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The Château de Vincennes, a vast structure in the Val de Marne to the east of Paris, was built over a period of more than three decades, from 1337 to 1370. (It was, coincidentally, completed the year construction began on Sade's other prison nemesis, the Bastille.) It long served as a residence for the kings of France, and in the sixteenth century an imposing sainte-chapelle was added to the several imposing buildings within its walls. The dungeon, which stood on a slight promontory, was flanked by four forbidding towers. The cells, which Gilbert Lely, Sade's pioneering biographer, describes as "heartbreakingly grim," were disproportionately high and bathed "in eternal twilight," since their narrow windows with their double bars filtered out most of the daylight. In a letter written roughly two months after his incarceration, Sade describes his situation: "I am in a tower locked up behind nineteen iron doors, my only source of light being two little windows each outfitted with a score of bars...." In his sixty-five days there, he notes, he has been allowed only five hours of fresh air: "When they let the dog [Sade himself] out of his kennel, he trots off to spend one hour in a kind of cemetery about forty feet square, surrounded by walls more than fifty feet high."
In an earlier letter to his wife shortly after his incarceration Sade writes: "My blood is too hot to bear such terrible confinement ... If I am not released in four days, I shall crack my skull against these walls."
Many subsequent letters raise the threat of suicide if he is not soon set free. But Sade's innate love of life, of pleasure, and his growing conviction that through writing he could find another kind of release and also take revenge on his hated enemies kept him from that fatal step. Still, had he known in those early months that he was to spend the next thirteen years behind bars, he might well have put an end to his agony there and then.
1. To Madame de Montreuil
[End of February 1777]
Of all the possible forms revenge and cruelty could assume, you must agree, Madame, that you have indeed chosen the most horrifying of all. Having come to Paris to bid farewell to my mother, who was breathing her last, with no other thought in mind than to see her and embrace her one last time, if indeed she were still alive, or to mourn her if she were not, `twas that very moment you chose to make me your victim once again! Alas! I asked you in my first letter whether I would find in you a second mother or a tyrant, but you have not left me in doubt for more than a trice! Is it thus that you repay me for having wiped away your tears when you lost the father you cherished? And did you not find at that trying time my heart as sensitive to your grief as it was to my own? It is not as if I had come to Paris only to defy you, or with purposes in mind that might have made you wish to see me gone! ... But after the care and attention my mother's situation required, my second goal was only to calm and comfort you, then to come to an understanding with you, and as far as my affair is concerned, to take whatever measures would have suited you and that you would have suggested to me. Apart from my letters, Amblet, if he is candid (which I do not believe), must have told you as much. But the perfidious friend has been working in concert with you to deceive me, to undo me, and in this both of you have succeeded admirably. As I was being taken away [after my arrest] they told me it was only to expedite my case, and for that reason my detention was essential. But in all good faith, do you believe I can be duped by such talk? And when in Savoy you resorted to the same measures, what slightest effort on my behalf was undertaken? Since then did my two year-long absences produce the slightest initiatives? And is it not exceeding clear that what you seek is my total undoing, and not my rehabilitation?
