At first, we shrugged. A chasm separates the image of Sade as a raging woman-hater and sadomasochist, which abides in the popular imagination, from the more complex and discerning way he’s perceived in the politico-literary and academic worlds. But as the Epstein story evolved before its dramatic full stop with his strange death by hanging in a federal prison cell, we looked again. A hedge fund financier from nowhere, he’d sought clients exclusively among billionaires, counting as friends Prince Andrew, Bill Clinton, and Donald Trump, not to mention exalted executives at JP Morgan Private Bank. A host of notables glittered in his Little Black Book.
Such associates, with all due respect, placed him squarely in Sade territory. Epstein and his friends were just the sort of people the Marquis de Sade targeted in the famed opening sentence of The 120 Days of Sodom, the most impure tale ever written (penned in 1785, it was not published until 1904). Today’s endless wars, vivid disparities of wealth, banking crises, and soaring stock markets amid overloads of public debt can only lend renewed currency to these words:
The extensive wars wherewith Louis the XIV was burdened during his reign, while draining the State’s treasury and exhausting the substance of the people, nonetheless contained the secret that led to the prosperity of a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities, which […] they promote or invent so as, precisely, to be able to profit from them the more advantageously.
Fast forward 200 years, and that’s a pretty good description not only of Epstein and his friends but of the cultural trajectory of the 21st century.
Sade’s new moment has been building in the wake of our counterfeit Enlightenment and Panglossian dreams dashed. Where went the best of all possible worlds? Sex trafficking takes place on a grander scale than ever imagined, enticing the unrelenting libidos of poor immigrants and wealthy owners of football franchises alike. Sade would be gratified and amused, not shocked, to witness clergy scandals of such unprecedented scope as we see today; he both chronicled and mocked them in his novels. Our high-tech media have mounted an electronic stage for the visual display of cruelty in cultures and nation-states throughout the world, including our own. Guerilla and state-sponsored terrorism are joined by widespread nativist discourses and political leaders who target the helpless and impoverished — with the rise of Donald Trump being only the most prominent example of a worldwide phenomenon.
In the daily press, Sade has often been held to reckoning for misogyny, owing to his sexual excesses. There were plenty of them, in both his life and art. But he’s also been frequently described as an avatar of liberty and, moreover, a feminist at heart and before the name. A contemporary of Mary Wollstonecraft, he shared her views on the education of women — quite unlike Voltaire, Rousseau, or even Diderot. Long ago, French academic Alice Laborde, who taught for years at UC Irvine, noted how advanced Sade’s views were concerning women’s equality before the law. Although he should not be sugar-coated, Sade was not the vile misogynist of popular fantasy. In his most scandalous novel, Juliette (1797–1801), the Society of the Friends of Crime is dominated (to the chagrin of some monsters) by women (also monsters).
Women, in fact, have been among Sade’s most acute readers and literary theorists ever since the 1950s, when he was unshackled from the censors, beginning with Simone de Beauvoir’s “Must We Burn Sade?” (1951–’52) and, a generation later, Angela Carter’s The Sadeian Woman (1978) and Camille Paglia’s Sexual Personae (1990). Those are probably the best-known literary studies in English, but there have been a good many others. Annie Le Brun, who edited Sade’s collected works, has created over several decades a poetic-critical body of work around his unique way of thinking. Francine du Plessix Gray, who died last year, published a measured biography, At Home with the Marquis de Sade, in 1998. In academia, Carol Warman and Natania Meeker have sought to clarify Sade and his place in the Enlightenment literary pantheon. There are others.
In France, Sade has become a “classic” author, his novels enshrined in bible-paper Pléiade editions. He’s become “an institution,” writes Catherine Golliau, “a source of interminable commentary and research in the university.” Why Did the 20th Century Take Sade Seriously? is the title of one recent (2011) book, by Éric Marty. Another is Khomeini, Sade and Me (2016) by Abnousse Shalmani, an Iranian woman, who states simply: “To read Sade is to grow up.”
We began translating Sade’s epic and beautifully constructed novel Aline and Valcour a long time ago. It started amid other projects, and we weren’t sure it would work out. At a distance of more than a decade, I’m almost surprised we persisted. The enterprise depended on a personal turn of fortune. About 2004 we were priced out of our rambling floor-through apartment in Park Slope, Brooklyn. We put our belongings in storage and, thanks to a friend, went to live in a comfortable summer home overlooking Apple Canyon Lake in the Midwest. Our postal address was Apple River, Illinois.
