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Celebrate An Un-Valentine’s Day With The Marquis de Sade

Written by: Anastasia Salter, Pop-Culture Editor

ImageCC2K's Anastasia Salter guides us through the best antidote to Valentine's Day sappiness: The works of the Marquis de Sade – and she gets it done in less than 120 days, too.  

If the very idea of Valentine’s Day has you contemplating pain, misery, and maybe even the need to cause suffering among your former lovers, then perhaps it’s time for a few words of wisdom from the man who knew how to turn just about any sensation into pleasure: Marquis de Sade. His advice on winning a woman’s love is not going to be found on any Hallmark greeting cards this season: “The only way to a woman's heart is along the path of torment. I know none other as sure.” The man I speak of is no fan of the predictable patters of romance, particularly not when that romance turns to thoughts of marriage. On the whole idea of that particular form of—ahem—bondage, he could only describe “the horror of wedlock, the most appalling, the most loathsome of all the bonds humankind has devised for its own discomfort and degradation.” As for adultery and betrayal, he knew well how to deal with that: “No lover, if he be of good faith, and sincere, will deny he would prefer to see his mistress dead than unfaithful.”

The Marquis de Sade is not a name you are likely to hear associated with Valentine’s Day, unless, perhaps, you find yourself going to the local “adult” store rather than the Hallmark to find something to your lover’s taste. Most everyone is familiar now with the Marquis’s legacy: the tie of his name to the word sadism, the notion of taking pleasure in the pain of others, the idea that all desires should be pursued and fulfilled. Yet for all that the Marquis de Sade goes largely more talked about than actually read, his works placed in the literature section and acknowledged by scholars for their cultural influence—one that is often considered mostly negative or foul. It is understood that his works at their most extreme read as a chronicle of fetishes and so-called perversions listed one after another, the type of practices few people would even speak of today: during the era of the French Revolution it was even more unheard of for such ideas to be uttered much less distributed in print, and it is no small miracle that the Marquis is not also known to us for losing his head to the swift blow of the guillotine.

But the Marquis has pleasures to offer us beyond a vague influence and cultural heritage: for those seeking an antidote to sappy love stories and professions of undying devotion coming out of the latest chick flick or pink covered paperback, the Marquis offers the proper dosage. Sometimes the connections between people don’t come down to tender words and stolen kisses: often they are coarser, more physical, more laced with resentments and rages and brutality and jealousy. That is the world of humanity that the Marquis drowned himself in, and the world he is the greatest chronicler to venture forth from.

As you take in the words of the Marquis and perhaps enjoy a modern tale or two of that era long past, remember that it is not necessary in the fulfillment of reality that we find life’s joys. When reality fails to satisfy, turn to the realm over which you have a puppet master’s control: “The imagination is the spur of delights… all depends upon it, it is the mainspring of everything; now, is it not by means of the imagination one knows joy? Is it not of the imagination that the sharpest pleasures arise?”

Recommended Reading and Viewing for the Disaffected on Valentine’s Day

Philosophy in the Bedroom

The Marquis de Sade is a great unread name of literature: some will tell you it is because his prose is nigh unreadable. Perhaps that is so if they are approached with a mindset of critical analysis and aesthetic consideration, however, if you choose to pick up the Marquis’s own musings in Philosophy in the Bedroom I would suggest you leave such thoughts behind. This is a work to be appreciated for its daring, for the sheer audacity of these words not only in context of the Marquis’s own era but in the context of our own current near Victorian obsession with prudishness: the same prudishness that makes it an event for a woman’s nipple to appear on primetime makes the Marquis’ ringing attacks on man’s unwillingness to accept the calls of nature as on target today as they were long before.

Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the Marquis de Sade might not be historically accurate, but it is inspiring: this Marquis is filled with the strengths of his convictions and the belief that the body is the height of man’s sensations. You’ll know quickly whether you dare to set foot in the world of the Marquis de Sade as an erotic beheading fills the opening moments of the film as narrated by the man himself. Complete with a striking cast and a truly disturbing portrait of Michael Caine as a man of wealth who buys himself a virgin out of the nunnery orphanage to defile, Quills chronicles a fictionalized version of the last year of the Marquis’s life. His classic work “Dialogue Between a Priest and a Dying Man”, one of the early texts of profoundly professed atheism, even comes to life in the evolving relationship between the Marquis and a young and devoted priest. This is not a movie filled with scenes of excessive lovemaking: instead, the words of the Marquis are illustrated with surprising subtlety and the period drama unfolds making use of our own imagination to fill in the gaps.

Dangerous Liaisons

In the theme of viciousness and passion, Dangerous Liaisons offers a peek at the world that shaped men like the Marquis: France approaching the days of revolution. These are lovers who reach a Sadeian ideal of combining their pleasure with the pain of the pawns who come too entangled in the game they play with one another. I recommend the version with John Malkovich, but there is an array of adaptations to consider—even Cruel Intentions, which thrusts the narrative out of its era and into the modern day, is worth a look as it continues to capture what the bored rich can turn a game of sex and desire into. Like the French tale of the regime doomed to a pending attack of correspondent viciousness, the modern tale satisfies that base desire to see the rich and haughty get what is, as they say, “coming to them.”

The Libertine

While not specifically related to the life of the Marquis de Sade, The Libertine is the story of a man cast very much in his mold. Johnny Depp manages to both horrify and seduce as the Earl of Rochester, another brilliant literary mind known for exploring levels of humanity that did not win him any friends in high society or religious circles. Unlike the Marquis, the Earl of Rochester suffers greater consequences for his womanizing and drinking in the form of the miserable afflictions of syphilis. Yet the opening monologue celebrates the same frank passions as the Marquis celebrates, and delivered by a perfectly on key Johnny Depp those lines echo long after they are spoken:

“Ladies, an announcement: I am up for it, all the time. That is not a boast or an opinion, it is bone hard medical fact. I put it round you know. And you will watch me putting it round and sigh for it. Don't. It is a deal of trouble for you and you are better off watching and drawing your conclusions from a distance than you would be if I got my tarse up your petticoats. Gentlemen. Do not despair, I am up for that as well. And the same warning applies.”

Introducing Maquis de Sade

A number of biographies exist on the Marquis, most exalting in their chronicling of his crimes against women, his strange relationship with his wife, and his miraculous survival of an era which by all rights should have added him to the front of the line for the executioner’s blade. Most of them are, for accounts of such an entertaining man, rather dull. But if you venture into the unlikely realm of a graphic novel biography you’ll find a telling of the Marquis’s life that he himself might have approved of, as like his own work it combines the extremes of human passions with a crass form—in this case, the comic-style graphics and the neither reverential nor preachy narration of Stuart Hood.