Translated from the French by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons
Aline and Valcour is a neglected masterpiece of world literature, a novel composed by the Marquis de Sade while he was imprisoned in the Bastille and later published, in 1795, in the wake of the still-smoldering French Revolution. A romantic adventure invested with Sade’s original thought, unique philosophy, and black humor, Aline and Valcour seems to have been a commercial success but it eventually suffered the fate of its author’s other major works. It was banned in France in 1815, to be republished in that country only in 1956; today it is part of the prestigious Pléiade edition of Sade’s works. Until now only a few pages have been translated into Engish.
Not explicitly pornographic but implicitly sexually graphic, Aline and Valcour, wrote critic Geoffrey Gorer, although slightly overlong, “could stand with and against any other product of its country and century.” In translating, we have done nothing more than to aim at a relative combination of precision and economy while making an effort to transmit something of Sade’s determined stylistic elegance. Rarely pedestrian, Sade is often philosophical and chooses florid phrasing, but we have been surprised—as others must have been—at how readily his sentences, once deconstructed, resolve into English. In part this may reflect Sade’s reading of Samuel Richardson, whose epistolary novels Pamela and Clarissa he greatly admired. His characters have considerable emotional range for a novel of the 18th century, but at the same time Sade often undercuts their professed moral sentiments with understated glee and irony. In his explicit novels, such as Juliette, these efforts would frequently take on a Rabelaisian cast with gigantically outsize characters, such as the giant Minski or the eponymous anti-heroine. In Aline and Valcour, Sade clearly works to distinctively etch and tag his characters with description and through dialogue and self-expression.
The first letters in Aline and Valcour tell the story of a young man of noble birth but little means, Valcour, and his would-be bride, Aline. Their relationship is forbidden by her father, the jurist M. de Blamont, who plans to marry her off to his wealthy friend—and partner in crime—M. Dolbourg. Efforts by her mother and a small group of intimates—Déterville, Eugénie, Mme de Senneval—to protect Aline and her love match with Valcour unfold in a tale of cruelty, subornation, and multiple double lives on one side, and a world of undying love and maternal tenderness on the other.
“The Story of Valcour” contained in Letter V is particularly revealing of its author and has always been considered in some measure autobiographical, especially the first paragraphs that describe Sade’s early childhood at the court of Louis XV. In fact, the entire letter contains shades that resonate with various aspects of his life, including military experience, first love, dueling, imprisonment, and financial ruin. – John Galbraith Simmons
From Déterville to Valcour
Paris, 3 June 1778
Yesterday, my dear Valcour, Eugénie and I supped at the home of your goddess. Where were you? Was it jealousy? Were you brooding? Was it fear? For us your absence was an enigma that Aline could not or would not explain and which we were hard pressed to decipher. I was about to ask after you when round blues eyes, brimming with love and decency, stared me down as a warning to dissemble. I fell silent, but soon after tried again; I wished to know the reason for the mystery. A sigh and a nod were the only answers I received. Eugénie had no better luck; we pressed no further; from Madame de Blamont too, an audible sigh. Most delightful, my friend, is this lady and mother; I can scarcely imagine a more lively mind or sensitive soul, with such grace of manners, affability, and charm. It is rare to find such cultivation in one so amiable. To me it has always seemed that well-educated women possess a certain hardness when in society, an affectation which for the pleasure of their company one pays dearly. They manifest wit only in private or else, finding too little of it among those around them, they deign not show they possess it. How different the adorable mother of your Aline! If, despite her thirty-six years, she still aroused great passion, in truth I would not be surprised.
As for M. de Blamont, unworthy husband to a most deserving wife, he acted stubborn, categorical, and rude, as if he were a judge seated on the royal bench. He railed against tolerance, defended torture, and delighted in telling us about an unfortunate man that he and his colleagues planned on having pummeled on the morrow; he said the man is possessed of a malevolent nature and that nothing could be done but to put him in chains; that fear is a monarch’s most powerful resource; and that a tribunal charged with receiving denunciations was the crowning achievement of politics. He went on to tell us about land he had just acquired, about the sublime nature of his rights thereto, and most especially about his project to establish a menagerie—among the animals in which I daresay he will be the most spiteful.
A few minutes before the first course was served, there arrived quite another type of individual. He was short and squat, his torso adorned with a juste-au-corps made from olive-colored fabric top to bottom, some fifteen inches wide, its needlework of a design, it seemed to me, identical to the one with which Clovis embellished his royal robes. This tiny man had huge feet, grotesquely crammed into high heels, supporting two oversized legs. Looking for a waist you would find a paunch. Seeking a glimpse of his face? Only a wig, cravat and, from time to time, the eruption of a discordant falsetto that made you wonder if the gullet belonged to a human or a parakeet. This ridiculous mortal, precisely as I sketch him herein, was introduced as M. Dolbourg. Just as he made his ceremonial bow, a rosebud flung by Aline in Eugénie’s direction disturbed the laws of equilibrium upon which he depended. Man and said rosebud collided and he went stumbling forward headfirst. The unexpected shock to his bulky mass convulsed his factitious accessories—his tie flew to one side, his wig to the other. Spilled and so stripped, this unfortunate fellow provoked an outburst from my crack-brained Eugénie. So convulsed with laugher, she was taken off to an adjacent sitting room, where I believed she would faint. Aline contained herself, the President grew angry, bit his lip for restraint and made a show of concern. Two servants put to right the little man who, like a turtle on its back, could not muster the necessary suppleness to turn over onto his stomach. Back on his head went the wig, the cravat was tastefully re-tied. Eugénie returned and the happy announcement that supper was served returned things to order by diverting all minds to a common end.
