Reviews and Critiques by Rictor Norton

The divine marquis

A review of De Sade: A Critical Biography by Ronald Hayman (Constable, 1978)

It looks as though the Marquis de Sade has definitely earned his niche in the Gallery of Gay Rogues. I used to think he was merely a pansexual pervert, but this book demonstrates that the receiving of homosexual pleasures was as much a part of his libertinage as the giving of heterosexual pain.

This could be inferred from Sade's novels, in which he shows a marked prefence for (heterosexual) anal intercourse and bestows praise upon his substantively homosexual heroes, but his could be argued to be purely imaginative. Ronald Hayman makes it clear, however, that Sade's own activities closely mirrored those of his characters, although his victims seldom died as the result of his attacks. Specifically, he frequently gathered together a group of prostitutes, and whipped and buggered them violently while being simultaneously buggered by his valet – while uttering foul imprecations atgainst the Almighty and spitting upon a crucifix. To his own chateau at Lacoste – like his fictional libertines with their unlimited harems in inaccessible chateaux – Sade brought both men and women from the local village, and was said to have given himself up to excesses with young people of both sexes. In general, his sadism was heterosexual, while his masochism was homosexual.

Such debaucheries did not last long, for Sade was first imprisoned at the age of 30, and was to be incarcerated for some 25 of his remaining 50 years of life. His fanatical mother-in-law Mme de Montreuil, hypocritically intent upon revenging the honour of her daughter, had obtained from the King a lettre de cachet which enabled her to have Sade imprisoned without trial for an indefinite period. The irony is that her daughter, Sade's "long-suffering wife", was even madder than he: she variously took part in the orgies, went off to live in a convent, condemned his cruelties, beger his forgiveness, brought a law suit against her mother, and was very nearl as reckless as he, and much more mixed-up.

The effects of Sade's long confinements were ill health, corpulence, masturbation and the development of a literary talent. The 120 Days of Sodom catalogues hundreds of sexual horrors in a compulsive manner, and were obviously influenced by the need to provide fantasy aids to masturbation in prison, but I cannot accept, as does Hayman, that this is the entire explanation for even his other erotic works.

Sade was a philosophe in the Age of Reason, and Hayman's rather conventional analysis of him as "a savage pervert" is less than illuminating. I have always felt that the world's fascination with Sade lay precisely in the fact that he was not mad. Even the head of Charenton asylum where he ended his life admitted this, and it is clear that Sade was never a raving lunatic. His entirely rational defence of the "basest" of human instaincts, his cynicism, and even his blasphemy were characteristic of the age. And to suggest that the repetitiveness of his erotica proves his mental imbalance is to ignore the fact that all pornography in all ages is equally repetitive.

The "critical" part of Hayman's biography is frankly a bit pedestrian and naive, with borrowings from a superficial reading of Freud. He tends to construct straw men to prove his point that Sade's attitude to morality was ambivalent: thus his use of the word "heavenly" to describe a heroine's features is taken by Hayman as evidence that Sade's atheism is inconsistent, rathan than as the more commonplace fact that Sade often used literary cliches. In sum, this book does not fill any gaps left untouched byi previous biographies or literary appreciations.

Rictor Norton

(This review was originally published in Gay News no. 149 in 1978, p. 27. Copyright Rictor Norton. All rights reserved. Reproduction for sale or profit prohibited.)

Return to Reviews and Critiques
Return to Gay History and Literature