David Nokes

All Very Natural

At Home with the Marquis de Sade

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Sade: A Biographical Essay

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On 1 July 1789 the Marquis de Sade, infuriated that his walks on the ramparts of the Bastille in Paris had been curtailed for ‘security’ reasons, stood at his prison window at noon and shouted at the top of his lungs that the prisoners were being assassinated, their throats cut, and that they must be rescued. To give his words a greater resonance he used part of his toilet equipment – a long metal funnel through which his urine reached the fortress’s moat – to bellow his orders to the mob below. That night, at 1 am, six armed guards burst into his cell, and with ‘menaces, injuries, ill treatment’ (or so he claimed) forced Sade into a waiting coach, and carried him away to an insane asylum at Charenton. He was, he claimed, ‘as naked as a worm’, and wrote at the first opportunity to protest. Twelve days later came the event he had feared and incited: the Parisian crowd stormed the barricades of the Bastille, and rushed in to liberate the remaining inmates – four forgers, a libertine nobleman and two lunatics, one of whom answered only to the name of Julius Caesar. In their intoxication at liberating this hated symbol of the ancien régime they demolished it: including Sade’s library of six hundred volumes, built up over his twelve–year incarceration, and, more precious still, his manuscripts. When he heard of this, Sade’s initial joy turned to bitter anguish. ‘Everything was torn up, burned, carried off, pillaged,’ he lamented. ‘I will never be able to describe my despair at this loss.’

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