Politics & Culture

Reflecting on the Perverse and the Profound Prose of Marquis de Sade

The French fiction author was a master of articulating his frustrations with his contemporary world through the charged libidos and lecherous acts of characters.
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Speaking of his libertine magnum opus,120 Days in Sodom, the Marquis de Sade once remarked that he intended to create "the most impure tale that has ever been written since the world exists." The same could surely be said of his other sublimely licentious works of fiction, including Justine, Juliette, and Philosophy in the Bedroom. But to brand, the 18th-century provocateur and author of such sexually charged literature as merely a peddler of florid smut are to overlook the importance of Sade’s writing within the context of the revolutionary period in which he was writing. As many of French intellectuals would note of his works centuries later—Jacques Derrida and Michel Foucault, among them—the form of Sade’s writing was a means to articulate what he saw as the pervasive hypocrisy and corruption of the Ancien Régime. For contemporary feminist theorist Camille Paglia, writing in Sexual Personae, the depravity Sade conjures “is the authentic spirit of mother nature,” and as such “All roads from Rousseau lead to Sade.” Meanwhile, in The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography, Angela Carter proposes that Sade’s female protagonist Juliette “is a woman who acts according to the precepts and also the practice of a man's world and so she does not suffer.” In this light, Juliette possesses agency in a patriarchal world—instead of suffering, “she causes suffering."

Whatever one’s reading of Sade may be, there is no doubt the Marquis was profligate in his own life, a man widely scorned for his libidinous proclivities that extended to both members of sex. Several times jailed and committed to various asylums of the insane, Sade’s legacy is one that is complex, a compelling if not freighted body of work that forces readers to consider the interplay of power, sexuality, and agency

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