Marquis de Sade

gigatos | June 23, 2022


Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, better known nobly by his title of Marquis de Sade (December 2, 1814), was a French writer, essayist and philosopher, author of numerous works of various genres that made him one of the greatest and crudest writers of world literature. Among his works are The Crimes of Love, Aline and Valcour and numerous works of various genres. Also attributed to him are Justine or the misfortunes of virtue, Juliette or the prosperities of vice and Philosophy in the boudoir, among others.

He is also credited with the famous novel The 120 Days of Sodom or the School of Licentiousness, which was published only in 1904 and would be his most famous work. It was adapted to the cinema in 1975 by the Italian author and neorealist filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, who was later murdered for filming it that same year.

Characteristic in his works are the antiheroes, protagonists of rape and dissertations in which they justify their acts, according to some thinkers, by means of sophistry. The expression of a radical atheism, in addition to the description of paraphilias and acts of violence, are the most recurrent themes of his writings, in which the idea of the triumph of vice over virtue prevails.

He was imprisoned under the Ancien Régime, the Revolutionary Assembly, the Consulate and the First French Empire, spending twenty-seven years of his life locked up in different fortresses and “asylums for the insane”. Sade would later refer to this period in 1803 saying, “The intermissions of my life have been too long.” He was also on the lists of those condemned to the guillotine.

He was involved in several incidents that became major scandals. During his lifetime and after his death, he was haunted by numerous legends. His works were included in the Index librorum prohibitorum (Index of forbidden books) of the Catholic Church.

At his death he was known as the author of the “infamous” novel Justine, for which he spent the last years of his life locked up in the asylum of Charenton. This novel was banned, but circulated clandestinely throughout the 19th century and half of the 20th century, influencing some novelists and poets, such as Flaubert, who privately called him “the great Sade”, Dostoyevski, Swinburne, Rimbaud or Apollinaire, who rescued his work from the “hell” of the National Library of France, and who even said that Sade was “the freest spirit that has ever existed”.

André Breton and the surrealists proclaimed him “Divine Marquis” in reference to the “Divine Aretino”, the first erotic author of modern times (XVI century). Even today his work arouses the greatest praise and the greatest revulsion. Georges Bataille, among others, described his work as an “apology for crime”.

Its name has gone down in history as a noun. Since 1834, the word “sadism” appears in the dictionary in several languages to describe one”s own excitement produced by committing acts of cruelty on another person.

To write history it is necessary that there be no passion, no preference, no resentment, which is impossible to avoid when one is affected by the event. We simply believe we can assure you that to describe this event well, or at least to relate it fairly, it is necessary to be somewhat distant from it, that is to say, at a sufficient distance to be safe from all the lies with which hope or terror can surround it.

In Sade”s biography we can find two incidents: one, the Arcueil scandal, an encounter with a prostitute, and the other, the Marseille case, a day of orgy in which the girls, prostitutes too, were intoxicated probably by the food and hardly by cantharide candies. The two events became major scandals that went beyond the borders of France. There is little else scandalous in Sade”s biography that is not suspected of being part of his legend:

When a writer has been persecuted for more than 150 years as if he were a cruel and inhuman character, one expects, as far as the description of his life is concerned, something like the biography of a monster. But the life of the Marquis de Sade turns out to be much less aberrant than one fears, and what can really be described as gruesome is the fate that beset him while he was alive.

The novels of the Marquis de Sade, described by Georges Bataille as “apology for crime”, those for which he was diagnosed during his lifetime with “libertine dementia”, although banned, circulated clandestinely throughout the nineteenth century and half of the twentieth century, until their publication was normalized. The repudiation of these novels caused a legend to grow in the 19th century that has reached the present day.

Here is a name that everyone knows and that no one pronounces: the hand trembles when writing it and, when it is pronounced, a mournful sound resounds in the ears The books of the Marquis de Sade have killed more children than twenty marshals of Retz could kill; they are still killing them. Today, he is a man who is still honored in prisons; there he is the god, there he is the king, there he is hope and pride. What a story! But where to begin, what aspect of this monster to focus on, and who will assure us that in this contemplation, even if carried out from a distance, we will not be hit by some livid splash?

At the beginning of the 20th century, Apollinaire rescued Sade”s work from the “hell” of the French National Library and vindicated his figure, and André Breton and the surrealists praised him. Since then, along with biographies that try to approach the reality of the character, such as those of Maurice Heine and Gilbert Lely, many others have emerged that recreate the legend more or less openly. This is how Guy de Massillon narrated the Marseilles scandal in 1966:

Some women scream hysterically, others, overcome by a strong trembling, throw themselves on the floor where they roll around incessantly. Other women have begun to undress while moaning with intense and unsatisfied pleasure (all a consequence of the aphrodisiac potion provided by Sade). But they are not the only ones suffering from this strange collective disease. The men also go back and forth like rabid dogs, gesticulating, shouting obscenities and then… Then there are scenes of the crudest sexualism. A woman, almost completely naked, appears on the balcony offering herself to the men, others follow her example, one of them, more frantic than others, throws herself headlong into the void.

In 1909, Apollinare wrote: “The complete biography of the Marquis de Sade has not yet been written, but there is no doubt that, having gathered all the materials, it will soon be possible to establish the existence of a remarkable man who still remains a mystery and about whom a great number of legends have run and still run”.

To be courteous, honest, proud without arrogance, solicitous without insipid words; to frequently satisfy small wills when they do not harm us or anyone else; to live well, to have fun without ruining oneself or losing one”s head; few friends, perhaps because there are none truly sincere and who would not sacrifice me twenty times over if the slightest interest on their part came into play.

On June 2, 1740, Donatien Alphonse-François was born, only son of Jean-Baptiste François Joseph de Sade and Marie Éléonore de Maillé, of Bourbon blood. The dynastic house of Sade was one of the oldest in Provence. Among his ancestors is Hugues III, who married Laura de Noves, immortalized in the verses of the poet Petrarch.

Born at the Hôtel de Condé, palace of the princes of Condé, he spent his early childhood there, as his mother was a lady-in-waiting to the princess. He was baptized the day after his birth in the church of Saint-Sulpice in Paris. His first name should have been Louis Aldonse Donatien, but an error during the baptism ceremony left it in Donatien Alphonse François. During his early years he was educated with Prince Louis Joseph de Bourbon-Condé.

When Donatien was 4 years old, Marie Eléonore left her job as the princess”s lady-in-waiting to accompany her husband on the journeys he was obliged to make as a diplomat in the service of the Prince-Elector of Cologne. Donatien was sent to Saumane Castle on August 14, 1744, and was left in the care of his grandmother and his paternal aunts. On his father”s instructions, his paternal uncle Jacques François Paul Aldonce de Sade, then abbot of Saint-Léger d”Ebreuil, writer, commentator of Petrarch”s works and famous libertine, took him with him on January 24, 1745 to take charge of his education at the Benedictine monastery of Saint-Léger d”Ebreuil. Donatien was assigned as tutor to the abbot Jacques Francois Amblet, who would accompany him for most of his life. During his confinement in different fortresses, Donatien will share his works with Amblet for him to read and comment on. During this time, Amblet will continue to give him literary advice. When Donatien was six or seven years old, his mother entered a convent in Paris, but there is no record of the date.

In 1750, at the age of 10, Donatien returned to Paris in the company of Abbot Amblet and entered the prestigious Jesuit school Louis-le-Grand. From an early age he devoted himself to reading. He read all kinds of books, but he preferred works of philosophy and history and, above all, travelers” tales, which provided him with information about the customs of distant peoples. During his stay in Louis-le-Grand he learned music, dance, fencing and sculpture. In addition, as was customary in Jesuit schools, numerous theatrical plays were performed. He showed great interest in painting, and spent hours at a time in the painting galleries that were open to the public in the Louvre. He also learned Italian, Provençal and German.

On May 24, 1754, when he was not yet 14 years old, he entered the military academy. On December 17, 1755, with the rank of honorary second lieutenant, he entered the Light Cavalry Regiment of the King”s Guard (École des Chevaux-légers), becoming part of the elite of the French army. The following year he was appointed second lieutenant in the Royal Infantry Regiment.

On May 19, 1756, the Seven Years” War was declared. Donatien, not yet 16 years old, receives his baptism of fire: With the rank of lieutenant, in command of four companies of filibusters, he participates in the capture of Mahon from the English under the orders of the Count of Provence. A chronicle of La Gaceta de Paris reports: “The Marquis de Briqueville and Monsieur de Sade energetically attacked the fortress and after a heated and deadly exchange of fire, managed, by frontal attacks, to take the objective and establish a bridgehead.” More than four hundred Frenchmen were killed in that assault. Later it would be transferred to the Prussian front. On January 14, 1757, already in Prussia, he was appointed standard bearer in the Regiment of the King”s Carabineers, and on April 21 he was promoted to captain of the Burgundy cavalry. According to Jacques-Antoine Dulaure (Liste des noms des ci-devant nobles, Paris, 1790), at that time Sade would have traveled through Europe as far as Constantinople.