I am willing to go along with you for a moment that a lettre de cachet has been indispensable, in order to avoid a remonstration, which is always troublesome, but did it have to be so harsh, so cruel? Would a letter banishing me from the kingdom not have served the same purpose? And would I not have most scrupulously complied with that order, since I had just, of my own volition, put myself in your hands and submitted to whatever you might have demanded? When I wrote you from Bordeaux, asking that you send me the money wherewith to move to Spain, and you refused it to me, was that not a further proof you wanted me not far away but behind bars; and the more I ponder the circumstances the more I am completely convinced that you have never had any other thought in mind. But I am mistaken, Madame: Amblet revealed to me another one of your devices, and that is the one I intend to fulfill. He told me, Madame—at your behest no doubt—that a death certificate was the most essential and most appropriate document to bring this unfortunate affair to an end as quickly as possible. You must procure that piece of paper, Madame, and I swear I shall make sure you have it very soon. As I shall not multiply my letters, not only because of the difficulty I have in writing them but also because they seem to have not the slightest effect upon you, the present one shall contain my final sentiments, of that you may be sure. My situation is horrible. Never—and you know it—has either my blood or my brain been able to bear being cooped up. When I was under much less rigorous confinement—that you also know—I risked my life to rid myself of that yoke. Here such means are denied me, but I still have one that no one on earth can strip me of, and I shall take full advantage of it. From the depths of her grave my poor mother beckons to me: I seem to see her open her arms to me again and summon me to bury myself in her bosom, into the one haven I still have left. To follow her so closely is to me a satisfaction, and as a last favor I ask you, Madame, to have me laid to rest near her. Only one thing holds me back; 'tis a weakness, I admit, but I must confess it to you. I should have liked to see my children. For I so enjoyed going and holding them in my arms after having seen you. My most recent misfortunes have not stilled this desire, and I shall in all likelihood bear it with me to the grave. I commend them to your care, Madame. Even though you have hated their father, at least do love them. Give them an education which, if that is possible, will preserve them from the misfortunes my neglectful upbringing has vouchsafed to me. If they were aware of my sad fate, their souls, modeled after that of their tender mother's, would hasten to cause them to fall at your knees and their innocent hands, raised in supplication, would doubtless cause you to be swayed. 'Tis from my love for them this consoling image arises, but it can in no wise affect the course of events, and I make haste to destroy it for fear it may soften my heart at a time when what I most need is steadfastness. Adieu, Madame.
2. To Madame de Sade
March 6, 1777
Oh, my dear friend! When will my horrible situation cease? When in God's name will I be let out of the tomb where I have been buried alive? There is nothing to equal the horror of my fate! Nothing that can depict everything I am suffering, that can convey the state of anxiety wherewith I am tormented and the sorrows that devour me! Here, all I have as support are my tears and my shouts, but no one hears them ... Where is the time when my dear friend shared them? Today I no longer have anyone; it seems as if the whole of Nature were dead for me! Who knows whether you even receive my letters? No reply to the last one I wrote you proves to me that they are not being given to you and that 'tis to make sport of my sorrow or to see what is going on in my head that I am allowed to write them to you. Yet another refinement invented no doubt by the rage of her who stalks me as her personal prey! What can so much cruelty auger for the future? Judge for a moment in what state my poor mind must be. Till now, a faint hope sustained me, calmed the early moments of my terrible sorrow; but everything concerts to destroy it, and I clearly see from the silence wherein I am left, from the state I am in, that all they want is my undoing. If `twere for my good, would they proceed in this manner? They must realize full well that the severe measures that are being taken with me can only unhinge my brain, and, consequently, from this naught can result (supposing they mean to keep me alive) save the greatest ill. For I am quite certain I cannot hold out a month here without going mad: which is probably what they want, and that fits in wonderfully with the means they proposed this past winter. Ah! my dear friend, I can see all too well my fate! Remember what I sometimes told you, that they had decided to let me finish out my five years in peace, and then ... There's the idea that torments me and is driving me to my grave. If 'tis in your power to reassure me on that score, please do so, I beseech you, for my state is frightful in the extreme and if you could only understand it fully for what it is, your heart would most assuredly be filled with pity for me. Nor do I doubt that they are making every effort to separate us: for me that would be the final blow, and I would not survive it, of that you may be sure. I beseech you to oppose this with all the strength at your command, and to understand that the first victims of this effort would be our children: there is no example of children made happy when their mother and father are in disagreement. My dear friend, you are all I have left on earth: father, mother, sister, wife, friend, you are all those to me, I have no one but you: do not abandon me, I beg you, let it not be from you that I receive the final blow of misfortune.
