On 2 July 1789, a man whose official designation in the prison fortress of the Bastille was ‘Monsieur Six’ addressed the people of Paris. He spoke – or shouted – from his cell in the Tour de la Liberté, and in no uncertain terms. The officials holding him, and the regime they served, were villains, devils, criminals and worse. What’s more, they had already begun to slit the prisoners’ throats. There was no time to lose. That evening, the governor of the Bastille, who had slit no throats, informed his superior that if Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, whom 13 years of imprisonment without trial had done nothing to mellow, were not removed from his prison that very night he could no longer guarantee its security. His wish was granted and Monsieur Six was taken in the night to a madhouse, where his screams would go unheeded. In the event, 11 days later, the security of the Bastille ceased to be guaranteed when it was stormed by a revolutionary mob.
The men and women who had been massing outside the building for the preceding weeks at last found themselves running through its halls (the governor’s severed head had already been placed on a pike), unlocking door after door as they went. Number six, untouched since its last occupant’s departure, was awash with paper. There was a library of more than six hundred books, many of them rare, and dozens on dozens of manuscripts in a Voltairean variety of genres (Voltaire himself – a friend of Sade’s father – had twice been a prisoner in the Bastille). There were so many manuscripts that their author had prepared a catalogue raisonné to keep track of them: two volumes of essays, eight of fiction, 16 historical novellas, twenty-odd plays, and much more work in progress. Reading conditions were not favourable that night and by morning virtually the whole oeuvre had been destroyed. For the remaining 25 years of Sade’s life there was one loss that he mourned more bitterly than the rest. This manuscript – which he had been careful to leave out of the catalogue – was written in a small clear hand on both sides of a forty-foot-long roll of paper hidden in a crevice of the cell’s 14th-century wall. When the fifty-year-old Sade emerged from his madhouse on Good Friday the following year, the Bastille had not only been stormed, it had been destroyed – burned down and carried away, brick by brick. And so Sade naturally abandoned all hope for the manuscript over which years later he still claimed to shed ‘tears of blood’.
Although Sade was never to know it, his manuscript had survived that night, and every night since: having been smuggled out of the Bastille it was handed down through three generations of one French family before appearing at auction and then being bought by a German sexologist, who published it in Berlin in 1904 as The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage. Publication made the manuscript’s subsequent movements, if anything, still more mysterious. It has since been stolen at least once, and been the subject of a great deal of litigation. For decades it couldn’t travel outside Switzerland because of fears it might be seized by the French authorities. Last year it sold at auction for €7 million; Lloyd’s insured it for €12 million.
And this was just the informal beginning of the celebrations commemorating the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death. In October the manuscript, whose new owners are seeking to have it declared a national treasure, was presented to the public in a fifty-foot-long display case in Paris’s Institut des lettres et manuscrits as part of an exhibition entitled Sade: Marquis de l’ombre, prince des Lumières (the last word of the punning title might be translated as either ‘light’ or ‘enlightenment’). The Musée d’Orsay, too, mounted a lavish exhibition inspired by Sade’s visions with a title – Attaquer le soleil – taken from The 120 Days. It aimed to show, in the words of its organisers – one of whom was the writer and Sade scholar Annie Le Brun – ‘themes of the ferocity and singularity of desire … of the bizarre and the monstrous’ in artists ranging from Goya to Picasso, Ingres to Géricault, Cézanne to Rodin. In conjunction with the exhibition the museum organised conferences, lectures, round tables and a film series presenting adaptations of Sade’s works by Buñuel, von Stroheim, Pasolini, Guy Debord, Peter Brook and Nagisa Oshima. Meanwhile, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade has published its fourth volume of Sade, a lavish 1150-page edition of the great erotic writings: 120 Days of Sodom, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Justine. The works span the decade between the end of one 13-year period of confinement in 1790 and the beginning of a final 13-year period in 1801. The hundreds of pages of critical and philological materials in the new volume situate Sade in his violent and Enlightened times. They also bear witness to the truly exceptional quantity of critical writing on him, from Beauvoir to Foucault, to Blanchot, to Lacan, to Bataille, to Barthes, to Deleuze, to Philippe Sollers.
These national celebrations have been surprising for several reasons. Sade was jailed by all three French governments under which he lived and each of his erotic works was banned by the authorities on publication: an interdiction so serious and durable that when a young publisher began issuing an edition of Sade in 1947 he was promptly arrested and only after more than a decade of appeals, calling on expert testimony from Bataille, Breton, Cocteau and others, was there an acquittal and a lifting of the ban. This radical reversal of official esteem is, however, far less surprising than that such an about-face was possible at all, given whom we’re talking about.
