The Marquis de Sade : a life /
Neil Schaeffer.
1st ed.
New York : Knopf, c1999.
xiii, 567 p. ; 25 cm.
More Details
New York : Knopf, c1999.
catalogue key
Includes bibliographical references (p. 549-551) and index.
A Look Inside
First Chapter
The small, picturesque village of La Coste rises steeply through very narrow cobbled streets and cubist stone houses attached to the face of one of the hills in the Luberon range of Provence. On the brow stand the jagged stone walls of the ruin that once had been the Marquis de Sade's chateau of La Coste. Inside, the floors and ceilings have long since fallen, although there are hints--a bit of fancy molding here, a touch of antique and faded paint there--to suggest the life that once animated these rooms. Now the inside is a hollow, open to the pale, intense heat of the Provencal sky. Even as ruins, the thick stone walls are magnificent. Together, these walls and the hollow they protect are a perfect emblem of the castle's former owner.

It is inevitable that one comes to picture Sade behind walls. He lived to be seventy-four, but he spent almost twenty-nine years of his adulthood in various prisons and at the insane asylum at Charenton. What caused the series of imprisonment-release-imprisonment that constituted most of Sade's adult life? What crimes are hidden behind the prison walls, behind the asylum walls, behind the grotesque mask of evil that most people imagine when they try to picture the Marquis de Sade? Behind the ruined walls of La Coste, behind the cruel mask Sade is made to wear in everyone's imagination, there is a mystery, a hollowness, that this book will aim to explore.

When Sade was thirty-eight years old, he himself opened a window that sheds light into the darkness within. During the night of February 16, 1779, asleep in his prison cell in the fortress of Vincennes, he had a vivid dream. He had fallen asleep reading late into the night, as was his habit. All winter, the thick stone walls had kept in the damp and the cold, and because his cell had no chimney, he could make no fire. For two years, he had endured imprisonment in this royal fortress, but not for crimes committed. Rather, he was being held at the pleasure of the King, under a lettre de cachet granted to his mother-in-law, Mme de Montreuil. Thus, at thirty-eight years of age, Sade spent his days sitting in his cell, feeling sorry for himself, wondering what he had done to deserve his fate, and writing angry letters about his predicament to his patient wife, Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil. His sole consolation, he wrote to her, came from reading the recently published life of Petrarch, written by Sade's uncle, Jacques-Francois-Paul-Aldonze de Sade (the Abbe de Sade). Sade had been sent at the age of four and a half to his uncle's chateau at Saumane, near La Coste, where he remained until the age of ten, when he left for school in Paris.

On this wintry night in a cold prison, Sade took to bed his uncle's acclaimed life of Petrarch. He then fell asleep over the book and dreamed of the mysterious Laure, the woman whom Petrarch celebrated as the inspiration of his life and poetry. In his book, Memoires pour la vie de Francois Petrarque, Sade's uncle made a plausible case for identifying Petrarch's Laure as an ancient member of the noble house of Sade: Laure de Noves, wife of Hugues de Sade. Sade described his dream in a letter to his wife the next day:

It was around midnight. I had just fallen asleep, his Memoires in my hand. Suddenly, she appeared to me. . . . I saw her! The horror of the grave had not at all altered the radiance of her charms, and her eyes still flashed as brilliantly as when Petrarch celebrated them. A black veil enveloped her completely, and her beautiful blond hair loosely floated above. It seemed as if Love, in order to keep her still beautiful, sought to soften all the lugubrious array in which she presented herself to my gaze. "Why suffer in the world?" she asked me. "Come and be reunited with me. No more pain, no more sorrows, no more distress, in the endless space where I abide. Have the courage to follow me there." At these words, I prostrated myself at her feet, I said to her: "Oh my Mother! . . ." But sobs choked my voice. She extended a hand to me, which I covered with my tears. She shed them as well. "It gave me pleasure," she added, "when I lived in this world that you detest, to turn my eyes toward the future. I multiplied my descendants as far as you, and I did not imagine you so miserable." Then, overcome by my despair and my affection, I flung my arms around her neck to hold her back or to follow her, and to bathe her in my tears, but the phantom disappeared. All that remained was my sorrow.

