The Marquis de Sade, Father of Modern France

De Sade
Might have been perfectly glad
To have had as his hassock

I love France.

And I love Paris. It doesn’t matter how Disneyfied it gets; it remains the world’s capital, the measure of all cities, and not just for me. In the Middle East they call Beirut “the Paris of the Mediterranean.” They used to, anyway. In Asia Shanghai is
the Paris of the East. In America Montreal is “the Paris of the North.” “When good Americans die,” as Oscar said, “they go to Paris.” And so do bad Irishmen: Oscar is buried there.

And I love the French. Sort of. Their style, their indolence, their cuisine…so much about them endears them to one. But they are not, it must be admitted, sweet-natured. Not warm. They are, to use their own phrase, le peuple le plus désagréable du monde, même entre eux—the snarkiest people in the world, even to each other.

How did this happen? Were they always like that? Is it, as so much is these days, genetic? (See My Racial Profile.) If not, what, or who, could be the cultural antecedent of this manner?

Is it Rabelais, father of the long lunch? “Frugality,” he said, “is for the vulgar.”
My kind of guy. “It is godlike to lend, but to owe is a heroic virtue.”
When he came to die he left this will: “I have nothing; I owe much. I leave the rest to the poor.”

No, there’s too much generosity of spirit there. It can’t be him.

Is it Montaigne, whose suave self-contemplation supplanted the wisdom of the ancients? Too mild. Too tolerant. And he was so deeply inhaled by Shakespeare that we tend to think of him as an Englishman.

Molière, then? That comic genius? No no no, too free of heart. Too funny. (Note though the remark in his Dom Juan that a peasant girl is at a disadvantage compared to a Parisienne, who need only adjust her coiffure to sharpen her allure. Ah, Paris!)

Voltaire? The wit, the very soul of the Enlightenment? "The trouble with honest people is that they're cowards." Hey! Almost! But no, he's simply too polite.

It cannot have been Rousseau, who loved nature and found it morally good. De Sade quashed that: “Nature averse to crime? I tell you that nature lives and breathes by it, hungers at all her pores for bloodshed, yearns with all her heart for the furtherance of cruelty!”

So it’s not Rousseau. No, it’s the Marquis himself. With him something enters French culture that had not been there before. Suzanne in Diderot’s The Nun suffers, it’s true, including erotic molestation by the Mother Superior, but she is rescued, and never submits.  And Rétif de la Bretonne (he and de Sade hated one another) gave his name to the shoe fetish, known now as retifisme.
We like these on you, girls. We love to see you helpless.

But only the Marquis gives us the whole deal: "There is no more lively sensation than that of pain; its impressions are certain and dependable—they never deceive as may those of the pleasure women perpetually feign and almost never experience." Not a bad psychologist. Cheer up, guys.

After him we get a new cruelty in French culture. I don’t mean Balzac and his books for twelve-year-olds, his gosh-isn’t-it-great manner; or even the torture that is axiomatic in Hugo’s novels.

I don’t just mean Delacroix and his orgiastic scenes of rape and slaughter—

—or the enthusiasm for women of color shown by Baudelaire, Gauguin and Rimbaud, meant to dramatize their, how shall I say, focus, not to say their dominance.

I mean the merciless exposure to which her author subjects Emma Bovary. She, a fool, and her husband, a fool—a doctor, no less, who bungles an operation on his clubfooted patient and causes his leg to be amputated—scurry like bugs under Flaubert’s microscope, his heart as neutral as glass. As Erich Auerbach said, their “world consists of pure stupidity.”  Even the title is a sarcasm, “Madame Bovary,” as if the poor girl were the lady she longs to be. 

Shaved his short hair
And reclined in the raw:
“Madame Bovary, c’est mwaw.”

And what is there, outside of the Marquis, to match her suicide, writhing in agony for days with arsenic in her belly? Anna got it over faster by throwing herself under train wheels; what a moment that must have been. Bad women must be punished, sure, I understand that, but for Emma it’s drawn out to what can only be described as sadistic length.

Here starts an entire mode of narrative. Flaubert’s protégé de Maupassant despises his characters, jeers at them. I love Proust as much as you do, but I want to be at eye-level with Swann; of course he’s a chump, who isn’t, but I don’t want always to be scoffing at him, always to be looking down at him through the Flaubertian lens. 

Has the flaw
That the earthy passages that should make me drool

Just make me want to fish my jeans out of his pool.

Emma has many heirs, like Séverine in Belle de Jour, also married to a doctor. We may consider Bunuel because he regarded Paris as the capital of Spain, even before Franco. Indeed the Marquis makes personal appearances in two of his films, and Severine gets the whipping she dreams of. But not the life.

Torture had always been used for political purposes, as we use it now. The Church used it for religious purposes, but then religion is politics (I propose this as a definition). De Sade's innovation is to have used it for sexual purposes.

He is not spooked by age; his ramrod hero the Duc de Blangis is fifty. Nor is he just a master, like Nietszche; he submits to the whip himself, and Blangis regularly has himself sodomized.