Is it possible, if indeed they have my best interests in mind, that they do not sense they are ruining everything by meting out this punishment? Do they imagine the public will even try to understand? It will simply say: He certainly must have been guilty, since he has been punished. When a crime has been proven, you resort to these means either to calm a high judicial court or prevent it from passing sentence, but when 'tis certain no crime has been committed and that the sentence has been the height of madness and of meanness, one must not be punished, because you then undo all the good that could be accomplished if the verdict was annulled, and you clearly prove that influence alone has been operative, that crime has existed, and that one has besought the king to punish to avoid having the court do so. I contend that there could be nothing worse done against me than that, `twould be to do me in for the rest of my life; and only a few years ago your mother was offered an excellent example of how little the military and the public were taken in by these maneuvers and continued to look askance at whoever took it upon himself to mete out punishment, whether it be at the king's hands or the court's. But that is how she is: whenever it's a question of acting on some matter, she leaps before she thinks, people mislead her, and they end up doing me far more harm than she has often intended. 'Tis the St. Vincent story all over again, tell her I would be greatly obliged if she would bear that in mind; here somebody else is playing the same role, and it's not difficult to figure out who.
Finally, my dear friend, all I humbly ask of you is that you get me out of here as soon as possible, no matter what the cost, for I feel I cannot hold out much longer. They tell you I'm fine; it calms you to hear it, so much the better, nothing could make me happier. I am not going to disabuse you, because I'm forbidden to do so: that is all I can say to you. But please remember that I have never endured anything like what I am experiencing today, and that, considering the circumstances I was in, `twas vile of your mother to have forced me into this present situation. The poor lawyer who said 'tis unnatural to heap sorrow upon sorrow, knew little about your mother when he made that declaration. I beseech you, while awaiting the blessed day when I shall be delivered from the horrible torments into which I am plunged, to arrange to come and see me, to write to me more often than you do, to obtain permission for me to take a little exercise after my meals, something which you know is more essential to me than life itself, and to send me without delay my second pair of sheets. For the past seven nights I haven't slept a wink, and during the night I throw up everything I've eaten during the day. Get me out of here, my good friend, get me out, I beg of you, for I feel I'm dying a little more each day. I don't know why they were so barbaric as to refuse me my camp bed: `twas a very slight favor to grant, and which would at least have given me the satisfaction of forgetting my misfortunes for a few hours each night. But at least send me my sheets right away, I beg of you. Farewell, my dear friend, love me as much as I suffer, that is all I ask of you, and believe that I am at the height of my despair.
3. To Madame de Montreuil
March 13, 1777
If in a soul capable of having betrayed in one fell stroke all the most sacred sentiments, those of humanity in having a son arrested beside the coffin of his mother, those of hospitality by betraying someone who had just given himself over to your care, those of Nature in not even respecting the refuge of your daughter's embrace; if, I say, in such a person some slight spark of compassion might still exist, I should perhaps try to awaken it by the most accurate and at the same time most frightful description of my horrible plight. But independently of the fact that these complaints are completely useless, I still have enough pride, however brought low it may be, not to embellish your triumph with my tears, and even in the bosom of misfortune I shall still find the courage to refrain from complaining to my tyrant.
A few simple considerations will therefore be the sole point of this letter. You can value them as you like, and then I shall say no more ... Yes, I shall seal my lips, so that my opinions shall no longer be dinned into your ears, leaving you for a while at least the chance to revel in the knowledge of my unhappiness.
I have long been your victim, Madame, but do not think to make me your dupe. It is sometimes interesting to be the one, always humiliating to be the other, and I credit myself with being blessed with as much insight as you can presume to have of deceit. For pity's sake, Madame, let us never confuse my case and my imprisonment: you will seek to bring my case to a conclusion for the sake of my children; and my imprisonment, which you claim indispensable to that end, and which it is most certainly not, is not, and cannot be, anything but the effect of your own vengeance. The most terrifying of all the legal opinions heard so far is that of M. Siméon of Aix, who said in no uncertain terms that it was quite possible to obtain a judgment whereby exile would serve as prison to the accused. Those are Siméon's very own words. Would not a lettre de cachet, in fact, which would have banished me from the kingdom, have served the same purpose?—of course it would—but it would not have served your fury nearly as well.
Was it you, then, who concocted and had carried out the plan to have me locked up between four walls? And by what misadventure have the wise magistrates who today govern the State allowed themselves be hoodwinked to the point of believing they were serving the interests of a family when it was clearly a question of slaking a woman's thirst for revenge? Why am I once again behind bars? why is an imprudence being mistaken for a crime? why am I not being allowed to prove to my judges the difference between the two? and why are you the one who is keeping me from doing so? These are the questions to which Madame deigns not to reply, is that not true? Ten or a dozen bolts and locks serve as your answer instead, but this tyrannical argument, to which the laws are formally opposed, is not eternally triumphant. That is what consoles and comforts me.
