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Sade, Marquis de (1740-1814)  
 
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Whether or not the Marquis de Sade was himself bisexual, homosexual activity is an important item in his program of revolutionary sexual libertinism.

The Comte Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade, more often called the Marquis de Sade, lent his name to the complex psychosexual phenomenon of sadism--that is, the derivation of pleasure from cruelty through inflicting physical pain, mental suffering, or both.

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A prolific author of plays, stories, essays, novellas, and letters, Sade's most lasting works have been such pornographic fictions as Justine, ou Les Infortunes de la Vertu (1791) and Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795). In them, as in numerous other erotic texts, the pleasures of torture figure prominently among the varied (indeed, polymorphous) sexual activities enjoyed by the libertine characters.

Yet there is more to Sade's writings than sadism, in the clinical sense Krafft-Ebing gave that term in his Psychopathia sexualis (1876). For running throughout the Sadean oeuvre--and often overlapping with the most calculated outrages of his obscene novels--is a philosophical discourse on freedom, power, evil, and desire.

In one of the great ironies of world literature, the Marquis de Sade was descended from the Laura to whom Petrarch devoted his sonnets of romantic love. An altogether less sublimated approach to sexuality prevailed among the French aristocracy into which the Marquis was born, however. Sade's father, for instance, was arrested while "cruising" the Tuileries Gardens for male prostitutes.

Bisexual in orientation--and early disposed to a taste for inflicting pain with his sexual partners--Sade was, from his late twenties onward, embroiled in numerous scandals leading to jail and exile. In 1772, he was sentenced to death as a "." Though the sentence was lifted in 1776, he was imprisoned for many years. Early in July 1789, from his cell window in the Bastille, he yelled that the prisoners were being slaughtered by the guards.

Freed during the Revolution, he was a supporter of the Republic--though as a noble, Sade and his family were suspect by the government. His books denounced for immorality, Sade was again jailed in 1801 and died in the insane asylum at Charenton in 1814.

If sexual license made Sade a criminal, imprisonment made him an author: Most of his sizable literary output was produced during incarceration. In his first important writing, "Dialogue entre un prêtre et un moribond" (1782), the priest who arrives to take a deathbed confession is shocked to find that the dying man regrets only his restraint in satisfying his urges. Desire, argues the "moribond," is created by nature and ought to be satisfied; all codes of restraint, social and religious, are man-made.

This text--reminiscent of other "philosophical tales" by French Enlightenment thinkers such as Voltaire and Diderot--contains the gist of Sade's atheist and "immoralist" creed, elaborated in greater detail throughout subsequent essays and stories.

With his most ambitious work, Les Cint Vingt Journées de Sodome (The Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom), composed the same year, Sade created a world in which every erotic desire might be systematically gratified. Isolated in a chateau for four months, the noblemen in Sade's pornographic epic are furnished with sufficient provisions and sexual partners to indulge every libidinous possibility they can imagine.

The result is an exhaustive, somewhat bewildering work of erotic algebra. Besides every permutation of hetero- and homosexual interaction, Sade's libertines enjoy blasphemy, coprophilia, and necrophilia; and the narrative includes descriptions of torture, mutilation, and murder so brutally graphic that the book is a test of readerly endurance.

The book was unfinished; large portions of it exist only as notes describing the sexual acts to be narrated. (Late in the text, one finds numbered passages such as this: "137. A notorious sodomist, in order to combine that crime with those of incest, murder, rape, sacrilege, and adultery, first inserts a Host in his ass, then has himself embuggered by his own son, rapes his married daughter, and kills his niece".) Sade believed the manuscript had been destroyed, and it was only discovered and published in 1904.

Precisely through their grandiose, credibility-defying visions of unrestrained indulgence, Sade's fictions attempt to subvert all religious and social codes proscribing sexual desire. Besides depicting countless sexual tableaux of great vividness--and sometimes gravity-defying complexity--Sade makes his characters representatives of different philosophical positions.

This conjunction of pornography and theory reaches perhaps its most successful expression in Philosophie dans le boudoir (Philosophy in the Bedroom), in which a group of libertines initiates a young woman into the techniques and ideology of Sadean eroticism.

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