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The Marquis de Sade: Who Was The ‘Divine Marquis’?
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The Marquis de Sade: Who Was The ‘Divine Marquis’?

Picture of Barbara Boumaraf-Tissier
Updated: 1 November 2016
You may know the Marquis de Sade through the eponymous notion we inherited from him: sadism. But the decadent Marquis is above all a captivating 18th century author who fascinates as much as he repels. His erotic novels in which pain and cruelty are deeply bound to pleasure and freedom, but to truly understand his oeuvre we have to dive further into the origins of this word…
The Sleepers by Gustave Courbet (1866)
The Sleepers by Gustave Courbet (1866) I | © Botaurus/WikiCommons

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, born in Paris on June 2nd, 1740, was the son of a blue-blooded diplomat. Being an unruly child bringing disorder to the court, Sade was sent to the South of France to be raised by his cleric uncle when he was six years old. His uncle, who was not really devout, introduced him to libertinage and debauchery. Later, during his high school years at the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, Sade persisted in being disobedient, and was often subjected to corporal punishment, which can be seen as the origin of his fascination with flagellation.

Sade spent 29 years of his lifetime in prison, mostly because of several sentences for sexual mistreatment, acts of cruelty or sequestration, but also because of his blasphemous writings. He was detained among others in the famous Bastille, in the ‘Château de Vincennes’ Dungeon, and finally, in the Charenton lunatic asylum where he died in 1814. During all of his captivity years he wrote continuously, compensating for the lack of physical liberty by a total freedom of writing. All his most important oeuvres were written in prison.

Letter to his wife from Vincennes prison (1780)
Letter to his wife from Vincennes prison (1780) I | © Chatsam/WikiCommons

Among his famous novels are: Justine or The Misfortunes of Virtue , the extreme and quite unreadable The 120 Days of Sodom (which Pasolini reinterpreted in the disturbing movie Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom in 1975); Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and The School of Libertinism.

But if his chosen field was erotism, the Marquis de Sade was not a mere pornographer. He was a subversive, clearly unconventional atheist, who wanted to break the rules of the traditional society, using an upside-down version of traditional values and virtues in his narratives. In his view, the human being is alone in the universe and this loneliness is power. Liberated from the fear of God, humankind can use its free-will without any limit. In this way, Sade is an individualist libertarian, and his amoral ideology implies a total denial of authority. He expressed his rejection of social and religious norms using blasphemy, taboo topics like incest, as well as a very personal and crude vocabulary.

Cartoon of the decree of the National Assembly, which dissolved all orders of monks and nuns (1790)
Cartoon of the decree of the National Assembly, which dissolved all orders of monks and nuns (1790) I | ©UltimateDestiny/WikiCommons

He is certainly revolutionary, not in the political French ‘sans-culotte’ definition, which placed morals at the top of the ‘citizen values,’ and libertinage as a heritage of decadent aristocracy. Indeed, he wrote to a friend: ‘I am Anti-Jacobin. I hate them to death. (…) I want the King to be the chief of Nation.’ He was actually more in favor of a constitutional monarchy following the British model. It was the anti-clerical part of the French Revolution that seduced him.

Instead, Sade is revolutionary in a philosophical way. Questioning the existence of God, challenging authority and social codes is very typical of French intellectual concern. That is why Apollinaire defined Sade as ‘the freest spirit that has yet existed.’ But the best description of Sade’s personality was in his own words, in a 1783 letter to his wife: ‘Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination, the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell…. Kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.’

After his death, the Marquis remained mainly ignored and muted during the 19th century, except for a small circle of connoisseurs including Baudelaire and Flaubert. At this time, just few underground copies of his novels were sold under-the-counter. Baron Hugues de Sade, a descendant of the Marquis, confessed in an interview that the mere title of ‘Marquis’ was taboo in his family for five generations, and that his ancestor’s work was simply unmentionable. Keep in mind that the explicit writings of the Marquis de Sade were legally banned in France, until its first official publication by Paul Pauvert in 1957.

The regain of interest in his writings and personality these last decades was mainly boosted by some artists of the surrealist Thirties, such as Salvador Dalí, Paul Éluard, Man Ray or Luis Buñuel, who were inspired by Sade.

The new accessibility to his novels allowed Sade’s work to be more widely spread, and thus judged for its literary qualities. Sade is an amazing novelist, mastering the art of suspense, unexpected twists, cruel irony and black humor. His flourishing vocabulary is as rude as it is sophisticated, and very often facetious.

Nowadays, the sulfurous ‘Divine Marquis’ is trendy, and has even become a commercial brand. Champagne, foie gras, perfumed candles and chocolates are sold by his heirs under the brand name of ‘Maison de Sade’. The atmosphere around the Marquis is intensely related to the easily marketable concepts of Epicureanism, pleasure and temptation. He is a reference used by the ‘porn-chic’ trend (embodied by Carine Roitfeld for Vogue, and Tom Ford) within the fashion world, for aesthetic purpose. Sade is also very present in pop culture and, as an example: he is one of the characters of the worldwide famous video game Assassin’s Creed Unity which takes place during the French Revolution.

'Festin' Crystal Renn in Vogue Paris, October 2010
‘Festin’ Crystal Renn in Vogue Paris, October 2010 I | © L/Flickr

In 2014, the Orsay Museum made an exhibition called ‘Sade. Attacking the Sun,’ questioning the issues of excess, desire, deviation and Sade’s influence on art. In relation to the theme, some of Goya’s, Courbet’s and Delacroix’s artworks were exhibited.

Another exhibition from 2014, ‘Sade: Marquis of Shadows, Prince of the Enlightenment – The Spectrum of Libertinism from the 16th to the 20th century,’ spotlighted Sade’s most disturbing work: The 120 Days of Sodom. For the first time, the manuscript, which is a mysterious handwritten scroll, was exhibited in France by the Institut des Lettres et Manuscrits.

As a consecration of his talent, Sade was published in 1990 in the prestigious Pléiade collection, a reference among the literary world. More than rehabilitated, he is now present in every French public library and some extracts of his novels have even become part of the French baccalauréat syllabus.

The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (1827)
The Death of Sardanapalus by Eugène Delacroix (1827) I | © Coldcreation/WikiCommons

So, has the once underground ‘Marquis’ now become mainstream? The answer is more complicated than that. Behind this apparent collective enthusiasm and the trivialization of erotism, debates continue to rage between pro- and anti-Sade. If on the one hand some intellectuals perceive him as a martyr for freedom, imprisoned for his courageous stand; on the other hand, he is still considered an aristocratic hoaxer who pretended to be revolutionary in order to justify his horrifying acts. The question arises whether should we differentiate between the artist and the artwork. Can we distinguish Sade’s behavior from his amazing legacy to French cultural heritage? Where is the border between his philosophical view and the resulting reprehensible acts? Was he a misunderstood genius or a lunatic charlatan?

The answer remains open-ended. Humankind is still questioned by this brilliant and licentious libertine, and the fascination is not going to decline…