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Roland Barthes - The Life of Sade

Roland Barthes, "Life of Sade" (1971), translated by Richard Miller. Originally Published in Sade Fourier Loyola, New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1976.

1. Etymological chain: Sade, Sado, Sadone, Sazo, Sauza (village of Saze). Again, lost in this lineage, the evil letter. In attaining the accursed name, brilliantly formulated (it has engendered a common noun), the letter that, as we say in French, zebras, fustigates, the z, has given way to the softest of dentals.

2. People living today in Saint-Germain-des-Prés must remember that they are living in a degenerate Sadian area. Sade was born in a room of the Hôtel de Condé, i.e., somewhere between the Rue Monsieur-le-Prince and the Rue de Condé; he was baptized in Saint-Sulpice; in 1777 he was arrested under a lettre de cachet at the Hôtel de Danemark, Rue Jacob (the very street where the French edition of this book is published), and from there brought to the prison dungeon at Vincennes.

3. In the spring of 1779, when Sade was imprisoned at Vincennes, he received a letter telling him that the orchard at La Coste was dazzling: cherry trees in bloom, apple trees, pear trees, hop bine, grapes, not to mention the burgeoning cypresses and oaks. For Sade, La Coste was a multiple, a total site; first, a Provençal site, the site of origin, of Return (throughout the first part of his life, Sade, although a fugitive, hunted, continued to return there, flouting prudence); next: an autarchic site, a miniature and total society over which he was the master, the unique source of his income, the site for study (his library was there), the site for theater (they acted comedies), and the site for debauchery (Sade had servants, young peasant girls, young secretaries, brought in for séances at which the Marquise was also present). If, therefore, Sade kept returning to La Coste after his restless travels, it was not for the elevated purpose of purification in the countryside that impels the gangster in The Asphalt Jungle to return to die at the gate to the farm where he was born; as always, it had a plural, super-determined, probably contradictory meaning.

4. On Easter Sunday, 1768, at 9 A.M., on the Place des Victoires, accosting Rose Keller, a beggar (whom he was to whip several hours later in her house at Arcueil), the young Sade (twenty-eight years of age) was wearing a gray redingote, carrying a cane, a hunting knife — and a white muff. (Thus, at a time when the I.D. photograph was nonexistent, it is a paradox that the police report reveals the signifier in its description of the suspect's clothing: such as this delicious white muff, an article obviously donned to satisfy the principle of tact which seems always to have presided over the Marquis's sadistic activity — but not necessarily over that of sadists).

5. Sade likes theater costumes (forms which make the role); he wore them in his own daily life. When whipping Rose Keller, he disguises himself as a flogger (sleeveless vest over a naked torso; kerchief around the head as is worn by young Japanese cooks as they swiftly cut up live eels); later on, he prescribes for his wife the mourning costume she must wear for visiting a captive, unhappy husband: Dress as dark in color as possible, the bosom covered, "a large, very large bonnet without the hair it covers being dressed in any way, merely combed, a chignon, no braids."

6. Household Sadism: at Marseilles, Sade wants Marianne Lavergne to whip him with a parchment beater with bent pins which he takes from his pocket. The girl quails before so exclusively functional an object (like a surgical instrument), and Sade orders the maidservant to bring a heather broom; this utensil is more familiar to Marianne and she has no hesitation in employing it to strike Sade across the buttocks.

7. The Lady President of Montreuil was objectively responsible for her son-in-law's persecutions during the entire first years of his life (perhaps she loved him? One day, someone told the Marquise that the Lady President "loved M. de Sade to distraction"). The impression we have of her character, however, is one of continual fear: fear of scandal, of "difficulties." Sade seems to have been a triumphant, troublesome victim; like a spoiled child, he is continually "teasing" (teasing is a sadistic passion) his respectable and conformist relations; wherever he goes, he provokes the terrified dismay of the guardians of order: everyone responsible for his confinement at the fort of Miolans (the King of Sardinia, the minister, the ambassador, the governor) is obsessed by the possibility of his escape — which does not fail to occur. The couple he forms with his persecutors is an aesthetic one: it is the malicious spectacle of a lively, elegant animal, both obsessed and inventive, mobile and tenacious, continually escaping and continually returning to the same area, while the giant mannequins, stiff, timorous, pompous, quite simply attempt to contain him (not punish him: this will only come later).

