Marquis de Sade
by Van Loo (~1761)
Sade was born in the Condé palace in Paris. Initially he followed a military career and participated in the Seven Years' War. In 1763 he married; he would eventually have three children with his wife.
Shortly after his wedding, he began living a scandalous libertine existence and repeatedly abused young prostitutes and employees of both sexes, later also with help of his wife. A series of scandals and imprisonments followed. He was sentenced to death in 1772 but reprieved. He was imprisoned again in 1777, first in the dungeon of Vincennes and in 1784, after an escape attempt, in the Bastille in Paris.
In 1789, shortly before the storming of the Bastille at the beginning of the French revolution, he shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside "They are killing the prisoners here!" and was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton. He was released in 1790 and his wife obtained a divorce soon after.
He had started to write in prison. In 1782 he completed Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man, expressing his atheism by having the dying libertine convince the priest of the mistakes of a pious life. The novel The 120 Days of Sodom was written in 1785 and describes a wide variety of sexual perversions performed on a group of enslaved teenagers. In 1787, he wrote Les Infortunes de la vertu, an early version of Justine which was published in 1791. It describes the misfortunes of a girl who continues to believe in the goodness of God despite evidence to the contrary. Other works are Aline and Valcour (1795), Philosophy in the Boudoir (1795), Juliette (1798), and Crimes of Love (1800) as well as a number of plays.
De Sade's works contain explicit and often repetitive descriptions of rape and a great number of sexual perversions, many of which involve violence and transcend the boundaries of the possible. He disdained the church and argued for atheism and for the rejection of all moral and ethical rules, pleasure being the highest principle.
During his time of freedom, he initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution and even managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. He advocated a utopian form of socialism, but refused to give up his castle and his family's fortune. During the Reign of Terror in 1793 he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism", imprisoned for over a year, and barely escaped the guillotine.
In 1801, when Napoleon Bonaparte was in power, de Sade was arrested again, this time for having written Justine and Juliette. He was imprisoned without trial. In 1803 he was declared insane and transferred again to Charenton, where he staged several of his plays with the inmates as actors. He died in the asylum in 1814.
The play by Peter Weiss titled The Persecution and Assassination of Jean-Paul Marat, as performed by the inmates of the Asylum of Charenton under the direction of the Marquis de Sade, or Marat/Sade for short, is about this period.
Simone de Beauvoir and other writers have later attempted to find traces in de Sade's writings of a radical freedom philosophy preceding that of existentialism. The surrealists admired him as one of their precursors, and Guillaume Apollinaire called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".