Among a people generally corrupt liberty cannot long exist.
—Edmund Burke

I was reading Arthur Goldhammer’s translation of Maurice Lever’s Sade as the Senator Packwood scandal raged on, and although I wouldn’t want to draw any unwarranted comparisons between the two bonhommes, the parallels between Ancien Régime France and contemporary America are unmistakable. Debauchery reigns in the corridors of power in the United States today as freely as it did in 18th-century France, and it is the smell of corruption, more than any detail about the marquis de Sade’s ignominious life, that remains with the reader of Lever’s forthright and spirited biography. (Goldhammer’s translation, while it leaves out some useful notes and appendices regarding family histories and genealogies, is lively and readable.)

Sade reads like a novel. Lever employs a “synoptic” rather than “linear” Christine Haynes is the assistant editor of Chronicles. method, which allows for a three-dimensional picture of the man, and he mixes serious analysis with sarcastic and ironic comments that at times make his talc almost farcical. Take, for instance, this description of Sade’s introduction to his uncle’s library, which included licentious works like the abbe Jacques Boileau’s History of the Flagellants, in which the good and bad uses of flagellation among the Christians are pointed out:

Boileau dwelt at length on the ways in which flagellation could excite the senses and discoursed learnedly on the grave question of whether it was better to discipline oneself on the back or on the buttocks. He also mentions numerous eases in which the whip stimulated furia amorosa. Pleasure through suffering: there was a precept [Sade] would not soon forget.

Or this account of Sade’s efforts to evade the police:

To avoid being recognized, he had donned the cassock of . . . a priest. In this same disguise he traveled down the Rhône as far as Marseilles. The journey went well except for one minor incident, which must have delighted [Sade]. While crossing the Durance, the ferry’s rope broke and the craft drifted in the current for some time. Thinking that their final hour had arrived, the passengers threw themselves at the feet of the “curé” to make their last confession.

Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade (1740-1814) descended from a long line of Provencal nobles supposed to have originated with the magus Balthasar. Donatien’s father, Jean-Baptiste Joseph François, comte de Sade, was an illustrious libertine who left Provence to make a name for himself at the court of Louis XV but eventually returned home, ostracized and broke. Although he was born in Paris, the marquis was sent to Provence at an early age to live with his uncle, the abbé de Sade—”the very type of libertine priest.” Returning to Paris to attend the prestigious Collége Louis-le-Grand (where, Lever speculates, he may have encountered flagellation and sodomy), the marquis began a successful, albeit short, military career at the age of 14.

Upon his discharge at the end of the Seven Years War in 1763, Sade embarked upon the dissolute life that would ultimately land him in prison. As information now revealed by Sade’s descendants for the first time discloses, Sade’s father long struggled first to arrange a marriage for his son and then to get him to the altar without venereal disease. And the marquis’s marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, daughter of a noble de robe, was no obstacle to his chain of affairs and debauches with actresses, courtesans, and common prostitutes. Less than six months after his wedding, Sade was arrested on charges of blasphemy and incitement to sacrilege for forcing a prostitute to trample on a crucifix, although he was let off within a few weeks.

But a certain Inspector Marais now had Sade under his surveillance, and for the rest of his life he would be in and out of trouble with the authorities, whether royal, revolutionary, or imperial. In the legendary Arcueil affair (1768), for instance, the marquis was imprisoned for taking a beggar woman to a house in the Paris suburb that he rented for just such occasions, whipping her until she bled, making small incisions with a pen knife on her back, and dripping hot wax on her wounds. Again, he was set free, on the condition that he retire to Provence, but his next escapade got him in hotter water. In June 1772 in Marseilles, he engaged in a “Cytherean morning” with four prostitutes and his valet, followed by a night with another prostitute. The gallant and generous marquis offered the women candies containing Spanish fly, an aphrodisiac. When two of them subsequently became violently ill, Sade was brought up on charges of poisoning, as well as sodomy (with his valet). Sade and the valet fled before being sentenced to death in absentia and executed in effigy.

Thus began a five-year period spent mainly on the run, although Sade also managed to get himself imprisoned in “the citadel” of Miolans (Savov) and to escape, as well as to indulge in his great Silling fantasy with approximately 20 young servants at his fortress in Provence. Finally, Inspector Marais caught up with him when the marquis foolishly visited Paris (from which he was barred), and Sade spent the next 13 years writing a “wrenching monologue”—in correspondence and in fiction—from prison.

