The Divine Marquis De Sade is one of the great misunderstood literary figures, accused by the ignorant of crimes against God and nature that the facts of his life could never match – he led a libertine existence, but not one awash with murder and rape, and much of his time in prison was as a result of political manoeuvring and moral hysteria rather than any sort of deviant behaviour. But just as he unwittingly gave his name to Sadism, so he has been subject to assorted slanders and accusations from people who seem incapable of separating the art from the artist. De Sade’s erotic novels are works of fiction, yet his detractors seem to take them as personal confessions, even though that makes no sense whatsoever.
If you’ve read De Sade then you’ll be aware that his writing is often heavy going, and his style very blunt – the descriptions might be graphic, but the style is decidedly unerotic, especially for modern readers. There’s an intensity to the work, which is sometimes witty and provocative, but there’s little in the writing that will excite a modern reader. We’re actually big fans of De Sade’s writing, but not as erotica.
Even at the time, the style of De Sade’s work probably limited the appeal as pornography, and the often clandestine editions of his books – almost from the point of his death onwards sold on his reputation rather than the actual content – would use illustrations to spice things up. There are a great deal of extravagant images from assorted editions of De Sade’s work, of varying quality and legality – the copyright on De Sade was never an easy one to enforce, given the obscene nature of the writing. The most authentic and official illustrations appeared in 1797, when De Sade was briefly at liberty after the fall of Robespierre; the author contracted an unidentified artist to create around one hundred illustrations for his collected writings. These illustrations concentrate on impossibly athletic group couplings (straight, gay and all points inbetween), scenes of sado-masochism and explicit moments of penetration, bodily functions and flagellation.
The images are a curious collection – there’s a crudeness and basic approach to the characters, each with a blank expression on their face regardless of how many people they are fucking or being fucked by. It’s basic and cartoonish, with little regard shown for physical possibility – many of the group scenes here are effectively identical (or near identical) with characters all lining up to penetrate each other. There’s the odd human centipede and the occasional pastoral and dungeon scene to break up the collection of grand locations where the orgies are taking place.
There’s a naive charm about these illustrations that belies the actual content – they are simple yet detailed engravings, a few almost reaching the point of genius in their interpretation of De Sade’s obsessive writing, and the crazed fixations and unreal descriptions of his novels are rendered in fantastical, impossible images that presumably must have inflamed the imagination of his readers – though how many people would have seen these illustrations, yet alone read any edition of De Sade’s novels, is open to question.
The illustrations have been lovingly curated by Goliath in a slickly produced and luxurious art book – small enough to slip into your pocket, which seems apt given that this artwork is, even now, pretty strong stuff. Without the accompanying text, the illustrations stand alone as an intense, delirious collection of group sex insanity and wild BDSM excess – charming in their vintage naivety but still not the sort of thing you might want to wave around in polite company. If you have the novels, then there is the bonus pleasure of consulting this volume as you read, trying to connect moments from Justine and Juliette to the frantic imagery. On the other hand, if you are one of those people who tried De Sade and gave up wearily, then this book perhaps offers the sexual degeneracy and orgiastic excess that you had been hoping for, and will work as a stand-alone volume. In any case, it’s well worth adding to any Reprobate library.