M. de Blamont’s marked civilities toward M. Dolbourg, Aline’s standoffishness, and Madame de Blamont’s expression of suffering and efforts to divert the attention of her beloved daughter so that no one would perceive her annoyance—all this together with intelligence, which I later learned, that the little man had an annual income of one hundred thousand ecus (a fact I would wager was due to his good looks), convinced me that this poor unfortunate fellow was your rival, and all the more dangerous because the President seemed very fond of him.
O, my friend, what a match! To unite such a prodigiously ridiculous mortal to a young woman fashioned by the Graces, nineteen years old, as fresh as Hebe and more beautiful than Flore! To dare sacrifice the tenderest mind to such stupidity; to unite a tub of lard to a most agile and sensitive soul, a thick slug to a being overflowing with talent—what an outrage! Oh, Valcour! No, no... Providence is either insensitive or shall never allow it. No sooner did Eugénie suspect the villainy than she became gloomy. Extravagant and careless, even a little mean, yet ready to die for a friend, she was swiftly moved from joy to extreme anger as soon as I told her of my suspicions... As she gazed at her friend, tears ran down the cheeks that moments ago joy made rose. She enjoined her mother to retire early; she could stand no more; and if this outrage was genuine, there was nothing, she said as she left, shoe heels clacking, that she would not do to stop it. Yet Aline remained obstinate in her silence.... Madame de Blamont only sighed when I questioned her; then we went away.
Such is how I left things, my dear Valcour. You owe it to my sincere friendship to tell me all you can learn. Expect any and all help from Eugénie and me; and rest assured that, so long as there are obstacles to your future with Aline, our own happiness cannot be complete.
From Aline to Valcour
How can I say it? How soften the blow I must inflict? My senses are confused, reason leaves me, I exist here and now only through pain and sorrow... Why did I ever lay eyes on you? Why did your charming features intrude upon my soul? Why did you drag me down with you into the abyss? Alas! How brief our happy moments! Who knows—great God!—how many more lie ahead? My dearest, we must stop seeing one another.
There they are—cruel words. I put them down without dying... Follow me bravely. My father spoke as the master who demands to be obeyed. A convenient match appears, and that suffices. He asked not my approval but took into account only his own interests, wholly sacrificing my feelings to his caprices. Accuse not my mother—she said and did all she could, and still imagines doing more. You know how much she loves her daughter and you must be aware of the tender feelings she has for you... Our tears flowed together... The barbarian witnessed them but was not moved.
O, my dearest! I think the habit of judging others must inevitably make us hard and cruel. “This is a suitable match, madame,” he fumed to my mother, “I will not stand for my daughter to miss out on it. M. Dolbourg has been my friend for twenty-five years; he has an annual income of one hundred thousand ecus. How could all your insignificant objections overcome such a powerful argument? Is love a reason to marry today? Convenience is the only consideration to harmonize with the hymen’s knot. What does love matter if you are rich? Does it bring respect? Not in the real world, Madame. But wealth does. And who can live without deference and respect? Besides, what has Dolbourg done to inspire your daughter’s coldness toward him?” (Oh! Valcour, I wish you could have seen him!) “Is it because he is not one of those fashionable dandies who makes a young woman believe he only loves her because he knows she is rich, who marries the dowry and leaves the girl? Or perhaps you are seduced by a man’s mind and talent. Say what? One with a few comedies under his belt, some epigrams to his name, who has read Homer and Virgil—he would then have everything he needs to bring your daughter happiness!”
You can guess, my dearest, who must be the object of this last sarcastic remark; but the cruel man, fearing we still did not sufficiently understand, added angrily: “I beg you, Madame, to immediately write M. de Valcour, to tell him that while his visits doubtless honor me no end, he will nevertheless oblige me by putting a stop to them. I do not wish to give my daughter to a penniless man.”
“His patent of nobility,” answered my mother, “is worth more that mine.”
“I know that well, Madame. Witness the self-serving pride of women of high birth with their belief that nobility is of supreme importance. Do you want to subject my daughter, with her Valcour, to the same experience I have had with you? Marry a title of nobility? I ask you: What is the use of the one you gave me? I would have preferred twenty-five thousand francs a year. Those genealogies shine like phosphorescent worms—only in the dark. They are renowned just because no one knows their provenance. Say whatever you like because the original stub is lost....Valcour comes from a good family, I know. In addition, he has a powerful point of merit for you in that he is fond of literature, which for myself I do not value. I want money and he is penniless. That condemns him. I advise you to tell him.”
