The Marquis De Sade was a pariah in his time, a monster on the page, and a genius in death. But what crimes did the namesake of “sadism” actually commit? Where did his real-life appetites end…and his literary fantasies begin?
The Marquis De Sade was a pariah in his time, a monster on the page, and a genius in death. But what crimes did the namesake of “sadism” actually commit? Where did his real-life appetites end…and his literary fantasies begin? (Explicit, obviously)
Thomas, Donald. The Marquis de Sade. 1976.
Du Plessix Gray, Francine. At Home with the Marquis de Sade. 1998.
Lever, Maurice. Sade. 1994.
Schaeffer, Niel. The Marquis De Sade: A Life. 1999.
Gorer, Geoffrey. The Life and Ideas of the Marquis de Sade. 1933.
Marquis de Sade. The 120 Days of Sodom.
Marquis de Sade. Letters from Prison.
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------- INTRO --------
In the spring of 1966, the United Kingdom was in the grip of a tabloid media frenzy.
The murder trial of the century was about to begin.
A young couple, Ian Brady and Myra Hindley, had been accused of a series of murders that had plagued northern England over the past two years. The emotions around the case were so intense, that these defendants had to be placed in security boxes encased in a protective screen to shield them from any vengeful courtroom attendees.
Their crimes were truly shocking. Together, this young man and young woman had allegedly tortured, sexually abused, and killed five children between the ages of 10-17, before burying the bodies in shallow graves across a span of isolated, windswept grassland – or Moors. That detail gave the case its famous name:
The Moors Murders.
Over the next 14 days, beginning on April 19th, the jury listened to the details of the case. It was an absolute layup for the prosecution. They had a mountain of evidence. They had the bodies, the murder weapons, eyewitness testimony. They even had video evidence of one of the murders, which the young couple had themselves filmed for later viewing.
But the prosecution had something else.
Within this massive body of evidence, was a book. A very old book. One that had been written almost 300 years before, in Paris, amidst the violence and chaos of the French Revolution.
This novel was called Justine, and it was infamous even in its own time. Napoleon Bonaparte himself called it:
“The most disgusting book that the most depraved imagination has ever birthed.”
This copy of the book had belonged to one of the accused killers, Ian Brady. He treasured it, and read it often.
But why would the prosecution include something like this? They had such a colossal amount of damning evidence, such incontrovertible proof of the couple’s guilt…why bother showing the jury some old book? What possible significance could it have?
Well – the prosecution believed that a key to the twisted worldview of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley could be found within the novel’s wrinkled pages. It was argued that this book had been a key inspiration for the killing spree that had left several innocent children dead.
The prosecution read passages from Justine to the jury. The scenes of sexual violence described in the novel and what had been committed in real-life were remarkably similar. One couldn’t help but believe that the killers had done their best to translate the brutal fantasies of the author into the real world. As historian Donald Thomas wrote:
“The defendants seemed not only indifferent to the charges against them but almost to be acting under the immediate orders of some invisible spirit. His power was greater than any of the forces of law ranged against them. His name was mentioned and his views were given as evidence. Soon the world would be assured that these appalling crimes had been committed at the posthumous behest of the notorious Marquis de Sade.”
The public quickly became fixated on this idea. That this long-dead author, this disgraced and debauched French aristocrat had, through his writing, stretched long, corruptive fingers across the centuries and buried them within the minds of Ian Brady and Myra Hindley.
As Donald Thomas elaborates:
“The public was left with the impression of the murderers as an evil young couple who had carried out their crimes as loyal disciples of Sade.
It wasn’t exactly a hard pill to swallow.
The Marquis de Sade, then and now, is regarded as an infamous, terrifying figure. Cloaked in scandal, rumor, and violence. Superstitious critics often said that his books could literally alter the brain chemistry of those brave enough to read the words. If you read these books, they could drive you insane.
One writer named Jules Janin said in 1834:
“Be warned by me, whoever you may be. Do not touch these volumes, for you will never enjoy a night’s sleep again.”
Another said Sade’s writings could:
“Drive students to madness and death”
These were books that contained, as historian Niel Schaeffer wrote:
“horrors so shocking as to be almost beyond human imagination.”
There’s one story about a girl who dared to read The Marquis de Sade’s writing. And what she found inside horrified her so much, that she immediately ran to a convent and became a nun.
This is all probably starting to sound like a ghost story. And in a way it kind-of is. The literary spirit of the Marquis de Sade has haunted western thought for centuries. His name is literally a synonym for cruelty and perversion. It’s where we get the word “sadism”, which the dictionary defines as:
“Delight in cruelty. Extreme cruelty. Or the derivation of sexual gratification from the infliction of physical pain or humiliation on another person.”
As The Marquis Sade wrote himself:
“Cruelty is in Nature; we are all born with a portion of cruelty that only education modifies; but education is not natural; it contravenes Nature as much as cultivation does trees . . . . . cruelty is then nothing else than man’s energy, uncorrupted by civilization. . . . .”
The Marquis de Sade is the “S” in S&M. The “Sado” to the “Masochism”. In the centuries since his death, his books have been banned and burned, suppressed and stigmatized. Up until relatively recently, the 20thcentury or so, his descendants did everything they could to bury all traces of this blemish on their family history.
His legacy is nothing short of a battleground to this very day, where scandalous devil’s-advocates wage war with modern-day puritans over the issue of censorship, freedom of speech, and the outer limits of acceptable sexuality. The Marquis is the textbook definition of a love-him-or-hate-him historical figure.
Many revere him. As a French erotic author named Pierre Guyotot gushed:
“Sade is, in a way, our Shakespeare. He has the same sense of tragedy, the same sweeping grandeur. Taking pleasure in the suffering of others is not such an important part of his writings as people claim. He has his tongue sticking out permanently. He is incessantly ironic.”
Others see him as nothing more than a pervert. A loathsome rapist whose ideas, writing, and memory deserves to be left in the dust bin of history. As a writer named Michel Onfray observed:
“It is intellectually bizarre to make Sade a hero. Even according to his most hero-worshipping biographers, this man was a sexual delinquent.
Some see his intrinsic value, even while acknowledging his flaws. As one philosopher said:
“One must always return to Sade, to observe mankind in its natural state and to understand the quality of evil.”
He’s been called both “the freest spirit who ever lived” and “a frenetic and abominable assemblage of all crimes and obscenities”.
Love him or hate him, The Marquis de Sade has made an indelible mark on our culture. A whip mark, as the man himself would’ve probably preferred characterize it. A raised, red welt on our literary consciousness.
One 19th expert on erotic literature named Henry Spencer Ashbee said this about Sade:
The Marquis de Sade is perhaps one of the most extraordinary men who ever lived. Nature has produced some strange abortions, both physical and mental, but probably never a greater mental monstrosity than de Sade.
But who was he? And what was so scary about his writing? Were his lurid stories autobiographical? Had he actually done these awful things? Or were they just his deepest darkest fantasies poured out harmlessly onto the page? And…are they harmless? Do his stories have the power to not only titillate, but to inspire us to violence and depravity, as the prosecutors of the Moors Murder case theorized?
A 19th century critic named Theophile Gautier didn’t think so, saying:
“Books copy behavior. Behavior isn’t copied from books”
This enigmatic figure, the Marquis de Sade, is obviously the subject of today’s episode. On this show, we usually discuss with trends, and wars, and movements. How people inflict change on society. But today, we’re going to invert. We’re going to talk about the effects society inflicted on one particular man, his family, and his writing. And how he dealt all that pain back on the world.
So let’s go discover who the Marquis de Sade really was. Let’s go find the man behind the monster.
--- ----MUSIC BREAK --- ----
In the year 1794, the city of Paris was convulsing with upheaval, violence, and paranoia.
The French Revolution was in its fifth year. But to most Parisians it must have seemed like the fiftieth.
What had begun as a good faith-attempt to reform the French empire into a constitutional monarchy, with a King, controlled and reined in by a representative assembly, had accelerated exponentially and spun out into political chaos. Every year brought fresh transgression. Every day the stack of bodies got higher and higher and higher.
The French King, Louis 16th, was dead. His soft, lily-white neck had fallen under the heavy, iron blade of the guillotine just a year earlier, in January 1793.
And many more had followed him. His wife, the famous Marie Antoinette was decapitated shortly after. Then their friends and courtiers and connections. In fact, the guillotine soon became very busy. The famously efficient death-machine and its operators hungered most of all for blue blood – the aristocrats and royalists who’d come to represent everything wrong with France. Many were forced to flee the country.
But Madame Guillotine was still hungry.
The train of liberty and equality and revolution quickly jumped the tracks. Soon, the high ideals of freedom and fraternity which had defined the early years of the Revolution, twisted and mutated into something else.
As historian Neil Schaeffer writes:
“On September 17, 1793, the National Convention enacted the Law of Suspects, under which revolutionary committees throughout France were empowered to arrest, try and execute all suspicious persons. Treason was so broadly defined as to include gestures, laughter, and even presumed thoughts. The Terror now had a powerful machine with countless blades that would purge the nation, or so it was claimed, of bad blood.”
Thousands upon thousands were arrested under this Law of Suspects. Henchmen would show up at your door, search your house, haul you off, and throw you in prison. Where you would await your eventual last kiss from Madame Guillotine.
One of these prisoners was a man named Louis Sade. According to notes taken by his jailers, he was:
“Five feet six inches tall. Hair and eyebrows gray-blonde. Forehead high and broad. Eyes pale blue. Nose medium. Mouth small. Chin round, face oval, and full”
Louis Sade was no stranger to prisons. He had spent almost a third of his life in jail. But now, at the age of 54, it seemed, he’d finally come to the end of his rope.
Day after agonizing day passed as he waited for the moment of his execution. What made it so much worse was the fact that the guillotine was in earshot of his cell, on the other side of a walled garden.
Every day he could hear the prisoners climb the steps. Hear their last words. Hear the pull of the rope and fall of the blade, and the thud of something wet into a wicker basket. At the end of every day, the executioners would empty huge wooden buckets of blood, vats of it, into the drainage ditches nearby.
More than 1,800 times Louis Sade listened to this ritual over the course of a month. It nearly drove him insane.
Louis Sade had a lot of time to think, and reflect during that month. He was old, half-blind, obese, and sick. But according to one person who saw him:
“The tired eyes still held a certain brilliance and acuteness, which shone from time to time like a fading spark on a dead coal.”
