The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

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SEPT 2013 Issue

The Crime of Passion or, Love’s Delirium: A Spanish Story

Embedded in Letter 37 of Aline and Valcour is a complete short tale, entitled “Le Crime du Sentiment, ou les Délires de l’amour,” published here for the first time in English translation. It appears in a portion of the novel, best described as picaresque, in which the heroine Léonore and her friend Clémentine find themselves, after a long adventurous journey, in Toledo, Spain. Like other of Sade’s shorter pieces, the text invokes themes of sexual transgression and incest; seduction, adultery and revenge; aggravated murder with a touch of necrophilia; and the constraints and depredations of wealth and family honor. All in all, “The Crime of Passion”—with its anti-heroic Don Juan and theme of brother-sister incest—is a reminder that Sade was indeed a precursor to Lord Byron, with whom 19th century commentators liked to compare him. —JGS

No family in Toledo was wealthier than that of Count Flora-Mella, and no Lord in the two Spains joined that advantage to greater privileges or a more illustrious line; but fortune does not abide equally amongst those she thus favors; her inconstant hand often takes them to the peaks of grandeur only to precipitate their dramatic fall.

The Count married quite young and just three years later he lost his wife. Having only a daughter, he determined to wed once again. Such second unions rarely succeed, and the Count was living proof. A young demoiselle from the house of Brajados, beautiful and rich, became the object of his fascination, but her virtues hardly conformed to her precious endowments. Nothing was more scandalous than her conduct, in fact, nothing more perverted than her morals.

The Duke of Medina-Sidonia at the time was a prominent young man in Toledo. Even though married himself, he was the terror of husbands and idol of all their wives. The Countess Flora-Mella was too vain and possessed of too sharp an eye not to desire to add that celebrated lover of all pretty women to her train of conquests. To meet and seduce him proved the work of a single day, and their intrigue quickly won such public attention that Count Flora-Mella could scarcely stand the shame of it.

Whatever his tribulations, however, the Count’s desire for an heir compelled him to dissemble. He stifled his pain, tried to silence rumor, and continued to share with his wife the intimacies of marriage. His wish was fulfilled: the Countess became with child and gave birth to a son, named Don Juan — he to become the unhappy hero of this bloody tale. For now the Count let down his mask. He decided to delay vengeance no longer and relegated the young Countess to her own land, deep in Andalusia. She was to quit her husband and Toledo forever.

Meanwhile, the two offspring of Count Flora-Mella’s two marriages grew up together in his palace, and the unhappy father seemed to find in the qualities of his two beautiful children at least some compensation the grief occasioned by the death of the mother of his daughter and frightful conduct of the mother of his son. Nothing was neglected regarding the cherished pupils’ education; for both of them, no care was spared to unite their talents with the gifts that Nature bestowed on each.

Don Juan had just reached his twentieth year when Léontine, his sister, turned twenty-two. If Don Juan evinced pride, nobility, and male charm in great profusion, for her part Léontine shone more beautiful than the sun and fresher than flowers blooming beneath its rays; she possessed everything to make her a woman of deserved admiration — the loveliest skin, fine and delicate features, a gaze most lively and spirited. Her hair flowed free from a flowery tiara. Doubly slender was her enchanting figure, like that of the Graces.

But if Nature outdid herself to settle beauty upon these two young people, if she provided each with features of equal charm, how extreme the contrast she produced in temperament. Don Juan was as violent and impetuous as Léontine was sensitive and reserved. One listened only to the music of passion; the other took reason and duty as her only guides.

In no way did Léontine’s charms escape Don Juan. He knew obstacles stood in his path but Nature, more powerful than social convention and of such masculine vigor as to destroy instead of strengthening them, raised a tumult in his heart that he found impossible to silence. So he set mad hope to the side of love. The honest freedom he enjoyed with his sister often gave him occasion to explain himself to her. Long he disguised his angst and held himself captive to cruel constraint, preferring to do himself violence rather than show the guilty sentiments that burned within. But so much of it became difficult to bear. Not with the fiery soul of a Don Juan does one love intensely without professing as much.

For her own part — perhaps —Léontine had noticed and been moved by the graces of the charming young man she was permitted to love as a brother; but as her excessive modesty tolerated no irregularity, if her sentiments were more fervent than kinship could allow, she would silence them, for Nature no more relinquishes rights to a soul like Léontine’s than she does to a heart such as that of Don Juan. But virtue, more readily obeyed in one, knows at least how to restrain her power, to hide pain and suffer in silence.