‘Now, dear reader,’ we are told in The 120 Days, ‘you must prepare your heart and your mind for the most impure story told since the beginning of the world.’ For perhaps the first time in the history of the world such hyperbole is at risk of being true. Four powerful members of the Ancien Régime – a judge, a bishop, a banker and a duke – withdraw to a remote castle in the Black Forest, where they are beyond the reach of all restraint. Everything protects them: the remoteness of the location with its deep snow and impassable bridge, their wealth, their influence, their ruthlessness. Extensive arrangements are made to link the four of them together. To begin with, each of them has to marry – and debauch – the daughter of one of the others. They then bind themselves further by signing a contract stipulating that any member of the ‘quatriumvirat’ who misses a session, shies away from a criminal act of any sort or degree, or goes to bed in a state approaching sobriety during any one of the 120 nights planned is to be fined ten thousand francs. A troop of 24 innocents, male and female, is next recruited, as are four women who are masters in the art of libertine storytelling. Every evening now begins with a story, which is followed by performances of the acts it describes. (A curious feature of this much banned book – as recently as 2012 South Korea banned a new translation – is that no one ever commits a crime without first listening to a story designed to encourage it. It’s almost as if the book were taunting the censors: all these horrors, it keeps reminding us, were inspired by listening to licentious stories.)
The 120 Days is a crescendo of crime. Over the course of four months four categories of perversion – single, double, criminal and murderous – are both narrated and practised. Each category contains 150 perversions. ‘Here is the story,’ we are told, ‘of a great banquet where six hundred different dishes are offered to you. Will you eat all of them? Of course not, but their prodigious number extends the limits of your choice and, delighted by this increase of your faculties, you will not think of chastising the Amphitryon who offers them to you.’ This image becomes a good deal less appetising when we learn of some of the things served – both literally (coprophagy is common) and metaphorically (so is torture). The orgies that follow are complicated and often gymnastic. Blasphemy proves a great source of inspiration. For example, a libertine ‘puts a naked young woman astride a large crucifix; he fucks her in the vagina, from behind, in such a way that the whore’s clitoris is stimulated by Christ’s head.’ And just as there are physical gymnastics there are also mental ones. When the time comes to break the incest taboo we learn of a ‘man who fucked the three children he had had with his mother, from which resulted a daughter whom he married to his son, so that in fucking her he was at once fucking sister, daughter and daughter-in-law, and obliging his son at once to fuck sister and mother-in-law’.
The tortures are no less baroque, and far more disturbing. We learn of a woman who is sewn inside the skin of a freshly killed ass so that, as the skin shrinks, she is slowly suffocated. Another woman is placed on a special pivot and spun to death. Hearts are removed, violated and replaced. The animal kingdom isn’t spared either, as a libertine takes the emblematic bird of beauty, the swan, places a Eucharist in its anus, sodomises it, and strangles it as he ejaculates. The insatiable thirst for novelty leads one libertine to ‘place himself in a specially constructed basket with a single opening, for his anus, which is then coated with the sexual fluids of a mare, after which the basket is covered in the skin of the animal. A stallion, specially trained for the purpose, sodomises him while, inside his basket, he fucks a beautiful white dog.’ (‘Sade,’ Breton wrote, ‘is a surrealist of sadism’).
It isn’t all rape and torture, however. There is also philosophical discussion condoning and encouraging rape, torture and more. As he was preparing to translate The 120 Days into English in 1938, Beckett wrote to a friend of his fear he might be ‘banned & muzzled’ for his part in the project, as ‘the surface is of an unheard of obscenity & not 1 in 100 will find literature in the pornography, or beneath the pornography, let alone one of the capital works of the 18th century, which it is for me.’
The individual most responsible for this celebration of Sade is Guillaume Apollinaire, who not only predicted that Sade would ‘dominate the 20th century’ but also deemed him ‘the freest spirit there has ever been’. A number of things in Apollinaire’s encomium of Sade are debatable, though the same could be said of the accounts of those from Balzac to Stendhal, Flaubert to Baudelaire, Swinburne to Huysmans who had praised Sade before him. But Apollinaire was unquestionably right about Sade’s spirit being preternaturally resistant to intimidation. The first real report we have of the character of the young marquis, born in Paris in 1740, concerns his interactions, at the age of four, with the eight-year-old prince de Condé, who history suggests was something of a bully: unsurprising given the fact that respect for the boy’s exceptionally high rank prevented all but a very few individuals in France from reproving him for anything (and given the fact that his tutor, the comte de Charolais, was by all accounts a murderous psychopath). Sade was raised for a time alongside the prince and although Sade’s illustrious family traced its origins to the 13th century – and counted among its members the Laura for whom Petrarch invented modern love poetry – there could be no question of parity. This was no deterrent for the four-year-old Donatien, and when he was sent to stay in the vast and beautiful Condé palace in the centre of Paris while his father was away on diplomatic business, he trounced the boy twice his age, took away his toys and so verbally dominated the young prince that whenever he entered the room Sade would imperiously order him out.
