Sade’s Libertinage

Portrait of Sade, age 21

Portrait of Sade, age 21, by Charles-Amédée-Philippe van Loo

The Marquis de Sade

The Marquis de Sade had his first reported “sadistic adventure” (as biographer Ronald Hayman describes it) at the age of 22, five months after his marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil. His victim (for she in no way can be called his partner, as the terrifying “adventure” took place entirely against her will) was a twenty-year-old working-class girl named Jeanne Testard, who had been given 48 livres to “put herself in the hands” of a young, anonymous man (Hayman, p. 27). Upon her arrival, Sade locked himself and Testard in a room with an assortment of birch-rods, whips, ivory crucifixes, two engravings o f Christ, one of Calvary and one of the Virgin Mary. Sade explained to the young woman that they would exchange flagellations and desecrate the crucifixes and engravings. When she refused, Sade threatened to run her through with his sword and shoot her, and she ultimately complied. When he released her, he forcedher to swear not to divulge what had happened. Within days, she had reported what he had done, and King Louis XV had him imprisoned at Vincennes. He was let go five days later, after his father, the Count de Sade, made a tearful plea to the King for his son’s release.

This first sadistic adventure and subsequent imprisonment set the tone for the rest of the Marquis de Sade’s life. He would spend upwards of thirty years confined in various prisons and asylums for crimes like the one done to Jeanne Testard. From time to time, he would be released or escape, only to be recaptured or arrested again, ultimately dying in 1814 at the age of 74 in the lunatic asylum, Charenton, after a thirteen year stay. Though literary critic Jean Paulhan (1884-1968) argues that “Sade paid [for his crimes], and paid more than his share” (Sade et al., p. 7), a full vindication of the Marquis in light of this disturbing scene is impossible. That said, the erotic nature of Sade’s works and his reputation as a criminal and sexual deviant have left him largely unknown, save for his contribution to the English language, “sadism.” Yet the complexity of his views about cruelty, desire, sexuality, nature, and, above all, liberty, warrant close analysis and deserve to be taken seriously, despite our fear and discomfort with his nihilistic “absolute vision,” as “to ignore Sade is to choose not to know part of ourselves; that inviolable part which lurks within each of us and which, eluding the light of reason, can, we have learned in this century, establish absolute evil as a rule of conduct and threaten to destroy the world” (Sade et al., xxii). Though this use of Sade refuses to endorse his violent worldview, it does allow the reader room to interact with Sade’s criticisms of the laws and conventions that regulate and prescribe human behavior, which he uses to renegotiate the boundaries of morality in the pursuit of a new conception of freedom.

Philosophy in the Bedroom: A Summary

Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795) is made up of seven dialogues, with a long political treatise at the heart of dialogue give entitled “Yet Another Effort, Frenchmen, If You Would Become Republicans.” The dialogues begin in the home of Madame de Saint-Ange, who waits with Le Chevalier de Miravel for her brother, Dolmancé, to arrive with young Eugenie, the daughter of an aristocrat that the libertines have been charged with “educating.” Immediately upon her arrival, her education begins, and the following dialogues graphically describe the increasingly violent and depraved sex acts she performs with the others . Throughout the dialogues, Dolmancé delivers philosophical and political speeches designed to explain the thought behind libertinage, which he sees as the only suitable moral framework after the French Revolution. In the final scene, Eugenie’s mother arrives to retriever her daughter, finding her newly “educated” in libertinage. Eugenie, with the help of the other libertines, violates and mutilates her mother.

Sade’s Literary Context: Libertinage and Materialist Atheism

Sade’s work comes out of a tradition of libertine literature, which, dating back to the mid-seventeenth century, was well-established by the time he began writing. Earlier works in the tradition, though they were significantly less extreme than Sade’s own, often used obscenity “as a satirical weapon to castigate a corrupt clergy and a decadent aristocracy” (Phillips, p. 8). Though Sade’s work cannot be described as taking aim at these two classes alone (for he attacks many more groups than these, including, I would argue, the libertines themselves), understanding the satirical nature of libertine writing is helpful in dealing with Sade’s “more horrif[ying]” (ibid., p. 8) version of libertinage. In addition to his literary context, Sade’s work was also greatly influenced by material atheism, which understands humans as simply matter in motion, functioning like all other Enlightenment-era mechanisms. Though it is unclear whether Sade himself fully prescribed to this doctrine, many of his characters are at their most unsettling when giving eloquent and nihilistic speeches about the “dark side of the Enlightenment” (ibid., p. 9) in which a God-centered, universalistic morality has been lost, leading to a human-centered amorality focused on rooting out all lingering moral habits and exploring the limits of human capacities.

