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.

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