De Sade: Reinventing his story continued
Sade remains a controversial writer to this day, but anyone seeking out his books for a cheap thrill is going to be disappointed. While his sexual imagination was vast (Sodom catalogues some 600 separate sexual acts), Sade simply doesn't have the prose skills to infuse these scenes with life, at least not in any of the translations I've seen. As erotica goes his writing is comprehensively dreary. The reason why he's intrigued the likes of Camus, Simone de Beauvoir, Michel Foucault and Angela Carter has more to do with the justifications Sade's libertines give for their actions. As Henry Spencer Ashbee, a Victorian collector of pornography, so aptly put it, 'at nearly every page, Sade indulges in the exposition of his various theories on government, morality, education, political economy, relation of the sexes, &c, and extravagant and outrageous as his notions frequently are, some of them are well worth consideration'.
Sade's work was atypical of its time and place, France in the latter half of the Eighteenth Century, when pornography was often used as a political tool. In the run-up to the Revolution of 1789 libertarian propagandists depicted the Royal Family and nobility in the most scurrilous terms. Marie-Antoinette, the hated Austrian, was a particular favourite of the pornographers, accused in pamphlets such as The Uterine Furies of Marie-Antoinette of masturbation, lesbianism, nymphomania and even bestiality, all taking place while her impotent husband gazed on. Such writings contributed to an atmosphere of corruption in which anything seemed possible, even and especially the overthrow of L'Ancien Regime.
It's no coincidence that the monstrous libertines in Sade's Sodom are a nobleman, a cleric, a lawyer and a financier, representing the four pillars of the French state; nor should we be surprised to find in a later work a pamphlet entitled Frenchmen! A further effort is needed if you would be republicans! Imprisoned in the Bastille, Sade called from his cell window, urging the Paris mob to storm the fortress, which they finally did a few days after the unlucky Marquis had been transferred to another prison. Under the Committee of Public Safety, while other nobles were on their way to Madam Guillotine, Citizen Sade was appointed a judge.
Sade shares the dedication to Nature found in the writings of Rousseau, or at least pays lip service to that doctrine, but without the latter's sentimentality. His observations of the real world, that vice is rewarded and virtue punished, led him to take a much darker view. Nature to Sade is not just sweetness and light, but provides legitimacy for man's criminal passions as well. Nature destroys without compunction, and Sade urges his readers to be like her. In his scheme of things to kill coldly and at the behest of the state is immoral, but conversely to commit any crime in gratification of one's passions is entirely acceptable, the only course permitted a reasonable man.
Descartes had reached an extreme in the field of metaphysics with his cogito, a point from which philosophers have been trying to retreat ever since. Whether intentional or not, Sade threw down a similar gauntlet in the theatre of ethics, becoming the first theoretician of absolute rebellion. His shadow hangs over all subsequent work in the field and, like it or not, he remains a figure the moral philosophers must deal with.
Sade's work contains many inconsistences. He is on occasion far milder than the above might suggest, and some commentators have seen his more extreme writings as satire similar to that of Swift in his Modest Proposal. A strong sense of irony informs much of his work. And, while logic may have led Sade into nihilism, there's little evidence that he practised what he preached. By modern standards his private life would probably have merited nothing more than a few column inches in the Sunday tabloids, no doubt couched in terms of moral indignations, but also seizing on the opportunity to sell a few more copies to the prurient. He could on occasion be remarkably generous. His leniency while a judge, including protection for his hated in-laws, the Montreuil family, was entirely consistent with his philosophy and resulted in Sade's own imprisonment. If not for the fall of Robespierre he would undoubtedly have ended his days on the guillotine rather than at Charenton.
Given his bad boy rep it's hardly surprising that Sade should be of interest to writers, particularly those of the horror genre. My own fascination with the so called Divine Marquis began after reading Satan's Saint, a rather fanciful docufiction of his life by Guy Endore (better known to genre readers for The Werewolf of Paris). A small body of work has grown up around Sade's name.
He is the hero of Jeremy Reed's timeslip novel When the Whip Comes Down and in The Mind Parasites Colin Wilson hints at his possession by eldritch beings of a Lovecraftian provenance. He's a denizen of Hell in Morwyn by John Cowper Powys, a sexual predator in Chet Williamson's short Blood Night, and a man steals Sade's cutlery in Looking for Bolivar, a story by Christopher Fowler. And, if memory serves, he's a minor demon in Hell Board by Dana Reed, but I can't be sure about that one as it's a novel I'm trying very hard to forget (more like Bored to Hell).
Most famously there's The Skull of the Marquis de Sade by Robert Bloch (filmed as simply The Skull) in which that revered object is the root cause of considerable satanic shenanigans. There's an element of fact to this one, insofar as Sade's body was disinterred and his skull taken to American by a phrenologist, where it went missing.
And most recently we have Sips of Blood, the excellent second novel by talented writer Mary Ann Mitchell (published in 1999 by Leisure in the States, but available over here if you look hard) which follows in the revisionist footsteps of people like Tom Holland and Kim Newman by turning Sade and close family into immortal vampires. In the present day the Marquis is living in America and lusting after his niece Liliana, while still antagonistic to his mother-in-law Marie, described as 'the best dominatrix on the West Coast'. It's a provocative and thoroughly enjoyable novel from a writer with real ability, sexy in all senses of the word, character driven and convincing in its depiction of the S&M subculture. Mitchell uses this scenario to explore the nature of desire and obsession, and as the carefully chosen quotes that punctuate the text demonstrate she's actually studied Sade's work, not just used his name as a hook. Never pretending to be anything other than fantasy, it offers a neat contrast to the liberties of Quills, and I recommend Sips of Blood to anyone who likes their Horror served at body temperature and claret red.
(This feature was originally published in The Dream Zone 11, 2002)