Sade’s father, much amused by his son’s ways, was a charming and well-liked courtier, diplomat, libertine and man of letters. He saw to it that his spirited son had an excellent education from private tutors in the vast libraries of the family’s estates in Provence and at the celebrated Jesuit Lycée Louis-le-Grand in Paris. While still a teenager Sade became a cavalry officer and, notwithstanding Beauvoir’s speculation in ‘Must We Burn Sade?’ (1955) that he was bound to have been a coward, he fought with distinction against the Prussians in the Seven Years War. His superior officer’s laconic report reads: ‘Totally deranged, very brave.’ Once back home Sade was married off to an intelligent and agreeable woman whose family appealed to Sade’s father because they were wealthy and well connected to the judiciary – a disastrous miscalculation. When accusations of gross libertinage – blasphemy, whipping prostitutes and forcing them to whip him, sodomy (a capital offence under the monarchy), liberal distribution of high-grade chocolate laced with cantharides (also known as Spanish fly) – began to circulate in Marseille, Versailles and Paris, Sade showed as little restraint or respect as he had with the prince de Condé. He didn’t go to beg clemency from the crown, as so many libertines of his day did after committing far greater trespasses (such as murder). Nor did he apologise to his judicially connected mother-in-law. Instead, he left Provence with his wife’s beautiful younger sister (then resident in a Benedictine convent), whom he got to write a letter which begins, ‘I swear to the Marquis de Sade, my lover, to give myself to no other than him, to never marry, to remain faithfully bound to him so long as the blood I use to seal this oath flows in my veins,’ followed by a signature written in her own blood. When Sade was sentenced to death, in absentia, for the crimes of poisoning and sodomy, with his life-sized effigy ceremoniously carried to the main square in Aix-en-Provence, where it was then beheaded and burned, the man himself was acquiring antiques in Italy with his sister-in-law and to all appearances unperturbed.
For most people imprisonment – the king of Sardinia soon put an end to Sade’s Italian idyll – would quickly cure them of this sort of criminality. But not for Sade. When, twenty years later, after more than one escape from prison, ‘Citizen Louis Sade’ found himself president of the Section des Piques, one of the most famous revolutionary sections, he pushed ahead with his radical programme of de-Christianisation, knowing full well that this was prompting a fit of murderous rage in the devout Robespierre (another member of the Section des Piques). The Terror saw Sade sentenced (again) to death, a fate he was spared not by any act of leniency, but because the bureaucracy had lost track of which prison he was lodged in, and he happened to stay alive long enough for Robespierre to find his own way to the guillotine. Free once again, Sade continued to do very much as he pleased until he angered Napoleon Bonaparte and was returned behind bars for the remainder of his life. There, he persuaded the warders that his young mistress was his daughter (she wasn’t) and between her visits he put on plays with casts of madmen and continued to write what he pleased.
The book for which Sade is best known, the one Napoleon called ‘the most abominable book which that most depraved imagination wrote’ and whose three versions span the revolutionary decade covered in this Pléiade volume, is Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (1791). The first version of this tale of two sisters – one who loves virtue, the other who loves vice – was written in the Bastille; it was barely a hundred pages long, and contained no obscenity. Phrases such as ‘the ensuing scene was as long as it was scandalous’ serve to fire, or quench, the reader’s imagination at key junctures. But no such restraint was employed in the succeeding versions as, by the end of the decade, the work – now called The New Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue, followed by the Story of Juliette, Her Sister (1799) – had grown to ten volumes covering 3700 pages. Sade’s claim on the book’s opening page that the story had been ‘softened as much as possible’ presents, in view of what follows, a frightening sense of the possible.