In his novel Aline and Valcour, written during his confinement in the Bastille, we find a passage probably referring to his childhood and adolescence that is considered autobiographical.


On February 10, 1763, the Treaty of Paris is signed, ending the war. Donatien is discharged and returns to Lacoste. During the following months, his father negotiates his marriage with the eldest daughter of the Montreuils, a family belonging to the new nobility, with an excellent economic position and influence at the Court.

Donatien, in love with a young girl of the nobility of Lacoste, Mademoiselle de Laurais, from Vacqueyras, and who had already expressed to his father his desire to marry for love, nevertheless agrees to the paternal imposition. On May 1, the kings gave their consent in the presence of the two families and the conspicuous absence of Donatien. On May 15, the marriage contract between Donatien de Sade and Renèe-Pélagie Cordier de Launay de Montreuil is signed. It is at that moment that Donatien and Renèe see each other for the first time, getting married two days later, on May 17, in the church of Saint-Roch in Paris. The couple would have three children: Louis-Marie, born a year after the wedding, Donatien-Claude-Armand and Madeleine-Laure.


After the wedding, the Sade couple moved to the château of Échaffars, in Normandy, owned by Renèe”s family. After five months, the first incident occurred. Sade travels to Paris, and on October 29, 1763 he is arrested and taken to the fortress of Vincennes by order of the king. The ultimate reasons for this arrest, which in any case is related to one or more days of debauchery and a mysterious manuscript, are unknown. Sade was locked up for 15 days until his wife”s family took charge of him and he returned to Échaffars with the order not to leave the province without royal authorization.

On April 3, 1764 he receives a permit from the King authorizing him to stay in Paris for three months. On May 17, he takes charge of the direction of a theater in Évry, 30 km from Paris, where plays by contemporary authors will be performed, Sade may have starred in some of them. On May 26 he takes office as lieutenant general governor of Bourg-en-Bresse, Ambérieu-en-Bugey, Champagne-en-Valromey and Gex before the parliament of Dijon. He spent that summer in Paris and on September 11 the royal order of confinement was definitively revoked.

At the end of 1764, the Sade couple is installed in Paris, also in the Montreuil home. Sade successively took several mistresses and regularly resorted to the services of prostitutes. If we listen to this letter, Sade at that time still longed for a love wedding:

The days, which in a marriage of convenience bring only thorns, would have let spring roses open. How I would have gathered those days I now abhor. From the hand of happiness they would have faded too quickly. The longest years of my life would not have sufficed to ponder my love. In continual veneration I would kneel at my wife”s feet, and the chains of obligation, always overlaid with love, would have meant to my snatched heart only degrees of happiness. Vain illusion! Too sublime a dream!

Sade”s licentious life figures at the time in the diaries of Inspector Marais. Marais reported directly to police lieutenant general Antoine de Sartine, followed the licentious activities of the members of the Court, including members of royal blood, and was in charge of preparing the diaries that Sartine delivered to Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour for their entertainment. In them, reference is made to his affairs with the actress Mlle. Colette, whom he shares as a lover with another nobleman of the time.

In one of his reports, Marais writes: “Mr. Marquis de Lignerac, by imposition of his family, has been absolutely forced to leave Mlle. Colette, actress at the Italians and to abandon her completely to Mr. Marquis de Sade, who for his part is very disturbed, since he is not rich enough to support by himself the burden of a show woman.” Sade will finally sever his relationship with Mlle. Colette through the intervention of his mother-in-law. Once the relationship is broken, he takes other actresses and dancers as mistresses.

In 1765, he took Beauvoisin, one of the most sought-after courtesans of the Court, as his mistress. Sade leaves his conjugal home and takes her to Lacoste, where he will spend a few months with her. In Lacoste he does not deprive himself of introducing her and in some cases she is mistaken for his own wife. This earns him the harshest reproaches of his family. Mme. Montreuil, from Paris, contacts her uncle the abbot to make him see reason:

Use force to separate them? Surely he would obtain without difficulty from the minister whatever he asked of him, but this would cause a scandal and be dangerous for him: so we must not do it. Never let him out of your sight because the only way to deal with him is not to abandon him for a single moment. That is how I managed last year to separate him from Colette and make him see reason after convincing him that he was wrong. I doubt if he loved the latter more ardently than the other: it was a frenzy. Everything has been going pretty well since then until this Lent has taken a fancy to the one now.

Sade will spend at least two years with the Beauvoisin.

On January 24, 1767, his father died, so Donatien, who was twenty-seven years old, inherited several fiefs, as well as the title of Count de Sade. He continued to use his title of marquis as was customary in the family, which used one and the other title alternately from generation to generation. His first son, Louis-Marie, was born on August 27 of that year. After the death of his father, he could have returned with the Beauvoisin.

Sade does not abandon his licentious life, alternating in the Court. On April 16, 1767 he was promoted to captain commander in the regiment of the field master of Cavalry, and continued his love of theater by premiering several comedies. He also continues to appear in Marais” diaries.

On April 3, 1768 (Easter Sunday) the famous Arcueil scandal occurred. Sade goes to the Place des Victoires in Paris where he resorts to the services of a woman named Rose Keller (at that time it was a place frequented by prostitutes to sell their services). Rose Keller, later, claims to be begging, accusing him of luring her by trickery to his house in Arcueil, where he whipped her. Sade, by order of the King, was imprisoned in the castle of Saumur, from where he was then transferred to Pierre-Encise, near Lyon, passing through the Conciergerie in Paris to testify before the Parliament. He spent seven months in prison, but his greatest detriment was that the incident became a scandal that went beyond the borders of France, and in which the plaintiff”s statements, deformed and amplified, showed him as a dissolute nobleman who wronged a poor beggar woman to test a supposed restorative potion.

Once they regained their freedom, the Sade couple spent the next few years living in Lacoste. There, Sade pursued his love of theater. He set up a theater in the castle, where he gave performances; later he formed a professional company and toured nearby towns with a repertoire of more than twenty plays. At the end of 1769 he traveled to Holland, where he had a manuscript published. The benefits of that publication defrayed the expenses of the trip.

In the summer of 1772, the “Marseilles affair” took place. Sade, after an encounter with several prostitutes, is accused of having poisoned them with the supposedly aphrodisiac “Spanish fly”. After a day of orgy, two of the girls suffered an indisposition that subsided after a few days. Nevertheless, he was sentenced to death for sodomy and poisoning, and executed in effigy in Aix-en-Provence on September 12.

Sade had fled to Italy when he learned that he was going to be arrested. Legend has it that he fled in the company of his sister-in-law, whom he had seduced. On December 8, he found himself in Chambéry (Savoy) – then part of the kingdom of Sardinia. At the request of his mother-in-law, the influential Mme. Montreuil, he was arrested by order of the King of Sardinia and imprisoned in the castle of Miolans. Mme. Montreuil asks to be delivered, with the utmost discretion, without even being read, some manuscripts that Sade would carry with him. After five months he manages to escape, probably with the help of Renée, who traveled to Sardinia disguised as a man to escape the controls that her mother had put in place to prevent her from visiting him. He spent the next few years in Italy and probably also in Spain, spending time at his castle in Lacoste where his wife was staying. His mother-in-law, who had become his bitterest enemy, obtained a lettre de cachet, which implied unconditional imprisonment, by direct order of the King, in order to obtain his arrest.

His imprisonment in the castle of Miolans at the behest of his mother-in-law, “the president”, was the prelude to his long imprisonment in Vincennes. From then on, “the president” did not let up until she saw him locked up.

At this time, Renèe settles at the Château de Lacoste and hires the services of six teenagers (five girls and a boy). Sade continues his journey through Italy and probably other countries, alternating this trip with stays at Lacoste. From this period is the incident of the teenage girls that appears in numerous biographies of Sade.

During this time, Renèe did not abandon the work she had already undertaken at the beginning of the Marseilles trial to defend Sade. She made several trips to Paris to request the cassation of the process, and in 1774 she filed a lawsuit in court against her mother. In it he protested that his mother, the influential Mme Montreuil, who already had in her possession a lettre de cachet to imprison Sade, was persecuting him unjustly: “she was not persecuting a criminal, but a man whom she considered a rebel to her orders and wills”.

There has been much speculation about the motives that led “the president” to seek Sade”s imprisonment. Most of his biographers, without any document or testimony to back it up, claim as the cause the nineteenth-century legend according to which Sade would have seduced his sister-in-law, Anne-Prospére, and would have taken her with him to Italy. What is documented is his mother-in-law”s fear of what Sade might write about the Montreuil family.

Sade remains during these years a fugitive from justice and has escaped several searches of his castle in Lacoste. He learned that his mother was dying, he returned to Paris with Renèe and, that same night of February 13, 1777, he was finally arrested at the hotel where they were staying and imprisoned in the fortress of Vincennes.