One day, as they wandered together in the fresh blossoming valleys through which flows the Tagus near Toledo, far from the merciless eyes and ears of chaperones and duennas, Don Juan could no longer suppress his passion. He dared throw himself at the feet of his sister.

“O, you whom I worship!” he cried, pressing burning lips upon the hand of the beautiful young woman. “You whom I wish to love without transgression. O Léontine! Is it yet true I will lose you? These happy days of our childhood are destined to be forgotten forever, and their blasted memories shall serve only to torment me the rest of my life. Yes, Léontine, my love for you must be withdrawn — furious impetuous love I never dared reveal. Barely does it flare that its flame must be smothered, and the heart that fed it must be broken the instant it shines forth. For I’m losing you, Léontine. Learn the frightful news from the one whom it plunges into despair. The Count intends you to marry Don Diègue. You will be his spouse and belong, one month from today, to that unworthy rival. As for myself — confused, desperate, dying — I will have your image with me to the ends of the earth, or else immolated in the temple in which it was placed by the hand of love.”

“O Great God!” cried Léontine. “What are you saying, Don Juan? What have you just revealed to your poor sister? What this love you just confessed? What sorry fate did you just portend?”

“Ah! That you might be as little surprised by one as alarmed by the other. What I tell you is true, Léontine: I love you. But how say it? Inadequate words do battle with my passion. You whom I worship, I shall lose. Cruel girl. Did you think I might be insensitive to your many charms or see them without cherishing them? Can Léontine exist without all rendering homage? Like God of the universe who lends life’s breath to underlings at his feet, does she not deserve a universal cult?”

“But what of the bond that unites us?”

“Nothing my love can’t dissolve; none with which it cannot do battle if threatened with destruction. Do you really think a heart such as Don Juan’s can be restrained by frivolous conventions? O how I despise them, those arbitrary conventions that cruelly separate what Nature unites! At your feet I listen only to Nature and she tells me to adore you. So I do and want to live only for you or to die, by your arrows speared.”

“Oh! Don Juan. What are you saying!”

“What I feel and what you inspire. I dare speak to you of my love. I dare implore you to listen to this alone: may heaven be my witness, I shall never have another wife but you.”

A kiss from Don Juan upon the rosy lips of the object of his passion sealed his oath. Léontine, trembling and blushing, did not refuse it. Others approached and our two young people were quickly surrounded by attendants. They pretended nonchalance, continuing their walk back to Toledo.

The fateful news Don Juan revealed to his sister that day proved only too true. The next day Count Flora-Mella announced to his daughter his arrangements for her marriage and, a few days later, he introduced her to Don Diègue.

To everyone. just as to the aforewarned, Don Diègue would be an object of horror. Joining to the most unpleasant temperament every one of Nature’s flaws, no one could imagine why the Count dared propose such a union. Circumstances of fortune justified it, to be sure; but how feeble such motives for any kind and sensitive soul, ready to sacrifice everything for bonds of affection, unable to imagine living without those forged by love.

Léontine dared tell her father how little inclined she felt toward the proposed union and the Count, who loved his daughter, was distressed to displease her. On the other hand he could not break his commitments and so beseeched her. He knew he had to convince her. She would respond neither to harsh invective nor tender imprecation. But friendly eloquence persuaded. An honest soul never resists attacks mounted by sentiment while duplicity, secrecy, and violence — all those odious weapons that imbecility dictates to paternal tyranny — strip from their iron yoke the heart to be subdued whilst kindness and trust achieve the desired end without remorse occasioned by antagonistic measures.

So Léontine gave her word. Fully prepared for sacrifice, she declared she would submit. The virtuous young woman, forgetting her brother’s love, which she could only view as criminal, also lost sight of the repugnance inspired by Don Diègue. She preferred the pain of the impending union to the cruel heartache of inflicting the slightest chagrin upon the one who had brought her into the world.

Don Juan, who was at once too agonized, violent, and in love to abandon the object that held him in thrall, soon learned of all that had happened. With every expression of such a soul bound to be rude or violent, he overwhelmed his unhappy sister with reproaches most bitter; he condemned her weakness in no uncertain terms and dared intemperance to the point of saying, with pride, that after having declared his feelings for her, he couldn’t imagine she would so betray him.

“Betray you!” responded Léontine, nonplussed. “What did I promise? What could I have promised? How might I deserve such uncalled-for accusations? Have you forgotten the bonds that constrain us? Would you force me to detest them when I wish to cherish them?”

“Abhor them, fatal bonds — loathe them. O Léontine! How could I not detest what so inclines your loss of affection for me? To your eyes they will never be so dreadful as they are to mine.”

