Taming the Savage Noble

The outrageous life of the Marquis de Sade, told by an author who is susceptible to his "terrible charm"

A Life

THE first time the Marquis de Sade went to prison, in 1763, it was under a royal lettre de cachet signed by Louis XV, on charges of "blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege." Thirty years later, after the Revolution, the aristocrat nearly went to the guillotine for having "corresponded with enemies of the republic." Finally, Napoleon's government put him in a mental hospital under a diagnosis of "libertine dementia," based primarily on his writings: unblinking descriptions -- celebrations, really -- of cannibalism, coprophagy, necrophilia, the rape and murder of children, and countless other perversions. In all, he spent twenty-eight of his seventy-four years in confinement.
Every generation has had to decide what to do with Donatien Alphonse de Sade, and since his death, in 1814, his reputation has undergone a series of dramatic turns. For the historian Jules Michelet, writing around 1850, the marquis epitomized the decadence of the ancien régime; yet a few years earlier the critic C. A. Sainte-Beuve had named him and Lord Byron as the two great inspirations of contemporary French literature. Flaubert, Baudelaire, and Swinburne were among the nineteenth-century writers who admired De Sade's work while it was still off limits to most readers.

In 1886 Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced "sadism" as a pathological term, and De Sade -- both the man and his writings -- became a subject for psychiatrists. The avant-garde poet Guillaume Apollinaire dubbed him "the Divine Marquis" and "the freest spirit that ever lived," and later he became a hero to the Surrealist movement. In the aftermath of the Second World War, Albert Camus condemned De Sade as a spiritual forerunner of the Fascists and the Stalinists, but Michel Foucault credited him with giving the Western world "the possibility of transcending its reason in violence." De Sade's works are now published in the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade, an honor reserved for acknowledged classics, and their prestige in academic and critical circles has never been higher.

As for De Sade himself, he has been biographically lionized by Maurice Heine and Gilbert Lely and humanized by Maurice Lever. Now Francine du Plessix Gray does something even more radical: in At Home With the Marquis de Sade she domesticates him. Her De Sade "detest[s] bloodshed" and fusses as much over his cherry orchards as over the intricate choreography of his orgies; inquires about his children's manners and schooling as he sits in prison; and holds a "notably idealistic view of marriage" (meaning that he steers clear of other men's wives even as he cheats on his own). It is a portrait that the marquis, who spent most of his life seeking to shock and disturb others, would find frustrating. But then, in Gray's telling, De Sade's story is ultimately an "eloquent allegory on women's ability to tame man's nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents."

DE Sade was born in 1740 in Paris, in the palace of the Condé branch of the ruling Bourbon family, to which he was related through his mother. At the age of four, after the headstrong Donatien struck a prince of the blood royal during a fight over a toy, he was packed off to his father's relatives in Provence. There he came under the influence of his uncle the Abbé de Sade, a cleric who counted Voltaire among his friends, kept a mother-daughter team of mistresses, and gave his nephew the freedom of his library, which included ample pornography amid the more edifying literature.

At the age of ten the boy returned to Paris and entered the elite Jesuit school of Louis-le-Grand, where he developed what would prove lifelong passions for theater, flogging, and sodomy. Two years later his mother, long estranged from his father, retired to a Carmelite convent, and thereafter Donatien would have little contact with her. At sixteen the marquis received a commission in the army's prestigious carabineers unit, and by nineteen he had acquired a reputation as a gambler and a lothario.

Donatien's father, himself a virtuoso ladies' man but a less than successful courtier and diplomat, sought to secure the family's fortunes with a profitable match for his son. He found one in Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, the homely daughter of a rich Paris judge. To the elder De Sade, the Montreuils' wealth more than made up for their lack of noble lineage; but the groom was less enthusiastic. Twenty-two years old and smarting from rejection by an aristocratic Provençal beauty, the young rake got over a case of gonorrhea just in time for the wedding.

Marriage hardly reined him in. Five months later De Sade took a prostitute to lodgings he kept in Paris and locked her in an upstairs room. Did she have religion? he asked. She answered that she was a faithful Catholic, whereupon he began furiously cursing. He masturbated into a chalice and told her how he had desecrated communion hosts by using them in a carnal act. He showed her his eclectic set of sexual aids: scourges, crucifixes, religious pictures, and pornographic images. He had her whip him with a red-hot cat-o'-nine-tails. Although he hinted at threats with a sword and pistols, she refused to blaspheme along with him, or to let him whip or sodomize her. He read her some sacrilegious poetry, and when the morning came, he let her go.

Ten days later the Paris police arrested De Sade, but thanks to the influence of his family, the incarceration lasted only three weeks. His mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, was a shrewd and decisive woman who knew how to handle the judicial bureaucracy, and was known as "la Présidente" because of her husband's place within it. Charmed by her son-in-law, she defended him to his blood relatives and assured them that he would reform soon.

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