Of all the possible means that revenge and cruelty could have chosen, agree, Madame, that you have chosen the most horrible of all. I went to Paris to collect my mother”s last sighs; I had no other purpose than to see her and kiss her for the last time, if she still existed, or to mourn her, if she had ceased to exist. And that moment was the one you chose to make me, once more, your victim. But my second purpose, after the care that my mother required, consisted only in placating and calming her, in getting along with you, in order to take with regard to my affair all the steps that would have suited you and that you would have advised me to take.

When in 1778 Renèe succeeded in having the Marseilles case reopened, it was annulled and numerous irregularities were demonstrated; Sade had already been imprisoned in the fortress of Vincennes for a year by the wishes of his mother-in-law, and there he would remain until his release thirteen years later, after the Revolution and the consequent fall of the Ancien Régime.

In the course of the sixty-five days I have spent here, I have only breathed pure, fresh air on five occasions, for no more than an hour at a time, in a sort of cemetery of about four square meters surrounded by walls more than fifteen meters high. The man who brings me food keeps me company for about ten or twelve minutes a day. The rest of the time I spend in the most absolute solitude, crying. That is my life.

Arrested, he was taken to the fortress of Vincennes and remained there until 1784 when he was taken to the Bastille. Both fortresses remained practically uninhabited, housing very few prisoners. The fortresses were destined to members of the upper classes; in Vincennes he will coincide with Mirabeau, also imprisoned for another lettre de cachet, requested by his father alleging contempt to his paternal authority.

If the conditions in these fortresses were not the same as those in prisons for the lower classes, where prisoners were crammed together in subhuman conditions – Sade “enjoyed” a cell to himself and had, for example, the right to be provided with firewood to heat it – the conditions of his imprisonment were deplorable. He remained incommunicado for the first four and a half years. Until then, Renèe was not allowed to visit him. According to his own description, he remained permanently locked in his cell, with the only daily visit from the jailer in charge of passing him his food. Mirabeau describes his cells: “These rooms would be submerged in eternal night were it not for a few pieces of opaque glass that occasionally allow the passage of a few weak rays of light”. And, without a sentence that delimited the time he would be locked up, he was locked up without knowing the extent of his imprisonment.

During the years of her confinement, her almost sole contact with the world was Renèe – she also corresponded with her servant, “Martin Quiros”, with her preceptor, Father Amblet, and with a friend of the couple, Mademoiselle Rousset.

Renèe”s efforts, from the very moment of her imprisonment, were aimed at securing her freedom; she even planned another escape: “This time we must spare no expense. You will have to hide it in a safe place. It will be enough for you to indicate to me the day he returns to Paris with the guards” (it coincides that Sade escaped on his return from Aix on the occasion of the review of the trial, remaining on the run for almost a month and a half). She also goes to several ministers for permission to visit him. Unaware of his whereabouts, she travels day after day to the Bastille to try to see him. It was not until four months later that she learned that he was in Vincennes.

Renée and Sade will maintain a continuous correspondence during the thirteen years of imprisonment. In the first letter, sent two days after his imprisonment, Renée wrote to him: “How did you spend the night, my sweet friend? I am very sad although they tell me that you are well. I will only be happy when I have seen you. Calm down, I beg you”. Sade answered her:

Since the terrible instant when I was so ignominiously torn from your side, my dear friend, I have been the victim of the cruelest suffering. I have been forbidden to give you details of this, and all I can tell you is that it is impossible to be more wretched than I am. I have already spent seventeen days in this horrible place. But the orders they have now given must be very different from those of my former confinement, for the manner in which I am treated is nothing like what it was then. I feel that it is utterly impossible for me to endure any longer such a cruel state. Despair takes possession of me. There are moments when I do not recognize myself. I feel that I am losing my mind. My blood boils too much to bear such a terrible situation. I want to turn my fury against myself, and if I am not out within four days, I am sure I shall break my head against the walls.

Renée will be during these years his main and almost only support. She moves to Paris and settles in the Carmelite convent, to which Sade”s mother retired, and later to a more modest one in the company of Mademoiselle Rousset. Confronted with her mother, the latter withdrew all her funds. Deprivations did not prevent her from attending to all of Sade”s requests; she sent him food, clothes, everything he asked for, including books, and became his documentalist, amanuensis and reader of his works.

During his confinement, Sade will suffer repeated paranoid outbursts that will include Renée, accusing her on occasion of having aligned herself with Renée”s mother and those who want to keep him locked up for life. Not knowing until when he will be locked up and who is behind his confinement, he will make speculations trying to relate numbers and phrases as clues that will tell him when his confinement will end.

He devoted himself mainly to reading and writing. He amassed a library of more than six hundred volumes, being interested in the classics, Petrarch, La Fontaine, Boccaccio, Cervantes and especially Holbach, Voltaire and Rousseau. When the prison authorities refused him the Confessions of Jean-Jacques Rousseau, he wrote to his wife:

Know that a thing is good or bad according to the point at which one finds it, and not by itself. Rousseau may be a dangerous author for some self-righteous of your kind, but for me he becomes an excellent book. Jean-Jacques is to me what the Imitation of Christ is to you. Rousseau”s morals and religion are severe things to me, and I read them every time I want to improve myself.

He was not only interested in literature; his library also contained books of a scientific nature, such as Buffon”s Histoire naturelle, and he wrote his Tales, comics and fables, the first version of Justine, Aline and Valcuor and other manuscripts that were lost when he was transferred from the Bastille to Charenton. In his literary vocation he would be accompanied, at least until after his transfer to the Bastille, by Father Amblet, who was his instructor, and who later gave him advice and literary criticism; he was also in charge of the selection of books to be sent to him by Renèe: “I beg you to consult only Amblet in the choice of books and always consult him, even about what I ask, because I ask for things I do not know and something can be very bad”.

My only consolation here is Petrarch. I read it with delight, with unparalleled passion How well written the book is! Laura turns my head. I am like a child. I read all day about her and dream about her all night. Listen to what I dreamed about her last night, while the world was still oblivious to me. It was about midnight. I had just fallen asleep with Petrarch”s life in my hand. Suddenly she appeared to me. I saw her! The horror of the grave had not dimmed her beauty, and her eyes gave off the same fire as when Petrarch praised them. She was dressed in black crape, with her beautiful blonde hair flowing carelessly. “Why do you complain on earth? – she asked me. Come with me. There is no evil, no pain, no trouble in the vast expanse I inhabit. Have the courage to follow me there.” When I heard these words, I prostrated myself at his feet, saying: “Oh, my mother! And my voice was choked with sobs. She held out her hand to me, and I bathed it with my tears; she also wept. “When I dwelt in the world you hate,” she said, “I loved to contemplate the future; I counted my descendants until I came to you, and I found no other so unhappy as you.

Enclosure in the Bastille

At the beginning of 1784 the fortress of Vincennes was closed, and Sade was transferred to the Bastille. He complains of having been forcibly and suddenly transferred to “a prison where I am a thousand times worse and a thousand times more cramped than in the disastrous place I left. I am in a room whose size is not even half that of before and in which I cannot even turn around and from which I only leave for a few minutes to go to an enclosed courtyard where it smells like a guard corps and a kitchen, and to which I am led with bayonets fixed on rifles as if I had tried to dethrone Louis XVI”.

A few weeks before the storming of the Bastille, Sade sent the manuscript of Aline and Valcour to his wife. A long letter from Renée to Sade is preserved in which she abounds in observations on the novel:

Sophie”s first adventure, reading it I blushed for humanity. The rest is different, I cried. She narrates her misfortunes well, with honesty and feeling, it forces to be interested in her fate. The priest reasons well according to her state. It is a great success, in a novel, to make the protagonists speak and reason according to the way that suits them, their characters are well followed. Their way of being is annoying. It is necessary, you will tell me, to recognize them, to preserve oneself from them and to hate them. That is true; but when you are only working for that, it is necessary to stop at one point, in order to withdraw from a depraved spirit the means of corrupting still more.

He was not a conformist prisoner, and had several confrontations with his jailers and the governors of the fortresses. On July 1, 1789, two weeks before the storming of the Bastille, he raised himself up to reach the window with the tube intended for evacuating feces, stuck it out of the window and, using it as a loudspeaker, incited the crowd to demonstrate in the surrounding area to free the prisoners held in the fortress. The next morning the governor of the Bastille wrote to the government:

As his walks in the tower had been suspended due to circumstances, at noon he approached the window of his cell and began to shout at the top of his lungs that the prisoners were being murdered, that their throats were being cut and that they must be rescued at once. He repeated the shouts and accusations on several occasions. At this time it is extremely dangerous to keep this prisoner here. I think it is my duty, sir, to warn you that he must be removed to Charenton or some similar institution, where he will not be a menace to public order.

The Revolution

Sade was at that time almost the only prisoner in the Bastille. When the Bastille was taken on July 14, he was no longer there. The night following the governor”s letter, the jailers broke into his cell and, without allowing him to collect his belongings, transferred him to the Charenton asylum. In the transfer and subsequent seizure of the Bastille, he loses 15 manuscript volumes “ready to pass into the hands of the publisher”. At the beginning of the 20th century, the manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom appeared on a scroll, which is related to some of these volumes.

