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The Marquis de Sade: A Life

The Marquis de Sade: A Life

4.0 1
by Neil Schaeffer, de Sade

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Neil Schaeffer presents here a wholly original, compellingly human portrait of the "divine Marquis," the enigmatic legend whose name is synonymous with brutal perversion and cruelty. Against a magnificently embroidered backdrop of eighteenth-century France, he shows us Sade's incredible life of sexual appetite, adherence to Enlightenment principles, imprisonment,


Neil Schaeffer presents here a wholly original, compellingly human portrait of the "divine Marquis," the enigmatic legend whose name is synonymous with brutal perversion and cruelty. Against a magnificently embroidered backdrop of eighteenth-century France, he shows us Sade's incredible life of sexual appetite, adherence to Enlightenment principles, imprisonment, scandal, and above all inexhaustible imagination. Based on a decade of research and utilizing work never before published in English, The Marquis de Sade is a definitive work that confronts nearly two hundred years of myth to reveal a Promethean figure of astonishing complexity.

Editorial Reviews

Mim Udovitch
Sade's staunchest supporters usually offer a sort of cosi fan tutti defense, and Schaeffer does likewise....Schaeffer...writes that Sade's "sexual life would find a modern equivalent among a great many film and rock stars"....Cosi fan tutti, and, actually, plus ca change.
The New York Times Book Review
Richard Bernstein
...[A] welcome addition to the literature....sophisticated and hardheaded about Sade....[This is] a...biography...that does not stint on Sade's most amazing egotismhis monstrous and self-destructive heedlessness of others....[Schaeffer] leaves it up to the reader to judge....[I]t is the strength of [his] biography that makes Sade not just a notorious figure but a credibly heroic one... —The New York Times
How elegantly ironic that the Age of Reason should produce a most seemingly unreasonable man as the Marquis de Sade. How chillingly prophetic that he should write, imprisoned in the infamous Bastille on the eve of the modern age, a work of arguably greater infamy—a work that is not just an outcry but a demonstration of man's desire to dismember nature and dislocate the universe. How poetically just or tragic (depending on one's point of view) that a libertine who sought to be the champion of intellectual liberty should die in the confines of an insane asylum.

The Marquis de Sade is one of those figures on whom we can project our desires and fears. To some he is a frightening demon of filth and violence. To others he is a witty and brazen destroyer of convention. In either case it is the extreme in him that fascinates or repels. With insightful and often surprising detail, Neil Schaeffer has created a history of Sade that is clear, compelling and provocative. A novel by Samuel Richardson is not full of as much tempted virtue, thwarted ambition, virulent scheming, daring escapes and criminal debauchery. But the extraordinary achievement here is that Schaeffer succeeds in not casting Sade in the extreme—not using him as an extension of some moral argument. With the help of Sade's large extant correspondence, Schaeffer allows this individual of great complexity to present himself in all his divine, demonic and ultimately human contradictions. On the occasions when Schaeffer does intrude it is only to allow us a breath and an opportunity to gauge and question our own reactions.

This was not a life half-lived.

Sade was born in the splendor of theCondé Palace in Paris, but the greater part of his life would be spent in prison cells. For most of his childhood and early adolescence he lived on the family estates in Provence as an exile of his parents' carelessness and ambition, in the charge of various uncles and aunts. He joined an elite royal regiment and fought without distinction in the Seven Years War. At twenty-three, his father arranged a marriage of convenience to a rather plain daughter of the upstart de Montreuil family. That marriage was to be his downfall.

Mme de Montreuil, his mother-in-law, was at first charmed by Sade and did everything she could to rescue him from various little scrapes and scandals—almost to the point of complicity. These incidents—tame and frankly juvenile by contemporary standards—were followed with great concern and curiosity by a police inspector named Marais, whose fate would become strangely bound to Sade's. But when Mme de Montreuil turned on Sade, scandal followed scandal with increasing consequence. In Schaeffer's telling, the pious wife Renée emerges from the shadows of her mother to become her husband's greatest defender, accomplice and dupe. In prison Sade does nothing but write and explore the philosophy of his fantasy. The Revolution comes and the Marquis de Sade becomes Citizen Sade. He tastes freedom after twelve years but laments what he thinks is the loss of his greatest literary achievement, 120 Days of Sodom, in the storming of the Bastille.