Louis waited every day for his name to be called. For the moment of his death to come. “Louis Sade, enemy of the Republic, you are sentenced to die!”, they would say and off with his head.
But “Louis” was not his real name. His true name had been given to him half a century earlier. And he must’ve entertained thoughts of screaming out his title once he finally ascended the scaffold, for all the rabble to hear.
My name, he would say, is Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, the Marquis de Sade.
The Marquis De Sade was born and raised in a very different world than the one he found himself inhabiting in 1794. In place of dank prison cells and rivers of blood, there were towering chateaus and goblets of sweet French wine.
Sade was born in 1740 into a cradle of luxury, a member of one of the oldest aristocratic families in France. He was old money. And when I mean old money, I mean oooooold money. The Sades could trace their lineage back 400 years to the 13-century. They had power, and influence, and it wouldn’t have been out of the question for a member of the Sade family to spend the occasional afternoon hunting with the King of France himself.
It’s almost impossible to fully convey just how different pre-Revolution France was from post-Revolution France. De Sade’s childhood was nestled firmly in the heart of old-school aristocratic Europe. This was the heyday of courtly intrigue, opulent aristocrats, and free-thinking decadence.
Sex, wigs, and rock ‘n roll.
Donatien de Sade, the Marquis, described his childhood this way:
“Born in Paris in the bosom of luxury and plenty, I believed, from the time I could reason, that nature and fortune had joined together to heap their gifts upon me; I believed it because people were foolish enough to tell me so, and this ridiculous prejudice made me haughty, despotic, and angry, it seemed that everything must give in to me, that the whole world was flatter my whims, and that it was up to me alone to conceive and satisfy them.”
Looking at his life on paper, de Sade seemed to have everything. But something was conspicuously absent: His parents. Especially his Mom.
Sade’s mother had no interest in raising her son. Her passions were not for motherhood, but for climbing the rungs French high society. The rigors and frustrations of parenthood were not a priority. Little Donatien came out of his mother’s womb and was immediately swallowed up by a veritable army of nurses, servants, and valets.
His mother, for intents and purposes, was gone. Off wining, dining, and traveling. The little boy was rarely ever alone, but he couldn’t have felt more lonely. As historian Francine de Plessix Gray writes:
“He may have felt resentment, by the age of ten, toward the glacial, self-absorbed mother who seemed too lazy to come and see him. Too lazy, perhaps, to love anyone. Upon seeing other children being hugged by their mothers, he may well have felt a wave of anxiety at the possibility that he would never be cuddled, caressed, with the kind of passion that only a mother can bestow”.
But de Sade’s early childhood woes went far deeper than Mommy issues. Almost immediately, the people around him noticed how hot-tempered and violent he could be.
One day, when he was only four years old, he was on a playdate. His playmate was a prince of the royal family, a little kid who was only six or seven. Well, the four-year-old Donatien became fixated on a toy that the other boy had. Out of nowhere de Sade attacks the prince. He kicks him, beats him, scratches him. Pulls his hair and pummels his face. It takes multiple grown adults to pry the shrieking little boy off the other kid.
That little scuffle cost Donatien de Sade dearly. Soon after, he was sent to live with his grandmother, who thought she could calm the boy down and raise him right. This was the first instance of a pattern we will see over and over again with Sade over the course of his life. Transgression and punishment. Crime and consequence. Over and over and over. The original Sadist was clearly a Masochist at heart.
De Sade’s grandmother quickly realized she got way more than she bargained for.
She spoils him in every regard, and shockingly, this only makes the situation worse. We’re not given exact details on Sade’s behavior, but words like “temper”, “anger” and “outburst” pop up a lot. Shortly after, his grandmother throws in the towel, and sends him to live with his Uncle.
This is a common feature of Sade’s childhood. He’s passed from family member to family member like some kind of cursed idol. No one really wanted him. The picture that starts to form is one of a profoundly lonely kid.
So Sade goes to live at his Uncle’s chateau. And it was in this place that he found his true source of solace: Books. Sade’s uncle had a huge library. Picture the first time Belle finds the library in Beauty & the Beast. The massive stacks of books, the ladder, the whole deal.
If the real world offered nothing but anger and disappointment for Sade, books offered a way out. A release. Apparently, the adolescent Sade spent so much time in his uncle’s library that he could find specific volumes with his eyes closed. He read and read and read, voraciously. Novels, and philosophy and history, were like crack to this kid. Words and ideas provided a temporary escape from his emotional isolation.
Sade’s time in his Uncle’s chateau was also the first time that, pivotally, he began to become aware of the concept of love, and sex. His uncle was a priest – an Abbe – a title that typically carried with it strict laws of celibacy. Well Uncle Abbe had no time for silly little promises like that. The Abbe had women coming in and out of this chateau like an assembly line. Wham bam thank you ma’am…let us pray. And de Sade definitely noticed it. As an adult, he mockingly referred to his Uncle Abbe’s house as a “bordello”, or a whorehouse.
By this point, Sade was about ten years old, and his family decided that this angry, bookish child needed a stern, structured education. So he was packed up and sent to the Jesuits College in Paris. This was not just any old boarding school. As historian Francine de Plessix Gray describes:
It was the most prestigious and rigorous educational institution of its time, and its three thousand students included the offspring of France’s most powerful families”
Under the famously strict tutelage of the Jesuits, young de Sade would have his first encounter with something that would become an obsession for the rest of his life. Whipping, beating, and caning. The Jesuits were big believers in corporal punishment. It was literally in the instruction manual, called The Instruction Manual for Christian Schoolmasters:
“The rod is necessary. It produces good behavior, and must be used.”
If a student messed up, or got into trouble… they were beaten with a heavy rod, on the ass, repeatedly in front of the entire student body. Sade must have seen this happen many many times while he was enrolled in the school. And something about it wormed its way into his brain. He decided he kinda liked watching these punishments. And even more startling to him, he kinda liked receiving them too.
Now there’s a lot of back-and-forth amongst historians about this. Some people will swear up and down that *this* was the moment, that Sade’s sexual preferences became fixed for the rest of his life. It was like a switch was suddenly flipped, and BOOM, de Sade’s kinks emerged fully formed. Others will say, “no this was a much more gradual thing. There were lots and lots of facets and factors that molded de Sade’s unorthodox tastes”
Although I will let Sade himself have the final word on the origins of his own sexuality:
“The first objects presented, the first utterances heard, achieve complete construction of the mechanism. The tastes form, and from then on nothing in the world can destroy them.”
A quick note about tastes here, by the way. As a rule, I don’t kink-shame on this show. People are into whatever they’re into. Zero judgement. And rest assured, Sade is not infamous because he liked to give and receive a little spanking now and again. That was literally child’s play. His fantasies and ideas would become much darker and much bloodier as the years went on. But we’ll get to that eventually.
The truth is we don’t know what happened to de Sade at the Jesuits College, if anything. We don’t even know for sure if he was beaten. But in his later writings as an adult, he is suspiciously quiet about his time at that educational institution. So either something happened, or nothing did.
Sade spends about 3-4 years at the boarding college, and when he’s 14 years old, his Father, the Count of Sade, pulls him out of school. And he says “Look here son, back in my day, when I was your age, I was already serving my King and country in the army. So, surprise, you’re gonna do the same thing.”
And just like that, 14-year-old De Sade is granted a commission in an elite cavalry regiment and becomes an officer in the French military. It sounds a little sensational, but the aristocracy of the 18th century did this all the time. The military was essentially finishing school for most teenage boys. You get out there, see the world, maybe a dashing scar or two. The vibe was very similar to like, an old school fraternity. Animal House with cannons and uniforms.
To Sade this was great news. This teenager, barely more than a tween really, must’ve been absolutely psyched. No more exams, or lectures, or classrooms. He’d get a dazzling, handsome uniform. And a beautiful horse. And a sword and a pistol. Ladies love a man in uniform, after all. To de Sade, this was super cool. Every teenage boy’s dream.
Well, it was destined to be much more than just pageantry and parades, because in the same year, France decided to throw bows with some other formidable European powers: Great Britain & Prussia. Before he’d even broken his new cavalry boots, Donatien de Sade realized he was going to war. The Seven Year’s War.
And Sade really comes out of his shell in the army.
For whatever reason, it suited him perfectly. And it’s at this point in his life, when he’s slowly becoming an adult, that we see a remarkable transformation. The quiet, sulking bookworm goes into the military cocoon and becomes a swaggering, charming rake. At 18 years old, he was, according to most sources, head-turningly handsome. Curly blond hair, pale blue eyes. The ladies loved him.
Sade the womanizer was born.
This is when we start to get actual letters written by the man himself. And we get a sense of his personality in his own words. Its very fitting that most of it involves sex. As he wrote while stationed in Germany:
“I was told that to learn a language well it was necessary to sleep regularly with a woman of the country. Convinced of this maxim, I equipped myself with a nice fat baroness three or four times my age, who educated me very nicely. After six months, I spoke German like Cicero. “
Sade’s reputation as a charmer and a womanizer continued to grow. His commanding officer wrote to Sade’s father:
“Your dear son is doing marvelously! He is friendly, easygoing, and amusing. We’re taking care of him. His little heart, or rather his body, is furiously combustible. German girls, look out.”
But it wasn’t all Prussian cougars and chasing tail for Captain Donatien. This was a war after all. And in that De Sade excelled as well. His temper and anger, what he would’ve euphemistically called “passion”, could be weaponized into something very useful on the battlefield. When push came to shove, De Sade was not just some pampered aristocrat who would hide in a command tent. He exhibited genuine courage.
As he remembered: “War began, and dare I boast, I fought well”
His superior officer agreed, noting that de Sade was: “Quite deranged, but very brave.”
Despite his valor, his good looks, and his talents with women…de Sade still felt very lonely in the Army. He didn’t really have anyone he considered a true friend. He also started to realize that he didn’t like people very much at all .As he wrote in a letter to his father:
“I have few friends, perhaps none, because I know no one who is truly sincere and would not sacrifice you twenty times over for the slightest advantage. Whom can we trust, anyhow. Friends are like women: When put to the test, the goods often prove defective.
Yes, even at a young age, Sade was a budding misanthrope and misogynist.