The marquis would have been liberated from the Bastille on July 14, 1789, except that 12 days earlier he had misbehaved (using the funnel normally employed to empty his chamber pot into the moat as a megaphone to start a disturbance) and been moved to Charenton, a home for the mentally ill that also housed “police prisoners.” So it was not until the lettre de cachet (a secret letter arbitrarily used to keep “dangerous” or “scandalous” people under lock and key) was abolished in 1790 that Sade was set free—though not for long. The French Revolution was in full swing, and while the aristocratic marquis dropped the partitive from his name, called himself Louis Sade, and played the patriotic citizen (even writing pamphlets and speeches for the revolutionary cause), he was eventually arrested under the 1793 “law of suspects.” In fact, Sade barely escaped execution just two days before Robespierre was guillotined. Released during the Thermidorean reaction, Sade returned to writing the novels and plays he had begun to produce during his long stint in prison, until he was arrested during a meeting with his publisher in 1801 and deposited in a series of prisons before being sent once again to Charenton. The grounds for his detention (although Sade was never tried) were sexual obsession, and the books seized at the time of his arrest were burned. It was in Charenton that Sade died in 1814.

While the details with which Lever fills in this sketch of Sade’s life reveal much about the man, almost equally interesting is what the book reveals about his era. In 18th-century France, Lever writes, “vice was an unwritten privilege of the nobility.” The degradation in morals coincided with the materialism, sensationalism, and individualism espoused by Enlightenment intellectuals and even relied on these philosophies for vindication. Locke, for example, became popular in French salons, where (argues Lionel Gossmann in his French Society and Culture: Background for 18th Century Literature) “both [his] sensationalism and his individualism could be welcomed by an aristocracy dedicated to the social pleasures and newly emancipated, as far as its private life was concerned, from the ‘tyranny’ of Versailles.” The materialists struck an additional blow to Christian morality by arguing that the moral and social order is grounded not in divine law but in nature. While Sade’s writings place him in this camp, they also show that he considered society to be without order; nature for him is not harmonious but Hobbesian. Materialism often slipped into pessimism in describing human relations, and Sade epitomizes the Age of Reason’s quick descent from cheerful skepticism to gloom and despair.

Choderios de Laclos’s Liaisons Dangereuses, which is often included with Sade’s Justine and Cent Vingt Journees de Sodome in discussions of 18th-century licentious literature, exemplifies the cynical view many intellectuals of the period took of human nature. Laclos associates love and sex with hostility and destruction, and his character Mme. Mertreuil’s line “Il vaut vaincre ou perir” (“One must win or perish”) proves true for the characters of this story. Milos Forman’s film Valmont (loosely based on Laclos’s novel) delivers an equally cynical message with the vicomte de Valmont‘s reproof of the marquise de Mertreuil; “You are confusing bets and marriages, Madame. One must always honor a bet.” (Valmont vividly portrays the decadence of Ancien Régime France, and it seems no accident that both it and Stephen Frears’ Liaisons Dangereuses were produced in 1980’s America.)

A deist rather than a materialist, Voltaire still admitted with Laclos that human nature can be cruel. In Candide (which Sade’s Justine parallels in inflicting misadventure upon misadventure on its main character), Voltaire maintains that man engages by nature in sin and corruption: when Candide and his philosopher companion Martin see two ships fighting, Martin says “that is how men treat each other”; a few pages later, Martin assures Candide that men have always been “liars, cheats, faithbreakers, ingrates, brigands, weaklings, rovers, cowards, enviers, gluttons, drunkards, misers, self-seekers, carnivores, calumniators, debauchers, fanatics, hypocrites, and fools”; and a scholar at a dinner party the two travelers attend philosophizes that life is “an eternal war.”

But if other 18th-century writers questioned the harmony of nature, Sade deepened and generalized their doubts, as Gossmann concludes. Sade’s work centered (as did his life) on what he came to call “isolism,” or the radical impossibility of communication between human beings. In Les Infortunes de la Vertu, the 1787 precursor to Justine, Sade writes: “Man is naturally wicked, he is therefore wicked in the frenzy of his passions almost as much as in their calm, and in all cases the misfortunes of his fellow man may become abominable delights for him.” Nature, according to him, “acts only through wickedness, . . . everything is vice and corruption, . . . everything is crime and disorder in her will and in her works.”

