Why the Marquis de Sade is nobody’s hero


Detail from “The Martyrdom of St. Barbara”, by Jean Bellegambe, 1528. Musée de la Chartreuse, Douai.

What gives with the idea that a notorious 18th-century aristocratic sociopath — a chronic, pathological liar who ruthlessly took full advantage of his high social rank to carry out the vilest depravities with near-total impunity — could somehow be transmogrified into a modern-day hero of democracy, freedom of speech, and sexual liberty? The Marquis de Sade, who could rightly be called the Jack the Ripper of late-royalist France, literally got away with murder…almost. For the crimes he committed, his head should have rolled off the block of the guillotine when the Revolution stormed the streets of Paris. Yet he was somehow, stupidly, spared, and wound up being locked away in a religious hospital for the rest of his days. Now, he’s being lionized for the same repugnant sort of things we would have condemned in the lower-class “Jack”, whose real identity is still much debated (although it was claimed to have finally been revealed just this past year).

It’s worth noting that class differences make all the difference here. It was his class alone that assured that the Marquis would go free and unpunished (though closely surveilled by police) for many years while France was still a monarchy. He eventually landed in the Bastille (for sodomy and poisoning), but was later transferred to a mental asylum, from which he was released in 1790. And even after the old class hierarchy was shaken up, his cleverness at lying, and feigning libertarian-democratic ideals in line with the new order, served to keep him free for a short time longer, and eventually, in the eyes of the modern public, rehabilitate a name that had already fallen under criminal suspicion during the reign of France’s last two kings.

Or so it would appear.

French historian Olivier Blanc has taken exception to Sade’s modern-day apologists, however, and called out their blindness, disingenuous motives, and general stupidity in an open letter occasioned by a new exhibit on Sade at the Musée d’Orsay:

I am surprised at the patience with which the public, more or less feminist, supports the numberless untruths and fallacious interpretations of the facts and acts of the Marquis de Sade. Since the [era of the] Surrealists, who have, if one may say, returned the personage to fashion, one witnesses a multitude of idolatrous, literary, theatrical or media productions (from Le Figaro to Le Monde) paying homage to the “Divine Marquis”. He shook off the yoke of oppression, which crushes the body and spirits, and to him alone flies the flag of liberty.

But all that is currently said of Sade, whose name applies to great national impostures, be they historic or intellectual, resides in the calculated omission of facts, or removes their abusive interpretation. Or these attempts at rehabilitation, enterprises with commercial ends, today attain the proportions necessary to make the point about this personage by relying minimally on historical method — mostly on his own texts about himself — and in the first place, by taking context into account.

When he was arrested during the Revolution, on December 4, 1793, Sade had acquired the reputation of being a patented liar. And at that time, when the law cracked down on suspects, his wife and in-laws, the family of Cordier de Montreuil, his constant “accomplices”, no longer had the means to smother the new accusation by the Parisian sansculottes who had taken aim at their protégé. In the ledgers of the surveillance committee of Piques, where his residence was located, the revolutionaries expressed their reservations about the duplicity of the former marquis, who had succeeded in being elected president: “From August 10, when he arrived at the section, he has never ceased to play the patriot. But these (patriots) here were not fooled.”

Biographers of Sade, notably Maurice Lever, have abundantly shown that Sade was neither a defender of new ideas nor an admirer of the Revolution. And no one, in 1792, was in fact fooled by his claimed republican convictions, nor the writings of circumstance which he published after the fall of the monarchy. At first he cited the democratic Girondins, braiding garlands to Roland — and then, when that same was in trouble, he turned toward Marat, one of the principal artisans of the fall of the Gironde. As everyone knows, it was not 24 hours before Sade was to be executed, the same day Robespierre retrenched in the Paris Commune and was caught. If Sade, according to the accusation well and truly drawn up by Fouquier-Tinville, was not on the last carts to the guillotine, it was because of an administrative error, which did not permit them to localize the prison in which he was detained.

At any moment, furthermore, it must be underlined that it is not a question of the “immorality” of Sade’s writings, which, according to modern legend, had justified the prosecutions and persecutions to which he was subjected during the Revolution. During the Ancien Régime as well, in an era of practically no rights for the weakest and poorest, it was not Sade’s writings that posed problems, but his comportment as a sexual and criminal predator.

Titled and immensely rich through his marriage to the heiress of a powerful family, beneficiary of an incredible indulgence on the part of his own and the protections of ties to his caste of origin, Sade acted up time and time again, such that his turpitudes nonetheless reached the highest spheres of the police institution which, in 1764, advised the madams of Paris not to send him any of their girls. Police inspector [Louis] Marais, very well informed, wrote: “One never has to wait long to hear tell once more of the horrors of the Count de Sade.” An informer to the count and minister of Sartines, who transmitted to King Louis XV himself, by regular bulletins, the sexual indiscretions of debauched courtiers, Marais was not wrong when he spoke of the horrors of Sade.

