Greetings, Roger Shattuck,
We meet here in the ether to discuss At Home with the Marquis de Sade, by Francine du Plessix Gray. It can be described as a popular interpretive biography of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (1740-1814), generally acknowledged as the most extreme writer of all time, author of Philosophy in the Boudoir, Justine, Juliette, and The 120 Days of Sodom, a figure sufficiently important to have become an eponym. Gray, drawing upon the most recent research--the mammoth 1993 biography Maurice Lever as well as rediscovered papers still in the course of being published under the aegis of Sade's descendant Xavier de Sade--has written the only book on Sade I've read (I've never taken on Lever) that could be described as a model of good sense.
Sade was a product of the most ancient French aristocracy, the lineage of King Saint Louis, and was raised with future royal personages, although his own family was not all that well off, comparatively. He seems to have displayed very clearly the trait that looms largest in his makeup: an overwhelming need for total infant gratification. Nothing really scandalous was noted at first, mostly an immoderate taste for parties and an inability to control his spending. Soon his conniving father married him off advantageously, to Pelagie de Montreuil, daughter of a wealthy, recently ennobled family eager for some old blood. She appears to have been his temperamental opposite--"homespun," with a disdain for gossip, stature, and for that matter fleshly passions--but their affection seems to have been mutual and genuine, forbearing and forgiving on her part, at least until she dumped him.
He started getting into real trouble not long after his marriage. The first time he went to prison it was on the complaint of a prostitute who was put off, not by his taste for flagellation (he didn't insist on her being whipped, and caning was pretty workaday, since it was, as it remains, a taste developed by the upper class in boarding school), but by his erotic need for blasphemy-a training manual kind of blasphemy, really, jerking off on the crucifix and suchlike. There were sever laws against that sort of thing, however, and had Sade been of a lower class he might have been executed-instead he was executed in effigy. But it was the start of a long career of imprisonment and recidivism. Sade could not contain himself; he couldn't help buggering the servants and being stupid about administering Spanish fly to whores, not more than he could help spending staggering sums on mounting extravagant theatrical productions in provincial chateaux with audiences apparently less numerous than their casts. He was impolitic, less cunning than driven, completely at the mercy of his own whims. His life was sad, confined, useless. Gray's book shows us this human side, finally a feeble and ridiculous figure but hardly lacking in complexity.
What prevented him from falling into the obscurity of a mere case study was his writing. In superficial form his works are very much of their time: Action is interleaved with endless "philosophical" prattle. They are boring: Most of what we would recognize as actual human life is conspicuously absent, and they do not feature much in the way of a dynamic; they are massively, overwhelmingly repetitive. Of course, as you will be the first to point out, they also feature the systematic exposition of every kind of cruelty, torture, infliction of pain, sexual grotesquerie, murder. You have reviewed Sade, and virtually every prominent thing that has been written about him, in your book Forbidden Knowledge, From Prometheus to Pornography (St. Martin's Press, 1996). You stop just short of recommending that his works be buried in lead-lined tanks in the Nevada desert. For you the very fact that they are so numbingly dull is a guarantee of their efficacy. They engrave themselves in the brain, you propose, so that susceptible sorts (you cite Ted Bundy and the Moors Murderer Ian Brady) are incited to go out and fuck, torture, and butcher, In your way, you respect Sade as much as every French libertine and philosophe and provocateur who ever nominated him for literary immortality.
I first read Sade in my teens, in the same way and for many of the same reasons as the majority of Sade's champions. In recovery (as the saying goes) from a strict Catholic upbringing, I wanted sin really badly. And I really tried hard with Sade. I never got far, though. I wasn't all that shocked, honestly--you dismiss analogies people have made to the accounts people have made to the accounts in martyrologies, but I assure you that early exposure to the tortures of the likes of Saint Barbara and Catherine goes a long way toward inoculating one against literary shock--but I could barely stay awake. For me now, Sade is primarily a literary curiosity, not per that euphemism "curiosa" as much as in the sense of an interesting freak. I think of Sade as a fou littéraire, a classification maniac, a peer of those epic bughouse artists like Henry Darger.
As regard the moral plane, I have enough of the Catholic remaining in me to understand why people from Petrus Borel to the Surrealists made such claims for him. Repression does breed nihilism, after all, and in a poisonous atmosphere the strongest apparent antidote will appeal the most. Sade's particular force emerged from the combination of a monstrous baby id in partnership with a sense of hereditary privilege, an impotent rage against the limitations of his actual status, and a genuine desire for freedom in the larger sense. Those things along with an unbelievable reserve of energy and the snowballing tolerance level of a compulsive masturbator (I'm sure you'll be good enough to explain why for you onanism seems to represent some unthinkable blight). As far as Sade's effect on the susceptible goes, all I can say is that one swallow (or two) does not make a summer. If we're going to judge literary works by their harvest of bloodshed, and considering the state of the world today, shouldn't we consider banning the Bible and the Koran?