The reputation of the marquis de Sade as the source for the term "sadism" was, of course, what initially attracted me, as a schoolboy aged twelve, to the excellent book by Geoffrey Gorer, THE LIFE AND IDEAS OF THE MARQUIS DE SADE. The book soon put paid to my "naughty" curiosity and set me on the road to the fuller appreciation of experience which is essential for any true socialist. Not that Sade was a socialist in our sense of the term. (Could he have been?) But he was a champion of freedom. Prison made him that.
It was the fact of Sade's virtually lifelong imprisonment which made of him (a terrible but true thing to say) someone who should be of note to us. His birth, on June 2nd, 1740, to one of the most ancient feudal families of France (related to the Bourbons) entitled him to the enjoyment of everything the 18th century could offer its ruling class. Without the vicissitudes which marked his life and made of it one of turmoil, rage and frustration, Sade the materialist thinker, writer and revolutionary would not exist. We would have had nothing but another useless aristocrat, to be fittingly swept aside with the rest of his class in the French Revolution. Fortunately for us, this was not the case.
Sade would spend about 30 years, on and off, a prisoner of all three French regimes: the monarchy, the republic and the empire; and the real reason for this, in the first place, was his marriage.
The Sade family can definitely be traced back to the 11th century as established in Provence. Indeed, until Jean-Baptiste, Sade's father, the comtes de Sade never left Provence. They originated as bourgeois, engaged in the manufacture of salt and textiles, and are believed to have arrived in Provence from Italy. Services to the crown and favours granted ennobled the Sades and they were permitted to entitle themselves "noblesse d'épée" - nobility of the sword (aristocracy ennobled through war) - which they were not, instead of "noblesse de robe", or ennobled bourgeois. One of Sade's ancestors, Hugues de Sade, married Laura, the love of the Italian poet Petrarch and the subject of his sonnets.
By the 18th century the Sade fortunes had largely been squandered in the general decline marking the rule of the old French aristocracy and they, like other noble families, were obliged to seek marriage alliances with the up and coming bourgeoisie which, in return for cash, would thereby receive the ennoblement it coveted.
Louis XIV hastened this process, conferring titles on hundreds of upstarts (as pointed out by Sade in the introduction to his "The 120 Days of Sodom".)
Sade's father, impoverished (by aristocratic standards!) concluded a marriage for his reluctant son (our Sade, whose name was Donatien Alphonse François) with Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, daughter of a magistrate. The Montreuils were exceedingly rich, but Donatien was highly sexed and more interested in Anne, Renée's sister, with whom he absconded to Italy. Devoted to a life of pleasure and squandering his inheritance, he made a mortal enemy of his respectable and ferocious mother-in-law, the presidente de Montreuil, who wanted to settle down to a normal, privileged life with a normal son-in-law conscious of the "proprieties". (Sade's own family were irrelevant by this time. His father gave up on his delinquent son, and was only too pleased to have palmed him off onto the Montreuils. His mother, a former lady-in-waiting to the Queen, was resigned to life in a convent, as were his aunts, living and dying as obscure shadows behind convent walls - and occasionally sending their errant nephew pious letters, to which he always replied respectfully.)
Paris was the life for the young aristocrat, who would be classed as "hypersexual" by modern "psychologists". The more daring the orgies, the better! Soon, fascinated by bondage games which would obsess later, Victorian, prudes and moralisers, he attracted the attention of blackmailers - and that meant embarrassment for the Montreuils! Unlike the orgies of psychotic killers and rapists like the duc de Charolais - who was never punished nor restrained, and whose name has never been linked to anything notorious, although his victims' screams could be heard all over Paris - Sade's antics never led to loss of life and are merely laughable. Bum-whipping and the distribution of aphrodisiac sweets would take on, in the minds of ignorant Victorian prudes (and of many such today!) the magnitude of horrendous "sadistic" acts which have defined Sade ever since for the wilfully ignorant and the consumers of gutter press sensationalism. It was the humiliation these sex games, held at brothels all over Paris and also in Provence, caused madame la presidente that led to Sade being imprisoned by lettre de cachet, and nothing more.
A lettre de cachet was an authorization for imprisonment without trial signed by the King and with a blank space for the purchaser to write in the name of whomever they wanted incarcerated. Sade's mother-in-law purchased one of these documents and had him locked up in the donjon of Vincennes, east of Paris. This first, brief, spell of imprisonment (at the age of 23) had Sade whimpering and hastening to repent of his "sins". Paradoxically, at the same time, his first work, "Dialogue Between A Priest And A Dying Man", was produced, in which the young aristocrat places himself among the ranks of the atheist-materialist philosophers who were making a name for themselves at the expense of the regime. Written in the form of a play, a dying man at whose bedside a priest has appeared horrifies the cleric by exploding all theological arguments for the existence of a God. The short piece ends with the dying man summoning three prostitutes from a neighbouring room to convert the priest to the pleasures of this, real, life, and help him to forget his mythical Christian future paradise - which they succeed in doing.