In the Bastille I worked without ceasing, but they destroyed and burned everything there was. For the loss of my manuscripts I have cried tears of blood. Beds, tables and chests of drawers can be replaced, but ideas… No, my friend, I will never be able to describe the despair that this loss has caused me.

On April 1, 1790, Sade was released by virtue of the decree issued by the Revolutionary Assembly on March 13, 1790, abolishing the lettres de cachet (the president would still contemplate the possibility of admitting exceptions in order to allow families to decide on the fate of prisoners). Five days later, his children, whom he had not seen during his imprisonment, visited Sade. They are 20 and 22 years old. One of Sade”s concerns during his imprisonment was that “the president” should not decide on his future. In 1787, ten years after his imprisonment, Sade lost his parental authority. On that day, Sade was allowed to dine with them.

When Sade came out of his long imprisonment on March 13, 1790, Good Friday night, he was fifty-one years old, suffering from an obesity that, according to himself, barely allowed him to walk, had lost most of his sight, suffered from a lung ailment and was aged and morally sunk: “The world that I had the madness to miss so much, seems to me so boring, so sad… I have never felt so misanthropic as since I have returned among men”.

Sade goes to the convent where Renée is, but Renée does not receive him. The reasons for Renée”s estrangement are not known. These are times of revolutionary unrest, Renée fled with her daughter from Paris, where she had no means of subsistence. Wherever she goes, she encounters a similar situation. Some of her biographers explain her attitude by her approach to her mother, seeking security for her and her children in those turbulent times. Renée processed the separation -one of the first divorces in France, after the Revolution instituted them- and Sade had to return the dowry with its corresponding interests, an amount he could not pay, so his possessions were mortgaged in favor of Renée, with the obligation to pay her 4,000 pounds a year, which he could not assume either, since his properties were plundered and became unproductive.

Sade must integrate himself into a convulsed society, physically and morally sunk, ruined and alone. He spends the first few weeks at the home of a friend, Milly, a solicitor at the Chatelet, who lends him money. Later he stays at the house of the “president of Fleurieu” (estranged wife of the president of the treasury of Lyon). Fleurieu was a playwright and introduced him to the theatrical environment of Paris. Sade could also have maintained contacts in the world of the theater acquired when he formed a company in Lacoste.

That summer he met Constance Quesnet, a forty-year-old actress with a child, who had been abandoned by her husband. A few months later they move in together in a relationship that seems to be mutually supportive. Constance will remain by his side until the end of his days and Sade will count on his support in her hardest moments. On many occasions he will refer to her as “sensitive”.

Sade wrote numerous plays for the theater, most of which remain unpublished. He came into contact with the Comédie Française, which accepted one of his plays, The Misanthrope for Love or Sophia and Desfranes. He was given tickets for five years, but the piece was never performed. Several letters from Sade addressed to the Comédie are preserved in a tone of pleading to be accepted and to have his plays performed. Also, an exculpatory letter about the appearance of his supposed signature on a manifesto contrary to the interests of the Comédie.

Finally, on October 22, 1791, the Molière theater premiered one of his plays, The Count Oxtiern or The Effects of Licentiousness. Although its premiere was a success with audiences and critics, an altercation by some spectators during its second performance led to its suspension. “An incident interrupted the performance. At the beginning of the second act, a disgruntled or malevolent spectator shouted: “Lower the curtain””. The machinist lowered the curtain and subsequently an altercation ensued in which a few whistles could be heard. That same year he is supposed to have clandestinely published Justine or the Infortunes of Virtue, and had his Memorial of a Citizen of Paris to the King of the French printed.

Sade adhered to and actively participated in the revolutionary process. In 1790 he was seen in the celebration of July 14, and in January 1791 he was invited to the assembly of “active citizens” of the Vendôme square, being confirmed as an “active citizen” in June of the same year. He collaborated by writing several speeches, such as Idea on the mode of sanctioning laws or the speech delivered at Marat”s funeral; he was assigned tasks for the organization of hospitals and public assistance, he gave new names to different streets: rue de Regulus, Cornelius, Lycurgus, New Man, Sovereign People,… and he was appointed secretary of his section.

His in-laws, the Montreuils, reside in the same district where Sade is secretary. On April 6, 1793, President Montreuil goes to see him to ask for his protection, because the parents of “émigrés” were being arrested and their home had been sealed. Sade offered his help and President Montreuil and the president, who had kept him imprisoned for thirteen years in Vincennes and La Bastille, were not disturbed during the time he remained in the section (it was after he abandoned his political activity that his in-laws, no longer counting on his support, were arrested and imprisoned).

Sade is appointed President of his section, but while presiding over a session he resigns because, in his own words: “I am exhausted, exhausted, spitting blood. I told you that I was president of my section; well, my function has been so stormy that I can”t go on any longer! Yesterday, among other things, after having been forced to retire twice, I had no choice but to leave my chair to the vice-president. They wanted me to put a horror, an inhumanity, to a vote, and I flatly refused. I flatly refused. Thank God, I am free!” Thus ends Sade”s time in politics.

On December 8, 1793, he was arrested at his home and taken to the Madelonnettes prison. There being no room for him, he was locked up in the latrines, where he spent six weeks. The ultimate reasons for his arrest are unknown. In a letter sent to the section of Piques requesting his freedom, he protested: “I am arrested without revealing to me the reasons for my arrest”. The arrest could have been motivated by his being the father of emigrants, since his children emigrated against their will; it could also have been due to a false denunciation or for being considered a “moderate”. He passed through three different prisons until he arrived at Picpus, on the outskirts of Paris, of which Sade will say that it is a “paradise” compared to the previous ones. There he was allowed to be visited by Constance, who from the first moment had been seeking his release. In the summer of 1794 the Terror reached its zenith and the beheadings multiplied. From Picpus he was able to observe how the guillotine worked unceasingly; later he would say: “The guillotine before my eyes has done me a hundred times more harm than all the bastilles imaginable had done me”. He himself will be included in the lists of the guillotine. On July 26, 1794, a bailiff went to various prisons to put 28 defendants on the cart that would take them to the guillotine; among them was Sade, but in the end, Sade did not go on the cart. Again, we must resort to supposition. It could have been due to an impossibility of locating him or, more probably, to Constance”s intervention. Sade thanks her in his will for having saved his life, for having spared him from the “revolutionary scythe”. Constance, like Renée, was particularly active in defending and helping Sade. Constance is recognized as having some influence in the revolutionary committees, and bribes were widespread. On October 15, 1794, at the end of the Terror, Sade was released.

Sade tried to make a living from the theater and his novels. He premiered some plays in Versailles and published his novels Aline and Valcour and The Crimes of Love. He also published clandestinely Justine, but in any case it was not enough to keep him from falling into destitution. The couple Sade and Constance lived in misery, without resources to get food or firewood for heating. Sade wrote a pleading letter to an acquaintance, Goupilleau de Montaigu, who had political influence in the government: “Citizen representative: I must begin by thanking you a thousand and one thousand times. Be that as it may, citizen representative, I offer the government my pen and my abilities, but may misfortune and misery cease to weigh on my head, I beg you”.

He also tried unsuccessfully to cede his possessions to Renée in exchange for an annual rent, but she, having them mortgaged in her favor, did not accept. Constance had to sell her clothes to get food. Sade was forced to beg: “A poor innkeeper who, out of charity, is kind enough to give me a little soup”.

Sade began to receive attacks for his novels. Aline et Valcour was already considered scandalous and, clandestinely published Justine, no one doubted that he was the author. Finally, on March 6, 1801, he was arrested when he visited his publisher to deliver new manuscripts, and was imprisoned without trial at Sainte-Pélagie as “author of the infamous novel Justine”, being subsequently transferred to Bicétre, an institution half asylum half prison, known at the time as “the Bastille of the scoundrels”, where mentally alienated, beggars, syphilis patients, prostitutes and dangerous criminals lived together in cramped and subhuman conditions. Again Constance will insistently visit different instances of Napoleonic power to demand their liberation. Renèe and her children requested and obtained his transfer to Charenton, an asylum where the patients lived in much more humane conditions. Sade was diagnosed with “libertine dementia” for his admission, and he remained there until his death.

Final years

He lives the last years of his life in the asylum for the insane in Charenton thanks to the assistance of his family, which pays for his stay and his maintenance, and he spends them in the company of Constance.

For Sade, Charenton could have been a peaceful retreat; there he found the understanding of François Simonet de Coulmier, a former priest of a similar age to his own who ran the center. Coulmier turned a blind eye to the presence of Constance, who happens to be Sade”s illegitimate daughter. The family paid for a relatively comfortable two-room cell in which she could enjoy her love of reading by moving her library there – again we find Voltaire, Seneca, Cervantes, Rousseau,…. When he lost his sight, other sick people and Constance were the ones who read the volumes to him. He also continued his work as a writer and Coulmier allowed him to form a theater company in which he involved the rest of the patients, who were the actors in charge of the performances.

