Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods



The Literal Marquis: The Symbols and Psychology of his Written Imagery

The Marquis de Sade's prison term would last for thirteen long years. He was moved to a variety of prisons during that time, his final destination being the infamous Bastille, from which the forces of the French Revolution in the late 1780s would finally free him. During his imprisonment, Sade's physical appearance deteriorated severely, and he left his confinement as a corpulent, self-indulgent wretch, with no immediate means of supporting himself. However, Sade, like his father before him, was well practiced in the art of being a social chameleon. Accordingly, he managed to form relationships with those who saw fit to help support him until his death in December 1814. He also held elective office in one of the newly formed revolutionary districts of Paris. By these and other means, the Marquis managed to keep food on his plate and a roof over his head, scarcely the noble standards he had grown so accustomed to in his younger days.

Revolutionary scene outside of the Bastille
Revolutionary scene outside of the Bastille

Despite the myriad changes of circumstance, and despite his self-imposed physical limitations, the one unchanging component of Sade's character was his libido, his sexual imagination. During his period of imprisonment he had secretly penned a number of pornographic texts that he published in the period after his release. His major works include The 120 Days of Sodom, Justine (or the Misfortunes of Virtue), and Philosophy in the Boudoir, among others. Anticipating an angry social backlash against their contents, Sade wisely published his works under a nomme de plume, and indeed, literary critics vilified his writings for generations to follow. Copies of his texts remained generally unavailable, and where they could be found they were usually kept under lock and key, for adults only.

Likeness of Sade, 1791
Likeness of Sade, 1791

However, this century has seen the emergence of scholars and critics who have been willing to passionately dissect and defend the value of Sade's work, perhaps making the Marquis one of history's only true criminals to be exonerated and celebrated on legitimate intellectual and philosophical grounds. In a 1951 essay, "Must We Burn Sade," Simone de Beauvoir identifies Sade as a forerunner of Freud with an intuitive grasp of the nature of the human heart:

"It is remarkable, for example, that in 1795 Sade wrote: 'Sexual pleasure is, I agree, a passion to which all others are subordinate but in which they all unite.' Not only does Sade, in the first part of this text, anticipate what has been called the 'pansexuality' of Freud, but also he makes eroticism the mainspring of human behavior. In addition, he asserts...that sexuality is charged with a significance that goes beyond it. Libido is everywhere, and it is always far more than itself. Sade certainly anticipated this great truth. He knew that the 'perversions' that are vulgarly regarded as moral monstrosities or physiological defects actually envelop what would now be called an intentionality. He understood, too, that our tastes are motivated not by the intrinsic qualities of the object but by the latter's relationship with the subject. In a passage in La Nouvelle Justine he tries to explain coprophilia. His reply is faltering, but clumsily using the notion of imagination, he points out that the truth of a thing lies not in what it is but in the meaning it has taken on for us in the course of our individual experience. Intuitions such as these allow us to hail Sade as a precursor of psychoanalysis."

It is precisely these perversions, Sade's fascination with and understanding of the underbelly of the human psyche, that author Thomas Moore further dissects in his treatment of Sade's works, Dark Eros: The Imagination of Sadism. While no apologist for Sade's personal behavior, Moore defends the Marquis' literature from a psychoanalytical point of view, making the point that, for just as there is inherent value to understanding and encouraging humanity's nobler impulses, there is equal value to understanding, and perhaps on some level encouraging, the darker tendencies of the psyche:

"The foul atmosphere that surrounds him (Sade) is like the sulfuric stench of the devil. It would be a travesty of hell to smell roses when Satan appears. My purpose, then, in turning to Sade is to find a darkening of consciousness, to seek out a foul-smelling imagery appropriate for the amplification of those dreams and fantasies and art pieces that reveal an underworld aesthetic and a shadowy psychological reality."

Foul-smelling imagery abounds in the literary world of the Marquis de Sade. Moore has a treasure of perverted depictions of interactions between human beings, as well as between individuals and their own selves. Perverted is used here not to describe something that is perverse or wicked, but rather an opposite image, a deed that by its nature is diametrically in conflict with the norms and mores of polite society. For instance, Moore remarks on how Sade "perverts"' society's traditional image of Love. For most, Love is the one ideal emotion, or state of being. It is placed on a pedestal and revered as the universal aspiration for all humanity. And while there are many forms of Love, it has often been homogenized for commercial purposes; its image is aggrandized, and even trivialized in pop culture by songs, TV programs, and greeting cards. The net result is the creation of the myth of Love as sweet, Love as painless, Love as cheap and available on any TV set, in any record or Hallmark store.