The presidente de Montreuil (her husband, the actual magistrate, or president, was an ineffectual man, dominated by his wife) relented after her son-in-law had been in Vincennes for a short while - this time! - and he was released, in the belief he had learned his lesson. Not so. Sade and his valet and friend Latour promptly resumed their pursuit of pleasure. Hiring some girls for a party, Sade handed out sweets treated with the aphrodisiac Spanish Fly. The girls became sick and, although all recovered, Sade was accused of poisoning (!) and sentenced to death by the provincial court at Aix-en-Provence. Sade having fled to Savoy with Latour, the two men were executed in effigy in Aix: Sade's effigy being beheaded, Latour's hung. The ensuing scandal meant that the presidente was now out for blood. She would silence her son-in-law once and for all and have him incarcerated in perpetuity.
Savoy at the time was a separate principality and came under the jurisdiction of the King of Sardinia. The appropriate handing over of a small fortune by the presidente secured Sade's arrest and imprisonment in the castle of Miolans, a mountain stronghold near Chambéry. Sade was lodged in the top storey, cynically named "Paradise". The vaults, named "Hell", had been reserved for peasants in former times, left to starve to death in chains. Not so Sade, who passed his time feasting and boozing with his gaolers and sending frantic letters to his wife to secure his release. (Thus far, his life provides a perfect role for George Sanders!) ... The plain and fat Renée-Pélagie, unloved by her husband, nevertheless loved him. Daring to defy her mother, and dressed as a man, she conspired with an adventurer friend of Sade's to organise his escape. Sade managed to climb out of the lavatory window, which the accomplice managed to arrange, while visiting Sade, to be open, and, with four horses, Sade, Latour, the accomplice and Renée fled to La Coste, the Sade family home in Provence.
La Coste (today written Lacoste), near the town of Apt, a Roman military junction, is a protestant village in the heart of Catholic Provence, with a history of Rabelaisian fun-loving villagers at odds with the royal authorities and owing allegiance only to the Sades, the sun, good cheese and wine. The village remains today as it was then, noted for its gastronomy, and the chateau is presently under reconstruction, after lying in ruins since the Revolution.
His father's death meant that awaiting Sade was his picturesque, mediaeval, inauguration as count of Mazan and seigneur of Bresse, Bugey, Valromey and Gex. Seated on his throne, he received the traditional homage of his tenants. His love of the theatrical could now come to fruition and a small theatre was built at La Coste, with Renée acting in the couple's own theatre troupe, together with friends and villagers - among the friends the female wit, Marie-Dorothée de Rousset, Sade's lifelong friend, with whom he would enjoy a titillating relationship where camaraderie replaced sex, ensuring a lighthearted man and woman friendship of equals which would last; ... from which Renée was excluded! Milly Rousset (as she was nicknamed) accompanied the marquis to Italy and throughout Provence, where she was introduced as his wife.
... Also waiting, in Paris, was the présidente! The Sisters of his mother's convent wrote to inform the marquis of his mother's imminent death. Anxious to see her before her death, he braved fate by rushing to Paris - and was promptly arrested on orders of the presidente, without being permitted to see his mother. He would never see her again.
The death sentence still hung over his head, and Sade was transported to Aix to answer the charges he had evaded by his flight to Savoy. Another immense cash handout by the presidente, this time to the provincial authorities in Aix, ensured that the death sentence would be waived and that Sade would only receive a reprimand. But no sooner was he congratulating himself, than he was bustled again into a carriage under guard to be returned to Paris, and perpetual imprisonment without trial in Vincennes. The présidente had secured another lettre de cachet, and this time she really meant business! After a night's halt at an inn, Sade managed to give his guards the slip by pretending to trip and fall downstairs. Running out of the front door of the inn, he made his way back to La Coste, sleeping in barns along the way. Concealed by Renee in the attic of La Coste whenever the police raided, he remained "at liberty" for several days, but was eventually discovered and returned to Paris. (He was to complain that the police sergeant who made the arrest was deliberately rude to him - a nobleman! - holding a pistol to his face and whispering: "Got you now, little man!")
Vincennes donjon sits in the forest of Vincennes, just east of Paris. Sade was its only inmate, in a tall windowless and airless cell - the innermost - behind thirteen locked doors. It was originally built to hold one of the Plantagenet kings of England, captured during the Hundred Years War, and was impossible to escape from. Sade would spend nearly twenty years here, and would have to learn to deal with, above all, his sexual frustration and the loss of a lifestyle of luxury and extravagance to which but a tiny minority were accustomed. It would turn him from an enraged blasphemer to a thoughtful rebel, and finally into a revolutionary.
One thing he could do, though it would practically destroy his eyesight in the candlelight available to him, and that was write. ...
Renée would continue to plead for his release, in spite of the ungrateful and disgusting way in which he would continue to treat her, right up until the Revolution (which would turn the Sades and the Montreuils - except for the imprisoned Donatien himself, of course - into émigrés.) Renee would die in 1810, terribly ill and worn out with anguish and disease; to Sade ever a plain, non-intellectual and uninteresting wife, who had, however, borne him three children: a daughter, Laure, who would enter a convent as a child and live and die there without note; and two sons: Louis-Marie - his father's favourite - whose brains would be blown out in one of Napoleon's "glorious" battles - much to Sade's sorrow, and the rascally Donatien-Claude Armand - inheritor of the title, whose principal achievement would be the burning of most of his father's literary work, which will therefore never be known.
