“Imperious, choleric, irascible, extreme in everything, with a dissolute imagination the like of which has never been seen, atheistic to the point of fanaticism, there you have me in a nutshell, and kill me again or take me as I am, for I shall not change.”
They chose to kill him, first by slow degrees in the boredom of the dungeon and then by calumny and oblivion. This latter death he had himself desired. “The ditch once covered over, above it acorns shall be strewn in order that, the spot become green again and the copse grown back thick over it, the traces of my grave may disappear from the face of the earth as I trust the memory of me shall fade out of the minds of all men. . . .” This was the only one of his last wishes to be respected, though most carefully so. The memory of Sade has been disfigured by preposterous legends,2 his very name has buckled under the weight of such words as “sadism” and “sadistic.”
His private journals have been lost, his manuscripts burned—the ten volumes of Les Journées de Florbelle at the instigation of his own son—his books banned. Though in the latter part of the nineteenth century Swinburne and a few other curious spirits became interested in his case, it was not until Apollinaire that he assumed his place in French literature. However, he is still a long way from having won it officially. One may glance through heavy, detailed works on “The Ideas of the Eighteenth Century,” or even on “The Sensibility of the Eighteenth Century,” without once coming upon his name. It is understandable that as a reaction against this scandalous silence Sade’s enthusiasts have hailed him as a prophetic genius; they claim that his work heralds Nietzsche, Stirner, Freud, and surrealism. But this cult, founded, like all cults, on a misconception, by deifying the “divine marquis” only betrays him. The critics who make of Sade neither villain nor idol, but a man and a writer, can be counted upon the fingers of one hand. Thanks to them, Sade has come back at last to earth, among us.
Just what is his place, however? Why does he merit our interest? Even his admirers will readily admit that his work is, for the most part, unreadable; philosophically, it escapes banality only to founder in incoherence. As to his vices, they are not startlingly original; Sade invented nothing in this domain, and one finds in psychiatric treatises a profusion of cases at least as interesting as his. The fact is that it is neither as author nor as sexual pervert that Sade compels our attention; it is by virtue of the relationship which he created between these two aspects of himself. Sade’s aberrations begin to acquire value when, instead of enduring them as his fixed nature, he elaborates an immense system in order to justify them. Inversely, his books take hold of us as soon as we become aware that for all their repetitiousness, their platitudes and clumsiness, he is trying to communicate an experience whose distinguishing characteristic is, nevertheless, a tendency to be incommunicable. Sade tried to make of his psycho-physical destiny an ethical choice; and of this act, in which he assumed his “separateness,” he attempted to make an example and an appeal. It is thus that his adventure assumes a wide human significance. Can we, without renouncing our individuality, satisfy our aspirations to universality? Or is it only by the sacrifice of our individual differences that we can integrate ourselves into the community? This problem concerns us all. In Sade the differences are carried to the point of outrageousness, and the immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community. Thus, we find in his work the most extreme form of the conflict from which no individual can escape without self-deception. It is the paradox and, in a sense, the triumph of Sade that his persistent singularity helps us to define the human drama in its general aspect.
In order to understand Sade’s development, in order to grasp the share of his freedom in this story, in order to assess his success and his failure, it would be useful to have precise knowledge of the facts of his situation. Unfortunately, despite the zeal of his biographers, Sade’s life and personality remain obscure on many points. We have no authentic portrait of him, and the contemporary descriptions which have come down to us are quite poor. The testimony at the Marseilles trial shows him at thirty-two, “a handsome figure of a man, full faced,” of medium height, dressed in a gray dress coat and deep orange silk breeches, a feather in his hat, a sword at his side, a cane in his hand. Here he is at fifty-three, according to a residence certificate dated the 7th of March, 1793: “Height: five feet two inches; hair: almost white; round face; receding hairline; blue eyes; medium nose; round chin.” The description of the 22nd of March, 1794, is a bit different: “Height: five feet two inches, medium nose, small mouth, round chin, grayish blond hair, high receding hairline, light blue eyes.” He seems by then to have lost his “handsome figure,” since he writes a few years later, in the Bastille, “I’ve taken on, for lack of exercise, such an enormous amount of fat that I can hardly move about.” It is this corpulence which first struck Charles Nodier when he met Sade in 1807 at Sainte-Pélagie. “An immense obesity which hindered his movements so as to prevent the exercise of those remains of grace and elegance that still lingered in his general comportment. There remained, nevertheless, in his weary eyes an indefinable flash and brilliance which took fire from time to time, like a dying spark on a dead coal.” These testimonies, the only ones we possess, hardly enable us to visualize a particular face. It has been said3 that Nodier’s description recalls the aging Oscar Wilde; it suggests Robert de Montesquiou and Maurice Sachs as well, and it tempts us to imagine a bit of Charlus in Sade, but the data is very weak.