Focusing upon my case alone, is it to clear my name that you are having me punished? and are you suffering under the illusion that this punishment shall be ignored? Do you for a moment believe that they who, sooner or later, shall hear of it shall surely assume that there has to have been a crime somewhere, since there has been a punishment? Be it meted out by the king, be it meted out by judges, 'tis still a punishment, and will the public—which is neither indulgent nor overly curious to find out the truth of the matter—make this frivolous distinction? And will it not always see crime wherever punishment has been exacted? And what a triumph then for my enemies! What fertile soil you prepare for them in the future! and how tempted they will be to have a further go at me, since the results correspond so nicely to their intentions! All your scandalous acts over the past five years have nicely prepared people's minds and behavior in my regard, and you have been well aware of the cruel situation I have found myself in during this whole period, the constant target of fresh calumnies, which a sordid interest used to build upon the unhappiness of my situation. How do you think people can fail to judge a man guilty when the authorities have come knocking at his door three or four times, and when they then throw him in jail once they have their hands on him? Who do you hope to convince that I have not been in prison when they haven't seen me or even heard from me all this time? After all the means taken to capture me, you can well imagine that the only conclusion people can come to, since I have dropped out of sight, is that I have been arrested. What advantage will derive from this? My reputation lost forever, and new troubles at every turn. That is what I shall owe to the wonderful manner in which you are handling my affairs.
But let us consider matters from another point of view. Is this a personal punishment I'm receiving? and is the thought this will turn me back onto the straight and narrow, as if I were a naughty little boy? A complete waste of time and effort, Madame. If the wretchedness and ignominy to which the Marseilles judges' absurd proceedings have reduced me, by punishing the most commonplace of indiscretions as though it were a crime, have failed to make me mend my ways, your iron bars and your iron doors and your locks will be no more successful. You ought to know my heart well enough by now to be convinced that the mere suspicion of dishonor is capable of withering it completely, and you are smart enough to understand that a misdeed, whose origin lies in hot-bloodedness, is not corrected by making that selfsame blood more bitter, by firing the brain through deprivation and inflaming the imagination through solitude. What I am calling to mind here will be supported by every reasonable being who knows me passing well and who is not infatuated with the idiotic notion that, to correct or punish a man you must shut him up like a wild beast; and I challenge anyone to conclude other than that, from such methods, the only possible result in my case is the most certain perturbation of my organs.
If therefore neither my behavior nor my reputation stand to gain from this latest act of kindness on your part—if, on the contrary, there are nothing but negatives and, what is more, it disturbs my brain—what purpose will it have served, Madame, I ask you? Your vengeance, true? Ah, yes! I know all too well, 'tis always there one must return, and everything I have just written is quite beside the point. But what does all that mean, so long as I play the sacrificial lamb ... and you are satisfied? On the contrary, you must surely say to yourself, the greater the damage wrought, the more content I shall be. But should you not already have been sufficiently contented, Madame, by the six months of prison I served in Savoy for the same reason? Am I to believe that five years of afflictions and stigmas were not enough? and was this appalling denouement absolutely necessary, especially after the frightful demonstration I gave you of what lengths this sort of mistreatment could drive me to, by risking my life to escape from it! You must admit that, after that experience, 'tis an act of barbarity on your part to have the same thing inflicted upon me again, and with episodes a thousand times crueler than before and which, having the effect they do on my brain, will at the first possible opportunity have me dashing my head against the bars that presently confine me. Do not reduce me to despair, Madame; I cannot endure this horrible solitude, I feel it. Remember that you will never derive any good from making my soul more savage and my heart immune to feeling, the only possible results of the frightful state in which you have had me put. Give me time to make amends for my errors, and do not make yourself responsible for those into which perhaps I shall again be swept by the dreadful disorder I feel aborning in my mind.