When he was 22-years-old, the Seven Years War ended. Brave soldiers like De Sade had done their best, but France had ultimately lost. It had been absolutely humiliated by Great Britain and Prussia. The consequences of losing this international scuffle were disastrous for the reputation of the French monarchy. France lost all of its North American colonies, and saw its global power significantly diminished. The seeds of discontent that would eventually explode into the violence of the French Revolution had been planted.
But the 22-year-old Marquis de Sade couldn’t have been more oblivious to the growing tenor of unrest in his country. He didn’t know it, but an expiration date had been stamped on his opulent, privileged existence. And maybe even his life.
But for now, he was in his prime. It was time to lick the wounds of defeat (and maybe lick a little something else) as only an aristocrat’s son knows how. It was time to party.
As Sade’s father wearily complained:
“He’s as wild as the wind, and avid only for pleasure”
De Sade loved the big city. And there was no bigger city than Paris. France’s famous metropolis quickly became Sade’s favorite hunting ground. This is how one aristocrat described it:
“Frivolity still reigns. Appearances still rule. Pleasure is still what people seek and boredom is still what they find. Luxury is what they display and misery is what they feel. People are looking to forget their misfortunes, yet still it is better to be miserable in Paris, than happy in the provinces. And they are right who say that Paris will not make you happy but will prevent you from being happy anywhere else.”
In short, there wasn’t anything quite like it. Well, the young Marquis found more than his fair share of pleasures and distractions in the city of lights.
Donatien de Sade goes full playboy. Picture the “Wolf of Wall Street” and you might have a conservative idea of his shenanigans. All of this exasperated his father, who grumbled:
“My son never misses a ball or a play. It is infuriating.”
Sade was spending extravagant amounts of money. Chasing pretty young actresses during the day, and creeping into seedy brothels at night. He was a dashing 22 year-old with a metric ton of privilege, seemingly immune to consequences, and flush with a ravenous appetite for everything life had to offer.
But while Sade was living it up in Paris, his father, the Count of Sade, was making other plans. For years, the elder Sade had been guarding a dirty little family secret: They… were broke. Or at the very least, not nearly as rich or prosperous as they had once been.
How did that happen? Well, navigating the French aristocracy, climbing the ladder, gaining favors from the King, incurred some serious hefty price tags. This was a world that was all about appearances, and excess. To be taken seriously, you had to have the best clothes, the best food, the best houses. And that sucked the Sade family fortune bone dry.
But the father had a solution. And the solution lay in the son. If the young Marquis could be married off to a up-and-coming, wealthy bourgeois family, the Sades could get back in the black. Back in the money. After a long search that took almost two years, Sade’s father finds a suitable match for his son.
Her name was Renee.
Renee Montreuil was the eldest daughter of prominent Parisian judge, and her family was “new money”. A stark contrast to the generational privilege of the Sades, the Montreuil’s had built their fortune recently through commerce and politics.
*spell Montreuil, kinda looks like Montreal”
Well, the old money and the new money would prove to be unlikely allies.
The Sade family name was good as gold, even if their bank account was coughing up dust. After all, they were old blood aristocracy. And that still meant something. The Montreuils, on the other hand were flush with cash, but didn’t have that respected generational legacy that went back centuries.
So on paper, this was a win-win.
If Renee, the young bride-to-be, had any reservations about this, she didn’t have much of a choice. None of the young French women in her position did. Arranged marriages happened all the time. As historian Maurice Lever writes:
“Girls were handed over to strangers and told to behave like ladies, but really they were pawns in a game of ambition and profit, tokens in a traffic of influence, a quest for preferment and wealth.”
Renee had never met the young man she was about to marry. And she must’ve been incredibly nervous. Renee was somewhat of a black sheep in her family. Maurice Lever describes her this way in his biography of Sade:
“She had a soldier’s demeanor, and no attempt at elegance. She wore old clothes, old shoes, and put on heavy gloves to split wood. Yet her judgement of others was sound and her writing lively, colorful, and often picturesque.”
In other words, Renee was a bit of a tomboy. A sensitive, honest soul with very few pretensions.
And she was not particularly thrilled to be marrying this young Marquis with a rakish reputation. She didn’t think highly of old-money aristocrats at all, once describing them as: “A bunch of riffraff. The most successful of whom are the most fraudulent.”
But it wasn’t up to her, and in the end the tomboy married the playboy on May 17th, 17 63. On that day, Renee met her new husband for the very first time. A vivacious, handsome young man with blonde hair and pale blue eyes. At the time, she probably thought she’d hit the jackpot.
Well, she had not.
The Montreuils, in their desire for a higher social standing, had just swallowed a poison pill. The Marquis de Sade’s father had swindled them. This charming son-in-law that the Montreuils had acquired would cost them dearly over the course of their lives. Not only money and trouble, but heartache and pain.
Sade’s father gloated in a letter:
“These are good people with whom my son will be quite happy. As for me, what makes up my mind is that I’ll be rid of the boy, who has got not one good quality and all the bad ones.” […] I pity them for making such a bad buy, someone capable of all sorts of foolishness. […] I have done things to get rid of him that I never would have done had I loved him tenderly. I do not think I can pay too much for the pleasure of never hearing about him again.” [..] I cannot help feeling pity for them on the acquisition they have just made.
----- ------- --MUSIC BREAK---- ------ ----
On Easter Sunday, 1768, about five years after the Marquis and Renee were married, a young woman bursts into a Paris police station. One look at her and everyone can see, she’s terrified. He eyes are wide, she’s jumpy. He clothes are disheveled, her hair’s a mess. She also appears to be bleeding from her lower back.
This woman’s name was Rose Keller. She was a 36-year-old German immigrant. She didn’t speak French very well, but the police officer could tell she was clearly rattled. She’d been accompanied to the police station by several local women who’d found her running frantically along the side of the road.
Once the woman stopped shaking, and managed to calm down a bit. She told the room of people what had happened to her over the course of that day.
Rose Keller was, essentially, a homeless woman. And that Easter Sunday, she’d been begging, asking for charity outside a church at the Parisian Place de Victoire. At around nine in the morning, she heard someone call out to her. She looked across the street and saw a young, well-dressed gentleman leaning against a statue of Louis 14th. He was wearing a long gray coat and wore a hunting knife on his belt. He had pale blue eyes.
The gentleman says something like, “Hey there, you look like you could use a little extra money. How about we go back to my place?”
Rose Keller wasn’t much of a French speaker, but she knew what that meant. She says, “Look, I’m not that kind of girl.”
The gentleman smiles and says “No no no you misunderstand me. God, how embarrassing? All I meant was that I’m in need of a housekeeper. And if you come back to my house and tidy it up for me, I’ll pay you very well.
Rose Keller’s inner alarm bells might have been ringing, but she looks at this guy with the nice clothes, the fancy knife, the handsome face, and she sees dollar signs. I mean, girl’s gotta eat. And for a little afternoon cleaning, totally worth it. So she says “OK, I’ll clean your house.”
“Wonderful!” says the gentleman. He claps his hands, a carriage rolls up and the two hop inside. The carriage rumbles over the Paris cobblestones, out of the city, and onto the dirt paths of the countryside. Eventually they arrive at a little cottage. The gentleman takes her hand and leads her inside.
He lights a candle and says “Follow me, my love” and takes her downstairs into a small dimly lit room. The candlelight flickers across the walls and Rose Keller starts to see what’s hanging on them. Whips. Switches. Flagellation instruments of multiple sizes and shapes.
Then the gentleman says: “Undress”
Rose Keller replies: “What for?”
“For fun”, he says.
Rose Keller, despite her fear, says defiantly “I would rather die.”
Something dangerous flashed in the gentleman’s pale blue eyes and he responded, If you don’t undress, I’ll kill you and bury you in the garden. Now what’s it gonna be?’
Many hours later, at the police station, a doctor examined Rose Keller’s lower back. She had been whipped several times with a cat-of-nine-tails or a birch rod. She also claimed that the gentleman had make little cuts on her backside with a knife and poured hot red wax into the wounds, although the doctor couldn’t find any evidence of that. The doctor asked, had he done anything else to you?, had she been raped?
“No”, she said with a confused shrug. To paraphrase her testimony: It was the theatrical descent into the downstairs room, the reveal of the whips, the undressing… Then he pushed me down on the bed, tied me up and whipped me. I couldn’t see what was happening behind me, but then I head him he let out a moan and…he was done. The gentleman wiped the sweat off of his brow, disappeared into another room and came back with snacks and wine like nothing ever happened. He rubbed an ointment on the welts on my back. Then he said he’d be back later that night, and he left.
Well, Rose Keller was freaked the hell out. And she didn’t know if these games were going to escalate. If she didn’t leave right then, she very well might end up buried out back in the garden. During the whipping, she’d told him she didn’t want to die before having confessed on Easter Sunday. He’d replied: “You can confess to me”.
Well, while the gentleman was gone, Rose Keller finds an unlocked window upstairs, ties sheets together, and climbs out the window. A few hours later, she’s sitting in front of the policemen, telling her story.
Her description of the gentleman matched reports they had on a notorious libertine and lothario in the area. The Paris authorities were well acquainted with this man. This was obviously the work of the Marquis de Sade.
At the Sade’s home in Paris, a representative of the court arrives to inform them of the charges being brought against the Marquis. His wife, Renee, listens to all of this with shock, and to her even greater shock, the Marquis admits that yes, he was the man they were looking for. Although he told the story much differently.
The Marquis claimed that he had solicited a prostitute named Rose Keller, who agreed to accompany him to an isolated cottage for the purpose of sex. They had agreed on a price, and she came along willingly. The whips and rods had freaked her out a little bit, but she made no cries of protest. Other than the whipping - which she had agreed to - he hadn’t hurt her.
The Marquis also scoffed at the charge that he had cut her with a knife. That was absolutely a lie, he said. Maybe the strikes from the whip had been painful enough to be perceived as knife cuts, but no. He didn’t do that. And of course she denied that she was a prostitute! Prostitution was illegal, she would never admit to that! Still, his version couldn’t account for the fact the woman had literally climbed out a window to get away from him.
The Marquis’ wife, Renee, listened to all of this information. She heard every fact and absorbed every detail. Before long, she realized what she had to do. She sends a message to her mother. It says “Please - help us make this go away”.
In the five years since they’d been married, Renee had grown to love her libertine husband dearly. She knew his sexual tastes were unorthodox, even dangerous, but she loved him anyway. And Sade loved her for loving him in spite of it all. He’d never felt truly understood by anyone, but Renee seemed to know what made him tick. She’d never tried to tie him down in a monogamous relationship, and she never judged him.
