Marquis de Sade, sadism’s namesake, is one of those pop culture symbols that I see raised up and lauded by people unaware of his full life story. Some people in the kink community associate his name with their own pain and pleasure proclivities without understanding what he was: a total nutjob.
Born into French aristocracy, de Sade spent nearly half of his life in different prisons and insane asylums for sexual assault, blasphemous writing, physical abuse, kidnapping, and poisoning. Often his victims were servants in his employ and the father of one servant attempted to shoot de Sade at point blank range. Later in his life, an angry mob attacked one of his estates.
For the most part, the de Sade family tried to distance themselves from him until a 20th century descendent named Xavier de Sade found his writings. The publication of the Marquis de Sade’s works and subsequent biography sparked contemporary public interest in the lunatic libertine.
A friend wanted to order a copy of The 120 Days of Sodom for me but I declined. I’ve read bits of his work and I would rather explore the writing styles of Dahmer or Gacey. Want some samples? Here, have a taste.
‘Formerly he loved to fuck very youthful mouths and asses; his later improvement consists in snatching out the heart of a living girl, widening the space the organ occupied, fucking the warm hole, replacing the heart in that pool of blood and fuck, sewing up the wound, and leaving the girl to her fate, without help of any kind. In which case is not long.” (page 83)
This man’s works are considered erotica. Death by chest-cavity fucking and internal organ removal. What. The. Fuck.
My friend sent me other random passages from his copy of The 120 Days of Sodom, each one more gag-inducing than the next. I started to wonder: why does this work capture the public imagination? Why do his actions in particular catch our attention?
One of my professors told me to always look at the cultural context to explain social phenomena. (eg. Impressionism gained traction in an era when photography came about. Possible that impressionism was a reaction to the realism of photographs). It may be a stretch, but let’s toy with some possible reasons for renewed 20th century interest in de Sade.
The first thing I see in the mid 2oth century is a disruption of the traditional gender order. What we held as a natural domination of man over woman disintegrated as females fought for equal rights and economic independence. Is there something about de Sade’s misogyny and mistreatment of women that appeals to internalized traditional notions of gender and subordination? Possibly. The Marquis de Sade represents male freedom operating within a patriarchy. I could be way off base, though.
Philosophers like Simone de Bouvier tried to find elements of radical freedom in his writing. In one way, yes, there was radical freedom but it could only exist at the expense of others. I mean, if we are all free to choose what we want, who the hell would choose to get fucked in the ass while having all their teeth ripped out? (Yes. This is a scene written by de Sade.) Freedom is enticing in an age of prohibitions and restrictions, so perhaps this absolute freedom entices our repressed cultural consciousness.
Whatever the reason, there is something in his violent, misogynistic passages and his wanton abuse of others in his life attracts us. We choose to see only the artistic merit in his work or the underlying philosophy while ignoring one simple fact: dude was a fucking psychopath. Yes, he could write well and had a fervid imagination. He was also a total abusive jerk that wrote about awful abuses meted out on fellow human beings.