What we can all learn from this kinky 18th-century French author
The Marquis de Sade may be the ultimate human symbol of sexual twistedness and torment, but that hasn't kept him from doing his bit for French tourism. The 18th-century aristocrat, genius pornographer, and onetime Bastille inmate (the “Divine Marquis” to his avant-garde adorers) came from a noble old family with deep roots in Provence. And the folks in and around the Provençal village of La Coste, site of his favorite château (yes, he did host orgies there), are just plain proud of their native son. As Francine du Plessix Gray explains in At Home with the Marquis de Sade (Simon & Schuster, 1998), there's a pleasant bistro in La Coste called Café de Sade, a nearby restaurant that offers a mousse à la Sade, and a vintner in the region who proudly bottles a Cuvée du Divin Marquis. “On top of the rocky plateau surrounding the castle,” Gray writes, “a scattering of tourist cars and buses are nearly always parked, and in season, camera-laden Japanese abound.”
Sade's career as a beloved native son and a tourist asset has followed closely upon his emergence from the French literary netherworld into full-fledged classic status—signaled by the appearance of his works in the prestigious Bibliothèque de la Pleiade series in 1995, alongside Pascal, Mallarmé, and other (relatively) unkinky authors. The inevitable question, of course, is this: If Sade is a classic, what can we learn from him? Aside, of course, from how to organize a daisy chain and use a cat-o'-nine-tails recreationally.
The answer, like the man himself, is complex. For something like a century and a half after Sade's death in 1814, not even the citizens of La Coste would claim the author of The 120 Days of Sodom and The Misfortunes of Virtue. Sade's penchant for group sex with whips, plus his talent for making powerful enemies, cost him 27 years in various prisons.
Sade used his prison time to turn himself into a novelist. His first effort, The 120 Days of Sodom, is the account of a month-long orgy in a remote castle in the Black Forest, a gargantuan, chilly epic of cruelty that is about as erotic as a forced crawl over barbed wire. “Yet,” Gray writes, “there are passages of 120 Days that can fascinate us through their monumental recklessness and daring; their awesome ritualism which recalls the Aztecs' human sacrifices; their regression to a primeval, cannibalistic stage not yet curbed by the most fundamental taboos; their modernist transgression of all the norms of what we call ‘art’ and ‘literature.’ ”
Many more books, plays, and essays followed, ranging from the polite (Sade was determined to succeed as a popular playwright in the witty, gently moralistic style of his day) to further hellish accounts of megalomaniacal libertines indulging their most monstrous whims.
It's his amazing, relentless, fearless cultivation of literary extremity that later won Sade the admiration of French avant-gardists from Flaubert to the surrealists. As for what the Divine Marquis has to teach the rest of us, Gray has an ingenious reply: Sade “never grasped the fundamentals of civilized life, which have to do with accepting, with a measure of serenity, the ultimate necessity of compromise,” she writes. “It is precisely in these pitiful shortcomings that Sade's visionary gifts lay. It is his crude insistence on expressing humankind's most bestial urges, on speaking out what most of us barely dare to admit, on mirroring the primal impulse we've all had, at some point, to claw at the taboos of our own caged lives, that makes him an occasionally fascinating and very modern writer.”
To go one step further: Sade's a classic precisely because he casts such a blinding light on a central paradox of our time. The impulse to liberation is an animal urge as well as a humane aspiration, and the angry, sacred energy of the fight for freedom easily slides over into the rage to punish, humiliate, and imprison. To those on the right who would stifle the liberatory impulse, and to those on the left who would close their eyes to its potential for horror, the Divine Marquis shoots a knowing, mocking glance.