Declining de Sade

December 2: On this day in 1814 the Marquis de Sade died at the age of seventy-four. The last days of de Sade's twenty-seven years of confinement were spent pretty much routinely, writing protest notes and contriving assignations with his latest and final inamorata, a seventeen-year-old laundress at the Charenton asylum. This journal entry wonders at the girl's "coldness," this one hopes that her vow to be only his is sincere, this one fears that she and her mother are just after the 3 francs per visit. De Sade's will, written a decade earlier but in full knowledge of his likely fate, asked for no "pomp of any kind," his body to be buried in a specific copse on the family estate. The will's details indicate that the man who had become a byword for all things unnatural hoped to be returned to nature and oblivion:

Once the grave has been covered over, it shall be strewn with acorns so that eventually the site of said grave will be refilled, and the copse will grow as thickly as before, so that the traces of my grave will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I trust my memory will disappear from the memory of men....

De Sade scholars point out that, although never forgotten, his life has not always been remembered in the same way. In the first decades after his death, he was as much a pariah as when alive, but with the official entry of sadisme into French dictionaries in 1834, there was a gradual shift away from the horrible man to the horrible but interesting books. With the Romantic fringe, and then the Surrealists, the vilification shifted to deification, with de Sade portrayed as a champion of boundary-pushing, or anarchy. For the 20th-century psychologists, many of whom take a Freudian approach, de Sade has become a popular case study. In Francine du Plessix Gray's recent and nicely titled At Home with the Marquis de Sade, the rebel-hero is also a big baby who "howled like an infant to be readmitted to the paradise of instant gratification, constantly schemed for yet stronger orgasms, yet more baroque choreographies of desire." In Quills, Doug Wright's award-winning play (then popular 2000 movie) Doug Wright says that he was trying to teach today's college kids that de Sade was "the original rebel, before Eminem and Marilyn Manson."


Daybook is contributed by Steve King, who teaches in the English Department of Memorial University in St. John's, Newfoundland. His literary daybook began as a radio series syndicated nationally in Canada. He can be found online at todayinliterature.com.

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