The troubles had begun for Sade when one of his victims, Rose Keller, who was subjected to a bloody sado-masochistic ritual at Arcueil — which was certainly not the first — had the bad idea of undoing her bonds, and escaping him through the window of the room wherein he had imprisoned her. And, even more extraordinary under the Ancien Régime, this young person was able to register a witness statement attesting to sexual abuses and attempted murder, even if that same were challenged as, apparently, a false statement. Since Sade’s life did not in fact revolve around his writings, which interested almost no one during the 18th century, but around his endless lies and also his impunity, scandalous in the eyes of his contemporaries, which his status as a nobleman, privileged son-in-law of the influential parliamentary family of Cordier de Montreuil, procured for him.

At a time when the rule of law did not exist, the conclusions of judiciary affairs are, for historians, to be regarded with much circumspection. It is understood that the monarchic powers, and the parliamentary caste, had the tendency to protect their own, favoring, for example, the flight abroad of those who had been accused of crimes (sometimes also their internment, via letter of cachet, to prevent the unpleasantness of a scandalous court process and condemnation to death). One also knows that innocent men of the people were sent to the gallows, and that they willingly abandoned to the gibbet young servants vaguely suspected of having stolen a silver spoon. The processes by which such things took place — without a jury of their peers, reposing on a minimal inquest — which, whether before the Châtelet de Paris, before Parliament, whether that of Paris or the provinces, offered no guarantee of equity and the certitude of pressures from above, and eventually of false witness statements aimed at neutralizing complaints from below.

The judicial tribulations of Sade under the Ancien Régime have not, however, shed any significant light establishing his culpability in the disappearances of young women (often beggars or prostitutes, therefore numerous), or the attempts at murder exercised upon two or three who survived more or less unhurt (at the same time removing the force from their statements). But what are we speaking of? Sexual phantasms not ritualized or limited, or the delirium of sexual compulsions inscribed in the very real suffering inflicted by a man and suffered by an unconsenting, kidnapped woman?

The very detailed witness statement of Rose Keller, tortured in a house in Arcueil, gives an idea of what pleased Sade: slow bloodlettings, cuts rubbed with salt or hot wax, cuttings and excisions of the skin, maybe even partial dismemberment. Death, by infection or assault upon a vital organ, was nothing but the logical end of such criminal acts.

This type of phantasm, which could have come to the attention of those who may have had the task of gathering witness statements in Paris or in the village of Lacoste, explain how justice could have sought to avoid that due process, even behind closed doors, be done, giving way inevitably to contradictory debates and crudely revealing these deadly practices. Not so much to protect Sade himself, but to avoid public condemnation — even limited to the aristocratic sphere — it did not extend to his immediate family.

An interesting and little-used witness statement was published in the 19th century by the author of Memories of the Marquise de Créquy, a Breton compiler and very erudite royalist, who had gathered an impressive mass of diverse documents about the end of the 18th century and, notably, exemplars of “news at hand”. These unauthorized texts, under Louis XV and Louis XVI, passed from hand to hand, and were read in the literary and political salons, and their reliability is today scientifically recognized as much greater than even non-censured writings. They have to do with Mme. de Boulainvilliers, the chatelaine of Passy and wife of the provost of Paris, himself the younger son of Samuel Bernard, and the mother of three influential ladies of the court — Madame de Faudoas, Madame de Crussol, and Madame de Clermont-Tonnerre. The descendants of this powerful and highly esteemed lady, in their day, could not let their names be associated with anything imprecise or inexact. So this witness statement from the Marquise de Boulainvilliers, who of course ran in aristocratic circles, consolidates in all points the veracity of that given by Rose Keller, who escaped from Sade. In this case, it concerns another woman, held prisoner and tortured in a house in the village of Passy, where her cries of pain alerted Monsieur de Boulainvilliers, who by chance was passing close by at an early hour of the morning. Imagining that it was a childbirth going badly, he ordered that his wife be awoken so that she could come by with a physician. While first aid was being rendered to the victim, badly cut with a partially flayed leg, two individuals were intercepted who turned out to be the Marquis de Sade and his valet. The death of the victim, a few hours later — incapable, they say, of signing her deposition, gathered by the bailiff of the marquisate of Passy — thus extinguished the legal proceeding which had begun under the guidance of the president of Boulainvilliers himself. Sade alleged that the woman, even though bound and gagged, was consenting, and that the wounds which he had inflicted on her were aimed at testing, with her agreement, a healing balm of his own manufacture. “The examining magistrates were unable to listen without horror, but respect for the formalities got them to the bottom of it all, and if the Count de Sade was not hanged, it was due to the delicacy and magistral probity of M. de Boulainvilliers. The king does not lose his rights, as is just, and that abominable man was locked up with the brothers of St. Lazare in perpetuity, via letter of cachet…though it may displease these adroit criminals against whom the laws and the judiciary can do nothing.”

