The French writer of psychological and philosophical works Donatien Alphonse François, Comte de Sade (1740-1814), was also a libertine, debaucher, pornographer, and sadist—a term derived from his name.
The Marquis de Sade has been traditionally viewed as the greatest incarnation of evil that ever lived. Recently, however, new interpretations of his life and writings have begun to appear. It is now generally agreed that despite his reputation, his works, which were ignored for over a century, must be considered as of the first rank. Sade has been termed the "most absolute writer who has ever lived."
Born on June 2, 1740, to Marie Elénore de Maille de Carman, lady-in-waiting to and relative of the Princess de Condé, and Jean Baptiste Joseph François, Comte de Sade, who traced his ancestry to the chaste Laura of Petrarch's poems, the Marquis de Sade may be the most typical and the most unusual representative of the other side of the Enlightenment, the side at which the philosophes railed.
Very little is known of Sade's life. He graduated from the Colle‧ge de Louis le Grand, was commissioned as a coronet in the French army, and later sold his commission. He was forced to marry the eldest daughter of a leading magisterial family, Renée Pélagie de Montreuil, who bore him three children. Because of his libertinage, which included the seduction of and elopement with his wife's sister, Anne Prospe‧re, he incurred the unending enmity of his mother-in-law, who eventually had him imprisoned in 1781. Sade had tasted imprisonment before for libertinage and indebtedness, and he spent half of his adult life in prisons and asylums. Only three public scandals can be proved against him, and none of these seems to merit the punishment meted out to him, reinforcing his claim that he was an unjust victim of his reputation and others' hatreds.
During the Revolution, Sade was released from prison, served as secretary and president of the Piques section of Paris, and represented it at least once before the National Convention, where he addressed a pamphlet calling for the abolition of capital punishment and the enfranchisement of women. His attitudes and actions gained the hatred of Maximilien de Robespierre, who had him imprisoned (1793). He was saved only by the death of the "Incorruptible." Released in 1794, Sade was arrested in 1801 for being the supposed author of a scandalous pamphlet against Napoleon. He spent the rest of his life at Charenton insane asylum, where he died on Dec. 8, 1814. His best-known books include Justine; ou, Les Malheurs de la vertu (1791) and its sequel, Histoire de Juliette; ou, Les Prospérités du vice (1797).
Thus the life of the Marquis de Sade. Who was he? Why did he acquire the unique reputation he possesses? There are no simple answers regarding the life of any man. For Sade, there is possibly no answer at all. Recent works on his life have justly sought answers in his literary works, and because of this most commentators tend to psychoanalyze him. Although many of these works have offered brilliant insights into the character of the man, none of them is definitive and most treat him out of context, as though his life and aberrations were apart from life. Most Sadean scholars tend to agree that his hostility to religion, to the established social and political order, and to the despotism of existing law was similar in many ways to that of the philosophes. Some writers believe that he carried the beliefs of the philosophes to the rational conclusions, which in the end negated the conclusions and opened for succeeding generations a moral abyss. Others focus on what is termed a philosophy of destruction found in Sade's writings. Sade's atheism is viewed as the first element in a dialectic which destroys divinity through sacrilege and blasphemy and raises to preeminence an indifferent and unfolding nature which destroys to create and creates to destroy. Nature itself is then destroyed by being constantly outraged because it takes on the same sovereign character as God. What emerges is the "Unique One," the man who rises above nature and arrogates to himself the creative and destructive capacities of nature in an extreme form, becoming solitary, alone, unique in the conscious awareness that he is the creative force and all others are but the material through which his energy is expressed.
Further Reading on Comte de Sade
Many of Sade's works are available in English. Biographies include Geoffrey Gorer, The Life and Ideas of the Marquis de Sade (1934; rev. ed. 1953), and Gilbert Lély, The Marquis de Sade (trans. 1962). Recommended for literary background is Mario Praz, The Romantic Agony (trans. 1933; 2d ed. 1956).
Additional Biography Sources
Gorer, Geoffrey, The life and ideas of the Marquis de Sade, Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1978, 1963.
Hayman, Ronald, De Sade: a critical biography, New York: Crowell, 1978.
Lever, Maurice, Sade: a biography, San Diego: Harcourt Brace &Co., 1994.
Thomas, Donald, The Marquis de Sade, Secaucus, NJ: Citadel Press, 1992.