       O voi che travagliate, ecco il cammino
       Venite a me se'l passo altri non serra.

       [O you who suffer, come, this is the way,
       Come to me, if you can see your way free.]
         Petr., son. LIX.

At first, it may be startling to realize that this poignant vision, so sad and piteous, was the product of the mind that wrote Les Cent Vingt Journees de Sodome, "the most impure tale," Sade himself boasted, "that has ever been written since the world began." It may be surprising to realize that, behind Sade's mask of perverse sexuality and obdurate violence (a myth that he himself helped cultivate), there existed an emotionally needy, tender sensibility that revealed itself in his dream. Tears came to Sade (if only in this dream) as easily as they poured from Jean-Jacques Rousseau, that man of exquisite feeling. In the dream, Sade's humiliations and sufferings had suffused him in a flush of self-pity, as warm as a blush, as passionate as the tears that choke his voice. In this dream--even at the age of thirty-eight--Sade yearned for the embrace of a mother. "Oh my Mother!" he cried out to Laure, prostrate at her feet, as if he were one of the tortured victims of his own fictional erotic fantasies. But when, in his dream, he reached to grasp her, she disappeared and abandoned him to his lonely suffering. If Sade's conscious fantasies turned to erotic violence, especially directed against women, we may ask where and why those underground rivers of rage and sexuality met. Where was the first abandonment, disappointment, even betrayal that lurks behind the beautiful, compassionate Laure of the dream?

The dream's insistence that Laure's beauty was in no way affected by "the horror of the grave," that "the radiance of her charms" was as bright as ever, and that "her eyes still flashed as brilliantly as when Petrarch celebrated them," gives the beginnings of an answer. Oddly, Sade's dream, which denies reality--Laure was dead and decayed--makes Laure's true state all the more evident. Like Faustus' Helen, Sade's Laure is a gaudy ghost imperfectly hidden behind an illusion of glowing beauty. Despite her sparkling eyes and seductive hair, she is an exhalation of the grave. "Oh my Mother!" Sade had cried when he saw her. In life, Sade's mother, like Laure, was impossible to grasp. Remote, embittered, disillusioned with her husband, grieving over the death of her first child, and for the third one, who died soon after its birth, when Sade was just six years old, Sade's mother might as well have lived, like Laure, in some "endless space" where he could not reach her. Indeed, she was to die in the Carmelite convent on the rue d'Enfer in Paris, to which she had retreated perhaps as early as 1747, when her son was seven years old. There is a profound loneliness at the bottom of what may be called the sweet Sade--a loneliness that he could find no way to fill except with rage.

If the sweet side of Sade is focused on some idealized mother figure like Laure, the rest of his dream implies a competition with men of authority, Christ foremost among them. Laure's injunction, "Why suffer in this world? . . . Come and be reunited with me," parodies the excerpt in the sonnet by Petrarch that Sade quotes, in which it is Christ who says, "O you who suffer . . . / Come to me. . . ." Sade would make a painful career for himself by challenging the laws of man and God. Moreover, sacrilege and incest always held an erotic allure for Sade, and these themes are also evident in his dream about his married relative Laure de Noves. In Sade's dream, Laure is the apex of a love triangle. The second position is taken up by her husband. The third position is occupied by a variety of interlopers: Petrarch, Sade's uncle, the Abbe de Sade, and, of course, Sade himself. It is no accident that two books play such an important role in the dream: Petrarch's sonnets and the Abbe's biography of Petrarch that Sade was reading with great admiration as he fell asleep. Laure is complexly attractive, not only as a sexual and familial figure, but also as a muse. In his dream, then, Sade sought to steal the inspirational figure not only of Petrarch, but of his uncle, the Abbe de Sade. Like Prince Hamlet, Sade was enamored of his uncle's beloved. By theft, by incest, by his own rapt will, Sade would make Laure his own muse. His drive to write, precisely like his feverish and often perverse sexuality, was bound together with a powerful need to compete with or attack whatever was forbidden, limited, sanctified.