8. We need only read the Marquis's biography after having read his work to be convinced that he has put part of his work into his life — and not the opposite, as so-called literary science would have us believe. The "scandals" of Sade's life are not "models" of analogous situations drawn from his books. Real scenes and fantasized scenes are not directly related; all are no more than parallel duplications, more or less powerful (stronger in the work than in life), of a scene that is absent, unfigured, but not inarticulated, whose site of infiguration and articulation can only be writing: Sade's work and his life traverse this writing area on an equal footing.

9. Returning to France from Italy, Sade has sent from Naples to La Coste two large cases; the second, weighing six quintals, travels on the boat Aimable Marie; it contains: "marbles, stones, a vase or amphora for storing Greek wines with resin, antique lamps, tear vases, all à la Greek and Roman, medals, idols, raw and worked stones from Vesuvius, a fine sepulchral urn intact, Etruscan vases, medals, a sculptured piece in serpentine, a bit of nitrate solfatara, seven sponges, a collection of shells, a tiny hermaphrodite and a vase of flowers… a marble dish decorated with singularly lifelike fruits of all varieties, chests of drawers of Vesuvian marble, a Saracen buccherini or cup, a Neapolitan knife, used clothing and prints... Proofs of Religion, a treatise on the existence of God... The Rejected Tithe, an almanac of plays, The Gallant Saxon, a military almanac, Mme de Pompadour's letters… a rhyming dictionary" (LéLy, i, 568). This variety of wares is in every way worthy of Bouvard and Pécuchet: we lack only a few ellipses, a few asyndeta, to read here a bit of Flaubertian bravura. The Marquis, however, did not write this inventory; yet he is the one who amassed this collection, whose heteroclite cultural nature is derisory in relation to culture itself. Dual proof: of the baroque energy of which Sade was capable, and of the writing energy he put into his acts.

10. Sade had several young secretaries (Reillanne, young Malatié or Lamalatié, Rolland, Lefèvre, of whom he was jealous and whose portrait he pierced with a penknife), they are part of the Sadian game insofar as they are simultaneously servants for writing and for debauchery.

