200 Years Later: We Still Do Not Know the Marquis de Sade


The Marquis de Sade was “the freest spirit who ever existed,” according to surrealist poet Guillaume Apollinaire. Maybe that was true while the Marquis lived — although he spent plenty of time in jail — but in the 21st century, Sade is imprisoned in a cage of media. Today, on the 200th anniversary of his death, Sade is among the most mediated literary figures we have in the western tradition. I don’t meant to suggest that Sade is adapted more than Shakespeare or Dickens or Poe. I’m just saying that the ratio between the Marquis de Sade we inherit from TV and movies and the one we (never) read is totally out of whack.

A look at today’s headlines proves that cultural memory fails us when it comes to the “real” Marquis de Sade: “Who was the Marquis de Sade?”; “How well do you know the Marquis de Sade?”; “On the Trail of the Marquis de Sade”; “Marquis de Sade: rebel, pervert, rapist…hero?” And, as if by some cosmic joke, the UK government chose today (of all days) to ban spanking, caning and aggressive whipping — hallmarks of sado-masochism — from representation in pornography. Clearly western culture is more sadistic than Sadean.

The rift over the Marquis begins more or less from the beginning, when his robust sexual inclinations cost him decades in prison and asylums. (Actually, Sade’s own interest in sadism begins earlier, when he perused his Uncle’s library, which included libertine novels as well as great works of philosophy.) Later, Sade’s proclivity for sexual and political freedom, as well as his rhetorician’s itch, prompted him to encourage French revolutionaries to storm the Bastille. He was narrowly saved from the guillotine by way of a “bureaucratic error.”

The Marquis was hated by the French aristocracy, but at the end of the day he was one of his own. He may have written four novels — Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue; Juliette; The 120 Days of Sodom; and Philosophy in the Bedroom — and dozens of other stories, works of philosophy, and political essays, all in the name of unfettering man’s violent sexual urges, but he was patently a creature of his class. His attitude toward prostitutes was sadly, predictably Aristocratic — he once called them “vile creatures” — but biographers admit that there is no evidence of compulsion in his sexual life.

So why do we avoid him? Why do we not read the Marquis de Sade in college, and why is he consigned to the screen? According to Camille Paglia, one of Sade’s fiercest contemporary defenders: “It is his violence far more than his sex which is so hard for liberals to accept. For Sade, sex is violence. Violence is the authentic spirit of mother nature.” This cultural avoidance, writes Paglia, is our loss:

The Marquis de Sade is a great writer and philosopher whose absence from university curricula illustrates the timidity and hypocrisy of the liberal humanities. No education in the western tradition is complete without Sade. He must be confronted, in all his ugliness. Properly read, he is funny. Satirizing Rousseau, point by point, he prefigures the theories of aggression in Darwin, Nietzsche, and Freud.

I buy Paglia’s argument, at least to an extent. But I also agree with Simone de Beauvoir in her classic apology, “Must We Burn Sade?” In the essay, de Beauvoir makes a sophisticated case not for Sade’s philosophy or literary quality, but for the tension between his sexual rapaciousness and literary aspirations: “The fact is that it is neither as author nor as sexual pervert that Sade compels our attention; it is by virtue of the relationship which he created between these two aspects of himself.”

This tension lends the Marquis de Sade a palpable sense of drama, one that stays with him to this day. This may explain his imprisonment in a cage of contemporary media — we’d rather watch him perform than read him. From Quills and Nightmare on Elm Street to Pasolini and Bunuel — from the banal to the evocative, in other words — Sade compels the spectator’s attention.

On the other hand, any argument against reading the Marquis de Sade — against opening up to his libertinism and violently sexualized ideal of nature — is by definition repressive. Every argument against Sade is, as weird as it sounds to me right now, anti-Sadean.