I am respectfully, Madame, your most humble and most obedient servant.
P.S.—If the person from Montpellier returns there, I hope it will not be without the most urgent recommendation for her not to breathe a word about the scandalous scene to which you, with your usual wit, made her a witness, a blunder that, considering the circumstances of what her father has been up to, is assuredly quite inexcusable.
4. To Madame de Sade
April 18, 1777
'Tis most rightly said, my dear friend, that edifices constructed in a position such as mine are built only on sand, and that all the ideas one forms are naught but illusions, which crumble to dust as soon as they are conceived, Of the six combinations I figured out all by myself, and upon which I based a hope of some enlightenment in the near future, there remains, thanks be to God, not a single one, and your letter of April 14 caused them to disappear the way the sun's rays dissipate the morning dew. 'Tis true that on the other hand I did find in that same letter the comforting sentence telling me that I could be quite sure that I shall not stay here one minute longer than the time necessary. I know nothing on earth so reassuring as this expression, so that if 'tis necessary for me to remain here six months, six months I shall remain. That is charming, and verily, those in charge of guiding your style must perforce congratulate themselves upon the progress you are making in their profound art of sprinkling salt on the wounds of the wretched. Indeed, they have succeeded masterfully. I warn you, however, that 'twill not be long before my head explodes because of the cruel life I am leading. I can see it coming, and I hereby predict that they shall have every reason to repent for having used an excessive dose of severity with me, which is so ill-suited to my character. 'Tis for my own welfare, they maintain. Divine phrase, wherein one recognizes all too clearly the ordinary language of imbecility triumphant. 'Tis for a man's own good that you expose him to maddening conditions, for his own good that you wreck his health, for his own good that you feed him on the tears of despair! So far, I must confess, I've not had the pleasure of understanding or experiencing that kind of well-being ...
You are wrong, the fools gravely declare to you: this gives you the chance to think things over. 'Tis true, it does make one think, but would you like to know the one thought this infamous brutality has engendered in me? The thought, deeply engraved in my soul, of fleeing as soon as I am able from a country where a citizen's services count as nothing when it comes to compensating for a momentary lapse, where imprudence is punished as if it were a crime, where a woman, because she is cunning and filled with deceit, finds the secret of enslaving innocence to her caprices, or rather to her commanding and personal interest to bury the veritable crux of the matter; and, far from those whose goal is to harass and annoy, and all their accomplices, of setting off in search of a free country where I can faithfully serve the prince who will provide me with asylum there, and thus may merit from him what I could not obtain in my native land ... justice and to be left in peace.
Those, my dear friend, are my sole and unique thoughts, and I aspire to naught but the happy moment when I can put them into effect. We have been misled, you say. Not so ... I assure you that I was not fooled for one minute, and you ought to remember how, just before your room was filled with a pack of rascals—who, without producing any order from the king, had come, or so they claimed, to arrest me on the king's behalf—I told you that I did not trust your mother's reassuring letter and that since it was full of tenderness, one could be sure that her soul was feeding on a diet of deceit. No, my dear friend, no, I may have been surprised, but as for mistakes I shall admit to none until the day I see that creature turn honest and truthful, which in all likelihood is not just around the corner. In coming here I acted like Caesar, who was wont to say that 'twere better to expose oneself once in one's life to the dangers one fears than to live in a constant concern to try to avoid them. That reasoning led him to the Senate, where he knew full well the conspirators were awaiting him. I did the same, and like him I shall always be greater through my innocence and my frankness than my enemies through their baseness and the secret rancors that motivate them. You ask me how I am. But what's the use of my telling you? If I do, my letter will not reach you. Still, on an off chance, I am going to satisfy you, for I cannot imagine they will be so unfair as to prevent me from replying to something they have allowed you to ask me. I am in a tower locked up behind nineteen iron doors, my only source of light being two little windows each outfitted with a score of bars. For about ten or twelve minutes a day I have the company of a man who brings me food. The rest of the time I spend alone and in weeping ... There's my life ... That is how, in this country, they set a man straight: 'Tis by cutting off all his connections with society, to which on the contrary he needs to be brought closer so that he may be