By: Brian M. Watson
Note: small parts of the below originate from my book Annals of Pornographie: How Porn Became ‘Bad’ but have been revised and adapted.
If you were to ask an everyday reader what the most banned author of all time was, what do you think the answer would be?
The answer, of course, is tipped at in the headline, but to elaborate: the works of Donatien Alphonse François (1740-1814), better known as the Marquis de Sade, were banned nearly-immediately upon publication by both the King of France Louis XVI and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte and remained so for over two centuries. Combined, his books have been banned for nearly 1000 years (more than 200 years apiece). In fact, de Sade’s work still remains suppressed in a number of countries, including western ones: the Australian government banned 120 Days of Sodom in 1957 and a movie based on the book remained banned through 2008. Not even the work of the “father of pornography,” Pietro Aretino, received such united suppression from nearly every country in the world.
However, pioneering feminists like Simone de Beauvoir cite him as significant for feminism, and artists, thinkers, and authors like Charles Swinburne, Gustave Flaubert, Friedrich Nietzsche, Henry Miller, Alfred Hitchcock, Charles Baudelaire, Pablo Picasso, Edgar Degas, Salvador Dali and others are indebted to him.
So who was the man alternatively called the “Divine Marquis” and the author of the “most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination?”
Donatien Alphonse François was born in 1740, to a royal family in Provence, France. The de Sade family line goes back centuries; one of their ancestors was Laura de Noves, the woman who Petrarch about and contributed towards the start of the Renaissance. He was the only child in a large household, so he was fawned over and grew up incredibly well-educated and wealthy. He also enlisted in the military and fought in the Seven Years’ War, distinguishing himself against the British.
Immediately after the war, he turned to more enjoyable pursuits like visiting plays and operas, seducing actresses, and running up incredible debts. During this time, he was arrested and thrown into jail for the first of many times. The reason was not the hiring of a sex worker, which was not a crime, nor his aggressiveness towards her, which a modern audience rightly sees as disturbing but was unfortunately far too common, but for talking ill of the Catholic Church and “a number of similar sacrilegious acts.” This set off a series of on-again off-again encounters with the police until his mother-in-law succeeded in getting him thrown into the Bastille for thirteen years, the most infamous of all the prerevolutionary-war France prisons.
It is impossible to deny the effects which that imprisonment had on the Marquis. If it were not for his access to pen and paper during his long periods of imprisonment, it is unlikely that he would have become a major writer in his lifetime. It seems like he turned all of his pent-up energy and enthusiasm towards writing, and by the end of his first period of imprisonment in 1788, he was able to list eight novels and short story volumes, two volumes of essays, twenty plays, and sixteen novellas. Of course, only a few of these survived the storming of the Bastille that kicked off the French Revolution—something, by the way, which the Marquis de Sade had a hand in instigating:
In the months and weeks immediately preceding the storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789, crowds of increasingly restive Parisians were in the habit of gathering underneath its walls. Sade quickly saw that the present unrest offered his best chance of freedom in 13 years and, improvising a megaphone from a long metal funnel that he used to empty his slops into the moat, he bellowed to the throngs below that the guards were about to cut the prisoners’ throats. This provocative act immediately got Sade moved to the lunatic asylum at Charenton, a few miles south of Paris, where he could do no more harm. Ten days after the funnel incident, however, the citizens of Paris took his advice and invaded the fortress, murdering the governor.
When the French Revolution succeeded in getting him released from prison, he managed to find work for a time with them despite being a former aristocrat. Of course, he eventually fell out of favor when he spoke against the death penalty, was imprisoned again and barely managed to escape from being guillotined.
During this period he also wrote his three most famous works: Philosophy in the Bedroom, Justine, and Juliette in order to support himself and his life partner. Unfortunately for him, Justine became a bestseller
As some critics have pointed out, it is interesting that we know him as a pornographic writer when in fact most of his works are not obscene or pornographic: out of the nearly 60 works he wrote, only four of them fall under the obscene: 120 Days of Sodom, Philosophy in the Bedroom, Justine, and Juliette. In terms of raw sales numbers, they were the most popular, but that perhaps says more about the tastes of Revolutionary War France than the Marquis.
This is key: to understand his works, we have to read them in light of the violent, uncontrollable and chaotic world he lived in. His most famous books, which can feel like endless slogs of violence and sexuality at times, should be read in light of the fact that the Church and French state had control over nearly every aspect of life. By writing about characters that ignored their religious vows or talk freely about abortion and sexuality, de Sade was trying to tear down sexual morality, religious decrees, the laws of the state and church, and even God himself.
De Sade’s biographer, John Phillips comments that “Justine was originally conceived as a satire, attacking the corruption of contemporary institutions, including the judiciary, banking, and the bourgeois-dominated world of finances in general and, above all, the Catholic Church, with divine providence being the principal religious target.”
Pornography was not an amusing or sexual thing at the time de Sade was writing—pornography was a way of speaking out against a corrupt church, state, and society. The result was very often imprisonment or execution, and the fact that he came from one of the oldest and most powerful families in France did not protect him: he was imprisoned for over half of his life for writing what we often laugh off as a ‘dirty’ book.
So loathe him or love him, but a tip of the glass to the Divine Marquis on this day of his birth!
Brian M. Watson is the Archivist-Historian of the American Psychological Association’s Division 44 (Consensual Non-Monogamy), a historian of the book and sexuality, and works as a student archivist at the Kinsey Institute. They are interested in queer classification, metadata and linked data vocabularies, especially in archives. Brian holds BAs in English and History from Keene State College, a MA in History and Culture from Drew University, and are currently pursuing a MLIS focusing on Archives, Digital Humanities, and Metadata at Indiana University Bloomington, with plans to apply for a PhD. They have published a book on the history of obscenity and have a number of forthcoming publications elsewhere. Find them on twitter @brimwats.