With these words he left my mother and me in tears. Yet, my love, I must salve the wounds I have just inflicted. Hope is not yet banished from my heart, and my kind and decent mother, whom I idolize and who loves you, positively orders me to tell you not to despair... She is almost certain to gain time and in such circumstances as ours, time counts for much. Therefore, obey my father’s orders. Do not visit—but write us. Important business will keep the President in Paris the whole summer long, and I believe my mother will obtain permission to spend the season alone with me on her little property near Orléans, Vertfeuille—the sole asset she brought my father, who, as you have seen, cruelly blames her for it. Her aim is to insure that the President refrain from acting precipitously; she tells him that she will be in charge of making me agree to everything and overcoming my repugnance, provided we are not hurried but allowed to spend a few months together alone... My dearest, should she succeed I would consider it half a victory. Time is everything in such terrible crises, it is all we can hope for.
Adieu and be not alarmed. Love and think of me; write me... May I fill your hours as much as you fill my heart... O, my dearest! Little would it take, as you see, to separate us forever; but what consoles me, at least in my unhappiness, is my certainty that no power, human or divine, can stop me from loving you.
From Valcour to Aline
Yes, I read your cruel note... I received the blow that shall shatter my life—yet I am not shorn of resources! Oh, my Aline! With what artistry you strike! You put me to death yet want me to live!... You destroy hope and revive it!... No, I shall not die... I know not what voice makes itself heard from the bottom of my heart... I know not which secret organ seems to counsel me to live, that tells me moments of happiness remain. No, I know not which—but submit... To see you no longer, Aline!... to no longer be intoxicated by those eyes I adore, by the delicious sensation of love! Is it really you who orders me thus?... Ah! What I have done to deserve such a fate?...
Must I renounce the pleasure of possessing you one day? But no—you did not say that. Pain feeds my anxiety yet nourishes the dreams your comforting words make seem less dreadful. Time, you say, is all we need. Time, Aline!... Heavens! Can you imagine what it is like—time spent far from one’s love? Unable to hear your voice or rejoice in your gaze—is it not the same as asking a man to live apart from his soul?... I was warned of the fatal blow, Déterville having prepared me. But I was unaware that things were so far advanced, and above all that your father would demand I see you no longer. Who could have told him our secret? Ah! Yet how hide it when you are in love? Had he but stolen a glance he would have caught two lovers by surprise. Alas! What shall I do during this terrible absence! What shall become of me? If I could at least see you once more ...just one time before this sad and tragic separation!... If I could tell you how much I love you...for it seems to me I have never told you.... Oh no, I never told you—how I feel ... and how could I have? What words could describe the divine flame that devours me? Devastated by the very force of feeling that consumes me...scorched by your gaze... What my soul has endured I cannot describe; all expression seems too feeble... And now I despair at having lost so many opportunities or made such ill use of them. How I regret moments so brief and tender! Aline, Aline, do you really believe that I could live without them? And nevertheless you will weep... Your soul will drown in agony but I shan’t be able to share the anguish... As to a cruel marriage, at least not that. I take what you say to be a solemn promise that the thing will never be consummated.... The barbarian sacrifices you—and for what? To his ambition and self-interest... And still he dares to utter sophistries in support of his awful schemes!... “Love,” he says, “does not provide happiness in matrimony.” But what do these bonds amount to when love does not bind them? A venal and abject pact, an ugly trade in names and wealth that shackles people together but leaves each heart to the disorder of spite and despair. What becomes of those much sought-after assets? Do we keep them for our children who are nothing but the begotten fruit of chance or self-interest? No, we squander them, waste them more quickly than we acquire them, and the need to rattle our heavy chains opens the dreadful abyss that engulfs us. Where is the profit and happiness of these marriages of convenience? The fortunes that tied the knots are lost in loosening or dissolving them.
But to hope to make your father adopt a more rational viewpoint is like trying to make a river reverse its course. Independently of the prejudices of his position, so repellent and cruelly obnoxious, are those that belong to narrow-mindedness (pardon my use of the word) and a cold heart. One mistake for such men is so costly that to make them change their minds is hopeless.
