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The Marquis de Sade
A Life

The definitive biography by Neil Schaeffer

Home : The Prison Letters : Archive : February, 1781
The Grande Lettre, Part 1 of 3
The following Sade called his "Grande Lettre." It is a very long justification of his innocence in all of the scandals that led to his imprisonment. It is reproduced here in three parts.

Sade to his wife.
[February 20, 1781]

Indeed, my dear friend, I rather believe that your intention would be to inculcate in me the same respect for your petty divinities that you so devoutly feel for them. And just because you go down and crawl before that pack, you would require that I do it too! that a ***, that a ***, that a ***, that a ***, that a *** and *** were my gods just as they are yours! If, unfortunately, you harbor such a notion in your head, get rid of it, I beg of you. Misfortune will never defile me:

Despite my chains, I have never adopted the heart of a slave.
(Les Arsacides)

And I never will. These wretched chains, yes, were they to drag me into the grave, you would still find me exactly the same. I have the misfortune to have received from heaven a strong soul that has never known how to stoop and never will. I have not the slightest fear of offending anyone at all. You give me too many proofs that my sentence is fixed for me to doubt it: therefore, it is not up to anyone to increase it or to reduce it. Moreover, even were this not so, these fellows here that hold me in thrall would not be the ones to do it: this would be a matter for the king, and he is the only person in the entire kingdom that I respect--he and the princes of his blood. Beneath them, I regard everyone else as so completely undifferentiated, as so utterly on a par that, given the circumstances, I do not want to look too closely into even the most well-born of them because, the superiority then falling on my side, it would only all the more strengthen my profound contempt.

You well imagine that it is absurd to try to treat me as they do and yet demand that I do not complain about it. Once and for all, let us think about this reasonably: when an imprisonment must be as long as mine, is there a no more absolute wickedness than to try to increase the horror by all that it pleased your mother to invent in order to torture me here? What! is it not enough to be deprived of everything that makes life pleasant and agreeable, is it not enough to be deprived even of breathing God's air, to constantly witness all one's wishes shattered against the four walls and to see one's days go by merely like those that await us in our tombs? But this hideous torture is not enough for that horrible creature: it is necessary to aggravate it further with whatever else she can conceive to double all the infamy. You will admit that there is only one monster capable of carrying vengeance to that height . . . But it is all in your imagination, you are going to tell me; they are not doing that at all; these are fantasies that naturally develop in your situation. Fantasies, you say? Very well! I am going to look at my journal, where are laid out today 56 proofs of the sort that I am about to indicate to you by extracting only one, and you will see if it is not poisonous rage that dictated all the maneuvers that this hateful vixen sets into motion here, and if that can properly be called fantasies.

One ought not doubt for an instant that whatever reasons a prisoner might have for believing in a far distant release, the slightest action that might appear to him to support an earlier release would be clutched by him with incredible eagerness: that is exactly in accord with human nature, and it is not wrong to do; so it ought not be punished, it ought rather to be pitied. There is, then, a no more patent cruelty than to incite, instigate, put into action those procedures that propel him into error. One should rather take the greatest care to do the opposite, and humanity (if there were any here) constantly ought to dictate to the core of their souls not to [aggravate] in that way the most painful feeling of the unfortunates; because it is clear in the end that all the suicides come from nothing but blasted hope. One ought not, therefore, encourage this hope when there is no reason for it, and anyone who does it is manifestly a monster. Hope is the most sensitive part of an unfortunate victim's soul; anyone who gives hope only to blast it imitates the torturers of hell who, it is said, ceaselessly renew wound upon wound and will aim, even more fiercely than anywhere else, at the part already lacerated. But even so, that is exactly what your mother has been doing to me for the past four years: a multitude of hopes raised month by month. To listen to these fellows here, to examine your letters, etc., I was always on the eve of my release. Then, when this eve finally comes, there is suddenly a fine thrust of the dagger and a nice big laugh. It seems that this despicable woman amuses herself by trying to make me build paper castles in order to have the pleasure of destroying them as soon as they are built. Over and above all the risks in all of that to one's optimism, to the great likelihood of destroying it, and to the certainty of making it untrustworthy for the rest of one's life, there is, you will admit, the much greater risk of the fatal excess of despair; and I now have no reason to doubt for a second that this is not the sole purpose of it all, and that not having been able to succeed in having me killed by leaving me for five years in the hideous situation I was in before prison, she imagined she would perhaps accomplish it in another five years by more certain means. From the multitude of proofs that I just mentioned to you that I have of this petty and vicious amusement that she gets from me by raising me up only to throw me down, I am going to cite a more recent one in order to convince you of it all the better.