In the chaos of the Revolution and Terror, he sees his homicidal fantasies made very real. Freedom is short lived for Sade in the Age of Liberty. Soon he is thought so dangerous that he must be insane and is committed by order of the Directory and kept at the asylum of Charenton by Napoleon himself. There he charms Parisian society by putting on plays with the inmates.

All the details of these events have been extraordinarily well-researched. Schaeffer does an especially good job in maneuvering with ease and confidence the labyrinth of Revolutionary politics. Schaeffer uses the details to illuminate and nowhere is this used to greater effect than in the relationship between Sade and his wife, Renée. During his confinement in the Bastille Sade sends her on almost daily errands. For Renée these errands range from the merely fatiguing to the deeply humiliating. And, while she does each and every thing asked of her at the expense of her reputation, she must endure Sade's blind rages that alternate with morbid—sometimes salacious—declarations of love and forgiveness. This is an act of Sadism that equals all the psycho-sexual scenarios that the Marquis can invent. When Renée makes a definitive choice about her husband after his release it is both surprising and inevitable.

The book presents all the people involved with great care and even-handedness, and Sade's reactions to his long imprisonments and desires to explore the boundaries of existence are handled with intelligence and compassion. About Sade's writing, Schaeffer leads us to wonder what might have been a physical act and what was a philosophical stance. He helps us to understand that we can never be certain with Sade.

Ultimately, in Schaeffer's book, we are presented with a man—beguiling and repellent—as fascinating as the myth. —Christopher Cartmill
Library Journal
Schaeffers new biography of the Marquis de Sade is unlucky in its timing, following in the wake of those of Francine du Plessix Gray (LJ 9/15/98) and Laurence L. Bongie (LJ 11/1/98). It is a substantial work of scholarship, drawing heavily on Sades letters and other writings, many never before translated. Schaeffer (English, Brooklyn Coll.) also offers extended readings of Sades novels. Unlike Bongies Sade, Schaeffers is a more sympathetic and romantic figure. While Bongie finds the novels derivative and unoriginal, Schaeffer argues for a great literary imagination. As a matter of narrative, du Plessix Grays book is both more concise and more fluent and should be the first choice. While Schaeffers efforts are solid and can be recommended for major academic collections, they add nothing new.T.L. Cookey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA
Mim Udovitch
Sade's staunchest supporters usually offer a sort of cosi fan tutti defense, and Schaeffer does likewise....Schaeffer...writes that Sade's "sexual life would find a modern equivalent among a great many film and rock stars"....Cosi fan tutti, and, actually, plus ca change.
The New York Times Book Review
Kirkus Reviews
Schaeffer (English/Brooklyn Coll.) is an unlucky fellow. Not only is the Marquis de Sade's life already thoroughly published, no fewer than two North American writers have brought out major biographies in the last few months. When one comes to such a topic so late, it is customary to stake out some special perspective, aspect, or agenda. In November of last year Francine du Plessix Gray crossed the finish line first with her excellent At Home with the Marquis de Sade. In it she emphasizes Sade's married life and domestic arrangements. Then in December a sober-minded Canadian scholar of French literature, Laurence Bongie, offered a full-scale assault against sadolatry in his fine Sade: A Biographical Essay; Bongie sees it as his mission to deflate the odious Sade's overblown prestige. And just when we thought enough of Sade was enough, we get Schaeffer's version of the life. Disappointingly, it does not markedly differ from any of the other lives that you might care to pick up and read. Schaeffer has not bothered to make a distinctive argument about Sade or his writing. Orthodox Freudian explanations resolve Sade's perversions, and Schaeffer blandly accepts Sade as the major writer that many modernists proclaimed. Though Schaeffer does not state his views with great clarity, he gives the impression that Sade's greatness resides in his unblinking gaze at the worst to be found in us. Freud also underpins Schaeffer's reading of Sade's appeal (if that is the right word): "Since sexual perversity is a common feature of everyone's mental life there is in every reader extremely powerful motives to respond to Sade's imagination on this subject—whether through identification,laughter, titillation, horror, anger, or disgusted rejection." The logic of this thought might not stand up under severe scrutiny, but we get the idea that Sade, like other great writers, is universal. This life of Sade is a respectable biography, but not likely to stand out in the crowd.