Madame de Blamont is so decent in all this... And I adore her so very much! With such goodness, such comportment, and with what love for you! Adore your tender mother, you are created from her blood only... Impossible, morally impossible that even one drop from that cruel man can flow in your veins... Tender and divine companion of my heart, betimes I love to imagine you received life in the womb from this adorable mother only by the breath of divinity; does not Greek mythology admit of such things? Do not we imbibe them from our own religious beliefs? But it would take a miracle... Yet for whom, great God! For whom would Nature have created a miracle if not for my Aline... Is she not one herself? Allow me to so believe, dearest divine, it comforts me. It further embellished, so it seems to me, the cult I make of you... Yes, Aline... Yes, you are the daughter of a god, or rather yourself a goddess, and it is through your gaze that Nature herself exists; you purify all you touch, enliven everything around you; only in your presence is virtue sweet, alone we feel it there, supported by the empire of beauty; by your features it captivates; by you it seduces: and I never feel so honest as when I come near you or leave your company. Who will revive in my heart feelings born beside you that fortified me everywhere in life? Separated from you, my soul will wither away, become like those flowers that wilt with the passing of the sun’s rays by which they bloom. Oh, my dear Aline! Not a moment of happiness remains for me on earth... But at least I shall write you... Will you allow it?.... I could do that... Alas! A consolation albeit one far from what I desire...far from the one whom I need.... And when shall your trip to Vertfeuille take place? What? Shall I not see you before you depart? For the first time in the three years since we’ve known one another, I will spend an entire season away from you. What barbarism!... Cruel father! Aline, soften this terrible and catastrophic verdict... Let me see you once more, for a day, an hour, alas! I will have all I need to live for a year; in that precious hour I shall take away centuries’ worth of sentiment for my soul.
Let me implore your adorable mother, at your feet I beg demand this favor, let me call upon your tender and lively indulgence, and the goodness and humanity that renders you so sensitive to the bitter fate of the unfortunate. Alas! You could never help one more woefully afflicted. Let Nature overwhelm me all she likes—but leave me Aline’s heart and mind... I await your response...like a criminal awaiting the death blow. Ah! If I fear it, it is because I can guess it already... Just one hour, Aline...just one hour...or you never loved me... At least, keep that man away from you, do not let him go to the country with you... I do not tell you to reject his hand in marriage... No, Aline, not that. Sometimes advice itself can be an outrage, and I believe this is such a case. Yes, I dare trust you—because you said you cared for me and did not wish to break my heart.
Aline to Valcour
I am grateful for your resignation, my dearest, albeit incomplete; no matter, do not misunderstand what I am about to say. I would have been less thankful had you obeyed more enthusiastically. May your pain be soothed, dear Valcour, by the certainty that I share it. I do not know what my mother may have said, but M. Dolbourg has not reappeared since the evening he dined here. I seem to discern less severity in my father’s eyes; but do not imagine that his pet projects have been annulled. I love you too sincerely to let hope, liable to be dashed, germinate in your heart. But events will not evolve in any event so quickly as I had feared, and in circumstances like ours, I repeat, time is everything.
Our trip to Vertfeuille is settled: my father approves that mother and I shall summer there, with business keeping him the whole time in Paris. He will leave us alone and in peace; but I must tell you, my dearest, that part of this agreement is that you do not put in an appearance. Judge by the severity of this whether it were possible for me to grant the hour you so insistently request.
To my mother’s desire to learn from the President why he considers you so suspect, he replied that he never imagined, when you were introduced, that you would dare take an interest in his daughter; as a social acquaintance, he willingly agreed to bid you welcome; but when he perceived our mutual feelings, it was a fatal revelation that made him promptly choose as son-in-law someone who eliminated a penniless seducer from having any hope of diverting his daughter from her obligations; and he could have found none better than M. Dolbourg, his extremely wealthy friend of longstanding.
My mother, quite happy to lead him along little by little to explain himself without challenging his plans in any way, asked him about the reasons underlying his coolness toward you. Lack of wealth immediately became his inviolable argument, being unable, he said, to deny your abilities (as though being forced to admit them would devastate his pride), but he first seized upon your faults, reproaching you with great bitterness for your lack of ambition, your remarkable unconcern for fortune, and the serious mistake you made, according to him, when you left the military so young. To this, my mother countered with your talents, your love of literature that absorbed every other interest and isolated you so you could study at your leisure. Here the President, a great enemy of everything concerning the world of beaux-arts, again grew inflamed.
“And what do these petty affairs have to do with happiness, Madame?” he replied angrily. “Have you ever in your life seen arts or even science confer fortune on a single man?... I have never seen it. It is no longer as it was, once upon a time, when a hypothesis or syllogism, sonnet or madrigal, would help bring us everything as we make our way in the world. Today’s Horace no longer finds a Maecenas nor a Descartes, Queen Christine. It is money, Madame, money we need—the only key to honor and position, and your dear Valcour has it not. To be young and spirited has its place.” (Note, dearest, the small vain pleasure he took in this concession.) “And with such an advantage,” he continued, “why does he not advance? The temple of fortune is open to everybody; it is only a matter of not letting yourself be pushed around in the crowd by those elbowing you out to get there before you... Today, at age thirty with his looks, his name, and the alliances to which he can lay claim, today, had he so wished, he would be field marshal.”
My dearest—I beg your pardon—but are not these reproaches fair? Do not imagine that, in my heart, I want to make them. Why am I not mistress of my own hand in marriage? If only I could prove to you how vile in my eyes are all such prejudices—and yet, my friend, you have told me yourself a hundred times that esteem is useful in this world, and if the public is unfair enough to accord it only to those with accolades, the wise man who understands the impossibility of living without it must do everything required to obtain it.