Sade set to channelling his immense energies into writing. His letters alone run into volumes. Most of them from Vincennes are to his wife, alternately affectionate and bitter, demanding more and more tiny luxuries and necessities for making life bearable: books, sweets, favours, etc. His frustration led to bouts of jealousy, imagining his wife in the arms of other men, all of it fantasy. Desperate letters also to his lawyer, Gaufridy, and to Milly Rousset letters in a different style altogether: lighthearted, lightly philosophical and bawdy - sometimes the two of them writing in Provencal, giving them (writing in a language no one else could read) a titillating sense of conspiratorial secrecy.
His sexual energy could only find one outlet, apart from masturbation of course, and that was through literature. The presidente became a target of literary horrors inflicted on her image in his writings - the image of the prudish and respectable matron with her Christian "moral values". Again and again, characters representing this woman, the cause of his incarceration, would be attacked and humiliated in his fictions; or, conversely, characters representing himself would be made to suffer in these literary masturbation fantasies where viciousness triumphed again and again over virtue, sincerity and goodness. The pillars of society: bankers, priests, noblemen, were revealed in his books as the bloodiest of criminals, holding the poor and the unfortunate to ransom and binding them with the sophistries of the Christian religion, which Sade viewed as the greatest evil of them all. In his books he exposed his class, its origins, its crimes and its lies. His masterpiece in this genre is the collection "The Crimes of Love", exploring not so much physical cruelty as emotional cruelty and the exploitation of women and the poor and trusting by villainous aristocrats whose sole morality is perverse pleasure and the use of others. No one was better placed to make this expose than Sade, with his firsthand experience of the degenerate class whose rule, after 1,500 years, was shortly to be ended. ... And replaced by another, which Sade would also come to expose later, in "Juliette", published in 1797, after the horrors he was to personally experience and which so characterise that brutal tale.
He also wrote in a lighter vein, depending on his mood. "Tales of a Provençal Troubadour of the Eighteenth Century" is a collection of bitterly amusing short stories revealing Sade as one of the greatest humorists of all time and placing him in the tradition of the Provençal raconteur. ...
In "Reflections On The Novel", Sade offers advice to would-be creative writers: Never write for money - or at least never make money one's priority (never be a hack). A novel is good if it is interesting; that is the basic rule. If one cannot write - Sade went on in a letter to the hack Villeterque - don't try. Be a cobbler instead. The origins of the novel are traced, and its roots followed back via the mediaeval romance to the myths of antiquity. The origins of both literature and religion are traced to the concept of the hero. Sade recommends his favourite writers: Fielding, Richardson, Lewis and Radcliffe, who will influence (particularly the latter two) Sade's own work. He defends his frank portrayal of vice, and of vice triumphant, against the moralisers. He is more moral than they, since his object is not to gloss over vice as others do, but to reveal it in all its ugliness. His work sensitizes the genuine reader by making vice triumph over virtue. Thus the reader identifies with the criminal's, or society's, victim. Sade's critics will view this as empty sophistry to justify the writing of "pornography"; but later moralists, such as D.W. Griffith the filmmaker (in films such as "Broken Blossoms") and the writer Thomas Burke, will work along the same lines and offer us further evidence, through their work, of the efficacy of Sade's reasoning. Poignancy becomes a tool with which to enable us to identify with others as though they were ourselves (hence also Sade's lifelong condemnation of state brutality, and, above all, of the death penalty - institutionalised murder.) Sade is thus revealed as the father of the modern concept of empathy - championed in our own time, above all, by a range of women writers - and as possibly the first truly modern writer.
Later, during the Revolution, he would be forced to break his rule against writing for money. The result - his plays - are his poorest work.
With nothing to do but eat, write, fantasize and masturbate, Sade grew immensely obese. Arithmetic and number games helped him, along with his writing, to maintain his sanity in the bleakness of his cell. His ocular problems grew worse and he also claimed the presidente was bribing his guards to poison his food. At times he was punished by having his rare privilege of a short walk withheld, as well as books. "Prison, it is claimed, is meant to help the criminal repent of his crimes", he joked; "Instead, is there anything more efficient in depraving the criminal further, by intensifying his hatred and ferocity toward his torturers?"
The world outside was moving. The Old Regime was cracking. The bourgeoisie, the lesser clergy and the people were demanding the calling of the Estates General. The American colonists had rebelled against Great Britain and, with France's help, had triumphed and established a bourgeois republic - a precedent sending tremors across the whole of the Old World. The authorities were nervous. The donjon of Vincennes was closed down and its last and only prisoner was transferred to the Bastille, the Parisian fortress which had become, in the minds of the city's proletarians, petit-bourgeois and artisans, synonymous with princely tyranny. But it was well fortified. Its last prisoners would be but two: Sade, and another Provencal, the pockmarked, heavy-set brawler and pamphleteer, the comte de Mirabeau. Mirabeau was also the author of erotic works. He would also come to be known as the Father of the French Republic and, nominally and posthumously, its first president. The two men took an instant dislike to one another, coming to blows whenever they met - going to and from the courtyard for their short daily stroll.
