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French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
page: 1  2  3  4  

His aim: to attack the monastic vows that have put these women in dangerous proximity. Such vows are contrary to the "basic inclination of nature." "God made man a social creature. Can He be happy that he is locking himself away?"

The ceremony and routine of the cloistered life, Diderot suggests, cannot refashion human instincts. Unnatural, that life will only cause what is natural to seek satisfaction through the means at hand and to erupt with a violence "unknown to those who live in the world."

Thus, although La Religieuse portrays lesbianism as a perversion, the novel also roundly defends human sexuality against any effort, however culturally sanctioned, to deny its full expression.

The Marquis de Sade

The ability of the philosophes to influence Western liberal thought cannot be questioned, but in scope and daring these writers do not begin to equal the pages penned by Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade (1740-1814), the famous Marquis de Sade.

Of course, through the words this man has given to modern languages, one facet of that daring is well known, but there are others.

Whether Sade was homosexual or not remains in dispute. It was his adventures with women, not men, that brought scandal and prosecution into his life. Yet, in her essay Must Sade Be Burned? Simone de Beauvoir gives the impression that any man who spoke with such fervor (and so often) about sodomy had to have been a committed practitioner of the act.

Equally intriguing are the remarks by Sade's model libertine in Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). He admits that sodomy is his greatest pleasure, adding, "I adore doing it with both sexes; but a young boy's ass gives me, I confess, more enjoyment than does a girl's." Veiled autobiography or a writer's determined desire to shock and awaken? Much in Sade underscores the validity of both possibilities.

Before 1949, when Gilbert Lely began to publish a sizable archive of Sade material offered to him by the writer's family, public knowledge of the marquis derived primarily from distorted accounts and a mere handful of his extensive writings.

Lely's biography of the author has at last set straight the facts of his life. Still, even when stripped of its mythic dimensions, it is an extraordinary biography, replete with great debauchery and even greater confinement. Between 1778 and 1814, Sade spent nearly twenty-seven years in prison.

Most of Sade's writings were composed during his long incarceration. They include plays, novels, political and philosophical essays. Taken together, they show to what degree Sade's discussion of sex belongs to a much broader spectrum of concerns.

Sade, for example, follows in the footsteps of the philosophes in denouncing the Church and "the pride, tyranny and despotism of the priests." He calls for a new moral order that ensures equality of the sexes and forbids the death penalty. Nature replaces God as the arbiter of acceptable behavior: "If nature forbad the joys of sodomy, incest, defilement, etc. would she allow us to take so much pleasure in performing such acts?"

Moreover, discovering destruction to be one of the primary laws of nature, Sade overturns the Christian link between sex and procreation: "We have believed that nature would perish if our wonderful species came to an end on this globe, whereas, by handing back to nature the creative right that she grants to us, the complete destruction of the species would return to nature the power that we take away from her when we propagate."

It is in this context that Sade situates his extended defense of sodomy. Indifferent to where man places his sperm, nature cannot be offended by sodomy and least of all by sodomy between males, since that act exists at the greatest possible distance from procreative coupling.

The liberation from Christian morality that Sade advocates is meant to affect the inner as well as the outer life of humanity. A character in Philosophy in the Bedroom asks: "Is it not through [the imagination] that we experience pleasure? Is that not the source of our most exciting sensual delights?"

One interpretation of Sade's frequently graphic accounts of sexual perversion (such as The 120 Days of Sodom) would make of those pages the fruits of just such a liberated imagination.

However we choose to read and judge his books, Sade's contribution to our modern world is impressive. His unfettered entry into the repressed corners of human desire inspired fellow writers. (Flaubert, Baudelaire, Lautréamont, Swinburne, and Dostoevski all acknowledged their debt to the marquis.)

That voyage anticipated as well both the discipline and discoveries of psychoanalysis. Like the subconscious world he willingly plumbed, Sade's writings contain many disturbing elements; yet no author before him and few since have so thoroughly freed the sexual sphere from the binds of the Judeo-Christian yoke.

Donald Stone

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social sciences >> Overview:  France

France, the second largest nation in Western Europe, has a rich, if markedly ambivalent, relationship to glbtq people and cultures.

literature >> Overview:  French Theater

French-speaking theater has a long history of depicting male and female homosexuals and in exploring the complexities of homosexual life.

social sciences >> Overview:  Paris

One of the world's most iconic cities and an influential hub of Western culture, Paris is also a major international glbtq center.

literature >> Baudelaire, Charles

Baudelaire was among the first French poets to include lesbians as subjects.

literature >> Beauvoir, Simone de

Best known for her revolutionary study of women's condition, The Second Sex (1949) and as the companion of philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre, Simone de Beauvoir had a number of same-sex relationships during her life.

social sciences >> Frederick the Great

The homosexuality of Frederick the Great of Prussia was an open secret during his reign, yet some historians have attempted to deny it or to diminish its significance.

literature >> Gide, André

André Gide, one of the premier French writers of the twentieth century, reflected his homosexuality in many of his numerous works.

social sciences >> Henry III

Henry III, the last French king of the Valois dynasty, was widely accused of sodomy, but such charges were probably not true.

literature >> Horace

In his highly accomplished and influential poetry, Horace reflects the easy bisexuality of the Roman upper class in the first century B. C.

literature >> Sade, Marquis de

Whether or not the Marquis de Sade was himself bisexual, homosexual activity is an important item in his program of revolutionary sexual libertinism.

literature >> Saint-Pavin, Denis Sanguin de

The French aristocrat Denis Sanguin de Saint-Pavin wrote and circulated in manuscript sophisticated and witty poems that celebrated sodomy, especially with male partners.

literature >> Sappho

Admired through the ages as one of the greatest lyric poets, the ancient Greek writer Sappho is today esteemed by lesbians around the world as the archetypal lesbian and their symbolic mother.

literature >> Swinburne, Algernon Charles

Algernon Charles Swinburne was interested in flagellation, sadomasochism, bisexuality, and lesbianism, not only for their erotics but also as gestures of social and cultural rebellion.

literature >> Viau, Théophile de

The homosexuality of the French libertine Théophile de Viau must largely be inferred from his highly personal poetry.


Daniel, Marc. Hommes du Grand Siècle: Etudes sur l'homosexualité sous les règnes de Louis XIII et de Louis XIV. Paris: Arcadie, n. d.

Dejob, Charles. Marc-Antione Muret: un professeur français en Italie dans la seconde moitié du XVIe siècle. Paris: E. Thorin, 1881; rpt. Geneva: Slatkine, 1970.

Lely, Gilbert. Vie du Marquis de Sade. Paris: Garnier, 1982.

Lever, Maurice. Sade: A Biography. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1993.

Pomeau, René. "Voltaire, du côté de Sodome." Revue d'Histoire Littéraire de la France 86 (1986): 235-247.

Stockinger, Jacob. "Homosexuality and the French Enlightenment." Homosexualities and French Literature. George Stambolian and Elaine Marks, eds. Ithaca, N.Y.: Cornell University Press, 1978. 352-377.

Stone, Donald. "The Sexual Outlaw in France, 1605." Journal of the History of Sexuality 2 (1992): 597-608.


    Citation Information
    Author: Stone, Donald  
    Entry Title: French Literature: Before the Nineteenth Century  
    General Editor: Claude J. Summers  
    Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual,
Transgender, and Queer Culture
    Publication Date: 2002  
    Date Last Updated July 2, 2005  
    Web Address  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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