At the beginning of her story Justine is 12 (the same age as Lolita when hers begins). She is blonde, beautiful, blue-eyed and improbably virtuous. Her older sister, Juliette, has a very different moral make-up, one ‘sensitive only to the pleasure of being free’. Juliette’s equally schematic beauty is dark, as is her every design. Like Isabelle in Sade’s last work, The Secret History of Isabelle of Bavaria, Queen of France, Juliette is made for the libertine world. No tie but crime binds her, and none excites her more. When she encounters the man who brought about her parents’ deaths, for instance, she exclaims: ‘Yes, fuck me, Noirceuil! I love the idea of becoming the whore of my family’s executioner, make me wet with semen rather than tears.’ Whether in the murderer’s bedroom, in the convent of her youth, at the court of Catherine the Great, on the edge of Vesuvius – everywhere, in fact, from Paris to Siberia – the same story is told, and the same rules apply. We are introduced to commoners and kings, we meet a man whose erect penis is so hard he can crack a walnut with it and a giant who has ‘human furniture’. Thanks to her boundless love of vice, Juliette finds all this thoroughly gratifying, and amasses great wealth and influence in the process. Meanwhile, her little sister fares less well. Justine is made to learn, in countless terrible ways, that no good deed goes unpunished. She is raped and tortured with regularity.
Every change Sade made in the successive versions was – morally speaking – for the worse. After many years the sisters cross paths and compare notes. Justine is penniless, battered, in rags, and under arrest for crimes she didn’t commit. Juliette, countless crimes to her credit, is thriving. After freeing Justine from the authorities, and delighting in the long tale of her woes, Juliette and her libertine friends decide to turn her out in an advancing storm so as to have Nature decide her fate. She is promptly struck by lightning which, in defiance of fulminology, leaves her body not through her feet, but through her vagina. (In earlier versions the lightning – acting in a fashion that was no more physically possible but perhaps more seemly – left through her heart.) The libertines rush to the scene of Nature’s crime, reflect on the lesson, and praise Nature not only for confirming their beliefs but for sparing Justine’s beautiful buttocks; there is then a last round of violations.
When Sade was arrested at his printer’s in 1801 for the crime of having written this book, he had with him extensive notes for still further amplification of the story. This raises the question: do we really need to move our way through every committable crime to understand that virtue brings only misfortune? Would the beautifully written novella not have been enough?
In Literature and Evil (1957), Bataille wrote that ‘nothing would be more pointless than to take Sade at his word, to take him seriously.’ But how then are we to take him? The Goncourt brothers note that Flaubert, while reading Sade, would merrily exclaim: ‘It’s the most amusing stupidity I’ve ever encountered!’ In a more reverent vein Swinburne spoke of ‘a thrill of the infinite in the accursed pages’. For many people in the century Apollinaire predicted he would dominate, Sade’s supreme message was the same violent one as the Revolution’s: freedom. Such a note of ecstatic anarchy has been struck often, from The Surrealist Manifesto (1924) to Debord’s Screams in Favour of Sade (1952), to the slogan that spread around the walls of Paris during May 1968: ‘Sadists of all nations, popularise the struggle of the divine Marquis!’ But this has not been the only note sounded. As news of Nazi atrocities began to filter through to them in their Californian exile, Adorno and Horkheimer dedicated the second chapter of their Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944) to ‘Juliette, or Enlightenment and Morality’. In Sade they saw a dark energy being released once Enlightenment rationality was freed from all consensual restraints. The independence of mind which was the defining trait and central credo of that rationality – Kant’s ‘Verstand ohne Leitung eines anderen’, ‘understanding without the direction of another’ – was at the same time the greatest threat to individual liberty. ‘The architectonic structure of the Kantian system,’ they wrote, ‘like the gymnastic pyramids of the Sadean orgy, announce an organisation of all aspects of life divorced from any inherent goal.’ The Enlightenment which their dialectic sought to reveal, and reorient, had as heritage not revolution, solipsism and anarchy but the globalising society of surveillance and punishment in which the authors found themselves living – and which seemed to be going up in flames.
These were far from the last doubts voiced on this count. While reading Twenty Months at Auschwitz by Pelagia Lewińska in 1945, Raymond Queneau noted that ‘the real meaning’ of the camps was to ‘dehumanise human beings (which was the goal proposed by Sade’s heroes)’, and found, in Sade, ‘a hallucinatory precursor of the world ruled by the Gestapo’. Later that same year Queneau wrote that the fact ‘that Sade was not personally a terrorist … does not exempt those who found themselves sharing to a greater or lesser extent the Marquis’s theses from having to envisage, without hypocrisy, the reality of the concentration camps’, where horrors were ‘no longer locked in the mind of a man, but carried out by thousands of fanatics’. In The Origins of Totalitarianism Hannah Arendt found that for an avant-garde of French intellectuals between the wars it was ‘not Darwin but the Marquis de Sade’ whom they read, and that ‘to them, violence, power, cruelty, were the supreme capacities of men who had definitely lost their place in the universe and were much too proud to long for a power theory that would safely bring them back and reintegrate them into the world.’ Neither these commentators nor later ones such as Foucault – who was to remark on ‘the unlimited right of an all-powerful monstrosity’ shared by Sade and the Nazi death camps – suggest anything like inspiration. Which leaves open the question of what it means to celebrate works that seem to have provided the script for the most monstrous turns modern history has taken.