Even more regrettable is the fact that we have so little information about his childhood. If we take the description of Valcour for an autobiographical sketch, Sade came to know resentment and violence at an early age. Brought up with Louis-Joseph de Bourbon, his contemporary, he seems to have defended himself against the selfish arrogance of the young prince with such displays of anger and brutality that he had to be taken away from court. Probably his stay in the gloomy château of Saumane and in the decaying abbey of Ebreuil left its mark upon his imagination, but we know nothing significant about his brief years of study, his entry into the army, or his life as an amiable man of fashion and debauchee. One might try to deduce his life from his work; this has been done by Pierre Klossowski, who sees in Sade’s implacable hatred of his mother the key to his life and work. But he derives this hypothesis from the mother’s role in Sade’s writings. That is, he restricts himself to a description of Sade’s imaginary world from a certain angle. He does not reveal its roots in the real world. In fact, we suspect a priori, and in accordance with certain general notions, the importance of Sade’s relationship with his father and mother; the particular details are not available to us. When we meet Sade he is already mature, and we do not know how he has become what he is. Ignorance forbids us to account for his tendencies and spontaneous behavior. His emotional nature and the peculiar character of his sexuality are for us data which we can merely note. Because of this unfortunate gap, the truth about Sade will always remain closed to us; any explanation would leave a residue which only the childhood history of Sade might have clarified.
Nevertheless, the limits imposed on our understanding ought not to discourage us, for Sade, as we have said, did not restrict himself to a passive submission to the consequences of his early choices. His chief interest for us lies not in his aberrations, but in the manner in which he assumed responsibility for them. He made of his sexuality an ethic; he expressed this ethic in works of literature. It is by this deliberate act that Sade attains a real originality. The reason for his tastes is obscure, but we can understand how he erected these tastes into principles, and why he carried them to the point of fanaticism.
Superficially, Sade, at twenty-three, was like all other young aristocrats of his time; he was cultured, liked the theater and the arts, and was fond of reading. He was dissipated, kept a mistress—la Beauvoisin—and frequented the brothels. He married, without enthusiasm and in conformance to parental wishes, a young girl of the petty aristocracy, Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil, who was, however, rich. That was the beginning of the disaster that was to resound—and recur—throughout his life. Married in May, Sade was arrested in October for excesses committed in a brothel which he had been frequenting for over a month. The reasons for arrest were grave enough for Sade to send letters, which went astray, to the governor of the prison, begging him to keep them secret, lest he be hopelessly ruined. This episode suggests that Sade’s eroticism had already assumed a disquieting character. This hypothesis is confirmed by the fact that a year later Inspector Marais warned the procuresses to stop giving their girls to the Marquis. But the interest of all this lies not in its value as information, but in the revelation which it constituted for Sade himself. On the verge of his adult life he made the brutal discovery that there was no conciliation possible between his social existence and his private pleasures.
There was nothing of the revolutionary nor even of the rebel about young Sade. He was quite prepared to accept society as it was. At the age of twenty-three he was obedient enough to his father to accept a wife whom he disliked, and he envisaged no life other than the one to which his heredity destined him. He was to become a husband, father, marquis, captain, lord of the manor, and lieutenant-general. He had not the slightest wish to renounce the privileges assured by his rank and his wife’s fortune. Nevertheless, these things could not satisfy him. He was offered activities, responsibilities, and honors; nothing, no simple venture interested, amused, or excited him. He wished to be not only a public figure, whose acts are ordained by convention and routine, but a live human being as well. There was only one place where he could assert himself as such, and that was not the bed in which he was received only too submissively by a prudish wife, but in the brothel where he bought the right to unleash his fantasies.