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Knopf Publishing Group
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6.60(w) x 9.56(h) x 1.90(d)

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The small, picturesque village of La Coste rises steeply through very narrow cobbled streets and cubist stone houses attached to the face of one of the hills in the Luberon range of Provence. On the brow stand the jagged stone walls of the ruin that once had been the Marquis de Sade's chateau of La Coste. Inside, the floors and ceilings have long since fallen, although there are hints--a bit of fancy molding here, a touch of antique and faded paint there--to suggest the life that once animated these rooms. Now the inside is a hollow, open to the pale, intense heat of the Provencal sky. Even as ruins, the thick stone walls are magnificent. Together, these walls and the hollow they protect are a perfect emblem of the castle's former owner.

It is inevitable that one comes to picture Sade behind walls. He lived to be seventy-four, but he spent almost twenty-nine years of his adulthood in various prisons and at the insane asylum at Charenton. What caused the series of imprisonment-release-imprisonment that constituted most of Sade's adult life? What crimes are hidden behind the prison walls, behind the asylum walls, behind the grotesque mask of evil that most people imagine when they try to picture the Marquis de Sade? Behind the ruined walls of La Coste, behind the cruel mask Sade is made to wear in everyone's imagination, there is a mystery, a hollowness, that this book will aim to explore.

When Sade was thirty-eight years old, he himself opened a window that sheds light into the darkness within. During the night of February 16, 1779, asleep in his prison cell in the fortress of Vincennes, he had a vivid dream. He had fallen asleep reading late into the night, as was hishabit. All winter, the thick stone walls had kept in the damp and the cold, and because his cell had no chimney, he could make no fire. For two years, he had endured imprisonment in this royal fortress, but not for crimes committed. Rather, he was being held at the pleasure of the King, under a lettre de cachet granted to his mother-in-law, Mme de Montreuil. Thus, at thirty-eight years of age, Sade spent his days sitting in his cell, feeling sorry for himself, wondering what he had done to deserve his fate, and writing angry letters about his predicament to his patient wife, Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil. His sole consolation, he wrote to her, came from reading the recently published life of Petrarch, written by Sade's uncle, Jacques-Francois-Paul-Aldonze de Sade (the Abbe de Sade). Sade had been sent at the age of four and a half to his uncle's chateau at Saumane, near La Coste, where he remained until the age of ten, when he left for school in Paris.

On this wintry night in a cold prison, Sade took to bed his uncle's acclaimed life of Petrarch. He then fell asleep over the book and dreamed of the mysterious Laure, the woman whom Petrarch celebrated as the inspiration of his life and poetry. In his book, Memoires pour la vie de Francois Petrarque, Sade's uncle made a plausible case for identifying Petrarch's Laure as an ancient member of the noble house of Sade: Laure de Noves, wife of Hugues de Sade. Sade described his dream in a letter to his wife the next day:

It was around midnight. I had just fallen asleep, his Memoires in my hand. Suddenly, she appeared to me. . . . I saw her! The horror of the grave had not at all altered the radiance of her charms, and her eyes still flashed as brilliantly as when Petrarch celebrated them. A black veil enveloped her completely, and her beautiful blond hair loosely floated above. It seemed as if Love, in order to keep her still beautiful, sought to soften all the lugubrious array in which she presented herself to my gaze. "Why suffer in the world?" she asked me. "Come and be reunited with me. No more pain, no more sorrows, no more distress, in the endless space where I abide. Have the courage to follow me there." At these words, I prostrated myself at her feet, I said to her: "Oh my Mother! . . ." But sobs choked my voice. She extended a hand to me, which I covered with my tears. She shed them as well. "It gave me pleasure," she added, "when I lived in this world that you detest, to turn my eyes toward the future. I multiplied my descendants as far as you, and I did not imagine you so miserable." Then, overcome by my despair and my affection, I flung my arms around her neck to hold her back or to follow her, and to bathe her in my tears, but the phantom disappeared. All that remained was my sorrow.

O voi che travagliate, ecco il cammino
Venite a me se'l passo altri non serra.

