On this day in 1777, the infamous writer and arch-Libertarian the Marquis de Sade was arrested and imprisoned at the Vincennes Fortress near Paris. It marked the beginning of his most fertile period of writing, for it was while incarcerated that he produced his best-known and most notorious works.
Comte Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade was born in Paris in 1740 into a well-connected family. Long before his arrest in 1777, the Marquis courted controversy and scandal. His penchant for the perverse became apparent soon after his marriage to Renée-Pélagie de Montreuil in 1763. An affair with the actress and courtesan La Beauvoisin commenced less than a year after the wedding, and he was frequently involved with prostitutes.
Allegations of abuse and sexual deviance were regularly made against the Marquis. “Companions” of both sexes accused him of perverse and violent acts against them, and he soon gained the attention of the authorities. After facing a number of allegations of assault and indecency, the Marquis was arrested and sent to Vincennes, in the hope that this would dissuade him from further misdemeanor. However, his short spell of imprisonment only seemed to intensify his debauched nature.
In 1768, he was once again behind bars following the Rose Keller affair. He was found guilty of imprisoning the young prostitute and subjecting her to repeated acts of sexual violence. Over the years that followed other allegations of sexual misconduct were made, and faced with execution, the Marquis went into exile.
He returned to France in 1776, but was unable to avoid the attentions of the law. An ill-advised trip to Paris saw the Marquis arrested in February 1777, and he found himself back in Vincennes. He successfully argued against his death sentence, but could not avoid a long period of confinement.
It was during this period that his political conscience grew and his pen came to the fore. First in Vincennes, and later in the Bastille, he produced drafts of two of his most celebrated works, the erotic Justine, and his apocalyptic portrayal of sexual obsession, The 120 Days of Sodom.
De Sade was released from the Bastille soon after the French Revolution of 1789. For his opposition to the ancient regime he was made a delegate of the National Convention, but his uncompromising nature was such that he soon fell out with his colleagues. Continuing to write works that divulged his sexual interests, he found himself in and out of prison and asylums for the rest of his life.
De Sade remains a figure of considerable intrigue. Aspects of his beliefs were far ahead of their time, and have been described as preempting the ideas of socialism. In other ways his outlook suggests an alternative philosophy: he was the ultimate small-government libertarian, staunch advocate of the individual, and enemy of state interference. For most, however, it is not his political foresight that resonates today. Such was the nature of his attitude towards all things carnal, that his primary legacy is his association with violence and perversion, his conviction that sexual deviance is a fundamental aspect of human nature, and lending his name to the word “sadism.”
Photo Credit: © Chris Hellier/Corbis
Photo Caption: A sculpture of the Marquis de Sade by Alexandre Bourganov outside Château Lacoste in the Luberon, Provence, France.