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Christian Grey can’t hold a wax-dripping candle to the Marquis De Sade

Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis De Sade in Quills
Wiki WormholeWe explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 5,664,405-week series, Wiki Wormhole.

This week’s entry: Marquis De Sade

What it’s about: Two hundred years after his death, the Marquis De Sade is still infamous for his life as a sexual libertine and particularly for his interest in S&M, a practice to which his name lent the “S.” But the man behind the title, Donatien Alphonse François, was an author, philosopher, and soldier who also wrote plays, political screeds, and attacks on the Catholic Church along with more salacious works. He spent nearly half his life incarcerated, including a 10-year spell in the Bastille, and 13 years in the Charenton asylum, but was also a delegate to the National Convention during the French Revolution.

The only known portrait of the Marquis De Sade

Strangest fact: The Sade family disavowed his escapades to the extent that his descendants didn’t know they were related. His immediate heirs tried their best to cover up Sade’s life and works, and even the title Marquis fell into disuse. (As it is, Sade, while nobility, may not have been a bona fide marquis. His ancestors seem to have been counts, with his grandfather adopting the title marquis. The title applies to someone with multiple countships, which the Sade family did not seem to have.) It wasn’t until the 1940s that a descendent, Comte Xavier De Sade, discovered his lineage when approached by a journalist. Rather than being ashamed, Xavier adopted the title Marquis, and spent decades unearthing Sade’s writings and getting them published.

Biggest controversy: Trying to decide which Marquis De Sade controversy is the biggest is like trying to decide which Muhammad Ali left hook hit the hardest. There were plenty, and lots of the controversies involved some powerful stuff. Apart from both a sex life and a bibliography that would be considered depraved even by modern standards, Sade was also a controversial politician. After the French Revolution, the Marquis De Sade was elected to the National Convention, representing the radical left, and campaigned for direct elections of politicians. However, he was critical of Robespierre during the Reign Of Terror, and in one of the most ironic political assessments of all time, was accused of “moderatism” and imprisoned until Robespierre’s death a year later.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Sade’s views on sexuality and individual liberty put him so far at odds with his contemporaries that when social mores changed, he couldn’t help but be ahead of his time. His insistence that morals are meaningless and life’s only purpose is “to enjoy oneself at no matter whose expense” put him 150 years ahead of existentialism; his obsession with sexuality as a driving force behind our actions makes him a precursor to Freud; his denial of the right to property, and his insistence that the French Revolution was not a struggle between elites, but those elites united against the working class, makes him a precursor to Marx.


Thing we were unhappiest to learn: While many have romanticized Sade’s sexual escapades, the reality was often less than charming. His first major scandal took place in 1768, when he brought a woman back to his chateau, imprisoned her, and physically and sexually abused her until she escaped through a second-floor window. Four years later, Sade and a manservant were sentenced to death for having sex with each other, and for poisoning (but not killing) several prostitutes with Spanish Fly, a supposed aphrodisiac that only puts someone in the mood if by “the mood” you mean “severe abdominal pain.” The guilty parties fled to Italy to avoid prosecution, but soon returned, and for the next several years, Sade hired a parade of young servants, most of whom quit, complaining of sexual harassment. The father of one of Sade’s servants even tried to shoot the Marquis, but the gun misfired.

A portion of the manuscript for The 120 Days Of Sodom

Also noteworthy: The Marquis De Sade’s most infamous work is The 120 Days Of Sodom, which the author intended to be “the most impure tale that has ever been written.” Written in just over a month while Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille, on a continuous roll of paper smuggled into the prison, it remained unpublished until 1904, and even then, the publisher used a pseudonym. The book can be viewed as either sadistic pornography or as a rebuke of the Enlightenment notion that people are innately good. The book is less a story than a catalogue of 600 depraved sexual acts, committed by four libertines who lock themselves in a castle with several dozen victims—including their own daughters—and engage in depraved acts over the course of four months, including rape, torture, and murder. It is perhaps for the best that we get less detail as the story goes on—Sade only fully finished the first quarter of the book; the rest survives as an outline he never managed to complete.

Remarkable fact we couldn’t fit in elsewhere: For 24 years, during which he compiled a sexual resume that makes David Bowie look like an amateur, the Marquis De Sade was also married. He and his wife, Renée-Pélagie De Montreuil, had three children. Of the many scandals the Marquis De Sade was involved in, one included an affair with his wife’s sister. Despite this, upon Sade’s return from fleeing to Italy, his wife was apparently a willing accomplice in Sade’s sexual endeavors. She did eventually divorce him after he was freed from the Bastille, and Sade entered into another long-term relationship with an actress, Marie-Constance Quesnet, who had been abandoned by her husband, and would stay with the Marquis for the rest of his life.


Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: While Sade succeeded with Sodom in creating one of the most shocking and depraved stories ever written, it was two later works—Justine and Juliette—that would be his undoing. The two related novels concern two orphaned sisters. The first strives to be virtuous, but falls deeper and deeper into abuse and depravity; the second is completely amoral and finds success and happiness (and eventually rescues her sister). Sade published both anonymously, but when Napoleon ordered the arrest of the author, his publisher gave him up and the Marquis was imprisoned without trial. He was quickly transferred to a worse prison after attempting to seduce several younger inmates, but eventually his family intervened and had Sade declared insane and committed to an asylum. Marie-Constance was allowed to live there with him, but at age 70 he had a relationship with the 14-year-old daughter of one of the asylum’s employees, which lasted until his death four years laster.

Further down the wormhole: As mentioned above, Spanish Fly was thought to be an aphrodisiac, despite being a poisonous non-aphrodisiac. For a long time, people have been looking for a way to boost the libido. While traditional methods like ginkgo biloba and tiger penis may be colorful, the rare effective aphrodisiacs have names like bremelanotide or phenylethylamine, and are only effective in certain medical situations. Despite their lack of real-life success, aphrodisiacs make numerous appearances in pop culture. In particular, Wikipedia mentions the opening segment of Everything You Always Wanted To Know About Sex* (*But Were Afraid To Ask), in which Woody Allen is a court jester trying to use an aphrodisiac to seduce the queen. We’ll look at jesters, a silly but surprisingly complex part of the medieval court, next week.


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