The philosopher must teach these pupils that it is far less essential to understand nature than to enjoy and respect its laws; that these laws are both wise and simple; that they are written in all human hearts, and that one need merely question a heart in order to appreciate its impulses. – the Marquis de Sade An ancient voice was going on about the history of literature at the front of the class, while my eyes were grazing on the auburn hair, gazelle neck, and rolling slope that led into Kathleen Wilcox’s blouse. This was the beginning of an eight semester crush which resulted in the anti-climactic day when I didn’t ask her to the prom. Nor did I ask her to a movie, for a bite to eat, or even so much as to borrow her pencil. She never knew my name. Even if she had, it wouldn’t have mattered. I was not the type that Kathleen Wilcox would accompany through the halls of high school. I was not, in fact, the type that anyone would accompany anywhere. Ah, but I could dream, so that’s exactly what I did. ” – wood cock, Mr. Meredith?” My head jerked up from the downy hills of infatuation I had been contemplating. “Huh??” Mrs. Hecker was standing directly in front of me, dead eyes peering out from her papyrus skull. The entire class, including Kathleen Wilcox, was silent and waiting. “I said, would you please read aloud, from your textbook, the introductory section by Thaddeus Woodcock?” “Wood . . . um, yeah. Yes. I will, yes. It says, uh . . . ‘One is . . . enormously pleased to discover virtually unknown yet fascinating works by certain of our classic American writers, whose more famous titles recur from anthology to . . .’ ” So on and on it went, a kind of adolescent torture. All the while with this silent and beautiful creature nestled in the chair beside me. I was certainly in Hell. Later, it would seem strange to me that, outside of the presence of Kathleen Wilcox, I found Mrs. Hecker’s American Lit class so monolithically tedious. All I had wanted to do since I was very young was to be a writer. Here, in these dusty old books, were my people. This could have been my place to shine, with such distantly possible rewards as the one which sat beside me. Filling my every molecule with the nearness of her. But writing had never been a place from which to dazzle. It was a place to hide. It begins in the dark, with the sound of a female voice. She is gasping, almost moaning. Then a young woman’s face appears against a blue sky, her long neck extended, eyes closed. She looks almost to be in ecstasy. As the voiceover begins, hands appear from behind her, moving up her neck and through her hair, tugging at the bodice that clings to her chest. “Dear reader, I’ve a naughty little tale to tell, plucked from the pages of history – tarted up, true – but guaranteed to stimulate the senses. It’s the story of Mademoiselle Renare, a ravishing young aristocrat whose sexual proclivities ran the gamut from winsome to bestial. Who doesn’t dream of indulging every spasm of lust, feeding each depraved hunger? Owing to her noble birth, Mademoiselle Renare was granted full immunity to do just that, inflicting pain and pleasure with equal zest. “Until one day . . . Mademoiselle found herself at the mercy of a man every bit as perverse as she, a man whose skill in the art of pain exceeded her own . . .” The masked face of the Executioner appears behind the young woman, and we realize that she is going to die. The guillotine towers above in the afternoon sky. She glimpses a figure watching from a nearby building. It is the blurred countenance of the man who narrates her doom, the Marquis de Sade. The condemned Mademoiselle looks to the laughing, toothless masses below, anxiously awaiting her death, then to the severed heads piled beneath the scaffolding. Her own is about to join them. Blood drips onto her face from the upraised blade, and the scene cuts to the red ink of the Marquis’ pen. It’s almost as if he is dictating the end of her life. When we next encounter the Marquis, several years have passed and he’s been confined to the insane asylum at Charenton. A slot opens in a door and the face of a young chambermaid peers inside. Fresh linens, she announces. A well-dressed, bewigged figure is seated at a writing desk in the room. From this distance he could pass for a gentleman. A moment later, his hands are pushing a new manuscript through a laundry slot in the bottom of the door. He cautions the girl that the ink is still wet, then slams the chute closed. A horseman meets the chambermaid at the furthest edge of the asylum gate. When she passes the manuscript to him, he flirts with her, suggesting that maybe someday she will tell him her name. She smiles, watching him leave. She is undoubtedly writing her own tales about him in her mind. But we already know that she belongs to the Marquis’ story. The manuscript has soon found its way to an underground publisher and into the streets of France. Young men hawk it to passersby, reading the Marquis’ words aloud to the gathering throng. Our story concerns a nymph named Justine, as pretty a maid as ever entered the nunnery, with a body so firm and ripe that it seemed a shame to commit it to God . . . Meanwhile in Paris, Napoleon’s advisers are reading the same words. One morning, the bishop placed his hand upon her thigh. ‘Holy Father,’ cried she, ‘I’ve come to confess my sins, not commit them anew.’ Heedless, the old priest turned her over on his knee and lifted her skirts high above her hips . . . The Emperor is outraged, throwing the pages into the fire and exclaiming that the author is to be shot. His advisor suggests that there may be another, less politically damaging way to silence this controversial aristocrat. They will send the renowned alienist Dr. Royer-Collard to assess the inner workings of Charenton. Royer-Collard is the kind of doctor who seeks to condition his patients, as he says, with the same force one would employ to train a feral dog. His methods of psychiatry include bloodletting by leeches and dunking patients repeatedly into a vat of water until they stop their bad behavior. He will either cure the Marquis, with all credit going to Napoleon, or he will take control of the asylum. I had been retreating into my own head since I was a child. Terrified of standing in front of the other kids for Show-and-Tell, I scripted absurd puppet shows for my first grade classmates. It was much better to duck down behind a table and let Frederick, my canine companion with the tacky yellow fur and orange button-eyes, do all of the talking. A few fart jokes, a little dance routine, and nothing set a roomful of six-year olds ablaze like a Twinkie-fueled