THE MARQUIS DE SADE by Neil Schaeffer


A Life
Email this review


Schaeffer (English/Brooklyn Coll.) is an unlucky fellow. Not only is the Marquis de Sade’s life already thoroughly published, no fewer than two North American writers have brought out major biographies in the last few months. When one comes to such a topic so late, it is customary to stake out some special perspective, aspect, or agenda. In November of last year Francine du Plessix Gray crossed the finish line first with her excellent At Home with the Marquis de Sade. In it she emphasizes Sade’s married life and domestic arrangements. Then in December a sober-minded Canadian scholar of French literature, Laurence Bongie, offered a full-scale assault against sadolatry in his fine Sade: A Biographical Essay; Bongie sees it as his mission to deflate the odious Sade’s overblown prestige. And just when we thought enough of Sade was enough, we get Schaeffer’s version of the life. Disappointingly, it does not markedly differ from any of the other lives that you might care to pick up and read. Schaeffer has not bothered to make a distinctive argument about Sade or his writing. Orthodox Freudian explanations resolve Sade’s perversions, and Schaeffer blandly accepts Sade as the major writer that many modernists proclaimed. Though Schaeffer does not state his views with great clarity, he gives the impression that Sade’s greatness resides in his unblinking gaze at the worst to be found in us. Freud also underpins Schaeffer’s reading of Sade’s appeal (if that is the right word): “Since sexual perversity is a common feature of everyone’s mental life . . . there is in every reader extremely powerful motives to respond to Sade’s imagination on this subject—whether through identification, laughter, titillation, horror, anger, or disgusted rejection.” The logic of this thought might not stand up under severe scrutiny, but we get the idea that Sade, like other great writers, is universal. This life of Sade is a respectable biography, but not likely to stand out in the crowd.

Pub Date: April 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-679-40407-4
Page count: 592pp
Publisher: Knopf
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 1999