Literary daybook, Dec. 3

Real and imaginary events of interest to readers.


the Salon Books Editors
December 4, 2002 1:00AM (UTC)

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Today in literary history
On this day in 1814, the Marquis de Sade died, at the age of 74. The last days of his 27 years of confinement were spent pretty much routinely: as an object of private fascination and/or public condemnation for the authorities; at his writing-desk, composing not the notorious books and plays now, but protest or social notes, or directives to his estate manager; in coitus, or thereabouts, with his latest and final inamorata, a 17-year-old laundress at the Charenton asylum, pimped to him by her mother -- after which he would go back to the writing desk to record the details in his journal. Not least amazing about the Marquis is that even at this late hour he could dress up and puzzle over such relationships: This entry wonders at the girl's "coldness," this one hopes that her vow to be only his is sincere, this one fears that she and her mother are just after the three francs per visit.

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Almost nine years earlier de Sade had made clear in his will how he wanted things to go when he died -- no religious or social "pomp of any kind," the body buried in a specific copse on the family estate, the grave site and the man forgotten:

"Once the grave has been covered over, it shall be strewn with acorns so that eventually the site of said grave will be refilled, and the copse will grow as thickly as before, so that the traces of my grave will disappear from the surface of the earth, as I trust my memory will disappear from the memory of men ..."

He was certainly a man capable of irony. One of the half-dozen English-language biographies of de Sade that have appeared in just the last decade or so is the nicely titled "At Home With the Marquis de Sade," by Francine du Plessix Gray. In her last chapter she outlines the major swings and stops in de Sade's very remembered life: for the first decades, as much a pariah and monster as when alive; with the official entry of "sadisme" into the French dictionaries in 1834, a gradual shift away from the horrible man to the horrible but interesting books; from the Romantic fringe later, as much deification as there was earlier vilification; more of the same from Apollinaire and the Surrealists; a more detached interest from the psychoanalysts in the first half of the 20th century, and then from literary and cultural theorists in the second half. Today, the Marquis enjoys the ultimate modern tribute and negation: his village in Provence is a tourist hot spot, with local dishes and wines and bed-and-breakfasts in his name, and busloads of tourists wanting the photo and T-shirt. Lest the real de Sade get lost in all this we have "Quills," which playwright/screenwriter Doug Wright describes as his attempt not to just "seduce the arthouse crowd," but to teach the "college kids and older to recognize Sade as the original rebel, before Eminem and Marilyn Manson ..."

-- Steve King

To find out more about "Today in Literary History," contact Steve King.


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