The Marquis de Sade at La Coste

The writer's idyllic estate in Provence was where he created some of his most shocking work.

Published December 7, 2000 8:12PM (EST)

The Marquis de Sade, who was born in 1740 and died in 1814, was a passionate gourmet, and especially loved baked apples and vanilla custards for dessert. He also fancied Provençal delicacies such as quail stuffed with grape leaves, very fresh cream of chard soups and chocolate cake. "I wish for a chocolate cake so dense," he once wrote his wife from one of his stints in jail, "that it is black, like the devil's ass is blackened by smoke."

Sade, one of the few men in history whose names have spawned adjectives, was just as finicky about his clothes, and also wrote his wife from jail that he wished for "a little prune-colored coat, with suede vest and trousers, something fresh and light but specifically not made of linen." He was equally particular about matters of personal hygiene and liked to bathe every day -- a habit totally foreign to his 18th century contemporaries, who might have bathed twice a month at the most. He loved dogs, he loved children as long as they abided by his orders and he delighted in family games such as blind man's buff and musical chairs.

But above all other material things, above all his many whimsies and caprices, the Marquis de Sade cherished a certain place in his native Provence, a little château in a small village called La Coste, which he had inherited from his father's family and on which he looked as his only home. La Coste was to Sade what Walden was to Henry David Thoreau, what Combray was to Marcel Proust, what Amherst was to Emily Dickinson -- the matrix of all inspiration and perhaps also of all delusions, the quintessential Site-as-Muse.

Sade's castle at La Coste, a pinnacle of pale gray fieldstone commanding breathtaking views over the valleys of the Vaucluse, sits on a flat, rocky two-acre plateau that surmounts its village like a hovering eagle. As we see it in our own century, it only retains its moat, parts of its walls and ramparts, and a few half-demolished rooms; and from a distance the building now evokes the toothless face of a ravaged giant. Yet this arid site, scorched by sun in summer, ravaged in winter by icy winds, in every way extreme, is still one of the most romantic sites in France, and as evocative a ruin as you will see in Europe. It conjures forth the bloodthirsty monks, the gruesomely debauched noblemen and the persecuted virgins who live in Sade's novels more flamboyantly than in any other French fiction of his century.

La Coste, which in Sade's time had some 350 inhabitants, is a 40-minute drive east of Avignon, and 10 minutes west of the beautiful medieval town of Apt. Like many dwellings throughout Provence, it dates back to before the 10th century, when it served as a refuge against Saracen invaders. After the Saracens had been driven out of France, the citadel of La Coste became the property of very powerful nobles, the Simianes, who owned dozens of other fortresses in the area.

In the 17th century, when the only male descendant of the Simiane family died without leaving any progeny, the castle was inherited by one of his nephews, Gaspard-François de Sade, the Marquis' grandfather. One particular feature differentiated La Coste from its neighboring communities, and was at the root of its perpetual poverty: Unlike most Provençal villages La Coste's population was, and still is, predominantly Protestant, having been converted in the 16th century, during the wars of religion. Throughout the following century this impelled the French Crown to carry out brutal campaigns against the village in which as many as three-quarters of the residents were killed.

As for the Marquis de Sade, whose full baptismal name was Donatien Alphonse François, he was born in 1740 into a family of extremely distinguished Provençal nobles who were natives of Avignon and claimed descent from Laure de Noves, the famous Laura of Petrarch's sonnets. Eighteenth century France, we all know, was as dissipated a society as the West has known since ancient Rome, but the young Marquis, as a child, was even more deprived of parental affection, and of role models, than most of his peers. His mother was a distant, glacially cold woman who so hated family life that she sought refuge in a convent soon after her son's birth. His merrily bisexual playboy father, an erstwhile diplomat, was one of the most notorious rakes of Louis XV's reign. His merrily libertine uncle, Abbé de Sade, a priest at whose Provençal estate the young Marquis spent much of his early youth, set the norm for the family by running a bordello in his house.