The company was a success and got theater professionals involved in these performances. It is known that Madame Saint-Aubin, star of the Opéra-comique de Paris, participated in some of them, and their performances were attended by the high society of Paris. Dinners were organized to coincide with the performance of the plays. The vaudeville author Armand de Rochefort attended one of these dinners while seated next to Sade; he would later write:

He spoke to me several times, with such verve and wit that I found him most agreeable. When I got up from the table, I asked the diner on the other side who this affable man was. When I heard that name, I fled from him with as much dread as if I had just been bitten by the most venomous snake. I knew that this unfortunate old man was the author of a dreadful novel in which all criminal delusions were presented under the guise of love.

These representations prompted complaints, several of them from the head physician of the establishment, Royer-Collard; the latter addressed it to the Minister General of Police:

There is a man in Charenton whose audacious immorality has made him, unfortunately, too famous and whose presence in this hospice brings with it the most serious inconveniences: I wish to speak of the author of the infamous novel Justine. Monsieur de Sade enjoys excessive freedom. He can communicate with other sick people of both sexes; to some he preaches his horrible doctrine, to others he lends books. In the house it is said that he lives in the company of a woman he passes off as his daughter, but that is not all. He has committed the imprudence of forming a theater company under the pretext of having comedies performed by the inmates, without reflecting on the disastrous effects that such an uproar must necessarily cause in their imaginations. He is the one who indicates the pieces, distributes the roles and directs the rehearsals. I do not think it is necessary to stress to Your Excellency the scandal of such activities or to describe to you the dangers of all kinds they entail.

The performances were suspended on May 6, 1813 by ministerial decree.

Maurice Lever has believed to see in those years the existence of a pedophilic relationship of Sade with the 13-year-old daughter of one of the nurses of Charenton, supposedly in exchange for money. This relationship is said to have continued for several years. Lever includes this relationship in his biography of Sade published in 1994. Since then, most biographies include this relationship without questioning its authenticity. Lever bases the existence of this relationship on some characters (an “O” crossed with a diagonal line) present in Sade”s diaries that he provides and considers that they refer to a count of anal penetrations:

In several places in Sade”s diary there is a mysterious sign, a sort of small roundel crossed by a diagonal, more or less like this one: Ø. As the reader may have guessed, it is an erotic symbol related to sodomy. It is associated either with people or with masturbatory ghosts, and often mixed with numbers. For example, dated July 29, 1807: “At night, idea Ø to 116, 4 of the year.” January 15, 1808: “Prosper comes with idea ØØ. It is his third visit and the second from his maid, who forms Ø for the first time.” March 4, 1808: “The idea ØØØ looks like the v. of 9 months.” In the year 1814, the sign is applied exclusively to a very young girl from whom he receives frequent visits and whom he designates with the initials Mgl. Her name is Madeleine Leclerc.

When he was released from prison after the revolution, Sade emerged from a thirteen-year imprisonment in a pitiful physical condition. From then on, he would suffer from morbid obesity, progressive blindness and various other ailments; it is known that he needed to wear a jockstrap, at least in the last moments of his life. In 1814, a medical student, J. L. Ramon, joined the Charenton staff, leaving us a testimony of Sade in the last year of his life:

“I would often find him walking alone, with slow, heavy steps, dressed negligently. I never caught him talking to anyone. As I passed him I would greet him, and he would respond to my greeting with that glacial politeness which puts off any idea of engaging in conversation. I would never have suspected that he was the author of Justine and Juliette; the only effect he produced on me was that of a haughty and taciturn old gentleman”.

In his agony he was attended by young Ramon. Years before, Sade had drawn up and kept in a sealed envelope his will. He leaves universal heir of his meager possessions to his companion Constance: “I wish to express to this lady my extreme gratitude for the dedication and sincere friendship she lavished on me from August 25, 1790 until the day of my death”.

I absolutely forbid that my body be opened under any pretext whatsoever. …an urgent message will be sent to Monsieur Le Normand, to beg him to come himself, followed by a wagon, to fetch my body to transport it under his escort in the aforesaid wagon to the forest of my land of the Malmaison, commune of Émancé, near Épernon, where I want it to be buried without any kind of ceremony in the first grove that is on the right of the aforesaid forest, entering from the side of the old castle, by the great avenue that divides it. The grave dug in this wood will be dug by the farmer of the Malmaison, under the inspection of Monsieur Le Normand, who will not leave my body until after it has been placed in the aforesaid grave; if he wishes, he may be accompanied at this ceremony by those of my relatives or friends who, without any kind of apparatus, have wished to give me this last token of affection. Once the grave has been covered, it will be sown with acorns so that the ground and the undergrowth will again be as thick as before and the traces of my grave will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I hope my memory will be erased from the minds of men, except for a small number of those who have loved me until the last moment and of whom I take to my grave a very sweet memory.

On December 2, 1814, Sade died. Claude-Armand, his son, visited him the same day. His companion Constance was not in Charenton; it is supposed that the death coincided with one of his trips to Paris to make small purchases. Two days later, contrary to Sade”s wishes, Armand had him buried in the cemetery of St. Maurice in Charenton, after a routine religious ceremony. Armand also burned all his unpublished manuscripts, including a multi-volume work, Les Journées de Florbelle. His skull was exhumed years later for phrenological studies.

The inventory of Sade”s material belongings, carried out on behalf of the Asylum, was as follows:

40 francs and 50 centimes, an oil portrait of his father, 4 miniatures, packets of documents, a chest with 21 manuscripts. From his library: 269 volumes including Don Quixote, the complete works of Rousseau, the Mathematical Recreations, The Art of Communicating Ideas, an Essay on Dangerous Diseases, the 1785 edition of Voltaire”s Works in 89 volumes, The Pornographer and The Man in the Iron Mask.

According to Apollinaire, Sade in his childhood had a round face, blue eyes and wavy blond hair. He also says: “His movements were perfectly graceful, and his harmonious voice had accents that touched women”s hearts”. According to other authors, he had an effeminate appearance.

The depositions in the Marseilles case describe Sade when he was thirty-two years old as having a “graceful figure and full face, of medium size, attired in a gray tailcoat and souci-colored silk breeches, feather in his hat, sword at his side, cane in his hand.” Some time later, at the age of fifty-three, a certificate of residence dated May 7, 1793 says: “Height, five feet twelve inches, hair almost white, round face, forehead uncovered, blue eyes, common nose, round chin”. The affiliation of March 23, 1794 differs a little: “Size, five feet twelve inches and a line, medium nose, small mouth, round chin, grayish-blond hair, oval face, high and uncovered forehead, light blue eyes”. He had already lost the “graceful figure”, for Sade himself wrote a few years earlier in the Bastille: “I have acquired, for lack of exercise, an enormous corpulence that hardly allows me to move”.

When in 1807 Charles Nodier met Sade, he described him in these terms: “An enormous obesity that hindered his movements enough to prevent him from displaying the rest of grace and elegance, traces of which could be seen in the whole of his manners. His fatigued eyes nevertheless retained I don”t know what of brightness and feverishness that reanimated from time to time like the spark that expires in the extinguished firewood”.

Sade”s anomalies assume their value from the moment in which, instead of suffering them as something imposed by his own nature, he sets out to elaborate a whole system with the purpose of vindicating them. Conversely, his books attract us from the moment we understand that, through his reiterations, his commonplaces and even his clumsiness, he tries to communicate to us an experience whose particularity resides in the desire to be incommunicable.

For the French philosopher Simone de Beauvoir, who in her essay entitled Should We Burn Sade? she approaches the personality of this author, Sade oriented his psychophysiological particularities towards a moral determination, that is to say, obstinate in shaping his singularities, he ended up defining a large part of the generalities of the human condition, namely: the question of whether it is possible, without denying individuality, to satisfy aspirations to the universal, or whether it is only through the sacrifice of differences that one can integrate into the collectivity.

According to Beauvoir”s study, Sade”s personality in his youth was neither revolutionary nor rebellious: he was submissive before his father, and in no way wished to renounce the privileges of his social position. However, he did show from a very early age a disposition towards continuous change and experimentation with new situations, because, despite the positions he held in the army and the occupations his family provided him with, he was not satisfied with anything, and hence from his early youth he began to frequent brothels, where, according to Beauvoir”s expression, “he buys the right to unleash his dreams”. For the author, Sade”s attitude is not isolated, but was common among the aristocratic youth of the time: no longer holding the old feudal power that their ancestors had over the lives of their vassals, and with plenty of free time in the solitude of their palaces, the young people of the late eighteenth century found in the brothels the ideal places to dream of that ancient tyrannical power over others. Proof of this were the famous orgies of Charles de Bourbon, Count of Charolais, or those of King Louis XV in the Deer Park. Even, according to Beauvoir, the sexual practices of the aristocracy of the time included much more compromising situations than those for which Sade was judged.

