police a scrap of paper with Sade’s signature on it. When examined, she showed no rope marks, cuts, burns or welts. This she attributed to an ointment that healed her instantly when Sade rubbed it on her wounds!

   The story was widely and immediately circulated. Within the week, the flogging (which probably had occurred) had reached Horace Walpole in England, as a story of murder. Within the year, Count Mirabeau would have heard a story of murder and dissection of several girls, committed by the Marquis de Sade! Sade served seven months and was released on condition that he remain at La Coste until further notice.

   The final blow to Sade’s reputation and situation came in June four years later. This is the “Marseilles Scandal” in which Sade was said to have added recreational poisoning to blasphemy, sodomy and libertinage.

     In the years before the next scandal he travelled in Holland and England, financed in part by the sale of a book, “written with the pen of Aretino.” Many texts blithely assume this to have been a work of pornography, although Aretino’s reputation was for biting political satire. On his return to La Coste in 1770 he was accompanied by both his wife and his sister-in-law. It is generally assumed that his incestuous affair began at that time. However M and Mme de Sade were clearly on speaking terms -- a daughter was born in April 1771.

   The next year, chroniclers report, Sade travelled to Marseilles, “on the pretext of cashing a note for credit, accompanied by his valet, Latour. A careful reading of the events that follow reveal that he was also accompanied by both his wife and sister-in-law. On the evening of June 25, the group was entertained by a company of actors at the Hôtel des Treize Cantons. On the morning of June 27, Sade is supposed to have organized a two-day orgy with himself, Latour, and four hired women, two of whom claimed to have been seized by violent nausea during or after the sodomy, blasphemy, flagellation (this time with brooms) and fornication had been completed.

    In the days which followed, Sade fled to Turin in Savoy accompanied by his sister-in-law. His wife remained in Marseilles to deal with the crisis. Her attempt to bribe the witnesses failed and Sade and Latour were condemned to be burned at the stake! Both the trial and subsequent execution were held in absentia. Eventually, Mme de Sade succeeded in having the case reopened. It was discovered that the trial was conducted illegally, by a court without jurisdiction, and that examination of the “poisoned” candies and the stomach contents of the sick girls (who had since completely recovered) showed nothing more sinister than sugar and licorice.
   Thereafter, Madame la presidente, opposed by her two daughters and assisted by the family lawyer, and the implacable Police Inspector Marais, strove to apprehend and imprison Sade. There are captures, escapes, recaptures, flights by night, and all the trappings of a rousing Dumas romance. In the end, Sade is finally caught and imprisoned for eleven years ... not for the alleged poisoning at Marseilles — but under the authority of a Lettre de Cachet, obtained by Mme de Montreuil, during the Rose Keller affair.

    It is not until 1785 that Prisoner Sade began writing explicitly pornographic novels, although his crudely encoded letters to his wife deal explicitly with his feelings of sexual frustration and describe his masturbatory practices.
    The mythical Marquis is supposed to have been sentenced to death during the Reign of Terror for treasonous “moderation,” in his capacity as an arraignment court judge on the suspicion that he did not exercise the proper murderous zeal in pursuing his duties. It is unlikely that anyone suspected that he had helped his father-in-law to escape the court’s clutches. However, Sade did find himself in the shadow of the guillotine as a result of the actual behavior of his two sons. The boys were, in fact, emigrés. They had fled France secretly, and probably were working for the Bourbon Restoration. Sade and his children would spend their lives in mutual detestation.

    In 1801, in the first years of not-yet-Emperor Napoleon’s rule, Sade was arrested again. No authority has committed to an opinion as to the actual charge or sentence.The authority for his confinement does seem to derive, at least bureaucratically, from Napoleon himself. The charge may have been writing and publishing illustrated editions of the novels Juliette and La Nouvelle Justine, which were, apparently not protected under the “Freedom of the Press” of the French Constitution of 1789. Significantly, Sade was arrested in the office of his publisher, a M Masse, who was released a few days later. Sade was to spend the remaining thirteen years of his life in confinement in Charenton Asylum. It is difficult to explain the unwillingness of the authorities to entertain a re-examination of his case, without supposing behind-the-scenes influences persuaded the powers-that-were. If that is the case, Madame la presidente de Montreuil seems to be the most likely eminence gris. In any event, while she provided generously for the uncle, M l’abbe, and the family lawyer, Gaspard Gaufridy, the bills for Sade’s care and comfort at Charenton went unpaid.

    Much of this criticism falls into the trap of equating the Art and the Artist. Sade wrote THIS so he must have felt and done THIS too! Literary scholars who know very well that not every novel is a roman à clef when they examine other authors, seem to forget this principle when they comment on Sade. Imagine a psychological analysis of Stephen King, based wholly on his published writings!

    What did Sade do that brought him so much persecution during his life and so much vilification after his death? He wasn’t the only nobleman in the time of Louis XVI who consorted with prostitutes and wasted money. Nor was his pre-marital love affair with a bourgeoise that unusual or contemptible. After all, he didn’t marry the woman. Nor was he unique in his use of aphrodesiacs which formed the basis of the poisoning charge against him. Nor was he alone in his attraction to sexual flogging — it was a standard offering at most good brothels of the time. In fact, the “crimes” of which he was accused were, if contemporary sources are to be believed, relatively normal behavior at Court, and not unheard of in the provinces. What seems to be atypical and perverse about de Sade, is that he does not batter and bugger his own peasants when the mood takes him, but negotiates consensual activity with professionals and pays the price asked without cheating — and that he appears to have been both a bisexual and switchable!

    By contemporary accounts, men found Donatien at least a reasonably likable fellow; women adored him. As a child, his female relations doted on him. As a young man he was handsome, charming, and sexually successful. His wife was loyal through his imprisonments and at the last, in Charenton, he had the devoted attention of Marie Constance and the young Madeleine Leclerc.  Fin.  

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