Sade continued to write prodigiously. In "Aline and Valcour, a Philosophical Novel", a brutal African kingdom is contrasted with the Pacific island utopian paradise of Tamoa (evidently, Samoa). Written in the light of Cook's discoveries, it is a critique of current society and a vision of what life could be like in a society founded on Enlightenment principles. The first version of "Justine" was also written in a fortnight in 1787. Entitled "The Misfortunes of Virtue", it is, unlike the two "spiced up" versions which were to follow (respectively in 1791 and 1797), eminently readable and is one of the first social novels. Not meant for publication was the projected catalogue of horrors, "The 120 Days of Sodom". With only the first section completed by the time the Bastille was stormed on July 14th 1789, this secret work was concealed in a cavity in Sade's cell, and would be lost until it resurfaced in 1904 in Germany and was published. An exploration of power in the form of "hard core" pornography, and alternately grotesque and absurd to read, it nevertheless expresses yet again, in its structure, Sade's love of the theatrical. Four pillars of society: a banker, a bishop, a nobleman and a judge, experiment with power at the expense of a number of working-class victims - carefully chosen and transported to an isolated castle in the Swiss Alps. Considered by Sade to be his masterpiece, over the loss of which he would "weep tears of blood", it is by some considered a work of interest to sexology. "Aline and Valcour", on the other hand, is the work of most interest to us, in its vision of an earthly paradise grounded in reality (Tamoa) - which is as far as an 18th century writer and philosopher could go in this genre.
On July 2nd 1789 Sade caused a riot. Availing himself of some metal pipe, he used it as a megaphone through his cell window to rally the unruly populace outside, shouting that the prisoners were "having their throats cut" (!) and urging the citizens of Paris to storm the Bastille. Panic-stricken, the authorities transferred him again, this time to the lunatic asylum at Charenton. On July 14th the Bastille was stormed, taken, and razed to the ground. A kitchen boy sawed through the neck of the prison's governor, de Launay, and rolled his head out of the main gate. The King was humiliated, forced to approve a constitution, and the Revolution was underway.
It would be 1790 before Sade realized he could simply demand that the staff of Charenton open the institution's front gate for him and that he could walk out, into the midst of revolutionary Paris, a free man. Free but poor. With La Coste in the hands of the local militia, and with his family in self-imposed exile with the counter-revolutionary Catholic and Royal Army - poised to invade France. No longer the marquis de Sade, but Citizen Sade - without a sou to his name ... Unless his lawyer Gaufridy could salvage something from the family estates. But Gaufridy too could be on the run.
Thus he was forced to write for money. "Justine" was "spiced up" for sale and published in 1791. (Sade had always condemned the "blue book" fiction "that one finds on sale in those shoddy stalls by the banks of the Seine" - the origin, by the way, of the term "blue" which today describes pornography: these 18th century books having been bound in blue covers!) ... And plays offered to the theatres. According to Gilbert Lely, the most ardent of Sade's 20th century admirers, these are stilted, wooden, and unworthy of note. One, however, stands apart, and that is "Oxtiern", a dramatisation of Sade's tragic novella "Ernestine". It was booed off stage by the sansculottes, simply because its author was a former aristocrat, and it has never been staged since. Sade was obliged to take a job as a theatre usher.
There follows one of the most beautiful and remarkable episodes in the history of human love relationships. Sade met (it isn't told how) a working-class single mother in her thirties, separated from her husband, Marie-Constance Quesnet and her small son, Charles. The three of them set up house modestly in the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins. Constance would remain with Sade until his death in December 1814. This was his first and only chance to experience life as a husband and father. In a letter to Gaufridy he speaks of "our little home" and denies a sexual relationship. "But let chatterers and prudes think what they will." Indeed, many today would find it remarkable that a young woman should be attracted to a wheezy, obese and penniless old man; yet faithful Constance would be, right to the end.
Life was far from easy, and many were the times Constance had to be away, looking for work for her unemployable companion. Sade writes of this time that he and Charles, before the house was obtained, were obliged to stay in doss-houses while Sensitivity (his nickname for Constance) was job-hunting on his behalf, and that they were obliged to live on carrots. Finally, through Constance's persistence, Sade not only obtained a job but, bizarrely, a remarkable one ... as a judge on the revolutionary tribunal! He wrote to Gaufridy: "Guess what I am? A judge! Me! So you'd better watch your step, my dear chap!" It was, indeed, far from a small thing to have been one of the infamous Bastille's final two inmates, and possibly the monarchy's last prisoner! This no doubt weighed favourably for "Citizen Sade" with the new government. ... And the first to come begging to the new judge for mercy was none other than ... the président de Montreuil, his father-in-law! ... "I had but to say the word", Sade wrote to Gaufridy, "and they (the Montreuils) would have had a hard time of it. Instead, I put in a good word for them. That is how I take my revenge!" ... That was how, indeed, the man whose name has been dragged through the mud due to the coining of the word "sadism" took his revenge on his enemies! ...
Suddenly, Sade's writings were very popular, and "Justine" hit the bestseller list. Sexual freedom was understood by many to be part and parcel of the new democracy and of political freedom, and atheism was popular. But there were certain pale-faced and sombrely dressed bourgeois gentlemen waiting in the wings who viewed things differently. ...
