In a letter written from prison to his wife in 1784, Marquis de Sade complains about his discomfort and what he perceives as his ill treatment:
You are also well aware that my dizzy spells and my frequent nosebleeds, both of which I have when I’m not lying down with my head perched extremely high, had obliged me to have an oversized pillow. When I tried to take this wretched pillow with me, you would have thought I was trying to steal the list of those who had conspired against the State; barbarically, they tore it from my hands and declared that matters of such magnitude had never been tolerated. And indeed I realized that some secret rule or regulation of government doubtless stipulated that a prisoner’s head should be kept lowered, for when to remedy that situation owning to the fact that my oversized pillow had been denied me I humbly requested four planks of wood, they took me for a madman. A swarm of commissioners descended upon me, who, having verified that I was indeed most uncomfortable in bed, in their infinite wisdom concluded that the rules were the rules and ’twas impossible to change them. Verily I say unto you that that you have to see it to believe it, and were we to learn that such things were taking place in China, our tender and compassionate Frenchmen would wast not a moment shouting to the high heavens: Oh! those barbarians!
Marquis de Sade wrote Aline & Valcour during this same period of time while locked up in the Bastille, one of the many incarcerations he would suffer through in his life. The second volume of this book, as it is published by Contra Mundum Press, becomes more deeply introspective and philosophical as Sade’s incarceration is obviously wearing on him. The eponymous characters of the story are completely absent from this long interlude. Instead it involves the story of Sainville and Leonore, two lovers that are similarly kept apart by their parents and a series of terrible accidents. The pair, just recently reunited, spend the night at Aline’s family’s home and tell their long, sad tale.
Sainville and Leonore elope and are spending their honeymoon in Venice when Leonore is kidnapped by a crazy Italian count who wants to keep her as his sex slave. Sainville travels to Africa and parts of the south seas in the hopes of finding her and he visits two very different countries, one a savage, barbaric tyranny and the other a beautiful, peaceful utopia. These two very different places allow Sade to reflect on political philosophy, religion, the treatment of women, and the nature and rights of man. In Africa, King Maacoro of Butua is a tyrant who uses women for sex, domestic work and heavy labor. He eats the flesh of his captured enemies as well as women who are sacrificed to the country’s savage deities. Sarmiento, a servant of the King explains the horrible conditions under which women live in this place:
It is impossible to describe, my friend, the subjugation of women in this country. To possess many of them is a luxury but made little use of. Whether rich or poor, men think as one on the matter. Females are worked here like our beasts of burden in Europe. They sow and plow the fields and harvest the crops; in the house they clean and serve and, in addition, they are offered up to the gods and immolated. They are perpetually faced with the men’s ferocity and barbarism and become victims of their ugly moods, intemperance and tyranny.
We are meant to be horrified, I think, at the barbarism of the men in this place and particularly at the way in which women are used as chattel. I was surprised, given Sade’s reputation and his other writings, to find that he thinks women should be treated properly and respectfully by men. In his own letters he is abusive and angry towards his own wife, but apparently he doesn’t feel that it is appropriate for all women to be treated so harshly.
By contrast, in the kingdom of Zame, where Sainville lands next, women are treated as equals among men. In this utopia, all worked together to produce goods and services to that all citizens are happy and get what they need. The description of this kingdom is very Marxist and Socialist in nature. And it is Zame who Sade uses at his mouthpiece for condoning unnecessarily harsh laws and prison sentences:
Don’t you know that prison, the worst and most dangerous of punishments, is nothing but an ancient abuse of justice, and that despotism and tyranny follow in its wake? The necessity to keep in custody one who shall be judged led naturally first to the invention of irons, maintained under barbarism. That atrocity, like any act of severe rigor, was born of ignorance and blindness. Inept judges, daring neither to condemn nor absolve, would often prefer to keep the accused in prison, conscience clear because they don’t take the life of the man but neither do they return him to society.
Sade also continues to be influenced by Lucretian and Epicurean philosophy. As Sainville is looking for his wife and is constantly suffering shipwrecks and other horrible misfortunes, he invokes the name of Lucretius:
Here a philosopher might profit from the study of man, observing with what rapidity a change in atmosphere drives him from one state to another. An hour ago our sailors were drunk and cursing. Now they raised their hands to implore Heaven’s protection. Fear is truly the wellspring of religion and, as Lucretius said, the mother of all cults. Were man gifted with a better constitution and a nature less prone to disorder, we’d never hear talk of gods on earth.
It’s in the context of religion that Sade brings up Lucretian thoughts again, but this time it is curious that this speech comes from the mouth of his villain in the Kingdom of Butua. The religious rites of these people are brutal and barbaric and they also believe in the materialism of the soul and the death of it once it is detached from the body—a major tenet of Lucretian philosophy. Sarmiento once again explains to him, “Their notions concerning the fate of souls in the afterlife are quite confused. First of all, they don’t believe the soul is distinct from the body; they say it’s only the result of the way we are organized by Nature. Each type of organization necessitates a different soul and that is all that separates us from the animals. Their system seems to me quite philosophical.”
But why attribute this philosophy to those who live in the dystopia instead of the utopia? The fate of the soul and the afterlife are never discussed with Zame. Perhaps these are ideas that intrigued Sade, but ones that he couldn’t quite accept as his own personal belief system? The second volume, although it veers from the main story, is just as, if not more, intriguing and thought-provoking as the first.
On to Volume III.