brought back to the path of goodness whence he had the misfortune to stray. Instead of good advice, wise counsel, I have my despair and my tears. Yes, my dear friend, such is my fate. How could anyone fail to cherish virtue when they offer it to you under such divine colors? As for the manner in which I am treated, 'tis in all fairness with civility in all things ... but so much fussing over trifles, so much childishness that, when I arrived here, I thought I had been transported to the Lilliputians' isle, where men being only eight inches tall, their behavior must be in keeping with their stature. At first, I found it funny, finding it difficult to get it into my head that people who otherwise appeared to be fairly sensible could adopt such foolish conduct. Later on I began to lose patience. Finally, I have taken to imagining that I am only twelve years old—'tis more honest than if I were to pretend the others were that age—and this idea of having reverted to childhood somewhat tempers the regret a reasonable person would otherwise feel at seeing himself treated in this manner. But one completely amusing detail I almost forgot is their promptness to spy on you, down to your least facial expression, and to report it on the spot to whomever is in charge. At first I was fooled by this, and my frame of mind, always affected by and attuned to your letters, indiscreetly revealed itself one day when I was especially enjoying a note from you. How quickly your following letters made me realize how foolish I was! From then on I resolved to be as hypocritical as the others, and these days I control myself, so that not even the shrewdest of them can figure out my feelings from my face. Well then, my pet, there's one virtue I've nonetheless acquired! I dare you now to come here and tell me that one gains nothing in prison! As for the walks and the exercise you advised me to take, verily you speak as if I were in some country house where I might do as I please ... When they let the dog out of his kennel he trots off to spend one hour in a kind of cemetery about forty feet square, surrounded by walls more than fifty feet high, and this charming favor is not yet granted him as often as he would like. You can well imagine—or at least you ought to—how many disadvantages would result from leaving a man the same freedom one allows animals; his health might pick up all of a sudden, and then where the devil would their projects be, they whose only goal is to see him dead? During the sixty-five days I have been here, I have consequently breathed fresh air for five hours all told, on five different occasions. Compare that with the exercise you know I am used to taking, which is absolutely essential for me, and then judge for yourself what state I am in! The result is terrible headaches, which refuse to go away and totally exhaust me, dreadful nervous pains, vapors, and a complete inability to sleep, all of which cannot fail to lead to serious illness sooner or later. But what does that matter so long as the présidente is pleased and so long as her dull-witted husband can say: "That's all to the good, all to the good, `twill make him mull things over." Farewell, my heart, be well and love me a little: that idea is the only one capable of easing my sufferings.
As yet they have brought me nothing to sign. There was no need to announce this petition to me so far in advance with nothing concrete to show for it. And what is more, the draft you gave me leads me to believe that I am in for all kinds of lengthy delays. I am therefore going to ask permission to appoint someone my power-of-attorney. First this permission must be obtained, then the attorney must be appointed, informed, made to act ... Just imagine the delays that will ensue, and what an enormous amount of time it will take! Add to all that the meticulous way in which they hasten to have me sign the necessary papers and you will see that the whole thing adds up to an eternity. 'Tis true, however, I have the consolation of knowing that I shall not stay here one minute longer than the time necessary!
Once again farewell, my dear good friend. Here's a long letter which may never reach you, since 'tis not written à la Lilliputienne. No matter, it will not go unseen, and who knows whether, amongst all those who are obliged to see it, you are the one to whom I most directly address it?
What you tell me of your children pleases me. You surely know how delighted I shall be to embrace them, although I have no illusions about the fact that—despite my affection—'tis upon their account I am suffering at present.
Rereading my letter, I can see all too plainly that they will never pass it on to you, which is proof positive of the injustice and the horror of everything I am being made to suffer, for if there were nothing but justice and simplicity in all I am experiencing, why would they fear your being told or finding it out? In any case, I shall not write to you again until I positively receive a reply to this one, for what is the purpose of writing to you if you do not receive my letters?
|Note on the Letters||41|
|Part One: Letters from Vincennes||45|
|Part Two: Letters from the Bastille||349|
Posted February 2, 2010
No text was provided for this review.