De Sade and The Insane Beauty of Charenton

The idea for Charenton Macerations has been lurking in my mind since I first heard Francine du Plessix Gray tell the story of Charenton Hospital well over a decade ago. It instantly fascinated me. Home to French society’s outcasts and clinically insane, Charenton is most famously known as the final resting place of the Marquis Donatien Alphonse Francois De Sade and the first part of the story behind how Charenton Macerations got its name.

Most know the Marquis De Sade as a notorious provocateur, author of texts like The 120 Days of Sodom. Often denigrated as a mere pornographer with a pension for prostitutes and pain, his life is far more interesting than a few dirty words. Guillaume Apollinaire once described Sade as “the freest spirit that has yet existed,” though he ironically lived a life of near constant confinement. For the Surrealists Sade represented creativity unbound, a hard line into the id.  A man never short of opinions, Sade was actively vocal in politics. Included in his large collection of works are brilliantly perverse satires aimed at exposing what he saw as an hypocritical aristocracy and corrupt Church, as well as a number of political pamphlets inspired by the spirit of the French Revolution. “Citizen Sade,” a title he adopted during a brief taste of freedom, was even successful in procuring a seat in the National Convention representing the far left. Of course, he also continued to anonymously publish more of his erotic fiction. When unmasked as the author of Justine and Juliette, Sade became an enemy of Napoleon Bonaparte, who sentenced to him to prison, ending his time on the outside. On April 27, 1803, to avoid jail, Sade’s family would have him committed to the walls of Charenton, his second and final stay.

The Charenton Asylum had officially opened its doors in 1645, founded by the Brothers of Charity. Known for its humane treatment of patients, its existence represented a cultural shift in how madness was viewed by French society. Prior to facilities like Charenton, popular treatment for the insane could be brutal, including things like bloodletting, shackling, or waterboarding; the afflicted were treated more like beasts than humans. Abbe Francois Simonet de Coulmier and his staff at Charenton were pioneers, favoring a far less gruesome regimen. They adopted a number of innovative psychological approaches for dealing with the clinically insane: the early seeds of psychoanalysis and rehabilitation therapy. One particularly intriguing tactic employed by Coulmier was the idea of “healing through art;” the idea that madness could be abated or at least better understood through participation in activities like writing, theater, or music. Coulmier thoroughly believed that these forms of expression were positive not only for patients, but further afforded him a peak into the minds of madmen. The idea was simple, expression not repression, a theory he employed in treatment of Sade.

It is rumored that inside the walls of Charenton, Sade wrote his best work. Already a prolific author, he certainly thrived here creatively, bonding with fellow patron of the arts, Coulmier. Locked inside his cell, Sade relied on his imagination to escape the obvious, fashioning his own sense of beauty. His pen, a window into a world where he could once again roam freely (justice, revenge, religion, sex, politics… zero limits).  Thanks to Coulmier, Sade was further allowed to stage several of his plays within the walls of the hospital, complete with open performances for the Parisian public. Who could resist the temptation of seeing the works of the Marquis De Sade as performed by the inmates of Charenton Hospital? (for a great dramatization of this, check out Peter Weiss’ play Marat/Sade) Sade’s presence transformed Charenton, helping to paint an entirely new image of the asylum. Charenton, too, changed Sade, affording him new opportunities for expression, unleashing a creative force so great that it continued to incite the outside world, even prompting the government to threaten to remove all of Sade’s pens and paper. Rather than take his pens away, Coulmier fought for Sade, for what he believed was right, always remaining an important collaborator.   Though Sade would understandably never lose his desire for freedom or justice, inside Charenton, he managed to construct a pretty interesting life, defiantly writing until the very end.

image found on Flickr.

The story of Sade and Charenton is the pure embodiment of “making a statement.” His time inside, his works, his past transgressions… together they offer a wonderful example of true unadulterated creative energy… passion unbridled. Sade’s stay at Charenton exemplifies how sometimes beauty is unearthed from the most unlikely of places; how it can elusively reside in the deepest recesses of our brains, yet still spark the most vivid parts of our imagination, even helping to uncover world’s not known possible. This particular story, this type of raw beauty, challenges you to the core, a sentiment seen echoed in fragrance.

Fragrance is such a key part of this world: an ever present, yet intensely personal part of everyone’s life. It is simultaneously inside and outside, voluntary and involuntary. It colors our surroundings. It invades our thoughts and alters our moods. It warns us of danger, excites our passions. It even makes us hungry. It is this complicated invisible hand of communication, yet the most basic of instincts. But, with all of its power, its ability to conjure up the very depths of our past, it continues to be one of the most difficult things to understand. And that fact makes it all the more titillating. It is both beauty and insanity…and precisely what we at Charenton put in a bottle.

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