Since depravity and sadism have become accepted in certain quarters of our society, the rehabilitation of the Marquis de Sade has also become a fait accompli.
Descendants of the marquis, who was reviled for many generations, are now unashamed to admit their link to the infamous eighteenth-century author by throwing off the guilt complex to proclaim pride in a writer whose work featured rape, murder, paedophilia, torture, incest, infanticide, bestiality, and necrophilia.
How the world through what they now call sexual liberation coupled with violence and scopophilia, is becoming ingrained in our psyche in a way that would have shocked our forefathers and left them dazed with horror.
Elzéar de Sade, the eldest member of the dynasty, has gone so far as to reclaim the title of marquis, making him the first Marquis de Sade since his ancestor’s death in 1814.
Although the title is only honorary in republican France, his decision to use it in correspondence underlines de Sade’s new reputability seen in a more desirable form. No longer is his name, which gave rise to the words sadism and sadomasochism, associated solely with amorality.
This may in part be due to changes in French society, where group sex and partner-swapping are increasingly looked upon as an acceptable trend amid a decline in Catholic values. But also, that de Sade is being rapidly seen as a philosopher whose belief in absolute and limitless freedom is worthy of intellectual debate.
De Sade embraced notoriety through Justine (or The Misfortune of Virtue), published in 1791, which features a young woman subjected to repeated violence and sexual assaults – similar to our best-sellers today which earn their authors astronomical sums of loot.
Described by Napoleon Bonaparte as ‘the most abominable book ever engendered’, it was followed by The 120 Days of Sodom, written while de Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille six years earlier, and was even more debauched. It tells the story of four libertines locked in a castle with their victims, including children, who whipped themselves into a bloodthirsty frenzy while listening to brothel-keepers’ tales.
The bicentenary of de Sade’s death has marked his new found respectability. The original manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom was purchased by the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris for £5.5 million.
The city’s prestigious Orsay museum has devoted an exhibition to de Sade in which it seeks to show his influence on artists such as Francisco Goya and Pablo Picasso, the Spanish painters, and Auguste Rodin, the French sculptor.
Annie le Brun, the curator, said that she was ‘amazed by de Sade’s intelligence and the thought that he did not let anything stop him’. She said that his exploration of ‘desire and the violence of desire’ represented a landmark in European literature.
Another exhibition on de Sade is on at the Martin Bodmer Foundation museum in Geneva, which describes him as an essential moment in our cultural history.
The current Marquis de Sade said that the bicentenary celebrations were ‘totally agreeable. A lot of people – writers and philosophers – are very happy to show who de Sade really was’.
He said that the rehabilitation was the fruit of an initiative taken by Xavier and Rose de Sade, his parents, after the Second World War when they opened the family library to researchers in an attempt to lift the taboo surrounding their ancestor.
‘The family cut all ties to him after his death and when anyone asked they would say they had nothing to do with him, pretending they were from another branch,’ he said. ‘Today we are united and proud of our name. It is not at all difficult for us to carry.’
He said that de Sades were an upstanding and ancient French family not given to debauchery except in the writings of their most celebrated member. The current marquis added that his ancestor had been unfairly pilloried by critics who have mistakenly assumed that he had personally engaged in the acts described in his books.
‘He was a writer and a thinker, not a sinner. He liked to disturb eighteenth-century society and he used the pen to bring out into the open what lay hidden in other people. He was free in the way he saw life.’
But history refutes the fact that he was no sinner. He led a scandalous libertine existence, and repeatedly procured young prostitutes as well as employees of both sexes in his castle in Lacoste. His behaviour, which included an affair with his wife’s sister, Anne-Prospère, who had come to live at the castle, showed him devoid of any moral values and many accused him of blasphemy, a serious offence at that time.
However, he was certainly a man of exceptional talent who influenced such cultural figures as the French philosopher Michel Foucault, and the filmmakers John Waters and Jesus Franco. The poet Algernon Charles Swinburne is also said to have been influenced by de Sade.
Simone de Beauvoir in her essay ‘Must we burn Sade?’ (published in Les Temps modernes in December 1951 and January 1952), and other writers have attempted to locate traces of a radical philosophy of freedom in de Sade’s writing, preceding modern existentialism by some one hundred and fifty years.
He has also been seen a precursor of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis in his focus on sexuality as a motive force. The surrealists admired him as one of their forerunners, and Guillaume Apollinaire famously called him ‘the freest spirit that has yet existed’.
People of his ilk, monstrous as they appear to be, have nevertheless genius-like properties in their genes – but despite their prodigious work in unravelling human bestiality and the depths of evil, they remain and will always be looked upon as âmes damnèes.