Not long after the Abu Ghraib scandal, on a flight to Paris, I watched “Quills,” an awful and boring film “inspired by the life and work of the Marquis de Sade.” I had read Justine which I thought of as a horror novel, a perverted Steven King story, and knew some details of de Sade’s life and legend. While Quills itself was too trite to work up any moral outrage over, I began to question why de Sade was hailed as a hero by those on the “left” and the reception the film got from the “liberal” Hollywood establishment.
Wasn’t the Marquis de Sade exhibit number one of the rich preying on the poor, the aristocracy abusing the peasantry, the 1% exploiting the 99%? Wasn’t it “nobles” like de Sade who caused the French Revolution? Wasn’t it the cruely of men like de Sade which led to the bloodthirstiness of the guillotines?
I could understand a bit of taboo-breaking and a little kinky naughtiness, but Justine wasn’t that – it was horror, torture porn, and not at all sexy but instead had the same appeal as a slasher flick or body horror: you don’t “enjoy” it as much as forcing yourself to overcome your gag reflex and facing the worst, biological based fears, seems to make you stronger.
But what offended me about Quills was the complete misrepresentation about de Sade’s actual life. Instead of a wealthy and powerful exploiter of the weak and the poor, he was played as some sort of liberty-lover, a fighter against sexual oppression. The only reason de Sade himself wasn’t beheaded is because he switched sides, along with some other minor aristocrats, and joined the “rebels” long enough to save his head, and those of a few others, before the Terror ended.
Here’s the utterly absurd and completely deceptive byline for Quills:
Quills imagines the final days of history’s most infamous sexual adventurer, the Marquis de Sade. A nobleman with a literary flair, the Marquis lives in a madhouse where a beautiful laundry maid (Winslet) smuggles his erotic stories to a printer, defying orders from the asylum’s resident priest (Phoenix). The titillating passages whip all of France into a sexual frenzy, until a fiercely conservative doctor (Caine) tries to put an end to the fun, inadvertently stoking the excitement to a fever pitch. Featuring a cast that includes Academy Award® winner Geoffrey Rush, Oscar nominee Kate Winslet, rising star Joaquin Phoenix, and Academy Award® winner Michael Caine, Quills playfully turns Sade’s story into a sexy, sinister and shattering tale he himself might have written.
The scene in Quills that most sticks in my memory in that of a servant girl begging de Sade to write more “violence” so she could read it and be aroused. This is literally a reversal of reality, it’s having the rape victim beg to be raped. Whatever literary merits de Sade may have, in reality he was a rapist, a torturer, a poisoner, an abortionist and a murderer. He was John Wayne Gacy plus Jeffrey Dahmer, not Christian Grey.
And here Hollywood was making him out to be some sort of sex-positive feminist just giving the ladies what they want!
Apparently, the left has always had this attitude toward de Sade. Some choice excerpts Andrea Dworkin’s chapter on de Sade from Pornography: Men Possessing Women:
The Marquis de Sade is the world’s foremost pornographer. As such he both embodies and defines male sexual values. In him, one finds rapist and writer twisted into one scurvy knot. His life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real. In his life he tortured and raped women. He was batterer, rapist, kidnapper, and child abuser. In his work he relentlessly celebrated brutality as the essence of eroticism; fucking, torture, and killing were fused; violence and sex, synonymous. His work and legend have survived nearly two centuries because literary, artistic, and intellectual men adore him and political thinkers on the Left claim him as an avatar of freedom. Sainte-Beuve named Sade and Byron as the two most significant sources of inspiration for the original and great male writers who followed them. Baudelaire, Flaubert, Swinburne, Lautreamont, Dostoevski, Cocteau, and Apollinaire among others found in Sade what Paul Tillich, another devotee of pornography, might have called “the courage to be.” Simone de Beauvoir published a long apologia for Sade. Camus, who unlike Sade had an aversion to murder, romanticized Sade as one who had mounted “the great offensive against a hostile heaven ” and was possibly “the first theoretician of absolute rebellion .” Roland Barthes wallowed in the tiniest details of Sade’s crimes, those committed in life as well as on paper.
