The Marquis de Sade

marquis de sade

The Marquis de Sade

One has only to learn of the sordid life of the Marquis de Sade to debunk the conventional wisdom that there are no atheists in foxholes. The Marquis spent his entire life in a foxhole of his own design, and never was there an atheist of firmer conviction. “For mortal men there is but one hell,” he said, “and that is the folly and wickedness and spite of his fellows; but once his life is over, there’s an end to it: his annihilation is final and entire, of him nothing survives.”

Born June 2nd, 1740, Donatien Alphonse Francois, Marquis of Sade, he cultivated a reputation in pre-revolutionary Paris for leading a libertine lifestyle. As a youth, he pursued a brief military career as Colonel of a Dragoon regiment in the Seven Years’ War, cementing a preoccupation with violence that would follow him his entire life. The only appetite of the Marquis’ more voracious was his craving for sadomasochistic sex, which he partook of with great enthusiasm after his return from battle in 1763. The Marquis’ sexual exploits were the stuff of the raunchiest French erotica; a married man with a son, he was said to have had an affair with his wife’s sister, who was living with them in his castle at Lacoste, as well as scores of prostitutes of either gender. For five years, despite a growing police record, the Marquis managed only minor prison sentences for his outlandish behavior due in no small part to his noble status.

Problems began for him on Easter Sunday in 1768. He was alleged to have solicited a woman, Rose Keller, for sexual services. Though it is not known whether or not Keller was a prostitute by trade, what happened in the Marquis’ chateau at Arcueil where he took her is not in dispute: she was detained and abused sexually and physically, escaping only after climbing out of a second-story window and running for safety. The Marquis’ mother-in-law obtained a lettre de cachet, excluding him from the jurisdiction of the courts, to avoid legal backlash. This decision would prove disastrous for him years later.

In 1772, the Marquis was involved in a scandal in Marseille involving the non-lethal poisoning of prostitutes with the aphrodesiac Spanish fly, and sodomy with his manservant Latour. To modern observers, it would seem the Marquis was up to his usual debauchery; to French society, he had committed an abominable sin, the punishment for which was death. Sade and Latour were sentenced to death in absentia. Sade fled with his manservant and his wife’s sister to Italy to avoid arrest; he was captured at the Fortress of Miolans, but escaped four months later and returned to Lacoste, where his very forgiving wife became an accomplice to his subsequent misdeeds.

Between the years of 1773 and 1777, the Marquis kept a group of young employees in Lacoste to assist him while he remained a fugitive from the law. Many complained of sexual misconduct and left his service, attracting the attention of authorities. He fled to Italy once more, but returned in 1776; undeterred by the continued threat of death, he resumed employing servants and subsequently losing them through his relentless harassment.

In 1777, the father of one of his employees came to Lacoste to claim his daughter, attempting to shoot the Marquis at point-blank range before he left. Sade’s story would have ended there had the gun not jammed.

Eventually, Sade grew complacent. In late 1777, he was tricked into coming out of hiding after receiving news that his mother had fallen ill and wished to see him in Paris; by this point, his mother had already passed. He was arrested and imprisoned in the Chateau de Vincennes. Though he succeeded in appealing his death sentence in 1778, he remained imprisoned under the lettre de cachet.

The Chateau de Vincennes was closed in 1784, prompting Sade and the other prisoners to be transferred to Bastille. There, Sade took up writing to pass the time. In two weeks in 1787, Sade penned Les infortunes de la vertu (in English: The Misfortunes of Virtue, otherwise known as Justine), his first major work of erotic fiction. In it, he detailed the trials and tribulations of his titular character, whose Christian virtues are of cold comfort to her.

Sade also wrote a sequel, entitled Les prospérités du vice (in English: Vice Amply Rewarded, otherwise known as Juliette). Whereas Justine is a passive victim of her own adherence to virtue, Juliette is a lascivious, amoral murderess whose all-consuming ambition to host orgies, blaspheme against Catholics, and acquire ludicrous amounts of wealth at the expense of those closest to her ensures her eventual happy ending.

Sade was in the process of writing his magnum opus, Les 120 Journées de Sodome (in English: The 120 Days of Sodom) during 1789 when on July 2nd, it is alleged he shouted from the window of his cell to the streets below, inciting a small riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton. In the process, he lost his original manuscript of Les Journées. The more devastating blow came on July 14th, when the storming of Bastille occurred. Had he bitten his tongue, he may have been among the escapees.


An illustration from 120 Days of Sodom

In 1790, the new Constituent Assembly abolished the system implementing lettre de cachet, and Sade was released. He returned from prison to find that his estate in Lacoste had been sacked by an angry mob a year prior, prompting a move to Paris. His wife divorced him shortly thereafter.

A free man, however worse for wear, Sade immediately endeavored to publish his works anonymously. Then, in an attempt to legitimize himself under the new Revolutionary government, Sade took to calling himself ‘Citizen,’ as noble titles were no longer in vogue. He was elected to the National Convention, where he wrote political pamphlets in praise of radical leftist views. It is suggested that during this time, he was the target of slanderous abuse by his fellow party representatives for his aristocratic background. To make matters worse, in May of 1972, his son, Donatien-Claude-Armand, deserted from the military, forcing Sade to publically – and humiliatingly – disavow his own flesh and blood to preserve his legitimacy.

Having witnessed the Reign of Terror in 1793, Sade grew increasingly critical of Robespierre. On the 5th of December, he was relieved of his post, accused of the crime of “moderatism,” and imprisoned without trial for a year. After Robespierre’s overthrow and execution in 1794, Sade was again released.

All but destitute after the twice-over changing of governments, Sade sold what remained of his estate in Lacoste and dwindled into obscurity. Despite having, by this point, gained an enormous amount of weight and having a reputation for being of wicked sexual inclinations, Sade still managed to support his voracious carnal appetite with a steady stream of partners. Among them was Marie-Constance Quesnet, a former actress and mother of a six-year-old son. Her husband had abandoned her. As a single mother, Quesnet appreciated the magnitude of Sade’s loneliness in a way few others could. She remained his consistent companion for the rest of his life.

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the author of Justine and Juliette, finding the novels criminally obscene. Sade was arrested and imprisoned without trial – first in Saint-Pelagie, then to Bicetre, following allegations that he’d attempted to seduce younger inmates during his stay in the former prison.

His family intervened, having him declared insane in 1803. He was transferred again to Charenton, where his stay was financed by his ex-wife and son. Quesnet lived with him during his stay.

Abbé de Coulmier, the director of Charenton at the time, approached psychotherapy with a unique perspective. He encouraged Sade to continue writing, and even allowed him to host plays for the Parisian public to spectate with fellow inmates as actors. For this six-year period, an aged Sade enjoyed authoring satirical plays with his usual emphasis on shock value, drawing inspiration from his remarkably fruitful love life. He began a sexual relationship with Joe Hallmark, the thirteen-year-old son of an employee at the asylum, with the blessing of his very open-minded life-partner Quesnet.

In 1809, new police orders had Sade’s pens and paper confiscated, as well as relocated him to solitary confinement. In 1813, all theatrical performances at the asylum were suspended.

Sade died a year later, alone, without even his writing to comfort him. On the request of his son, his manuscripts were gathered and burned.