We arrived in the winter with icicles on the trees. We stayed a couple of years. Cherry blossoms accumulated on our doorstep in the spring. On summer days, speedboats dragging inner tubes would trail-buzz screaming children across the lake. With few neighbors we became the friends of nobody except the woodpecker who pecked on the tin chimney, a swarm of nightly bats (there was a bat house), a family of prairie dogs, and an owl who swooped down on her prey from a tall fir. We were isolated and didn’t see anybody except each other for months at a time. Friends joked: we should lock up the knives. We went out together daily and bought food, wine, and London gin. Sometimes we took an exciting trip to Dubuque, Iowa, to have our hair cut at the Capri College Beauty School. In nearby Galena, Illinois, we found a beautiful old Carnegie Library at which, we were told, we were about the only patrons. We translated for a multi-volume encyclopedia of psychoanalysis and for a grand compendium of 20th-century European history. From Sigmund Freud’s instinct theory and the narcissism of small differences to two World Wars and the Holocaust, this sort of stuff was good preparation for Sade.
That project began in earnest when we returned to New York, ensconced on Staten Island (of all places) in a series of apartments by turns infested and ugly, spacious and ugly, old and ugly, and at last beautiful — all next to the proletarian ferry. Jocelyne had read Aline and Valcour as early as 1995, when she found a beat-up copy at the Brooklyn Public Library. “It’s like Marx before Marx,” she told me. She was taken with Sade. As to misogyny in the novel, she claimed there was none. Rather, owing to Sade’s personal magnetism, in evidence 200 years after his death, Jocelyne said then, and says today, that she’d gladly die in his arms.
Aline and Valcour was surprising and compelling, she added. “C’est un tourneur de pages.” There was talk of injustice and religion, but overall it was an absorbing read, with characters and voyages spanning the globe. I’d known about the novel since the 1980s, when I first began with Sade, but only from a gloss by anthropologist Geoffrey Gorer. I hadn’t read a word until Jocelyne started sending me, by email, files of the first letters in translation. Ostensibly an epistolary work, the story consists of 72 letters, beginning with love missives and promises of undying devotion on the part of the title characters. However, by the time you reach the second paragraph of the first letter on page one, you know it’s Sade. Enter the egomaniacal antagonist: a magistrate judge who defends torture and asserts his right to marry off his daughter to his bosom friend while concealing a further agenda that is unspeakably vile.
The rhythm for translating Marquis de Sade must be slow and forgiving, unbeholden to deadline. The pace of Aline and Valcour varies greatly. It’s often quite rapid but at other times philosophical and cerebrally intense. Fifty years ago, Austryn Wainhouse, who put Sade’s most sulfurous texts into English, learned the same thing. He spent 10 years translating Juliette and Justine. “Sometimes it happens that reading becomes something else, something excessive and grave,” he wrote. “[I]t sometimes happens that a book reads its reader through.” With this novel from 1795, the same was about to happen to us.
Though not overtly pornographic, Aline and Valcour nevertheless bristles with sexual themes and is punctuated throughout with blasphemy. Not to give away spoilers but, for example, the two main antagonists are vicious libertines who carry on parallel affairs with two sisters whom they contrive to impregnate simultaneously, in order to raise their offspring in secret until about age 13, whereupon they would be turned into what today would be considered sex slaves — enjoyed, moreover, in an arrangement of reciprocity. Those problematic intentions furnish the novel’s first major plot point for a clutch of interwoven stories that send some of the 60-odd characters scrambling across great swathes of the known world.
But politics writ large underlies the novel as a whole. Although sex is never far from Sade’s mind, his main themes include political and religious domination, crime and punishment, class conflict, and colonial conquest. Resonance with contemporary fracture lines is ever-present, and so too is what Jonathan Israel has called the Radical Enlightenment. In Sade, unlike Voltaire and Diderot, you can’t find antisemitism (in fact, the reverse) or racial denigration, and at one point he even brings up the issue of reparations for racial harms. He describes a utopic South Seas island where all property belongs to the state and there are no prisons and no death penalty. By contrast, there’s also a dystopic society set in an as-yet-unexplored Africa that strikingly prefigures Conrad’s Heart of Darkness (1899).
