Books: The prisoner of gender

`Must we burn Sade?' asked Simone de Beauvoir in 1951. Michael Arditti judges new views of `the wickedest man of the 18th century', and decides that he deserves a (conditional) reprieve `Must we burn Sade?' asked Simone de Beauvoir. Michael Arditti gives him a (conditional) reprieveAt Home with the Marquis de Sade by Francine du Plessix Gray Chatto & Windus, pounds 20, 402ppThe Marquis de Sade: a life by Neil Schaeffer Hamish Hamilton, pounds 25, 562pp
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In a world where masochism and sadism have become as commonplace as Marks and Spencer and one is far more likely to epater la bourgeoisie by asking for permission to smoke or expressing support for the Conservative Party than by admitting a taste for flagellation, it is timely to consider two new books which examine the life and legacy of the Marquis de Sade.

Sade's life raises important questions. Is our current fascination with all things fetishistic - even the Earl's Court Arena, once the sacred home of the Ideal Home, now hosts an annual sex fair - just another symptom of our sick consumerist society? Or is it an acknowledgement of the insight provided by Sade, and popularised by Freud, that eroticism is the mainspring of human behaviour?

Is Sade, as Camille Paglia has suggested, "the most unread major writer in Western literature", or the most unreadable? And how accurate is her claim that, in a century in which we have abandoned the Church, we follow Sade in looking to sex to fulfil our intrinsic need for ritual?

Sade is widely regarded as the wickedest man of the 18th century (until recently, his descendants were forced to downplay the association). But he was essentially a man of his time, born in 1740 into an Ancien Regime society where licentiousness and cruelty were the order of the day.

One of his father's mistresses, the Princesse de Charolais, had herself painted in the habit of a Franciscan nun - not out of piety but as a way of arousing her lovers. Her brother, the Comte de Charolais, exemplified all the most bloodthirsty traits of his age and class, shooting peasants for sport and taking pot-shots at workmen repairing roofs in a neighbouring village - behaviour which is often casually, and erroneously, described as Sadeian.

Sade's father was arrested for picking up boys in the Tuileries gardens, while his uncle - the Abbe de Sade, in whose house he spent many of his formative years - enjoyed domestic arrangements irregular even for a licentious prelate: he kept "simultaneous company with two women, a mother and daughter". The young Sade had the run of his uncle's library, which included all the major texts of the Enlightenment, as well as fashionable erotica. Even Sade's later taste for writing pornography was not unique; the practice, says Gray, "seemed to be particularly common among the Provencal aristocracy".

Each generation makes de Sade in its own image. In her seminal 1951 essay, "Must We Burn Sade?", Simone de Beauvoir looked to Marx, seeing Sade as the "scion of a declining aristocratic class, which attempted to revive in the boudoir the status for which it was nostalgic - that of lone and sovereign feudal despot".

Both Francine du Plessix Gray and Neil Schaeffer look to Freud, finding the key to Sade's personality in his relationship with his absent mother. It is remarkable how often maternal figures are punished in his writings, most savagely in La Philosophie dans la Boudoir. There the newly debauched Eugenie takes revenge on her authoritarian mother by raping her with a dildo, having her raped and sodomised by a syphilitic valet, and then sewing up both orifices to ensure infection - a punishment which predates (and outdoes) anything in American Psycho.

Schaeffer notes how, throughout his life, Sade sought out and idealised mother figures who seemed able to protect him. Unfortunately, he chose badly: most notoriously in the Presidente de Montreuil.

The Presidente, the wife of a former judge, was one of the newly-rich Noblesse de la Robe. In the second half of the 18th century, they were marrying into and financing the more ancient Noblesse de L'Epee just as, a century later, American heiresses bankrolled the English aristocracy. When Sade married Renee-Pelagie de Montreuil in May 1763, he fell into the clutches of her mother, whom Gray describes as exemplifying "that eighteenth century phenomenon, the formidable authority of women".

At first, the Presidente was charmed by Sade and supported him in his disputes with his father, but her patience was gradually exhausted - although by his extravagance more than by his debaucheries. When he seduced her beloved younger daughter, Anne-Prospere (acting out the incest fantasies which were later to feature so prominently in his novels), she turned into his most implacable foe. It was she who hounded him through France and Italy, securing his arrest under a lettre de cachet, which led to his imprisonment for 13 years.

If imprisonment was the destruction of Sade the family man, souring his relations with his devoted wife and denying him contact with his three children, it was the making of Sade the writer. Had it not been for the Presidente's machinations, he would be no more than another 18th-century libertine, a Comte de Charolais, meriting a footnote in histories on account of his abuse of prostitutes (committing sacrilege; demanding sodomy and flagellation; feeding them Spanish Fly to induce flatulence). Whereas in the Bastille, between 1782 and 1788, he wrote eight novels and volumes of short stories, 16 historical novellas, two volumes of essays and 20 plays.

His prolificacy was some compensation for his prodigality. There remains considerable dispute as to the merit of his work. His two current biographers differ sharply in their assessment of the 120 Days of Sodom, the most significant of the prison texts. Gray describes this grim catalogue of perversions, in which four bisexual bullies conduct vicious sexual experiments on 28 youthful victims, as "the brutally dehumanising kind of pornography that annihilates the human person, reducing it to a disposable pleasure- machine". Schaeffer, more questionably, praises it as "one of the most radical, one of the most important novels ever written".

Sade was released from prison early in the Revolution, transforming himself into plain Louis Sade, joining the Society of Authors and seeing two of his plays performed (without much success) at the Comedie Francaise. He played a prominent role during the Terror, enjoying jurisdiction over his arch-enemies, the Montreuils, who, as the parents of emigres, faced the threat of the guillotine. He took his revenge not by condemning them but by showing them clemency.

He fell from favour when Bonaparte climbed to power. The publication of Juliette - with its frenetic sex scenes, including one in which the atheistic Pope Pius VI, accustomed to being sodomised at least 25 times a day, celebrates a black mass by copulating with the heroine on the high altar of St Peter's surrounded by hundreds of masturbating monks and priests - was unlikely to recommend itself to the puritanical First Consul.

The authorities decided not to try him, for fear of public scandal, but to "punish him administratively". He was incarcerated in the asylum of Charenton where, under the enlightened directorship of Coulmier, a voyeuristic hunchback dwarf, he was able to fulfil his lifelong theatrical ambitions with a series of productions. Pace Peter Weiss, author of the Marat-Sade, these plays were not radical discourses on revolution but bland society comedies. He died at 74, after a final romance with an accommodating 17- year-old laundress.

Both these biographies are carefully argued, closely researched additions to Sade studies. They adopt a broadly similar psychoanalytical approach which can become wearing, notably in Schaeffer's crude attempt to explain Sade's preference for sodomy. They differ in matters of detail (Gray gives Sade's height as 5'2"; Schaeffer as 5'6"), convention (Gray calls Renee- Pelagie by her second name, Schaeffer by her first), and interpretation (Sade's crucial friendship with Mlle de Rousset is seen as platonic by Gray and sexual by Schaeffer).

Schaeffer, a professor of literature, puts greater emphasis on Sade's writings, but Gray's critical judgements are more assured. Gray, a novelist, draws sharper portraits of the minor characters, supplying more intimate details of Louis XVI's erectile dysfunction than many may wish to know. In an authorial contest, I would opt for Gray, whose book is slightly shorter, far livelier, better judged, and pounds 5 cheaper.

Nevertheless, both are highly distinguished biographies which demonstrate that, far from being a night-club fashion statement and a sex-shop cliche, Sade has an incontrovertible, if controversial, place in the development of Western thought.