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||Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) - byname of Donatien Alphonse François, count de Sade|
Marquis de Sade is the most infamous third rate writer in the history of French literature; occasionally he has been hailed as "the freest spirit who has ever existed." The erotic writings of de Sade gave rise to the term sadism – enjoyment of cruelty – which first made it into a dictionary in 1834. In 'Idées sur les romans' (1800) de Sade said that the essence of novelistic representation lies in the writer's incestuous relationship with nature. To be true to this relationship is to eschew all limitations, and exceed the bounds of convention and knowledge. Sade's works have been seen as exploration of sexual and political freedom. On the other hand he was a multiple rapist, torturer, and proto-murderer.
"But if there seems little reason for literary people to concern themselves with Sade, he has found a new lease of life among philosophers and anthropologists. Bored and uneasy with our little lives we resort to the greater amplitude of symbols. Bardot, Byron, Hitler, Hemingway, Monroe, Sade: we do not require our heroes to be subtle, just to be big. Then we can depend on someone to make them subtle." (D.J. Enright in 'The Marquis and the Madame', in Conspirators and Poets, 1966)
Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was born in Paris into an aristocratic family. He was the only surviving child of Jean-Baptiste de Sade and his wife Marie-Eléonore de Maillé, a distant cousin of the Prince de Conde. His family had been ennobled in the 12th century and remained a major power-broker in the southern region of Provence. "Connected, through my mother, to all the greatest powers in the kingdom and, through my father, the most distinguished families of the provenance of Languedoc; born in Paris in the bosom of luxury and plenty, I believed, from the very first moment I could reason, that nature and fortune had collaborated to lavish me with their gifts; I believed it because people were foolish enough to tell me so, and this ridiculous prejudice made me haughty, despotic, and choleric..." (from Aline et Valcour, 1795)
Aged four, de Sade was sent to Avignon into the care of his uncle, Abbe de Sade, whose sexual life was notoriously irregular. After this period de Sade attended the Jesuit college of Louis Le Grand. From the age of 14 to 26 de Sade was in active military service, and participated in the Seven Years War. He married in 1763 Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a high-ranking bourgeois family, but also began an affair with an actress and invited prostitutes to his house.
In 1768 de Sade held a prostitute called Rose Keller captive and abused her. The chief of the Paris vice squad warned brothels of de Sade – he was considered a mortal threat to prostitutes. In the following years de Sade was found guilty of all kinds of sexual crimes, and he managed to anger Mme. de Montreuil, his mother-in-law by seducting her younger daughter, Anne-Prospre, when she was visiting his medieval fortress at La Coste in Provence. The unabated de Sade had again an orgy, but probably he never killed anyone, except in the war.
At Aix in 1772 de Sade received the penalty of death for an unnatural crime and poisoning, but escaped to Italy with his valet Latour. After arrest he was excluded from Paris and sent to his wife's family home in Normandy. At La Coste de Sade continued to arrange orgies from 1773 to 1777 – he had hired a harem of young girls as sexual slaves. After continuous scandals and charges de Sade was arrested and sent to round tour of 27 years in prisons, which started in the dungeon of Vincennes on February 13, 1777. Probably his imprisonment had been arranged by Mme. de Montreuil, whom he remembered in his writings: "Oh, powers from Hell, grant me Nero's wish, that all women have but one head and that this head belong to the shrew who tyrannizes me; then grant me the pleasure of chopping it off!" At Vicennes he was sometimes fed through the bars of his cage, but he also wanted to keep up some standards and wrote in a letter: "Send me a little prune-colored redingote, with suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but most specifically not made out of linen; as for the other costume, make it Paris Mud in hue with a few silver trimmings, but definitely not silver braid." To overcome boredom he started to write sexually graphic novels and plays.
After escape de Sade was transferred in 1784 to Bastille in
Paris, where he had a large room, sixteen feet in diameter. In the new
surroundings the hard-working prisoner wrote Les 120 journées de Sodome,
underground classic over a hundred years. He was released from insane
asylum at Charenton on April 2, 1790. While her husband was in prison,
Renée-Pélagie had been devoted to him, but when he was freed from the
asylum, she obtained a divorce. de Sade entered into a relationship
with Marie-Constance Quesnet; it lasted until his death.
