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Today, 2 June 2010, is the 270th anniversary of Marquis de Sade birth. The French writer of psychological and philosophical works Donatien Alphonse François, Comte de Sade (1740-1814), was a libertine, debaucher, pornographer, and famous sadist. Recently, new interpretations of his life and writings have begun to appear. It is now generally agreed that despite his reputation, his works, which were ignored for over a century, must be considered as of the first rank. Sade has been termed the “most absolute writer who has ever lived.”

Contrary to diffused opinion he didn’t “invent” sadism – it existed before that – but he did lend his name to the practice of deriving sexual pleasure from inflicting pain.

Very little is known of Sade’s life. Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was born on June 2, 1740, in Paris into an aristocratic family. He was the only surviving child of Jean-Baptiste de Sade and his wife Marie-Eléonore de Maillé, a distant cousin of the Prince de Conde. His family had been ennobled in the 12th century and remained a major power-broker in the southern region of Provence.

He grew up on various country estates, including an ancient castle with a dank, miserable dungeon, which no doubt played a factor in his developing psyche. Aged four, de Sade was sent to Avignon into the care of his uncle, Abbe de Sade, whose sexual life was notoriously irregular. After this period de Sade attended the Jesuit college of Louis Le Grand. Unlike the current Catholic school setup, in which youngsters are subjected to mostly mental abuse and surreptitious molestation, the Jesuits of the day included public whippings as part of the daily routine.

From the age of 14 to 26 de Sade was in active military service, and participated in the Seven Years War. After the war, he returned to Paris a young man full of piss and vinegar, and apparently a whole lot of testosterone too. Writing later in life, he said, “So long as the laws remain such as they are today, employ some discretion: loud opinion forces us to do so; but in privacy and silence let us compensate ourselves for that cruel chastity we are obliged to display in public.”

He married in 1763 Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil, the daughter of a high-ranking bourgeois family, but also began an affair with an actress and invited prostitutes to his house. Marriage didn’t slow de Sade’s debaucheries with the working women of the Paris streets. In 1768 de Sade held a prostitute called Rose Keller captive and abused her. de Sade invited a prostitute over for what at first appeared to be the usual procedure, but quickly diverted from foreplay into something else. According to the woman, de Sade masturbated into a chalice, called God a “motherfucker” and inserted communion hosts into her naughty bits, all the while screaming for God to strike him down if God was so tough. Beaten, terrorized, and obviously inadequately guarded, she escaped to notify the authorities. She claimed that she had been whipped with a cat-o’-nine tails and a knotted cord, slashed with a knife, and finally had molten wax poured into the wounds.

Dontatien was sentenced to the first of what would be many stints in prison. After a few months, he was released to exile outside Paris, the equivalent of house arrest. After a couple of years, the scandal died down a bit, which meant de Sade had to fire it back up. He was again brought up on charges, this time for whipping a woman he had purportedly hired as a household servant and masturbating onto her bloodied ass. de Sade paid the woman to drop the charges, but a public outcry led to another few months in prison, followed by another house arrest.

The chief of the Paris vice squad warned brothels of de Sade – he was considered a mortal threat to prostitutes. In the following years de Sade was found guilty of all kinds of sexual crimes, and he managed to anger Mme. de Montreuil, his mother-in-law by seducting her younger daughter, Anne-Prospre, when she was visiting his medieval fortress at La Coste in Provence. The unabated de Sade had again an orgy, but probably he never killed anyone, except in the war. He enjoyed orgies, blasphemy and subversion in equal measure.

Through travel and luck, de Sade managed to stay out of prison for several years after the whipping incident, satisfying himself with such minor scandals as an affair with his wife’s sister and entertaining his mind by staging productions for his various theater friends (who shared his fondness for orgies and escapades). He expanded his interests into male prostitutes as well, although carefully, since homosexuality was a crime comparable to communion-host-fucking. He also compiled a massive library of pornography, including volume on volume of material dealings with priests, nuns and monks in various states of flagrancy.

