Doing Some Measuring ahead of Time

Richard Davenport-Hines

‘I learned to ski in prison,’ Gregory Corso wrote, having discovered that there’s nothing much for prisoners to do except imagine, fantasise and, what often follows, masturbate. Although the chief interest in Sade’s Letters from Prison lies in tracing the stimulus incarceration gave to his literary imagination, one should honour in passing his phenomenal achievements in solitary vice. At the age of 44 he was claiming to masturbate eight times daily. ‘One good hour in the morning for five manilles, artistically graduated from 6 to 9, a good half hour in the evening for three more, these last being smaller – no cause for alarm there, I should think.’ The noisiness of the final stage of these performances must have increased his unpopularity with his jailers. ‘No matter what precautions I may take I am quite certain that these convulsions and spasms, not to mention the physical pain, can be heard as far as the Faubourg St Antoine.’

Sade was always attracted by ‘vice’ and, as he wrote from his cell at Vincennes in 1782, ‘always thought that the greatest men were those who knew how to throw themselves into it completely and passionately’. Early in his imprisonment he warned that ‘a misdeed, whose origin lies in hot-bloodedness, is not corrected by making that selfsame blood more bitter, by firing the brain through deprivation and inflaming the imagination through solitude.’ His treatment during the next 13 years of imprisonment without trial drove him to transfer his private vices and angry obsessions – once confined to mises-en-scène in brothels and at his château of La Coste near Apt – to reams of paper. His scribblings (on sheets sometimes four inches wide and forty feet long) ensured that long after the man Sade was dead, there was still Sadism.

Sade has attracted a bevy of Freudian biographers who have tried to explain his self-destructive course in terms of parental influence. This is unjustly reductive of a man whose temperament was so individual and whose behaviour was so resolutely self-invented. If one must seek a formative external influence, it was surely Sade’s schooling rather than defective parenting. His education by his uncle, a licentious abbé whose château he likened to a bordello, provided his introduction to the hypocrisy of authority. ‘If throughout my life something has kept me as removed as possible from piety and devoutness, it is canting sanctimony, which I abhor, and that terrible habit the elderly have of practising religion on the one hand and indulging in the most loathsome vices on the other,’ he told his wife in 1781.

By his early twenties his sexual imagination was idiosyncratic. In 1763, shortly after his marriage, Sade was arrested in Paris and charged with blasphemy and sodomy after offering money to a fan-maker and asking her to whip him while he masturbated using a crucifix. His ambitious mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, wife of the President of the Court of Taxation, obtained his release, although from then on the police induced Paris brothels to refuse him entry. At Easter 1768, he subjected a middle-aged woman textile worker to an ordeal of flagellation. His victim’s complaints were so strenuous that within ten days Madame Deffand was reporting the affair to her friend Horace Walpole in London. Again Montreuil saved Sade from total disgrace. He had begun organising, orchestrating and choreographing private orgies with prostitutes, recruited mostly by his menservants, who sometimes also took part. Sade doubtless enjoyed directing and watching his private sexual theatricals because of a growing sexual dysfunction. As he recalled to his wife in 1784, she had long before ‘had some inkling’, when living with him at La Coste, of his difficulties in ejaculating (‘the stubborn refusal of this arrow to leave the bow’). Now, when he succeeded in climaxing in the Bastille, it was ‘veritably an attack of epilepsy’.

His early depravity upset both prostitutes and brothel-keepers; after a foray to Marseille in 1772, accompanied by his valet, Georges Latour, he was accused of sodomy and of poisoning two prostitutes to whom he had administered ‘candied lozenges’ steeped in Spanish fly. Sade’s financial prodigality had shocked Madame de Montreuil even before he seduced and eloped with her younger daughter, his own sister-in-law. Montreuil’s antagonism became implacable, and the Ancien Régime closed in on him. After a prolonged and scandalous bacchanal at La Coste, he was detained under a lettre de cachet issued by Louis XVI at his mother-in-law’s instigation in 1777. His calvary of 13 years’ incarceration began.