But outside the walls of his “petite maison” Sade no longer pretended to exercise his “power” over others: he was always characterized by being very friendly and a good conversationalist. For Beauvoir, the data that have been preserved about Sade”s personality reveal the typical behavior of a shy man, fearful of others and even of the very reality around him. She further states:

If he speaks so much of firmness of spirit, it is not because he possesses it but because he craves it: in adversity he groans, despairs and goes mad. The fear of running out of money, which obsesses him relentlessly, reveals a more diffuse restlessness: he distrusts everything and everyone, because he feels maladjusted.

In fact, Sade was a patient man in the elaboration of his extensive work, but in the face of trivial events he often suffered fits of anger that led him to elaborate implausible calculations about alleged “conspiracies” against him. Several of the letters he wrote to his wife from prison have been preserved and published. Some of them show a strange and paranoid obsession with the hidden meaning of numbers.

Sade, says Beauvoir, chose the imaginary, for in the face of an increasingly disordered reality (debts, escapes from justice, affairs), he found in the imagery of eroticism the only means to center his existence and find a certain degree of stability. Society, by depriving the marquis of all clandestine freedom, sought to socialize his eroticism: then, conversely, his social life will develop from that moment on according to an erotic plan. Since evil cannot be separated in peace from good in order to give oneself alternatively to one or the other, it is in the face of good, and even in function of it, that evil must be vindicated. That his ulterior attitude is rooted in resentment, Sade has confessed on several occasions.

There are souls that seem hard by dint of being susceptible to emotion, and they go too far; what is attributed to them of carelessness and cruelty is only a way, known only to them, of feeling more deeply than the others.

Or as when he imputes vices to the malignity of men:

It was their ingratitude that dried up my heart, their perfidy that destroyed in me those dismal virtues for which I had perhaps been born like you.

I sustained my misguidance with reasoning. I did not hesitate. I conquered, I uprooted, I knew how to destroy in my heart all that could hinder my pleasures.

For Simone de Beauvoir, Sade was a rationalist man, who needed to understand the internal dynamics of his acts and those of his fellow men, and who only adhered to the truths given by evidence. That is why he went beyond traditional sensualism, to the point of transforming it into a moral of singular authenticity. Moreover, according to this author, Sade”s ideas anticipated those of Nietzsche, Stirner, Freud and surrealism, but his work is largely unreadable, in a philosophical sense, and even reaches incoherence.

For Maurice Blanchot, Sade”s thought is impenetrable, despite the abundance of theoretical reasoning in his work, clearly expressed, and despite the fact that it scrupulously respects the provisions of logic. In Sade, the use of logical systems is constant; he patiently returns to the same subject over and over again, looks at each question from all points of view, examines all objections, answers them, finds others to which he also responds. His language is abundant, but clear, precise and firm. However, according to Blanchot, it is not possible to see the bottom of Sadian thought or where exactly it is going, nor where it starts from. Thus, behind the intense rationalization there is a thread of complete irrationality.

The reading of Sade”s work, says Blanchot, generates in the reader an intellectual discomfort in the face of a thought that is always being reconstructed, all the more so since Sade”s language is simple, and does not resort to complicated rhetorical figures or far-fetched arguments.

The idea of God is the only evil that I cannot forgive man.

Maurice Heine has emphasized the firmness of Sade”s atheism, but, as Pierre Klossowski points out, this atheism is not cold-blooded. From the moment the name of God appears in the quietest development, the language immediately flares up, the tone rises, the movement of hatred sweeps the words, upsets them. It is certainly not in the scenes of lust that Sade gives proof of his passion, but violence and contempt and the heat of pride and the vertigo of power and desire are immediately aroused whenever the Sadian man perceives in his path some vestige of God. The idea of God is, in a way, the inexpiable fault of man, his original sin, the proof of his nothingness, which justifies and authorizes the crime, for against a being who has accepted to annul himself in front of God, one could not resort, according to Sade, to too energetic means of annihilation.

Sade expresses that, not knowing to whom to attribute what he saw, in the impossibility in which he found himself of explaining the properties and behavior of nature, he gratuitously erected above it a being invested with the power of producing all the effects whose causes were unknown. The habit of believing these opinions to be true, and the comfort which was found in this to satisfy both mental laziness and curiosity, soon caused the same degree of belief to be given to this invention as to a geometrical demonstration; and the persuasion became so strong, the custom so ingrained, that it required the whole force of reason to preserve it from error. From admitting a god, one soon passed to worshipping, imploring, and fearing him. Thus, according to Sade, to appease the evil effects that nature brought upon men, penances, the effects of fear and weakness, were created.

In his correspondence with his wife in prison, he admits that his philosophy is based on Baron de Holbach”s System of Nature.

Reason as a means of verification:

For Sade, reason is the natural faculty for the human being to be determined by one object or another, in proportion to the dose of pleasure or harm received from those objects: a calculation subjected in an absolute way to the senses, since only from them are received the comparative impressions that constitute either the pains from which one wants to flee or the pleasure to be sought. Thus reason is nothing more than the scales with which objects are weighed, and by which, putting into the weight those objects which are far out of reach, one knows what is to be thought of by the relation existing between them, so that it is always the appearance of the greatest pleasure which wins out. This reason, in human beings as in other animals, which also have it, is but the result of the coarsest and most material mechanism. But since there is, says Sade, no other more reliable means of verification, it is only to him that it is possible to submit faith to objects without reality.

Real existence and objective existence:

The first effect of reason, according to Sade, is to establish an essential difference between the object that is manifested and the object that is perceived. The representative perceptions of an object are of different kinds. If they show the objects as absent, but as present at another time to the mind, this is what is called memory. If they present objects without expressing absence, then it is imagination, and this imagination is for Sade the cause of all errors. For the most abundant source of these errors lies in supposing an existence of their own to the objects of these interior perceptions, an existence separate from Being, just as they are separately conceived. Consequently, Sade gives to this separate idea, to this idea arising from the imagined object, the name of objective or speculative existence, in order to differentiate it from that which is present, which he calls real existence.

Thoughts and ideas:

There is nothing more common, says Sade, than to be deceived between the real existence of the bodies that are outside the Self and the objective existence of the perceptions that are in the mind. The perceptions themselves differ from the one who perceives them, and from each other, according as they perceive the objects present, their relations, and the relations of these relations. They are thoughts insofar as they bring the images of absent things; they are ideas insofar as they bring images that are within Being. However, all these things are but modalities, or forms of existing of Being, which are no more distinguishable from each other, nor from Being itself, than the extension, solidity, figure, color, movement of a body are distinguishable from that body.

The fallacy of the simple cause-effect relationship:

Then, says Sade, it was necessary to imagine terms that would fit in a general way to all the particular ideas that were similar; the name of cause was given to any being that produces some change in another being different from him, and effect to any change produced in a being by any cause. As these terms excite in people at least a confused image of being, of action, of reaction, of change, the habit of using them has made people believe that they had a clear and distinct perception, and finally they have come to imagine that there could exist a cause that was not a being or a body, a cause that was really distinct from any body, and that, without movement and without action, could produce all imaginable effects. For Sade, all beings, acting and reacting constantly upon one another, produce and undergo at the same time changes; but, he says, the intimate progression of beings which have been successively cause and effect soon wearied the minds of those who only want to find the cause in all effects: feeling their imagination exhausted before this long sequence of ideas, they found it shorter to trace everything at once back to a first cause, imagined as the universal cause, the particular causes being effects of it, and without it being, in turn, the effect of any cause. Thus, for Sade, it is to the product of objective or speculative existence that people have given the name of God. In his novel Juliette, Sade says: “I agree that we do not understand the relation, the sequence and progression of all causes; but ignorance of one fact is never sufficient reason to believe or determine another.”

Criticism of Judaism:

Sade examines Judaism in the following way: First, he criticizes the fact that the books of the Torah were written long after the supposed historical events they narrate had occurred. Thus, he claims that these books are nothing more than the work of some charlatans, and that in them one sees, instead of divine traces, the result of human stupidity. Proof of this, for Sade, is the fact that the Jewish people proclaim themselves to be chosen, and announce that God speaks to them alone; that he alone is interested in their fate; that for them alone he changes the course of the stars, separates the seas, increases the dew: as if it had not been much easier for that god to penetrate hearts, to enlighten spirits, than to change the course of nature, and as if this predilection in favor of a people could be in accord with the supreme majesty of the being who created the universe. Moreover, Sade presents as evidence which should suffice, according to him, to doubt the extraordinary events narrated by the Torah, the fact that the historical records of the neighboring nations make no mention at all of these wonders. He mocks that when Yahweh supposedly dictated the Decalogue to Moses, the “chosen” people built a golden calf in the plain to worship him, and cites other examples of unbelief among the Jews, besides saying that at the times when they were most faithful to their god, it was when misfortune oppressed them most severely.

Criticism of Christianity:

In rejecting the god of the Jews, Sade sets out to examine Christian doctrine. He begins by saying that the biography of Jesus of Nazareth is full of tricks, tricks, charlatan cures and word games. The one who announces himself as the son of God, for Sade, is nothing more than “a crazy Jew”. Being born in a stable is for the author a symbol of abjection, poverty and pusillanimity, which contradicts the majesty of a god. He affirms that the success obtained by the doctrine of Christ was due to the fact that he won the sympathy of the people, preaching mental simplicity (poverty of spirit) as a virtue.

