This Day In Literary History
On June 2nd, 1740, the legendary French writer and philosopher Marquis de Sade was born. He was born Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade in Paris, France.
His father, Count Jean Baptiste de Sade, was a diplomat, and his mother joined a convent, so Donatien was abandoned and left to be raised by the servants. A rebellious child with a bad temper, he was sent to an exclusive Jesuit secondary school, where he was tutored by his uncle, an Abbe.
The Abbe de Sade noted that his nephew had a "passionate temperament which made him eager in the pursuit of pleasure," but also a "good heart." The boy endured severe physical abuse at the hands of the Jesuits, which would affect him personally and as a writer.
At 14, Donatien entered an elite military academy. Commissioned as a sub-lieutenant a year later, he would excel as a soldier and fight for France in the Seven Years' War, rising to the rank of colonel and commanding a Dragoon regiment.
Back home after the war, the young Marquis de Sade married, but lived the scandalous life of a libertine. His tastes for prostitutes and non-traditional (and sometimes non-consensual) sexual practices considered illegal under French law often got him in trouble with the authorities.
When they were accused of plying prostitutes with aphrodisiacs and committing sodomy with them, de Sade and his manservant (and occasional lover) Latour fled to Italy, along with de Sade's sister-in-law. The Marquis was caught and imprisoned but escaped four months later.
Determined to protect the family from further scandal, de Sade's mother-in-law obtained a royal lettre de cachet against him, which was an order for his indefinite imprisonment without trial or counsel.
Tricked into returning to Paris to visit his sick mother - who had already died - de Sade was caught and jailed in the Chateau de Vicennes. When that prison closed a few years later, he was transferred to the Bastille.
During his years in prison, de Sade successfully appealed a death sentence against him for blasphemy (at that time, being an outspoken atheist was a capital offense - a crime as severe as murder) and wrote the classic novels that continue to shock readers over 200 years later.
Though a nobleman himself, de Sade loathed the French aristocracy. He also loathed the monarchy and the Church, and for the same reasons - their hypocrisy, corruption, and suppression of personal liberties. So, he supported the French Revolution and the New Republic.
The revolution began with the storming of the Bastille in July of 1789 - just a few days after the Marquis was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton. Glad as he was that the revolution had begun, he "wept tears of blood" at the thought of what he'd left behind.
Hidden within the wall of his cell at the Bastille was the manuscript for the Marquis' most famous (or should that be infamous) novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. Fortunately, the manuscript was discovered and saved from the rampaging looters that tore the prison apart.
A year later, de Sade was released from Charenton when the new National Constituent Assembly abolished the lettre de cachet against him. His wife promptly filed for divorce. But the Marquis' freedom would prove to be short lived.
Despite his aristocratic background, de Sade, considered a hero of the French Revolution, was elected to the National Convention and further served the Republic by writing political pamphlets.
Unfortunately, his public criticism of Maximilien Robespierre and the bloody Reign of Terror resulted in his being dubbed an enemy of the Republic. After spending a year in prison, he was released again when the Reign of Terror ended in 1794.
By 1796, de Sade was left penniless. Five years later, Napoleon Bonaparte, who had come to power in 1799, ordered the arrest of the anonymous author of a notorious novel called Justine (1791) and its sequel, Juliette (1797).
Justine, which Napoleon had called "the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination," follows the title character from the ages of 12 to 26. The pious Justine's determination to lead a virtuous life causes her nothing but suffering.
When she seeks refuge at a monastery, the monks turn her into their sex slave, forcing her to be the guest of honor at their orgies. Later, when she witnesses a man being robbed, she helps him, and in gratitude, he takes her to his chateau, promising her a job.
Instead, the man confines Justine in a cave and gives her the same treatment that the monks did. Victimized by many others as the novel progresses, her prayers to God are unanswered and the story concludes with Justine's miserable life suddenly snuffed out by a lightning strike.
Like de Sade's other novels, Justine, told in the Marquis' trademark elegant prose, is an extremely potent mix of dark comedy, scathing satire, philosophy, and erotica. It still hasn't lost its ability to shock even open-minded readers.
But the Marquis did far more in his writings than just amuse himself and explore his sexual fantasies. His writings were a direct assault on and retort to the philosophers of his time, especially one Jean-Jacques Rousseau.
In his famous philosophical writings such as The Social Contract (1762), Rousseau passionately argued in favor of reason and personal liberty, while at the same time passionately defending Christianity - the greatest, most ruthless enemy of reason and personal liberty.
The Marquis' disgust at this galling hypocrisy can be seen in his writings, most notably Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). In this classic novel, a 15-year-old girl named Eugenie has been raised to be virtuous, naive, timid, and obedient by her fiercely controlling, self righteous mother.
Eugenie is invited to the home of Madame de Saint-Ange, a 26-year-old libertine, to be "educated" for a couple of days - by Saint-Ange and her fellow libertine, the 36-year-old Monsieur Dolmance. It is, of course, a sexual education, but far more than that.
After explaining the biological facts of life to their student, Saint-Ange and Dolmance subject her to all sorts of sexual acts as they teach her that without pain, there can be no pleasure, for pleasure and pain are inseparable.
