Here, at the beginning of the 21st century, the Marquis de Sade seems a quaint figure, mildly humorous in his taboo breaking and pursuit of pleasure by any means and at any cost. Perhaps that's because each generation gets the Sade it deserves, or at least the one it can process. In his own time, during the Enlightenment of the 18th century, he was a menace to society, incarcerated with such regularity that he spent 28 of his 74 years of life behind bars in one location or another. A hundred years later, the boldest artists of the era, from Baudelaire to Swinburne, took up his ideas, followed in the 20th century by everyone from writers Georges Bataille and Jean Genet to filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini, Sigmund Freud and the entire Surrealist and punk movements.
In his lifetime he produced 15 manuscripts, published anonymously if at all, with each attempting to outdo the last in its extremity. All were fantasies of sexual violence and torture, but Sade did practice what he preached, albeit almost exclusively with unwilling partners.
Born in 1740 as Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, son of a diplomat and a lady-in-waiting, he started early, inflicting a beating on a French prince at the age of six. He developed a taste for pornography at the house of his uncle, an abbot, and at school was introduced to the abiding obsessions of his life: theatre, flagellation and sodomy. After a spell in the army, where he gained a reputation for gambling and philandering, he was pushed into marriage with the daughter of a wealthy bureaucrat. They had three children but within three months of the wedding de Sade had returned to his bachelor ways, setting up an alternative address where he would take prostitutes and inflict on them anything from blasphemy to torture.