Den andra delen av tre i bloggens serie av (påtvingat) engelskspråkiga essäer om udda fenomen under det glada 1700-talet, ursprungligen skrivna för första numret av Vogue Scandinavia.

The Mercy of a Monster or What Would You Do if You Could Kill Your Mother-in-Law?

I was troubled child, shy, nervous, insecure and anxious. Not for any apparent reason. My parents loved and cared for me, and no tangible dangers ever cast their shadow over my middle-class upbringing in a prosperous Stockholm suburb in the 1980’s, an era which through a lens blurred with childish nostalgia seems like a golden age, where Sweden reigned supreme as a welfare utopia; a shining example to lesser nations; world leader in every relevant societal parameter you could wish to measure, be it education, health care, equality, morality. We had Björn Borg and Ingemar Stenmark to boot. And yet, something was up with pale little Niklas. 

Part of the magic of literature is that it allows us to tread dangerous ground in the safety of our own homes. Reading lets you process unresolved emotions, explore taboos. Gradually, you may get to know yourself better. To come to terms with my fears, I sought horror. Horror of a kind I could accommodate. It proved highly therapeutic to me, and whatever issues I had started to scab over. But it seems a human trait to always hunger for more, search out bigger kicks. What lurks beyond Clive Barker, Dennis Cooper, Cormac McCarthy, HP Lovecraft? What’s the darkest, most extreme fiction ever written? And that’s how I came to meet the marquis de Sade, Donatien-Alphonse-François by first name. I think that’s how everyone meets him. He won’t be stumbled upon, no chance meeting – there are mechanisms in place to prevent that from happening. You have to seek him out.

Donatien-Alphonse-François was born in 1740, scion of an ancient house of French nobility. By all accounts, his life was one of hedonism, although, it must be said, hardly in line with the clinical term that the afterworld was to derive from his name: sadism. Upbringing was strict; the child described as hot-headed, the Jesuit discipline of his school years – same school as Voltaire, incidentally – calling for severe beatings as chastisement, of which the temperamental boy had more than his fair share. After a brief military career, including participation in the Seven Years’ War, he married. The marriage was typical of the time: The growing bourgeoisie wanted to improve the status of their families, while the nobility saw their fortunes dwindling generation by generation, and sought marriage to reline their coffers. So the rich magistrate’s daughter Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil hitched her wagon to the declining Sade family by way of 23-year-old D-A-F. Her groom would soon prove less than ideal, spending much time in Paris as a regular customer of the brothels. Neither did he limit himself to prostitutes: He absconded with Renée-Pélagie’s younger sister to Venice.

In 1772 Sade finally crossed a line. He was accused of poisoning some prostitutes with pralines laced with the infamous spanish fly – an aphrodisiac – causing severe stomach pains, and due to their testimony, was also charged with sodomy, this later offense allegedly committed with his manservant Latour. He managed to escape the clutch of the powers-that-be until the case could be settled out of court, secluded himself in the family estate at Lacoste, and turned the castle into a veritable seraglio, abusing the ever-changing staff to the point that the father of one girl sought him out, leveled a gun at him at point-blank range, but suffered a misfire. Nevertheless, it would seem his fortune and status were enough to keep him safe. There was one, however, who would not allow his debauchery to continue unchecked: His mother-in-law, the formidable madame de Montreuil. This was not what she had signed up for; the complete opposite, rather. The liason with the Sade dynasty should serve to elevate her own family – instead, they found themselves dragged ever deeper into scandal. She decided to act.

Madame de Montreuil managed to gain audience with the king himself, and told her story passionately enough to acquire a lettre de cachet, a royal order for the arrest and incarceration of Donatien-Alphonse-François, no questions asked, no charge needed. Next, she lured him to Paris, using her son-in-law’s own mother’s recent death as bait. The trap sprung. He was apprehended. He would spend the next thirteen years behind bars, with no course of appeal. There was, after all, no conviction, no trial, and no court.

What is generally considered the magnum opus of the marquis de Sade was written in the Bastille during this stint, with miniscule handwriting on on a twelve meter long, eleven centimeter wide roll of paper, glued together from smaller pieces smuggled into his cell one at a time. The title is The 120 Days of Sodom. I have by no means read all of the Sade oevre, but from what I have, I agree with the evaluation, for a number of reasons. For one, it is by far the most extreme thing he has written, and its edge is not even a little blunted by the passing of the years, so, fellow bottom-feeders, here it is in all its glory: the Mariana Trench of prose. Second, it is not finished, and yet, quite enough so. The lack of suitable writing materials led to a strange compromise, where the first part is finished in full, and the following three parts are only outlined. Not many authorships would benefit from such circumstances, but Sade’s is an exception. He is quite an ordeal to read, you see. Generally, you’re looking at long-winded philosophical arguments which all eventually turn into equally long-winded orgies (Juliette, published in 1799, clocks in at some 1 200 pages). Speaking as a apprehensive genre-mixer myself, this particular one seems a perfect storm to insure limited readership: The ones who came for the pornography tend to be put off by the ten-page rants on atheism, and vice versa. I sense you’re in need of an example, and I’m happy to oblige, if I may come with a suggestion as well. Should Netflix ever fail to entertain, gather a few friends around a table with good wine and some snacks, distribute the parts of Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795), handily written mostly as a dialogue, and have a communal reading, why don’t you. Good times will be had by all. Here’s an excerpt from a page chosen at random:

