Sade’s Masochism

Whether Sade was a sadist or not I don’t know: the trial records shed little light upon the question. In the case we are best acquainted with—the Marseilles affair—Sade figures as a masochist, which is the very opposite. I see that at least once he flatly refused to be sadistic in spite of all sorts of encouragement: his past grievances, his feelings of the moment, and the chorus of the Section of Piques. But it could be argued that the true sadist is the one who declines to practice sadism on easy terms, who will not stand to be told when and where to give expression to his idiosyncrasy. Each of us is proud in his own way. . . .

When pain experienced by others gives me pleasure, this pleasure I feel is obviously an unusual feeling; and doubtless a reprehensible one. In any case it is a clear and comprehensible feeling, and an article upon it can be included in the Encyclopedia. But that my own pain be pleasure to me, that my humiliation be to me a dignification—this is no longer reprehensible or unusual, it is simply obscure, and it is only too easy for me to reply that if it is pain, it isn’t pleasure, if it’s dignification, then it’s not humiliation. If it’s . . .  And so on and so forth. Yet, however that may be, there does indeed exist, nobody will deny it, something which can be rightly termed masochism. To be more precise, there do indeed exist men, and women also, whom we must call masochists.

For there are some who seek nothing so eagerly as mockery and ridicule, and who thrive better on shame than on bread and wine: Philip of Neri, who used to caper in the streets and shaved only one side of his face, preferred to pass for a madman than for a saint; the sheik Abu Yazid al Bisthami would give urchins a couple of walnuts in exchange for a slap. There is no lack of persons who to their friends—and to those foremost among all their friends, themselves—fondly wish “suffering, abandon, infirmity, ill-treatment and dishonor and profound self-contempt and the martyrdom of self-distrust.” And others too who say with the Portuguese nun: “Increase the number of my afflictions.” To anyone contending that behind whatever it may appear to be this amounts to a clever attempt to assure oneself of the weal which follows after woe, and the honor which follows dishonor, and the triumph of esteem which follows after the ordeal of disdain, in keeping with some natural law of compensation, the reply would have to be that he had not very well grasped the question. But let me continue.

We see other persons who steer a steady course toward vexations and abuse, who, no matter where they happen to be, are extraordinarily alert and, through the workings of some unerring instinct, as if sensitized to the presence of a possible source of mistreatment and as if fascinated in advance, attracted, summoned by the cruel potentialities they have somehow detected in a man everybody else sees as a decent and unexceptional man. (Thus Justine . . .) Or else, of their own accord, with peculiar willfulness march straight to where prison, trials, and death await them. (Thus Sade . . . )

Paulhan, Jean. “The Marquis de Sade and His Accomplice” in Sade, Richard Seaver, and Austryn Wainhouse. Justine, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and Other Writings. 1st paperback ed. New York: Grove Press, 1966, 32-34.