Who Was the Marquis de Sade?

Even in the age of Fifty Shades of Grey, the 18th-century libertine is as shocking as ever

A gala celebrated the opening of “Sade: Marquis of the Shadows, Prince of the Enlightment” at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts. (Tomas van Houtryve)
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The key to Sade’s erotic work, he argued, is the author’s poignant longing to never be forgotten, which only became more intense as the years in the Bastille dragged on into his late 40s. “Sade wanted to become a famous writer. He deliberately chose his subject—sex and perversion, every possible horror—so he could become immortal. Today, Sade is a household name all around the world, even in Japan and Russia. Rock groups use it. And he made sure that nothing written about sex would surpass him. Fifty Shades of Grey is a nursery book compared to Sade!”

Many feminists have a more critical view. The American critic Andrea Dworkin, for example, denounced Sade’s writing in 1981 as virulently misogynistic. For another perspective, I sought out Ovidie, the filmmaker and feminist writer, who first gained attention a decade ago starring in pornographic films and is still an activist for sexual freedom. “His philosophy is very powerful,” she said when we met in a Paris café. “But he’s no Nietzsche! There was once a time to fight for Sade and against the censorship laws. But that time has passed. We must still be able to criticize him.” Ovidie argued that Sade’s life should not be separated from his writings. “He is seen as a misunderstood author, who suffered in prison for his heroic stand. But he was not jailed at first because of his writings....The ones who defend Sade are all men. Voilà!”

Yet some French intellectual women defend Sade too. “I do not accept a misogynist reading of his writing,” says Sade exhibit curator Laurence des Cars, citing the study of her fellow curator and biographer Annie Le Brun, Sade: A Sudden Abyss. “His novel Juliette is one of Europe’s first pro-women books, where women dominate entirely.” (In it, the vicious heroine perpetrates sexual atrocities on hapless males, from peasants to the pope.) “Even in 120 Days of Sodom, men and women are on the same level.”

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In 1801, after several years of freedom, Sade was arrested yet again on the orders of Napoleon, who found Juliette the “abominable” work of a “depraved imagination,” and soon ended up in Charenton, an insane asylum. Here, in his 60s, Sade gained a new level of notoriety by staging his plays with fellow inmates as actors, a surreal final act in Sade’s life that inspired the modern films Marat/Sade and Quills. He died unrepentant at age 74, and was given a religious service, against his last wishes. Soon after, a young doctor sympathetic to Sade, L.J. Ramon, exhumed the corpse and removed the cranium, intending to make phrenological studies of this troubled creative spirit. Ramon lent the skull to a German colleague, who then disappeared with it. The relic was lost, but legend has long held that Ramon made a cast of the skull before it left Paris, and the plaster copy of the cranium survives today. 

From Sade experts I learned that the 1814 skull mold was given to a French collector, a certain Charles-Albert Demoustier, who in the 1830s donated it to the Museum of Phrenology. It passed through various institutions before arriving a century later in France’s anthropology museum, the Museum of Man. Officials there at first denied that the skull was still in their collection, but when I contacted the curator, Philippe Mennecier, he invited me to the museum’s storage rooms, where over 18,000 historical craniums are preserved.

“Ours is not the biggest skull collection in the world, but it’s the most diverse,” said Mennecier, a gaunt figure whose somber undertaker mien belied his excitement in his work. We walked through neon-lit chambers filled with skeletons and death masks (“Here is Robespierre...here is Napoleon...here are 19th-century criminals, look, you can see the guillotine marks on their necks”) before he creaked open a metal wall cabinet. 

From a cardboard box, Mennecier produced a skull cast, marked with an antique inscription “Marquis de Sade, Coll. Demoustier No. 529,” and presented it proudly.

“Can I hold it?” I asked.

Bien sûr!”

It was a giddy moment, weighing the 200-year-old replica skull of the writer I had spent so much time with. Mennecier then opened the leather-bound records of the collector Demoustier, who studied the shape of the cranium in the 1830s to report on its “lunatic” aspects. (Phrenologists believed that the shape of a skull revealed traits such as criminality, artistic genius, saintliness and insanity.) Sade was “a licentious man, like Nero,” he had deduced, who “liked to make his debauchery bloody. Men with similar brain organizations will go so far as to kill the object of their lust in a bloody rage.” A more affectionate—if equally fanciful—study of the skull was made by Ramon, who had befriended Sade before he died. Ramon found the cranium to reveal “no ferocity” or “aggressive drives,” and “no excess in erotic impulses.” They were suitably misguided blurs of Sade’s life and writings—as fanciful as the pseudoscience of phrenology itself, which was discredited by the mid-20th century.

For his part, Count Hugues de Sade has borrowed the plaster cast and hired an artist to cast replica skulls in bronze. He is now selling them as souvenirs for the bicentennial of his ancestor’s death, in his Maison de Sade line. “I offer them directly for €2500 ($3,100),” he said, “but in boutiques they will cost up to €4,500 ($5,700).”      

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