[O you who suffer, come, this is the way,
Come to me, if you can see your way free.]
Petr., son. LIX.

At first, it may be startling to realize that this poignant vision, so sad and piteous, was the product of the mind that wrote Les Cent Vingt Journees de Sodome, "the most impure tale," Sade himself boasted, "that has ever been written since the world began." It may be surprising to realize that, behind Sade's mask of perverse sexuality and obdurate violence (a myth that he himself helped cultivate), there existed an emotionally needy, tender sensibility that revealed itself in his dream. Tears came to Sade (if only in this dream) as easily as they poured from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that man of exquisite feeling. In the dream, Sade's humiliations and sufferings had suffused him in a flush of self-pity, as warm as a blush, as passionate as the tears that choke his voice. In this dream--even at the age of thirty-eight--Sade yearned for the embrace of a mother. "Oh my Mother!" he cried out to Laure, prostrate at her feet, as if he were one of the tortured victims of his own fictional erotic fantasies. But when, in his dream, he reached to grasp her, she disappeared and abandoned him to his lonely suffering. If Sade's conscious fantasies turned to erotic violence, especially directed against women, we may ask where and why those underground rivers of rage and sexuality met. Where was the first abandonment, disappointment, even betrayal that lurks behind the beautiful, compassionate Laure of the dream?

The dream's insistence that Laure's beauty was in no way affected by "the horror of the grave," that "the radiance of her charms" was as bright as ever, and that "her eyes still flashed as brilliantly as when Petrarch celebrated them," gives the beginnings of an answer. Oddly, Sade's dream, which denies reality--Laure was dead and decayed--makes Laure's true state all the more evident. Like Faustus' Helen, Sade's Laure is a gaudy ghost imperfectly hidden behind an illusion of glowing beauty. Despite her sparkling eyes and seductive hair, she is an exhalation of the grave. "Oh my Mother!" Sade had cried when he saw her. In life, Sade's mother, like Laure, was impossible to grasp. Remote, embittered, disillusioned with her husband, grieving over the death of her first child, and for the third one, who died soon after its birth, when Sade was just six years old, Sade's mother might as well have lived, like Laure, in some "endless space" where he could not reach her. Indeed, she was to die in the Carmelite convent on the rue d'Enfer in Paris, to which she had retreated perhaps as early as 1747, when her son was seven years old. There is a profound loneliness at the bottom of what may be called the sweet Sade--a loneliness that he could find no way to fill except with rage.

If the sweet side of Sade is focused on some idealized mother figure like Laure, the rest of his dream implies a competition with men of authority, Christ foremost among them. Laure's injunction, "Why suffer in this world? . . . Come and be reunited with me," parodies the excerpt in the sonnet by Petrarch that Sade quotes, in which it is Christ who says, "O you who suffer . . . / Come to me. . . ." Sade would make a painful career for himself by challenging the laws of man and God. Moreover, sacrilege and incest always held an erotic allure for Sade, and these themes are also evident in his dream about his married relative Laure de Noves. In Sade's dream, Laure is the apex of a love triangle. The second position is taken up by her husband. The third position is occupied by a variety of interlopers: Petrarch, Sade's uncle, the Abbe de Sade, and, of course, Sade himself. It is no accident that two books play such an important role in the dream: Petrarch's sonnets and the Abbe's biography of Petrarch that Sade was reading with great admiration as he fell asleep. Laure is complexly attractive, not only as a sexual and familial figure, but also as a muse. In his dream, then, Sade sought to steal the inspirational figure not only of Petrarch, but of his uncle, the Abbe de Sade. Like Prince Hamlet, Sade was enamored of his uncle's beloved. By theft, by incest, by his own rapt will, Sade would make Laure his own muse. His drive to write, precisely like his feverish and often perverse sexuality, was bound together with a powerful need to compete with or attack whatever was forbidden, limited, sanctified.

The Abbe de Sade had a genetic and climatic theory to explain his own feverish sexuality. "The passions," he wrote, "take the shape of the head where they are formed." Our sexual nature is a genetic endowment and is therefore "beyond our control." Climate, moreover, can affect the strength of one's original sexual energy. For example, the Abbe wrote, "The sun incites the blood of a man from Provence." Perhaps the Abbe was right. Perhaps the heat of Provence fired the blood.

