Sade but True

Whipping France’s Intellectuals Into A Frenzy

How France managed to turn the violent, boring, sexually bizarre Marquis de Sade into a hero.

It’s not just that he was French, it’s that he could only have been French, and only the French could have made him a hero. His works are now seen as exploration of sexual and political freedom. On the other hand he was a serial rapist, torturer and, the probability is convincing, a murderer. He Was the Marquis de Sade.

His cup of tea was something more than a bit of slap and tickle. His tastes ran towards sexual mutilation among many other twisting directions. On Easter Sunday 1768, de Sade met a young widow called Rose Keller in the street and offered her a position as a maid. Keller went with him to his small house in Arcueil where, according to her, de Sade threatened to kill her before tying her to a bed and whipping her with a birch branch. He then sliced her buttocks open with a hunting knife and poured wax into the wounds. The resourceful woman finally escaped by tying sheets together and climbing out of a bedroom window, running directly to the authorities. De Sade’s defence, which was accepted, was the same one sexual predators give the world over: “She was asking for it”. This is one of the milder episodes of his life.

This was a life almost exclusively devoted to violence masquerading as sex. If he could not actually do it in practice (and to be fair, the French tried to keep him behind bars as much as possible) then de Sade wrote about it in principle, as he did in The 120 Days of Sodom. 

This book lists six hundred perversions in an order of complexity. He begins with something simple, a priest who likes sucking the snot out of a girl's runny nose, and ends with fetishistic mass-slaughter. This book was never completed. He got so excited writing it that halfway through, the prose dwindles into sketch-notes of all the atrocities that came to mind, some of them listed in increasingly shaky handwriting. Was it all just fantasy? 

He was never actually convicted of anything. This is not quite true. In 1777 he was sentenced to death for “sodomy” but this verdict was overturned after his mother-in-law bribed the judge. More serious charges never stuck. When he inherited the Chateau La Coste in the Vaucluse valley from his father, the Marquis hired six young servant women and a boy (for variety). Eventually, four got away, telling a magistrate stories of violent orgies in which the other servants had been strangled or suffocated. When questioned, de Sade said they had simply run off. Because he was a nobleman and they were peasants, the servants were flogged for perjury which must have pleased de Sade more than the authorities could have guessed.

There is no real use in speculating why he was the way he was. His father was a notorious bisexual playboy, his mother became a nun. The uncle to whom he was sent to be educated at the age of five was a priest of an unconventional sort in that he reportedly ran a brothel on the side. So what? Families can be difficult.

He was violently anti-religious; then again so were many French intellectuals of the time though few went as far as de Sade who, according to police testimony given by one child prostitute, reported: “He [de Sade, said that he had] once had sexual union with a girl with whom he had taken Communion, that he had made off with the two Communion wafers, had shoved them into that girl's sexual parts, and that he had sexual congress with her, all the while saying: ‘If you are God, avenge yourself’. He then asked me to take an enema and empty my bowel onto a statuette of Jesus Christ. I declined.”

His atheism is one reason that a later class of French intellectuals led by symbolist poet (and pornographer) Guillaume Apollinaire resurrected his writings in the early 1900s. Another reason was de Sade’s ideas about political and, above all, personal freedom. A brief scan of his social works reveals that he was most ardent for man’s freedom to do whatever his nature inclined, even if that includes a little rape and torture. He was most coherent in his arguments against the imprisonment of law-breakers, not surprising for a sex criminal who spent twenty-seven years in various jails and asylums.

His spells behind bars in no way make him a martyr. Life in a royal prison for a nobleman was not too strenuous. He had his own food sent in and his own clothes. His correspondence to his long-suffering wife consists mostly of demands for money so that he can attend dinner soirees hosted by other prisoners. Not only was he allowed to write what he liked but, on 2 July 1789, he somehow got hold of a megaphone, and spent a happy afternoon shouting "They are cutting the throats of the prisoners in here!" through the window of his cell in the Bastille. This inflamed the brooding Parisian crowd so much that a few days later, a huge mob stormed the fortress, marking the beginning of the French Revolution. 

De Sade would have been sorry to miss the fun. He had been transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton where he was permitted to stage his own plays using the inmates as actors. This was hardly a high-security institution since, boring of the place in 1790, he waddled to the gates (he had grown morbidly obese on a diet of rich prison food), announced “I am the Marquis de Sade” and released himself on his own recognisances. When he was eventually brought back to Charenton, after a brief career as a Revolutionary Tribunal jurist dishing out death sentences galore, he was allowed to bring a 12-year-old mistress with him who, perversely, was not allowed to leave until his death in 1814.