“But you must at least respect them.”

“Ah! Never imagine they are without force within the heart that loves you. But ought they not also, within your own, if moved by my torments?”

“I feel them. Don’t believe I’m indifferent. But it’s all I can do.”

“But who can guarantee these bonds are real? We don’t share the same two parents and you know about the conduct of my mother.”

“Is it possible that your love for me be so blind to prefer shame and dishonor to the certainty of a criminal passion that shall never be fulfilled and must lead to your downfall?”

“Dishonor and shame! What do I care for those illusions! What importance the blood in my veins if you’re forbidden to me! In the whole universe I know only you and respect and cherish only you; and this very moment, if you won’t pledge to break the fatal forced promise, I stand ready to pierce the heart of the traitor who is taking you from me.”

“Do you want to make me utterly and perfectly unhappy? Do you want to rob from me the innocent pleasure I enjoy in loving you as a brother? Do you want to put eternal barriers between us?”

“I want to possess you or die; I want to take you away and flee to avenge every obstacle to love.”

“You’re cruel!”

“You don’t know the vehemence of the heart you set ablaze, Léontine. All its sentiments are passions that can be stilled by death alone; and if the least among them can be stirred to such a point, what about the one your gaze set afire? Let us flee our tyrants, Léontine, and live forever at the ends of the earth. But — what I am saying? Alas! How dare I? One must be loved to obtain what one demands. And your cold indifferent soul doesn’t share the ardor that devours me. Go, unfaithful lover. Languish like a coward in the odious chains that await. Sacrifice the one who worships you to the vile interests of a father in the clutches of greed.”

“Unjust! The tender father whom you offend doesn’t deserve your reproaches. I merit them even less in obeying him, for your own fortunes shall surely increase thanks to the fetters I take upon myself. Don’t condemn me when so clearly I deserve your gratitude.”

“How awful to allege! Would that you hate me rather than love me like this! What do I care about fortune? What would be the value of honors earned at the expense of the one dearest to me on earth? Must I become the unhappiest of men when I always believed I would be the most fortunate — were I loved by Léontine? Nothing matters besides her love; it’s all I need; felicity is her hand alone; it is the only prosperity to which I aspire, all that I wish to possess, even were it to cost a thousand lives.”

Léontine was moved by such ardor and no matter how hard she tried, she could not keep from tender glances. That was too much for Don Juan. No sooner had he come to believe her to be indifferent than he saw how he might soon find himself beloved. He took Léontine’s resistance as owing to her virtue rather than the sentiments of her heart. He imagined all sorts of ways to save her from the impending marriage. Hiding his real plans by feigning honest and sweet attention, he first proposed that Léontine allow him to at least do his best to convince the Count to delay the wedding he so feared. She consented. He dared ask for a sign of favor — and received neither rejection nor wrath. But when he sought more, Léontine stopped him. Several months passed in that way with the impetuous lover obtaining nothing but pity and delay.

Yet he kept up his efforts and meanwhile the role he played vis-à-vis Count Flora-Mella, although inspired by the same principles, was quite different. In spite of his fiery temperament, he was able to insure flexibility and persuaded the Count that the delay solicited by Léontine was for a good reason. Her heart was already taken, he hinted, and he alone was in a position to tease out the fateful secret; he had already broached the issue although he could not be certain without making himself suspect. He added that the Count must help him in his efforts to probe the recesses of his sister’s soul: he could not easily operate constantly surrounded by all the many servants; it was essential to be away from them. Privacy was required before he could speak on behalf of Don Diègue if he were to defeat the reserve Léontine was beginning to manifest, now that she noticed his efforts to fathom her thoughts.

The Count, fully the dupe to his son’s scheme, far from suspecting his intimate motives, provided all the help he could. Léontine was looked after less and chaperones disappeared when she went off with Don Juan. The Count himself encouraged her to listen to the counsel of a brother who thought only of her happiness.

Léontine was not long in recognizing love’s subterfuges; but she was careful not to reveal them and only tried not to become their victim.

For his part, Don Juan obviously had no intention to serve the interests of Don Diègue in the short time left him. He depicted his own inflamed passion, proposed a thousand ways it might triumph and they might flee together. Thus passed moments so precious to his heart — yet then so cruel when he saw with what inflexibility his sister opposed and rebuffed him.

Once convinced of her insurmountable resistance, nothing could stop him. As long as he had hope he contained himself; but once it vanished he could only hear the voice of his original plan and resolved to use force, for no other method could succeed. He decided to take advantage of his freedom to be with her to lure his poor sister to a place where reliable men would be posted and ready to abduct her.