And there was one dream common to most young aristocrats of the time. Scions of a declining class which had once possessed concrete power, but which no longer retained any real hold on the world, they tried to revive symbolically, in the privacy of the bedchamber, the status for which they were nostalgic: that of the lone and sovereign feudal despot. The orgies of the Duke of Charolais, among others, were bloody and famous. Sade, too, thirsted for this illusion of power. “What does one want when one is engaged in the sexual act? That everything around you give you its utter attention, think only of you, care only for you . . . every man wants to be a tyrant when he fornicates.” The intoxication of tyranny leads directly to cruelty, for the libertine, in hurting the object that serves him, “tastes all the pleasures which a vigorous individual feels in making full use of his strength; he dominates, he is a tyrant.”
Actually, whipping a few girls (for a consideration agreed upon in advance) is rather a petty feat; that Sade sets so much store on it is enough to cast suspicion upon him. We are struck by the fact that beyond the walls of his “little house” it did not occur to him to “make full use of his strength.” There is no hint of ambition in him, no spirit of enterprise, no will to power, and I am quite prepared to believe that he was a coward. He does, to be sure, systematically endow his heroes with traits which society regards as flaws, but he paints Blangis with a satisfaction that justifies the assumption that this is a projection of himself, and the following words have the direct ring of a confession: “A steadfast child might have hurled this giant into a panic. . . he would become timid and cowardly, and the mere thought of even the mildest combat, but fought on equal terms, would have sent him fleeing to the ends of the earth.” The fact that Sade was at times capable of extravagant boldness, both out of rashness and generosity, does not invalidate the hypothesis that he was afraid of people and, in a more general way, afraid of the reality of the world.
If he talked so much about his strength of soul, it was not because he really possessed it, but because he longed for it. When faced with adversity, he would whine and get upset and become completely distraught. The fear of want which haunted him constantly was a symptom of a much more generalized anxiety. He mistrusted everything and everybody because he felt himself maladjusted. He was maladjusted. His behavior was disorderly. He accumulated debts. He would fly into a rage for no reason at all, would run away, or would yield at the wrong moment. He fell into every possible trap. He was uninterested in this boring and yet threatening world which had nothing valid to offer him and from which he hardly knew what to ask. He was to seek his truth elsewhere. When he writes that the passion of jealousy ‘subordinates and at the same time unites’ all other passions, he gives us an exact description of his own experience. He subordinated his existence to his eroticism because eroticism appeared to him to be the only possible fulfillment of his existence. If he devoted himself to it with such energy, shamelessness, and persistence, he did so because he attached greater importance to the stories he wove around the act of pleasure than to the contingent happenings; he chose the imaginary.
At first Sade probably thought himself safe in the fool’s paradise which seemed separated from the world of responsibility by an impenetrable wall. And perhaps, had no scandal broken out, he would have been but a common debauchee, known in special places for rather special tastes. Many libertines of the period indulged with impunity in orgies even worse. But scandal was probably inevitable in Sade’s case. There are certain “sexual perverts” to whom the myth of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde is perfectly applicable. They hope, at first, to be able to gratify their “vices” without compromising their public characters. If they are imaginative enough to see themselves, little by little, in a dizziness of pride and shame, they give themselves away—like Charlus, despite his ruses, and even because of them. To what extent was Sade being provocative in his imprudence? There is no way of knowing. He probably wished to emphasize the radical separation between his family life and his private pleasures, and probably, too, the only way he could find satisfaction in this clandestine triumph lay in pushing it to the point where it burst forth into the open. His surprise is like that of the child who keeps striking at a vase until it finally breaks. He was playing with fire and still thought himself master, but society was lying in wait. Society wants undisputed possession. It claims each individual unreservedly. It quickly seized upon Sade’s secret and classified it as crime.