Integral selfishness

Maurice Blanchot finds, despite Sade”s “absolute relativism”, a fundamental principle in his thought: the philosophy of interest, followed by integral egoism. For Sade, everyone must do as he pleases, and no one has a law other than that of his pleasure, a principle that was later stressed by the English occultist Aleister Crowley in The Book of the Law of 1904. This morality is founded on the first fact of absolute solitude. Nature causes man to be born alone, and there is no kind of relationship between one man and another. The only rule of conduct is, therefore, that man prefers whatever is convenient to him, without taking into account the consequences that this decision may have for his neighbor. The greater pain of others always counts less than one”s own pleasure, and it does not matter to buy the weakest rejoicing in exchange for a set of disasters, for the enjoyment flatters, and is within man, but the effect of the crime does not reach him, and is outside him. This selfish principle is, for Blanchot, perfectly clear in Sade, and can be found throughout his work.

Equality of individuals

Sade considers all individuals equal before nature, so that everyone has the right not to sacrifice himself for the preservation of others, even if his own happiness depends on the ruin of others. All men are equal; this means that no creature is worth more than another and therefore all are interchangeable, none has but the significance of a unit in an infinite count. In front of the free man, all beings are equal in nullity, and the powerful, by reducing them to nothing, only makes this nothingness evident. Moreover, he formulates the reciprocity of rights by a maxim valid for women as well as for men: to give ourselves to all those who desire it and to take all those whom we desire. “What wrong do I do, what offense do I commit, by saying to a beautiful creature, when I meet her: lend me the part of your body that can satisfy me for an instant and enjoy, if that pleases you, that part of mine that can be pleasing to you?”. Such propositions seem irrefutable to Sade.

For Sade – writes Richard Poulin – man has the right to possess his fellow man in order to enjoy and satisfy his desires; human beings are reduced to the condition of objects, of simple sexual organs and, like all objects, are interchangeable and, therefore, anonymous, lacking their own individuality.

Power of Attorney

For Sade, power is a right that must be conquered. For some, social origin makes power more attainable, while others must attain it from a position of disadvantage. The powerful characters in his works, says Blanchot, have had the energy to rise above prejudice, contrary to the rest of humanity. Some are in privileged positions: dukes, ministers, bishops, etc., and they are strong because they are part of a strong class. But power is not only a state, but a decision and a conquest, and only he is really powerful who is able to achieve it by means of his energy. Thus, Sade also conceives of powerful characters who have emerged from the less favored classes of society, and thus the starting point of power is often the extreme situation: fortune, on the one hand, or misery, on the other. The powerful who are born in the midst of privilege are too high up to submit to the laws without decaying, while those born in misery are too low down to conform without perishing. Thus, the ideas of equality, inequality, liberty, revolt, are in Sade but provisional arguments through which man”s right to power is asserted. Thus, the moment comes when the distinctions between the powerful disappear, and the brigands are elevated to the status of nobles, at the same time that they lead gangs of thieves.


Following the doctrine of causal determinism of enlightened authors (Hobbes, Locke or Hume) as a general law of the universe, Sade concludes that human actions are also determined, and therefore, devoid of moral responsibility, thus following a libertine moral relativism. Following Holbach”s materialistic philosophy, he concludes that all actions belong to and serve nature.

Will they not add that it is indifferent to the general plan whether this or that is preferably good or bad; that if misfortune pursues virtue and prosperity accompanies crime, both being equal to the projects of nature, it is infinitely better to take sides among the wicked, who prosper, than among the virtuous, who fail?

For Sade”s antihero, crime is an affirmation of power, and a consequence of the rule of integral egoism. The Sadian criminal does not fear divine punishment because he is an atheist and thus claims to have overcome this threat. Sade responds to the exception that exists for criminal satisfaction: this exception consists in the powerful finding disgrace in his pursuit of pleasure, passing from tyrant to victim, which will make the law of pleasure look like a death trap, so that men, instead of wanting to triumph by excess, will return to live in the preoccupation of the lesser evil. Sade”s answer to this problem is forceful: to the man who binds himself to evil, nothing bad can ever happen. This is the essential theme of his work: to virtue all misfortunes, to vice the bliss of constant prosperity. At first, this forcefulness may seem fictitious and superficial, but Sade responds as follows: It is, then, true that virtue makes misfortune for men, but not because it exposes them to unfortunate events, but because, if we take away virtue, what was misfortune becomes an occasion of pleasure, and torments are voluptuousness. For Sade, the sovereign man is inaccessible to evil because no one can harm him; he is the man of all passions and his passions indulge in everything. The man of integral egoism is the one who knows how to transform all dislikes into likes, all repugnances into attractions. As a boudoir philosopher he affirms, “I like everything, I am amused by everything, I want to bring together all genres.” And so Sade, in The 120 Days of Sodom, devotes himself to the gigantic task of making the complete list of anomalies, of deviations, of all human possibilities. It is necessary to try everything in order not to be at the mercy of something. “You will know nothing if you have not known everything; if you are timid enough to stop with nature, it will escape you forever.” Luck may change and become bad luck: but then it will be but a new luck, as desirable or as satisfactory as the other.

Cursed be the plain and vulgar writer who, with no other pretension than to extol fashionable opinions, renounces the energy he has received from nature, to offer us nothing but the incense that burns with pleasure at the feet of the party he dominates. What I want is that the writer should be a man of genius, whatever his habits and character may be, for it is not with him that I wish to live, but with his works, and all I need is that there should be truth in what he procures for me; the rest is for society, and it has long been known that the man of society is seldom a good writer. Diderot, Rousseau, and d”Alembert seem little less than imbeciles in society, and their writings will always be sublime, in spite of the dullness of the gentlemen of the Débats…. For the rest, it is so fashionable to pretend to judge the habits of a writer by his writings; this false conception finds so many supporters today, that hardly anyone dares to put a daring idea to the test: if unfortunately, to cap it all, it occurs to one to enunciate his thoughts on religion, behold, the monastic mob crushes you and does not fail to pass you off as a dangerous man. The scoundrels, if they had their way, would burn you like the Inquisition! After this, can one still be surprised that, in order to silence you, they defame on the spot the customs of those who have not had the baseness to think as they do?

In the personal notebooks that Sade wrote between 1803 and 1804, he summarized the catalog of his work as follows.

My general catalog will therefore be:

And in the end he scores:

Everything has to be done in the same in-12 format, with a single engraving on the title page of each volume and my portrait in the Confessions – Fénelon”s portrait in front of his refutation.

Some works disappeared from the previous catalog, such as his Confessions and the Refutation of Fénelon (which would have been an apology for atheism). It is presumed that these works were part of the papers that, after Sade”s death, his son Armand found in his cell at Charenton, which he later burned. The manuscript known as Les Journées de Florbelle also disappeared in the bonfire. On the other hand, others have remained, such as Aline et Valcour and Les Crimes de l”Amour, which were published during Sade”s lifetime. On the other hand, Sade does not mention, for obvious reasons, the works censored by the authorities (such as Justine and Juliette), in addition to the fact that he died thinking that the extensive novel he wrote in the Bastille, entitled The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, had been destroyed at the outbreak of the Revolution.

I will never, I repeat, never paint crime under other colors than those of hell; I want it to be seen in the nude, to be feared, to be detested, and I know of no other way to achieve this than to show it with all the horror that characterizes it.

Many of Sade”s works contain explicit descriptions of rape and countless perversions, paraphilias and acts of extreme violence that sometimes transcend the limits of what is possible. His characteristic protagonists are the antiheroes, the libertines who star in the scenes of violence and who justify their actions by means of sophistry of all kinds.

His thought and writing form a kaleidoscopic collage built from the philosophical approaches of the time, which Sade parodies and describes, including the figure of the writer-philosopher himself. The same happens from the literary point of view, where Sade starts from the usual clichés of the time, or from elements taken from the most recognized literary tradition, to deviate, subvert and pervert them. The result is a tremendously original writing.

Concepción Pérez emphasizes Sade”s humor and irony, aspects on which critics have not dwelled enough, considering that “one of the great errors that vitiate the reading of Sade is precisely to take him too seriously, without considering the scope of that (black) humor that permeates his writing”. However, most of those who have interpreted Sade”s work have wanted to see in the dissertations of his antiheroes the philosophical principles of Sade himself. Even during his lifetime, Sade had to defend himself against these interpretations:

Every actor in a dramatic work must speak the language established by the character he represents; that then it is the character who speaks and not the author, and that it is the most normal thing in the world, in that case, for that character, absolutely inspired by his role, to say things completely contrary to what the author says when it is he himself who speaks. Certainly, what a man Crébillon would have been if he had always spoken like Atrée; what a man Racine would have been if he had thought like Nero; what a monster Richardson would have been if he had had no other principles than those of Lovelace!