Sade was born into a noble French family closely related to the reigning monarch. Sade was raised with the prince, four years his senior, during his earliest years. When Sade was four, his mother left the Court and he was sent to live with his grandmother. At the age of five, he was sent to live with his uncle, the Abbe de Sade, a clergyman known for his sensual indulgences. Sade’s father, a diplomat and soldier, was absent during Sade’s formative years. Inevitably, biographers trace Sade’s character to his mother’s personality, behavior, and alleged sexual repression, despite the fact that very little is known about her. What is known, but not sufficiently noted, is that Sade was raised among the male mighty.
At the age of fifteen, Sade entered the military as an officer. At this age, he apparently began gambling and frequenting brothels. Purchasing women was one of the great passions of his life, and most of the women and girls he abused during his lifetime were whores or servants. Sade advanced in the military and was promoted several times, each promotion bringing with it more money.
Those leftists who champion Sade might do well to remember that prerevolutionary France was filled with starving people. The feudal system was both cruel and crude. The rights of the aristocracy to the labor and bodies of the poor were unchallenged and not challengeable. The tyranny of class was absolute. The poor sold what they could, including themselves, to survive. Sade learned and upheld the ethic of his class.
Five months after his marriage, Sade terrified and assaulted a twenty-year-old working-class woman, Jeanne Testard. Testard, a fan maker, had agreed to service a young nobleman. She was taken to Sade’s private house and locked in a room. Sade made clear to her that she was a captive. She was subjected to verbal abuse and humiliation. In particular, Sade raged against her conventional Christian religious beliefs. He told her that he had masturbated into a chalice in a chapel and that he had taken two hosts, placed them inside a woman, and fucked her. Testard told Sade that she was pregnant and could not tolerate maltreatment. Sade took Testard into a room filled with whips, religious symbols, and pornographic pictures. He wanted Testard to whip him, and then he wanted to beat her. She refused. He took two crucifixes, crushed one, and masturbated on the other. He demanded that she destroy the one on which he had masturbated. She refused. He threatened her life with two pistols that were in the room and a sword that he was wearing. She crushed the crucifix. He wanted to give her an enema and have her shit on the crucifix. She refused. He wanted to sodomize her. She refused. Sade threatened, harangued, and lectured her through a very long night during which she did not eat or sleep. Before releasing her, he made her sign a blank piece of paper and promise to tell no one about what had transpired. He wanted her to agree to meet him the following Sunday so that he could fuck her with a host inside of her.
On being freed, Testard went to the police. Sade was arrested, apparently because police interviews with prostitutes revealed that Sade had abused scores of them. Sade was punished because he had become careless in his excesses. He was imprisoned for two months at Vincennes in squalor most distressing to a gentleman. He wrote letters to the authorities in which he begged them to keep the nature of his crime secret from his family.
Sade’s abuse of prostitutes became so alarming that, within a year after his brutal treatment of Testard, the police warned procuresses not to provide Sade with women. Sade’s valet scavenged the streets for victims, some of whom, according to Sade’s neighbors, were male.
In 1768, Easter Sunday early in the morning, Rose Keller, in her mid-thirties, a German immigrant, a widow, a cotton spinner who had been unemployed for approximately a month, approached Sade to beg for alms. He offered her work housecleaning. She accepted. He told her that she would be well fed and treated kindly.
Sade took Keller to his private house. He took her to a dark room in which the windows were boarded and said he was going to get her food. He locked her in the room. Keller had waited for about an hour when Sade came to take her into another room. He told her to undress. She refused. He tore her clothes off, threw her face down onto a couch, tied her arms and legs with ropes. He whipped her brutally. He took a knife and told her that he would kill her. According to Keller, Sade kept cutting her with a knife and rubbing wax into the wounds. Keller believed she would die and begged Sade not to kill her until she could make her Easter confession. When Sade was finished with her, he took her back to the first room and ordered her to wash and rub brandy into her wounds. This she did. He also rubbed into the wounds an ointment that he had invented. He was proud of his invention, which he claimed healed wounds quickly. Later, Sade alleged that he had paid Keller to be whipped so that he could test his ointment. Sade brought Keller food. He took her back to the room where he had beaten her and locked her in. Keller bolted the door from the inside. She unblocked some of the locked shutters with a knife, injuring herself in the process, made a rope of bedding, and climbed out of the window and down the wall. Sade’s valet pursued her and offered her money to return. She pushed him off and ran.
Keller was badly hurt and her clothes were ripped. She ran until she encountered a village woman, to whom she poured out her story. Other women joined. They examined her and then took her to an inappropriate official, since the local magistrate was away. A police official called in from elsewhere took her statement. Keller was examined by a surgeon and was given refuge.