In 1755, at the age of 14, the Marquis was sent into the army for the entire duration of the Seven Years' War, and the raucous barracks life completed his moral education. By the time of his marriage, at the age of 23, to a very chaste, pious girl of the newly wealthy bourgeoisie, Pélagie de Montreuil -- a marriage arranged by his father for crass material reasons, to boost the Sades' pathetic finances -- young Sade seemed determined to outshine his father in debauch, and had already earned his reputation as a flagrant young debaucher.

It is just before his marriage that the Marquis first fell in love with La Coste. Upon revisiting Provence just before his marriage, the Marquis became deeply enamored with the property and the terrain that surrounded it. The romantic, feudal character of the site -- the conical hill surmounted, like some vision in a Hieronymus Bosch painting, by its phantasmagoric castle -- struck some central chord of Sade's imagination, and he cherished it for much of his life.

So here we are in the early 1760s: Sade is in Paris, newly wed and living the life of a perfectly average 18th century roué -- partying with innumerable prostitutes, courtesans and opera girls. But there is one totally unexpected feature to this marriage. Within a few months of their wedding the young Sades have become very fond of each other, and developed close, affectionate bonds that are highly unusual in the context of the 18th century's prearranged unions.

The quiet, straitlaced Marquise, who would bear Sade three children, is passionately in love with her husband, as she will remain for the following 25 years. She is calmly accepting of his innumerable sexual exploits, which have already earned him a few short jail terms, and have included such unsavory offenses as whipping women with knotted cords and committing apostasy with icons of the Roman Catholic Church. As our current lingo would have it, the Marquise de Sade is the most "enabling" of wives: She hides Sade's traces from the police throughout his more outrageous escapades, and eventually she will witness, if not participate in, some of his orgies.

As for Sade, his numerous letters to his wife show that he remains childishly dependent on her, and is perpetually terrified of losing her esteem. Upon falling into any scrape, his first plea to authorities is "Don't let my wife know." In one particularly affectionate letter to Pélagie he addresses her cajolingly as "seventeenth planet of space," "shimmering enamel of my eyes," "my Poopsie," "Olympian Ambrosia," "star of Venus," "my doggie," "my baby," "Mohammed's bliss," "violet of the garden of Eden," "celestial kitten." As for the hundreds of passionate letters Mme. Sade will write to her husband, she most often addresses him as "my good little boy."

And so this is the very odd couple we see arriving from Paris in 1771 to settle full-time in Provence. The Sades have been motivated to move there because of the Marquis' intense love for his estate, and also by his need to escape the ghastly reputation incurred in Paris by his sexual transgressions. The Sades are in the company of their three children: Louis-Marie, 4; Claude-Armand, 2; Madeleine-Laure, 5 months -- and a retinue of governesses and domestics.

This was the first time the Marquise de Sade was seeing La Coste, but in fact the Marquis had already traveled there several times since his marriage. Shortly before moving there full time with his family, he had completed a grand program of renovations -- paid for by his wealthy, decorous in-laws -- which his own depraved and profligate family had never been able to afford.

Like everything Sade undertook, including his orgies, his remodeling program was lavish and fastidious. He spent large sums redecorating the castle's 42-room interior. Amateur theatricals were the rage in 18th century France, and he installed a private theater that could seat an audience of 80. He was a passionate landscape gardener, and at the northern end of the estate, which overlooks the hills of the Ventoux, he fashioned a labyrinth of evergreens copied from the black-and-white motif of the floor in the cathedral of Chartres. On the western end of the plateau he planted groves of fruit trees -- quince, cherry, almond, pear - that he particularly cherished, and, later, would continually worry about in his letters from jail ("How is my poor cherry orchard?" such a query would go. "See to it that the park be well tended ... tell them to replace that little hedge of hazel-nut trees.")

Sade also fixed up private apartments for himself and his wife, and we must imagine La Coste as it was in its few years of glory under the Marquis. His own quarters, situated in the southernmost and warmest wing of the château, overlooked the village of Bonnieux. The Marquise's adjoining quarters included a winter bedroom hung with gold-trimmed blue moire and a boudoir hung with a gray and green "toile de Jouy" design representing Normandy landscapes.

