Marquis de Sade

By David Carter

I don’t feel as though I should have to apologize for not liking Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, but he has enjoyed a generous afterlife. Not only in becoming one of the very few authors whose name has entered common parlance, but for his critical press. As a revolutionary “modern” writer de Sade is now considered to have been someone provocatively ahead of his time, a sexy rebel with a cause who was made to suffer horribly at the hands of despotic authority and a wicked witch of a step-mother.

Well, in some ways. In others he was a throwback. In any event, I don’t like him. I didn’t like him after reading Francine du Plessix Gray’s excellent bio At Home With the Marquis de Sade and I think I like him even less after reading this short account by David Carter, part of the the “Brief Lives” series published by Hesperus Press.

Both Gray and Carter are, if not apologists for de Sade, admirers of the man. Which is probably as it should be for a biographer. But it’s hard to drag ourselves through de Sade’s rap sheet of serial rape and not feel uneasy at his canonization in popular culture, from works like Peter Weiss’s 1963 play Marat/Sade (which David Carter curiously views as a source) to the 2000 film Quills.

De Sade was mad, bad, and dangerous to know. He even defended himself against contemporary charges of libertinage by saying that while he was a libertine he hadn’t done all of the terrible things he’d ever imagined doing. But declaring that he was neither a criminal nor a murderer, with the former denial being patently untrue, isn’t saying much. Nevertheless, Carter calls this his “strongest and most convincing protest against his critics”! He might have added that de Sade also liked to claim that while he had rough sex with many women, most of them were paid and he always avoided adulterous liasons. I doubt this latter point had anything to do with scruples and was rather the result of his targeting only vulnerable women. In any event, it is neither strong nor convincing as a defence but was probably only the best he could come up with at the time.

Though Carter’s account is a decent introduction, he is far too insouciant over the grisly details. De Sade was a degenerate sex addict, and diseased at an early age. He was also a predator who took advantage of his position of wealth and power to violently abuse countless women, a lust he indulged up to the very end. In the final years of his life, while incarcerated in a mental institution, he was still enough of a lech to go chasing after the fifteen-year-old daughter of a nurse. That the nurse did nothing to discourage this (because she saw de Sade as a mark) does nothing to make the affair less disgusting. Yet Carter crows of this episode that “there was sufficient life in the old dog yet for him to seek to gratify his always demanding libido,” and remarks that “the relationship would seem to have involved some degree of real mutual affection.” We may have our doubts.

Must we burn de Sade? I would say that we at least need to hold him to a stricter account. He was not the first playboy of the Western world. He should have been jailed for life, several times over. His mother-in-law had every reason to hate his guts and do everything she could to protect her family. That his wife put up with and even enabled him was merely a function of her martyr’s psychology. Finally, his writings are simplistic, repetitive, and not worth close attention.

But if you enjoy literary biographies the fact remains that de Sade lived a life far more interesting than most authors, both in personal and political terms. That he is more fun to read about than to read is another one of the ironies of fame.

Review first published online April 5, 2016.

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