Sade’s mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, settled a large sum of money on Rose Keller to persuade her to withdraw criminal charges. Despite the settlement, Sade was imprisoned for nearly eight months …
In June 1772, Sade traveled to Marseilles with his valet, known as Latour. During the course of Sade’s brief stay there, Latour procured five prostitutes for Sade. Sade (in varying combinations) beat, fucked, and forcibly sodomized the women, with his usual threats of worse violence and death. He also had his valet sodomize at least one of the women and himself. In Marseilles, Sade added another dimension to his sexual repertoire: he encouraged the women to eat candies that had been laced with drugs. The women did not know what they were eating. Sade’s defenders claim that the candies were treated with a harmless aphrodisiac and something to encourage flatulence, which Sade found particularly charming. Two of the women became violently ill from the candies, had intense abdominal pain, vomited blood and black mucus. The women believed that they had been poisoned, and there is little doubt that had they consumed the quantities of the candy that Sade had wanted them to eat, they would have become deadly ill. One of the women went to the police. An investigation of Sade’s brutality with the five prostitutes — the forced flagellation, the forced sodomy, the attempted poisoning — led to an order to arrest both Sade and Latour. Sade, with Anne-Prospere as his lover and Latour as his valet, fled to Italy to escape arrest.
Sade and Latour were found guilty of poisoning and sodomy (a capital crime irrespective of force) in absentia. They were sentenced to death. In lieu of the death sentence that could not be carried out, the two men were burned in effigy.
Sade, with an end to his legal troubles in sight, intensified his pursuit of pleasure. He had a procuress known as Nanon find him five fifteen-year-old girls who were taken to Lacoste and forced to submit to Sade’s brutality. Sade’s wife was a participant in these new sexual extravaganzas. She became the prime apologist for Sade’s violence against the girls, even though, as one of them testified, Renee-Pelagie was herself “the first victim of a fury which can be described only as madness.” 3 Parents of three of the girls pressed charges against Sade, who refused to release his captives. One of the girls was horribly injured. She was sent to Sade’s uncle, the Abbe, to keep her from testifying against Sade. Renee-Pelagie did everything possible to keep a doctor from treating the girl, since evidence of bodily injury could be used against Sade and herself as well. Madame de Montreuil, perhaps to protect her daughter, joined with Renee-Pelagie and Sade to try to coerce the parents into dropping their complaints. Meanwhile, Sade forcibly kept the girls at Lacoste. They would be returned to their parents only if no charges of kidnapping were made.
Sade brought more women and girls to Lacoste. Human bones were found in Sade’s garden; he claimed one of his mistresses had planted them as a joke. Nanon, the procures s, became pregnant by Sade. Madame de Montreuil had a lettre de cachet issued for her arrest. Nanon was imprisoned; her infant daughter died at Lacoste shortly after she was born because the wet nurse’s milk went dry.
Sade was again threatened with arrest. He escaped again to Italy. The fifteen-year-old girl who had been most severely injured and had been sent to Sade’s uncle had not, in nine months, recovered from her injuries. She was finally taken to a hospital where the Sade family conspired to keep her from talking with anyone to whom she might reveal what had happened to her. By this time, the Abb6 believed that Sade should be imprisoned.
For a year, Sade traveled in Italy. He complained of being lonely. One of the kidnapped girls, still kept at Lacoste, died. Another escaped and went to the police. Against the advice of Ren6e-Pelagie, Sade returned to Lacoste. More women were procured for him. Sade kept spending money on women while Renee-Pelagie lived in near penury. He hired servants, locked them up, forced them to submit to him. A father of a servant hired by Sade tried to shoot him. The daughter signed a statement defending Sade. The authorities ordered the woman returned to her father. She was not.
Another attempt was made to arrest Sade. He hid. On being informed by Madame de Montreuil that his mother was dying in Paris, he went there. She died before he arrived, but in Paris Sade was arrested under a lettre de cachet. Madame de Montreuil had told the police Sade’s whereabouts. He was sent to Vincennes, where he was imprisoned for nearly six years. In 1784, he was transferred to the Bastille. In 1789, the people of France were near revolution. Sade rigged up an improvised loudspeaker from his cell and exhorted the people to lay siege to the Bastille. He was moved to Charenton, a lunatic asylum. On July 14, 1789, the Bastille was stormed and its warden killed. In 1790, Sade was released from Charenton along with all prisoners who had been imprisoned under lettres de cachet by the old regime.
