Marquis de Sade’s Tortured History : Professor Forwards Drastic Revision of Writer’s Image

Times Staff Writer

When UC Irvine Prof. Alice Laborde was growing up in her native France, she never heard of the infamous Marquis de Sade, even though they both came from prominent families from the French region of Provence.

And despite her studies for her 1965 doctorate from UCLA in 18th-Century French literature, Laborde never read any of the works of de Sade, whose name has become a household word for the sexual practice of inflicting pain as a means to pleasure.

“That’s not something that a normal lady would do!” Laborde said in mock horror to explain the disdain in which de Sade was held by both the public and scholars. His writings and reputed sexual exploits so shocked 18th-Century France that historians say he was locked away in prisons or insane asylums for nearly half his 74 years, and his books and plays were banned in France for 150 years.

So why is Laborde, a 57-year-old grandmother of 10, going to spend the summer in France poring over his writings?


“I’m doing research for a book that will finally bring out the truth about de Sade,” said Laborde, a professor of French who has written seven books dealing primarily with 18th-Century French intellectuals’ differing views of romance.

De Sade’s gotten a bum rap from history, Laborde said during a recent interview at UCI just prior to her departure for France with her husband, Pierre, a retired engineer.

Explaining how de Sade acquired his infamy, Laborde noted: “It was said at the time that de Sade had done all the things that he wrote about in his novels. This is absurd!

“What de Sade was describing (in the more graphic passages of his novels) were physically impossible for de Sade or anyone else to do. These passages were not meant to be taken literally but figuratively. The acts he was describing were not meant to represent reality; they were symbolic of the moral decay of the society in which he lived.”


While sadistic acts occurred in his books, Laborde said the recipients of such pain did not enjoy it; they were not masochists. (Although the word “sadist” is derived from the marquis’ surname, masochism was named after Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, an Austrian writer in whose stories masochism was described and who, historians note, was born 21 years after de Sade’s death.)

Laborde’s revisionist biography, she said, will present a totally different image of the marquis than that traditionally held.

Only five of de Sade’s works were sadistic and they were written in this style to attract a larger audience and to make money, Laborde said. While there is no precise count of de Sade’s works, Laborde said, the overwhelming majority are written in an orthodox literary style.

More than a a dozen of these plays and novels still exist, in addition to an unknown number of essays and letters, according to historians. In these writings de Sade discussed the need for reforms of prisons and insane asylums. He promoted birth control because he believed overpopulation was at the root of 18th-Century France’s economic and social problems.


Laborde’s as-yet-untitled work will be a follow-up to her 1974 book “Sade Romancier,” published in Switzerland. In this work, Laborde documented that the marquis--for a man living 200 years ago--had an advanced understanding of science which led him to realize that matter was made up of what we today know as atoms.

‘Idea of Equality’

These atoms, Laborde explained during an interview in her office on the Irvine campus, were continuously combining and disintegrating to form new kinds of substances and materials. Applying this principle to humans, de Sade argued in his writings that society was marked by inevitable cycles of creation and destruction.

“From this came de Sade’s idea of equality between the different forms of nature--including humans,” Laborde said. He was a social thinker ahead of his time who was an early exponent of equal rights and equitable treatment for women, she said.


Another reason a reevaluation of de Sade is in order, according to Laborde, is due to the previously unknown--or ignored--correspondence between him and his wife written during the years he was incarcerated in prisons and mental institutions.

“They were married over 25 years, and these letters show a great tenderness by de Sade toward his wife,” Laborde said.

“Contrary to what has been written about him in the past, he was a good husband. Sure, he went to bordellos, but so did his relatives and friends. At that time you weren’t considered a ‘real man’ unless you frequented ‘houses of pleasure.’ ”

What de Sade saw in these bordellos, Laborde said, provided much of the background for his more notorious books.


Laborde’s unlikely crusade began in the late ‘60s when she accidentally stumbled onto the writings of de Sade while doing postdoctoral research in France, where de Sade’s works had been banned until 1961.

In the intervening 15 years, Laborde has learned much, she said, that debunks de Sade’s reputation as a sexual misfit. De Sade was not a sadist; he was not even a libertine, Laborde said.

Her research shows he was merely an observer and not a participant in the unrestrained, sexually diverse life which was endemic among France’s nobility, until many of them followed Marie Antoinette and her husband King Louis XVI to the guillotine in revolutionary France of the 1790s.

“His works were a criticism of the excess of cruelty, lust for power and excess of sexual activity that marked his age,” Laborde said. “In my research I am confronting a de Sade who is very different from the man I thought he was.”


A Distorted view

How then have we come to have such a distorted view of de Sade?

“There were others at the time who were writing pornography as bad as de Sade’s, but none had a reputation as bad as his,” Laborde said in recalling her introduction to de Sade’s works 15 years ago. “I wondered why he, and not others, had earned this kind of reputation.”

According to Laborde, our view of de Sade stems from a massive cover-up perpetuated by his family to hide their own wrongdoing. His family trumped up charges of sexual misconduct against de Sade in order to keep him locked away in prisons and insane asylums for a large chunk of his adult life because they wanted control over his money. Indeed, someone subsequently altered the de Sade family tree to delete the marquis.


In 1814, when de Sade died in an insane asylum at Charenton, his younger son went there and burned everything he could. Laborde said she and other scholars now agree that the son clearly intended to erase all traces of the father. But for some inexplicable reason, the son failed to destroy five large trunks filled with letters and manuscripts.

Trunks Secreted Away

These trunks remained secreted away in the family’s ancestral chateau 60 miles outside Paris for more than a century until de Sade’s great-great-great-grandson happened upon them in 1946 while cleaning up the debris left by the Germans, who had occupied the chateau during World War II.

It took almost two decades more for the de Sade family to convince the French government to lift its ban on the marquis’s works so that they could be studied by scholars such as Laborde.


When academic researchers began examining these works--and others by the marquis that had been hidden for nearly two centuries in libraries throughout France--it became clear that de Sade’s reputation had become sullied by biographers who confused the exploits of his fictional characters with de Sade’s own life, Laborde said.

Laborde is not alone in her reassessment of de Sade. While his best-known works, “Justine” and “The 120 Days of Sodom,” have shocked readers for a century and a half, de Sade is now increasingly viewed, in France and abroad, as a significant political writer.

Ronald Hayman, author of the biography “De Sade,” writes that he considers the infamous author “a key figure in the history of modernism and, above all, in the history of alienation.”

Laborde said: “De Sade was a highly educated, brilliant man. But you have to wait until the 20th Century to understand what he meant.


“He was criticizing a society in which men abused women. In the 20th Century, unlike the 18th, we can see that this is not a natural condition.”