Is there not in the thoughtlessness for which you are reproached something of disenchantment and misanthropy? I want you to clarify this for me, but not by justifying yourself. Remember that you are talking to your heart’s own best friend.
Valcour to Aline
Yes, my Aline, I am wrong and you make me feel it; trust is the sweetest proof of love, yet it seems I deny you as much by not recounting my misfortunes in life. But my silence is rooted in two principles you shan’t condemn: fear of annoying you with stories interesting only to myself, and of making vanity suffer by doing so. One would like to always elevate oneself before a lover, and to keep silent when one can say nothing self-adulatory. If fate had bound me to somebody else, I might have shown less pride; but you so know how to inspire it; no sooner did I believe I had won your heart than you made me feel embarrassed by my audacity in chaining you to a slave so unfit. I felt far from deserving you but would rather let you believe me worthy than show you your mistake.
Now, you demand the confession I wished to leave unspoken; blame yourself alone if it contains reasons to esteem me less. Would that frankness and obedience bring me back into your heart—much as the truth of my story might keep me out. All my faults antedate the instant I laid eyes on you. Alas! It is my only excuse; since that happy moment I have known only love and virtue; how could I thereafter dare to soil the heart in which your image reigned?
The Story of Valcour
Little shall I say of my birth; that much you already know. I will only recount my mistakes, the results of the illusions of ancestry in which we so often take pride with so little reason; it is an advantage that owes to chance.
Allied on my mother’s side to the greatest of royalty, and through my father to the most distinguished family in the province of Languedoc, I was born in Paris amidst luxury and abundance. As soon as reason so enabled, I believed myself overfilled by the gifts of nature and fortune united—believed it because I was stupidly told as much; this ridiculous preconception made me arrogant, despotic, and rageful. To me it seemed that everything must comply with my wishes, the entire universe must encourage my caprices; and it belonged to me alone to formulate and satisfy them. Just a single incident from my childhood will show you how such dangerous principles were so foolishly allowed to germinate within me.
I was raised in the palace of an illustrious prince—in whose service my mother had the honor to belong—who was almost the same age as me. Eager efforts were made to unite me to him such that we would become childhood friends and I could look to him for support for the rest of my life. But my vanity, unapprised of this plan, was offended one day during our childish games when he wanted to quarrel with me over something; his prestigious patents of nobility, he surely believed, would allow him to carry the day. I met his resistance by multiplying blows, letting no consideration stop me, and only violent force succeeded in separating my adversary and me.
About this time my father became involved in diplomatic negotiations; my mother accompanied him and I was sent to live with my grandmother in Languedoc. Her tenderness blindly nourished all the faults to which I have just confessed. I returned to Paris to study under the supervision of a strict, cultivated and clever man, surely the right person to shape a youth like myself, but to my subsequent misfortune I would not keep him long. War was declared; I was pressed to enlist, my education ended. I left for the army at the age when most young men are just starting military school. The more one reflects on the great weakness of modern precepts, the more we see how essential it is not to have extremely young soldiers, but good ones. Current opinion makes it impossible to improve this eminently useful class of citizens because they enter military service too young to know if they have what it takes, while not understanding that the requisite virtues can only be acquired through long and proper education.
When our military campaign opened, I dare say I acquitted myself well. The natural impetuosity of my character and my fiery inborn soul only lent greater force and energy to that ferocious virtue we call courage—the only one, we think quite wrongly, as indispensable to our soldiery.
Our regiment, crushed in the penultimate campaign of the war, was sent to a garrison in Normandy. There commenced my misfortunes.
I was just 22 years of age, trained only in martial affairs. I knew not my heart nor suspected it might be sensitive... Adélaïde de Sainval, the daughter of a former military officer who had retired in the city where we were bivouacked, soon managed to convince me that love’s fires could envelope a soul such as mine—and if they had not done so until now, it was only because no one had yet transfixed me. I need not portray Adélaïde to you; only one kind of beauty can awaken love in me. Always the same attributes penetrate my soul, and the beauty and virtues I adore in you were the same I found in her. I loved her just as I had to adore everything about you, but this explains my failure and lies at the root of my crime of inconstancy.
Common practice in the garrison was to take a mistress, viewing her merely as a kind of divinity to be worshiped in idle moments, cultivated with nonchalance, and left hanging ’ere the flag unfurl. At first, I honestly believed that I could never love Adélaïde in this way; and I persuaded her. She demanded promises, I made them. She wanted them in writing, I signed and believed I was not deceiving her. Safe from her heart’s reproach, believing herself innocent by concealing her weakness behind what she thought would legitimize her, Adélaïde succumbed. Only wanting to partake of her tenderness, I dared render her guilty.
