On Holiday with the Marquis de Sade

Posted on July 24, 2011 by

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As a prelude to the “Sex and Travel” night at MoSex on the night of Tuesday 26th July (for info, click HERE), I have a piece on the Marquis de Sade’s improbable early career as a travel writer in today’s New York Times (click HERE for the story).

Most people assume the marquis was a fictional character, but he was a real 18th century figure, whose string of luridly violent pornographic works gave rise to the term “sadism.” While I was researching my book The Sinner’s Grand Tour, I spent a lot of time digging around the archives in Paris and visiting Lacoste, where Sade  lived in the south of France, in a chateau now owned by the French fashion icon Pierre Cardin. Monsieur Cardin was so taken with the gorgeous spot that he has begun an arts festival there in Sade’s honor there every summer — if you happen to be heading to the area, it began last Friday and runs until August 15.  (You can read more about the villagers’ reaction to this arty incursion HERE).

The world's only statue of the Marquis de Sade is in Lacoste in the south of France, at the site of his chateau, currently owned by French fashion icon Pierre Cardin.

One intriguing element that I wasn’t able to fit into the Times article is that, although Sade’s career as a travel writer was cut short by being sent to prison in 1777 (where he spent most of his remaining life — including a 13 year stint in Charenton mental asylum, subject of the film Quills) his year-long research trip to Italy was not wasted.  Two decades later, he used the journey as background for the novel Juliette, one of his most extravagantly violent works.  In its pages, the depraved heroine travels the Italian peninsula along the marquis’ same route, visiting the same illustrious towns, staying in the same inns and admiring the same museums – with decidedly different results.

Justine and friends unwind on their Italian holidays in an early edition of Sade's novel.

In fact, you can read Julitte as a perverted travel book, where the heroine, for example, visits the Vatican and gets to have sex with the Pope, before murdering many of his minions.  Sade’s travel diaries get to be directly reworked: His first version, for example, had included a visit to Florence’s Uffizi galleries, with a clinical report of a celebrated ancient sculpture, The Hermaphrodite.  In Juliette, the androgynous image inspires the heroine to flights of erotic fancy, as she admires “the most beautiful ass in the world…” while her male companion assures her that “he once fucked such a creature, and there is no more delicious pleasure on earth.”  The result, of course, is another violent orgy…

The lesson?  It’s hard to tell — except that, for a dedicated writer, no experience is ever wasted…