But now the couple found themselves in serious legal trouble, under threat of ruinous scandal.
However, if they could grease the right palms, this could go away. And for that they needed a fixer. Luckily, there was a very good one in the family.
Madame De Montreuil, Renee’s mother and Sade’s mother-in-law, was a formidable figure. She was the real power in the family, both intellectually and financially. Her social connections were vast spiderwebs of influence, and she could pull at any number of threads to puppeteer situations to her advantage. A family friend described the Madame de Montreuil as:
“A charming woman, with a pleasant figure, a seductive laugh, and a mischievous wit. Shrewd as a fox, yet eminently attractive, and likeable.”
Renee had a more frank assessment of her mom, saying: “My mother is a lioness”.
Madame de Montreuil loved her daughter Renee deeply. Even though they couldn’t have been more different. The daughter was a gentle, earnest tomboy. The mother, a fierce and cunning socialite. And now Mama Bear saw her daughter’s happiness threatened. Initially, Madame de Montreuil had liked the Marquis de Sade. He was fun. He was good-looking. He came from an important family, and had a wit and intelligence that could keep pace with her own. But regardless of whether she personally liked him or not, the family did not need this kind of embarrassment or scandal. So Madame de Montreuil whips out her checkbook.
Rose Keller, the accuser, is offered an obscene sum of money to withdraw the charges and stay silent on the Marquis de Sade’s sexual predilections. The frightened German immigrant agreed. She took the money and ran. In the end, the Marquis was shielded from any serious legal consequences.
Now it’s important to note that whippings and beatings were no avant-garde sexual practices in pre-Revolutionary France. S&M was downright mundane, long before Sade’s name ever became associated with it. As one police inspector noted:
“There is not brothel today in which one does not find canes and whips in large numbers. I have found many men who come looking for a good thrashing.
The whipping wasn’t the issue. It was the kidnapping, the cutting, the threat of death, and the sensational nature of it all taking place on Easter Sunday – ya know, the “confess to me” stuff, that made it heinous in the eyes of the authorities and the public press. As one newspaper said:
His behavior in this crime clearly proves that he is crazy […]. His is a sick mind more insane than it is wicked. […] It is believed that his mind is unhinged.”
As Francine Gray writes in her book, At Home With The Marquis De Sade: “It turned him overnight into a media celebrity”
And what did Sade himself think of all this ruckus? He thought it was ridiculous, overblown nonsense. He complained: “I am a libertine, but I am no criminal and no murderer”. People did this kind of kinky stuff all the time, why was *he* the target in a society as debauched as Ancien France?
Furthermore, as a member of the aristocracy, he considered himself above the law. Why should anyone care if he drew a little blood on some homeless hooker? In fact, that power dynamic was a big source of his excitement:
“Beauty, virtue, innocence, poverty, none of these can serve as protection to the object we covet. On the contrary; poverty gives us our victim and makes it pliant.”
On the issue of complete and unrestricted sexual freedom, he was utterly defiant, saying:
“I respect all tastes and fantasies, however bizarre they may appear.”
“It is only by enlarging the scope of one’s tastes and one’s fantasies, by sacrificing everything to pleasure, that the unfortunate individual called man, thrown despite himself into this sad world, can succeed in gathering a few roses from among life’s thorns.”
His mother-in-law Madame de Montreuil did not share his dismissive, free-wheeling attitude or his philosophical musings. Frankly, she was tired of his bullshit. She wrote:
“Such hidden infidelities are an offense to his wife…and to me. But this public misbehavior will do him irreparable harm if it becomes known. When I am working so hard to use my friends for his advancement and benefit, when he is indebted to his wife and to us for hushing up an affair that might have ruined him forever and earned him years in a dungeon, these are the tokens of gratitude we receive?
We are not always masters of our hearts, but we can always be masters of our behavior, and it is on the basis of our behavior that we are judged. He is taking too much advantage my patience..”
The Rose Keller Affair, as it came to be known, was the first of three key scandals that essentially ruined de Sade’s life. This was Strike 1. Now you’d think that after a close scrape with the law, the Marquis would wise up and lay low. But the truth was, this guy was a compulsive pleasure-seeker. A dyed-in-the-wool sex addict, completely oblivious to from the harsh reality of cause and effect. And it led him down a very dangerous road. At the end of the day, he couldn’t help but get himself into trouble.
As Maurice Lever wrote:
“Drama was as necessary to Donatien de Sade as the air the breathed.”
Strike 2 happened several years later. In 1772.
The Marquis De Sade was traveling, as he often liked to do. And one hot summer weekend he found himself in Marseille, which is a gorgeous port city in the south of France. It was a Saturday, and the Marquis decided he was wanted to have a little fun. So he asks his servant, a man named Latour, to go round up some young prostitutes for an orgy.
Before we go any further it’s important to note that orgies were not uncommon in French social circles in the 18th century. Like, at all. The deep tradition of true love and monogamy that defines our own society, just wasn’t there. People did this all the time. And they did without getting themselves into trouble with the law.
But Sade had a talent for cranking things to eleven, and ripping off the knob.
His valet procures 4 prostitutes, all around the age of 20, for this orgy. Before things get started he passes a little box around with candies inside. Nothing wrong with that, right? A little candy? Well the sweets were laced with Spanish Fly. If you don’t know what Spanish Fly is, essentially, a natural aphrodisiac derived from a beetle – a bug. It basically inflames the blood vessels in certain areas of the body, and uh yeah, you’re ready to go. It’s kind of like primitive Viagra, but for both men and women.
Well, Sade gives these prostitutes way too high of a dose. Which would be a problem later. But for now, the orgy’s on. As you might expect, Sade brings out the whips and the chains and flails. He asks one of them to hit him with a whip that has sharp nails tied on the end. This was clearly some advanced level stuff, and the prostitute can only hit about three times before she’s loses her nerve. She’s drawing blood, and it freaks her out. Sade, says okay, wuss, go get that broom handle over there and hit me with that.
Investigators later found hundreds of marks carved into the bedpost. Apparently Sade had been carving them into the wood with a knife, recording every single strike he recieved. The final tally was 758.
But there was another feature to the orgy that caused some serious legal consternation. Despite the liberated sexual attitudes of the French, there was still one act that carried some serious legal consequences: Sodomy. At the time, it carried the death penalty. They burned people alive for this. Not frequently, but it did happen.
Well, this legal statute was a huge inconvenience for Sade. Because sodomy was literally his favorite sex act. Both with women and with men, giving and receiving. Sade was bisexual, and anyone who expressed a pearl-clutching attitude about that earned nothing but an eyeroll from the libertine Marquis. Here’s what he had to say about his bisexuality:
“Like a resident of Sodom, I play the woman with a man: that is what puts you in a rage. But why get angry, Ladies? You alone make me happy. With a woman, I am all man.”
This orgy was clearly one for the books. It had everything, Like a full bingo card of scandalous sex acts. It’s got the whipping, the blood, the sodomy, and pivotally, the aphrodisiacs.
Well, as I mentioned before, Sade had made a mistake – he’d given the girls way too high a dose. And they start getting sick. The next day, after Sade and his valet Latour are long gone, the girls start feeling terrible. Sweats, fever, chills. They can’t even get out of bed, then they start throwing up black bile. For weeks, some of them hovered dangerously close to death, but to everyone’s relief, they recover.
This accidental poisoning, was interpreted as an intentional poisoning, and it results in a massive investigation and months of gossip.
The “Poisoned Sweets” affair, as it came to be known was really, really bad for Sade. In many ways it was the turning point for his entire life. Because as I mentioned, Sodomy carried the death penalty, as did poisoning. And this time there was no amount of strings his mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, could pull.
In fact, she soon began working to have him imprisoned. This was a bridge too far. She wrote to the courts:
“His family is greatly concerned that he should be securely detained, his mind being much deranged, and there is good reason to fear that he may perpetrate some new madness.”
Sade soon found himself a wanted, hunted man. He was also deeply unnerved and angry at his Mother-in-laws desire to have him imprisoned, saying:
“Madame de Montreuil’s mania is most extraordinary. She will perpetuate the dishonor of this unfortunate affair, and make me personally live the saddest, most miserable life.”
The Parisian authorities couldn’t find Sade anywhere. He’d gone underground. So they held a symbolic public execution in which they created a straw dummy of Sade, which they beheaded and burned. From that moment on, Sade was considered legally dead. And dead men had no civil rights. If they ever caught him, he’d disappear into a hole forever.
But his wife, the loyal steadfast Renee, sticks by her man through all of this. She tries to bribe the prostitutes to recant the details of their story, but it doesn’t do any good. Cat’s out of the bag at this point. So Renee hides her husband as best as she can, avoiding police raids and searches of their estate in southern France. Her mother, the powerful Madame de Montreuil could not understand her daughter’s devotion to this notorious deviant. She wrote in a letter:
“I cannot yet unravel what she is thinking, Does she act out of an invincible infatuation? An excessive sense of duty? Or the fear that she one day may be punished by him?”
“No matter what happens, she never utters a single complaint. She would allow herself to be chopped up into pieces before she would agree to anything she believed might hurt him.
If they stay together, he will drag her down into the abyss with him.”
The Poisoned Sweets affair was strike two.
Strike three comes a couple years later, in 1774. After all the gossip, the heat, the legal trouble, Sade’s decision to do what he does can only be interpreted as overtly self-destructive. As Francine du Plessix Gray writes:
“This is the point at which Donatien de Sade’s quest for pleasure crosses the line between obsession and some of kind of dementia. Broke, hunted by police, an outlaw – he now chooses to hold his most extravagant, outrageous bacchanal to date.”
The Marquis de Sade had a chateau in the South of France. A castle essentially. And in the winter of 1774, The Marquis and his wife Renee disappear into this fortress, away from the prying eyes and wagging tongues of French high society.
But before they begin what would be a months-long period of isolation, Sade hires six servants to stay with them over the winter. All of these servants are 15-year-old girls whom Sade personally chose for their physical beauty. They entered the Chateau with promises that they would be paid lavishly.
For six weeks, no one was allowed in or out of this fortress. And every day after 3pm all the doors and gates were locked tight, and the lights inside the house went dark. People in the local area could only guess what kind of depraved nocturnal activities were happening in the lair of the infamous Marquis.
