Donatien Alphonse François, Comte de Sade, better known as the Marquis de Sade (June 2, 1740 - December 2, 1814) was a French aristocrat and author of several pornographic books, many of them written while in prison. His name is the source of the word sadism.
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 Renée-Pelagie de Montreuil, daughter of a rich magistrate; he would eventually have three children with her.
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. He had an affair with his wife's sister. A series of scandals and imprisonments followed. He was sentenced to death in 1772 but reprieved. The mother of his wife obtained a lettre de cachet, and in 1777 he was imprisoned again, in the dungeon of Vincennes. There he met the fellow prisoner Comte de Mirabeau who also wrote erotic works; nevertheless, the two disliked each other intensely. In 1784, after an escape attempt, de Sade was transferred to the Bastille in Paris.
On July 2 1789, he reportedly shouted out of his cell to the crowd outside, "They are killing the prisoners here!", causing somewhat of a riot. He was transferred to the insane asylum at Charenton two days later. (The storming of the Bastille, marking the beginning of the French Revolution, happened on July 14.) He was released from Charenton 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. In Aline and Valcour (1795) he contrasts a brutal African kingdom with a utopian island paradise. Other works are 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 (beginning 1790), he met Marie-Constance Quesnet, a working-class single mother; they would stay together for the rest of his life. He initially arranged himself with the new political situation after the revolution and even managed to obtain several official positions despite his aristocratic background. Sitting in court, when the family of his former wife came before him, he treated them favorably, even though they had schemed to have him imprisoned years earlier. By now extremely obese, he was even elected to the National Convention, where he represented the far left.
Appalled by the Reign of Terror in 1793, he nevertheless wrote an admiring eulogy for Jean-Paul Marat to secure his position. Then he resigned his posts, was accused of "moderatism", imprisoned for over a year, and barely escaped the guillotine. Presumably, this confirmed his life-long detestation of state tyranny and especially of the death penalty. Now all but destitute, he wrote the pamphlet Frenchmen! One More Effort If You Wish To Be Republicans! in which he advocated a utopian form of socialism. In it he states that laws against theft are absurd: they protect the original thieves, the wealthy, against the poor who have no option left but theft. He also argues that the state has no right to outlaw murder, while at the same time ordering killings when executing prisoners or fighting wars.
In 1801, Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the anonymous author of Justine and Juliette to be arrested. Without trial, de Sade was imprisoned in the harsh fortress of Bicetre. After intervention by his family, he was declared insane in 1803 and transferred again to the asylum at Charenton.
Constance was allowed to live with him there. The liberal director of Charenton, Abbe de Coulmier allowed and encouraged him to stage several of his plays with the inmates as actors, to be viewed by the Parisian public. 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 is a fictional account of this period. Coulmier's novel approaches to psychotherapy attracted much opposition.
De Sade began an affair with twelve-year-old Madeleine Leclerc at Charenton. This affair lasted some 4 years, until de Sade died in the asylum in 1814. His eldest son had all his remaining unpublished manuscripts burned; this included the immense multi-volume work Les Journees de Florbelle. De Sade was buried in Charenton; his skull was later removed from the grave for scientific investigations.
Simone de Beauvoir and other writers have later attempted to locate traces of a radical freedom philosophy in de Sade's writings, preceding that of existentialism by some 150 years. The surrealists admired him as one of their precursors, and Guillaume Apollinaire called him "the freest spirit that has yet existed".
Perhaps unsurprisingly, de Sade's life and writings have proved irresistible to filmmakers. While there are surely an uncountable number of pornographic films based on his themes, here are some of the more mainstream movies based on his history or his works of fiction:
Marat/Sade, a film of the Peter Weiss play (1966)
Justine and Juliet, aka Marquis de Sade: Justine (1968)
De Sade (1969)
Salo, or the 120 Days of Sodom (1975)
Cruel Passion (1977)
Dark Prince (1996)