Libertine Happiness and the Denial of Rationality

The essence of Sade’s libertinage and materialist atheism is captured in his dedication of Philosophy in the Bedroom, “To Libertines.” He begins:

Voluptuaries of all ages, of every sex, it is to you only that I offer this work; nourish yourselves upon its principles: they favor your passions, and these passions, whereof coldly insipid moralists put you in fear, are naught but the means Nature employs to bring man to the ends she prescribes to him; harken only to these delicious promptings, for no voice save that of the passions can conduct you to happiness (Sade, p. 185).

In suggesting that the principles contained in Philosophy in the Bedroom are “nourish[ing],” Sade suggests that the sexual excesses described and pursued by the libertines in the dialogues provide a value that the “insipid moralists” would otherwise deny them, namely, happiness. By brining happiness into the realm of physical passions, Sade denies the traditional Western belief that happiness is a condition of the rational and moral soul rather than of a body experiencing pleasure.  With this, Sade directly refutes Plato’s understanding of the mind-body question, which finds the body to be primarily an obstacle in the way of the rational soul’s ability to achieve moral knowledge. Sade inverts Platonic rationality, using it instead as a means of justifying libertinage and physical pleasure as more sincere forms of happiness.

Sade’s use of the dialogue form also mocks Western ideas of happiness and its relationship to morality. Plato uses the Socratic dialectic as the sole means of acquiring moral knowledge. Similarly, Rousseau, in his Social Contract (1762), emphasizes the utter importance of open dialogue to a successful democracy, arguing that it was the only way to arrive at an understanding of the common good. Sade’s use of dialogue is, by contrast, ineffective in uncovering moral knowledge. Though Dolmancé often gives extensive, quasi-rational speeches justifying libertinage, Eugenie’s education is above all a physical one. The rational justifications of libertinage pique her curiosity, but her transformation into a libertine requires the physical, sexual experience she acquires. Moreover, Sade satirizes the use of dialogue by emphasizing how ineffective it is in writing erotica. Unlike his other erotic works like Justine (1791) and Juliette (1797), which use narratives to describe sex acts in incredible (and often disturbing) detail, Philosophy in the Bedroom employs only brief stage directions that intentionally and consistently lack detail. An example: “Augustin, Dolmancé and the Chevalier act in chorus [of ejaculating]; the fear of appearing monotonous prevents us from recording expressions which, upon such occasions, are all very apt to resemble one another” (Sade, p. 272). In another scene, Sade similarly emphasizes the physicality of libertine education by forcing the reader to create and imagine the acts themselves. This time, he does so by outright denying the reader access to some unspeakable crime that the libertines commit:

DOLMANCÉ, in a low and mysterious tone – No; there are certain things which strictly require to be veiled.

EUGENIE – Ah, by God, tell us what you’d be about!


MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE – Is there, do you think, any conceivable infamy we are not worthy to heart of and execute?

LE CHEVALIER – Wait, sister. I’ll tell you. (He whispers to the two women.)

EUGENIE, with a look of revulsion – You are right, ’tis hideous.

MADAME DE SAINT-ANGE – Why, I suspected as much (Sade, p. 348).

By intentionally employing vague stage directions and by leaving out an entire physical act, Sade engages the reader’s creativity and imagination, forcing him to take part in constructing the highly physical process of libertine education. Sade invites the reader in the same way Dolmancé and Madame de Saint-Ange invite Eugenie to be creative in imagining new crimes, continually searching for taboos to break and new excesses to achieve.

Poster for Pasolini's Saló (1975)

Poster for Pasolini’s Saló (1975)


Sade and the Fascist Accusation

Pier Pasolini’s 1975 film, Saló, or the 120 Days of Sodom, juxtaposes Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom with Mussolini’s fascist regime. The film depicts a group of libertine Italian aristocrats kidnapping 18 teenage boys and girls in order to inflict on them four months of sadistic sexual, physical and psychological torture. Aside from its commentary on the fascist Italian regime, the film also underscores the uneasiness that all readers of Sade experience on the topics of sadistic violence and consent.