After making all necessary preparations, he arranged for a carriage that could take them to Portugal, where he planned to seek refuge; the carriage, escorted by faithful valets, was to stand ready and waiting not far from the grounds of the old Enchanted Tower.

When the day arrived, under the pretext of a promenade, the impetuous Don Juan proposed a visit to those ancient ruins. Once there he could not contain himself.

“O Léontine! All awaits us — everything is ready — everything. We shall never again see Toledo. We must flee your imminent union. Further delay is impossible.”

“What do you dare propose?”

“Our happiness.”

“Good God! At the expense of my father’s? He’ll surely die when he learns of the depths to which we’ve fallen. Think of the misfortunes that already overwhelm him. Consider that in all the world only we can comfort him. From us and us alone can he expect blossoms in the autumn of his life. Should we destroy that decent hope? Shall the hands that ought to wipe away his tears instead cast him into the grave?”

“O Léontine! I listen to love alone. Duty, honor, respect, virtue and religion are all effaced from my heart. Passion is the only flame I recognize and I go where it leads me. You must follow, my people await. Six months I labored in vain, using any means that might destroy your scruples. What came of such zeal? What did I gain from such passion? I’ve succeeded only in convincing myself of your indifference. That is what I must overcome or die!”

“Cruel man! Pity me — and my father — and yourself. Don’t plunge us into an abyss of despair from which no measure of human felicity could ever rescue us. Today in Toledo nothing rivals the success of our family. To that your deeds will put an end tomorrow and you will plunge it forever into grief and pain. Is that how you prove your love to me? If you were as sensitive as you seek to persuade me, would my honor not move you? Would you defile it for a shameful and criminal moment of pleasure that would bring us grief and remorse forever!”

“Do you think I brought you here,” replied Don Juan furiously, “to listen to sophisms about hatred and constraint? I shan’t respond to them. I’m convinced that my mind wields little power over yours, that your rigor blunts my weapons. My love falls victim to despair and to it alone I surrender.”

He seized her and took her in his arms.

“You must come with me, Léontine. Don’t try to escape. Don’t try to defend yourself. My derangement would be fearsome. I’d no longer know you and you can’t imagine the lengths I’d go to exact revenge for your disdain. You know how impetuous my fiery unstillable heart. Don’t exacerbate it, Léontine, at the risk of both our lives.”

“Then pierce this one, this heart that refuses to be soiled by crime! Split it open, I tell you: I’ll not parry your cuts. I prefer death a hundred times to awful torments that would rip my life asunder.”

And her tears flowed:

“Only for my father’s sake could I regret the days of my life lost to your fury, Don Juan. I wished to devote myself to him, to bring him happiness and long life. You brutal beast! I might’ve loved you but you don’t want that. Don’t hesitate, Don Juan. Here’s the heart — you made it throb — and so saying I’m no more fit to live. Take it, impale me, I’m ready. But never think you could make me share your iniquity.”

“You will share it. Or answer with your life.”

“Great God! Your cruelty outrages me. After what I’ve confessed, your disgraceful soul is unworthy of me.” Escaping his arms: “Begone, traitor! Flee forever from the one whose heart harbors for you only hate. I won’t reveal your reckless plans nor reproach myself as your accomplice.”

With those words she attempted to flee the captivity of the ruins. But Don Juan, fierce and blinded by passion that overwhelmed his soul, chased after and captured her.

Dagger in hand, he thrust himself upon her and she fell dead at his feet.

“Great heavens!” he cried at the sight of his sorry victim. “Can it be? Have I cut short the life of the one to whom I was to sacrifice my own? And now my own hand refuses to avenge my lover! Armed for villainy alone, it recoils from punishing the murderer. I must flee.”

But he tried in vain, held back by an invincible force the power of which he had not foreseen. Acting like a madman, he furiously threw himself upon the bloody corpse of the woman whom he idolized. He covered her with ardent kisses. He addressed to his heart’s divinity expressions of his ferocious love. With sighs and bitter tears he hoped to bring her back to life and — there, all alone, brought low by despair amidst the silence and darkness of rock and ruin, consumed by love and by pain — the poor man dared consummate his crime. He ravished the honor of the woman he had just shorn of life.

Soon, senses calmed, he descried the double horror of what he’d done and defiled. He possessed neither the strength to bear the weight of his infamy nor the courage to punish its author. He wanted justice to avenge his execrable crime. He was free to flee, with horses and his people waiting nearby. But he did not. Paralyzed by terror, he stood stock still, trembling, and gazed at the lifeless body. For a moment he thought he was mistaken and he saw in his arms the woman he loved, and called her name. Come round from his frightful act, his despair precipitated him once more upon the misshapen corpse.