By 1792, with the Revolution in full swing, its true nature, even at this early stage, soon became evident. Violence was intensified after the King made a fatal mistake. Talked into it by his ruthless wife, Marie-Antoinette, Louis and his family attempted to flee France and unite with Austrian troops massed on the border. The Queen's aim was to ride at the head of the Coalition forces and massacre the population of Paris. The King and the royal children were pawns in the Queen's hands. The party was captured by a candlemaker in the village of Varennes and returned to Paris, where feelings could not have run higher.
The horrors of Sade's brutal but harmless, cartoon-like fiction were to be far surpassed in reality, beyond his wildest imaginings and to his own, personal, horror and disgust. Georges Danton, the scheming speculator and representative of the still revolutionary republican wing of the haute bourgeoisie, proclaimed, in September, that all prisoners must of necessity be enemies of the Revolution. Why else would they still be in the prisons? These unfortunates numbered few aristocrats. They were mostly petty thieves, those who had fallen on hard times, debtors and the like. A cursory once-over, lasting a second or two, of each of these individuals was their last chance for life as, on Danton's orders, the prisons were opened and hundreds of inmates passed through, into the hands of the butchers awaiting them outside. The gutters of Paris flowed ankle-deep with blood, and the fate of the insignificant and harmless princesse de Lamballe, former lady-in-waiting to the Queen, speaks of the fate of many1. She was dismembered, and her vulva was worn by one of her butchers as a moustache, as her remains were dragged through the streets. Such was the bloody work of modern France's national hero, Danton!
Then Sade, with no option were he to prove, with fear and trembling, his civic loyalty, was elected president of his section of Paris, the Pike Section. ... Robespierre's section! It wasn't a position for those desiring anonymity and peace, such as an ill and tired old man. One of his more farcical compulsory duties was pike duty, or night watchman. Wheezing with a pike over his shoulder, Sade would wobble up and down the entrance to the section (Paris was divided into Sections, nowadays termed arrondissements), keeping guard. But that was not the worst of his duties! The Section des Piques was, despite its being the section Robespierre belonged to, largely a proletarian section. As its president, Sade became identified with the extreme left in the National Convention, obliged to put through measures which were unpopular with the new petit-bourgeois government of Robespierre and Saint-Just. And, to make matters worse, the seating arrangements in the Convention obliged him to be seated near the speaker's rostrum, right in the face of Robespierre himself! The "Incorruptible" - as Robespierre was termed - couldn't look down without being greeted by the sight of an enormously obese representative, taking up the seats of two men, who opposed Robespierre's measures at every turn!
Other onerous tasks awaited, such as reading the eulogy for the murdered politician Jean-Paul Marat (who, just before his death, was about to condemn Sade to death as an aristocrat and immoralist. Marat had already done this once, but had misspelled Sade's name. An unfortunate named de la Salle had thus gone to the guillotine as a result of this spelling error!)... But there were other duties, enabling Sade to counter some of the horror with useful work.
He was given the task of reviewing sanitation in the hospitals. These were terrible places. Thanks to Sade, a single bed was given to each and every patient, whereas formerly one was obliged to share, sleeping alongside the dying and the dead in one bed. Sade forced the hospital authorities to clean up their act and drastically transformed the clinics and hospitals into places fit for patients. He was also given the task of overseeing the renaming of the streets of Paris, abolishing the Christian names (which were restored later by Bonaparte) and renaming them after republican heroes (i.e. "rue Spartacus"). Loved by the workers of his section - and indeed, living with one! - he was affectionately and heroically named "Brutus Sade - Father of the Nation"! He began to enjoy the power his section gave him to demolish the altars of privilege and to challenge in the Convention (dangerous as this was!) all efforts by the new masters of France to sabotage proletarian and democratic measures. To Gaufridy he would joke about being "a revolutionary", but Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the present-day publisher and author (who has served two terms of imprisonment for demanding the freedom to publish Sade's work) has uncovered evidence (see his recent three-volume work, "Sade vivant") that Sade became fully engrossed in his work and was happier and more at home among his working-class comrades than he had ever been as a member of the dissolute and purposeless aristocracy (whose regime had kept him confined in a cell for the greater part of his life.)
But democracy was to be overtaken swiftly by terror as the foreign armies marched into France, and the ensuing hysteria was easy for Robespierre, Saint-Just and the other members of the Jacobin Club to exploit to political advantage. Unlike the English Jacobins (of the London Corresponding Society etc.), the French Jacobins were not the representatives of the still weak and relatively new working class. They represented the petite-bourgeoisie in its struggle with both the proletarian party and the big financiers and nouveau-riche. (Has not someone said that the rule of the moralising petit-bourgeois is that much worse than the rule of the amoral financier whose sole ethic is capital accumulation?) ... Plekhanov and other socialists have wrongly viewed the Jacobin dictatorship as the temporary triumph of the working class - which is why, they say, it is condemned by the capitalists' history books and in the schools. If they are right in this latter claim, they are wrong in the former. Danton may have gone to the guillotine, but Robespierre's regime also murdered the pioneer socialists Hebert and the "Enraged Ones". Only 6% of those passing beneath the guillotine during the Jacobin regime were aristocrats. The rest were minor clergy and workers, 80% of victims being manual labourers. The proletarian movement was decapitated and silenced by Robespierre, and not later. If the socialist Babeuf and the members of the proletarian Conspiracy of Equals were murdered by a later government, they would no more have escaped Robespierre's dictatorship. It is correct (with reservations) to say that the Jacobins were the Bolsheviks of the French Revolution, and their regime can in several ways be equated with Lenin's.