During the years of his imprisonment in Vincennes and the Bastille, Sade wrote the body of literature for which he is best known (though his literary career did not begin in prison; he had done some writing and even produced and directed theatrical events sporadically). On Sade’s release, Ren6e-Pelagie, whom Sade had subjected to extraordinary scorn and abuse during his imprison- ment, left him and obtained a legal separation. Sade’s bitterness toward her was unrelenting. Apparently he felt that he had given her the best years of his life, which were less than perfect only because he had been maliciously persecuted. He especially blamed Renee-Pelagie for the loss of manuscripts that had been taken or destroyed during the siege of the Bastille. She had failed to rescue them, as he had demanded, and may have burned some herself. In the ensuing years, he set about re-creating the lost work. After his release, Sade also met his daughter as an adult for the first time. He hated her on sight. Early in 1791, Sade began living with Marie- Constance Renelle, to whom Justine is dedicated and with whom he had what his biographers consider a sincere, loving, devoted relationship. Sade was no longer a young rake. In prison he had become very fat, and the French Revolution had deprived him of his power as an aristocrat. Necessity, that fabled parent of invention, gave birth in a few short months to Citizen Sade.
For nearly four years, Sade walked a political tightrope. He played the role of one who had been abused by the old regime, who had no loyalties to the old nobility and was entirely committed to the new society. He made politically correct speeches, renamed streets to reflect the ideology of the revolution, and worked to keep his own property from the legitimate claims of the revolution and of Renee-Pelagie. According to his biographers, Sade’s essential humanism was demonstrated during the Terror when he was on a committee that passed judgment on the Montreuils: he could have denounced them and had them killed, but he did not. It is more likely that Sade, a consummate survivor, had understood that, during the Terror, guilt by past association could endanger his own life. Condemnation of the Montreuils could eventually have led to his own death for his having consorted with them.
Revolutionary leader Jean-Paul Marat discovered the nature of the crimes for which Sade had been imprisoned under the old regime. He denounced Sade but by mistake someone with a similar name was executed. Marat, although he became aware of his mistake, did not live to rectify it: he was assassinated by Charlotte Corday.
Toward the end of 1793, Sade was imprisoned. The charge was that in 1791 he had volunteered to serve the king. Sade insisted that he had thought the regiment in which he had volunteered to serve was Iqyal to the revolution. He remained in prison and in July 1794 was sentenced to death. The administration of the prisons was so inefficient that Sade could not be found. He was not executed. Later that same month, Robespierre was executed, and the Terror ended. Two months later, Sade was released.
It’s interesting too that Catholic apologist E. Michael Jones, in his chapter on de Sade in Sexual Revolution, paints de Sade as a leading light of the French Revolution and especially its disestablishment of the Church and aristocracy. But that’s another revesal, a similar reversal, in fact, to the left’s painting of de Sade as a revolutionary.
De Sade was a member of the Catholic aristocracy and raised by the Catholic aristocracy, and almost certainly sexually abused and tortured as a child by that same class. One can to this very day see a reflection of de Sade’s desecration of Catholic symbols like the Host.
One of the most disturbing stories to come out of the “Catholic abuse crisis” is a ring of three American priests who would befriend altar boys, demand they strip and “pose like Jesus on the cross” while they photographed them nude then “award” them with crosses and rosaries and other pieces of Catholic paraphernalia.
When one reads the brutality against priests during various anti-Catholic movements, from the Hussites to Spain in the 30s, reactionaries are quick to note a Jewish role, but always seem to forget how many of those raised Catholic participated in the worst anti-clerical atrocities.
Considering what we known of the Vatican in the Renaissance era, to the Catholic aristocracy (like de Sade) in pre-Revolutionary France, to the Catholic priests of Boston in the 1970s-2000s, it not difficult to guess where the murderous hostility by former parishoners towards the Church comes from.
De Sade is a product of the French Catholic aristocracy, ret-conned into a “revolutionary” by the new ruling class – and by apologists for the former ruling class. And now, considered some sort of hero of sexual liberty – even a FEMINIST of sorts, by the left and Hollywood.
Maybe Dworkin was right?