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De Sade: After 250 Years, Descendant Reappraises Infamous Life

December 16, 1990|PETER MIKELBANK | SPECIAL TO THE WASHINGTON POST

PARIS — "As soon as the grave is filled in, acorns should be planted over it, so that new trees will grow out of it later, and the wood will be as thick as it was before. All traces of my grave shall vanish from the face of the earth, as I'd flatter myself that my memory will vanish from the minds of men."

--from the 1806 will of the Marquis de Sade.

The narrow figure moves along the marble-columned corridor of France's National Assembly. A finger points, a name is uttered, a uniformed guard turns to his partner.

"Is he any relation to the . . . "

"The great-great-great-grandson," replies the partner, gravely.

Eyes follow the figure until it disappears.

Silence. Then, a whisper: "Mon Dieu!"

Living up to the family name is anyone's challenge, even more so when lineage claims an ancestor of fame, or infamy.

"It's always the name," says Thibault de Sade, who is himself a Marquis, and an attorney, an assembly legal counsel. "A little spark just goes off in people's eyes. First, they're puzzled. Usually they wait a little before asking, 'You're not by any chance . . . ' or 'You wouldn't be. . . . ' "

The sentence invariably goes unfinished.

"They never come outright and ask." Slight, strikingly pale and angular, a straight-edge razor in a dark suit, Sade, 33, has spent the last decade researching a biography that he hopes will redeem, or at least soften, his ancestor's scandalous reputation. The timing is auspicious. This is the 250th anniversary of the marquis's birth.

"Sade" discloses the existence of an unknown romantic trilogy, and of an astonishing historic curiosity: an opera written by Sade about--and once performed by--inmates of the madhouse where he was held during the French Revolution.

This Marquis de Sade is preparing the play for production.

"Its discovery," says Thibault mysteriously, his eyes shining like two black stones, "reads a little bit like a detective story."

Few names, in any century, through distinction of act or accident, achieve lasting inclusion in the language of the day. In this century, "Churchillian" has come to describe a certain demeanor or stature, and "Freudian" attaches itself to a panoply of libidinous disorders.

Neither holds a candle to the enduring Pandora's box called Sade.

Used as a noun, as an adjective or as a prefix, the name in all its declensions has come to be synonymous with decadence and debauchery, with the pathological confusion of pleasure and pain, with the exercise of debasement as a form of sexual gratification, with flogging and spanking and raping, with licentiousness and cruelty in all forms.

All this is the ignoble legacy of a nobleman, the Marquis Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade (1740-1814), a Frenchman whose degenerate behavior and prurient writings kept him in prison for 27 years, much of that time sentenced to death. It was there--frustrated to near delirium by his inability to satisfy his unnatural lusts--that he wrote in crabbed, prissy longhand the three angry, anticlerical, violent, wildly uninhibited erotic classics for which he is best known: "120 Days of Sodom," "Juliette" and "Justine."

The books were published privately, purchased furtively, read alone. His power to shock persisted for centuries. In the 1800s girls were said to have gone mad or committed suicide after reading Sade's novels. To publish them remained a crime in France until the 1950s, and even afterward reading them was thought perilous to one's sanity. As late as 1966, Sade's writings were blamed for inspiring the torture-murder of three children by a British couple who described themselves as slavish devotees of the works of the monstrous marquis.

A black saint; a French satyr; a Jekyll-Hyde with whip and quill, Sade is a man without a country. There are no monuments to Sade in France. In this anniversary year, there are no official commemorations of his birth.

Such is the tarnished image Thibault de Sade seeks to polish.

It would be easier, perhaps, to polish a puddle of mud.

Consider the brief Sade entry in the biographical section of Webster's Seventh New Collegiate Dictionary, which thumbnails the complicated, controversial life of the decorated hero of the Seven Years' War, the champion of moderation during the infamous Reign of Terror, the political and intellectual revolutionary whose works--for better or worse--influenced eight generations of French literature, from Flaubert to Hugo to De Beauvoir, thusly:

"De Sade, Donatien Alphonse. French soldier and pervert."

End of entry.

"The name still has tremendous power over people," acknowledges Thibault de Sade, gesturing grandly as he sits at The Bourbon, a Paris cafe. He has long, impossibly long, delicate hands like a pianist's, and mask-like features suggesting a perpetual frown. His is a face of shadows, with recessed eyes, hooded brows. He bears an inescapable likeness to the figure depicted in the only known portrait of the dark marquis.

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