At Aix in 1772 de Sade received the penalty of death for an unnatural crime and poisoning, but escaped to Italy with his valet Latour. After arrest he was excluded from Paris and sent to his wife’s family home in Normandy. At La Coste de Sade continued to arrange orgies from 1773 to 1777 – he had hired a harem of young girls as sexual slaves. de Sade and his wife hired six teenage girls as “domestic servants” for the winter, then the Marquis spent the season at their country estate forcing the girls through various acts of humiliation and sexual indignity – what we today call “sadism,” in the Marquis’ honor. According to the criminal charges that inevitably followed, the activities included masturbation, fellatio, sodomy, gay sodomy, scourging and bondage. After about six weeks, the families of the girls grew concerned at not hearing from them, and contacted the authorities.

After continuous scandals and charges de Sade was arrested and sent to round tour of 27 years in prisons, which started in the dungeon of Vincennes on February 13, 1777. To overcome boredom he started to write sexually graphic novels and plays.

After escape de Sade was transferred in 1784 to Bastille in Paris, where he had a large room, sixteen feet in diameter. In the new surroundings the hard-working prisoner wrote “Les 120 journées de sodome”, an underground classic over a hundred years. He was released from insane asylum at Charenton on April 2, 1790. Renée-Pélagie obtained a divorce. Next year, at the age of 51, de Sade published “Justine” (1791).

“Justine”, de Sade’s most famous work, depicts graphically sexual encounters of a poor young girl. de Sade wrote an early version of the novel in the Bastille and completed it in 1791 while free. In de Sade’s philosophy God is evil and the misfortunes suffered by “Justine” are a result from denying this truth. de Sade himself declared “Justine” a work “capable of corrupting the devil” and denied his authorship. According to D.J. Enright, de Sade’s philosophy was very simple: “if you enjoy wickedness, it shows that Nature intended you to be wicked, and it would be wicked not to be.” Some 19th-century writers were inspired by de Sade’s belief that people should act on their instincts.

Somehow de Sade survived through the years of the French Revolution, although many other aristocrats were executed and his name was in 1794 on a list of prisoners to be brought to trial. To secure his freedom and property he wrote an eulogy of Marat, and got elected secretary of his district in Paris. In 1801 he was again arrested and sent to Charenton, where he began to work a 10-volume novel, “Crimes of Passion”. During this period he also wrote and staged plays in the asylum, although Minister of the Interior issued the order, that the “greatest care [must] be taken to prevent any use by him [Sade] of pencils, pens, ink, or paper.” His last days de Sade spent under the control of an ex-abbé.

In 1814, at the age of 74, the Marquis de Sade died in his sleep. No doubt his last wish involved someone having sex with his corpse, but if this was done, there is no record of it. After his death on December 2, 1814, his elder son burned his last and other manuscripts. de Sade’s grave was later desecrated when his skull was taken for pseudo-scientific measurements.

He produced such works as “Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man”, “The 120 Days of Sodom”, “The Misfortunes of Virtue”, “Aline and Valcour”, as well as over 35 plays and numerous short stories. His masterwork, the “The 120 Days of Sodom”, was found hidden in his cell in 1904 and published.

Modern critics have rightly pointed out that de Sade foreshadowed the age of psychoanalysis, identifying the power and the nature of the sexual obsessions that would later be more clinically obsessed over by Sigmund Freud. The fact that he was also thoroughly in the thrall of those obsessions doesn’t detract from the insight. The philosophy of the Marquis de Sade was that Man was governed by his Nature. There was little he could do about it therefore he should simply enjoy life to the full, whatever his intrinsic nature dictates, to do otherwise is to deny ones self. Man can only exhibit and enjoy to the full his true nature when he is freed from all moral and social restraints. Quite rightly Sade dismissed morality as fashion, that it was Man’s artificial laws that dictated what was right and wrong.



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