11. The list of Sade's detentions began in 1763 (he was twenty-three) and ended with his death in 1814. This almost uninterrupted imprisonment covers all the later years of the Ancien Régime, the revolutionary crisis and the Empire, in short, it straddles the vast change accomplished by modern France. Whence it is easy to accuse, behind the various regimes that detained the Marquis, a higher entity, an unalterable source of repression (government or state) which encountered in Sade a symmetrical essence of Immorality and subversion: Sade is like the exemplary hero of an eternal conflict: had they been less blind (but then, they were bourgeois, were they not?), Michelet and Hugo could have celebrated in him the fate of a martyr for liberty. Counter to this facile image, we must remember that Sade's detentions were historical, they derived their meaning from contemporary History, and since this History was precisely that of social change, there were in Sade's imprisonment at least two successive and different determinations and, to speak generically, two prisons. The first (Vincennes, the Bastille, until Sade's liberation by the dawning Revolution) was not a fact of Law. Although Sade had been judged and condemned to death by the Aix Parlement for sodomy (the Marseilles affair), although he was arrested in 1777 in the Rue Jacob after years of flight and more or less clandestine returns to La Coste, it was under the action of a lettre de cachet (issued by the king at the instigation of the Lady President of Montreuil); the accusation of sodomy lifted and the judgment overturned, he nonetheless went back to prison, since the lettre de cachet, independent of the court decree, continued in effect; and if he was liberated, it was because the Constituent Assembly abolished the lettre de cachet in 1790; thus it is easy to understand that Sade's first imprisonment had no penal or moral significance whatsoever; it was aimed essentially at preserving the honor of the Sade-Montreuil family from the Marquis's escapades; Sade was regarded as a libertine who was being "contained," and as a familial essence that was being saved; the context of this first imprisonment is a feudal one: the race commands, not morality; the king, dispenser of the lettre de cachet, is here merely the agent of the people. Sade's second imprisonment (from 1801 to his death: at Sainte-Pélagie, Bicêtre, and Charenton) is another matter; the Family has disappeared, the bourgeois State rules, it is this (and not a prudent mother-in-law) which has imprisoned Sade (although with no more of a trial than in the first instance) for having written his infamous books. There is a confusion (under which we are still laboring) established between morality and politics. This began with the Revolutionary Tribunal (whose always fatal sanction is familiar), which included as enemies of the people "individuals fostering moral depravity"; it continued in Jacobin discourse ("He brags," Sade's comrades in Piques said, "of having been shut up in the Bastille during the Ancien Régime so as to appear patriotic, whereas had he not been from the 'noble' caste, he would have been meted another kind of exemplary punishment"; in other words, bourgeois equality had already, retroactively, made him an immoral criminal); then in Republican discourse ("Justine," a journalist said in 1799, "is a work as dangerous as the royalist newspaper Le Nécessaire, because if republics are founded on courage, they are upheld by morality; destruction of the latter always leads to the destruction of empires"); and finally, after Sade's death, in bourgeois discourse (Royer-Collard, Jules Janin, etc.). Sade's second prison (where he remains today, since his books are not freely sold in France) is no longer due to a family protecting itself, but to the apparatus of an entire State (justice, teaching, the press, criticism), which — in the Church's default — censors morality and controls literary production. Sade's first detention was segregative (cynical); the second was (is still) penal, moral; the first arose out of a practice, the second out of an ideology; this is proved by the fact that in imprisoning Sade the second time, it was necessary to mobilize a subject philosophy based totally on norm and deviation: for having written his books, Sade was shut up as a madman.

12. In certain of the letters he received or wrote at Vincennes or in the Bastille, Sade discerned or inserted number utterances which he called signals. These signals helped him to imagine or even to read (supposing they were put there intentionally by his correspondent and had escaped the censor) the number of days between receipt and a visit from his wife, an authorization for outdoor recreation, or his freedom; these signals are for the most part malevolent ("The number system is working against me…"). The mania for numbers can be read at various levels; first, neurotic defense: in his fiction, Sade is constantly bookkeeping: classes of subjects, orgasms, victims, and, above all, like Ignatius Loyola, in a purely obsessive twist, he accounts for his own oversights, his errors in numbering; further, number, when it deranges a rational system (we may rather say made purposely to derange it), has the power to produce a surrealistic shock: "On the 18th at 9, the clock chimed 26 times," Sade notes in his Journal; finally, number is the triumphant path of access to the signifier (here as a pun involving the similarity of pronunciation, in French, of the past tense of "to come," vint, and the number "twenty," vingt): ("The other day, because we needed a 24, a flunkey pretending to be M. le Noir [a police officer], and so that I might write to Monsieur Le Noir, came at 4 (vint le 4), thus 24 (vingtquatre)." Numeration is the beginning of writing, its liberating positioning: a connection apparently censured in the history of ideography, if we are to believe J.-L. Schefer's current work on hieroglyphics and cuneiform: the phonological theory of language (Jakobson) unduly separates the linguist from writing; calculation will bring him closer.

13. Sade had a phobia: the sea. What will be given schoolchildren to read: Baudelaire's poem ("Free man, you will always cherish the sea…") or Sade's avowal ("I've always feared and immensely disliked the sea…")?

14. One of Sade's principal persecutors, Police Lieutenant Sartine, suffered from a psychopathological condition which in a just (equal) society would have entailed his imprisonment on the same footing as his victim: he was a wig fetishist: "His library contained all kinds of wigs of all sizes: he put them on according to the circumstances; among others, he owned a good-luck wig (with five loosely hanging little curls) and a wig for interrogating criminals, a kind of snake headdress called the inexorable" (Lély, II, 90). Aware of the phallic value of the braid, we can imagine how Sade must have longed to clip the toupees of his hated cop.