Frontpiece to original edition of Justine
Frontpiece to original edition of Justine

In his works, Sade sets forth to turn this very notion on its head. To the Sadeian mind, Love is most often unavailable, is bitter, and is acquired only after painful struggle. The Sadeian notion of Love is something that cannot be acquired until one gains full knowledge of the self, and this in turn cannot be acquired until one is willing to come face-to-face with all of the horrifying images and realities we have stored within us. Sadeian Love is the pursuit of Eros, the Greek god of love, that for which our soul longs to join, that which provides the soul with inspiration and desire. While for most such inspirations include the desire to be financially secure, to succeed in a chosen professional field, to be a good parent and spouse, Moore postulates that there is validity to Sade's point, that there are always to sides to every coin: "At first it may seem odd to claim that the sickening and frightening issues Sade presents have anything to do with desire, but that is the value of his approach- to unveil the stirrings of love in places that seem void of it."

In all, Sade's point is that, for all the splendor and bliss associated with Love, there is also pain, emptiness, and longing, the value of which is equal to that which society claims to be desirable of love in the first place. To Sade, these are worthless unless and until we are ready to accept and experience Love's ugly sides too: "Although love can be creative, it is also destructive and entropic. If most literature focuses on the pleasures and pains of love, Sade turns our attention to its dark objects." The darkest of these objects is fecal excrement, which Sade advocates that we consume with relish (no pun intended), writing, "No habit is more easily acquired than mard (excrement)-savoring; eat one, delicious, eat another, no two taste exactly alike, but all are subtle and the effect is somewhat that of an olive."

The literal image Sade evokes is one more reprehensible than perhaps any other in the history of literature. However, it in the interpretation of Sade's ludicrous proposition that Moore sees deeper meaning. Eating feces represents the figurative extreme, the furthest end of the spectrum of human behavior from that end which represents the height of ecstasy and self-fulfillment. In short, true freedom, the ability to be fully one's self, cannot be experienced until one has the courage to both acknowledge and suffer that for which is the worst possible circumstance for that person, to travel to both ends of that spectrum and experience both equally. As Moore writes, "Love has its excremental component, and this, along with the more wholesome diet, has to be consumed."

Illustration from Justine
Illustration from Justine

For Moore, what Sade's work ultimately brings to light is the "shadow self" that exists within each individual. This part of the self is consigned to the shadows of our own being by forces and rules from without. Motivated by the fear that our true nature will be rejected by broader society, we force our very being to conform to expectations not of its making. Despite its pariah status, this side of the self strives to find an outlet for expression, to be granted legitimacy in a polite setting where this cannot be granted. That these impulses form our shadow, darker half becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy: if the expectation is that these parts of our very selves are bad, that is how we ourselves will come to view them, and how they themselves will find expression.

Herman Hesse, the German author and contemporary of psychological pioneer Carl Jung, made this the theme of his celebrated novel Demian, wherein the young protagonist experiences the awakening of his own psyche and the requisite breach this causes with his familiar childhood world:

"The realms of day and night, two different worlds coming from two different opposite poles, mingled during this time. My parents' house made up one realm, yet its boundaries were even narrower, actually embracing only my parents themselves... It was a realm of brilliance, clarity, and cleanliness, gentle conversations, washed hands, clean clothes, and good manners. The other realm...was completely different; it smelled different, spoke a different language, and promised and demanded different things. All these wild and cruel, attractive and hideous things surrounded us, could be found in the next alley, the next house. Policemen and tramps, drunkards who beat their wives, droves of young girls pouring out of the factories at night everywhere this second vigorous world erupted and gave off its scent, everywhere, that is, except in our parents' rooms. For the time being I was not so much afraid of what would happen tomorrow as of the horrible certainty that my way, from now on, would lead farther and farther downhill into darkness. I felt acutely that new offenses were bound to grow out of this one offense, that my presence among my sisters, greeting and kissing my parents, were a lie, that I was living a lie concealed deep inside myself."

The struggle for the true self to find legitimate standing and expression in a hostile, judgmental world is echoed in works as diverse as George Orwell's 1984, Billy Joel's The Stranger and Jethro Tull's Aqualung. Sade, Freud, Jung, Hesse, Moore, and others are of a school of thought that emphasizes the importance of granting our "other," darker half equal standing as a part of ourselves.

An important criticism of Sade is that he, in order to make his point, took this premise to the extreme. In doing so, he overemphasized one aspect of the self to the exclusion of providing a deeper understanding of the whole self. The human psyche is neither totally shadow nor totally enlightened, but rather exists within a plain wherein both halves intermingle to the extent that, for the undisciplined soul, it may grow increasingly difficult to determine where within this union the true self exists.

Sade as messenger casts a pall on the legitimate contributions his writings have otherwise helped to make in our collective search to know and understand the self, the psyche. In this sense, Sade leaves a legacy both brutal and sublime. He is an enigma for the ages: he was, on the one hand, a man of heightened self-importance and brutal sexual temperament; simultaneously, he was a man passionately dedicated to the defense of the individual, and possessed of a keen understanding of the complexities of the human psyche, the labyrinth of the human heart. The riddle of how to treat the memory of such a man shall resonate through the ages: if we cannot burn Sade, must we then celebrate him?

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