Eventually people start asking questions. Madame de Montreuil had her suspicions as well, saying:
“In his chateau with her (meaning Renee), he is invulnerable and totally secure and permits himself whatever his heart desires.”
The parents of these adolescent servants soon realize this is more than just a seasonal gig. They hadn’t heard a peep out of their daughters for months. So they start petitioning the local government to intervene.
Eventually, the six teenage girls emerge from the Chateau de Sade. Several have visible marks, wounds, and scars. One is pregnant. All souvenirs from the violent sex games of the Marquis. For three months the Marquis de Sade had been the stage manager of a cast that he himself had assembled. He’d used his isolated chateau as a personal playground to indulge his fantasies and satisfy his appetites.
The truth is, no one knows exactly what happened inside. The girls wouldn’t talk specifics, and insisted that they’d been treated, more or less, fine. But everyone else could draw conclusions. And that was enough to finally push the Marquis past the point of no return.
At first glance, this last scandal sounds very sinister. But compared to the other two scandals, there’s not a lot written about what actually happened in the chateau. The girls just wouldn’t talk.
The previous two scandals, Rose Keller and the Poisoned Sweets, are exhaustively documented by historians. Writers can – and do – break down literally every detail of these orgies and encounters, moment to moment. Every bump, grind, whip, and moan. Which, I have spared you from. You’re welcome. This is a history show not Penthouse forum. But this third scandal, is barely documented at all. The fallout is, but what actually happened inside the rooms of the Chateau is not explicitly mentioned in any primary source, letter, or court document. We’ll probably never know what actually happened.
But the fallout was intense.
One girl’s father actually tries to kill Sade. Which, honestly, understandable. One morning, he marches into the chateau and aims a pistol two inches in front of the Marquis’ chest. Then he pulls the trigger. Big noise, thick belch of smoke….but nothing happens. The bullet was a misfire.
This deeply rattles the Marquis. For so many years, he’d pushed and pushed and pushed the envelope. He’d even come to enjoy the attention and his own dark reputation. He said to his lawyer:
“I pass for a werewolf in these parts. Poor little chicks with their words of terror.”
Not that his bad reputation wasn’t extremely inconvenient. He complained to his lawyer:
“If anyone so much as whips a cat in this province, they all say “It’s Monsieur De Sade who did it”.
But after the scandal of The Little Girls, as it came to be called, he realizes he’s at the end of his rope. So he goes on the run. He disappears to Italy for several months, he pops up randomly here and there across Southern France.
But then, The Marquis gets some very bad news. His mother, his estranged distant mother, was dying. All his life, the Marquis de Sade had wanted nothing more than the smallest token of affection from his birth mother. He never really got to know her, and she rarely visited him. But now she was about to be gone. He thought, maybe, we can square things. Maybe we can make this right. So he decides to take the risk. And he travels to the city of Paris.
A few weeks later, he's in an apartment in Paris, and he hears a knock on the door. It’s the police. His mom was not dying at all. She was already dead. In fact, she’d been dead for three weeks. The delayed news had been part of an elaborate trap to flush him out, set by none other than Madame de Montreuil. His mother-in-law.
In 1774, at the age of 34, (The Marquis de Sade disappears into a towering French prison called Vincennes. He would spend roughly the next 13 years of his life behind bars, or as the contemporary euphemism went: “admonished behind the bar.”
And what came out of that prison would chill bones and arouse passions for centuries to come.
These days, when someone goes into a modern prison system, they usually have at least an inkling of the amount of time they’re gonna be there. A judge will say, “for the crime of X, you are sentenced to the punishment of Y.” You may not be happy about it, but you have a pretty firm idea of how long you’ll be cut off from society.
We take that certainty for granted, but the psychological benefit of that certainty is huge. Because it means there’s a light at the end of the tunnel. A defined endpoint for your pain. Something to work towards, something to look forward to. It means “there is life after this”
Well when the Marquis de Sade was marched into his new home, the impregnable citadel of Vincennes prison, he had no clue when he’d be getting out. He had no clue if he’d ever get out. In fact, he hadn’t even been officially convicted of a crime.
In her quest to put her deviant son-in-law behind bars, Madame de Montreuil had secured an important legal document from the king of France. It was called a lettre de cachet - which is just French for “sealed letter”. Well, a lettre de cachet allowed you to imprison someone indefinitely, not for what they had done, but for what they might do in the future. No trial, no jury, no verdict, no legal process whatsoever.
The lettre de cachet was a hugely corrupt aspect of the French justice system that allowed wealthy or influential families to make problematic family members disappear. It was a blank check from the highest authority in the land to completely destroy someone who was inconvenient to you.
And that was exactly what Madame de Montreuil intended for the Marquis de Sade.. She was going to throw away the key and never look back. Maybe then, her daughter Renee would be able to move on, and let go of her husband. Madame de Montreuil wrote in a letter:
“The man has been arrested and locked up in a fortress near Paris. So now I am at peace. And I believe everyone will be happy.”
She tried to rationalize what she’d done in a letter to her daughter Renee, saying:
“He certainly did what he did. If he did it in full possession of his senses and in cold blood, he certainly deserves at the very least to be prevented from doing it again. It is therefore necessary that some years pass to calm his blood. Cool his imagination.
But to Renee, this was an unspeakable betrayal. She said:
“I cannot forgive her for having him arrested.”
Under the legal power of the lettre de cachet, Sade was thrown into the bowels of the prison that would be his home for the next decade. For the rest of his life, as far as he knew. Here’s how one inmate described the experience of entering Vincennes prison:
“The iron doors turn on their enormous hinges, and the vaults echo this unhappy harmony. A narrow, steep, torturous staircase prolongs the march and multiplies the detours; vast rooms are crossed. The trembling lamp, which scarcely pierces this ocean of gloom and allows one to see everywhere, locks, bolts, and bars, increased the horror of such a spectacle and the terror it inspires.”
Sade was imprisoned in a tower, in cell number six. After a while, the guards wouldn’t even mention him by name. He was simply known as Monsieur le Six. Or “Mister Six”. It sounds a little bit like supervillian name, right? Mister Six. The Marquis reflected on his own situation:
“I am in a tower, locked up behind nineteen iron doors, glimpsing the daylight through two little windows, each fitted with a score of iron bars. For about ten or twelve minutes a day, I have the company of a fellow who brings me my food. The rest of the time, I spend alone and in tears…This is my life…This is how they reform a man in this country.”
The Marquis was famous for his explosive temper, and all he could do was write angry, furious letters to the outside world. In one he said:
“It is for my own good, they say! […] So it is for a man’s own good to put him at risk of going crazy. For his own good to have his health ruined. For his own good that he is fed on the tears of his own despair. I confess that I had never been so fortunate to sample such goodness.”
And he knew exactly who had put him there. In a letter to Renee, he wrote:
“You can tell your mother that I wish to never see her or hear from her, and that her infamies will end only in my death. She is a sneaky bitch, and that is all I can say about her.”
Sade’s sudden change of fortune was nothing short of mental whiplash. He was a libertine without liberty. A wild child in a cage. And that pulled at the fabric of Sade’s sanity. He asked his jailers, his wife, his lawyers, over and over and over again, when he would be released. He was obsessed. Even suicidal. He wrote:
“When will I get out? Tell me, tell me, or I will smash my head against the walls that contain me! Tell me. Do not take my soul from me piecemeal, do not shred it piece by piece as you are doing. My despair is exploding. It is violent, my expressions portray it for you, you see it. I am no longer in my right mind. The horror of a fate of which they will not allow me to glimpse any end is too much for me to bear, and I cannot take any more…”
Physical, human contact was everything to Sade. It was the meaning of life, as far as he was concerned. And now, overnight, that was gone. He was all alone with his thoughts. And that can be a dangerous thing:
“Despair has taken hold of me. At times I no longer know who I am. I feel that I am losing my mind. My blood is boiling too much to bear so terrible an embarrassment. I want to turn my rage against myself, and if I am not out of here soon, I am absolutely sure I shall smash my head against the walls.”
In his sorrow and frustration, he even lashed out his loyal wife Renee:
“Once again, tell me the precise day of my release. If you deny me this, I will never see you again. Remember I will certainly never write to you again if you do not perform what I’m asking of you. You are a monster, the spitting image of your execrable bitch of a mother.”
But Renee was ride-or-die. She loved her husband Donatien deeply, and she tried to console him as best she could, writing:
“I know of few, and I mean every few, a rare few hearts and souls like yours. If you do not on occasion lose your poor head and write some rather disagreeable things, you would be perfect. But you will always be perfect for me. I shall never be able to stop adoring you, no matter how many insults you heap upon my head.”
Sade was deprived of many things in prison, but the most traumatic loss for him was sex. The Marquis de Sade was an addict. And anytime you take something away from an addict, they’re gonna go through withdrawals. All of his elaborate sex games and diabolical fantasies were impossible in prison.
Historians have performed extremely in-depth investigations on what made Sade tick sexually. And the consensus on the source of all his kinks and fetishes, was that he had a psychological obstruction to, uh, getting there. He needed extreme stimulants like the whippings, the pain, and the blood, to get off. – normal sex just did not cut it for de Sade.
And he was very aware that he was different, saying:
“What man wouldn’t change his tastes at once if he could and wouldn’t prefer to be like the rest of mankind instead of being peculiar if he had the power? It is the most stupid and barbarous intolerance to prosecute such a person; he is no more to blame . . . . . than a man who is born lame or hump-backed. It is as unjust to make fun of or to punish a man like that as it is to mock or insult a cripple. A man with strange tastes is really an invalid. . . .
But while Sade was clearly willing to play the sympathy card from time to time, at the end of the day he was proud of who he was. Defiant, even. He wrote:
“My way of thinking you say, cannot be approved. What difference does it make to me? The truly crazy person is the one who thinks in a certain way for the sake of others. My way of thinking is the fruit of my reflections, It grows out of my existence. I am not the master who can change it, and if I were, I would not change a thing. The cause of my misfortunes is not the way I think. It is the way others think.”
Sade knew the truth of himself. He knew who we was to the core. As he explained in a letter to his wife:
“Imperious, angry, furious, extreme in all things, with a disturbance in the moral imagination unlike any the world has ever known – there you have me in a nutshell. And one more thing. Kill me or take me as I am, because I will not change.”
