Marquis de SadeThere's a truism about truth being stranger, but the Marquis de Sade wrote that "Truth titillates the imagination far less than fiction."
Certainly, de Sade was in a position to speak knowledgeably about both imagination and titillation, although his ability to distinguish between truth and fiction is a little less renowned. Then again, well-balanced people generally don't get major fetishes named after them.
Donatien Alphonse François comte de Sade was born into privileged French nobility in 1740. An extremely spoiled child, he grew up on various country estates, including an ancient castle with a dank, miserable dungeon, which no doubt played a factor in his developing psyche. He was also the beneficiary of a Catholic school education. Unlike the current Catholic school setup, in which youngsters are subjected to mostly mental abuse and surreptitious molestation, the Jesuits of the day included public whippings as part of the daily routine.
Clearly, young Donatien was accumulating some issues as he groped his way toward manhood.
Enlisting in the Army at age 14, he fought in the Seven Years War, France's last gasp at reclaiming its former status as a world power by battling the British for control of the American colonies. The British won, more or less, but the American Revolution rendered the whole thing kind of moot, except for the whole Quebec thing.
Donny didn't play well with the other soldiers, although he achieved a captain's rank by virtue of his bloodline. After the war, he returned to Paris a young man full of piss and vinegar, and apparently a whole lot of testosterone too. He began fucking his way through the female population of the city. Several minor scandals resulted, mostly of the "must've seemed like a big deal at the time, but who gives a shit now" variety.
de Sade himself was dismissive of the importance of his actions, speculating that everyone indulged as he did, just more quietly. Writing later in life, he said, "So long as the laws remain such as they are today, employ some discretion: loud opinion forces us to do so; but in privacy and silence let us compensate ourselves for that cruel chastity we are obliged to display in public."
His estimation of his own discretion was greatly exaggerated however. In 1763, he was placed into an arranged marriage with a woman named Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, whom he'd met only days before the ceremony. Montreuil proved to be a surprisingly devoted wife (in the context of what was to come). Marriage didn't slow de Sade's debaucheries with the working women of the Paris streets.
It was hardly a shock to anyone that French nobles got their rocks off, but de Sade had developed a willful persona and wasn't interested in discretion or cheap thrills. He enjoyed orgies, blasphemy and subversion in equal measure.
Within months of his marriage, he was arrested for mixing those pleasures. de Sade invited a prostitute over for what at first appeared to be the usual procedure, but quickly diverted from foreplay into... well, something else. According to the woman, de Sade masturbated into a chalice, called God a "motherfucker" and inserted communion hosts into her naughty bits, all the while screaming for God to strike him down if God was so tough.
Although God refused to be baited, the French authorities were less lenient, and Dontatien was sentenced to the first of what would be many stints in prison. After a few months, he was released to exile outside Paris, the equivalent of house arrest. Under close surveillance from the authorities, de Sade returned to debauchery, albeit apparently without the aid of religious artifacts.
After a couple of years, the scandal died down a bit, which meant de Sade had to fire it back up. He was again brought up on charges, this time for whipping a woman he had purportedly hired as a household servant and masturbating onto her bloodied ass. de Sade paid the woman to drop the charges, but a public outcry led to another few months in prison, followed by another house arrest.
Through travel and luck, de Sade managed to stay out of prison for several years after the whipping incident, satisfying himself with such minor scandals as an affair with his wife's sister and entertaining his mind by staging productions for his various theater friends (who shared his fondness for orgies and escapades). He expanded his interests into male prostitutes as well, although carefully, since homosexuality was a crime comparable to communion-host-fucking. He also compiled a massive library of pornography, including volume on volume of material dealings with priests, nuns and monks in various states of flagrancy.
In 1772, de Sade accidentally poisoned several prostitutes with Spanish Fly at a series of bisexual orgies, which he was attempted to use for the same reasons it is used today. He was convicted in absentia of sodomy and poisoning, prompting him to flee the country with his wife's sister.
de Sade's wife was seemingly unfazed by this behavior, and continued to aid and support him as he embarked on the life of an outlaw. After several months, he was apprehended again and sentenced to solitary confinement, barred even from having visitors. But de Sade charmed the warden, first winning for himself some loosening of the rules of his incarceration, then exploiting his newfound privileges to stage an escape.
de Sade left the country and went on the run for more than a year, eventually returning to France to enlist his wife's assistance in concocting a new sexual adventure. What happened next depends on who you talk to, but the general consensus is that de Sade and his wife hired six teenage girls as "domestic servants" for the winter, then the Marquis spent the season at their country estate forcing the girls through various acts of humiliation and sexual indignity—what we today call "sadism," in the Marquis' honor.
According to the criminal charges that inevitably followed, the activities included masturbation, fellatio, sodomy, gay sodomy, scourging and bondage. After about six weeks, the families of the girls grew concerned at not hearing from them, and contacted the authorities. The girls were dispatched to various convents and safehouses, but it was too late to contain the damage from this latest crime. Nevertheless, it took the authorities months to actually move against de Sade, despite the fact he was an escaped prisoner.
He fled the country again, but returned like a moth to the flame. Having learned nothing from his previous experiences, he solicited a local priest to help him arrange a fresh round of orgies with young girls. The priest complied, but the fun ended when an outraged father attempted to shoot de Sade at close range. The gun misfired, but the incident prompted the Marquis to reconsider his relationship with the authorities. Still laboring under the completely unwarranted delusion that his noble title would somehow protect him, de Sade went to Paris, where he was promptly arrested.