He was consigned to solitary confinement in the ‘horrible hell’ of Vincennes. ‘I am in a tower locked up behind 19 iron doors, my only source of light being two little windows each outfitted with a score of bars,’ he wrote. ‘For about ten or twelve minutes a day I have the company of a man who brings me food. The rest of the time I spend alone and in weeping.’ The bad air in his cell gave him blinding headaches; he coughed blood; his eyesight failed; he was treated like a wild animal. In a letter of 1779 to his wife he likened his tormentors to ‘ne’er-do-wells who go, sticks in hand, to jeer at the lion held captive in an iron cage. It is with a mixture of great fear and glee they tease it, poking their sticks through the bars.’ Meal-times were particularly stressful. ‘Neck-deep in refuse and filth, eaten alive by bugs, fleas, mice and spiders, served like a pig because of the incredible speed wherewith they light out of my room as soon as they have brought me my meals, I never have the time to remember what I need or to ask for it, and our innkeeper’s three scullions [are] always ready to open fire the moment my door is unbolted.’ In other phases of his imprisonment his food was pushed ‘through a trapdoor, the way they do with the insane’. He believed that in retribution for his use of Spanish fly on prostitutes, his food was being adulterated with drugs. As he protested to an official in 1782, ‘I have never even once in my life mixed any drugs … that could have negatively affected the health of a human being, and certainly not without that person’s knowing it.’

In the many surviving letters to his long-suffering wife, he swerved between angry contempt, greedy need and affection. ‘My greatest afflictions have come from no one but you,’ he railed in 1778; in other moods he was contrite and even doting. ‘My own life is less dear to me than yours,’ he was insisting three years later, before assuring her, with evident sincerity but astonishing self-deception, ‘I should not survive for one minute were I to think that I had been the cause of your losing even so much as a single hour’s sleep.’ He was full of urgent sexual confidences. Warning that if she visits him in his cell, ‘we won’t be able to measure each other’ because a bailiff will be present, he adds, ‘as for me, I am doing some measuring ahead of time.’ When she was permitted her first prison visit in 1781, he was distraught at the revealing white dress and meticulously curled hair that she wore to give him pleasure. He became horribly jealous, and was convinced that as part of a plot by her mother, she was having an intrigue with a Provençal manservant.

At other times his messages resembled those of an eager boarding-schoolboy beseeching his mother. ‘Kindly send me some books, candles both large and small, jams, some cotton stockings, and as always both kinds of marshmallow,’ he requested in 1780. He was testy when his wife did not satisfy his ravenous needs. ‘The sponge cake is not at all what I asked for: 1) I wanted it iced everywhere, both on top and underneath, with the same icing used on the little cookies; 2) I wanted it to be chocolate inside, of which it contains not the slightest hint; they have coloured it with some sort of dark herb.’

In a very long letter of 1784 he attempted self-extenuation to his wife:

Yes, I am a libertine, that I admit. I have conceived everything that can be conceived in that area, but I certainly have not practised everything I have conceived and never shall. I am a libertine, but I am neither a criminal nor a murderer … I am a libertine, but three families living in your section of the city lived for five years on my charity, and I rescued them from the depths of poverty. I am a libertine, but I saved a deserter from the military, a man abandoned by his entire regiment and by his colonel, from certain death. I am a libertine, but at Evry, with your entire family looking on, I saved at the risk of my own life a child who was about to be crushed beneath the wheels of a cart drawn by runaway horses, and I did so by throwing myself beneath that cart. I am a libertine, but I have never compromised the health of my wife.

Sade’s prison letters can seem interminable, monotonous, inexorable; they are as repetitive and (bar some cumbersome sarcasm) as humourless as his novels. His obsessive delusion that his wife was hiding in her letters ‘signals’ indicating the date of his release resulted in many agitated, incomprehensible passages about numbers, or coded sequences. Manipulative and self-absorbed, he was both shrewd and obtuse about other people’s feelings. When his wife declared her distress at having to commission Parisian carpenters to make oblong wooden cases which he had designed for his preferred method of masturbation, he tried to console her with a story about a Roman cardinal who averred that a hand-job every morning makes a man ‘studious, cheerful and healthy’. He constantly fretted about his estate at La Coste. ‘Make sure that they take proper care of the park,’ he besought his wife. ‘Have instructions given to replace the little row of hazelnut trees; it costs nothing and this is the time of year to do it.’ The anguished references to his property recall the connection Malraux made between sadism and ‘the delirious will of impossible possession’.

The jailers baited him with sneers and fed him with garbled news from the outside world designed to make him anxious: like prison officers in modern Britain, they made scapegoats of sexual offenders. Under great provocation he occasionally assaulted them. He fought back against the stupid, harassing rules: he craved fresh air and walks, but when this privilege was offered him with patronising insolence in 1780, he retorted so aggressively that the jailer withdrew the offer. Recounting the incident in a letter to his wife, Sade sounds like a real Bourbon nobleman who forgot nothing and learned nothing. ‘Were they to disembowel me alive, I should never exchange my maxim one whit: mild and polite to a fault as long as others are the same with me; barbed and very strict when others are lacking in proper respect towards me.’