Sade wrote Aline and Valcour while imprisoned in the Bastille, the medieval fortress turned jail in the middle of Paris. He was held at the king’s pleasure, without formal charges, at the behest of his mother-in-law. Although friendless at the court of Louis XVI — he avoided Versailles with studied disdain — he belonged to the ancient aristocracy, to which he owed his rock-star infamy for sexual excesses and blasphemies. It was one thing in the 18th century to whip a prostitute, another to spit and trample on the cross. He had been constantly in trouble, imprisoned, and was indicted for poisoning and sodomy. Those were capital crimes. Convicted by a regional court in absentia, having skipped the country, he was executed in effigy on September 12, 1772 — that is, ceremonially beheaded and burned, his ashes scattered. That conviction was eventually overturned on appeal, but the symbolic execution resonated in his fiction. Scaffolds, he wrote, were like boudoirs. “Pronouncing the death sentence,” he insulted the judges in Juliette, “your pricks harden; and you discharge when it is carried out.”
Jocelyne and I were not ceremonially strung up or drawn and quartered when we started translating Aline and Valcour. But that could qualify as an aspiration so far as right-wing activist and syndicated columnist L. Brent Bozell was concerned: after the National Endowment for the Arts awarded us a grant, Bozell criticized the organization for using taxpayer dollars to encourage translation of a book by, of all people, the Marquis de Sade. Bozell’s so-called news company, CNSNews, awarded the NEA the Golden Hookah Award for funding the translation. What were we smoking? Gitanes? Gauloises?
Most of Aline and Valcour — not just the best parts, in fact — Jocelyne and I translated together in bed. It was the ideal place to reconcile my edit of her first draft. We were inspired by Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky, the husband-and-wife team that collaborated on celebrated editions of Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky. They work similarly, though perhaps not horizontally. But they would not have faced exactly the same set of issues. Oh, they might have wept together when Anna casts herself beneath the wheels of a train. We were relieved, by contrast, when Léonore escapes death by impalement, after her executioner strips her naked to reveal “the particular part of the body which Nature locates beneath the small of the back.” At this juncture (despite the persistence of capital punishment in the United States), we felt compelled to add an endnote explaining that impalement was indeed “traditionally performed as Sade indicates, with insertion of the pike through the anus and extrusion through the chest cavity.” Sade’s insistence on the centrality of the body in connection with justice is on display throughout Aline and Valcour.
Léonore, who is saved before the axe falls, turns out to be the novel’s greatest surprise. This 17-year-old narrator has been largely ignored in the sparse critical commentary on the book, although Beatrice Fink noted 40 years ago that she “is clearly the focus of the novel and the key to its unity.” Léonore is young, beautiful, and well read. She faces adventure and a host of physical and mental challenges that keep her constantly reflecting on men and the societies they create. After eloping with her lover, she is abducted by a vicious libertine, sped across the ocean trapped in a coffin, enslaved and sold to pirates, almost beheaded by an Egyptian king, and nearly eaten by a cannibal. But her charm, cleverness, and sardonic wit are ever-present. The only reason she faces death by impalement has to do with a bit of lèse-majesté: she and her fellow travelers, reaching Sennar in the Sudan, are inveigled into visiting a forbidden shrine where Muhammad’s organ, preserved across 10 centuries, may be viewed; off they go as if to some out-of-bounds museum exhibit, only to be waylaid and brought before a heartless king.
But there’s more. Léonore has been traveling in disguise, and the moment of her execution has a crazy but startling contemporary angle. The king who wants to watch her die is a narcissist given to ostentatious displays of wealth. He both revolts his subjects and is afraid of them. As the executioner seizes Léonore and strips her naked, the crowd gathered to watch suddenly realize that she’s not male but female. And she’s white, not black — in fact, two-toned, with her body painted above the waist. When her true gender and skin color are revealed, the crowd erupts and scatters as “some took me to be a god, others, the devil.” Léonore is spared. Naturally the king now wants to fuck her before killing her. But she escapes and continues her trans-African journey — LGBT-certified, as it were.
