Like many of his playboy peers, Comte de Sade was bisexual, and needed street boys to fully satisfy his impulses. His erotic exploits with men, a fairly minor part of his sexual proclivities, were the only ones that were caste-blind. For most of his pleasure was sought with women of quality -- women, in fact, with the most distinguished titles and the most powerful connections in the kingdom.
Upon arriving in Paris from Provence in 1721, Comte de Sade made friends, through family acquaintances, with the very unpopular but powerful Prince de Conde, father of the young noble who would be roughed up by little Donatien. He obtained a captaincy in Conde's regiment. And he soon began a liaison with the prince's sister, Mlle de Charolais, the most beautiful of the Bourbon princesses and one of the more dissolute women of the French court. She ordered her portraitists to depict her in the garb of a Franciscan nun, not out of any religious devotion but as a way of sexually arousing the lovers to whom she offered these images. "The singularity of the adventure entices me as much as it does you," Mlle de Charolais once wrote Donatien's father when he suggested some particularly exotic orgy, "and the curiosity of knowing if this debauch will suit me leads me to accept your proposition."
Comte de Sade's erotic activities, like his brother's in Provence, should be seen in the context of a particularly libertine phase of French culture. Donatien's father arrived in Paris in the last years of the Regency, the eight-year interlude that began in 1715 with the death of Louis XIV and ended when his only legitimate offspring, his thirteen-year-old great-grandson Louis, was crowned King Louis XV. The Regency was the most dissolute period in French history and might well vie with the late Roman Empire as the most debauched era of Western civilization. Indeed, Mlle de Charolais's capers seem fairly innocuous compared with the excesses of her peers ...
In a frenzy of pleasure-seeking, members of the regent's circle held nightly "suppers" at which, after hours of serious drinking, the highest nobility in the land reenacted the illustrations of various classics of erotic literature. Or else they watched as Prince de Soubise got his lover, Mme de Gacé, thoroughly inebriated and ordered a group of valets to take their pleasure with her. "Our state of general debauch is dreadful," the regent's mother commented about the morals of her son's entourage. "Youths of both sexes ... have the conduct of pigs and sows ... Women ... particularly those of our highest families ... are worse than those in houses of ill repute ... I'm amazed that France is not totally drowned, like Sodom and Gomorrah." The prudish Mme de Maintenon readily concurred. "I prefer not to paint you a picture of our current mores; I would sin against the love one should have for one's country," she wrote about the era that followed her consort's reign.
The period of French history into which Comte de Sade was born has been eloquently represented by the refined hedonism of Watteau's and Boucher's paintings and has primarily been known as the Age of Pleasure-Seeking. But one could also look on it as the Age of Cruelty. A perfect example of the vicious eighteenth-century French aristocrat was Comte de Charolais, the brother of Prince de Conde and of Comte de Sade's mistress. Charolais was particularly detested for the ferocity of his pleasures. "His heart was cruel and his actions were bloody ... Orgies of all kinds were to his taste," a contemporary described him. Drunk more often than not, Charolais killed peasants for sheer sport the way other men went hunting, and fired at workmen repairing roofs in the village adjoining his castle. Attempting to avoid prosecution, he once begged Louis XV's forgiveness for such murders. The monarch replied: "The pardon you seek is granted ... but I shall be even more pleased to pardon the man who kills you."
SALON | Dec. 21, 1998
Francine Du Plessix Gray is the author of "Rage and Fire, Lovers and Tyrants" and "Soviet Women," among other books, and contributes regularly to the New Yorker and many other publications. She lives in Connecticut with her husband, painter Clive Gray.
From "At Home With the Marquis de Sade" by Francine Du Plessix Gray. © 1998 by Francine Du Plexis Gray. Reprinted by permission of Simon & Schuster Inc. [source: www.salon.com]