Though Dolmancé’s political treatise in the fifth dialogue moves in and out of being a sarcastic evaluations of the political orators that were so prevalent during the Revolution, it also serves as an argument against fascist and totalitarian ideas, advocating instead for the minimal interference by religion and propriety with individual liberty. For Sade, who spent more than thirty years of his life imprisoned for sex crimes, sexual liberties were especially important to protect him in his hypothetical political scheme. Yet Sade was not sent to prison solely for the nature of the acts he committed, but also for the fact that he committed them against unwilling women who then reported him for his attacks. Thus, Sade’s understanding of “sexual liberties,” in order to absolve him, require more than the mere allowance for consensual, sadistic acts.

Sade and Consent

But Sade’s opinions and goals are not as straightforward or easily accessible as I have just made them sound. There is not necessarily an indication (especially looking to his biography and the crimes he committed) that he has any interest in constructing a system that praises consent. That said, he does seem to have some ideas about the role libertinage and a general loosening of sexual mores would have on sex crimes. Madame de Saint-Ange, in a long speech to Eugenie praising libertinage, describes the frustration that public opinion creates for libertines:

So long as the laws remain such as they are today, employ some discretion [in committing sexual acts]: loud opinion forces us to do so; but in privacy and silence let us compensate ourselves for that cruel chastity we are obliged to display in public (Sade, p. 220).

Here, Madame de Saint-Ange might be understood as imagining in contrast to a world in which libertinage was not so vehemently persecuted. In this hypothetical structure, it might be the case that, because libertinage is more normal, consent would be more widely given, and, moreover, because more people would be involved in the constant renegotiation of moral boundaries and social mores, the institutions that currently restrict individual desires and actions would deteriorate, allowing for personal liberties to more easily and more sincerely executed. But this argument is not very convincing, as the libertines of Philosophy in the Bedroom undeniably find some inherent erotic value in committing acts that transgress against social norms. Moreover, the violence that the libertines commit against Eugenie’s mother (a symbol of propriety and chastity) demonstrate that, even if libertinage were widespread, there would not necessarily be either less violence or more consent, as the acts they desire to commit often require unwilling victims who are permanently damaged by the experience.

Concluding Thoughts

Libertinage represents the desire to transgress social, moral and sexual boundaries indiscriminately in the name of exploring human limitations. The libertine is by necessity profoundly anti-social. The status of the Marquis de Sade’s libertinage is difficult to pin down. Sometimes, he mocks the libertines, other times he glorifies them, and indeed Sade is often inconsistent and resistant to classification. It seems to me that Peter Brook gave the most compelling depiction of Sade that I’ve come across in his 1967 film, Marat/Sade. In this film, he has Sade say, “I don’t believe in idealists who charge down blind alleys. I don’t believe in any of the sacrifices that have been made for any cause. I believe only in myself.” It is this solipsism, a trait in itself transgressive, and the inconsistencies it produces that make Sade interesting as he deflates seemingly every ideology that presents itself to him. It is this elusiveness that makes Sade a fascinating and terrifying character.


A link to Marat/Sade, which is probably the most interesting film I’ve ever seen. (I won’t post a link to Saló because it’s totally horrifying.)


Beauvoir, Simone. Must We Burn Sade? London: Peter Nevill Ltd., 1953. Print.

Hayman, Ronald. De Sade: A Critical Biography. New York: Thomas Y. Cromwell, 1978. Print.

Marat/Sade. By Adrian Mitchell. Dir. Peter Brook. Prod. Michael Birkett. Perf. Glenda Jackson, Ian Richardson and Patrick Magee. United Artists, 1967. Posted to Youtube by user Fidelis Scardanelli, 18 Oct. 2012. Web. 6 May 2014.

Phillips, John. How to Read Sade. London: Granta Books, 2005. Print.

Sade, Richard Seaver, Jean Paulhan, Maurice Blanchot, and Austryn Wainhouse. The Marquis de Sade: The Complete Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. New York: Grove Press, 1965. Print.

Saló o Le 120 Giornate di Sodoma. By Pier Pasolini and Sergio Citti. Dir. Pier Pasolini. Prod. Alberto Grimaldi. Perf. Paolo Bonacelli and Caterina Boratto. Les Productions Artistes Associés, 1975. DVD.


Posted by ER


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