15. In the social game of his time, doubly complicated because — rare in history — it was both synchronic and diachronic, displaying the (apparently immobile) tableau of classes under the Ancien Régime and class changes (under the Revolution), Sade was extremely mobile: a social joker, able to occupy any niche in the class system; Lord of LaCoste, he was supplanted in Mlle Colet's affections by a bourgeois, a collector of rents, who presented the actress with a magnificent sultan (a dressing table); later, a member of the Piques sector, he assumes the socially neutral figure of a man of letters, a dramatist; struck from the list of émigrés and owing to a confusion of first names that exists today, he was able (or at least his family was) to appear as he wished according to the varied moments of History on this turnstile of social class. He honors the sociological notion of social mobility, but in a ludic sense; he moves up and down on the social scale like a bottle imp; a reflection, once again in the socio-economic meaning of the term, he makes this reflection not the imitation or product of a determination, but the unselfconscious game of a mirror. In this carrousel of roles, one fixed point: manners, way of life, which were always aristocratic.

16. Sade was very fond of dogs, spaniels, and setters; he had them at Miolans, asked for them at Vincennes. Through what moral (or worse: virile) law should the greatest of subversions exclude minor affection, that for animals?

17. At Vincennes in 1783, the penitentiary administration forbade the prisoner's receiving Rousseau's Confessions. Sade comments: "They honor me in thinking that a deist author could be a bad book for me; I wish I were at that point… Understand, it is the point one is at that makes a thing good or bad, and not the thing itself… Start there, dear sirs, and by sending me the book I request, be sensible enough to understand that for died-in-the-wool bigots like yourselves, Rousseau can be a dangerous author, and that makes it an excellent book for me. For me, JeanJacques is what the Imitation of Christ is for you..." Censorship is abhorrent on two levels: because it is repressive, because it is stupid; so that we always have the contradictory urge to combat it and to teach it a lesson.

18. Suddenly transferred from Vincennes to the Bastille, Sade made a great fuss because he had not been allowed to bring his big pillow, without which he was unable to sleep, since he slept with his head unusually high: "The barbarians!".

19. Throughout his life, the Marquis de Sade's passion was not erotic (eroticism is very different from passion); it was theatrical: youthful liaisons with several young ladies of the Opéra, engaging the actor Bourdais to play for six months at La Coste, and in his torment, one idea: to have his plays performed; barely out of prison (1790), repeated requests to the actors of the Comédie Française; and finally, of course, theater at Charenton.

20. A plurality of which Sade was well aware, since he laughs at it: in 1793, Citizen Sade was proposed as a juror in a common-law case (a matter of forged promissory notes): the dual hearing of the Sadian text (of which Sade's life is a part): the apologist of crime and its judge are united in the same subject, as the Saussurian anagram is inscribed in a Vedic verse (but what remains of a subject that subjects itself with alacrity to a dual inscription?).

21. Corridor Philosophy: Imprisoned at Sainte-Pélagie (at sixty-three years of age), Sade, we are told, used "every means his imagination could suggest… to seduce and corrupt the young people (to slake his lubricity with young fools) who were imprisoned in Sainte-Pélagie owing to unfortunate circumstances and put by chance in the same corridor as himself."

22. Any detention is a system: a bitter struggle exists within this system, not to get free of it (this was beyond Sade's power), but to break through its constraints. A prisoner for some twenty-five years of his life, Sade in prison had two fixations: outdoor exercise and writing, which governors and ministers were continually allowing and taking away from him like a rattle from a baby. The need and the desire for outdoor exercise are easily understood (although Sade always linked its privation to a symbolic theme, obesity). The repression, obviously, as anyone can see, of writing is as good as censoring the book; what is poignant here, however, is that writing is forbidden in its physical form; Sade was denied "any use of pencil, ink, pen, and paper." Censored are hand, muscle, blood. Castration is circumscribed, the scriptural sperm can no longer flow; detention becomes retention; without exercise, without a pen, Sade becomes bloated, becomes a eunuch.

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