Sade did not stint on any hygienic luxuries his era offered. By the early 1770s, when the first inventory of La Coste was made, the château commanded 15 portable toilets and six bidets. The Marquise's bathroom was equipped with a bathtub and a copper water heater, a considerable rarity in French rural dwellings, many of which don't command them to this day.

Like most French noblemen of his time, Sade installed a so-called secret apartment at La Coste, which contained vaguely pornographic curiosities, including a large collection of enema syringes, decorated with drawings of people kneeling before naked behinds and saluting them.

There's a potential danger to this kind of domestic approach to the Marquis de Sade. Such domestic ironies, such pleasant trivia of Sade's life as his love of baked apples might defang him, and turn this borderline psychopath and woman-batterer into a pleasant fellow. It should not be forgotten that one of the most terrifying features of Sade's persona, as with many batterers of women, is the vast range of his behavior -- his occasional capacity for great tenderness and integrity, his considerably more frequent manipulativeness and brazen authoritarianism. Sade was a power freak if there ever was one. His tyrannical streak, in fact, is very tied in to his cult of La Coste, and there is a link between his passion for this feudal village and his political ideology.

One of the most interesting and least-emphasized aspects of Sade's character is his thorough dislike of his own peers and of the corrupt nobility of his time. Sade hated Paris, and Versailles even more; his eventual demise was in great part caused by the fact that he refused to pay court to the king, refused to network with his fellow nobles, refused to work the room in any aristocratic milieu whatsoever. And this haughty aloofness from circles of power, which he shared with his very rustic, reclusive wife, left him without any base of social support in those frequent cases when he got into trouble with the law.

He made all his friends, ironically, amid those very classes of society that were preparing the Revolution of 1789 -- amid the lawyers, tradesmen and artisans of Provence, and also among the more liberal clergy. Sade's romantic attachment to La Coste was closely connected to this hatred for France's central government, and to his archaic political ideals. That ideology can only be described as a very bizarre blend of radical libertarianism and robber-baron elitism. He felt intense nostalgia for those anarchic eras of the early middle ages, before the rise of nation-states, when every warrior lord had total control over his vassals and was not constrained by the edicts of any other ruler.

When you think about Sade, don't think 18th century -- think 10th century. At La Coste, Sade could retain precisely that illusion of primeval autonomy, feel like the feudal seigneur whose most deviant whims could remain unchallenged. And it would not be outlandish to surmise that the very aura and topography of his dwelling at La Coste may have further aroused him to defy the law, in sexual matters as in every other sphere of life.

In his wonderful book "The Poetics of Space," Gaston Bachelard writes: "Our house is a body of images that gives us a proof or an illusion of stability." This illusion of power and stability is pivotal to Sade's passion for La Coste. As his transgressions multiplied this retreat would grow increasingly talismanic to him: It became the only dwelling where he felt totally safe, a utopian refuge from family reprimands and the meddlesome interventions of the Crown.

That refuge came to be all the more needed in 1772, six months after Sade moved his family to Provence, when he engaged in his most outrageous debauches to date. In the nearby metropolis of Marseilles, he choreographed a particularly festive orgy with four prostitutes and his valet. The complex choreography of this particular frolic included whipping four prostitutes and being severely whipped by them in return (Sade loved numbers, and on that occasion recorded that he had received 748 blows); he also indulged in active and passive sodomy with his valet, and passed out some carelessly concocted homemade aphrodisiacs to the assembled company. This caused the girls to feel rather ill for a day. Two of them brought charges of sodomy and attempted poisoning against Sade, and a week later he received the first of many official warrants that would be issued by the kings of France -- first Louis XV, then Louis XVI, for his arrest.

From then on he was a hunted man. He lived on the lam for the next few years, seeking refuge in Italy, or in the wilds of the Vaucluse. But in 1777, after a few more outrageous bacchanals, he was finally captured thanks to the cunning of the woman who would turn out to be his nemesis -- his altogether remarkable mother-in-law, Mme. de Montreuil, who is a pivotal character of the Sadean epic. She lobbied Louis XVI, who had just ascended to the throne and was notoriously more prudish than his libertine grandfather the XV, for a lettre de cachet, or sealed letter. This was an arbitrary order of arrest and detention that could be issued and signed only by the king and could imprison the accused for life without any legal hearing, and was often used by the rich and powerful to get their fractious relatives out of the way.