Sade liked what he liked. Nothing could change that. But when it came to fulfilling his sexual desires in prison, the Marquis had to make due with what he could. He sent exact dimensions and specifications to Renee asking for specially crafted sex toys that he could pass off as everyday items. Anything to spice up the solitary confinement he had to endure.
It’s actually kind of funny to read the letters about this too. Renee hated doing this for Sade. She had to go to craftsman and commission objects that were obviously dildos. And then if the dimensions weren’t right, he’d complain and make her go get another one. In one letter he said one of the objects was :
“Comfortable, unfortunately too comfortable. The point is that I’m not putting it in my pocket but elsewhere, where it is still far too small.”
And because it’s the Marquis de Sade, of course he catalogued and counted every, uh, session. After ten or more years, the final tally was 6,536 “introductions” as he called them.
But as the years went on, and the world passed him by, the Marquis de Sade’s mind began to fracture and corrode under the stress and isolation of prison. There’s a really interesting period that you can follow in his correspondence, where he becomes convinced that letters from his wife and others contain a secret code.
He thought that each letter contained numerical signals that told the future or offered clues to when he would be released. It was all in his own head, but he believed that he could derive special significance from the exact number of paragraphs, the length of sentences, the dates mentioned. And he added them up and multiplied them trying to find some hidden meaning.
Here's one example of that in a letter to Renee:
I’m constantly finding marks on every 36 lines. I was hopeful that it meant 36 weeks. But…what do they mean? Do they refer to months?
No signal was too much of a stretch. In another letter, he wrote:
“Recently because you wrote a 23, my walk was shortened. 2-3pm was all I was allowed, and that makes 23! How sublime!”
This is obviously the product of a mind under extreme duress. Renee insisted:
“As for signals, I tell you once and for all that I never sent you any.”
The Marquis eventually snaps out of this obsession, and apologized:
“I think I fell victim to some sort of madness.”
He was losing it. And he knew it.
The weeks, the months, and the years in prison pass. And they begin to take a toll not only on his mental state, but his physical health. Sade gains a massive amount of weight. He was barely allowed out of his cell for any amount of exercise and so he put on a lot of pounds. It didn’t help that he was constantly asking Renee to send him indulgent foods like fresh salmon pate, biscuits, cookies, and cake. The Marquis had a huge sweet tooth. As he griped to Renee in one letter:
“I asked for a cake with icing. But I want it to be chocolate, chocolate as black as the devil’s ass is black from smoke.”
The Marquis de Sade could actually be pretty funny when he wanted to be.
But then Sade starts to notice another physical change. His vision gets blurrier and blurrier in his right eye. He finds himself hovering centimeters from the pages of his books, trying to make out the words. The Marquis de Sade was going blind. This was his absolute worst fear. His gift was for language, and his passion was for ideas. Without the ability to consume books, these sanity-saving snippets of entertainment, he would truly go mad.
So he begs the prison doctor for some kind of eye medicine. He tries a few ointments and drops, but nothing works. Instead, the doctor makes a suggestion, he says, ‘look man, reading books for hours and hours at night by the dim light of a single candle is killing your eyesight. Give your eyeballs a break and just try writing instead.”
The Marquis had always enjoyed writing. He’d dabbled in plays and theatre in his younger days, but he’d never really committed himself to the craft of it. But now, at the lowest point in his life, at absolute rock bottom, Sade discovers his true passion. Something more exciting and liberating than all the orgies, parties and high-class hookers in the world.
His writing could offer a way out. As historian Donald Thomas said:
“He began to construct a kingdom of his own within the confines of his prison room. He would be the actor rather than the victim, supreme in his own thoughts and imagination. […] If there could be no escape outwards from the walls of his prison, perhaps there might be an escape inwards. […] There were those who had expected him to go mad, as other men did after years of captivity. But he was not to go mad. On the contrary, he was to shock the minds of his bourgeouis readers with terrifying intellectual clarity. He would employ his sanity against his enemies as though it were a weapon of total war.”
As the Marquis himself said:
“My pen will be my weapon. Patience, Patience. He who laughs best laughs last.”
Writing became a form of vengeful self-therapy for the Marquis. A way to inflict pain and horror and shock on a society that had left him for dead in a stone tower. And it was within those pages that he could bring to life the fantasies and obsessions that the real world could never accept. On paper, he was truly free. Free to indulge the darkest and most depraved corners of his mind. As writer Albert Camus said:
“Intelligence in chains loses in lucidity what it gains in intensity. In prison, dreams have no limits and reality is no curb.”
Oscar Wilde came to a similar conclusion a century later, saying that in captivity:
“The mind is forced to think. It becomes […] the sure prey of morbid passions, obscene fancies, and thoughts that defile, desecrate, and destroy”
This is when Sade’s sexual tastes begin to transform from an eclectic collection of kinks and oddball fetishes into a pitiless moral philosophy. Sadism, as a literary concept, was born in that cell. He wrote about this epiphany:
“I am here alone. I am here at the end of the world, hidden from all eyes and beyond the reach of any creature. There are no more restraints and no more obstructions. There is nothing here but God and conscience.”
A French thinker named Simone de Beauvoir said:
“Sade went into prison a man. He came out a writer.”
The Marquis De Sade is the type of person that, when you peek into the folds of his brain, will scare you. And there’s a temptation to reflexively back away and run for the hills and say – “man what freak. What a lunatic. What a weirdo.” But if you stick around. If you take a deep breath and steel yourself and really give it a hard gaze, this is a guy who has some profound things to say about the human condition.
Sade believed in his bones that there was no purpose in life, except for the pursuit of physical pleasure. Everything else was a waste of time. It’s the old “We’re not here for a long time, we’re here for a good time” philosophy. He also utterly rejected traditional Christian morality. In fact, he despised all religion, because he thought they were mental barriers to the pursuit of the true meaning of life: Pleasure.
He believed that the entire construct of civilization and the codes of morality It upheld were deeply unnatural. Mother Nature has no moral code, he argued. It’s random, and violent, and cruel. Rape, murder, and cruelty are commonplace in the animal kingdom. To stray from that chaotic equilibrium was to reject what we really were: animals.
There’s a phrase you’ll often hear in movies, “if we do that, we’re no better than the animals”. Well Sade believed that we were animals. And all the pain and dissatisfaction in life came from trying to pretend that we weren’t. Why not embrace it, he argued? Why not lean into the truth that we all know deep down. Only by breaking through these artificial barriers, by surrendering fully, to the cruel, selfish, violent pursuit of self-gratification, could we ever be truly happy.
As Donald Thomas wrote in his biography of the Marquis:
“Sade was the bearer of bad news about the human race.”
Now naturally the Marquis could not express these ideas directly. But he did so through his characters, and his books. His fictional protagonists became the mouthpiece for his entire worldview. If it shocked you, and it did shock most people, he could just say: “Oh that’s the character’s point-of-view. It’s just fiction.”
There’s this metaphor that I keep coming back to whenever I think about Sade’s philosophy and his general attitude about sex. Have you ever turned over a log in the woods or something? You turn it over and you see squirming insects and creepy crawlies of all description. Well, Sade did that with human sexuality. He turned over the log, and he liked what he saw.
As he said: “The greatest pleasures are born from conquered repugnances”
In other words, get messy. Get dirty, get over yourself. Instead of jumping back from the metaphorical insects under the metaphorical log, scoop ‘em up, kiss them, love them, relish the sensation that simultaneously horrifies you and excites you.
The Marquis de Sade was about to take all of these views and translate them into a story. A novel, which would become one of the most notorious texts in Western literature. His magnum opus, entitled The 120 Days of Sodom.
And he would write it in an environment even more demoralizing than his current abode at the prison of Vincennes. In the mid 1780s, Sade was informed that he was being transferred.
He was going to the Bastille.
On a summer night in 1785, in his new cell at the Bastille, the Marquis de Sade was working feverishly. He had spent days carefully gluing pieces of paper together, 5-inches wide, until he had created a single blank scroll over 49 feet long. This was the canvas on which he would write his masterpiece.
He'd specifically constructed it this way so that it could be rolled up, and hidden inside the wall of his cell. The words he was about to put down on paper, he did not want anyone finding or confiscating.
At the top of this 49-foot sheet of paper he wrote the following introduction in almost microscopic cursive:
“Friend. Reader. You must prepare your heart and your mind for the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.”
For 37 days straight, for three hours a night, every single night, Sade wrote this impure tale. It told of four powerful men. Four politicians. Who were bored of life. The world held no novelty for them anymore, no excitement.
So they entered into a pact.
Together, they would spend three months in a dark, isolated castle. A fortress in the center of a black forest, completely inaccessible to the outside world.
Into this castle they would take with them a harem of 28 young people, dozens of beautiful men and women. And once inside, no one would leave. No one would be allowed to leave. Together, they would spend the next three months pushing their minds and bodies far beyond the horizons of morality and acceptable sexuality . They would pioneer a dark frontier, that no one if the world but they had the stomach for.
This novel, and that’s a generous word, is essentially a horror story.
I’m not going to get into the detail of what happens in Sade’s fictional setting, but it’s objectively disgusting and extremely upsetting. Think of the worst horror movie you’ve ever seen, the most violent, disturbing, keep-you-up-for days film you’ve ever witnessed. Then multiply it by like 1000.
Sade created an exhaustive, almost tediously descriptive, chronicle of every awful sexual act he could think of. There’s mutilation, torture, cannibalism, rape, infanticide. It goes on and on. Personally, I have not read it. I refuse, frankly. Just skimming a few excerpts and the plot summary on Wikipedia was enough to ruin my day. And trust me, it’ll ruin yours too. Do not read the 120 Days of Sodom.
As French philosopher Georges Bataille wrote: “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish the 120 Days of Sodom without feeling sick.”
Although I know some of you will turn this off and immediately start looking up the details. You’ve been warned, all I’m saying.
It's also interesting to think about the power of that. Think about how often people talk about how desensitized we are in the 21st century. And we are, almost from adolescence we are submerged in depictions of extreme violence. I’m not saying that’s a bad thing, objectively. I love a good first-person shooter. But the fact that nighttime scribbles from a minor French aristocrat still have the power to shock and repulse two-and-a-half centuries later? That’s amazing to me.
Of course, the natural question is….why? Why would someone write something like this. Well, in Sade’s view, this was not an erotic novel. The sex was not meant to titillate or excite. He thought of it as a scientific document. An attempt to codify and categorize every dark perversion and horrific sexual act the human mind could dream up.