Sade reacted at first with prayer, humility, and shame. He begged to be allowed to see his wife, accusing himself of having grievously offended her. He begged to confess and open his heart to the priest. This was not mere hypocrisy. A horrible change had taken place overnight; natural, innocent practices, which had been hitherto merely sources of pleasure, had become punishable acts. The young charmer had changed into a black sheep. He had probably been familiar since childhood—perhaps through his relations with his mother—with the bitter pangs of remorse, but the scandal of 1763 revived them dramatically. Sade had a foreboding that he would henceforth, and for the rest of his life, be a culprit. For he valued his diversions too highly to think, even for a moment, of giving them up. Instead, he rid himself of shame through defiance. It is significant that his first deliberately scandalous act took place immediately after his imprisonment. La Beauvoisin accompanied him to the château of La Coste and, taking the name of Madame Sade, danced and played before the Provençal nobility, while the Abbé de Sade was forced to stand dumbly by. Society denied Sade illicit freedom; it wanted to socialize eroticism. Conversely, the Marquis’ social life was to take place henceforth on an erotic level. Since one cannot, with any peace of mind, separate good from evil and devote one’s self to each in turn, one has to assert evil in the face of good, and even as a function of good.
Sade tells us repeatedly that his ultimate attitude has its roots in resentment. “Certain souls seem hard because they are capable of strong feelings, and they sometimes go to rather extreme lengths; their apparent unconcern and cruelty are but ways, known only to themselves, of feeling more strongly than others.” And Dolmancé attributes his vice to the wickedness of men. “’Twas men’s ingratitude dried out my heart, their perfidy which destroyed in me those baleful virtues for which, perhaps, like you, I was also born.” The fiendish morality which he later established in theoretical form was first a matter of actual experience.
It was through Renée-Pélagie that Sade came to know all the insipidity and boredom of virtue. He lumped them together in the disgust which only a creature of flesh and blood can arouse. But he learned also from Renée, to his delight, that Good, in concrete, fleshly, individual form, can be vanquished in single combat. His wife was not his enemy, but like all the wife-characters she inspired, a choice victim, a willing accomplice. The relationship between Blamont and his wife is probably a fairly precise reflection of Sade’s with the Marquise. Blamont takes pleasure in caressing his wife at the very moment that he is hatching the blackest plots against her. To inflict enjoyment—Sade understood this 150 years before the psychoanalysts, and his works abound in victims submitted to pleasure before being tortured—can be a tyrannical violence; and the torturer disguised as lover delights to see the credulous lover, swooning with voluptuousness and gratitude, mistake cruelty for tenderness. The joining of such subtle pleasures with the performance of social obligation is doubtless what led Sade to have three children by his wife.
And he had the further satisfaction of seeing virtue become the ally of vice, and its handmaiden. Madame de Sade concealed her husband’s delinquencies for years; she bravely engineered his escape from Miolans, fostered the intrigue between her sister and the Marquis, and later lent her support to the orgies at the château of La Coste. She went even so far as to inculpate herself when, in order to discredit the accusations of Nanon, she hid some silverware in Nanon’s bags. Sade never displayed the least gratitude. In fact, the notion of gratitude is one at which he keeps blasting away most furiously. But he very obviously felt for her the ambiguous friendship of the despot for what is unconditionally his. Thanks to her, he was able not only to reconcile his role of husband, father, and gentleman with his pleasures, but he established the dazzling superiority of vice over goodness, devotion, fidelity, and decency, and flouted society prodigiously by submitting the institution of marriage and all the conjugal virtues to the caprices of his imagination and senses.
If Renée-Pélagie was Sade’s most triumphant success, Madame de Montreuil, his mother-in-law, embodies his failure. She represents the abstract and universal justice which inevitably confronts the individual. It was against her that he most eagerly entreated his wife’s support. If he could win his case in the eyes of virtue, the law would lose much of its power, for its most formidable arms were neither prison nor the scaffold, but the venom with which it could infect vulnerable hearts. Renée became perturbed under the influence of her mother. The young canoness grew fearful. A hostile society wormed its way into Sade’s household and dampened his pleasures, and he himself yielded to its power. Defamed and dishonored, he began to doubt himself. And that was Madame de Montreuil’s supreme crime against him. A guilty man is, first of all, a man accused; it was she who made a criminal of Sade. That is why he never left off ridiculing her, defaming her, and torturing her throughout his writings; he was killing off his own faults in her. There is a possible basis for Klossowski’s theory that Sade hated his own mother; the singular character of his sexuality suggests this. But this hatred would never have been inveterate had not Renée’s mother made motherhood hateful to him. Indeed, she played such an important and frightful role in the life of her son-in-law that it may well be that she was the sole object of his attack. It is certainly she, in any case, whom he savagely submits to the jeers of her own daughter in the last pages of Philosophy in the Bedroom.
