Marquis de Sade

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De Sade at the age of 20

Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade (pronounced "saad"; June 2, 1740 - December 2, 1814), was a French aristocrat and writer of philosophy-laden and often violent pornography, as well as some strictly philosophical works; much of his writing was done while in prison. His name is the source of the word sadism.


Early life

Sade was born in the Condé palace in Paris. His father was the Comte de Sade and his mother was Marie Elénore Maillé de Carman, who worked for the prince of Condé. Early on he was educated by his uncle, an Abbé. He then attended a lycée and went on to follow a military career. He participated in the Seven Years' War. In 1763 he married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate; he would eventually have three children with her. When his father died in January 1767, he assumed the title "Comte de Sade".

Scandal and imprisonment

Shortly after his wedding, he began living a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly abused young prostitutes and employees of both sexes, later also with the help of his wife. He had an affair with his wife's sister. A series of scandals and imprisonments followed. He was sentenced to death in 1772 but reprieved. The mother of his wife obtained a lettre de cachet, and in 1777 he was imprisoned again, in the dungeon of Vincennes. There he met the fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works; nevertheless, the two disliked each other intensely. In 1784, after an escape attempt, de Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris.

On July 2 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. Two days later, he was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton-Saint-Maurice (now Saint-Maurice, Val-de-Marne) near Paris. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, happened on July 14.) He was released from Charenton in 1790 and his wife obtained a divorce soon after.

Literary works

Three images from Juliette

He had started to write in prison. In 1782 he completed Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, expressing his atheism by having the dying libertine convince the priest of the mistakes of a pious life. The novel The 120 Days of Sodom was written in 1785 and describes a wide variety of sexual perversions performed on a group of enslaved teenagers, many of whom die for the sexual satisfaction of a group of upper-class men. In 1787 he wrote The misfortunes of virtue, an early version of Justine which was published in 1791. It describes the misfortunes of a girl who continues to believe in the goodness of God despite evidence to the contrary. The companion novel Juliette (1798) narrates the adventures of Justine's sister, Juliette, who chooses to reject the teachings of the church and adopt an amoral hedonist philosophy. In Aline and Valcour (1795) he contrasts a brutal African kingdom with a utopian island paradise. Other works are Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) and Crimes of Love (1800) as well as a number of plays.

De Sade's works contain explicit and often repetitive descriptions of rape and a great number of sexual perversions, many of which involve violence and transcend the boundaries of the possible. He disdained the church and argued for atheism and for the rejection of all moral and ethical rules, advocating for an extreme hedonist way of life, pleasure being the highest principle.

Return to freedom

During his time of freedom (beginning 1790), he met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a working-class single mother; they would stay together for the rest of his life. He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution and even managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. By now extremely obese, he was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.

Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he nevertheless wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism", imprisoned for over a year, and barely escaped the guillotine. Presumably, this confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty. Now all but destitute, he wrote the pamphlet Frenchmen! One More Effort If You Wish To Be Republicans! in which he advocated a utopian form of socialism. In it he states that laws against theft are absurd: they protect the original thieves, the wealthy, against the poor who have no option left but theft. He also argues that the state has no right to outlaw murder, while at the same time ordering killings when executing prisoners or fighting wars.

Imprisoned again, return to Charenton, and death

In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the anonymous author of Justine, or the misfortunes of virtue and Juliette to be arrested. Without trial, de Sade was imprisoned in the harsh fortress of Bicetre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred again to the asylum at Charenton.

Constance was allowed to live with him there. The liberal director of Charenton, Abbé de Coulmier allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition.

De Sade began an affair with twelve-year-old Madeleine Leclerc at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until de Sade died in the asylum in 1814. His eldest son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned; this included the immense multi-volume work Les Journées de Florbelle. De Sade was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for (dubious) scientific investigations.


Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade's life and writings have proved irresistible to filmmakers. While there are surely an uncountable number of pornographic films based on his themes, here are some of the more mainstream movies based on his history or his works of fiction:

  • Marat/Sade, a film of the Peter Weiss play (1966)
  • Justine and Juliet, aka Marquis de Sade: Justine (1968)
  • Eugenie...The Story of Her Journey into Perversion aka Philosophy in the Boudoir (1969)
  • De Sade (1969)
  • Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
  • Cruel Passion (1977)
  • Marquis (1989)
  • Dark Prince (1996)
  • Sade (1999)
  • Quills (2000)

External links

See also

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