The List of Sade’s Detentions

From Roland Barthes’ “Life of Sade,” a short biography of The Marquis de Sade. Translated from the French by Richard Miller.  Read the entire essay at Supervert (or here over the next few days, parceled out over 22 sections)—

11. The list of Sade’s detentions began in 1763 (he was twenty-three) and ended with his death in 1814. This almost uninterrupted imprisonment covers all the later years of the Ancien Régime, the revolutionary crisis and the Empire, in short, it straddles the vast change accomplished by modern France. Whence it is easy to accuse, behind the various regimes that detained the Marquis, a higher entity, an unalterable source of repression (government or state) which encountered in Sade a symmetrical essence of Immorality and subversion: Sade is like the exemplary hero of an eternal conflict: had they been less blind (but then, they were bourgeois, were they not?), Michelet and Hugo could have celebrated in him the fate of a martyr for liberty. Counter to this facile image, we must remember that Sade’s detentions were historical, they derived their meaning from contemporary History, and since this History was precisely that of social change, there were in Sade’s imprisonment at least two successive and different determinations and, to speak generically, two prisons. The first (Vincennes, the Bastille, until Sade’s liberation by the dawning Revolution) was not a fact of Law. Although Sade had been judged and condemned to death by the Aix Parlement for sodomy (the Marseilles affair), although he was arrested in 1777 in the Rue Jacob after years of flight and more or less clandestine returns to La Coste, it was under the action of a lettre de cachet (issued by the king at the instigation of the Lady President of Montreuil); the accusation of sodomy lifted and the judgment overturned, he nonetheless went back to prison, since the lettre de cachet, independent of the court decree, continued in effect; and if he was liberated, it was because the Constituent Assembly abolished the lettre de cachet in 1790; thus it is easy to understand that Sade’s first imprisonment had no penal or moral significance whatsoever; it was aimed essentially at preserving the honor of the Sade-Montreuil family from the Marquis’s escapades; Sade was regarded as a libertine who was being “contained,” and as a familial essence that was being saved; the context of this first imprisonment is a feudal one: the race commands, not morality; the king, dispenser of the lettre de cachet, is here merely the agent of the people. Sade’s second imprisonment (from 1801 to his death: at Sainte-Pélagie, Bicêtre, and Charenton) is another matter; the Family has disappeared, the bourgeois State rules, it is this (and not a prudent mother-in-law) which has imprisoned Sade (although with no more of a trial than in the first instance) for having written his infamous books. There is a confusion (under which we are still laboring) established between morality and politics. This began with the Revolutionary Tribunal (whose always fatal sanction is familiar), which included as enemies of the people “individuals fostering moral depravity”; it continued in Jacobin discourse (“He brags,” Sade’s comrades in Piques said, “of having been shut up in the Bastille during the Ancien Régime so as to appear patriotic, whereas had he not been from the ‘noble’ caste, he would have been meted another kind of exemplary punishment”; in other words, bourgeois equality had already, retroactively, made him an immoral criminal); then in Republican discourse (“Justine,” a journalist said in 1799, “is a work as dangerous as the royalist newspaper Le Nécessaire, because if republics are founded on courage, they are upheld by morality; destruction of the latter always leads to the destruction of empires”); and finally, after Sade’s death, in bourgeois discourse (Royer-Collard, Jules Janin, etc.). Sade’s second prison (where he remains today, since his books are not freely sold in France) is no longer due to a family protecting itself, but to the apparatus of an entire State (justice, teaching, the press, criticism), which — in the Church’s default — censors morality and controls literary production. Sade’s first detention was segregative (cynical); the second was (is still) penal, moral; the first arose out of a practice, the second out of an ideology; this is proved by the fact that in imprisoning Sade the second time, it was necessary to mobilize a subject philosophy based totally on norm and deviation: for having written his books, Sade was shut up as a madman.