The Abbe de Sade had a genetic and climatic theory to explain his own feverish sexuality. "The passions," he wrote, "take the shape of the head where they are formed." Our sexual nature is a genetic endowment and is therefore "beyond our control." Climate, moreover, can affect the strength of one's original sexual energy. For example, the Abbe wrote, "The sun incites the blood of a man from Provence." Perhaps the Abbe was right. Perhaps the heat of Provence fired the blood.

Under the brilliant sun of Provence, everything is hot. The stones of the earth give off the odors of spice. The valleys are lush and green, and the terraced fields climb the lower slopes to the fortified towns that guard them, towns like Bonnieux, Cereste, Menerbes, La Coste. From a distance, these villages perched near the tops of the mountains look like the bastions they are, heating up and glowing in the heat. They are reached by roads, once paths, that switch back and forth on their way up to the fortified gate. Inside the walls, spiraling up from the central square with its well or fountain, narrow stone stairways seem gouged between the stone houses. On a bluff above the town of La Coste stood the ancestral home of the Sade family.

On this strategic site, overlooking what had once been crucial Roman roads, stood a fort--in Latin, castrum--which may have provided the name "La Coste." During the Middle Ages, La Coste became the possession of the Sade family, who made their fortune in the cloth trade. Possibly one of the most notable was Hugues de Sade, mentioned earlier, who, in 1325, more than four hundred years before Sade's birth, married Laure de Noves. Over the centuries, each heir prospered in his turn, and the chateau grew in size and changed as architectural styles changed. In Provence, the Sades continued to hold important military and ecclesiastical positions. Sade's father, Jean-Baptiste de Sade (born 1702), was first a captain of dragoons, and later performed ambassadorial missions to Russia, to England, and finally to the Elector of Cologne, where he took up his post six months after his first and only son, Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, was born on June 2, 1740. At the time of Sade's birth, his mother, Marie-Eleonore de Maille, who was related to the Prince de Conde, was serving as a lady-in-waiting to the Princesse de Conde. The Sades were especially fortunate, therefore, to have an apartment in the Conde Palace in Paris. Sade's first years would be spent in a scene of magnificence and royal luxury almost unmatched in all of Europe.

On June 2, 1740, Sade was born in the large apartment occupied by his mother in the Conde Palace. The next day, he was brought for baptism to the Church of Saint-Sulpice. His mother and father were not present. Sade was taken by their proxies, an officer in his father's regiment and the wife of another officer. These two, or the servants who carried the infant to church, managed to garble his Christian names. Instead of Donatien-Aldonse-Louis, he was baptized Donatien-Alphonse-Francois. If Sade resented this muddling of his name, he never commented on it. Throughout his long life, he would use several variants of both his intended and actual Christian names. After the Revolution, for example, he prudently suppressed his noble title and styled himself simply as Citizen Louis Sade. The variety of the names he used on official documents may have saved his life following the Revolution, when, in 1793 and 1794, he spent ten frightful months in several Paris prisons. In the end, his nature was no more fixed than his name. As the times changed, so did he. He appeared to be malleable, a creature of shifting surfaces. But it would be his destiny to become--to turn himself into--a being of myth, a force in the consciousness of humanity, known by only one name: "Sade."