There is no superego in de Sade, no conscience, no heart to be appealed to; this is his fascination and his insolence, and makes him royally dangerous. And, yes, the heart is tricky; it believes anything.

On the other hand he identifies himself with nature, rather like Byron with the raging storm—magnificent, but faintly disappointing; why identify with anything? He supposes his sex drive to be larger than ours—how dare he! And his assumption that tenderness is cowardice doesn't fit quite comfortably, not that he cares for comfort.

But his real sin, if I may so put it, is his seriousness. Libertinage and perversion are fine old traditions, but Casanova and the Earl of Rochester laugh at themselves. You won't find many laughs in the Marquis. He is a man of commitment. And then, once the orgasm is over, we're left standing around in our leathers.

The Marquis was in many ways the pride of his species;
I just hope he flossed after gobbling those feces.

It is almost precious that he is vulnerable to jealousy: "She who, either in seeking base revenge or, what can be even more sordid, out of a gross and vulgar urge to satisfy her carnal appetites, gives herself wantonly to a footman—"  But let us draw a veil over the rest of this discourse.

Quite apart from torture, he—more than Freud, before Freud—made sex the content of every gesture. Like Freud he advised resisting the superego (though he wants virtue to exist, or we'll miss the pleasure of violating it), and Miller and Lawrence regarded him as the real liberator. He sponsored the passionate commitment to the carnal that we have in Genet, Duras and Robbe-Grillet. In what other country are there erotic writers of such stature?

A journalist at a press conference accused President Mitterand of having, not only a mistress, but a daughter by her. "Et puis?" he shrugged. "So?" End of story; not even a follow-up. In America he'd have had to go on TV and say he was abused as a child, not that it would halt the impeachment.

One pictures Strauss-Kahn leaping nude from single bed to single bed and throwing himself on a serving wench. (Did he, however, force his shah into an unwelcoming oral cavity? The portcullis comes down and then where are you?) It’s all the Marquis, my darlings.

“Orgasm and sarcasm,” as Woody Allen sums up the French, and they're related: if the former is your reality, how much patience do you have with anything beyond the enticements of coiffure and couture?

The French critic Roland Barthes said that “teasing is a sadistic passion,” and this, comic writer that I am, draws me to him (de Sade, not Barthes). I’ve been thrown out of bars for teasing. Kicked out of bed. Made to stand in corners. Can’t resist. 

I used to be a semiologist
But now I’m not Saussure.

It can be embarrassing for the Anglo-trained male to realize that French women, I don't hesitate to generalize, expect you to enjoy hurting them. They don't enjoy it themselves, necessarily, but they expect you to. Gosh. They really are different people, and they regard us, with some justice, as children.

The Marquis could never have been an American. Manson's efforts achieved for him only a kind of psychiatric sainthood. The psychopath is a stock American figure, at least from Ahab on, and few Hollywood movies are without one. But de Sade was in the Bastille so his family could guard its reputation, and in the Charenton asylum so the Revolution could distance itself from his writings. He wasn’t a psycho.

I often think that Shakespeare lies behind the Anglo-Saxon success, just as Homer lay behind the Graeco-Roman one. Alexander slept with the Iliad beside his bed; he wanted to be Achilles; Caesar wanted to be Alexander. [Hamlet declined to be Achilles; there are no heroes in Shakespeare unless they're more or less assholes. De Sade, be it noted, delights in violating every law of nobility he can think of.] The Church, though it governed Europe for a thousand years, thrust its rule into heretical times bolstered by Dante. France has the Marquis. 
One overhears, in a Paris café (this actually happened), two waiters discussing whether an acquaintance is Cartesian or Pascallian: does he favor doubt or faith? All French, the French feel, are either one or the other, and we might rush to conclude that here are their real antecedents. 

Let an enormous fartre
And sighed, "Descartes be damned.
I stink, therefore I am."

But regard the waiter as he separates himself from his confrere to “serve” you, the subtle brusqueness with which he lets you know you are intruding on his time, the culpable helplessness with which you submit while he removes, with balletic crispness, whatever is on your table, and asks you with a “Oui, m’sieur?” what you think you might want.

Do not offer him your French to sneer at. Only raise your eyes to meet his, gleaming down at you with casual malice, and you will find yourself face to face, there can be no doubt, with the Marquis.

Robert MacLean is an independent filmmaker. His recent The Light Touch is on Amazon PrimeTubi and Scanbox, and his 7-minute comedy is an out-loud laugh. He is also a novelist, a playwright, a blogger, a YouTuber, a film reviewer, a literary critic, and a stand-up comic poet. Born Toronto, PhD McGill, taught at Canadian universities, too cold, live Greece, Irish citizen. No brains, but an intellectual snob.

An elegant woman is a woman who despises you and has no hair under her arms.”—Salvador Dalí

The Light Touch on Amazon Prime

The Natural Wish to Be Robert MacLean