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Francine Du Plessix Gray’s: At Home With The Marquis De Sade: A Life

4615 words - 19 pages

Francine du Plessix Gray’s: At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life

In 1998, Francine du Plessix Gray, prolific author of novels, biographies, sociological studies and frequent contributions to The New Yorker, published her most acclaimed work to date: At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life. A Pulizer Prize finalist that has already appeared in multiple English-language editions as well as translated ones, Du Plessix Gray’s biography has met with crowning achievement and recognition on all fronts. Accolades have accumulated from the most acclaimed of eighteenth-century luminaries, such as Robert Darnton, in a lengthy review in The New York Review of Books that compares her ...view middle of the document...

This paper, then, explores Sade’s biography not as a narrative of (the Marquis de Sade’s) his life, but as a narrative that pleases today’s reader because it serves up a voyeur’s view of (in) his “dysfunctional” family life “at home” that we are all too familiar with. This becomes abundantly apparent when du Plessix-Gray’s rendering of the Marquis and the Marquise’s lives are superimposed over the récit of lives that we read about all the time in the popular press and observe in television soaps and other series. Ultimately, we are interested in what such a reading, writing and representation of Sade’s life does to Sade’s persona and status, both in the world of letters, but more importantly, in the world at large. Finally, this paper will address the ways in which the Marquis de Sade and his “family” provided Francine with the ideal subject upon which to continue her own self-fashioning, a project whose roots can be discerned in her first work, the 1967 novel Lovers and Tyrants and continuing on through her 2001 biography Simone Weil, the disturbing portrait of another figure wracked by contradiction and excess. This brief perusal of her previous work establishes a provocative background against which to judge the author’s selection of Sade and to analyze how he and the family, especially Renée Pélagie, the Marquise de Sade, stack up against the subjects she has previously probed in her writing.

Although the biography is purportedly to focus mostly on two women in the Marquis de Sade’s life, namely his wife Pélagie and his mother-in-law, the Présidente de Montreuil, du Plessix Gray starts with the Marquis, stating in her forward that she was initially attracted to Sade, the figure behind his mixed epithets: Sade, who for Apollinaire was “the freest spirit who ever lived” or Michelet’s characterization of Sade as “a Professoor Emeritus of Crime,” or “The most lucid hero of Western thought” as Lely found him to be” or Soulié’s assessment, of Sade as “a frenetic and abominable assemblage of all crimes and obscenities,” or Aldous Huxley’s characterization of Sade as “the one completely consistent and thorough-going revolutionary of history.” Instead, when she began reading the Marquis’ correspondences, she became “entranced by the more modest, familial motifs of his saga,” realizing, “that few writers’ destinies have been so powerfully shaped by women, that few lives provide a more eloquent allegory on women’s ability to tame man’s nomadic sexual energies, to enforce civilization and its attendant discontents.”

From this assessment, an unnamed source and discipline emerges as part and parcel of her inspiration—evolutionary biology, popularized by Jared Diamond’s study The Third chimpanzee, in which conjugal life is portrayed as the universal struggle between the wandering, philandering male and the more stabilizing female force in nature, biologically incapable of fully participating in and understanding the Sadean agenda as he...

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