Excerpted from The Marquis de Sade: A Life by Neil Schaeffer
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Full Text Reviews
Appeared in Publishers Weekly on 1999-03-22:
The '90s have been a banner decade for "the Divine Marquis": six biographies, an A&E film and an upcoming book of previously unpublished letters all seek to illuminate the man after whom "sadism" was named. Hence, Brooklyn College professor Shaeffer will suffer for his timing. Several years ago, Maurice Lever was hailed for offering an exhaustive and balanced view in Sade: A Biography. He was followed, last fall, by Francine du Plessix Gray, whose engaging At Home with the Marquis de Sade took on the previously neglected, but dramatic, relationships Sade had with his loyal wife and his vengeful mother-in-law. Then came Laurence Bongie's Sade: A Biographical Essay, a hearty attempt to undercut the growing Sade myth. Schaeffer does take a somewhat different approach, defending the marquis as a man of his time. Using somewhat old-fashioned Freudian theory to excuse, or at least explain, his subject's "outr‚" behavior, Schaeffer finds that Sade had a "sweet" side and "yearned for the embrace of a mother." Schaeffer is far more successful in recounting Sade's adventures. He does so with great relish and facility, and his book is often as riveting as a tightly drawn historical novel. Sade's first arrest, for accidentally poisoning a prostitute, began with a lengthy manhunt; once captured, the marquis managed to escape from prison. He was subsequently arrested many times, for writing pornography and for political reasons, and committed to a madhouse. In a stroke of bad luck, he was transferredÄfor poor behaviorÄfrom the Bastille only 10 days before it was liberated. Though well researched and accessible, Schaeffer's uneven effort to distill the man from the myth is unlikely to make much of a dent in the growing body of Sade studies already available. (Apr.)
Appeared in Library Journal on 1999-04-15:
Schaeffers new biography of the Marquis de Sade is unlucky in its timing, following in the wake of those of Francine du Plessix Gray (LJ 9/15/98) and Laurence L. Bongie (LJ 11/1/98). It is a substantial work of scholarship, drawing heavily on Sades letters and other writings, many never before translated. Schaeffer (English, Brooklyn Coll.) also offers extended readings of Sades novels. Unlike Bongies Sade, Schaeffers is a more sympathetic and romantic figure. While Bongie finds the novels derivative and unoriginal, Schaeffer argues for a great literary imagination. As a matter of narrative, du Plessix Grays book is both more concise and more fluent and should be the first choice. While Schaeffers efforts are solid and can be recommended for major academic collections, they add nothing new.T.L. Cookey, Armstrong Atlantic State Univ., Savannah, GA
Appeared in Choice on 2000-01-01:
Schaeffer's volume continues a recent burgeoning interest in the Marquis de Sade evidenced by Lucienne Frappier-Mazur's Writing the Orgy (CH, Dec'96), Paul Oppenheimer's Evil and the Demonic (CH, Jan'97), Francine du Plessix Gray's At Home with Marquis de Sade (1998), and Laurence Bongie's Sade (CH, Sep'99). Schaeffer (Brooklyn College) adds little original research, but the fact that he has published translations of Sade's letters and translated all the primary source material for his book adds authenticity to his project. Detailed, easy to read, and unencumbered by academic critical jargon, the volume is marred by Schaeffer's apparent need to make the reader sympathetic toward Sade. Depicting a Sade who is sometimes "sweet" and always a "radical force in the consciousness of humanity," the author joins the ranks of apologists like Camille Paglia, who believes Sade's imprisonment symbolized frustrated freedom. Schaeffer also indulges in psychoanalysis, arguing that Sade suffered unfairly because of an abusive family in collusion with various unjust political regimes. Still, the book is as interesting as its subject. A chapter titled "Sodom" details the style and structure of the horrific One Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom, and the final chapter on Sade's incarceration provides a fascinating discussion of the end of a long, miserable life. Graduates; faculty; general readers. B. Wallenstein; CUNY City College
This item was reviewed in:
Kirkus Reviews, February 1999
Publishers Weekly, March 1999
Library Journal, April 1999
New York Times Book Review, April 1999
New York Times Book Review, June 1999
San Francisco Chronicle, July 1999
Choice, January 2000
Globe & Mail, December 2000
To find out how to look for other reviews, please see our guides to finding book reviews in the Sciences or Social Sciences and Humanities.
Table of Contents
A Note on Translation
Son and Heir
Love and Marriage
Scandalous Debauch
In the Flames of Passion
The Arcueil Affair
Fatal Passion
In Prison at Miolans
The Shot
Vincennes-House of Silence
A Surprise at Aix
The Golden Dawn of a Beautiful Day
Vincennes, Again
Sex in Prison
The Visit
The Bastille
The Revolution
Table of Contents provided by Publisher. All Rights Reserved.

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