We're now in February 1777. Sade has made one of his rare trips to Paris on family business, and is staying at a hotel on the Rue de Jacob when a posse of police came to arrest him with a warrant signed "Louis." He is taken to Vincennes and placed in cell No. 11, which tourists can visit to this day. "It was about time!" Mme. de Montreuil wrote to a relative. "All is now in order."

However Sade did have one more chance to revisit his beloved domain at La Coste. The following year, 1778, he was transported, under heavy guard, to a jail in Aix-en-Provence, to stand trial on the charges of sodomy and attempted poisoning he had incurred several years before at Marseilles. He was exonerated in a matter of hours of all charges, and joyfully returned to his cell, looking forward to the next day, when he would be free to live out his days at La Coste with his cherished wife.

But he was dragged out of bed at 3 the following morning by yet another detail of police and informed that he was being returned to Vincennes on the basis of a brand-new sealed letter his in-laws had just obtained from Louis XVI. Three days later he managed to make a sensational nighttime escape, rented a coach and set out to his beloved La Coste.

This stay at La Coste - Sade's very last sojourn in his domain -- was the shortest-lived of all. His mother-in-law saw to that. Barely five weeks later, a posse of men again appeared at La Coste to return Sade to Paris, and the jail of Vincennes. In a letter to his wife, he elaborates on the chagrin he suffered as he passed through the towns so familiar to his childhood -- Cavaillon, Avignon -- where dozens of his relatives still lived:

"What a sight, dear God, what a sight! After having been congratulated by my entire family, after having spread the news that my tribulations were over, that the trial had canceled all punishment ... after all that, to be arrested with a rage, a zeal, a brutality which would not be used toward the worst rascals of society's scum, to be hauled -- tied and muffled -- throughout one's own province and through the same towns in which one had just proclaimed one's innocence ... "

The prisoner and his jailers reached Vincennes after a 10-day journey. Sade remained in jail for 13 years, first at Vincennes, and then at the Bastille. It is in prison that this renegade who, if left at liberty, would have remained yet another tedious 18th century debaucher, became a writer; "The 120 Days of Sodom" and the first drafts of "Justine" were written at the Bastille. Indeed, it could be said that it is Sade's consummately proper mother-in-law who was the midwife of his savage texts.

Sade was only released from jail by the onset of the Revolution of 1789. Madame de Sade, having stood by her man throughout his years of tribulations as unwaveringly as Madame Clinton has stood by hers, suddenly decided, upon his liberation in 1790, never to see him again -- a decision that filled Sade with immense sorrow. Like many other aristocrats - Honoré Gabriel Riqueti de Mirabeau, Marquis de Lafayette, Louis-Marie, Vicomte de Noailles - he served the revolutionary cause, using the nom de guerre of "Louis Sade."

In the fall of 1792, the point at which the French Revolution took a radical turn, Sade suffered one of his life's great sorrows: He learned that La Coste was sacked, almost to the ground. The ruins that you see today are in part the result of this ransacking. "No more La Coste for me!" he wrote to his closest friend, his lawyer in Apt. "What a loss! It is beyond words! I'm in despair!"

A few years later, after the downfall of Maximillien Robespierre's terrorist government, Sade, reduced to penury, like millions of other French citizens, by the financial crash of the mid-1790s, was forced to sell La Coste. The buyer was a native of Bonnieux who was a deputy to the Council of 500, France's chief legislative body, and whose delusion of grandeur was to create a landed dynasty in this area of Provence. But he was not even able to enjoy La Coste, for shortly after its purchase he was purged out of government and exiled in Guyana, where he died 18 months later without ever having spent a night in his new Provençal domain. For the following century and half the property belonged to a series of local landowners, who used the ruins of the increasingly dilapidated château as a keep for goats and sheep and cattle, or even as a stone quarry.

As for the continuation of Sade's career, between 1791 and 1800 he published, in strict anonymity, several of his pornographic works, of which "Justine" and "Juliette" are the most famous. What is less well known is that he also published, under his own name, more than 20 excruciatingly chaste, excruciatingly boring plays, and a few equally chaste and tedious prose fictions, of which he was immensely fond.

