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October 18, 2017

Same Sade Story

On this day in 1814 the Marquis de Sade died at the age of seventy-four. The last days of his twenty-seven years of confinement were spent pretty much routinely: he continued to be a public target and an object of private fascination for the authorities; he continued to write, composing not the notorious books and plays now but protest or social notes, or directives to his estate manager, or journal entries; and he continued to be in love, or thereabouts, with his latest and final inamorata, a seventeen-year-old laundress at the Charenton asylum. Not least amazing about the Marquis is that even at this late hour he could still worry over such relationships, and give them a romantic gloss: this journal entry wonders at the girl's "coldness," this one hopes that her vow to be only his is sincere, this one fears that she and her mother are just after the 3 francs per visit.

Almost nine years earlier de Sade had made clear in his will how he wanted things to go when he died -- no religious or social "pomp of any kind," the body buried in a specific copse on the family estate, the man who had become a byword for all things unnatural returned to Nature and oblivion:
    Once the grave has been covered over, it shall be strewn with acorns so that eventually the site of said grave will be refilled, and the copse will grow as thickly as before, so that the traces of my grave will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I trust my memory will disappear from the memory of men....
He was certainly a man capable of irony. One of the half-dozen English-language biographies of de Sade which have appeared in just the last decade or so is the nicely titled, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, by Francine du Plessix Gray. In her last chapter she outlines the major swings and stops in de Sade's very remembered life: for the first decades, he was as much a pariah and monster as when alive; with the official entry of "sadisme" into the French dictionaries in 1834, there was a gradual shift away from the horrible man to the horrible but interesting books; later, from the Romantic fringe, he received as much deification as there was earlier vilification; this continued through Apollinaire and the Surrealists; in the first half of the 20th century the psychologists took a more detached, scientific view, and then in the second half of the century the literary and cultural theorists did the same. Today, the Marquis enjoys the ultimate modern tribute and negation: his village in Provence is a tourist hotspot, with local dishes and wines and bed-and-breakfasts in his name, and busloads of tourists wanting the photo and t-shirt. Lest the real de Sade get lost in all this we have Quills, which playwright/screenwriter Doug Wright describes as his attempt not to just "seduce the arthouse crowd," but to teach the "college kids and older to recognize Sade as the original rebel, before Eminem and Marilyn Manson...."

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