The Marquis de Sade: Champion of the rights of man, vile debauchee or a bit of both

00:00 Fri 22nd Feb 2002 |

Q. What's all this about passionate philosophers

A. The Passionate Philosopher is the title of an anthology of de Sade's writings edited by Margaret Crosland. Her view, and that of many others, is that Donatien-Alphonse-Fran�ois de Sade (1740-1814) - to give the marquis his full name - is probably the writer who must head the list of those who are more talked about than read. We all think we know what he was about - after all the terms 'sadism' and 'sadist' are derived from his name - but most of us will never have and probably never will read a word that he wrote.

Yet, despite all this, he is vaunted by many as a champion of the individual and the right to total liberation of the self.

Q. Who, for instance

A. Literary celebs Jean Cocteau and Guillaume Apollinaire (who wrote his own pornographic novel Les Onze Mille Verges to help pay the rent) to name a couple.

Q. So was he more than just a pornographer

A. There is a school of thought which sees de Sade's writing as laying the foundations for the free speech movement in the 19th and 20th centuries. This view has recently been bolstered up by the well-received 2000 film Quills, featuring Geoffrey Rush, Michael Caine and Kate Winslet, and directed by Philip Kaufman, of The Right Stuff and Henry and June fame. Adapted from the stage play of the same name by Doug Wright, Quills is unequivocally a plea for the rehabilitation of de Sade and his work, and a message of tolerance aimed at the censorious in society - though in doing so it does take some liberties with the historical facts of de Sade's life.

Q. What was de Sade's work about, then

A. All manner of sexual gratification with as many people of all ages and genders as possible - at least as far as the novels and many of the stories are concerned.

Q. So, he was a pornographer

A. Without question. The novels 120 Days of Sodom, Justine and Juliette are full of violent sex and debauchery of all hues, but he also wrote plays, performed by the Com�die Fran�aise - none of which were pornographic- philosophical discourses, which depicted idealised democratic societies, and hundreds of letters. The question is was there enough of a philosophical edge to his work that, despite the subject matter of much of it, allows it to rise above the merely lewd.

Q. And is there

A. The writing is certainly accomplished and it unquestionably tested the limits of taste and what was acceptable to society - as true now as it was 200 years ago - though whether that makes him a 'champion of free speech' is a moot point. De Sade was a highly intelligent man who, through what was described at the time as a 'wildly combustible' personality, found himself incarcerated. His anger and frustration at his circumstances - combined with a very real penchant for 'sadistic' sexual practices - was expressed in his writing, which was his only outlet. He only started writing seriously once he'd been put away.

Q. What exactly was he doing in prison

A. There is no question that he behaved abominably much of the time, and his sexual crimes, even to modern eyes, seem pretty monstrous. He spent more than half his long life either in prison or in mental institutions, for the most part for crimes ranging from sodomy and 'excessive debauchery and impiety' - he was an avowed atheist - to plain old debt. His nemesis was his mother-in-law, who had married her daughter into the de Sade family thinking it would be a good step up the social ladder. Once crossed she pursued him relentlessly.

Ultimately he became a liability to his - formerly accepting (in fact she seems to have joined in some of her husband's orgies quite willingly) - wife and children and he spent the last 11 years of his life in the asylum at Charenton.

See also the answerbank article on Voltaire

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By Simon Smith

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