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE — Are my buttocks where you wish them, Dolmancé? Ah, my angel, if you but knew how much I desire you, how long I have been waiting to be buggered by a sodomite!

DOLMANCE — Thy will shall be done, Madame; but suffer me to halt an instant at my idol’s feet; I would praise it before entering into the depths of the sanctuary… What a divine ass is this!… let me kiss it! let me lick it, lick it a thousand times over and a thousand more!… Here, that’s the prick you yearn for!… Dost feel it, bitch? Tell me, say, dost feel it penetrate?…

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE — Oh, drive it to darkness in my bowels!… Oh sweet lechery, what is your empire!

DOLMANCE — ‘Tis an ass such as never in my days have I fucked; worthy of Ganymede himself!

That’s Sade in light entertainment mode. In the infinitely less palatable The 120 Days of Sodom, four wealthy libertines, each representing one branch of earthly power, retire to a remote castle along with several abducted victims, who will be increasingly violated during a four-month period where ever more extreme “passions” are explored. Few live to tell the tale. The first, completed, part offers diatribe after diatribe of Sade’s usual obsessions: The absurdity of religion, the hypocrisy of good deeds, the state of amorality that is nature’s and should therefore be mankind’s. Our inherent monstrosity, and how only fools strive to repress it. Sade is not without points. He tends to be overlooked as a philosopher not only due to the distracting nature of his writings, but because his works were successfully censored, and largely didn’t reach the mainstream until well into the 20th century. His main accomplishment, to my mind, is pointing out a major flaw of the Enlightenment, one that haunts us to this day: if we are to disperse with religion and worship only reason, we will find that reason has no inherent morality. There’s nothing unreasonable about arguing in favor of a murder you can profit by and get away with. Or invading Poland for that matter. And so forth.

So, Sade spent thirteen of the best years of his life in a damp cell, raging through whatever writing utensils he could scavenge, growing bitter and obese. He lingered long enough for the wheel of fortune to do a half turn. The French Revolution came with the storming of the Bastille (from where the marquis had ironically been moved only ten days earlier). All prisoners of the toppled regime must now be heroes, no? In particular those incarcerated by explicit order of the king himself? Even an aristocrat like Sade. And so, he was let loose in blood-soaked Paris, soon atremble under the falling blade of the guillotine. He used the few means left at his disposal – his education and his pen – and found the revolution had uses also for men of letters. Soon, he held a seat in the National Convention. He became president of the Piques section, infamous for their radical views, with power over life and death. And in the summer of 1793, a document landed on his desk. It was the proposed order of execution of his mother-in-law, madame de Montreuil, the woman who had cost him thirteen years of his life. All it lacked was his signature. Revenge at last.

Sade didn’t sign. At the meeting where the matter was discussed, he went so far as to threaten to resign rather than put ink to paper, this during the Reign of Terror where the least whiff of disloyalty could cost one one’s head. He saved her life, at the risk of his own. Why? What was his thinking? We’ll never know for sure.

The scroll containing the original draft of The 120 Days of Sodom was put up for auction in early 2021. The auction was stopped by intervention of the French government, who demanded the option to buy back what was now described as a national treasure, “the black sun of literature”. The scroll had remained hidden in Sade’s cell in the Bastille when the marquis was moved, found, removed and salvaged by a prison guard two days before the storming. For more than a hundred years, it was a candle in the wind, until finally being transcribed and published in 1904. The scroll itself remained in private hands, once stolen and resold, ever increasing in value as Sade’s fame rose. Now, the price tag is 4,5 million euro, a sum so large the state has agreed to tax deductions for companies willing to assist in financing the purchase.

An astute biographer has pointed out that the greatest threat to the understanding of Sade in the modern age has hardly been censorship, but rather the advocacy of some of his more rabid fans, who tend to perpetuate various misconceptions. A popular Sade myth states that he was still working on The 120 Days of Sodom as he was rushed from his cell, howling with rage over his stolen treasure, and that that is the reason for the work never being properly finished. That is not the truth, though. The truth is he abandoned the writing of it altogether several years earlier, in that same cell. Perhaps he just didn’t have the stomach for it.

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