Peter Weiss has claimed Sade was two-faced when it came to pleasing the revolutionaries to save his own skin. If he was (sensibly so!) in some matters, he was undoubtedly courageous and self-sacrificing when it came to the matter of human life! Again and again he spoke for the release of those brought before the tribunal, and never once would he allow himself to vote for the death penalty. His fellow judges began to murmur. Finally, having stormed out of the tribunal, he wrote to Gaufridy: "They wanted me to put through a bestial and bloody resolution, which I couldn't do." This was the evidence Robespierre had been waiting for. "Moderantism" was a capital offence. So was atheism. Robespierre's megalomania led to the adoption of a new national deity - the "Supreme Being" - with Robespierre as high priest of the new cult. Atheism was now punishable by death as "counter-revolutionary", and so was opposition to the Revolution's "blade of justice."
Toward the end of the year 1793 they came for Citizen Sade. The peace of the little house in the rue Neuve-des-Mathurins was rudely shattered as a panic-stricken and terrified Marie-Constance was pushed out of the way by soldiers. Sade, with courage and dignity, said, "I believe in obeying the law, gentlemen. Do your duty." He was taken to the vile prison of the Madelonnettes, full to the brim with the sick and the dying, and told to "make his bed" on a pile of straw in the latrines.
As Constance spared no effort to get Sade released, he fell so ill that he was transferred to the hospital-prison of Picpus - a move which, unintentionally, was to save his life! ... If one wasn't sickened to the point of death there, one might as well have been, as the guillotine had also been transferred - to within view of the condemned. Each day, Sade and other prisoners were made to labour with shovels, digging pits to receive the decapitated corpses and the heads, emptied from baskets, of the guillotined. They dug channels for draining the blood of hundreds of victims. Each day the tumbrels arrived, several, sometimes sixty or more corpses at a time.
By the summer of 1794 the regime was losing its impetus. Military successes had called a halt to the hysteria which had been the source of Robespierre's power. The big capitalists and financiers likewise, who had emerged from the Revolution, were ready to see their gains finally consolidated and embodied in law, and moderantism was gaining ground. The disillusioned workers too, were sick of the needless bloodletting, of which they were mostly the victims. Soon it came Sade's turn to be guillotined. He was in fact pencilled in for what would be the last tumbril of victims to die under Robespierre's regime.
The soldiers sought him with the others on their list at the Madelonnettes - where of course he wasn't to be found. Wanting only to get the grisly job done and out of the way, the sergeant, not interested in chasing after absentees, took those he could find, and the unfortunates, numbering around twenty-four persons - all either elderly and/or sick - were presented for the formality of the reading of the sentence. One young woman succumbed in the dock to an epileptic fit, which saved her life. The rest (which was meant to include Sade) were bustled onto what would prove to be the final tumbril. What followed is tragic in the extreme.
It was July 27th (Thermidor 9th by the revolutionary calendar) and the National Convention was in uproar. A coup d'état was under way. Only too well aware of Robespierre's oratorical abilities, deputies held him forcibly in his seat and covered his mouth: "If he speaks, we're done for!" The Robespierrist faction fled. Meanwhile, the final tumbril made its way slowly to the Vincennes barrier, where the guillotine now stood. A party of workers surrounded it. Catching hold of the horses' bridles, they pleaded with the guards: "Enough! No more bloodshed, Citizens! Is this what you call revolution?" But no sooner were the prisoners freed, than the Jacobin Colonel Hanriot, with a troop of horse, came round the corner of the street, reclaimed the prisoners, and led the tumbril on. All the prisoners were guillotined.
The next day, July 28th, Robespierre and Saint-Just themselves, with their faction, were guillotined. The Terror was over.
Immediately, Constance appealed again for Sade's release. This time her plea was heard, and he was allowed to return home to her and Charles. He wrote to Gaufridy: "Those few months in the shadow of the guillotine did me more harm than all the years of my incarceration under the King!"
For the supporters of Robespierre, (which still included many workers!), the "Thermidorian Reaction", as it is termed, did mean persecution - including the invasion of working-class districts by "White" gangs of young bourgeois thugs armed with clubs and knives. But for Sade and for many others the five years intervening between the fall of Robespierre and Napoleon's coup meant liberty - if still financial hardship - and, above all, the freedom to write and publish without censorship and without fear. The broken and tired Sade still had the wherewithal inside of himself to write - his work coloured now by the very real horrors he had witnessed and experienced.
His most important work is a pamphlet written at this time and bizarrely inserted in the middle of the pornographic "Philosophy in the Bedroom". It is entitled "Frenchmen! One More Effort If You Wish To Be Republicans!", and was reprinted separately in 1848 for distribution on the barricades.
