on June 24, 2001
'The Marquis de Sade - the complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and other writings.' Compiled and translated by Richard Seaver & Austryn Wainhouse with essays by Jean Paulhan of l'Academie Francaise & Maurice Blanchot. New York: Grove Press, 1990 (1965). 753 pp.
Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), was born in Paris into one of the most noble and ancient families of Provence. He was educated at first by his uncle, the tolerant, scholarly, and sophisticated Abbé de Sade, then by the Jesuits, and at the age of twenty-three married Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, an intelligent and loving woman who bore him three children.
The marriage, as was usual at the time, was arranged, and Sade would have much preferred to marry Renee's beautiful and vivacious younger sister, Anne-Prospere, a girl he later seduced. This led to the undying enmity of his mother-in-law, the powerful Madame de Montreuil, who through her influence at court was able to obtain a 'lettre de cachet' or Royal Warrant of arrest from the king, which led to Sade's first imprisonment.
A variety of sexual escapades, and Madame de Montreuil's continuing enmity, were to lead to an incredibly harsh total of twenty-seven years of imprisonment, and he was eventually to die in the Charenton lunatic asylum where he had been sent, not because he was insane, since he was one of the most lucid thinkers of his age, but after incurring the wrath of Napoleon who had been led to believe that he was the anonymous author of the anti-Bonaparte satire, 'Zoloe,' a mediocre work which current opinion feels was probably not written by Sade.
What were Sade's real crimes? Well, so far as I can gather, there weren't any. He was guilty of a number of ... indiscretions and frankly admitted to being a libertine - a man who felt that sex was something to celebrate and enjoy, and not the dirty and disgusting thing we have been taught. He also wrote a number of very profound, very obscene, very learned, and also very funny books, for what is regularly overlooked is that he was, in addition to his other talents, a great comic artist.
The French critic Philippe Sollers, in fact, seems to feel that everything Sade wrote was intended as comic. And if we consider that the essence of great comedy lies in the truth of its portrayal of human nature, I think we arrive at the real reason for Sade having been demonized, imprisoned, and misrepresented as a monster - there is just too much truth in him, and society has a vested interest in suppressing the truth.
An impressive array of outstanding personalities have written about Sade's work: Apollinaire, Maurice Heine, Gilbert Lely, Octavio Paz, Simone de Beauvoir, Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski, Roland Barthes, Maurice Blanchot, Yukio Mishima, Annie LeBrun, etc., and there are some who feel that if it were not for his reputation, his novel of 1795, 'Aline and Valcour,' would probably be rated every bit as highly as we rate such works as 'Don Quixote' or 'Gulliver's Travels.'
Unfortunately, because in many of his works he dealt with taboo subjects in an often extreme way, and because his vision of man was less than flattering, his reputation as a libertine has been seized upon as an excuse to rigorously exclude him from him the Western literary canon, and one will search in vain for any mention of Sade in the Histories of Western Literature and Philosophy where he ought to figure prominently.
This campaign of vilification and suppression has been so effective that it is possible to have a keen interest in literature and philosophy, and to read extensively for decades, without ever even suspecting that Sade is the one writer who is most worth reading since he so unique.
Because of the extreme obscenity that we find in his writings they have always been a favorite target of censors, and it wasn't until the mid-sixties that unexpurgated editions of Sade's works became available in English translation in the United States.
For those who would like to read the authentic texts, I can strongly recommend the present authoritative and critical English edition. It has a full introduction, critical essays, bibliographies, etc., and is beautifully translated:
There are a lot of other 'Sade' books on the market, or books that pretend to be giving you Sade, but the present ediition contains the only authoritative and uncut English translations of his major works. As for earlier translations, some of them tend to be rather expensive, possibly because they have usually been issued in limited editions and book dealers have a nasty habit of classifying them as Erotica....
In fact, Sade is not not really erotically stimulating at all. My own feeling is that his descriptions of sexual high jinks are intended more to provoke laughter than to excite, and anyone who goes to him for titillation is going to come away disappointed.
Roald Dahl, the famous writer of children's books, pointed out somewhere that children love the grotesque, the exaggerated, the monstrous, the ugly, the dirty; they find such things hilarious. I think there's more than a bit of this in Sade, and perhaps buried deep down in all of us too. Sade was able to see into the depths of the subconscious mind, and for anyone who is interested in understanding who and what we really are he is unsurpassed.