Of curious note for American readers, the story of Léonore (which takes up a good portion of the novel, about 300 pages) bears uncanny similarities to that of Huckleberry Finn. The basic trajectory is a picaresque road trip, during which she acquires a companion — a Spanish beauty, Clémentine, who is as capable a philosophical interlocutor as Twain’s Jim. Being women, persecution and domination are the constant dangers they face. After escaping a would-be husband in Alexandria, Léonore joins a caravan that takes her through Ethiopia. In uncharted Africa, she contends with a cannibal king, eventually escaping his thrall; trying to return to France via the Iberian Peninsula, she and Clémentine find themselves robbed and penniless in Portugal, and are adopted by a band of Romanian gypsies before they fall afoul of the Spanish Inquisition. She goes on to dupe the Grand Inquisitor himself.
Léonore, the only admitted atheist in the book, is a proto-feminist. Her sardonic wit counters the goodness, godly devotion, and melancholy of the title character, Aline. Unwilling to become a victim, Léonore is the novel’s face of liberty. You don’t always like her, but she’s impressively clever.
There’s much more to Aline and Valcour’s 800-plus pages. Sade wrote his books on the eve of an immense transformation of the world, and the imminence of colonial and imperialist expansion is in evidence throughout. Characters embody various shades of Enlightenment thinking, from counter- to mild to moderate to radical. But they also stand up as three-dimensional figures in ways that cannot be said of most of the characters in Sade’s pornographic texts. The conclusion — the last 100 pages, in fact — enters territory later explored by Stendhal, crossing romanticism with nascent realism. By the novel’s end, Sade has become an author you never imagined. Wrangling his words into English, we were persistently surprised when one of his tragic themes played out with delectable detail, dialogue, and description. When later we learned that Stendhal used Sade to help formulate his long discourse on love, it came as no surprise at all.
At several key moments in modernity’s transit, and now again today, the Marquis de Sade’s writings and thought have been inserted into the wider realms of social and political discourse. After his death in 1814, his works were officially banned, and he cropped up principally in the poetics of mordant souls like Baudelaire and Flaubert. But he made a real return in the wake of the slaughters of World War I by way of the Surrealists, who fomented a revolution in aesthetic politics. After World War II, Sade enjoyed another moment, as his novels were understood to prefigure the even more flagrant atrocities of the Holocaust. He had understood, as so many others did not, that reason would be put to use torturing and murdering people on an industrial scale. A generation later came the multifaceted sexual revolution of the 1960s, and Sade arrived equipped with his erotic manifesto, Philosophy in the Bedroom (1795). His works, no longer banned, were translated and published internationally, and Sade became a seminal figure in the pantheon of French literature, a philosophe to contend with in Enlightenment studies, and an inspiration to contemporary thinkers, from Lacan and Barthes to Derrida and Foucault.
In the words of Natania Meeker, a professor of French and comparative literature at USC, the world Sade depicts is one we all recognize: “[A] social order that both fetishizes greed and subjects all creatures, humans included and not excepted, to a relentless logic of acquisition and possession.” That logic was visible in the life and death of Jeffrey Epstein, in the way he extracted massages from hebetic beauties while sparing no expense in equipping hedge-funded islands and Fifth Avenue mansions. His urge for acquisition was not limited to sex trafficking or sybaritic self-indulgence. He sought to purchase more than perpetual onanism. He had big ideas that he spelled out in fuzzy letters for any eminent scientist or wealth manager who would listen. He fantasized a bio-social future for himself and his penis, an organ he hoped to have literally frozen in time, to be used to impregnate scores of nubile women at Zorro, his ranch in New Mexico. All in the interest of germline engineering (eugenics by another name), in order to perpetuate himself eternally.
Epstein is a reminder that we (in that highly limited sense in which we are ever a we) are more vulnerable today than ever before to the insanities of wealth. Whether it be his transhumanist fantasies, or the climate change denialism funded by the Koch brothers, or the anti-liberal conspiracies nurtured by Richard Scaife, or the self-serving, diversionary philanthropy of the Sackler family, big money can purchase and promulgate delusion. The Trump presidency has been delusion incarnate. How long it can be sustained is anyone’s guess. That “swarm of bloodsuckers” Sade described 200 years ago is still attached to the flesh of the body politic. The last prisoner of the Bastille had their number, and his scabrously brilliant writings can open your eyes to their poisonous dreams in a way no muckracking journalistic exposé could ever hope to do. Seriously.
The first English translation of Marquis de Sade’s 1795 novel Aline and Valcour, by John Galbraith Simmons and Jocelyne Genevieve Barque, was published in three volumes by Contra Mundum Press in December 2019.