If Sade was finally beaten by his mother-in-law and by the law, he was an accomplice to this defeat. Whatever the role of chance and of his own imprudence in the scandal of 1763, there is no doubt that he afterward sought a heightening of his pleasures in danger. We may therefore say that he desired the very persecutions which he suffered with indignation. Choosing Easter Sunday to inveigle the beggar, Rose Keller, into his house at Arcueil meant playing with fire. Beaten, terrorized, inadequately guarded, she ran off, raising a scandal for which Sade paid with two short terms in prison.
During the following three years of exile which, except for a few periods of service, he spent on his estate in Provence, he seemed sobered. He played the husband and lord of the manor most conscientiously. He had two children by his wife, received the homage of the community of Saumane, attended to his park, and read and produced plays, including one of his own, in his theater. But he was ill-rewarded for this edifying behavior. In 1771, he was imprisoned for debt. Once he was released, his virtuous zeal cooled off. He seduced his young sister-in-law, of whom he seemed, for a while, genuinely fond. She was a canoness, a virgin, and his wife’s sister, all of which lent a certain zest to the adventure. Nevertheless, he went to seek still other distractions in Marseilles, and in 1772 the “affair of the aphrodisiac candies” took on unexpected and terrifying proportions. While in flight to Italy with his sister-in-law, he and Latour, his valet, were sentenced to death in absentia, and both of them were executed in effigy on the town square of Aix. The canoness took refuge in a French convent, where she spent the rest of her life, and he hid away in Savoy. He was caught and locked up in the château of Miolans, but his wife helped him escape. However, he was henceforth a hunted man. Whether roaming through Italy or shut up in his castle, he knew that he would never be allowed a normal life.
Occasionally, he took his lordly role seriously. A troupe of actors was staying on his estate to present Le Mari cocu, battu et content. Sade, irritated perhaps by the title, ordered that the posters be defaced by the town clerk, as being “disgraceful and a challenge to the freedom of the Church.” He expelled from his property a certain Saint-Denis, against whom he had certain grievances, saying, “I have every right to expel all loafers and vagrants from my property.” But these acts of authority were not enough to amuse him. He tried to realize the dream which was to haunt his books. In the solitude of the château of La Coste, he set up for himself a harem submissive to his whims. With the aid of the Marquise, he gathered together several handsome valets, a secretary who was illiterate but attractive, a luscious cook, a chambermaid, and two young girls provided by bawds. But La Coste was not the inaccessible fortress of The 120 Days of Sodom; it was surrounded by society. The maids escaped, the chambermaid left to give birth to a child whose paternity she attributed to Sade, the cook’s father came to shoot Sade, and the handsome secretary was sent for by his parents. Only Renée-Pélagie conformed to the character assigned to her by her husband; all the others claimed the right to live their own lives, and Sade was once again made to understand that he could not turn the real world of hard fact into a theater.
This world was not content to thwart his dreams; it repudiated him. Sade fled to Italy, but Madame de Montreuil, who had not forgiven him for having seduced her younger daughter, lay in wait for him. When he got back to France, he ventured into Paris, and she took advantage of the occasion to have him locked up, on the 13th of February, 1777, in the château of Vincennes. He was sent back to Aix, was tried and fined there for his Marseilles escapade, and on his way back to Paris, under guard, he escaped and took refuge at La Coste, where, under the resigned eye of his wife, he embarked on the idyl with his housekeeper, Mademoiselle Rousset. But by the 7th of September, 1778, he was back again at Vincennes, “locked up behind nineteen iron doors, like a wild beast.”