Madame de Sainte-Ange's younger brother, the Chevalier de Mirval - who is also her lover - assists in Eugenie's education and supplements the philosophical lectures of Monsieur Dolmance by reading a pamphlet titled Frenchmen, Some More Effort if You Wish to Become Republicans.
As Eugenie's sexual training is nearly complete, her mother arrives to rescue her, but it's too late - thanks to the intellectual discourse and sexual fulfillment provided by Saint-Ange and Dolmance, Eugenie is now a strong, independent, and empowered young woman.
In a surprise twist, Eugenie's father reveals that it was he who asked Saint-Ange and Dolmance to educate his daughter. Then he asks them to punish his wife, whom he despises. The horrific (and darkly funny) punishment includes rape by a syphilitic manservant.
The Marquis de Sade's most famous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom (1785), is an actually an early draft of a novel he was planning to revise, but never got the chance. It includes a footnote for revision that he wrote to himself.
The 120 Days of Sodom is the ultimate satire of the hypocrisy and corruption of the French aristocracy and the Church. The main characters are four aristocrats between the ages of 45 and 60, one of whom is a bishop "with a nasty mouth" and a passion for sodomy.
The aristocrats and their twelve accomplices (four accomplished middle-aged female prostitutes / procuresses and eight well-endowed male "fuckers") kidnap a harem of sixteen adolescents between the ages of 12 and 15 (eight boys and eight girls) and take them to a remote castle.
There, over a period of several months, the harem is subjected to increasingly violent episodes of debauchery, degradation, and abuse, from "the simple passions" to "the murderous passions."
The novel's notorious excesses include everything from rape atop of bed of nails to corprophilia. It's de Sade at his darkest and most nihilistic, though of all his novels, Justine was the Marquis' favorite.
Believe it or not, The 120 Days of Sodom was adapted as a feature film in 1975. Written and directed by the legendary Italian filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, the film transports the story from 18th century France to 20th century fascist Italy under dictator Benito Mussolini.
In its most infamous scenes, Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom, which featured a harem of adolescents sexually abused and degraded by Italian fascist aristocrats, included the novel's corprophilia, as the victims are forced to eat feces and produce feces for their captors to eat.
The film caused an outrage in Italy and Pier Paolo Pasolini, also famous for his film adaptations of The Decameron, Arabian Nights, and The Gospel According to St. Matthew, was murdered not long after its release, allegedly by a member of Italy's Christian right.
Juliette, the sequel to Justine, follows the main character (Justine's older sister) beginning at the age of thirteen, when the convent raised Juliette is seduced by a libertine woman who teaches her that life is meaningless except for the pleasures of the senses.
Unlike her sister, whose devotion to virtue led to a life of misery, Juliette embraces debauchery and lives her life to the hilt. Mentored by a series of madams and perverted nobles, she becomes a prostitute, thief, murderess, and ultimately, a philosopher.
The novel's most infamous scene finds Juliette given an audience with Pope Pius VI (who in real life was notoriously corrupt and a rabid anti-Semite) where she tells the pontiff all she's learned during her life of debauchery and lectures him on the vile sins committed by his predecessors.
The pope applauds her and admits to performing black masses in Satan's honor. The long scene concludes with Pius throwing an orgy and having sex with Juliette on the main altar of St. Peter's while over a hundred monks watch them, masturbating gleefully.
Following his arrest by Napoleon in 1801, the Marquis de Sade was ordered to be imprisoned without trial at the Sainte-Pélagie prison, and later, the brutal Bicetre Asylum, where he was accused of trying to seduce his younger fellow inmates.
With help from his family, de Sade was declared insane and sent back to the humane, progressive Charenton asylum, where he continued to write. Among his works were plays that he staged there for the asylum's benefactors, using his fellow patients as actors.
Unfortunately, his writing output was cut off when in 1809, the authorities ordered him to be put into solitary confinement and denied access to pen and paper. They had discovered that his controversial writings were being smuggled out of Charenton by his admirers.
One of his most ardent admirers was Madeleine LeClerc, the daughter of an asylum employee. Their passionate four-year affair, which began when LeClerc was fourteen years old, ended with the Marquis' death in 1814 at the age of 74.
Though Napoleon had ordered the Marquis de Sade's writings destroyed, his admirers saved his original manuscripts, copies of which remained mostly underground for nearly a hundred years after his death.
In the 1950s, the French government again planned to destroy all of de Sade's writings, prompting an outcry from the French literati, including the legendary French writer and philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who wrote her classic essay Must We Burn Sade? (1952) in the Marquis' defense.
Later, in the mid 1960s, the legendary American publisher Barney Rossett of Grove Press published the uncensored English language versions of Justine and other works by de Sade in the United States after winning censorship trials to publish the works of Allen Ginsberg, William S. Burroughs, D.H Lawrence, and Henry Miller.
The writings and dark imagination of the Marquis de Sade, for whom sadism, the practice of deriving pleasure from another person's pain, was named after, continue to challenge modern readers, eliciting both admiration and outrage.
Quote of the Day
"To judge from the notions expounded by theologians, one must conclude that God created most men simply with a view to crowding Hell." - Marquis de Sade
Today's video features a reading of the Marquis de Sade's most famous novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. Enjoy!