Whereas Voltaire’s and Laclos’s stories ultimately generate a moral message, Sade’s works yield only cynicism, fright, and despair. Liaisons Dangereuses may be immoral, but it is also a morality tale because its characters inspire pity and thus demonstrate the futility of living solely by the pleasure principle. Candide likewise ends with the advice that the only way to keep away the three great evils of boredom, vice, and need is to “work without reasoning.” But because Sade’s own emptiness means he can create only hollow, unbelievable, mechanistic figures, his accounts of their absurd adventures inspire only aversion (or worse, boredom) and not pathos.

This point calls into question Sade’s status as a major literary figure. Sade may have said things no one had been willing to say before, but in reality his psychologically empty characters and his ridiculous plots neither shock nor impress. As even Lever admits, “The impossibilia [of Justine], pushed to the point of absurdity—or irony—suffice to render the work unsuitable for titillation.” But this citation comes from a passage in which Lever is essentially praising Sade for subverting language, and the biography is littered with phrases that lead us to mistrust its author’s literary judgment. Lever refers several times, for instance, to the “splendor” and “grandeur” of the Sadeian liturgy, and he also writes of Sade’s “poetic genius,” “fresh lucidity,” and “lofty conception of vice.” He even ranges Sade “alongside the best authors of the period.” But the coup de grace has to be his comment that Justine “remains one of the most powerful and most striking creations of French literature”: morality completely aside, one wonders at this point whether Lever has read Baudelaire or Proust, or even Sade’s fellow Provençaux, Jean Giono and Frederic Mistral. Sade’s works leave us with nothing but his own misogynic notion of humanity: “My neighbor is nothing to me: there is not the slightest connection between him and me.”

F. Gonzalez-Crussi, a pathologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago, wrote in the New York Times Book Review six years ago that, two centuries after Sade, we continue to behave as if this tenet were true. “We have stood indifferent to genocide in Germany, while it occurred,” he writes,

and to mass extermination in Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, to name only a few recent hecatombs. It is worthy of note that while the carnage was going on, we felt, in all candor, quite at ease. The record will show that the entire world looked on with utter indifference at horrifying deeds and that millions in Vancouver, Beijing or Australia lose no sleep over thousands upon thousands of killings in Central America.

For persisting in his descriptions of human cruelty among general indifference, Gonzalez-Crussi continues, Sade would be locked up even in these sexually liberated times.

But Dr. Gonzalez-Crussi, like Sade himself, misses the point. Yes, humans are naturally violent and mean, but in the face of this fact we must, as Voltaire reasons, keep working. Rather than agonizing over war in Bosnia and corruption in Haiti, we must attend to the people and the problems in our own backyard. In other words, “Il faut cultiver notre jardin.” It is because Sade did not do this—because he left his elderly father to die in poverty while he squandered what remained of the family fortune, because he brutalized (in word and deed) and betrayed his wife right under her nonetheless devoted nose, because he deserted his children and refused to contribute to their care—and not so much because he depicted crimes between strangers, that he deserves our horror and contempt.

There were others like him who deserve the same. Lever demonstrates in his brief references to other aristocrats and even religious men that Sade was not unique in his debauchery. As example, the “sadistic” comte de Charolais “killed his fellow human beings for sport, as other men went hunting. . . . His favorite amusement was to fire a musket at workmen repairing nearby roofs. When he hit one, he jumped for joy.” And the abbe de Sade, in addition to living with two women “of whom he made free use,” was once “caught in the act at a select house of prostitution” during a visit to Paris. The crimes the marquis committed were not unusual in his day.

What is more, these crimes contributed to the breakdown of a longstanding social order. If one is looking for a Voltairian lesson in this biography, it may be here. As a critic of the sequel to Justine put it: “I place licentious works such as the one I am denouncing to the authorities in the same class as attacks on the government, because if courage founds republics, good morals preserve them. Their ruin almost always leads to the fall of empires.” If Sade’s works seem more ridiculous than licentious today, our jaded sensitivities are an even bigger sign that our own empire (Senator Packwood and all) is on its way down. 


[Sade: A Biography, by Maurice Lever, Translated by Arthur Goldhammer (New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux) 626 pp., $35.00]