Whip Smart

A Biography
By Maurice Lever
Translated by Arthur Goldhammer
Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 626 pp.

The lives of saints may be morally edifying and spiritually uplifting, but it’s the lives of sinners that make for the most engrossing biographies. And what better subject than Euroculture’s most notorious and unrepentant degenerate, the man who lent his name to the carnal pleasure of cruelty, Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, Marquis de Sade?

It should be said from the outset that, as repellent as de Sade’s libidinous perversions remain, Maurice Lever has spun from the facts of his life a masterful biography. At one and the same time, the book is a nuanced portrait of the complex individual behind the monstrous caricature; a panoramic boudoir’s-eye view of the most tumultuous period in France’s history, from the fall of the ancien regime through the Terror to the rise of Napoleon; a searing discourse on the evanescence of morality and the hard realities of pathology; and a page-turner as compelling as any best-selling pot-boiler or bodice-ripper on the market.

The book is built from the voluminous correspondence that issued from de Sade’s pen and that swirls about him throughout his long life, a good deal of which, through the graces of the marquis’s descendants, Lever brings to light for the first time. There are letters to and from his father, his wife, his mother-in-law, his notary, his legions of mistresses. There are police records, court transcripts, ministerial memos, reports on clandestine surveillance, memoirs of his various warders.

And lest one blanch at the thought of wading through pages of antiquated 18th-century prose, be assured that everyone Lever cites is fiendishly literate, from the loftiest minister to the lowliest asylum inmate, and none more so than the author of Justine himself.

From the beginning, the dashing marquis was trouble incarnate. Separated from his mother at the age of five, and already every inch the over-indulged fanfaron, he was raised by his uncle, the licentious Abbé de Sade, and then by Jesuits, who cultivated in him his love of the theatre and the theatrical, even as they enforced their discipline via the rod.

Does this in itself account for his adult deviancies? Lever, to his credit, refrains from faddish psychoanalysis. It is enough that we know where de Sade’s passions lay; the task is to understand the man they created, not what created them.

His father, the Comte de Sade, had been the first of his line to leave the family seat in Provence and seek a career amid the finery and treachery of the Parisian court. But the father, like the son, was too much a libertine, a spendthrift and a hothead to truly prosper. By the time Donatien approached manhood, the comte had already smudged the family name and squandered a good deal of his fortune.

Not that the young marquis much cared. As an officer in the King’s Carabineers, he distinguished himself by his bravery on the field and his rakishness off. Fearful for his son’s prospects, the father married him off advantageously, albeit against his will, to Mlle. de Montreuil, the daughter of a wealthy and well-connected family. Though the couple would come to be passionately devoted to one another – his wife would stand by him throughout his disgrace, separating only after a lifetime of heartache – the marriage set the stage for the mother of all mother-in-law enmities.

His marriage failed to curtail his philandering, but de Sade never inflicted his more profane tastes on his wife or his numberless high-born mistresses. It was what he did with whores and servant girls that led to his infamy and eventual arrest. In 1763, a mere five months after his marriage, he was charged with forcing a prostitute to masturbate with a statue of Christ. Five years later, he was charged with abducting and torturing a beggar woman, an incident that made his name synonymous with aristocratic debauchery.

Though he managed to wriggle off the hook by virtue of his caste and the aid of a mother-in-law desperate to quiet the scandal with hush money, neither brush with disaster cooled his criminal ardor. By 1771 he was having an affair with his sister-in-law, and the following year he was found guilty of sodomizing, whipping and poisoning with Spanish fly two whores in Marseilles. The conviction carried a sentence of death, a situation serious enough for him to take it on the lam to Sardinia.

By this point, however, de Montreuil, his ferociously formidable mother-in-law, had had enough. She began a life-long campaign to have him locked away for the rest of his days by persuading the king of Sardinia to toss him in the citadel of Miolans. This would set in motion a cycle of daring escapes, interludes of debauchery, exile and recapture that would culminate in a 12-year period of imprisonment, from 1778 to 1790, much of it in the Bastille.

Ironically, it was his presence in the Bastille – where, with little to occupy him but his pornographic imagination, he first began to sketch his infamous works – that made the ignoble nobleman a patriot of the Revolution.

On July 2, 1789, while trouble brewed outside on the streets of Paris, de Sade was denied his usual walk in the prison courtyard. In one of his characteristic rages, he took a funnel used to empty his chamber pot into the moat and turned it into a megaphone, screaming from his prison window that the prisoners’ throats were being slit, gathering a crowd and exhorting them to storm the Bastille. Ten days later they did just that, but not before de Sade had been spirited to a different jail.

Released by the Revolution, he feigned patriotism so well that he eventually became the president of his Parisian sector, but he had no stomach for the Terror. His fantasies may have been hideous, but as Lever makes clear, the brutality of bureaucratic minds was anathema to him. He even used his position to spare the life of the person he despised most in the world: his mother-in-law, arrested in the witch hunt.

It couldn’t last, however, and eventually de Sade himself was arrested, escaping the guillotine by a whisper only when Robespierre’s head fell. Free again, but impoverished, he tried to make a living with his quill. When his conventional writing failed, he turned to publishing his pornography anonymously.

But in the puritanism of the Napoleonic reign, he was “outed” as the author of Justine and Juliette and confined to the Charenton lunatic asylum outside Paris, thus earning the distinction of having been imprisoned by the monarchy, the Revolution and Napoleon.

It was at Charenton that he engineered his last scandale, forming his wretched fellow inmates into a theatrical ensemble and mounting plays for the voyeuristic amusement of high society.

More than simply a species of freak, de Sade stands in this remarkable biography at the fulcrum of a turning point in history: a feudal nobleman at the end of feudalism, a libertine at the emergence of libertarian rhetoric, a media celebrity at the dawn of a truly populist press, a prisoner of desire just at the moment when individual desire was becoming a factor on the social stage.

It has been said before, but it’s worth repeating: de Sade merits our attention because he is modernity in at least one of its guises.eg

  • Montreal Gazette October 16, 1993