This time, it was for real. de Sade was locked in a series of filthy prison cells where his movements were restricted, causing him to become bloated and obese. To pass the time in prison, he secretly began scratching out writings, which he wisely concealed from his jailers.
de Sade didn't think he had done anything wrong. In a letter written from prison, he said, "Mans natural character is to imitate; that of the sensitive man is to resemble as closely as possible the person whom he loves. It is only by imitating the vices of others that I have earned my misfortunes." It's hard to imagine which "others" de Sade could have been imitating. There's nothing new under the sun, but de Sade was pretty original, all things considered.
Between his squalid surroundings and his even more squalid brain, the Marquis produced exactly the kind of writing you would expect. Horrific. His writing features a shockingly large percentage of the sum total of bad things that people can do to other people, including rape, pederasty, necrophilia, oral sex, sodomy (of course), watersports, incest, bestiality, sexual vomiting, gang bangs, etc., etc., etc. The list goes on and on.
"120 Days of Sodom" painted a depraved picture of de Sade's real-life winter experiment on steroids. In the story, four depraved authority figures imprison dozens of children in a remote fortress for the winter, where they practice every imaginable depravity against them:
[T]he Duc found it more pleasant to impale two at the same time. He besought his brother to fit Augustine in place, her buttocks were pressed flush against Zéphyr's thighs and the Duc, thus simultaneously fucking a boy and a girl, as it were, to put yet a little more of the lubricious into the thing, frigged Zéphyr's prick on the pretty, round and fair buttocks of Augustine, and soaked them with that child-fuck which, as may easily be imagined, was mightily warmed by such treatment and soon spattered abundantly out.
de Sade also allowed his imagination to run wild over various fetishes and bodily functions, with often nauseating results. Literally nauseating, in fact:
[T]hey are served supper, both get blind drunk, both become unreasonable, one vomits in the other's mouth, the one swallows the stuff, then the other vomits into the mouth of the first, now he swallows, and so forth and so on, and they finally collapse into the supper's debris, that is to say, into the filth they've just splashed all over the floor. And then I am sent into the fray, for my co-worker has not an ounce of strength left, indeed she has lost consciousness. But this, however, is the crucial moment from the libertine's point of view: I find him prone, his prick straight and hard as a crowbar; I seize his instrument, [he] stammers, swears, draws me to him, sucks my mouth, and discharges like a bull, the while twisting and turning and continuing to wallow in his ordure.
de Sade wrote and wrote to fill his 13 years of imprisonment with unsanitary fantasies and unhealthy obsessions, occasionally bothering to layer some reasonably unsophisticated social content on top of his pornography in the hopes of... Well, it's not quite clear what one hopes to accomplish by mixing social commentary with descriptions of eating feces, but one speculates that there must have been some point he was trying to make.
OK, OK, there was a point. de Sade argued against conventions of morality and decorum on the basis that these so-called virtues (such as "monogamous heterosexuality" and "avoiding cannibalism" and "generally being nice") did not exist in nature:
"Wolves which batten upon lambs, lambs consumed by wolves, the strong who immolate the weak, the weak victims of the strong: there you have Nature, there you have her intentions, there you have her scheme: a perpetual action and reaction, a host of vices, a host of virtues, in one word, a perfect equilibrium resulting from the equality of good and evil on earth."
Certainly, in retrospect, there has been a long and lively debate about exactly what that point might have been, or if there really was one. Analyzing the writings of the Marquis de Sade is more likely to get your Web site canceled than get you an invitation to a literature symposium, but in recent years, there have been many scholars and/or perverts willing to go out on a limb looking for de Sade's redeeming values.
de Sade has inspired a number of biographical movies, books and plays; he even plays a guest role in a comic book.
Modern critics have rightly pointed out that de Sade foreshadowed the age of psychoanalysis, identifying the power and the nature of the sexual obsessions that would later be more clinically obsessed over by Sigmund Freud. The fact that he was also thoroughly in the thrall of those obsessions doesn't detract from the insight.
As de Sade himself wrote, "lust is to the other passions what the nervous fluid is to life; it supports them all, lends strength to them all ... ambition, cruelty, avarice, revenge, are all founded on lust."
In the 20th century, many students of literature turned to de Sade to look for insight into humanity's dark impulses. Most of them manage to sit through one reading. Very few people can go back and linger over the details of his stories.
de Sade managed to cash in on some of this notoriety and incipient respectability within his lifetime. When the French Revolution began in 1789, de Sade found his fortunes once again reversed. He was treated as a political prisoner, released in 1790, re-indicted and re-imprisoned, pardoned, and then given a position with the new government. Yay, democracy!
Despite now being grotesquely overweight and no longer technically a Marquis (what with the whole democracy thing), de Sade was still horny and unrepentant. Even as he penned revolutionary pamphlets for his newfound patrons, he was writing and publishing his plays and novels of sexual depravity, sometimes under pseudonyms. As he struggled to find financial security in the post-nobility era, de Sade sold off family holdings and continued to write.
In 1801, de Sade was again arrested, in the offices of his publisher. Unlike his previous arrests, which covered a range of sins from rape to poisoning, the police were cracking down on his writings.
de Sade was imprisoned for the rest of his life, without a charge ever being filed. Rather than risk a debate over the content of his works, the government chose to institutionalize him in an asylum after he began making noises about wanting a trial.
de Sade continued writing novels and plays while in the asylum, where he slowly grew paranoid... well, more paranoid... well, more crazy generally. Whatever. It wasn't good, but it could have been worse. de Sade was permitted the occasional privilege, such as walking the grounds and being allowed to write. After befriending the warden, de Sade was encouraged to stage plays with the other inmates as a form of therapy, and he managed to find a few people to fuck as well.
In 1814, at the age of 74, the Marquis de Sade died in his sleep. No doubt his last wish involved someone having sex with his corpse, but if this was done, there is no record of it.