The Marquis de Sade is easily one of the most misunderstood figures of European literature, misread by both his detractors and supporters. Puritanical Anglo conservatives and feminists see Sade as a psychopathic degenerate; indeed, Andrea Dworkin famously regarded him as the very embodiment of misogyny. On the other hand, continental leftists such as Simone de Beauvoir have sought to resuscitate Sade, viewing him as one of the most important philosophers and thinkers of the late Enlightenment.
Neither side manages to capture the violence and energy that was Sade.
Jonathan Bowden’s Sade is a biography-cum-analysis that the man himself would have approved of. Tired of both the Puritanical ninnies who dismissed Sade and the postmodernist frauds who whitewashed him, Bowden sought to create a work that would put Sade’s depravity front and center. If you’re looking for a footnoted and citation-loaded retelling of the Marquis’ life, don’t bother: if you want to journey deep inside Sade’s twisted head, Sade is a must-buy.
Sade utilizes the same stream-of-consciousness style that Bowden used in Mad, though this book is far higher in quality, lacking Mad’s frequent sentence fragments and abrupt shifts in subject matter. The first half of the book is dedicated to retelling Sade’s early romps in French bordellos, describing his sexual obsessions and fetishes in loving detail:
The Marquis de Sade married Mademoiselle de Montreuil on May 17th 1763 and on the night of his marriage he was rutting in brothels. During the next years, Sade spent more time in Paris than in Normandy and his wife’s bedroom in the Rue Neuve de Luxembourg remained empty. In November 1763 a policeman asked a procuress to stop providing him with girls and Sade associated with courtesans; he was fond of actresses and ballet dancers. Already the spectre of his own lust was beginning to overtake him and he desired stronger pleasures than those the brothels provided. He sought out lips which were moist in the light and he masturbated in the mouths of prostitutes. He drenched blonde hair with water and semen, and his wet penis made mascara run. He began to submerge himself in mania—he had to submerge himself in flesh, and he ripped petticoats and bodices just to get at the flesh.
While at times Bowden’s prose has too much of a teenage hipster feel to it (“LOOK, I JUST SAID ‘CUNT’ AND ‘PRICK!’ AREN’T I EDGY????!!!11″), his ranty prose works well in conveying the sheer passion of the Marquis’ life and works. Additionally, Bowden’s prose tends to waver in quality when he starts tackling more intellectual subjects, namely near the end of the book where he starts talking about the French Revolution and the Enlightenment.
But that’s fine; this is a work of art, not a scholarly journal article.
Sade’s main contribution to the body of work about the man is to denounce all the existing scholarship about him, from both the Puritanical Anglos and the continental sophists. Bowden initially trains his guns on the former, effortlessly skewering their claims that Sade was “misogynistic” by pointing out that by the standards of 18th century Europe, Sade was a feminist, as he sought to liberate women from patriarchal bonds so that they could better service his depraved lusts. In particular, Bowden demolishes that fat lunatic Dworkin by labeling her “a female de Sade who cannot resist the tendency to moralize”:
She is fat and ugly and lacking in charm, and in many ways, Dworkin represents the reductio ad absurdum of radical feminism. She is the sort who thinks it’s progressive to ban children’s books and in her book called Intercourse she advocates sexual abstinence. She is a sort of joyless articulator of the pornographic and the woman has become a connoisseur of ‘snuff movies’ in order to moralize about them. In her work she presents an image of womanhood crushed beneath the penis, and according to her, the modern world is phallocentric in the extreme. Her work Fire and Ice is a sort of Sadelike anti-Sade and like Kathy Acker—who she resembles—Dworkin is a man who loves humiliating women. In other words she has the sexuality of a lesbian sado-masochist because not even separatism can deal adequately with power in human relationships…
But as harsh at that passage may sound, Bowden reserves his true ire for the continentalists. He makes a sensible point that none of the existing scholarship on the man dares to acknowledge: the Marquis de Sade was the embodiment of the Enlightenment. He was the id of the Third Estate, stripped of pretension and set loose on the terrified prostitutes of France. When you unshackle man from the binds of religion and superstition, you get Sade: a thing who lives only to gratify himself, with no regard for his fellow man. Rationality is a luxury that only the intelligent can afford; try to foist it on the peasants and they’ll just rape and slit each others’ throats in a great big orgy, as they did during the French Revolution.
You can try and hide this reality with all the made-up terms (e.g. “biopower”) you want, but you can’t change it.
Aside from Bowden’s occasional digressions into self-satisfied onanism, Sade is an energetic and piercing book. If you have any interest in Sade, the French Revolution or the Enlightenment, you owe it to yourself to pick it up.
Click here to buy Sade.
Read Next: Mad by Jonathan Bowden