One should note that Sade's highest ambition in life was to be a popular, respectable playwright, on the Marivaux or Congreve model, and he would never acknowledge having authored any of the pornographic works for which he has became famous. Notwithstanding his numerous noms de plume, the authorship of "Justine" and "Juliette" was suspected by Napoleon's government, and Sade spent his last 13 years at the insane asylum of Charenton. He was incarcerated there in 1801 at Napoleon's orders on the grounds that his writings expressed a state of "libertine dementia." He died there in 1814, at the age of 74, already a legend, and still denying that he had ever, ever written a line of smut.

So why bother with Sade at all? What is there to learn from this creep who makes us want to puke, who makes us want to take a shower every 10 minutes, and who above all often bores us into a stupor, this buffoon who, two centuries before Marcel Duchamp, Andy Warhol and Damien Hirst, pioneered the very notion of boredom as an aesthetic value? And what do we as readers do with the Marquis de Sade? How do we relate to these scatological fantasies of carnage, sperm and rape whose repugnance is far more conducive to chastity than to any libidinous behavior? (As Simone de Beauvoir put it, "Sade's perverse bucolics have the grim austerity of a nudist colony.")

The answer is that we're forced to deal with a man who's had a profound influence on artists such as Gustave Flaubert, Charles Baudelaire, Guillaume Apollinaire, Luis Buñuel and Octavio Paz. Moreover, the interface between morality, literature and censorship lies at the heart of the question, "What do we do with Sade?" Gruesome deeds have been depicted with relish by many classic authors, from Sophocles to William Faulkner, and if we're going to judge literary works by their harvest of bloodshed, we might consider burning the Koran and the Bible (for example, the Book of Judges, Chapter 20, in which a Levite carves up his unfaithful concubine into 12 parts and sends one section of a limb to each tribe of Israel.)

Moreover, for true modernists who look on art as an irritant, a stimulant and a problem rather than a balm, who read for ideas rather than pleasure, Sade might be worth studying, if only as a historical curiosity, because he expressed several notions that were quite novel to Western thought. Beyond advancing the most extremist doctrine of individual liberty ever set forth, he proposed a revolutionary view of the human psyche. He broke with his contemporaries, who had limited their scrutiny to the surface of observed behavior, and explored those more hidden inclinations, which we now call the subconscious. Deriding the Enlightenment's Pollyanna-ish pieties concerning natural goodness, he emphasized the grim ambivalence of erotic and destructive impulses, of love and hate, that color most human attachments. A century before Freud, he saw that the manner in which these conflicting drives were repressed or fulfilled might provide the master plan of every individual personality.

Sade's single most lucid 20th century commentator is the British philosopher Stuart Hampshire. Hampshire sees him as a "serious figure in the history of thought" because he was the first to understand "the non-logical, or contradictory, nature of men's original attachments," and because he dared to discard "all civilized restraints" in depicting a primeval stage of humanity not yet curbed by the most fundamental taboos.

Sade was equally prophetic in his highly androgynous views of the human libido. Few thinkers since Plato have more eloquently argued that heterosexual relations are not any more "normal" than homosexual ones. Not unlike advocates of contemporary "queer theory," Sade championed a highly polymorphous view of erotic impulses in which heterosexuality was only one of many possible expressions of libidinal impulses, one fragment of the sexual spectrum available to human needs.

Another way the more adventurous reader might deal with Sade is to see him as the principal forerunner of modernism, a claim usually made for Nietzsche. He created a revolutionary and indeed sadistic new relationship between the reader and the author that forgoes the pleasure principle of traditional narrative and deals instead with insult, alienation and boredom. One of the most maddening and most modern -- if not postmodern -- aspects of Sade's writing is that he is programmed himself to foil most methods of decoding and typification. He never lets us know his true intent; there is no way of knowing whether he is writing on a level of subversive irony, whether he takes his wacky anarchist ideas seriously or whether theyre incited by his buffoonish exhibitionism.