Sade was a prolific author who delved into various genres. Much of his work was lost, victim of several attacks, including those of his own family, which destroyed numerous manuscripts on more than one occasion. Other works remain unpublished, mainly his dramatic production (his heirs possess the manuscripts of fourteen unpublished plays).

It is known that during his stay in Lacoste, after the Arcueil scandal, Sade formed a theater company that gave weekly performances, sometimes of his own works. It is also known that at that time he traveled to Holland to try to publish some manuscripts. Of these works, which would be his first work, nothing is preserved. Later, during his trip through Italy he took numerous notes on the customs, culture, art and politics of the country; as a result of these notes he wrote Viaje por Italia, which has never been translated into Spanish.

While imprisoned in Vincennes, he wrote Cuentos, historietas y fábulas, a collection of very short stories, among which El presidente burlado stands out for its humor and irony, even sarcasm.

In 1782, also while in prison, he wrote the short story Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man, in which he expresses his atheism through the dialogue between a priest and a dying old man, who convinces the former that his pious life has been a mistake.

In 1787, Sade wrote Justine or the misfortunes of virtue, a first version of Justine, which was published in 1791. It describes the misfortunes of a girl who chooses the path of virtue and obtains no other reward than the repeated abuses to which she is subjected by various libertines. Sade also wrote L”Histoire de Juliette (1798) or Vice amply rewarded, which narrates the adventures of Justine”s sister, Juliette, who chooses to reject the teachings of the church and adopt a hedonistic and amoral philosophy, which brings her a successful life.

The novel The 120 Days of Sodom, written in 1785 but unfinished, catalogs a wide variety of sexual perversions perpetrated against a group of enslaved adolescents, and is Sade”s most graphic work. The manuscript disappeared during the storming of the Bastille, but was discovered in 1904 by Iwan Bloch, and the novel was published in 1931-1935 by Maurice Heine.

The novel Philosophy in the boudoir (1795) relates the complete perversion of an adolescent girl, carried out by some “educators”, to the point that she ends up killing her mother in the cruelest possible way. It is written in the form of a theatrical dialogue, including an extensive political pamphlet, Frenchmen! One more effort if you wish to be republicans! in which, agreeing with the opinion of the “educator” Dolmancé, a call is made to deepen a revolution that is considered unfinished. The pamphlet was republished and distributed during the 1848 Revolution in France.

The theme of Aline and Valcour (1795) is recurrent in Sade”s work: a young couple love each other, but her father tries to impose a marriage of convenience. The novel is composed of several plots; the main one, narrated through a series of letters between the different protagonists, and the two journeys and adventures of each of the young people: Sainville and Leonore. Sainville”s journey includes the story The Island of Tamoe, a description of a utopian society. This was the first book that Sade published under his real name.

In 1800 he published a four-volume collection of short stories entitled The Crimes of Love. In the introduction, Ideas on Novels, he gives general advice to writers and also refers to Gothic novels, especially Matthew Gregory Lewis”s The Monk, which he considers superior to Ann Radcliffe”s work. One of the stories in the collection, Florville and Courval, has also been considered to belong to the “Gothic” genre. It is the story of a young woman who, against her will, ends up entangled in an incestuous intrigue.

While he was imprisoned again in Charenton, he wrote three historical novels: Adelaide of Brunswick, Secret History of Elisabeth of Bavaria and The Marquise of Gange. He also wrote several plays, most of which remained unpublished. Le Misanthrope par amour ou Sophie et Desfrancs was accepted by the Comédie-Française in 1790 and Le Comte Oxtiern ou les effets du libertinage was performed at the Théâtre Molière in 1791.

List of works

In Spanish there is still no formal edition of the complete works of Sade; some works have been published but most suffer from poor translation. The only complete editions are in French, and are the following:


Sade”s main philosophical sources are Baron de Holbach, La Mettrie, Machiavelli, Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire, the last two of whom were personal acquaintances of his father. The last two were personal acquaintances of his father. On the other hand, in The Crimes of Love we find evidence of Sade”s taste for the lyricism of Petrarch, whom he always admired.

It is confirmed, by the explicit or implicit quotations that Sade makes in his works, the influence of the following authors: the Bible, Boccaccio, Cervantes, Cicero, Dante, Defoe, Diderot, Erasmus, Hobbes, Holbach, Homer, La Mettrie, Molière, Linnaeus, Locke, Machiavelli, Martial, Milton, Mirabeau, Montaigne, Montesquieu, More, Pompadour, Rabelais, Racine, Radcliffe, Richelieu, Rousseau, Jacques-François-Paul-Aldonce de Sade, Peter Abelard, Petrarch, Sallust, Seneca, Staël, Suetonius, Swift, Tacitus, Virgil, Voltaire and Wolff. …

His most popular work in his time and during the 19th century was Justine or the Misfortunes of Virtue. Sade intended it to be a revulsive in the French literature of the time, which he considered moralistic:

The triumph of Virtue over Vice, the reward of Good and the punishment of Evil are the frequent basis for the development of works of this genre. Shouldn”t we be fed up with this scheme by now? But to present Vice always triumphant and Virtue the victim of its own sacrifices In a word, to risk describing the most daring scenes and the most extraordinary situations, to expose the most terrifying statements and to give the most energetic strokes?

Critics deplored this work, which was published anonymously and circulated clandestinely. It was considered obscene and impious and its author was described as depraved: “The most depraved heart, the most degraded mind, are not capable of inventing anything that so outrages reason, modesty and honesty”; “…. the famous Marquis de Sade, the author of the most execrable work ever invented by human perversity”. A writer of the time, Restif de la Bretonne, would write in response to Justine, The anti-Justine or the delights of Love. And Sade”s forceful reply to a virulent criticism of another writer, Villeterque, has today become famous (To Villeterque the fuliculary).

Although its edition was clandestine, it circulated profusely. During Sade”s lifetime, six editions of it were made and the copies passed from hand to hand, being read in a hidden way, becoming a “cursed novel”. In the 19th century it continued to circulate clandestinely, influencing writers such as Swinburne, Flaubert, Dostoevsky and the poetry of Baudelaire (among the many who have sought to see Sadean influence).

Officially absent throughout the 19th century, the Marquis de Sade appeared everywhere, creating a true legend around him. Jules Janin, in 1825, writes that his books appear, more or less hidden, in all libraries. Sainte-Beuve places him on the same level as Byron. “They are the two great inspirers of our moderns, one visible and official, the other clandestine”.

At the beginning of the 20th century, Guillaume Apollinaire edited the works of the Marquis de Sade, whom he considered “the freest spirit that ever existed”. The surrealists vindicated him, considering him one of their main precursors. He is also considered to have influenced Artaud”s theater of cruelty and Buñuel”s production, among others.

After the Second World War, a great number of intellectuals in France paid attention to the figure of Sade: Pierre Klossowski (Sade mon prochain, 1947), Georges Bataille (Literature and Evil), Maurice Blanchot (Sade et Lautréamont, 1949), Roland Barthes and Jean Paulhan. Gilbert Lély published in 1950 the first rigorous biography of the author.

Simone de Beauvoir, in her essay Should We Burn Sade? (in French Faut-il brûler Sade?, Les Temps modernes, December 1951-January 1952) and other writers have attempted to locate vestiges of a radical philosophy of freedom in Sade”s works, preceding existentialism by some 150 years.

One of the essays in Dialectics of Enlightenment (1947) by Max Horkheimer and Theodor Adorno is entitled “Juliette, or Enlightenment and Morality,” and interprets the behavior of Sade”s Juliette as a philosophical personification of the Enlightenment. Similarly, the psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan postulates in his essay Kant avec Sade (Kant with Sade) that Sade”s ethics was the complementary conclusion of the categorical imperative originally postulated by Immanuel Kant.

Andrea Dworkin saw Sade as the exemplary woman-hating pornographer, supporting her theory that pornography inevitably leads to violence against women. A chapter of his book Pornography: Men Possessing Women (1979) is devoted to an analysis of Sade. Susie Bright argues that Dworkin”s first novel Ice and Fire, rich in violence and abuse, can be interpreted as a modern version of Juliette.

In August 2012, South Korea banned the publication of The 120 Days of Sodom for “extreme obscenity”. Jang Tag Hwan, a member of the state-run Korean Commission on Publishing Ethics, told Agence France-Presse (AFP) that Lee Yoong of Dongsuh Press was ordered to withdraw from sale and destroy all copies of the novel. “A good part of the book is extremely obscene and cruel, with acts of sadism, incest, zoophilia and necrophilia,” Jang commented. He explained that the detailed description of sexual acts with minors was a major factor in the decision to deem the book”s publication as “harmful.” The publisher indicated that it would appeal the decision. “There are many pornographic books everywhere. I cannot understand why this book, the subject of academic studies by psychiatrists and literary experts, is being treated differently,” Lee Yoong told AFP.


Perhaps not so surprisingly, Sade”s life and writings have been irresistible to filmmakers. While there are numerous pornographic films based on his themes, here are some of the most recognizable films based on his story or fictional works.

Works of the Marquis de Sade

In French

In English


  1. Marqués de Sade
  2. Marquis de Sade
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