And now begins another story. For eleven years—first at Vincennes and then in the Bastille—a man lay dying in captivity, but a writer was being born. The man was quickly broken. Reduced to impotence, not knowing how long his imprisonment would last, his mind wandered in delirious speculation. With minute calculations, though without any facts to work on, he tried to figure out how long his sentence would last. He recovered possession of his intellectual powers fairly quickly, as can be seen from his correspondence with Madame de Sade and Mademoiselle Rousset. But the flesh surrendered, and he sought compensation for his sexual starvation in the pleasures of the table. His valet, Carteron, tells us that “he smoked like a chimney” and “ate enough for four men” while in prison. “Extreme in everything,” as he himself declares, he became wolfish. He had his wife send him huge hampers of food, and he grew increasingly fat. In the midst of complaints, accusations, pleas, supplications, he still amused himself a bit by torturing the Marquise; he claimed to be jealous, accused her of plotting against him, and when she came to visit him, found fault with her clothes and ordered her to dress with extreme austerity. But these diversions were few and pallid. From 1782 on, he demanded of literature alone what life would no longer grant him: excitement, challenge, sincerity, and all the delights of the imagination. And even then, he was “extreme”; he wrote as he ate, in a frenzy. After Dialogue between a Priest and a Dying Man came The 120 Days of Sodom, Les Infortunes de la Vertu, Aline et Valcour. According to the catalogue of 1788, he had by then written thirty-five acts for the theater, half a dozen tales, almost all of Le Portefeuille d’un homme de lettres, and the list is probably still incomplete.
When Sade was freed, on Good Friday of 1790, he could hope and did hope that a new period lay open before him. His wife asked for a separation. His sons (one was preparing to emigrate and the other was a Knight of Malta) were strangers to him; so was his “good, husky farm wench” of a daughter. Free of his family, he whom the old society had called an outcast was now going to try to adapt himself to the one which had just restored to him his dignity as a citizen. His plays were performed in public; Oxtiern was even a great success; he enrolled in the Piques Section and was appointed President; he enthusiastically wrote speeches and drew up petitions. But the idyl with the Revolution did not last long. Sade was fifty years old, had a questionable past and an aristocratic disposition, which his hatred of the aristocracy had not subdued, and he was once again at odds with himself. He was a republican and, in theory, even called for complete socialism and the abolition of property, but insisted on keeping his castle and properties. The world to which he tried to adapt himself was again an all too real world whose brutal resistance wounded him. And it was a world governed by those universal laws which he regarded as abstract, false, and unjust. When society justified murder in their name, Sade withdrew in horror.
Anyone who is surprised at Sade’s discrediting himself by his humaneness instead of seeking a governor’s post in the provinces, a post that would have enabled him to torture and kill to his heart’s content, does not really understand Sade. Does anyone suppose that he “liked blood” the way one likes the mountains or the sea? “shedding blood” was an act whose meaning could, under certain conditions, excite him, but what he demanded, essentially, of cruelty was that it reveal to him particular individuals and his own existence as, on the one hand, consciousness and freedom and, on the other, as flesh. He refused to judge or condemn, or to witness anonymous death from afar. He had hated nothing so much in the old society as the claim to judge and punish, to which he himself had fallen victim; he could not excuse the Terror. When murder becomes constitutional, it becomes merely the hateful expression of abstract principles, something without content, inhuman. And this is why Sade as Grand Juror almost always dismissed the charges against the accused. Holding their fate in his hands, he refused to harm the family of Madame de Montreuil in the name of the law. He was even led to resign from his office of President of the Piques Section. He wrote to Gaufridy: “I considered myself obliged to leave the chair to the vice-president; they wanted me to put a horrible, an inhuman act to a vote. I never would.” In December, 1793, he was imprisoned on charges of “moderatism.” Released 375 days later, he wrote with disgust: “My government imprisonment, with the guillotine before my eyes, did me a hundred times more harm than all the Bastilles imaginable.” It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings. The “evil” which he had made his refuge vanished when crime was justified by virtue. The Terror, which was being carried out with a clear conscience, constituted the most radical negation of Sade’s demoniacal world.
“The excesses of the Terror,” wrote Saint-Just, “have dulled the taste for crime.” Sade’s sexuality was not stilled by age and fatigue alone; the guillotine killed the morbid poetry of eroticism. In order to derive pleasure from the humiliation and exaltation of the flesh, one must ascribe value to the flesh. It has no sense, no worth, once one casually begins to treat man as a thing. Sade was still able to revive his past experience and his old universe in his books, but he no longer believed in them with his blood and nerves. There is nothing physical in his attachment to the woman he calls “The Sensitive Lady.” He derived his only erotic pleasures from the contemplation of the obscene paintings, inspired by Justine, with which he decorated a secret chamber. He still had his memories, but he had lost his drive, and the simple business of living was too much for him. Liberated from the social and familial framework which he nevertheless needed, he dragged on through poverty and illness. He quickly ran through the money realized from the unprofitable sale of La Coste. He took refuge with a farmer, and then in a garret, with the son of “The Sensitive Lady,” while earning forty sous a day working in the theatricals at Versailles.