There are other witness statements along the same lines, notably those of Jeanne Testard, Catherine Trillet, or even the witnesses of the “Marseilles affair”, which provoked predictable condemnation of the marquis for contumacity, a judgement which his wife tried to have quashed. What to conclude, except that Sade was not a libertine but a criminal, and that in his case, the rare witness statements which have come to our attention constitute but a small part of reality? It seems useful to us to remind here all those who, through ignorance or deliberate calculation, at this moment, with very consequent means, great lack of awareness, or decidedly poor faith, have rehabilitated an individual whom the sansculottes of Piques, and a number of his contemporaries, were not fooled by.

All those persons who practice BDSM respect conventional codes regarding limits not to be overstepped in consensual games of sexual domination. These enshrined practices, whose practitioners belong to organizations, apparently have nothing to do with the unrestrained and deadly sexuality of Sade, but the paradox is that his name serves as well to designate BDSM practices and games deemed “safe”. This semantic ambiguity is the breach into which have fallen those sycophants of Sade who conflate sexist violence, murderous sexuality, and literary audacity.

Translation mine. Linkage added.

It’s also worth noting that many BDSM practitioners of the current generation, realizing that Sade was not at all like them (he relied on the poverty and powerlessness of his victims, as well as their youth, to help protect him from charges of abuse), are now distancing their parasexual pastimes from the term “sadism”, which should better be understood as a form of sexual psychopathy, rather than a consensually staged power-play that stops with a safeword. The D and S now typically stand for “dominance and submission”, and are generally understood to be roles played, as in a drama, rather than real-life states of master- and servanthood, as they were in Sade’s day and in his real-life practice.

That’s not to say that there aren’t quite a few would-be real-life Sades in the mix, and it’s a problem that the BDSM community still has to contend with on a regular basis, as the Jian Ghomeshi affair, among others, has shown. Trying to join such a community is often hazardous for young newcomers, especially submissive females, and abuses are rife. Abusers gravitate to that community, in large part, because it makes them harder to stop. Sometimes the law catches up to them; sometimes, the details are too murky for much to be done. The dangers of libertinism are much more than just a psychological fillip; the potential for damage is real, and great. Here in Canada, the importance of consensuality wanes as the danger level of any given activity rises; if it endangers life and limb, “but-but-but she consented!” is no more an excuse for what happens than it was when the Marquis unsuccessfully tried to evade a murder charge. (Which only failed to be lodged on the grounds that the tortured victim died, unable to sign her own deposition against him!)

For those willing to look beyond the usual platitudes about sexual freedom as an absolute human right — a notion that ought to be good for more than a few cynically raised eyebrows by now — it is clear that the old adage about power corrupting, and absolute power corrupting absolutely, holds true in the case of the Marquis. He was close to the royal court, and that degree of power offers a great deal of protection that a common man of similar predilections could never enjoy. The Marquis was the quintessential spoiled brat, debauched from an early age. His entire upbringing predisposed him toward the abuses of power, and toward sexualized abuses in particular. His own nihilistic “philosophy” — the Randian objectivism of its day — makes it clear that the Marquis was the very opposite of a libertarian, at last of the small-l kind. (The capital-L kind, on the other hand, wishes it were more like him, minus the mitigating powers of a king and judicial system.) “Don’t you see, Justine?” says his fictional Bressac, to the heroine of that eponymous novel. “Man does not repent of what he is in the habit of doing. Get used to evil, and remorse will vanish. If you so much as feel a twinge of remorse after having committed a crime, commit still another one. Ten, twenty or thirty evil actions shall remove all possibility of remorse.” If that is philosophy, it is the philosophy of the psychopath, of the serial killer. It does not deserve to be elevated any higher in the public’s esteem. And neither does it deserve any protection under law.

Had Sade’s crimes been more fully investigated in his day, we might today recognize him not as the revolutionary hero he tried (and failed at the time) to pretend he was, but as the prototype for a Ted Bundy or a John Gacy. There is no doubt that he killed and disposed of a great many of his impoverished victims quite unnoticed. The ones who lived to tell, or to accidentally gain the attention of the authorities in the case of the victim who later died, were merely the lucky ones.

Most of all, we would not be in danger of continuing to mistake him for some kind of great sexual freedom pioneer, when he was in fact no better than the medieval torturers France had supposedly left behind in a previous century. You know, the ones who tortured and killed countless women for daring to exert any sexual choice or agency at all.

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