Of THEFT, Sade writes that the oath taken by the nation with respect to the law of property is ridiculous. "How can you expect the man who has nothing to honour a law which protects the man who has everything? It is his duty, surely, to attempt to redress the balance!" Property is itself theft, he says. The thief proposes a law to punish theft against himself, the original thief, and expects those with no other recourse than theft to respect such a law! Laws against theft are therefore absurd.
Of MURDER, he writes: "The state publicly honours those proficient in murder and encourages them. Yet it punishes the man who disposes of his enemy for a personal reason!" As for the death penalty, he writes: "Either murder is a crime, or it is not. If it is not, why punish it? If it is, then by what perverse logic do you punish it by the same crime?" It also is tantamount to bad arithmetic, since "now two people are dead instead of one!" Also, he urges the people of France to consolidate their victory over the tyranny of kings by example to other peoples still subject to such tyranny. He condemns warlike enterprises, which he says send the wrong message to those abroad whom we would wish likewise to follow our example and liberate themselves. It is not our job to make war on them, but to show them through our peaceful example what a free republic (sic!) can and ought to be.
BLASPHEMY and CALUMNY are also dismissed. If one slanders or libels someone, it is either true or not. If true, it cannot be calumny. If false, then the object of the calumny does best to prove the falsehood by ignoring it and being above taking offence at it. If he can't do so, then the calumny is more than likely to be justified; so passing a law against calumny is absurd. Likewise, blasphemy can only exist if God exists. If there is no God, then blasphemy and all other "religious crimes" are likewise non-existent. So how can you have laws against them? If one, on the other hand, believes in a God, can he really believe his God to be so petty as to take offence at being calumnied? Such a God isn't worthy of honour, and it is not for a free republican to have any truck with such a preposterous being!
Many aristocrats were now free to return. Renée finalised her divorce from Sade and received the bulk of all remaining finances. La Coste had been seized by the local Provencal authorities (who, paying lip-service to the Revolution, went out of their way to be more zealous than the Parisians in "dealing with" their aristocrats.) The chateau had been ransacked, and all Gaufridy could do was salvage what he could of Sade's effects. Most of these, even, Sade would never see. It was also painful for him to discover that Gaufridy - the family lawyer and a personal friend - had been secretly working with the présidente de Montreuil against Sade all along. Sade sent Constance to Provence to sort out what she could of any monies owing to him.
The novel "Justine" was massively enlarged and published in 1797 as "The History of Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue, and of Juliette Her Sister, or The Prosperities of Vice". The most important section of this immense ten-volume work consists of the last six volumes which make up "Juliette". Whereas Justine follows the path of goodness and honesty and is punished for it by the social order, her sister Juliette leads a life of crime: of theft and murder, and amasses a gigantic fortune, hob-nobbing with the masters of society. She becomes so influential that she is able to stage the supreme act of cynicism with her fellow criminal the Pope, and is buggered by him on the altar of St. Peter's. Justine's reward for a life of honest toil and misery is death from lightning (expressing "God's" contempt for those who swallow the lies peddled by his clergy to the poor), while Juliette, who continues to prosper, desecrates her sister's corpse in a wild orgy with her millionaire accomplices.
Along the way, Juliette becomes a member of an international club for capitalists, plotting to usurp the rule of the nobility wherever it stands in their way (although many nobles are themselves members), called "The Society For The Friends of Crime". The qualifications for membership are extreme wealth and a complete lack of scruples. The "virtues" of capitalism, worthy of today's business schools, form the Society's set of principles: entrepreneurialism and enterprise, self-interest at the expense of others and of the rest of society, all-consuming ambition and complete dedication to the accumulation of wealth and self-aggrandizement, no matter who gets trampled in the process, etc. etc.
In the autumn of 1799 the inevitable happened - were the French bourgeoisie finally to consolidate their gains. The army crushed what remained of democratic process, and a Corsican misanthrope (the product of a childhood uncannily resembling Adolf Hitler's!) named Napoleon Bonaparte became military dictator. The press was crushed, together with all opposition, and the country's youth was trepanned into Bonaparte's immense killing machine, the Grand Army. Thousands went on the run from the recruiting sergeants, and all those with a passion for liberty and democracy, where they could, fled. Those who could not flee were imprisoned. Then the Corsican terrorist-turned-French general saw a copy of "Justine and Juliette". Not averse to sending thousands of young men to their deaths, he was on the other hand appalled by fictional horrors, and gave the order that the anonymous author must be found and locked up for the rest of his life.
Sade was betrayed by his printer, Masse, and, with Napoleon stipulating that there must be no trial, he was thrown into the dictator's speciality prison for political opponents - the filthy, stinking, disease-ridden fortress of Bicetre.
Knowing that Sade could not long survive such a place, it was not only Constance this time who pleaded for him. The Sades had returned, and Donatien-Claude-Armand was anxious that the family's good name be restored (as well as some of its fortunes!)... They offered to relieve the state of all expense in keeping Sade incarcerated for life if he could be moved to a more congenial prison. Bonaparte, now concentrating on the invasion of Europe, contemptuously agreed, and Sade was transferred again to the asylum at Charenton.