Six months passed amidst this illusion, without pleasure spoiling our love. Drunken with amorous transport, we once even planned to run away together. With permission for a union uncertain, we made plans to be joined together at the ends of the earth. Reason triumphed: I convinced Adélaïde, although from that fatal moment it became clear I loved her less. She had a brother, an infantry captain, whom we hoped would help us. We waited; he did not come. My regiment departed, we bid adieux, tears flowed. Adélaïde reminded me of my promises, I renewed them in her arms...and we separated.
That winter, at my father’s request, I hastened to Paris. At issue was marriage. His health failing, he wished to see me established before the end of his days: his plans, my pleasures, what more can I say? Irresistible the hand of fate that forever picks us up, our own will notwithstanding, and sets us down where it pleases. Everything conspired to slowly efface Adélaïde from my heart. Yet, as honor was involved, I told my family of our engagement; and my father’s refusal validated my inconstancy. My heart did not protest, and I gave up without a fight, suppressing all remorse. Not long after, Adélaïde found out... It is difficult to describe her chagrin; her sensitivity, her noble mind, her innocence, and her love...all these feelings that had brought me delight, now went up in flames, none of which reached my heart.
Thus passed for me two years of pleasure but, for Adélaïde, repentance and despair. One day, she wrote to ask a single favor: to help her secure a place with the Carmélites, and to inform her as soon as I had done so. She intended to run away from her father and bury herself alive in a tomb she bade me to prepare.
Perfectly calmly, I dared respond with a few pleasantries concerning this awful plan and, finally breaking with convention, I exhorted her to forget—through marriage—the tumults of love and pleasure. Adélaïde wrote me no more. But three months later, I learned that she had married; and therefore, freed of any ties that bind, I only thought of doing the same. A terrible event then upset all my plans, as if heaven itself intended to avenge Adélaïde for all the grief I had caused her.
My father died, my mother soon followed. At age 25, I found myself alone and abandoned in the world, subject to every mishap and disaster that can ever befall a young man of my disposition, for whom experience does not enlighten, who has been led astray by unfaithful friends, and—the epitome of blindness—who dares take for happiness the event that makes him his own master alas!—without reflecting—as to how the very arms that held him captive also supported him, that once broken he was nothing, just as filmy plants, torn from the earth by the fall of an antique poplar, protector of young striplings, now exposed, soon expire. Not only did I lose my dear and precious parents, not only was I no longer protected in the world; but with them gone, all was annihilated. Vain glory that seduced me became a shadow that vanished with the rays of light that had shined upon it. Fawners fled; status evaporated, protections disappeared, truth rent the veil with which the hand of falsity covered the mirror of life, and at last—I saw myself as I was.
Yet I did not immediately feel my loss. It took a horrible catastrophe to convince me. Aline, Aline! Let my tears fall upon the ashes of my cherished parents; may my eternal sorrow avenge them the dreadful and involuntary voice that dared scream from the depths of my soul: “Why do you grieve, you are free!” Great heavens! Who could have inspired that barbaric voice? What sick and cruel feeling gave birth to it? Where can we find friends in the world to take the place of a father and mother? Where are the persons who will take a more genuine and lively interest in us? Who will forgive us? Who will counsel us? Who will tend to the string in the obscure maze though which passions lead us? Sycophants will delude us and false friends will deceive us. We will find only snares beneath our feet with no helping hand to keep us from falling.
It was essential for me to put in order my father’s assets, which were located far from where he lived and had been much diminished by expenses during his years in the diplomatic service. My own interests, before thinking of establishing myself, bade me to go rapidly to Languedoc, at least to learn something about what was left of my inheritance. I obtained leave and hurried forth.
En route, the magnificent city of Lyon engaged my admiration and I decided to stop there for a few weeks to enjoy and admire it. A chance meeting with old friends guaranteed and enlivened my stay, and we shared all the pleasures that this proud rival to Paris had to offer. Until one night, when leaving the theatre, one of my friends, after calling out my name, and after suggesting we dine at the home of the city intendant, was lost in the crowd before I could answer.
At the sound of my name, an officer dressed in white, apparently coming out of the same place, approached me, his hat pulled down over his eyes, and asked with great anxiety if he had heard correctly. Was my name actually Valcour? Little disposed to respond honestly to a question posed with brusque arrogance, I proudly asked him in turn what need had he to clarify that fact?
“What need, monsieur? The greatest possible need.”
“And so—what for?
“To take revenge for the outrage done to an honest family by a man of that name; to cleanse, in this man’s blood or mine, the virtue of a dear sister. Answer me lest I consider you a dishonest man.”
“I know who you are and understand you. Are you Adélaïde’s brother?”
“Yes. I am, and ever since that fatal instant which tore her away from us—”
“What? Is she no more?”
“No, cruel man. Your shameless indignities plunged a knife into her heart, and from that moment, I have been waiting to tear out yours or else die by your blows; come, follow me; I reproach myself every instant my vengeance is delayed.”
