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Who was the Marquis de Sade?

Dinatien Alphonse Frangois de Sade (1740-1814) was a French nobleman and revolutionary best known for his shocking pornographic works Justine (The Misfortunes of

The ruins of the Marquis de Sade's castle. The marquis was known for his prurient pursuits, but his ideas on human sexuality influenced the fields of psychology and philosophy (iStock).

The ruins of the Marquis de Sade's castle. The marquis was known for his prurient pursuits, but his ideas on human sexuality influenced the fields of psychology and philosophy (iStock).

Virtue), Juliette (Vice Richly Rewarded), 120 Days of Sodom (The School of Licentiousness), Incest, and The Crimes of Love. In an age that was not strongly focused on vice and sin, he managed to spend over 30 years of his life incarcerated—in an insane asylum, as well as in prison—mostly on account of his writing. The term "sadism" is based on his name.

What are some details of the Marquis de Sade's life?

De Sade was born in the palace of Conde. His father was a count, his mother a lady-in-waiting to the princess. He attended a Jesuit college and was captain of a cavalry regiment in the Seven Years' War, after which he married the elder sister of the woman he loved, fathering two sons and one daughter. In 1766 he had a theater constructed at his castle in Lacoste (in the 1990s, fashion designer Pierre Cardin acquired the ruins of de Sade's castle as a site for theater productions). He was a libertine, said to have sexually abused young people of both sexes, both servants and prostitutes. He was accused of kidnapping and abusing a woman named Rose Keller in 1768; after she escaped, he was also accused of blasphemy, which was a more serious offense at the time than the sexual crimes.

When prostitutes in Paris complained of de Sade's abuse, he was exiled to his castle. Then he had an affair with his sister-in-law, for which his mother-in-law secured an arrest warrant from the king. A series of arrests and escapes in which his wife was his accomplice ensued. He was confined to an insane asylum at Charenton after being imprisoned in the Bastille. In the asylum, the Abbé allowed him to produce plays. When he was released in 1790, his wife divorced him.

What was the intellectual merit of de Sade's endeavors?

De Sade was elected to the National Convention in 1790 and wrote political pamphlets calling for a direct vote. Simone de Beauvoir (1908-1986) and other twentieth century existentialists interpreted a radical doctrine of freedom in his writings. His emphasis on the importance of sexuality in human life is said to have anticipated Sigmund Freud. Others have seen seeds of nihilism in his work. The twentieth century psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan claimed that de Sade's ethics were a counterpart to Immanuel Kant's (1724-1804) categorical imperative. The twentieth century feminist Andrea Dworkin (1946-2005) analyzed de Sade to illustrate the inherently violent misogynistic nature of all heterosexual pornography.

Is there interest in the Marquis de Sade today?

Yes. The Marquis de Sade has endured as a glamorous and enigmatic film subject. The 1969 film De Sade was shot in Germany, and speculation about who its director really was continues to the present time. In 1996, the Marquis was revisited in Dark Prince, which was not a blockbuster. The most recent reprise is the 2000 movie Quills, starring Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis, Kate Winslet as Madeleine (a teenager with whom de Sade has an affair), Joaquin Phoenix as the Abbé du Coulmier, and Michael Caine as Dr. Royer-Collard.

The setting of Quills is an insane asylum in Napoleonic France, where the Marquis has been confined because of his licentious, depraved ideas that he graphically expresses in writing. Even while incarcerated, he has been getting his manuscripts out to be published. Napoleon himself is disturbed by this travesty and sends Dr. Royer-Collard, a mental health "specialist" to deal with the Marquis and "cure" him. Dr. Royer-Collard is a hypocrite who abuses his young wife. The film turns on the conflict between the Abbé and de Sade. The Abbé slowly goes mad, and the Marquis experiences remorse for the effect of his ideas on another.

Overall, Quills is an aesthetically sophisticated film that dramatizes the continuously mordant wit of the Marquis de Sade, which coexisted with what would otherwise be unadorned pornography. In defying the optimism of the Age of Reason, he used its reigning weapon.

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