Sade was enraged by the institutional cruelty, and although he cracked, he never broke into madness. The prisoners at Vincennes were free to read and write all they wished, and Sade’s extensive personal library was crucial in preserving the core of his identity. Books further excited the ideas that made sleep elusive. Insomniacs are as big liars as fishermen, but whatever his exaggerations, Sade was acutely deprived. ‘For the past 15 nights in a row – I took the trouble to count them – I have not had a wink of sleep – at most what they call a catnap each night,’ he complained in 1779. A year later he was inflating the statistics. ‘By actual count, I spent 17 nights without closing what are referred to as one’s eyelids for a single minute.’ The most powerful sections of Oscar Wilde’s Complete Letters, published last year, are his self-abnegating petitions for amelioration of his conditions. His pleas to the Home Secretary, in which he denounced himself as ‘suffering from the most horrible form of erotomania’ and as ‘the helpless prey of the most revolting passions’, were written in anguish by a man broken by vindictive rules and a brutal environment. Sade, by contrast, never attacked himself in this way, and never repudiated his nature. His imprisonment did not bring repentance. ‘For me, good is a state both uncomfortable and disagreeable, and I ask no more than to be left to wallow in my slough; I like it,’ he wrote (for the benefit of prison censors) in 1783. ‘You fancied you were sure to work wonders, I’ll wager, by reducing me to an atrocious abstinence in the article of carnal sin. Well, you were wrong: you have produced a ferment in my brain; owing to you phantoms have arisen in me which I shall have to render real.’

Prison conditions shaped and sharpened Sade’s political ideas. His resistance was adamant. ‘It is the manifold misuse of authority on the part of the government that multiplies the vices of individuals,’ he wrote after punishing confrontations with the Vincennes authorities in 1783. ‘With what face do those who are at the head of the Government dare punish vice, dare demand virtue, when they themselves provide the example of every depravity on the face of the earth?’ he demanded. The higher French authorities, with privileges and monopolies, would ‘remorselessly sacrifice millions of their King’s subjects’ so as ‘to satisfy their cupidity, their avarice, their ambition, their pride, their rapacity, their lust’. Sade regarded himself as a strict moralist who upheld the rules of aristocratic patriarchy. ‘Adultery on the part of woman is a subject fraught with such dire harm, the consequences thereof are so catastrophic and so deadly that I have been unable to tolerate it,’ he explained in 1782. The dire consequences of adultery, which so shocked noblemen, were confusions of paternity. Ancestral property might be usurped by the secret-bastard sons of women who had cuckolded their husbands.

Imprisonment provided Sade with his vocation: to be a ruined man. He began to write for publication after his transfer to the Bastille in 1784. The intellectual impoverishment, social stultification and sexual frustration of long confinement drove him to write his earliest fiction, Les Cent-Vingt Journées de Sodome, in 1784-85. The book was prison-cell pornography, but prison conditions had honed Sade’s interest in social issues, and he used sex in his writings as a way of describing power relations. As Peter Wagner demonstrated in Eros Revived (1988), politicised pornography was an 18th-century commonplace. Sade’s pornography, as one would expect from a man who so calamitously lacked the power to refrain, is boringly exaggerated. The interminable and elaborate orgies he describes are devoid of the teasing and improvised mischief that characterise a successful orgiast. Instead, the acts are almost mathematically structured, and develop in grotesque and rigid permutations. They end, generally, after frantic sexual excess, in torture and death rather than a sore but satisfied smirk. The omnipotence and vitality of the sadists is an understandable projection of the fat, ill masturbator confined in his cramped cell.

Richard Seaver, in his intelligent introductory essay to his translation of these letters, characterises Sade as a paramount rebel who doubted and attacked everything:

Railing against society, religion and authority in all forms, excoriating laws and the courts, bewigged judges, corrupt prosecutors, venal police, decrying hypocritical clergy, he reached the only philosophical conclusion that such an attitude demanded if taken to its extreme: utter anarchy, in which no law or official constraint impeded the freedom of the individual – especially if that individual was the marquis himself.

Sade, though, was an obsessive rather than a conceptual thinker. His tirades against notions of providence, virtue and progress were too self-centred to pass for philosophy. His invective is so unrelenting that it begins to feel like indignant froth. In his lifetime his books were banned and burned by the authorities; after his death in 1814, his descendants sought to erase his name from human memory. A few early editions of his books survived on the top shelves of private libraries, but it was not until 1909 that Apollinaire began the revival of interest in Sade by predicting that ‘this man who appeared to count for nothing during the whole of the 19th century may dominate the 20th.’ Sade’s full rehabilitation only began after 1945, with the discovery of the evil which humans are capable of organising.

