Art by Calef Brown
Three fun facts about the Marquis de Sade: He was 5 feet 2 inches tall, he suffered grievous hemorrhoids, and his fave pastime was inhaling prostitutes’ farts.
Talk about the life of the party! Even more amazing is that, back in the nonstop festival of lust that was late-18th-century France — when every gentleman maintained a library of “erotic literature,” and the king kept a private brothel packed with a choice batch of adolescent gal-pals — our hero’s pervaloid behavior was not that out of the ordinary. He did what everybody else did. He just did more of it, with more brazen and bizarre variations, until even his fellow libertines were mortified.
All true. By way of context, consider this bit of contemporary wisdom, cited by Francine du Plessix Gray in At Home With the Marquis de Sade, her lush, riveting chronicle of the Big Daddy of Sadism and the culture that spawned him: “‘The rod on the buttocks is necessary . . . It produces good behavior, and it must be used.’”
No, that’s not an outtake from one of Sade’s action-packed porn sagas. It’s a selection from something called Instruction Manual for Christian Schoolmasters, a guidebook held dear by the Jesuits who educated the young marquis and his well-born ilk. Beyond a predilection for whipping naked boy-butt in front of school assemblies, the Jesuits favored another bit of hind-end hijinks: sodomy. So vast was the practice, Gray tells us, that the common French euphemism for pederasty was molinisme, a tip of the pedo-hat to 16th-century Jesuit theologian Luis de Molina.
One of the primary pleasures of Ms. Gray’s massively researched, artfully written book is the chance to see how little has changed in three centuries. (Need we even mention the church’s current rash of priestly chicken hawks, the whole pants-down papal missal problem?) The arc of de Sade’s transformation — from spoiled child to aristocratic roué to sexual outlaw, heretic, jailhouse author and penniless, state-persecuted outcast — offers so many parallels to our own time that the temptation to savor his life as parable does constant battle with the pure thrill of reading it as flipped-out history. But the author’s ability to meld cultural commentary with individual weirdness makes her work every bit as enlightening as it is sensational. For readers like yours truly, who pretty much snored and drooled through European History, At Home is a freak-friendly guide to the French Revolution and the lives of those it empowered, imprisoned or sent to the chopping block.
What first got the Marquis de Sade in hot water (and ensured his status as Surrealist icon) was not what he did. It was what he said while he was doing it. Listen to Gray’s nuevo–Joe Friday description of the marquis’s crimes on the fateful day of October 18, 1763, when he first came to the authorities’ attention. We pick up the action as our priapic nobleman pays a “20-year-old fanmaker and sometime whore” named Jeanne Testard to accompany him to his “petite maison,” a love nest on the outskirts of Paris, which he secretly rented a few weeks after his marriage.
Sade led the girl to a second-floor room, locked and bolted the door. He asked her if she had religion; she answered that she believed in God, Jesus and the Virgin Mary . . . The marquis then blurted out a stream of atrocious insults and profanities. After telling her that he had proved that God did not exist, he masturbated into a chalice, referred to the Lord as “motherfucker,” and to the Holy Virgin as “bugger,” and asserted that he had recently taken two Communion hosts, placed them in a woman’s vagina and entered shouting, “If thou art God, avenge thyself!”
After this, things heat up. Sade led the mademoiselle into an adjoining room stuffed with cane whips, crucifixes and holy engravings of Christ. Then, after toasting a cat-o’-nine-tails in the fire until it glowed red, he bade his horrified companion to whip him while she blasphemed God and he pleasured himself with a crucifix. That old routine . . .
Ten days later, the marquis was arrested on the king’s orders by one Inspector Marais, “the police’s leading authority on libertinage,” and thrown in the dungeon of Vincennes, a former royal residence turned into a royal prison.
What makes this incident so telling, and so hugely relevant to our own censorious era, is that whipping, being whipped, caning and the rest of it were all pretty much standard aristocratic fare. But Sade’s verbal addition to the erotic menu, screaming “Godfuck!” or “Bugger Mary!” in mid-debauch, stood out as more than the moral arbiters in charge could take. “In the inebriation of pleasure,” the original leather boy wrote in La Philosophie dans le Boudoir, “it is essential to utter powerful or dirty words, and blasphemous ones are particularly serviceable . . . One must adorn these words with the greatest possible luxury of expression; they must scandalize as forcefully as possible; for it is so sweet to scandalize . . . It is one of my secret delectations.”
The irony is that Louis XV, on whose authority Sade was shipped to jail, depended on accounts of such exploits for his own delight. A decade previous, as it happens, Louis’ official mistress, Madame de Pompadour, had begun refusing him carnal relations. But the royal couple, Gray reveals, “went on to find much delight in perusing reports of their citizens’ sexual prowess, which Marais documented by following debauched priests, visiting houses of prostitution, persuading pimps and procuresses to reveal the secrets of Paris’s bordello networks.”
As Ms. Gray tracks Sade in and out of jails, from Vincennes to the Bastille to his final days at the cushy insane asylum Charenton, what becomes clear is a somewhat mysterious, and haunting, truth about the nature of creativity. Had he never been locked down and forbidden the very deeds that drove him to such heights of ecstasy, Sade would never have made the leap from physical debauchery to the literary variety. Denied the chance to act out in the flesh, he shot his wad in the monstro sexual smorgasbords of blood and sperm laid out in Justine, 120 Days of Sodom, Juliette and the rest of his ejaculiterary output.
By the 1780s a wave of liberalism had swept over France, and the throne dispatched one Baron de Breteuil, officially titled “Minister of the King’s House,” to roam from jail to jail, reviewing prisoners’ cases. All but the most egregious of characters were freed. Sade, however, had crossed the line. “By constraining me to be atrociously abstinent in sins of the flesh,” he ranted in a letter at the time, “you’ve led me to create fantasies I’ll need to fulfill . . . When a horse is too tempestuous, one lets him gallop at will, one does not lock him up in a stable.” Hardly a sentiment designed to reassure the man empowered to loose the marquis back into polite society. Which, needless to say, he did not.
And there it is. Repression, the very thing Sade railed against most of his life, proved simultaneously the source of his torment and the catalyst for his peculiar genius. He couldn’t fuck, so he wrote obsessively about characters who could. In this regard, one suspects, the Marquis de Sade and Ken Starr are spiritual brothers.