Marquis de Sade

A Letter from Prison
by Donatien Alphonse François, The Marquis de Sade

This illuminating letter was written shortly after Sade was imprisoned on a lettre de cachet (basically an agreement whereby a wealthy patron agreed to pay prison expenses to keep an individual imprisoned). The lettre de cachet was obtained by Sade's scandalized mother-in-law, who lured him back to Paris from the relative refuge of La Coste (where he had been up to his old nefarious tricks with servants, one of whom he nicknamed "Justine") with news that his mother was ill; she had in fact already died and been buried. Upon his return, he was seized and would spend the next thirteen years imprisoned: first at the royal chateau at Vincennes, then at the Bastille, where some allege him to have been the provocateur that led the masses to sack said prison. Unfortunately for Sade, he was moved to the Charenton insane asylum two weeks prior to the famous storming, which resulted in the loss of his manuscripts and probably kept him from an improbable elevation to Revolutionary Hero status. He was released in 1790 after the National Assembly abolished lettres de cachet. He would return to Charenton in 1803 and die there ten years later.

To Madame la Presidente de Montreuil:


This the 13th March 1777.


If in a person capable of having violated at one stroke all of the most sacred sentiments mortals are given in trust: those of humanity in having a son arrested beside the coffin of his dead mother, those of hospitality in betraying someone who had just cast himself into your arms, those of Nature in respecting not even the sanctuary taken by him who sought refuge in your daughter's embrace; if, I say, in one such person there could yet exist some trace of compassion, I would perhaps endeavor to excite it through a description at once authentic and frightful of my horrible plight. But these complaints were useless; independently of that fact, I have yet pride enough, low though I am laid, not to ornament your triumph with my tears, and even in these depths of misfortune I have courage enough to refrain from pleading with my tyrant.

To place before you a few simple considerations will then be the sole purpose of this letter. You will set upon them what value you please; these few remarks, then no more, so that in silence you will be able for some short while at least to savor the pleasure you reap from my woes.

For a long time, Madame, I have been your victim; but do not think to make me your dupe. It is sometimes interesting to be the one, always humiliating to the other, and I flatter myself upon as much penetration as you claim deceit. I pray you, Madame, let us at all times maintain the very clearest distinction between two separate things, my case and my imprisonment: for my children's sake you are seeking the favor of the courts, and imprisonment, which you allege indispensable to that end and which is certainly not at all, is not and cannot be anything but the effect of your vengeance. Of all the opinions heard so far, the gloomiest, the most terrifying, that of M. Simeon of Aix, said positively that it was altogether possible to obtain a judgment whereby exile would serve as prison to the accused. Those are Simeon's own words. A letter de cachet banishing me out of the realm, would that not have answered the same purpose? - Of course - but it would not so well have satisfied your fury.

Was it then you, all by yourself, who hatched and had enacted the scheme of having me locked away between four walls? And how on earth could the wise magistrates today governing the State have let themselves be hoodwinked to the point of believing they were promoting the interests of a family when the whole matter was patently of slaking a woman's thirst for revenge? Why, I repeat, am I behind bars? why is an imprudence on my part construed as a crime? why is there opposition to allowing me to prove my judges the difference between the two? and why does that opposition come from you? So many questions to which, unless I am much mistaken, Madame is not disposed to reply. Ten or a dozen bolts and locks presently answer in your stead; but this tyranny's argument, to which law is formally opposed, is not eternally triumphant. In this I take comfort.

Fixing our attention upon my case alone, is it to clear my name that you have me punished? and are you so deluded as to believe that this punishment shall go unknown? Do you fancy that they who will eventually get wind of it shall fail to see a misdeed somewhere, punishment being so evident? Be it meted out by the King, be it meted out by judges, ‘tis punishment nonetheless, and the public - which is neither indulgent nor overly curious to ferret out the truth -, is the public going to make this frivolous distinction? and will it not always see prior crime where punishment has ensued? And how then my enemies shall exult! what splendid opportunities you ready for them in the future! and how tempted they shall be to have at me anew, since the results correspond so nicely to their intentions! All your five years of slandering me have provided the foundation for this attitude and behavior in my regard, and you have at all times been aware of it from the cruel situation you have seen me in during this whole period, constantly the target of fresh calumnies which sordid interest based upon the unhappiness of my situation. How would you have a man thought anything but guilty after the public authorities come three or four times knocking at his door, and when he is finally clapped into jail once he is got hold of? Whom do you hope to convince I have not been in confinement when such a long time has passed since I've been seen or heard from? After all the maneuvers employed to seize me, and then after my disappearance - what else do you suppose anyone could think save that I have been arrested? And from this, what advantage shall be gleaned? My reputation lost forever and new troubles arising at every turn. That is what I shall owe to your superior manner of handling my affairs.

But let us consider matters from another viewpoint. Is this a personal chastening I'm getting? and as if I were a naughty little boy, the idea is to spank me into good behavior? Wasted efforts, Madame. If the wretchedness and ignominy to which I have been reduced by the Marseilles judges' absurd proceedings, who punished the most commonplace of indiscretions as though it were a crime, have failed to make me mend my ways, your iron bars and your iron doors and your locks will not be more successful. You ought by now to know me well enough to realize that the mere suspicion of dishonor is capable of withering me to the heart, and you are clever enough to understand that a fault whose origin is in hot-bloodedness is not corrected by bringing that blood to a boil, by firing the brain through deprivation and inflaming the imagination through solitude. What I advance here will be supported by every reasonable being who has some acquaintance of me and who is not infatuated with the idiotic notion, that to correct or punish a man you must encage him like a wild beast; and I challenge any sane spirit not to conclude that from such usage the only possible result for me is the most certain organic disturbance.

If then neither my conduct nor my reputation stand to gain from this latest piece of kindness in my regard - if, on the contrary, everything loses thereby, and it crazes my brain - what purpose shall it have served, Madame? It shall have served your vengeance, no? Yes, ‘tis all too obvious, everything leads back to that starting point; and all I've just written is quite beside the point, all that matters not in the slightest, only one thing does: that I be sacrificed...and you satisfied. Indeed, you very surely say to yourself, the greater the damage wrought, the more content I'll be. But ought you not have been amply contented, Madame, by the six months I had of prison in Savoy for the same cause? Were five years of afflictions and stigmas insufficient? and was this appalling denouement absolutely necessary? - especially after I gave you the demonstration of what lengths this sort of maltreatment could drive me to, by risking my life to escape from it! Own that, knowing what you know, ‘tis evidence of no little barbarity on your part to have the same thing inflicted upon me again, and with episodes a thousand times crueler than before and which, sickening me into total revolt, will at any moment have me dashing my head against the bars confining me. Do not reduce me to despair, Madame; I cannot endure this horrible solitude unscathed, I sense the worst coming. Remember: never shall any good come to you from bestializing my soul and rendering my heart immune to feeling, the only possible results of the frightful state you have had me put in. Give me time to repair my errors, do not make yourself responsible for those into which perhaps, I shall again be swept by the dreadful disorder I feel brewing in my mind.

I am respectfully, Madame, your very humble and very obedient servant.

De Sade

P.S. - If the person from Montpellier returns, I hope it will not be without the most urgent recommendation not to breathe a word about the scandalous scene to which you shrewdly made him witness, a blunder which, considering the circumstances of his father's affairs, is assuredly quite inexcusable.

(Originally published by Grove Press, 841 Broadway, New York, NY 10003)

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