Some of his admirers have a fatuous view of his life and work. They recognise that the authorities, by isolating Sade in a sort of moral quarantine, empowered his ideas, but they have little interest in the ways that art, as Auden said, is born of humiliation. The subversive possibilities of servility and subordination – the great uniting theme of 18th-century gothic fiction after the publication of Horace Walpole’s Castle of Otranto – also seem nugatory to many of his promoters. Often they are too literal-minded to see the power that the bottom can exercise over the top in rites of domination. ‘Many a man believes himself the master of others, and yet is a greater slave than they,’ as Rousseau wrote. Some Sadians try to idealise pain. Barthes wrote that to be in love is to be ‘in the brazier of meaning’, and Sade theorists seem to claim something similar for pain. Actually, as Raymond Tallis wrote in 1992, once pain ‘has done its job of warning us of danger, it is meaningless; or worse than meaningless, since it drains meaning from everything else and commands rapt and exclusive attention.’ For Tallis, a physician, ‘to be in chronic physical pain is to be in the brazier of unmeaning.’

The abundant claims for Sade as a sexual reformer tend to be unrealistic. After a telephone interview with the New York Times Book Review, one of his French biographers, Maurice Lever, was quoted as saying: ‘Sade was the first to dare to write about his own neuroses and obsessions. In that sense, he preceded Freud by a hundred years. He made us discover that the sexual instinct is anarchic and uncontrollable. After Sade, we no longer think of sex as something light, playful and superficial.’ The Freudian notion that humans are seething with hidden neuroses, and that these neuroses are either interesting or fertile, deserves as much respect today as other 19th-century notions, such as masturbation being a disease and the cause of disease. To have a neurotic or obsessed child, spouse or colleague is a guarantee of inveterate frustration and monotony; Sade is no help at all in coping. Lever’s idea that most adults before Sade – adults who were ill-nourished, broken by physical labour, chronically ill and exhausted – regarded sexual acts as light, playful and superficial rather than a matter of brief, urgent, possibly rather brutal relief is pitifully unhistorical. The fantasy that sexual instinct is anarchic and uncontrollable is just as absurd. Even a horny 18-year-old boy ‘’avin’ it large, ‘avin’ it major’ in a club in Romford has his limits: there will be girls in the club – not to mention the guys – whom he wouldn’t dream of including in any private sexual anarchy.

Nikolaj Frobenius’s novel De Sade’s Valet is a literary equivalent of ‘avin’ it large in Romford. It is banal and successfully commercialised (having sold 150,000 copies in Scandinavia, Germany and France), but a spark from the Sadians’ brazier of unmeaning. The Marquis did indeed employ a valet called Georges Latour, who was his coadjutor in the Marseille orgy. Frobenius has spun a boring fantasy around a few shilling facts known about Latour. In his version, Bou-bou, a moneylender at Honfleur who is ‘a masterpiece of ugliness’, conceives after being casually penetrated by an escaped convict who has just puked: ‘her womb swelled and she was filled with fluid.’ She develops a craving for raw octopus when pregnant: during the confinement her screams are ‘so intolerable that the mid-wife had to stuff a shoe in her mouth’. When, wracked on her ‘blood-soaked mattress’, she gazes at her new-born son, he looks ‘as ugly as the devil’ and hisses venomously. The boy proves impervious to pain, and is soon torturing grasshoppers, dismembering insects and hanging cats. Local girls are ‘suffused with a rapturous shudder’ when they behold ‘his melancholy expression and large cold eyes’. He studies taxidermy with a sinister old man living in a Hansel and Gretel cottage, tries to murder the hunchback who becomes his mother’s lover, and befriends an improbable whore, with whom he moves to Paris. While working in a brothel, he beats a young medical student to death, assumes his identity and becomes the brilliant favoured student of a disgraced anatomist named Foucault. His training with Foucault escalates his killing spree. Using his scalpel, he murders an opera singer, a textile manufacturer, an aristocratic botanist, a Benedictine monk, an aged seamstress and so on. These incidents are described in prose that manages to seem both stale and over-written, although they are superior to later passages when Latour has become Sade’s valet and procurer. Film rights have been sold, and certainly the Honfleur scenes and serial killings have cinematic possibilities. Frobenius’s musings on cruelty are sufficiently unchallenging for Hollywood.