Sadism”: The term for the obtaining of sexual satisfaction through the infliction of pain or humiliation on another person or even an animal; also the morbid pleasure those in certain psychological states experience in being cruel or watching acts of cruelty. The name derives from the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), a vicious pervert and writer of plays and obscene novels, notably Justine (1791), La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1783) and Les Crimes d’amour (1800). Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable, 14th Edition (1991)

My Wife’s Mother, My Nemesis: A mother-in-law is rarely a hero of any story. Despite the best efforts of de Sade’s many fans and biographers, Marie de Montreuil is the exception. When her eldest daughter, Renée-Pélagie, married the Marquis in 1763, she adored the educated aristocrat. For ten years, she devoted formidable energy to hushing up his bizarre scandals (she even got him off a death sentence, the result of an orgy in which de Sade and his gay valet, Latour, accidentally poisoned four prostitutes with a home-made aphrodisiac and then tried to revive them through anal intercourse). But then de Sade crossed her. He involved his wife’s devout, virginal younger sister, Anne-Prospre, in an orgy at his castle, deflowered her and then abandoned her. Marie went to work. She packed off Anne-Prospre to a convent and took out a lettre de cachet (a royal warrant allowing the holder to have individuals jailed without charge so long as their living costs were met) against de Sade in 1777. From jail, de Sade assailed her with a stream of mail, denouncing her as a middle-class hag unfit to lay hands upon a nobleman of his calibre. In 1790, the tables were turned. De Sade became a Revolutionary Tribunal judge, sentencing old school aristocrats to death. The Montreuil family was in danger of the guillotine until Marie reminded de Sade that his jail letters might be of interest to the Jacobin death squads. He released them but, with a single-mindedness that will appeal to all mothers-in-law everywhere, she passed on the letters anyway to Marat, head of the Committee of Public Surveillance. It was not her fault that Marat could not read her handwriting and had the perfectly harmless Marquis de la Salle executed instead. Pausing only to get a divorce for her daughter, Mme. de Montreuil, not being sexy, radical or a sadist, then disappears from history. 

Blue Mover: De Sade found the porn of his time "that one finds on sale in those shoddy stalls by the banks of the Seine" too bland for his taste. So he began writing his own which were sold from the same stalls but bound in blue covers. These “blue books” provide the origin of the term “blue” to describe pornography.

FOR de Sade... 

While ordinary people might think praising de Sade for his social thought is about as credible as praising Hitler for his motorways, this has not stopped France’s many, many intellectuals trying to turn this sexually violent, loudmouth bore into some a kind of saint. 

Guillaume Apollinaire (1880-1918) Symbolist poet, severely brain-damaged in World War 1 and suspected in 1911 of the theft of the Mona Lisa: “de Sade is the most liberated spirit of all time’ and “his teaching will dominate the 20th Century”.

André Breton (1896-1966) “Leader” of Surrealist movement: “De Sade would understand... that the simplest Surrealist act consists in going down into the street, revolver in one’s hands, and firing at random, wilfully, into the crowd.”

Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) Feminist author of many unintelligible works including “Must We Burn de Sade?” (1955): "[de Sade] posed the problem of the Other in its extremist terms; in his excesses, man-as-transcendence and man-as-object achieve a dramatic confrontation". Hnunk?

Georges Bataille (1867-1962) Father of post-modernism. Became so post-modernist, he tried to set up his own religion with his lover as the first human sacrifice. Author of “The Use Value of D.A.F. de Sade” (1930): “Since it is true that erotic pleasure is not only the negation of agony that takes place at the same instant, but also a lubricious pleasure in that agony, it is time to choose between cowards afraid of their own joyful excesses and the conduct of those who judge that any given man need not cower like a hunted animal but instead can see all the moralistic buffoons as so many dogs.”

Jacques Lacan (1901-1981). Deconstructionist, radical psychoanalyst and, until his students revolted en masse at the gibberish of his seminars, university lecturer. Author of “Kant with Sade” seminar 1973: “...As emphasised by the kind of Kantian that Sade was, one can only enjoy a part of the Other’s body, for the simple reason that one has never seen a body completely wrap itself around the Other’s body to the point of surrounding and phagocytising it. All this is admirably clear. Do we not agree?”


"But if there seems little reason for literary people to concern themselves with Sade, he has found a new lease of life among French philosophers and anthropologists. Bored and uneasy with our little lives we resort to the greater amplitude of symbols. Bardot, Byron, Hitler, Hemingway, Monroe, Sade: we do not require our heroes to be subtle, just to be big. Then we can depend on someone to make them subtle." D.J. Enright in “The Marquis and the Madame”, in Conspirators and Poets, 1966


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