Is that the way of depravity…?
No surprise that Sade would defend what came to be known as homosexuality but his reasoned defense of it is unusual for its rejection of nurture or upbringing as its cause in favor of what would within a couple of centuries be largely acknowledged as owing to inborn biological or constitutional features. From the character known as Sarmiento, a thoroughly unpleasant Portuguese adventurer who has gone native in Africa, a hundred years before Conrad’s Heart of Darkness:
“And were this penchant not a natural one, would we receive its impressions from childhood? Would it not give way before efforts of those who would guide the early years? Let us examine the human beings branded by it, for it makes its stamp felt despite all efforts to oppose it; it strengthens with passing years; it resists advice, solicitation, terrors of the life to come, punishments, contempt, and the tartest traits of the opposite sex. Is that the way of depravity, the way of such a proclivity? How do we want to explain it if not as clearly owing to Nature? And if that is the case, what is there to be offended about? Would Nature inspire something that outrages her? Would she permit something that disrupts her laws? Would she bestow the same gifts on those who serve her as on those who degrade her? Let us better study this indulgent Nature before daring to fix her limits. Let us analyze her laws, scrutinize her intentions, and never venture to make her speak without listening.
“Let there be no doubt in the end: our wise mother has no intention of extinguishing this proclivity. To the contrary, it forms part of her plan that some men do not procreate at all and women older than forty cannot; propagation is not one of her laws. Nature does not esteem it and it does not serve her; we can use it as it seems good to us without displeasing Nature, or in any way attenuating her power.
“So cease inveighing against the simplest deviation, a fancy to which man is propelled by a thousand physical causes that nothing can change or destroy, a habit that serves both Nature and the state itself yet commits no wrong upon society, and which finds antagonists only among the abjured sex—little reason, all in all, to raise the gallows. You may not want to imitate the Greek philosophers, but at least respect their views. Did not Lycurgus and Solon bring Themis to defend these unfortunates? They adroitly turned the reigning vice they found there to the advantage and glory of the nation. They profited from it to stir patriotism in the souls of their compatriots. In the famous battalion of lovers and beloved—men and boys—resided the value of the state. Understand that what makes one people flourish can never degrade another. Care about curing these infidels involves only the sex they reject, done with chains of flowers in the temple of love; yet if these be broke, if they resist love’s yoke, don’t suppose sarcasm or invective, any more than iron chains or the promise of execution, could more surely convert them. One must deal with fools and cowards on one side, fanatics on the other. We can be guilty of stupidity and cruelty, and come away with not one vice less.
—From Aline and Valcour, Letter 35
As to those ministers of heaven…
After young, energetic, congenial Sainville spirits his beloved Léonore away from the nunnery in which she was doomed to a life of celibacy, he marries her (sort of) in Lyon and they honeymoon in Venice. But their wedded bliss is interrupted by her abduction, which sets him on a worldwide search to find her. Sade creates in Sainville a deist—an enlightened believer in a non-interventional God, which brings him nothing but grief:
As heaven is my witness, until [our arrival in Lyon] I’d respected the virtue of the woman I wanted for a wife; I considered that the prize desired would be diminished if I permitted love to break the hymen. But an incomprehensible difficulty destroyed our mutual restraint, and grossly imbecilic behavior on the part of those whom we importuned to help prevent the crime positively plunged us into it. O! Ministers of Heaven! Will you ever realize that it is far better to accept a lesser evil than to occasion a greater one, and that your worthless approbation, to which we would readily submit, has nevertheless far fewer consequences than all those that result from your refusal?
The Vicar General of the Archbishop, from whom we requested benediction, harshly dismissed us; and three other priests in the city subjected us to the same unpleasantness. Léonore and I, rightfully annoyed by obnoxious prudery, resolved to take God as our only witness, in the belief that by invoking His name before His altar we would be married just as well as if the whole Roman priesthood had sanctified us with all the formalities; it is the soul, the intention, that the Eternal One desires, and when devotion is sincere a mediator serves no purpose.
Léonore and I betook ourselves to the Cathedral. There, during the Eucharist, I took the hand of my beloved and swore to belong forever only to her; she did the same. We both submitted to heaven’s vengeance should we betray our oath. We declared our union to be confirmed as soon as we might and that same day the most charming of women made of me the happiest of husbands.
But the very same God we’d just so zealously invoked had no desire to prolong our happiness. You’ll soon see what awful disaster He decided upon to disrupt its course.
We reached Venice without further incident. I considered settling in that city, in the name of Liberty and as a Republic that always appeals to young people; but we quickly realized that if some cities in the world merit to be so qualified, Venice is not among them—unless one so credits a state characterized by the severest oppression of its people, and the cruelest tyranny of the wealthy and powerful.
We took lodgings on the Grand Canal in the house of one Antonio, who ran a comfortable enough place, Aux Armes de France, near the Rialto Bridge. Thinking only of pleasure, we spent the first three months just visiting beautiful sites in the floating city! The pain that came after was entirely unforeseen. Whilst we believed we were walking amidst flowers, wrath was preparing to break above our heads.
Venice is surrounded by many charming islands where the aquatic city-dweller, away from his stinking lagoons, betakes himself from time to time to breathe a few atoms of less insalubrious air. In imitation of this habit, with Malamoco Island more pleasant and cooler than any other we had visited, and more attractive, we dined there several times a week. We preferred the house of a widow who came highly recommended as good and reasonable, and who for a modest price offered an honest meal and the use all day of her charming gardens. A superb fig tree cast its shadow over a portion of the charming promenade. Very fond of the fruit, Léonore took singular pleasure in an afternoon collation, right there beneath the tree, choosing those that seemed ripest.
Then one day—fatal moment of my life! As I watched her so fervently absorbed in that innocent springtide pursuit, I asked her permission to leave for a brief while to visit, out of curiosity, a renowned abbey nearabouts where famous works of art by Titian and Paolo Veronese were carefully preserved. Moved in a way she could not control, Léonore stared.
“Well!” she told me, “no sooner you’re my husband than you crave pleasures without your wife. Where are you going, my friend, and what painting could be worth as much as the original you already possess?”
“None, most assuredly” said I, “as you well know. But I also know that it’ll take me just an hour and such objects interest you but little. These magnificent gifts of Nature,” I added, pointing to the figs, “are preferable to the subtleties of the art I wish to briefly admire.”
“Go then, my friend,” said the charming lass. “I can stand one hour alone without you.” She added, looking to her tree, “Go, hurry to your pleasures, I will taste my own.”
I kissed her, she wept. I decided to stay, she objected. It was a brief moment of weakness, she said, that she could not quell. She demanded I go where curiosity led; she accompanied me to the gondola, watched me climb in, stayed by water’s edge while I slipped away, weeping again as the oars touched the water; then she disappeared from view in the garden.
Who would have said that this was the instant that was going to separate us! Or that our pleasures would be swallowed up in an ocean of misfortune!
— From Aline and Valcour, Letter 35
ContributorsMarquis 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.John Galbraith Simmons
Jocelyne Geneviève Barque
JOCELYNE GENEVIEVE BARQUE and JOHN GALBRAITH SIMMONS are currently completing their translation of Aline and Valcour. Their translation-in-progress was recipient of a 2010 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts. Previous brief extracts from the novel appeared in the Brooklyn Rail (February 2009 and September 2013).