Sade is a modernist, or even a postmodernist, because he brutally abolishes the traditional pact of trust between reader and writer; because he cracks, through his excesses, any traditional critical grid through which we might evaluate him; because he forces us to play his own game, which works through principles of indeterminacy and sadomasochistic traumatization. Sade was perhaps the first to propose that the goal of art is not pleasure, but the investigation of all possible boundaries.

The only thing left to do, I think, is to return to Provence, and envision Sade's beloved village, La Coste, at the end of our millennium:

"You can still stand, today, at that Southern rim of the castle wall where the Marquis and Marquise de Sade had their apartments, and enjoy the view they had from their bedroom windows. Looking straight down and East in the particularly glorious month of April, you will see, for miles on end, groves of pink and white cherry trees, budding vineyards interspersed with crimson poppies and violet Judas trees. Southward and two miles beyond, the village of Bonnieux tumbles down its hillock toward the Lubéron range, whose slopes yield some of the Vaucluse's loveliest wines. Looking left and North, majestic forests of spruce and oak, more hilltop hamlets, and orchards redolent with rosemary, thyme, and lavender stretch into the distance toward the snow-capped peaks of the Ventoux range."

The rest of Sade's village, a steep-pathed pinnacle of pale stone surmounted by the savage ruins of his castle, is equally unaltered from his time. In the 1990s, even the village's population, about 360 souls, remains about the same as it was in 1780. Its fiercely individualistic citizens delight in showing you those features of their village that are unchanging. The same Communist mayor, they boast, ran the town for 50 years of our century. They are proud, as the Marquis would have been, of their anti-clericalism -- in this predominantly Protestant community there are not enough observing Catholics to warrant a working church.

As for Sade's reputation: In the 1960s, after the last taboos on the publication of his works were lifted, his reputation went the way of most flesh in the second half of our century. He became a tourist attraction, with the happy result that his village grew steadily prosperous. As his works were being published in France's prestigious Pléiade edition and translated into dozens of foreign languages, the Marquis' name began to draw thousands of tourists to La Coste. Several of its struggling farms were converted into charming bed-and-breakfasts. Whether they had ever read a word of his or not, many visitors found La Coste such a pleasurable and amiable place that they eventually settled there, and today nearly half of its official residents are foreigners. A local vintner now manufactures a regional wine called "Cuvée du Divin Marquis," and restaurants in neighboring villages serve dishes with titles such as "Mousse glacée et son coulis d'orange a la Sade."

When queried about their views of the Marquis, local residents express opinions that range from bemused tolerance to fierce pride. To the owner of the town's hottest bistro, "Café de Sade," the sexual frisson evoked by this native son brings the community plenty of added business: "Thousands are drawn here by the romance of his name," she says, "the romance of the illicit." Another resident of La Coste who runs one of the village's most attractive bed-and-breakfasts, agrees: "His odor of sulfur draws the crowds," he says, "particularly the Germans." As for the mayor of La Coste, he finds Sade the writer "boring and repetitious," but militantly defends Sade the citizen: "He never committed the crimes he describes in his books," the mayor says. "Anyone has the right to jazz it up in his own home." The mayor's phrase is far nicer in French: "Tout le monde a le droit de faire la java chez soi."

But here's a detail that might give the Marquis the greatest pleasure of all: At midcentury the chateau of La Coste and its surrounding terrain were purchased by a progressive-minded local schoolteacher, whose widow still owns it. With admirable dedication, the couple partially restored Sade's domain and built a large theater in the stone quarries just below the castle. Jazz festivals, ballet performances and avant-garde plays are often produced there in summer, and one recent dramatic venture might have particularly enthralled Sade: a "fantastical melodrama" that concerns a love affair between the Marquis de Sade and Saint Teresa de Avila, and in whose denouement the saint follows the accursed writer into hell. The production, which originated at La Coste, received enthusiastic reviews, and went on to tour in Berlin, Rouen, France, and Bucharest, Romania. Strolling through the ruins of Sade's chateau, I've often thought of the merriment the Marquis would have expressed upon hearing of this posthumous success. His laugh might have been savage, cynically bemused.

By Francine du Plessix Gray

Francine du Plessix Gray is the author of "At Home With the Marquis de Sade : A Life."

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