Editor’s note: Some readers may find objectionable the sexual
content of this column.
What is it with Hollywood? Give the boys and girls on the West Coast
anything remotely touching on history and sure as shooting they’ll mess
it up, figuring quite rightly: What do their audiences — generally
under 25 — know or care about history anyway?
And if they can pin a good liberal cause on some figure, past or
present, then go for it. One relatively recent case in point: taking
pornographer and magazine publisher Larry Flynt and turning him into a
standup hero for freedom of the press. Oh, the pornography and pretty
loose style of living were still there, if the nastiness was downright
muted. Hustler came across as a slightly naughtier version of Playboy.
Not a touch of any of those raunchy covers that keep Hustler out of
sight on most newsstands.
And now what do we have to savor in this holiday season? “Quills,” a
film devoted nominally to the life of the Marquis de Sade, one of
history’s most noxious and pernicious of literary figures. The New York
Times is carrying a full-page ad headed in very large type-face
“Winner: Golden Globe Nominations: Best Actor: Geoffrey Rush, Best
Screenplay: Doug Wright.” And centered right below, “Winner: Best
Picture: National Board Review.” In the middle of the page, a
full-length photo of Rush in costume flanked on either side by eulogious
quotes from reviews in the likes of The New York Times and the Wall
Sade gets the full victim treatment. Here, he’s a misunderstood,
little-appreciated writer who is only standing up for the right to be
heard, to be allowed to express himself instead of being oppressed by
cruel, abusive authoritarian figures. Long live freedom of expression!
What do most people know about the Marquis de Sade outside of the
fact he gave his name to a form of sexual activity in which pain and
pleasure supposedly commingle? He was born into wealth and comfort —
his mother being a lady-in-waiting to the Princesse de Conde and his
father an officer of the prince. Because of their standing in the royal
household, they were entitled to reside in a splendid royal palace in
Before long, his father fell out of grace with the prince — having
neglected to report an adulterous affair of the princesse — which led
to his expulsion from the royal household. From here on, the father was
constantly in debt, unable to obtain any kind of position at court. His
mother thought she had a sure way of staying in the good graces of the
royal couple by ensuring that her little son would become the best
friend of the princesse’s son of almost the same age and, that way, the
boys would grow up together, guaranteeing — so thought the loving
mother — his future in life.
But young Sade, who very early showed signs of a strong temper, beat
up unmercifully on the little prince who promptly complained to his
mother. And that was the end of any hope of royal favor in coming
years. By the time Sade was six, his mother retreated to a Carmelite
order in Paris, taking little interest in her son thereafter.
His father, looking for a way out of his own financial troubles,
thought it best to marry off his son to some wealthy heiress, in which
task he succeeded. Young Sade only met his bride once before the
ceremony but apparently charmed his future mother-in-law. He was deemed
to have a talent for charming women — at first that is.
Very shortly, his sexual tastes — whipping, being whipped and
committing sodomy with common prostitutes — got him in serious trouble
with the law. Whipping was not thought much of in those days but sodomy
was definitely a no-no. Plus, he would speak blasphemously to the
prostitutes, asking them to step on a statuette of Jesus and utter
various blasphemies. The whipping the women could tolerate. The sodomy
they weren’t too enthusiastic about, but knew it was against the law.
The blasphemy, however, really bothered them — one of them went to the
police, reporting the encounter in detail.
This episode merited Sade his first jail time. His mother-in-law,
responding in a pitiful letter, managed to get him released. But, as
time passed, Sade continued to indulge in his special ways until the day
came that his mother-in-law, in exasperation, requested he be
imprisoned. And thus the years passed, some 29 of them in one prison or
And there was the question of his writings, which were smuggled out
of prison and were printed. This was a period when libertine writing
was much in vogue, and libertine ways practiced by the court. But Sade
could always be counted on to go way beyond the acceptable. His
writing, in particular “The 120 Days of Sodom,” was banned in France
well into the 20th century. It is strong and very nasty stuff. Every
form of sexual activity and torture was described at length. Sade had a
twisted but curiously orderly mind. He kept lists of how many times he
was sodomized or sodomized someone himself. He would write, requesting
from his extraordinarily tolerant wife, for ever-larger sexual toys, and
then write back complaining when they weren’t quite for his taste.
When he was finally sent to the mad house at Charenton — where he
was treated quite well, with privileges and many creature comforts —
with the approval of the director he wrote and directed plays using
fellow inmates as his actors. Forbidden to write any more of his
pornographic work, he turned to producing insipid lightweight historical
romances. By now in his 70s, and monstrously corpulent, Sade continued
to receive visits from a woman young enough to be his granddaughter,
recording scrupulously their encounters. He died peacefully with his
son and doctor in attendance.
Not exactly the Sade the movie gives you. Whatever the psychological
excuses you might make for the man, he was assuredly no champion of
freedom of the press. Actually, you could almost use his writings to
justify a modified form of censorship. The books are strong and vile —
there is no other adjective to apply. One more cause for Hollywood to
hang its collective head in shame.