The decree of the 28th of June, 1799, which forbade the striking of his name from the list of aristocratic émigrés on which it had been placed, made him cry out in despair: “Death and misery, this then is the recompense I receive for my everlasting devotion to the Republic.” He received, however, a certificate of residence and citizenship; and in December, 1799, he played the part of Fabrice in Oxtiern. But by the beginning of 1800, he was in the hospital of Versailles, “dying of cold and hunger,” and threatened with imprisonment for debt. He was so unhappy in the hostile world of so-called “free” men that one wonders whether he had not chosen to be led back to the solitude and security of prison. We may say, at least, that the imprudence of circulating Justine and the folly of publishing Zolo, in which he attacks Josephine, Tallien, Madame Tallien, Barras, and Bonaparte, imply that he was not too repelled by the idea of another confinement. Conscious or not, his wish was granted; he was locked up in Sainte-Pélagie on the 5th of April, 1801, and it was there, and later at Charenton—where he was followed by Madame Quesnet, who, by pretending to be his daughter, obtained a room near his own—that he lived out the rest of his life.
Of course, Sade protested and struggled as soon as he was shut up, and he continued to do so for years. But at least he was able again to devote himself in peace to the passion which had replaced sensual pleasure: his writing. He wrote on and on. Most of his papers had been lost when he had left the Bastille, and he thought that the manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom—a fifteen-yard roll which he had carefully hidden and which was saved without his knowing it—had been destroyed. After Philosophy in the Bedroom, published in 1795, he composed a new opus, a modified and completely developed version of Justine, followed by Juliette. These two volumes, of which he disclaimed the authorship, appeared in a ten-volume edition in 1797. He had Les Crimes de l’Amour publicly printed. At Sainte-Pélagie, he became absorbed in an immense ten-volume work, Les Journées de Florbelle. The two volumes of La Marquise de Gange must also be attributed to him, though the work did not appear under his name.
Probably because the meaning of his life lay henceforth in his work as a writer, Sade now hoped only for peace in his daily life. He took walks with “The Sensitive Lady” in the garden of the retreat, wrote comedies for the patients, and had them performed. He agreed to compose a divertissement on the occasion of a visit to Charenton in 1812 by the Archbishop of Paris. On Easter Sunday, 1805, he distributed the holy bread and took up the collection in the parish church. His will proves that he had renounced none of his beliefs, but he was tired of fighting. “He was polite to the point of obsequiousness,” says Nodier, “gracious to the point of unctuousness . . . and he spoke respectfully of everything the world respects.” According to Ange Pitou, the ideas of old age and of death horrified him. “This man turned pale at the idea of death, and would faint at the sight of his white hair.” He expired in peace, however, carried off by “a pulmonary congestion in the form of asthma” on the 2nd of December, 1814.
The salient feature of his tormented life was that the painful experience of living never revealed to him any solidarity between other men and himself. The last scions of a decadent aristocracy had no common purpose to unite them. In the solitude to which his birth condemned him, Sade carried erotic play to such extremes that his peers turned against him. When a new world opened to him, it was too late; he was weighed down with too heavy a past. At odds with himself, suspect to others, this aristocrat, haunted by dreams of despotism, could not sincerely ally himself with the rising bourgeoisie. And though he was roused to indignation by its oppression of the people, the people were nevertheless foreign to him. He belonged to none of the classes whose mutual antagonisms were apparent to him. He had no fellow but himself. Perhaps, had his emotional make-up been different, he might have resisted this fate, but he seems always to have been violently egocentric. His indifference to external events, his obsessive concern with money, the finical care with which he worked out his debauches, as well as the delirious speculations at Vincennes and the schizophrenic character of his dreams, reveal a radically introverted character. Though this passionate self-absorption defined his limits, it also gave his life an exemplary character, so that we examine it today.