And maybe it was kind of self-exorcism?
He had all this stuff whirling around in his brain, accelerated and intensified by the incredible strain of prison. He just had to get it out. Let it flow out of his head and onto the page. Where he could finally stop fantasizing about these extreme acts in an attempt to break the numb-ness of prison. To feel anything at all.
As one historian noted:
“In the secret universe of his skull, he had committed acts of the most monstrous kind, which no eyes but his own would ever witness, even though the crimes were confided to paper. So long as its hiding place remained undiscovered, his deeds would remain as secret as those of his heroes.”
The novel is also an exercise in meta-Sadism. It’s painful to read. It’s gross and stomach-churning, and Sade knows that. He is getting his kicks by inflicting mental distress on us, the readers. He was a man in deep psychological pain, who turned the pain back on his audience.
In the end, The 120 Days of Sodom clocked in at a mind-blowing 250,000 words. But for some reason, after 37 days, Sade stopped working on it. Maybe he got bored, maybe he freaked himself out. But the 49-foot long manuscript would stay hidden in the wall of the Bastille, untouched and unfinished. The Marquis, meanwhile, moved on to other things. Slightly more mainstream fare, at least as he saw it. In the span of a few short years, The Marquis wrote, according to Francine du Plessix Gray:
“Eight novels, volumes of short stories, sixteen historical novellas, two volumes of prose essays, an edition of his diary notes, and twenty plays.”
Most of these were extremely sexual in nature and extremely transgressive. They were characterized by a moral apathy, sexual cruelty, and shocking violence. Nothing as insane as 120 Days of Sodom - that was in a class all it’s own - but Sade clearly had developed a unique voice.
He sent this stuff to his wife Renee, to get her opinion, her critique. And she was like, dude what the hell is this!? But she was a good sport, she knew his writing was important to him, and she gave him fair, honest feedback. One letter said:
“When depicting evil becomes the only goal of the work…such details make the book unreadable to honest people, and that’s a pity, you have charming and virtuous characters, superb maxims and reflections, accurate and just. It’s too bad that you let them shine by powerful effects that only desolate and revolt the reader”.
So as the last decades of the 18th century came to a close, The Marquis wrote and wrote and wrote. But outside his cell window, the world was rapidly changing.
The American colonies had successfully rebelled against Great Britain and founded their own nation. France, almost bankrupted by its efforts to aid that American revolution and undermine their rival, was in economic shambles. And the embers of revolution and violence were beginning to spark. The Marquis could hear the unrest outside his tower window in the Bastille. He could hear the anger in the streets.
One day, a crowd had gathered outside, a protest against the French monarchy. And Sade starts screaming at the top if his lungs from his window: “Help! They’re massacring the prisoners, the guards are slitting our throats, you must come and free us!”
This was, not true. The Marquis was just trying to get back at the guards for all the cruel treatment he’d endured at their hands. Well, Sade gets punished for this little outburst. The warden transfers him out of the Bastille and to a mental hospital where he would make less trouble.
Less than a week later, on July 14th , revolutionaries storm the Bastille. They massacre the warden and carry his head through the streets on a pike. The Marquis de Sade was safely guarded at the asylum, but his books, his manuscripts, his plays and all his writings were still in his cell at the Bastille. They hadn’t been collected yet. Well the mob breaks in and steals or burns everything. All his papers, his writings, years worth of work and mental toil. Gone, overnight. When Sade found out, he was devastated.
“I had been extremely busy in the Bastille; everything was torn up, burned, carried off, pillaged. For the loss of my manuscripts I have shed tears of blood. Beds, tables, chests of drawers can be replaced, but not ideas. I will never be able to describe my despair at this loss.”
Everything he wrote was gone, except for one.
Hidden in the wall, written on a tiny roll of parchment was his manuscript for The 120 Days of Sodom. Two days before the storming of the Bastille, someone found its hiding spot, a man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin. He took it home, and kept it hidden. He never told anyone about it. For three generations, the Saint-Maximin family took care of this historical document.
(I get a very Lord of the Rings vibe from this, by the way.)
The Marquis de Sade thought his masterpiece had been lost forever. Destroyed in the turbulence he himself had agitated. But in the 18th century it was sold to a collector and published in 1904. It was a miracle, but the Marquis’ defining piece of intellectual property survived a Revolution and 119 years.
Meanwhile, back in Sade’s day.
Things happened very fast in the turbulent first years of the French Revolution. I’m not an expert on the subject, and I won’t pretend to be. But things escalate to the point where the King, Louis 16th is essentially held captive by his own people.
Sade’s wife Renee describes the climate of fear in her letters from the period:
“We’re menaced every day with carnage. As compliant as some of the nobility are, they’re still resented. When you go to bed you’re never sure what’s going to happen the next day. In the future, no one will ever believe what happened here.”
It was in this environment of uncertainty and emotional distress that Renee starts looking inward. She starts thinking about her life. She reflects on all the misery her husband had caused her. The stress, the anxiety, the years of loneliness. He’d driven a wedge between her and her family, he’d turned her into a glorified servant, picking him up snacks and books and dildos. And not once had he ever said, “thank you”.
As Francine du Plessix Gray writes in her examination of Renee:
“Like innumerable wives of our own time who have suffered through years of psychic battering, she had been led to a breaking point by an accumulation of griefs – her husband’s repeated threat and insults, the painful acknowledgement of her own blundering dedication. Her infatuation waning, her illusions about her husbands dissolving, she returned to natural gravity.”
Renee had an epiphany. A moment of clarity. She wasn’t in love with her husband anymore. As historian Neil Schaeffer observed:
“Long-suffering Renee, like the French people, was also eager for a change.”
The Marquis de Sade, meanwhile, was still stuck in a mental asylum. But one day, he gets some very good news. The lettre de cachet, the royal legal device that his mother-in-law had used to keep him imprisoned indefinitely was void. The King was powerless, therefore, all his legal decrees were meaningless. So the new Republican government starts releasing all his political prisoners. And the Marquis de Sade was one them. After 13 long years. After a prolonged period of mental anguish and isolation that it’s hard to even fathom, he was free.
He didn’t have a penny to his name. All his aristocratic privileges meant nothing in the brave new world, but at least he had his pen, his freedom, and the love of his life, Renee. When he steps out the mental asylum and breathes the free air for the first time, he knows this is a new beginning. A second chance.
The very first thing he does is to go see his wife, Renee. He rushes down to the house she’s staying at, expecting to be welcomed with open arms. But a servant tells him, she won’t come down. She refuses to see him. His wife, the Marquis is told, is divorcing him.
Sade, of course, blames his mother in law:
“Once again, The Montreuils. Always and everywhere, the Montreuils. They have forced my wife to separate from me. She did not want to do it. There is nothing they did not invent, nothing they did not do, to sway her decision.”
In reality, Renee had just fallen out of love with him. She was in her 40s, suffering from illnesses, and she just wanted a little peace.
Her mother, Madame de Montreuil, wasn’t psyched that Sade was out of prison, but she didn’t consider him a threat anymore. Certainly not to the family’s reputation. That meant nothing in a post-Revolutionary society where the Old World was being dismantled piece by piece. Prison had tamed the wild young Marquis. Now he was poor, old, and powerless. The Marquis de Sade couldn’t cause trouble for anyone anymore.
Madame de Montreuil commented:
“I want him to be happy. But I seriously doubt that he knows how”
Admittedly, the Marquis didn’t have much to be happy about. As he took stock on April 14th, 1790:
“In prison, I have lost my eyes, my lungs, but I have gained, for lack of exercise, a corpulence so enormous that I can scarcely move; all my senses are deadened; I no longer have an appetite for anything. I love nothing; the world that I was insane enough to miss so intensely, now seems boring to me…and sad. There are times I feel driven to become a monk. I have never been so misanthropic as when I came back to live among men. They seem alien to me now. I still sometimes talk to myself when there is no one there at all.”
He was a fifty-year-old, morbidly obese sex addict with no prospects. As he complained:
“I have fallen in the middle of Paris with one Louis in my pocket, without knowing where to sleep, where to eat, or where to get some money. “
Even the thing that brought him the most joy – maybe the only thing that brought him joy, sex, left him cold. He was too old, too sick, too in pain to enjoy it anymore. As Sade said:
“There are coughs, eye aches, stomachaches, headache. There are rheumatisms and I don’t know what else. All this wears me down and does not, thank God, allow me to do anything else.
This very low period after he is released from prison, is the “Country Music” period for Sade. He’s got no truck, no girl, and no job. There are a lot of people who would just give up in the same situation. But not our friend Donatien de Sade.
It was true, the Marquis had nothing. But he did have one thing they could never take away: his mind. Sure, his health had been irrevocably ravaged by prison, but his intellect had been sharpened and clarified. His talents as a writer had never been more potent.
And luckily for Sade, the hottest literary trend in Revolutionary France at the time was erotica, or as the French referred to: “Books that are read with one hand.”
The atmosphere of uncertainty, change, and violence had whipped up an appetite for sex and hedonism like never before. Live for today, because tomorrow you might be dead. In fact, this craze for sexy literature was called: La foutromanie , which literally translates “fuck-o-mania”.
So Sade goes to work. He contacts publishers and begins writing for money. As Sade explained to an acquaintance:
I needed money, my publisher asked for something quite spicy. So I made him a book capable of corrupting the devil himself.”
The result was his famous novel Justine, which we mentioned at the top of the episode. It was, as Maurice Lever, described:
“One of the most powerful and striking creations of French literature.”
At the time it made some serious waves. As one reviewer at the time wrote:
“The title might attract and deceive sensitive and honest souls […] But everything that the most deranged imagination can possibly invent in the way of things indecent, sophistic, and disgusting is collected in this bizarre novel.”
Aside from a blossoming literary career, Sade also gets involved in revolutionary politics.
He renounces his title of Marquis, and changes his name to the much more acceptable “Louis Sade”. A flamboyant showboat like Sade was loathe to give up his fancy title, but this was about survival. The moneyed elite who had sucked the country dry were being killed in the streets, and Sade needed to distance himself from that system as much as possible.
Thankfully, he had a lot of street cred. If anyone questioned his patriotic bona fides, he could say, “look guys, I’ve been a victim of the old regime for the past 13 years. No one dislikes the King and his cronies more than me!” Privately, Sade acknowledged that he was just playing the game to survive:
“I adore the king. But I detest the old abuses. What am I at present? An Aristocrat, or a democrat? You tell me if you please, because I for one have no idea.”