Under the brilliant sun of Provence, everything is hot. The stones of the earth give off the odors of spice. The valleys are lush and green, and the terraced fields climb the lower slopes to the fortified towns that guard them, towns like Bonnieux, Cereste, Menerbes, La Coste. From a distance, these villages perched near the tops of the mountains look like the bastions they are, heating up and glowing in the heat. They are reached by roads, once paths, that switch back and forth on their way up to the fortified gate. Inside the walls, spiraling up from the central square with its well or fountain, narrow stone stairways seem gouged between the stone houses. On a bluff above the town of La Coste stood the ancestral home of the Sade family.

On this strategic site, overlooking what had once been crucial Roman roads, stood a fort--in Latin, castrum--which may have provided the name "La Coste." During the Middle Ages, La Coste became the possession of the Sade family, who made their fortune in the cloth trade. Possibly one of the most notable was Hugues de Sade, mentioned earlier, who, in 1325, more than four hundred years before Sade's birth, married Laure de Noves. Over the centuries, each heir prospered in his turn, and the chateau grew in size and changed as architectural styles changed. In Provence, the Sades continued to hold important military and ecclesiastical positions. Sade's father, Jean-Baptiste de Sade (born 1702), was first a captain of dragoons, and later performed ambassadorial missions to Russia, to England, and finally to the Elector of Cologne, where he took up his post six months after his first and only son, Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, was born on June 2, 1740. At the time of Sade's birth, his mother, Marie-Eleonore de Maille, who was related to the Prince de Conde, was serving as a lady-in-waiting to the Princesse de Conde. The Sades were especially fortunate, therefore, to have an apartment in the Conde Palace in Paris. Sade's first years would be spent in a scene of magnificence and royal luxury almost unmatched in all of Europe.

On June 2, 1740, Sade was born in the large apartment occupied by his mother in the Conde Palace. The next day, he was brought for baptism to the Church of Saint-Sulpice. His mother and father were not present. Sade was taken by their proxies, an officer in his father's regiment and the wife of another officer. These two, or the servants who carried the infant to church, managed to garble his Christian names. Instead of Donatien-Aldonse-Louis, he was baptized Donatien-Alphonse-Francois. If Sade resented this muddling of his name, he never commented on it. Throughout his long life, he would use several variants of both his intended and actual Christian names. After the Revolution, for example, he prudently suppressed his noble title and styled himself simply as Citizen Louis Sade. The variety of the names he used on official documents may have saved his life following the Revolution, when, in 1793 and 1794, he spent ten frightful months in several Paris prisons. In the end, his nature was no more fixed than his name. As the times changed, so did he. He appeared to be malleable, a creature of shifting surfaces. But it would be his destiny to become--to turn himself into--a being of myth, a force in the consciousness of humanity, known by only one name: "Sade."

Meet the Author

Neil Schaeffer is Professor of English Literature at Brooklyn College.

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Marquis De Sade 4 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 1 reviews.
Guest More than 1 year ago
my curiousity of notorious historical figures drew me to this book.. before I read it, I knew next to nothing about Sade... Schaeffer's book is extremely informative due to his unbelievably exhaustive research.. the first few pages of the book are tiresome as he continually recounts an episode in Sade's childhood and a dream he had, as if this explains the marquis' wicked lifestyle.. after I got past that, I almost quit reading the book because of Sade's 'satanic' activity with a prostitute..however, the book drew me in deeply the more I read it.. Sade was repulsive, yet fascinating, even humorous.. I found especially funny when I read about 'ahh...the hen is ready to lay an egg'.. you will have to find out what that means on your own because I cannot possibly type the meaning.. I had no idea how gory the French Revolution was until I read about how the ditches overflowed with blood and the streets stank of corpses.. and when reading about the ill-fated Princess de Lamballe, I couldn't help but think of Ed Gein... I would recommend this book to anyone who is not extremely religious and has a strong stomach.. it's a superb reconstruction of Sade's life in an important era of French history.. I have already bought Justine and 120 Days of Sodom, but need to take a break from Sade for a while before my mind becomes completely warped!