‘My memory will be erased’: the bicentenary of Sade’s death

In his fiction, the Marquis de Sade conceived countless ways to die. The most shocking ones are notorious: After having escaped from the hands of numerous libertines, the virtuous Justine is struck by lightning. Other victims are just as unfortunate and end up being tortured to death by Juliette and her fellow libertines. In Les Cent-Vingt Journées de Sodome, the duc de Blangis even informs a host of beautiful creatures that they should already consider themselves ‘dead to the world’ before having been dispatched.

Sade_Justine

Engraving from Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu, 3rd edition: ‘En Hollande, 1800’.

Despite these somewhat intimidating aspects, Sade’s decent works provide less painful ways to be decomposed into particles of insensible matter. In Florville et Courval, a tale belonging to the Crimes de l’amour, the pious Mme de Lérince dies feeling pangs of conscience, while the Epicurean Mme de Verquin peacefully passes away on a voluptuous bed, scantily dressed and surrounded by fragrant flowers: ‘I will calmly fall asleep on the bosom of nature, without regret and pain, without remorse and anxiety’. On her deathbed, Mme de Verquin already imagines the flowers that will have been fed by the atoms of her ‘disorganized’ body. Sade’s literary universe, usually renowned as one of torture and pain, does not exclude peaceful death.

Unlike Mme de Verquin, who dies aged 25 and in the flower of her youth, Sade passed away aged 74 in the lunatic asylum of Charenton. As his biographers tell us, he wasn’t spared the ailments of old age and even suffered violent pain during the days preceding his death on 2 December 1814.

Sade_Charenton

The lunatic asylum of Charenton in 1856. Engraving from Adolphe Joanne, Les Environs de Paris illustrés (Paris, 1856), p.575.

Far more interesting than the real circumstances of his decease is how Sade imagined it. In his testament, signed in 1806, Sade stipulates that his corpse should be buried on his property of Malmaison southwest of Paris. Furthermore, he specifies some particulars of the burial:

‘Once the grave has been covered up, one will sow acorns, and when the ground has become overgrown and the brushwood turns to be as thick as it used to be, the traces of my tomb may disappear from the surface of the earth, just as I like to think that my memory will be erased from the spirit of mankind.’

As the rich and often controversial reception of his work over the last two centuries shows, his last will has not been fulfilled. According to his testament, he wanted to fade from collective memory, but 200 years after his death he is a part of both popular and scholarly culture.

Yet we might not be betraying his last will when we study his texts today. The instructions to the undertaker have something deeply theatrical and seem keen on capturing attention rather than erasing memory. Unsurprisingly, the last sentence from the testament is one of the favourite quotes in Sade studies…

On 2 December 2014, numerous scholars will commemorate Sade’s life and work. A conference in Amsterdam, organized by Gert Hekma and Lode Lauwaert, will investigate Sade’s impact on contemporary ideas of sexuality. On the eve of the bicentenary day, Nicholas Cronk and I will present our recent edited volume Sade, l’inconnu? at Oxford. And many others might join us and lift their glasses in honour of de Sade: A la vôtre, Monsieur le Marquis!

– Manuel Mühlbacher

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