Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François de (1740–1814)

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SADE, DONATIEN-ALPHONSE-FRANÇOIS DE (17401814), French writer. Belonging to one of France's most ancient noble families, the marquis de Sade attended Paris's rigorous Louis-le-Grand lycée as a youth and then a light cavalry academy that would steer him toward a military career. At the age of sixteen he was commissioned as a lieutenant and standard bearer in the Carabiniers, a prestigious military unit of armed officers, and he took part in the war against Prussia. By early 1759, when he was eighteen years old, Sade was nominated captain in the Burgundy cavalry. Early in his military career Sade had earned a reputation with his peers as a gambler and a ladies' man, and the young officer often lamented both his lack of motivation to do the things required to succeed and the absence of close, sincere friends in his life. When the Seven Years' War ended in 1763, Sade's family began marriage negotiations with the Montreuil family, petty nobility of the robe who were nevertheless extremely wealthy. Sade resisted his family's wishes that he marry, but when the woman with whom he was in love scorned him, Sade returned to Paris from Provence four days before his wedding in May 1763 and married Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, whom he did not meet until the day before the wedding.

Five months later, the marquis was imprisoned in the Vincennes dungeon for licentiousness and blasphemy. This first of his many incarcerations resulted from the violence he meted out to the young Jeanne Testard, whom he had paid to spend the night with him in small rented quarters in Paris which, like a number of aristocrats, the marquis kept for occasional trysts. During his encounter with Testard, the marquis first asked the young woman whether she believed in God, and then proceeded to desecrate a number of crucifixes and other religious objects. He asked the young woman to beat him with a red-hot whip and pressed her to choose the whip with which he would flagellate her. Testard made a deposition to the commissioner of police, Sade was arrested, and taken to Vincennes, an ancient fortress on the southeast edge of Paris. Sade remained there for less than a month, but would return to Vincennes or to the Bastille on numerous other occasions for similar acts of blasphemy and sexual violence. (He spent a total of about thirty years, including the years from 1801 to the end of his life, in prison.) Sade wrote most of the works for which he is best known while incarcerated. His first significant piece is the Dialog between a Priest and a Dying Man, probably composed in 1782 while he was imprisoned in Vincennes. The dialogue treats some standard eighteenth-century views on religion, philosophy, materialism, and reason, and the dying man concludes that it is the latter faculty, more than faith in God, that leads to human happiness. Shortly after Sade finished the short philosophical piece, authorities confiscated all the prisoner's books because they appeared to give him inappropriate ideas. In the remaining years of the decade Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom, The Misfortunes of Virtue, and Aline and Valcour, a semi-autobiographical novel. Other major works consist of a number of short stories and plays.

The marquis de Sade's novels combine a philosophical interest in materialism, an intense examination of the extent and limits of human reason, and an extremely vivid, often overwhelming, depiction of graphic sexual violence. All of the major novels revolve around the planning, narration, and carrying out of elaborate, often implausible acts of torture and mutilation, many of which involve religious motifs. Most often, a sophistic diatribe concerning, among other things, the absurdity of virtue in a class-based society accompanies the consummation of the violent acts. The libertines who inflict the violence in Sade's novels engage in a nonstop philosophical conundrum in which they attempt to locate the limits of language, power, bodily existence, and domination. Repeatedly attempting to physically and subjectively annihilate their victims, they rely all the more on those whom they would destroy for their own identities in their attempts to do, say, and be all. The dialectic Sade constructs throughout the better part of his fiction interrogates the possibility of unmediated access to such ostensibly natural phenomena as the body, pleasure, pain, and intersubjective violence.

Virtually all of Sade's works have been reviled and censored since their very first appearances, and even as late as 1956 the publishing firm Pauvert was fined for printing the complete works. Nevertheless, Sade has had considerable influence in artistic and philosophical circles. André Breton (18961966) and the surrealists, in particular, found in his work liberating ideas for thinking about reason and sexuality.

See also Enlightenment ; French Literature and Language ; Pornography .


Primary Sources

Sade, marquis de. The Complete Justine: Philosophy in the Bedroom and Other Writings. Compiled and translated by Richard Seaver and Austryn Wainhouse. New York, 1965.

. The Crimes of Love. Translated and edited by Margaret Crosland. London, 1996.

. Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond. Paris, 1926.

. The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Translated and edited by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. New York, 1987.

Secondary Sources

Frappier-Mazur, Lucienne. Writing the Orgy: Power and Parody in Sade. Translated by Gillian C. Gill. Philadelphia, 1996.

Lély, Gilbert. The Marquis de Sade: A Biography. Translated by Alec Brown. New York, 1970.

Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. Translated by Arthur Goldhammer. New York, 1993.

Thomas DiPiero

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Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François de (1740–1814)

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