Understanding Sade means understanding his libertines. Justine grew through ever more attention being given to them, with each successive version casting more light on what these supremely ruthless men and women are doing. What is made immediately clear is that they are not hedonists, and are not simply following their desires. Their pleasure principle is rigorous and reasoned, and their ultimate goal isn’t even pleasure in any easily recognisable form. This is not so much because it contains pain – it’s a common enough idea, from ancient Greece to recent studies in neuroscience, that pain and pleasure are wedded in mysterious ways – but because their goal is to feel nothing at all, precisely as they perform the most criminal acts imaginable. Sade’s libertines cede to every criminal, harmful, violent impulse that occurs to them; they find that reason not only encourages but obliges them to do so. But the same does not apply to generous or loving desires. They strive to reason away any kind or caring impulse that might come to mind. A libertine in Juliette speaks for all her fellows when she describes ‘a tranquillity, a repose in the passions, a stoicism that allows me to do everything and suffer everything without emotion’. (The true Sadean libertine is never a sadist in the modern or medical sense of the term: although they freely cause pain to the bodies around them, they are ideally indifferent to anything those bodies experience.) This is why the scenes of debauch are so theatrical, so architectural, so excessive, as well as being the reason they are largely unsensual (in that they make few appeals to any sense but sight). We are told in precise detail who is whipping whom while perched on what, we are given the exact position of gardener, turkey-cock, cleric and the Grand Duke of Tuscany, but there is almost no sensual detail, no tingling of excitement, no tiny modulation of voice, no warmth of touch, no odour. What Sade presents is a scenography, and he makes no secret of the fact: he routinely employs terms from the theatre such as ‘scene’, ‘act’, ‘posture’, ‘position’ and ‘tableau’. You aren’t meant to imagine that you’re there and participating: you’re meant to imagine that you’re watching. But the most important thing that Sade’s idea of an exalted apathy explains is why the books can never end and why their libertines are so enraged.
Sade’s philosophy describes a circle of fire in which the libertines are trapped. The first stage of their dialectic of Enlightenment involves doing away with God in favour of Nature. Nature burns away religious belief through the heat of its passions – or so it seems to the apprentice libertine. But things can’t end so harmoniously. For what is Nature, when capitalised in that way? ‘Whore!’ says Juliette, as it dawns on her that Nature is just one more imposition of order on chaos – less obviously erroneous than a Christian God, but of the same immaterial substance. If you are a libertine in Sade’s world you are seeking to break something you fear is unbreakable: belief in order and care for others. This is where real libertine rage sets in. In the speech that gave the Musée d’Orsay their exhibition title, a libertine cries out that he wants ‘to attack the sun so as to deprive the universe of it, or use it to set the world aflame’. The same rage makes a libertine elsewhere in Sade cry out: ‘Oh, if I could set the universe on fire, I should still curse Nature for offering only one world to my fiery desires!’ With the loss of a coherent idea of Nature the libertine loses, as Juliette loses, a coherent idea of crime: Juliette is forced to conclude that ‘crime has no reality: that is, the possibility of crime does not exist because there is no way to outrage nature.’ Sade’s libertines dream of apathy, but for them apathy is like the grail – they can never quite reach it.
‘Far from placing desire above all,’ Blanchot observed, ‘Sade judged it suspect and subordinated it.’ Desire fully felt moves you towards someone, and the very point of the libertine exercise was to move away from them, to ascend ever higher into the empyrean of one’s own autonomy. So much of our energy, Sade observes, flows towards others. Were we able to reverse that flow, to feel all our energy flood back into ourselves, we would be truly free. This is the libertines’ end. That is why they do all they do: why every ounce of fellow feeling has to be systematically stamped out. ‘It is no accident that sadism, as an individual phenomenon bearing the name of a man,’ Foucault remarked in his (unpublished) lectures on Sade, ‘was born of confinement and, within confinement, that Sade’s entire work is dominated by the images of the Fortress, the Cell, the Cellar, the Convent, the inaccessible island, which thus form, as it were, the natural habitat of unreason.’