Trying to show sympathy for the new order of society, de Sade referred to himself as "Citizen Sade, man of letters." The Comédie Française rejected his comedies La Boudoir and Le Misanthrope par amour. Justine (1791) was published anonymously. In the sequel, Juliette (1797), the heroine was Justine's sister, who enjoys the delights of evil: "How delicious are these implements of torture, of the crime that we love." de Sade boldly addressed a copy of the novel to Napoleon in 1803. Napoleon refused to set de Sade free. Juliette, which consisted of six volumes, was the second part of the monumental La nouvelle Justine (1797), nearly four thousand pages long Gospel of Evil, which manifested that vice – or the pleasures of imagination – cannot be punished by imprisonment. (See also Voltaire's Candide 1759; Charles Baudelaire's Les Fleurs du Mal; Comte de Lautréamont's Les Chants de Maldoror, 1869)
Sade's most famous work, depicts
graphically sexual encounters of a poor young girl. de Sade wrote an
early version of the novel in the Bastille and completed it in 1791
while free. In de Sade's philosophy God is evil and the misfortunes
suffered by Justine are a result from denying this truth. The
eighteenth century appeared to him as "the age of complete corruption".
de Sade declared Justine a work "capable of corrupting the
devil" but at one point he denied his authorship and disowned the ideas
it expressed in order to gain his release.
According to D.J. Enright, de Sade's philosophy was very simple: "if you enjoy wickedness, it shows that Nature intended you to be wicked, and it would be wicked not to be." Some 19th-century writers were inspired by de Sade's belief that people should act on their instincts. "Irrités de ce premier crime, les monstres ne s'en tinrent pas là; ils l'étendirent ensuite nue, à plat ventre sur une grande table, ils allumèrent des cierges, ils placèrent l'image de notre sauveur à sa tête et osèrent consommer sur les reins de cette malheureuse le plus redoutable de nos mystères." (from Les Infortunes de la Vertu, 1787)
Somehow de Sade survived through the years of the French
Revolution, although many other aristocrats were executed and his name
was in 1794 on a list of prisoners to be brought to trial. To secure
his freedom and property he wrote an eulogy of Marat, and got elected
secretary of his district in Paris. In 1801 he was again arrested and
to Charenton, where he began to work a 10-volume novel, Crimes of
During this period he also wrote and staged plays in the
asylum, although Minister of the Interior issued the order, that the
"greatest care [must] be taken to prevent any use by him [Sade] of
pencils, pens, ink, or paper."
His last days de Sade spent under the control of an ex-abbé. de Sade died at the age of 74. Against his last wishes he was given a religious service. After his death on December 2, 1814, his elder son burned his last and other manuscripts. "The ground over my grave should be sprinkled with acorns so that all traces of my grave shall disapppear," he wrote in his will, "as I hope, this reminder of my existence may be wiped from the memory of mankind." de Sade's final resting place was later desecrated when his skull was taken by a young doctor named L.J. Ramon for pseudo-scientific measurements. The relic has been lost, but Ramon made a cast of the skull, which nowadays is preserved at the Museum of Man in Paris.
Although de Sade wrote many plays, they have remained largely
unpublished and unproduced. However, the Marquis has securured his
literary immortality. French poet Guillaume Apollinaire claimed that the writing
of de Sade would dominate the 20th-century. de Sade's work has prompted
pornographic literature, academic studies, and films, including Pier
Paolo Pasolini's Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom (1975) and
Philip Kaufman's Quills (2000), starring Kate Winslet, Geoffrey
Rush, Joaquin Phoenix, and Michael Caine. The film was based Doug
Wright's play from 1995. The only known portrait of de Sade was made in
1760 when he was 19. In Yukio Mishima's play Madame de Sade (1965) the marquis is portrayed as a romantic hero, but basically Mishima is quite faithful to de Sade's ideas.