Around six months ago, you sent me a curtain for my room. Although I begged them to have it hung, they never want to do it. What should I conclude from that? That it is not worth the trouble [i.e., that he will be released soon]. So there you have raised hopes; they are going to leave it like that until I could have had enough time to build an entire chateau, and only then will they come to hang it--and there you have the chateau thrown to the ground. Such is the amusement of Madame la Présidente de Montreuil. There you have her happy occupation for the past four years, along with her satellites whom she hires for their services in these sort of genteel affairs and who have a good laugh at her expense (at least that was what was very reliably told me by Marais, jealous, doubtless, not to be one of their number) as soon as they have received her gifts or her cash. There are 56 maneuvers of that sort already counted, not to mention those yet to come; not that I have had 56 different opinions concerning my release, Heaven forbid! I would have then spent my entire life just counting, and that is exactly what it would have taken (you have examples of even more serious occupations), but I have watched with care and in that way I have seen that it is very likely that instead of the fourth castle in Spain where I am now, and which, however long it may take, will doubtless fall just like the other three, that instead, I say, of just four, she had without a doubt schemed to try to have me build 56 by now. But I am asking if this is the proper behavior of a wise woman, of a woman of intelligence, and of a woman who, were it merely because of the ties that bind me to her, ought to mitigate my torments rather than increase them?

But she is offended, you tell me. In the first place, I deny it; she has been hurt only because she wished to be, and she should place the blame only on her own evil genius for everything that she takes as personal offenses made against her. But let us assume that she had been in fact wronged: ought she exact revenge for it? Such a pious woman, who has the outward appearance of fulfilling so well the ceremonial aspect of her religion, ought she scorn the first and the most important of all its rules [i.e., do unto others . . .]? Even so, let her have her vengeance, I grant it: now then! a prison term as long as I have had, and as hard, has that not avenged her enough? Is there any need for more? Oh! you do not get it, you add; all of that was necessary; that is what rehabilitates us! --To rehabilitate! Honestly, suppose I were to leave here tomorrow, would you dare say that I was rehabilitated, without being afraid that I should accuse you of an outrageous impudence? To rehabilitate! to put someone in prison for four or five years over a party with some girls [the Marseilles prostitutes] which happens eighty times a day every day in Paris! And then to come tell him that he is indeed fortunate to be released after five years in prison and that if they had vexed him as they did, it was only to rehabilitate him! No, I reject this idea, because it revolts me too much, and I am quite sure that you will never have the audacity to claim that to me.

Let us retrace our steps for a moment and return to the phrase simple party with some girls which I can imagine upsetting those who are distressed over not being able to convince me of all the slanders they charge against me. All my adventures come down to three. I will not mention the first [the Keller affair]: it is the child entirely of Madame la Présidente de Montreuil, and if someone had to be punished, it was she. But in France they do not punish those with a hundred thousand livres a year. Rather, beneath them are placed little victims whom they can sacrifice to the rapaciousness of these [prison] monsters who make a trade of living off the blood of unfortunates. The prison requires their little victims, others provide them, and so they are even. That is the very reason why I am in prison. The second adventure is that of Marseilles: I believe that it is pointless to speak of it as well. It has been well established, I believe, that there was only libertinage involved and that everything that they had judged appropriate to include as criminal in order to slake the vengeance of my enemies in Provence and the rapacity of the chancellor who wanted my position for his son, was only pure invention. Therefore, this one, I believe, has been well atoned for by the imprisonment at Vincennes and by the exile from Marseilles.

Let us go on to the third [i.e., the scandal of the young servants at La Coste]. I beg your pardon in advance for the terms I will have to employ. I will soften them to the best of my ability in putting them into abbreviations. Besides, between husband and wife, one can, indeed, when the case requires, express oneself rather more freely than with strangers or with ordinary friends. I also am begging pardon for the revelations, but I prefer that you considered me a libertine than a criminal. There you have my sins entirely naked and without concealing an iota.

...to be continued next week!

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