We hastily repaired behind the theatre, crossed the Rhône, and went along into the trails on the opposite riverbank facing the city. We were ready to fight but I was unable to restrain myself, stirred by the strongest desire to know more of my unfortunate mistress.
“Sainval,” I said with powerful emotion, “I shall give you satisfaction. If fate be fair, perhaps still more. For I am the guilty party and I must die. But do not refuse, before we are separated forever, to tell me the tragic story of this decent young woman—whom I deceived, I confess, yet who remains dear to me.”
“Monster,” replied Sainval, “she died adoring you; she died imploring heavens to never punish you for your crime. After she had confessed to my father the crime into which you had dragged her, he forced her into marriage. Under the press of the whole family, the unfortunate woman complied but could not face the brutal sacrifice. Every day, every instant brought her closer to the end, and she was in my arms when death struck.”
“I have searched for you high and low since that fatal moment. I tracked you in this city, uncertain of finding you. Now that I have done so, be quick to convince me that at least you will not add cowardice to the most barbaric seduction.”
We fought; the combat was short. Sainval had more courage than dexterity, he was more in the right than fortunate. Sadly, he foundered at my first thrusts and collapsed dead at my feet. I had hardly realized what had happened before throwing myself in tears onto his bloody corpse—this sorry young man whose appearance and voice so painfully reminded me of his unfortunate sister. Barbaric god! Was this justice? Was not I alone the guilty one?
Was it not for me to die? Delirious, I stood up: “Vile murderer,” I said to myself, “go and complete your awful victory; as if it were not enough that your ignoble abandonment put her in her coffin; you had to take the life of her unfortunate brother. Awful triumph! Twisted remorse! Go, run, transported by your agitation, why not add to your list of victims the unfortunate head of this honest family?... He lives still... His only son, who might have consoled him for the loss of the daughter he adored, your cruelty has just taken. Finish the work, plunge the dagger! And once more I threw myself on the bloody cadaver, trying to resuscitate it, to return to him the breath of life even at the expense of my own.
Too late... I arose distraught and ran off without direction. Others had heard the clash of combat and seen me flee. I was pursued, caught, arrested, and brought straightaway to the local military commander. I was in disarray, my clothes bloodied; and on the body of the dead man a letter was found in which his father instructed him to search for me to the ends of the earth. Everything ought to have disposed M. de ***, then commandant in charge of the city of Lyon, to proceed with all caution and severity.
“Though the affair is grave, Monsieur” said this military man honestly, “I will nevertheless treat you as I would my own son. You will be quartered in a royal residence and tomorrow I shall myself speak on your behalf. I will smooth over everything with utmost care. If after three months nothing has come out, your freedom will be restored; but, if not, I absolutely must have you in custody so that, should the courts intervene or the dead man’s family choose to prosecute, I might at least prove I did my duty. However, remain calm; I will use all necessary precautions to insure that you will, I hope, soon be master of your fate.”
With these words he left to give orders and I was conducted to the castle Pierre-en-Cise, which he had chosen as my special destination, where I would be secretly kept under comfortable circumstances.
Despite civilities from the officer in charge, I shan’t relate to you the state of my soul on entering this deathly place, confronted by the whole horror of my situation. The first evidence of my despair made the people around me tremble: I considered every means possible to end my life.
What great good luck then to meet in such circumstances a man of wit and intelligence who knew the human heart!* Words cannot express what this respectable mortal, in whose hands I had luckily fallen, did to soothe me. Sometimes he addressed my head, sometimes my heart and he always extracted from his own the arguments he made; he knew how to reconcile myself to myself, and to the life that, without his help, I would have surely lost.
Oh! You vile mercenaries who, under like circumstances, look upon those confined to your care as animals whose blood shall fatten you...who would torment and let them die if only amply compensated for their loss! In looking upon my virtuous friend, understand that the same position at which you engage only in vice could provide the pleasure and satisfaction of a thousand virtues; but for that one must possess a soul and spirit instead of a wrathful nature, greedy and stupid, dedicated only to the unhappiness of others.
A month passed without news of the affair; my people remained at the hotel where I had been staying, confined there on my orders in strictest secrecy. At last, the commandant came to see me.
“Nothing has happened,” he told me, “I buried M. de Sainval with the greatest secrecy and sent a circuitous explanation to his father, omitting to explain the cause of death. I have locked away the papers found on him; they shall not see the light of day unless my hand is forced... That is the extent of help I can provide... I will carry on... Quietly take your leave tonight from this prison and this town... You will find your people, your carriage, and your passport at the first post-house on the road to Geneva... Walk there quietly; from there, pass over to Switzerland or Savoy and, if you take my advice, remain in hiding until your friends from Paris apprise you of developments. It remains for me to offer my purse: use it as if it were your own...”
“Oh, Monsieur!” I replied, throwing myself in this honest man’s arms, declining this last offer. “How could I ever deserve such kindness? Whatever would make you serve someone so unfortunate as myself?”