Charenton too, of course, was not only a clinic for the insane but also a dustbin for the dictator to use for dissidents to the regime - but ones whose families could pay for them. This was inexcusable in the eyes of the humane and genuine director of the clinic, the former Abbe de Coulmier. A pioneer of psychotherapy (together with his contemporary who cared for the "wild boy" of the Aveyron - the subject of Truffaut's film), Coulmier embodied at Charenton a trend in early 19th century France which was also to see the invention of the international manual alphabet for the deaf. A product of the Revolution in the genuinely progressive sense, a movement was gaining ground - to which Coulmier belonged - to do away with the notion of sickness as a crime to be punished, and to replace punishment and incarceration with active treatment and therapy. The efforts of Coulmier and those like him would come up against first the indifference and then the outright hostility of Bonaparte, and the movement would be crushed - its work brought to a brutal halt by the time of Sade's death. Psychotherapy would lie dormant until the end of the century, when Freud would bravely continue the work begun by the French pioneers.
Sade was not lodged with the other inmates. Coulmier insisted he occupy a comfortable room near his own. Constance also requested, and obtained, permission to share her companion's imprisonment, and Coulmier gave her her own room. Unlike Sade, she could come and go, and frequently went into Paris to buy provisions. Coulmier, in whom Sade had found a friend, was a dwarf, and it is touching to imagine the two of them looking so incongruous together - the dwarf and the hugely obese former marquis - strolling together in the grounds of Charenton as they so often did. Sade was encouraged to participate in Coulmier's efforts at enlivening his patients' lives through amateur dramatics. It wasn't long before Sade was directing plays performed by the patients for visiting Parisians, and Coulmier's functions caused a stir far and wide. ... Too much of a stir, as the prudish, moralistic and reactionary - among them many so-called medics - began to murmur. ... Coulmier was attacked in innumerable letters from "decent folk" to the Emperor. Hippolyte de Colins, an ex-military man, was one of many - producing a particularly nasty and slanderous essay on Charenton, designed to stir up hatred against Coulmier and bring his enlightened therapeutic experiments to an end. "He entertains that monster, the former marquis de Sade, even allowing him to participate at Sunday Mass! The inmates (sic!) come and go at leisure, strolling around Paris like ne'er-do-wells!" ...
Further testimonies came to the Emperor, from medical rivals eager to profit from Coulmier's removal. "He allows that most odious of men (Sade!) access to writing materials and books! Is there no end to this sort of thing? Does the Emperor intend to continue to allow it? Charenton, with its easy living conditions, is not a suitable place for the criminal Sade. We strongly advise the Emperor to authorise his removal to a state prison, and to end the lax regime which presently holds sway at the clinic2."
While at Charenton, in addition to his theatre work, Sade continued to read and write. Two historical novels produced at this time were "Adelaide of Brunswick" and "Isabelle of Bavaria". Sade's superior novel, too, and his last, "The Marquise de Gange", is for me his masterpiece in the genre of the historical romance. Among works we shall never know was a history of the Albigensian crusade, and an immense work - taking up two hundred notebooks - entitled "Florbelle". His reading included Chateaubriand's "Genius of Christianity". Sade was interested in the other side's viewpoint. One of his favourite dictums was: "The fool likes to talk. The wise man prefers to listen."
A young medical student at Charenton at the time recalled meeting Sade often, recounting to the writer Anatole France at the end of the century how a wheezing immense mass of obesity would pass him sometimes in the corridor and return the young man's greeting with a tired nod.
Occasionally there was a welcome bonus - a visit from his loyal and favourite son, now with the army, Louis-Marie. But then came the shattering news of Louis' death, in Italy, from a head wound. ... The family fortunes and destiny now lay with the contemptible Donatien-Claude-Armand - falling over himself to please the new establishment and restore the family to title and privilege.
By December 1814 came the order for Sade to be transferred to a state prison and for Coulmier to be removed. The first things to be removed were Sade's writing materials and books.
But, before the sound of military boots could be heard in the corridor, Donatien Alphonse François de Sade was dead - dying peacefully in his sleep on December 2nd, 1814. He was seventy-four years old.
Donatien-Claude removed all his father's manuscripts, took them to the police, and begged for them to be burned - which was accordingly done. The greater part of Sade's work we shall never see. His will too was ignored. Sade had requested that he be buried in a forest and the site of his burial sown with acorns - "that all trace of my existence be removed from the memory of men." He left what remained of his possessions to Constance - "my dear friend", for the upkeep of Charles her son. Instead, he was given a Christian burial in the Charenton graveyard. Constance and Charles were turned out penniless into the street. They disappear from history at this point.
Sade may not have been a socialist, but he contributed more than most to materialist thought. He is definitely one of the millenium's three greatest black humorists - each separated from the other by two centuries: Rabelais, Sade, Bunhuel.
1. The princesse de Lamballe is the original for Ettore Scola's comtesse de la Borde (played by Hanna Schygulla) in his excellent film, "La Nuit de Varennes" (1981).
2. In the final years of his life, Sade would experience his last and most tender - Constance excepted - romance: an affair with the lovely twelve-year-old Madeleine Leclerc, who also lived at Charenton. She would visit him often in his room (not without jealousy on Constance's part), and their love would continue through his final year of life - Madeleine's sixteenth.
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