December 02, 2022


December 2 is the anniversary of the death of Donatien Alphonse François (1740), also known as the Marquis de Sade. 

He is the namesake of the term sadism coined by psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in 1886 (for more on Herr Doktor, see sadomasochism). Like masochism (also coined by Krafft-Ebing and named for Leopold von Sacher-Masoch), the Marquis de Sade was a literary inspiration. He was a revolutionary French novelist whose dogged attainment of personal pleasure resulted in his spending nearly half of his life in prisons and insane asylums.

Webster’s New Universal Unabridged Dictionary defines sadism as “the getting of sexual pleasure from dominating, mistreating, or hurting one’s partner, physically or otherwise.” Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was born into Paris high society in 1740. Before writing the novels that would explore the libertine pursuits of bestiality, necrophilia, and juvenile rape, the young Sade had an aristocratic upbringing, alternating between the titles comte (count) and marquis (marquess) and rising to the rank of colonel during the sweeping Seven Years’ War. Despite marriage and the arrival of three children, Sade gained notoriety in Paris for his frequent employment and (especially) abuse of young prostitutes, resulting in his nearly constant surveillance by the police.

After being imprisoned several times, accused of the then serious crime of blasphemy, and widely rumored to be having an affair with his wife’s sister, Sade was exiled to his château at Lacoste in Provence in 1768, the year after his father’s death. Deeper scandal ensued later that year when a young woman (perhaps a prostitute) claimed she was imprisoned and sexually abused by him before escaping through a second-story window. Four years later, he and a male servant were forced to flee to Italy (with his wife’s sister) after in absentia convictions and death sentences for sodomy and the near-fatal poisoning of several prostitutes with a supposed aphrodisiac. More upset by his extramarital affair than by his more colorful exploits, his mother-in-law obtained a royal order of arrest and imprisonment.

After five years of secretive return trips to Lacoste punctuated by repeated accusations of sexual mistreatment by young employees (the father of one nearly succeeded in shooting the marquis at point-blank range), Sade was eventually arrested and imprisoned. He successfully appealed his death sentence but still spent eleven years behind bars and was transferred from the Bastille to an insane asylum a mere ten days before the storming of the famed prison on July 14, 1789—the start of the French Revolution. He was ultimately released a year later, and his wife divorced him soon after.

Sade wrote most of his most controversial fiction while in the Bastille, including The 120 Days of Sodom, which catalogs the horrific exploits of four aristocrats who seal themselves in a castle for four months with four prostitutes and forty-six teenagers whom they sexually abuse and torture before slaughtering them. Likewise, Justine and Juliette chronicle the experiences of two sisters. Justine is the virtuous one, forced to become a sex slave in a monastery and eventually struck by lightning. Juliette, in contrast, is a nymphomaniac who enjoys an orgy with the pope and dies happy.

As with Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and masochism, the Austrian psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing felt that Sade and his writings represented the embodiment of the sexual pathology that enjoys gratification from domination and abuse. Nearly seventy-five years after the Marquis de Sade’s death, Krafft-Ebing coined the term sadism in his landmark Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886. Sigmund Freud eventually noted that tendencies toward sadism and masochism are often found in the same individuals and thus created the term sadomasochism (commonly, S&M).

Most of Sade’s descendants have vigorously tried to dissociate themselves from his name, with the exception of the Comte Xavier de Sade, who found a trunk of letters and manuscripts in 1948 that he allowed to be published over the next twelve years, renewing attention in the controversial author in the 1960s.

After his initial release from the asylum, Sade himself became a political radical during the guillotine-crazed Reign of Terror following the French Revolution. However, despite publishing both Justine and Juliette anonymously after his release from the Bastille, his identity was discovered by Napoleon, who had him incarcerated for the remainder of his life—first in prison and then, after Sade attempted to seduce young fellow prisoners, again in an insane asylum. Sade started an affair with the daughter of a worker at the asylum that lasted four years until his death in 1814. She was thirteen years old.