At Home with the Marquis De Sade

I finished At Home with the Marquis De Sade. I started off wanting to read about him because many european philosophers make reference to him and treat him with some reverence in terms of his place in intellectual history.

The book wasn’t an intellectual history though, but a personal biography. That was fine, I was just curious about this man who I had heard inspired the word “sadism.”

In the end, I think I found out why people find him so interesting. He was one of the first true anti-enlightenment writers in the tradition of a marx or a Nietzsche, who rails against everything that is taken for granted and accepted. He thought pain could be good, that humans were by nature bad, that the governments were organized perpetrators calumny and theft. He was voraciously against the death penalty, an egomaniacal aristocrat who pretended to be a revolutionary to stay alive. He was a misogynist and a swindler, but a champion of sexual equality and also just ONE WEIRD DUDE.

Hearing about his sexual exploits was kind of interesting and shocking. He was into weird stuff, smelling people’s farts, anal sex. When he was in his seventies, he tried to have anal sex with a 17 year old girl. He horrified prostitutes with his deranged wishes. He used the mathematical null sign to indicate in his diary when he had had anal sex. He call dildos that he used for masturbation “prestiges.”

I find two progressions particularly revealing abou this life. For one thing, he was almost always in jail. Vincennes, the Bastille, and finally he ended up in a mental hospital, Charenton. He probably visited a total of more than 15 jails, and he survived execution during the Terror by nothing more than a mistaken roll-call (or maybe he bribed someone). His jail sentence I think contributed heavily to his view that life was nothing but a series of wrongs built on a foundation of injustice. What he did to initially land in jail was bad. It was exploitative, traumatizing, and harmful. But he never caused permanent harm to anyone (I don’t believe, it’s hard to keep track of what happened to all the prostitutes he slept with after the fact). But his reputation just grew and grew until he was seen by all sides, royalist and revolutionary as a monster. A fringe maniac who wanted nothing but blood. Of course, his novels didn’t help with that impression as the descriptions that the author of At Home chooses to quote are truly horrifying. Cannibalism, rape, torture, infanticide. All on a large scale. It is kind of frightening, even for a modern reader who has watched Kill Bill and seen horror movies.

The other progression is of Sade’s personal/social life. He is such an irascible person, but it is compensated by his unbelievable charm and charisma. The combination of his insufferability and his magnetism created a pattern through all of his main personal contacts. His wife, Pelagie, loved him ardently, but over a period of decades, his tantrums slowly ground her down, to the point where she could not tolerate him. She utterly and completely cut ties with him. This process repeats in everyone Sade meets. Pelagie’s mother was the same way, but she, the Madame De Montreuil, was smarter, and so her period of infatuation with Sade was shorter. Sooner or later though, everyone grows tired of helping him out. First Madade De Montreuil, then his wife Pelagie, then his best friend from home (forgot her name), then his lawyer and counselor Gaufridy, then his son and finally his best friend Madade De Quisnet all reach their limit with him. He loses all his friends in this way, and it’s quite sad to see how he incapable of properly valuing a relationship.

However, my overarching conclusion about Sade though is that very little of his reputation as a “great” (here just meaning momentous) man is deserved. He’s really what today we would just call a garden variety loser. His dad was deadbeat, and he followed right along. He never made any money in his life, he clung to his aristocratic title like a talisman, and indulged himself in a paralyzing type of egoism, complete with tantrums and delusions. When his lawyer was on the run, trying to stay alive as revolutionary members of the terror were hunting down royalists like himself, Sade complained that he wasn’t finding enough credit to feed the Marquis’ unrepentant gluttony. I don’t know if it has been considered, but there seems to be a strong chance that Sade was bipolar. His kids treated him terribly, but it’s not surprising given that he would hurl abuses at them and their mother when all she did was try to make his incarceration term in the Bastille more comfortable. I mean, if Sade hadn’t decided to write some of the most offensive fiction ever seen until that point in history, he would be a painfully pathetic person.

Last, I can’t resist contrasting and comparing Sade with Robespierre. Robespierre was the ultimate prig. The ultimate prude. A famous quote about him was that he would pay someone to offer him gold just so that he could refuse it. The ultimate in self-righteousness. Sade was the opposite and obese man of desires, he lived only to satisfy whatever desire crossed his mind. Sade was an aristocrat, Robespierre was a petty bourgeoise. The contrasts are extensive, but what they shared was an ability to hold others captive with their words, written (Sade) and spoken (Robespierre). It’s amazing that either of them became anything at all, given how socially flawed they were (Robespierre had his best friends put to death, Sade drove them to misery), and how untalented they were at most things.

To me, there is some kind of wider trend going on, because during the French revolution, it seems like there were so many lunatics running around who were endowed with power and respect. How did that happen? Another example: Jean Paul Marat, a pamphleteer in the French revolution who indiscriminately called for death and massacre in the name of revolution. Du Plessix Gray rightly calls him “one of the revolution’s most bloodthirsty vampires.”



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