Sade plays the game so well, that he’s made a judge for a particular district in Paris. And it was in this job, that he begins to see the ugly side of the Revolution. Or rather, it starts to turn very ugly right before his eyes.
On January 21st, 1793, the French King Louis 16th, is executed by guillotine in front of a massive crowd. His wife, the famous Marie Antoinette, soon followed him. This marks the beginning of an extremely bloodthirsty phase in French history. Anyone with aristocratic or royalist affiliations is harassed, harangued, and often murdered.
It was a miracle that Sade was able to navigate this system and stay alove considering his reputation and his aristocratic connections. If anyone was ripe for the chopping block, it was Sade. He was the heir to one of the oldest families in France. He’s got a rap sheet longer than the 49-foot murder-sex novel he wrote in the Bastille. If you’re going to guillotine anyone, it’s going to be Sade.
But he plays the game. He keeps a low profile. He uses his writing talents to make money but also to give flourish to political documents and patriotic decrees. But all the killing left an extremely bad taste in his mouth. Despite the murderous acts of his characters, Sade despised the very concept of the death penalty. Which, if you think about it, does jive with his worldview. He was all about extreme personal liberty. And there is no greater infringement on personal liberty than being killed by the state.
Unfortunately, in his position as a judge, Sade had to make decisions that often lead to people’s deaths. So he’s caught in this terrible conundrum of having to keep up appearances as a fervent servant of the Revolution, while sticking true to what he believed. As a judge he is very lenient. Almost suspiciously so. It starts to raise a few eyebrows among his colleagues, who start to wonder if Sade was a little too soft for this brave new world they were trying to create.
One day, Sade gets a case file on his desk. A new family was up for review. It seemed they had been very wealthy before the Revolution, and had some troubling royalist connections. But when he reads the name on the page, his jaw drops:
As in, Madame de Montreuil. As in, the in-laws that had locked him up for almost half his life.
Biographies on Sade tend to focus a lot on the fun stuff. The sex, the violence, the indulgence. And it’s easy to get caught up in that stuff. It’s very easy to blur the lines between Sade’s writing and…. Sade the man. And this decision that he’s about to face, is a defining moment for Sade the man. This tells us the kind of person who he really was.
Sade had every reason to want these people dead. His mother-in-law had been an object of his hatred for decades. A fixation for all his misfortune and anger and sadness. This is a person who he once called:
“an infernal monster, a venomous beast. […]I do not think it possible to find a creature in the world more abominable. Not even hell vomits up anything close.”
And now, her life was in his hands.
What people do with power when they have it, tells you everything you need to know about them. We live in a world, where people with power and influence and money use those advantages as tools to hurt and punish the people they don’t like. It’s not a new phenomenon, it happens in every society on every continent in every era. But the point I’m trying to make is that power is a test of character.
Sade had every reason to condemn his in-laws to the guillotine. Every cell in his body must have been screaming “do it”. Screw her, she kept you locked away like an animal for years. It destroyed your health, wrecked your marriage. You would’ve died in that cell if she’d had her way. Doesn’t she deserve a little payback? Doesn’t she deserve to die for what she did to you?
So Sade writes down his recommendation. He decides to save the Montreuils. To save their lives.
After all you’ve heard today, you could be forgiven for thinking The Marquis de Sade is a piece of shit. You might think he’s a disgusting, misogynistic creep. A deviant who deserved every bit of pain and suffering that he got. That’s all fair.
But he wasn’t a monster.
You may disagree with that. There are many that do. But Sade’s decision to save his in-laws from the guillotine demonstrates a deep sense of humanity and mercy and self-restraint that monsters just don’t have. He hated these people, but he couldn’t bear to be responsible for their deaths. He couldn’t bear to hurt them back.
For someone who loved to dole out pain so much, he couldn’t hurt these people. He couldn’t inflict suffering when it had real, life-or-death consequences.
When I was researching for this episode, I kept coming back to this incident over and over again. I’m not a scholar on Sade by any means, but this strikes me as the moral climax of his entire life. Obviously, not condemning someone to have their head chopped off doesn’t make you a saint, but it is remarkable that he made the choice he made. Considering the time, the atmosphere, and the personal circumstances.
Life is so, so cheap in history. And to find someone who genuinely seems to value it in the most unlikely package, is amazing to me. Anyway.
This decision, to save the Montreuils, had repercussions. People were already beginning to doubt Sade’s commitment to Republican justice. His leniency was a red flag. That combined with some particularly scathing remarks against Christianity, landed Sade on a kill list.
He was arrested, imprisoned (again), and marked for death. Every day, in his cell, he hears the fall of the blade and the thump of the heads outside his window. The stench of blood was so strong, it filled the entire neighborhood where the Guillotine was kept.
Sade knew his time was up.
When Sade’s day finally comes, June 9th, 1794, the prison bailiff walks the corridors of the prison, reading out all the names of the people condemned to die. He reads out about 25 names. But for some reason, he never calls Sade’s name. He was marked as “absent” from the rolls. All 25 of those other peoples have their heads chopped off that afternoon, but Sade was safe in his cell. Overlooked.
How this happened is a little bit of a mystery. Some historians chalk it up to a clerical error. The chaos and ineptitude of a political system that declared people enemies one day and friends the next. Other historians believed that Sade made appeals to some powerful friends or bribed officials to let him off the hook. Everyone has their pet theory, but no one really knows what saved the Marquis de Sade from the “scythe of liberty” as it was called.
On the same day he was set to be executed, the administration that put him on the kill list, led by the fanatical Maximillian Robespierre, was overthrown. The executors were executed, and before long The Marquis de Sade was a free man. He had escaped death by inches, by hours.
As we said earlier, Sade was a glutton for punishment. An irrepressible pusher of the envelope. So what does he do after barely surviving the Reign of Terror? He writes a book even more graphic and scandalous than all his previous ones.
As a police report said in 1801:
“I had been informed that Sade, ex-marquis, notorious for having authored the infamous novel Justine, was imminently planning to publish an even more horrendous work, called Juliette.
Juliette is about a woman who fully embraces Sade’s philosophical viewpoint of pleasure at all costs. She kills, tortures, and rapes for her own amusement. And as she does these things, her life gets better and better. She becomes happier and happier. Sade seems to be making the argument that by doing what you want, whenever you want, to whomever you want, happiness could be yours.
Juliette also has some of the most mind-boggling creative sexual imagery. I want to read you a brief rundown of some of the highlights as summarized by historian Francine du Plessix Gray. Just a warning, this passage gets extremely graphic. If you’re still with me at this point, I’m gonna assume it won’t bother you too much. Just a courtesy warning. Gray writes this about Sade’s novel Juliette:
“Juliette offers the most phantasmagoric, surreal passages of Sade’s ouevre. We witness a scene in which Juliette celebrates Good Friday by holding a mass orgy at a nunnery, where they are serviced by relay races of monks and novices wielding their own prodigious organs and innumerable dildos.
We encounter Minksi, an omnivorous Russian giant who owns a private guillotine, whose ejaculations shoot twenty feet upward, whose mobile dining room furniture – tables, chairs, candelabra – is composed of hundreds of artistically arranged naked girls.
Equally extravagant is the portrait of the sorceress Durand, whose finger-length clitoris can penetrate women as effectively as any male organ and who boasts she can destroy the entire planet in six minutes through her magical skill with poisonous plants.”
This kind of wild, dreamlike imagery was Sade exploring a concept that would not be popularized until almost a century later, under Sigmund Freud. The concept of the unconscious mind. The idea that our minds harbor desires and impulses that we don’t even know about.
Also - in his portrayal of lesbian and bisexual relationships, he was also exploring the concept of sexuality as a spectrum, which wouldn’t gain a mainstream foothold until Alfred Kinsey popularized the idea in the mid 20thcentury. Less than 100 years ago.
The point being Sade was incredibly ahead of his time. But all of this wild stuff got him in trouble again. Napoleon Bonaparte, who by this point had seized control of France and positioned himself as its dictator, was enraged by the content of Justine and Juliette. He demanded that the author of the content be imprisoned, and every copy of the books burned.
Sade was declared insane and confined to a mental asylum, where he would spend the rest of his life. The authorities said he suffered from “libertine derangement”.
Now, at face value, this sounds like a very sad way to end our story. But The Marquis de Sade made the most of his time at the insane asylum. He was free to walk around, and have visitors, but most importantly he was free to write. Despire the fact that he had been committed to the asylum for his writing.
To the Marquis, a writer without a pen was like a junkie without a needle. He wrote books and plays and even had his fellow inmates at the asylum perform in his productions. He seemed to have achieved some semblance of contentment.
As he wrote an old acquaintance a few years before his death:
Perhaps you would presently like a word about me? Well then! I am not happy. But I am well.
Yours for life,
He died at the age of 74, The Marquis de Sade closed his pale blue eyes for the last time and died comfortably, in his bed at the asylum. In the end, he’d spent 32 years of his life in some kimd of captivity.
Sade never really achieved true happiness. But maybe in his creative oasis at the asylum, he had found something resembling contentment. If he had any advice for younger generations, some lesson to be gleaned from his seven decades of life, it was this:
“Your body is yours and yours alone; you are the only person in the world who has a right to take pleasure from it and to permit whoever you will to get pleasure from it. Take advantage of the happiest time of your life; they are but too short those happy years of our pleasures; if we are fortunate enough to have taken advantage of them pleasant memories console and divert us in our old age.
No one could ever have accused the Marquis de Sade of wasting his younger years, but ironically, in his pursuit of pleasure, he spent most of the latter half of his life incarcerated and persecuted.
Shortly after Sade was buried, a scientist dug up his body and stole his skull.
This graverobber was a phrenologist, which is a debunked pseudoscience that looks at the shape of someone’s skull to determine their personality type. This scientist expected to find severe deformations in the skull of this monstrous author, this world-famous pervert who had dreamt up the most insane, depraved fantasies.
The phrenologist was disappointed. He didn’t find any abnormalities. Instead, he found a skull that was:
“in every respect just like that of a father of the church”
In other words, Sade’s skull wasn’t any different than the most innocent priest’s. He wasn’t a monster, just a man. He was just like us. And maybe that’s what scared people all along.
This has been Conflicted. Thanks for listening.
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