“My heart,” replied M. de ***, “has always been a shelter for the unfortunate and a friend to others like yourself.”
Imagine my gratitude, Aline; I can but feebly sketch it. I kissed the two faithful friends that lucky stars had sent my way; I went as fast as possible to the meeting place indicated; there I found my people. In tears, I threw myself into my carriage; I let my valet take care of everything; I told him: Geneva. Off we flew and I lapsed into thought.
You can surely see how this tawdry affair, despite such a favorable turn of events, compromised my fortune. It became impossible to inquire about my assets, impossible to return to my post at the end of my leave, still more to make known the motives for my leaving, for fear of breaking a storm over my head. Men of affairs were going to devastate my worth and assets and the minister would appoint someone to my post. Yet these two cruel misfortunes were less to be feared for, should I have gone back in spite of all, what awful fate would have awaited me?
My first thought when I arrived in Geneva was to write my one true friend—Déterville. His reply was entirely in line with the advice of M de ***. He had heard nothing, he wrote; but these days there exists a severe policy regarding dueling, and losing everything would be a fate a thousand times better than risking what might be a perpetual prison sentence by reappearing before it was certain there was no danger.
This advice seemed to me too wise not to follow, and I implored Déterville to write me every month at Geneva, where I indeed intended to remain, not having money enough to travel. I sent back some of my people after swearing them to secrecy and waited in peace as to what heaven would decide. It was during this period of cruel inactivity that a taste for literature and the arts overtook my frivolous soul, that impetuous ardor that previously took me in the direction of pleasures far less delicate yet much more dangerous. Rousseau was then still alive, and I went to meet him. He had known my family and welcomed me with amenity and frank honesty, the inseparable qualities of genius and superior talent. He praised and encouraged the project that he saw germinating in me: to renounce everything to devote myself entirely to the study of literature and philosophy; he shaped my young intellect and taught me to distinguish true virtue from the odious systems that stifle us.
“My friend,” he told me one day, “no sooner did rays of virtue enlighten people than they were so greatly dazzled that they opposed to them the prejudices of superstition; there remained no sanctuary save the depths of an honest man’s heart. Detest vice, be fair, love your fellows, enlighten them; and you will feel virtue softly restoring your soul, compensating you daily for the arrogance of the rich and the stupidity of despots.”
It was in my conversation with the great philosopher, that true friend of man and nature, that I discovered the grand passion that subsequently led me to literature and the arts, and which insure that today I prefer them to all other pleasures in life—save adoration of my Aline. Once he experienced it, who would give up that pleasure? He who can gaze upon her without trembling from the confusion of love does not count as a man; he dishonors manhood the moment he is insensitive to such charms.
Déterville wrote letters that were ever much the same; nothing had happened although my absence astonished all—even while many talked of it in a manner as false as it was slanderous. My friend knew my inheritance was at risk and was almost certain that a new leader was about to be assigned to my company; yet, in spite of all, he strongly urged me not to return. To forestall this final misfortune, I wrote a letter, claiming as pretext for my absence the necessity of my traveling abroad to collect an inheritance. All my efforts were useless and the minister filled my post with another.
Therein, my dear Aline, lie the cruel reasons that led to your father’s unfair reproaches, all the more unjust in that he knows not the reasons for which he inflicts them. Does anything enter into this misfortune that could cost me your esteem or alienate me from that of your father? I dare to doubt it.
After two years of self-imposed exile, believing myself able to collect my inheritance, I left for Languedoc. But, alas, what did I find! Houses demolished, rights usurped, lands uncultivated, farms without managers, and everywhere disorder, misery, and ruination. A pension of two thousand ecus was all I could draw from four funds that once yearly brought in more than fifty thousand.
I had to make the best of it and chance my reappearance. This I did without peril and every day it appears less likely that I should ever be prosecuted for the duel. Nevertheless, this dreadful catastrophe will be etched in blood upon my heart for the rest of my life. My post was gone, I was financially ruined...all my friends were lost... So unhappy I am! How after so many disasters dare I aspire to the divinity I adore?... Aline, forget me...abandon me...despise me...see in your lover nothing more than a character bold yet unworthy of the bond he dared to forge. But if you do hold out a helping hand, if you accord me something of the ardent feeling I have for you, judge not my heart by the errors of youth, and be not afraid of inconstancy in him in whom you lighted the fires of love. It is no more possible for me to stop loving you than to defend myself from you; my soul, uniquely changed by the image of your face before me, cannot escape its force and dominance; I would rather die a thousand deaths than let my love be destroyed. Aline, I await judgment and pardon—Aline—from your compassion.
Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons were among the translators of the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2002) and Europe since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction (2006). A novelist and nonfiction author, Simmons also translated Return to Vietnam by Jean-Claude Guillebaud (1994).
Translation copyright Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons, 2009. They can be reached at: [email protected]
ContributorMarquis de Sade
Social relevance and literary influence continue to mark the posthumous career of Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade, MARQUIS DE SADE (1740-1814), author of Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and other works.