Marquis de Sade. The very name has come to epitomize sexual aberration. Nearly three centuries after his death, his best-known writings remain widely decried as pornography with little redeeming value.
Wrong, all wrong, says Alice Laborde, a professor of French literature at UC Irvine. Sade, she insists, was neither a sadist nor simply a pornographer. After 24 years of studying the man and his writings, she pronounces him one of the most influential writers and thinkers of 18th-Century France and says his most important writings have been ignored in favor of the salacious texts.
She is one of a number of scholars and intellectuals on both sides of the Atlantic to reassess the notorious nobleman, who spent 30 years behind bars for alleged crimes ranging from whipping and drugging prostitutes to seducing and kidnaping his sister-in-law.
"People want to throw on that man every feeling of guilt they have," said Laborde in the quiet of her Idyllwild cabin, where stacks of manuscripts and correspondence fill nearly every corner. "Now, I'm destroying the myth. He was really a family man, a loving husband and a loving father."
Others won't go that far, content to gauge his general literary or philosophical impact on other major figures of his time rather than defend what some call the "pungent" texts of many of his best-known works.
But Laborde, 63, has delved so far into the life and times of the infamous marquis that she aims to correct the record of a man she contends has been maligned by his biographers. Already one of the most prolific writers on Sade in French, she has embarked on a 30-volume set of annotated and scholarly texts on all his known correspondence.
"My intention is not to redeem him," said Laborde, a small woman with pale blue eyes that crinkle with delight when a student catches her meaning. "But I am adding a very important aspect of the man and his literature. . . . For me, he is as important as Diderot, Rousseau, Voltaire and Montesquieu."
Laborde's scholarly passion for Donatien-Alphonse-Francois, the Comte de Sade, was ignited accidently in 1967, while researching a book on aesthetics in 18th-Century literature.
Side-by-side on a UCLA library shelf were two books by Sade: "Aline and Valcour," one of his earliest novels, and "The Marquise of Gange," which was published a year before his death in 1814. Laborde took them home.
Reading Sade for the first time at age 40, the Algerian-born woman said she found herself entranced by the philosophical and social commentary of the first book and appalled by the explicit pornography in the second.
"I was amazed. . . . I couldn't believe the same man wrote both of them. . . . I decided I had to study the problem."
And so, as a fledgling professor of French literature at the new UCI campus, Laborde began to research his life.
Since then, she has traveled to the libraries of Paris and Sade's native Provence region, exploring police and court documents of the period as well as records of the Bastille prison. It was there that Sade, aware of the bread riots in Paris during the summer of 1789, shouted from his cell about inmates being murdered inside. He was swiftly transferred, but days later, angry mobs stormed the Bastille.
Nearing retirement, Laborde teaches a reduced load of classes just two quarters a year, allowing her to spend each winter and summer in the Provencal town of Viens, a medieval village not far from the ruins of the Sade family chateau of La Coste. There or in their Idyllwild cabin, she and her husband, Pierre, work to transcribe the more than 7,000 documents and manuscripts she has collected.
Among her conclusions about Sade: His contributions have been misunderstood, in part, because his biographers often borrowed from his pornographic writings to embroider gaps in his life.
Laborde's eyes flash with anger at the mention of the late Gilbert Lely, Sade's primary biographer, whom she contends focused only on things that emphasized him as sexually kinky.
Laborde readily concedes that many of Sade's works--such as "120 Days of Sodom" and "Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue"--can be horrifying for the beginning reader in their depiction of bestiality, sexual libertinism and cruelty.
On another level, though, Laborde says Sade was really satirizing the values of a corrupt nobility that could rob its own children, sell girls and boys into virtual slavery in the Catholic Church or consign them to prison without prosecution. Not everyone agrees with her.
Colin Wilson, a prominent British author who has written about Sade, said social satire was at best a secondary aspect of Sade's work.
"What sticks out a mile in 'Juliette' and even more in '120 Days of Sodom' is that the essence of Sade is sexual perversion," Wilson said in an interview.
"He has gone further than anybody ever in describing horrible torments and tortures," he said. "There's no excusing this man."
Other scholars and intellectuals, however, including Simone de Beauvoir, have found many redeeming qualities to Sade's writings and include him in the pantheon of historical figures who have changed the way people think.
"People who are in the know, specialists, of course consider the Marquis de Sade one of the most important figures of the 18th Century," said Colette V. Michael, a professor of French literature at Northern Illinois University. "And he is one who is now of full-blown importance in the 20th Century, not only in literature, but in psychology. His views on politics are extremely important."
"In fact, Sade anticipates (Sigmund) Freud," said Josue Harari, chairman of French and Italian at Emory University in Atlanta, who has written about Sade and other authors of 18th-Century France. "Two hundred years ago, there was no understanding of the unconscious (mind)."
Both Harari and Michael say Laborde is a respected scholar for her work on Sade. Yet on the UCI campus, some colleagues privately raise eyebrows and wonder about the relevance of her work.
Her students, however, consistently give her glowing evaluations and many leave her classes impressed by her grasp of the sights, sounds and assumptions of the people who lived in 18th-Century France.
"She's refreshing," said Kit Dombrowski, 47, a senior majoring in French. "Her classes are very different. . . . She obviously has a wealth of knowledge of the history and politics of the time. So she's able to add a lot to what we study."
If there is one lesson the tireless researcher tries to get across to her students, Dombrowski said, "It is to look beyond the written word and examine what was happening at the time."