“O Léontine! You will be avenged!” he cried. “You will be avenged, Léontine. With torrents of my guilty blood, if anything can compensate for all that my furor spilled.”

He rushed to Toledo and gave himself up.

But the city magistrate, who was quite taken aback, wanted to return him to his father. So he did — but what a scene — and still more remorse awaited! For Count de Flora-Mella had just learned not only of the recent death of his perfidious spouse — and now of a still greater catastrophe.

Talking with the Count was the Duke of Medina-Sidonia, who turned to Don Juan and said:

“O my son! Dear boy! What have you done? Must you to be taken from me no sooner you are mine! Must you flee happiness just when it comes to enrich your life! Must you add dishonor to my remorse? For ’twas I who gave you life, Don Juan. You are not the son of the Count de Flora-Mella. Here I have irrefutable proof you belong only to me. Read the dying words of your poor mother. Your unhappiness would have ended. But quake now before the abyss that shall engulf you.”

Don Juan seized the letter. His hand trembling, tears flowing, his eyes could barely make out what was written there. Finally he read out the words of his mother the Countess:

“There remains to me only time enough to confess my crime and set it to rights. Don Juan does not belong to Count de Flora-Mella. He is the son of the Duke of Medina-Sidonia. It is my dying wish that, in the hope of making amends, that the Duke implore his forgiveness and reclaim his son. He must recognize him as the issue of past love, and he must designate and declare this child his universal heir. I expose nothing by this request. My shameful conduct with the Duke was too well known for this to reveal anything secret. I strive to make reparations but need divulge nothing to thereby relieve my conscience of a terrible tormenting burden, the horror of knowing my husband embraces a son who does not belong to him. Imprudent women, take heed! You who might follow in my twisted footsteps: remember that no honest soul could stand the tumult. Let the dread that might tear you apart keep you from the precipice. To my preceding requests I add a further wish, and it is up to my husband to grant it. Having learned of the intimate feelings of Léontine and Don Juan, I beg Count Flora-Mella to give consent to their union, my confession destroying impediments that contravene their desire. I dare note that my husband’s daughter could scarcely expect a more advantageous marriage; such a union, bringing together two former rivals, making them friends again, will help allay my regrets and bring tranquility to my final days.”

“God Almighty!” said Don Juan as he finished the terrible letter “So happiness could have been mine!”

“’Twas yours!” cried the Count. “I’ve given my word and signed my consent. There it is, look.”

“Monsieur,” said Don Juan to the magistrate with the greatest resolve. “You can see the many crimes with which I have bespoiled myself. I slaughtered my mistress, the respectable daughter of a man who took care of me as a youth. You see too how I aimed a dagger at the heart of a father who can acknowledge me only to weep. Take me, Monsieur. I wish to die in public. Give me what I deserve. You, Count, must disown me. This letter authorizes you to do so. And you, father, never recognize me. Thus shall my death dishonor no one.”

They wanted to soothe his despair and save the illustrious malefactor. All efforts made, none succeeded.

“My crime is too atrocious,” said Don Juan. “My head must pay the price.” He seized the hand of the magistrate: “Let us go now. Or I shall confess to other judges, should pity prevail over duty.”

At these words he rushed into the street, resolved to mount the gallows to which his crimes had led him. The magistrate no longer dared resist. Don Juan was deposed the same evening in prison, confessed to everything without being tortured, and promptly paid with his life for the invidious crime he had committed by dint of reason in turmoil and impetuous temperament. Yet the whole city wept for him, with greatest sorrow extended to the two unhappy fathers, each of whom rendered tribute in sorrow and tears that could never efface from their souls the tragic losses come upon them. 

    Translated by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons. English translation © 2013.


Marquis de Sade, translated from the French by Jocelyne Geneviève Barque and John Galbraith Simmons

Social relevance and literary influence continue to mark the posthumous career of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, Marquis de Sade (1740-1814), author of Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice, Philosophy in the Bedroom, and other works.

JOCELYNE GENEVIÈVE BARQUE and JOHN GALBRAITH SIMMONS were among the translators of the International Dictionary of Psychoanalysis (2002) and Europe since 1914: Encyclopedia of the Age of War and Reconstruction (2006). A novelist and nonfiction author, Simmons also translated Return to Vietnam by Jean-Claude Guillebaud (1994). Their translation-in-progress of Aline and Valcour was recipient of a 2010 grant from the National Endowment of the Arts.


The Brooklyn Rail

SEPT 2013

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