version of “Detroit Rock City”. It wasn’t long before I was constructing adventures, comic strips, and entire sagas about Frederick and all of my other imaginary friends. By the time I was ten years old, my mind had already begun processing things like drug addiction, rape, cancer, and the possibility that life wouldn’t last forever. It was probably no surprise that I leapt up in fourth grade and announced to my teacher, poor fraught Mrs. Dooley, that I wished I’d never been born. This was when I picked up a pen and really began to find my voice. Tear-drenched but firm, words began to blossom in the dark. The union of pen and paper was a revelation. A primitive journal lay hidden among my moldering puppets, full of grandiose declarations of my misery. While the other kids played outside with bikes and frogs and pellet-guns, I hid inside my room wondering why I was different. If I couldn’t understand anyone else, at least I would know everything that hid inside the recesses of my own mind. Despite the dusty tomes fed to students by English teachers, the secret cosmos hidden within the pages of books continued to inspire me. It began with Stephen King, Edgar Allan Poe, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, but soon expanded to writers and works that hovered just beyond my understanding: The Stranger, Metamorphosis, The Winter of Our Discontent. These stories were more than just dead words. They were the thoughts of human beings, long gone, yet still moving around in my head. Rising from the same mortal spring as me, these writers had found a way to deliver their dreams and fears to the outside world. They had found a way to live on. It had been suggested to me quite early that there would be no bright light at the end of life. My time and influence upon this world would be trivial. It was likely that no one would ever love me like I wanted, and it was certain that I was never going to be worshipped while I was alive. I could only hope to become as immortal as the dead people whose words still rolled through my mind, as if their sentences were a living thing. It was my thoughts, wrapped in the most beautiful (or the most hideous) language I could find, that would cheat death and propel me into the yawning chasm of time. Have we the power to remake ourselves? Can we become other than what we are? – the Marquis de Sade QUILLS was criticized by many historians for being wildly inaccurate. De Sade’s initial incarceration, for instance, was due to sexual atrocities carried out upon prostitutes and servants, rather than to censorship of his writing. Nor was he writing such scintillating, controversial prose in his final years, as was suggested here. In fact, his novels grew increasingly conventional as he got older, most of them being returned to him by the publisher for being “sheer melodrama”. Napoleon had de Sade transferred to the asylum at Charenton due to the urgings of the aging Marquis’ children, who paid the government a significant amount of money for his upkeep. By this time, he no longer resembled the dashing figure of Geoffrey Rush, as seen in the film, but was more like Jabba the Hutt in a powdered wig. However, the filmmakers insisted that biography was not their goal. The film was more of a cinematic fantasia of a writer’s life, it wasn’t meant to be a documentary. The version seen here is a complex but loathsome individual transformed into a liberal hero-figure, almost a victim, and maybe even a martyr. Furthermore, the protagonist, even greatly watered down from the real person, isn’t meant to be entirely likable. The real Marquis was not someone that most people would ever want to meet. Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade was born into the wealth and privilege of an aristocratic Parisian family in June of 1740. His father was a well-known diplomat for the King, which left the young Marquis to be raised by servants who flattered his every whim. Even as a child, the Marquis had a terrible temper, nearly beating the young French prince to death at the age of six. He was sent to live with his uncle, an abbot of the Church, in the south of France. It’s very likely that he was abused by the uncle. What is known for certain is that the young Marquis misbehaved so badly in school that he was subjected to flagellation. While he was already on the road to being a miscreant, this event is the one historians say was most pivotal in the remainder of his controversial life. In a vain attempt to save his family’s name, de Sade’s father hurried his son into an arranged marriage. It did nothing but exacerbate the Marquis behavior. There were encounters with prostitutes, lots and lots of prostitutes. In 1763, a 23-year old Marquis locked one of his paid companions in a room with him, railing against the existence of God, and sexually accosting her with a crucifix. Several years later, he trapped five young females and a manservant in his Provence chateau, subjecting them to weeks of sexual degradation under the watchful eyes of his indulgent wife. Superstitious villagers thought he was some kind of werewolf. The Marquis’ mother-in-law ultimately helped the authorities track him down. At the age of 37, he was hauled, tied and muffled, from his home to a Parisian prison. He would spend nearly half his life in various prisons and insane asylums. On the brighter side, he felt nothing but spite for his fellow aristocrats. He was celebrated as a feminist thinker just as often as he was criticized for being misogynist. The most likely reality is that he despised and abused everyone equally. He also had notions about an ungovernable violence at the core of supposedly civilized society, prefiguring the works of Sigmund Freud and psychoanalysis. During the revolution, he was appointed judge. Here, in a thoroughly bloody age, he could have carried out nearly all of his violent fantasies, but instead seemed to demonstrate mercy. He was ultimately imprisoned again for being too lenient in his judgments. One might find meager reassurance that he never tried to hide how repulsive he really was. There’s much to be said about never being a hypocrite. As he once wrote to his estranged wife from prison: “Either kill me or take me like this, for I will not change.” Deplorable, yes. Misogynistic, without a doubt. But there is something rather sad as well in what historians describe as his longing to never be forgotten. Despite all of his wealth and privilege, he wanted desperately to be a famous writer. There’s something very deliberate in much of his writing, an overt attempt to be shocking, because he probably knew that it would make him immortal. As a struggling writer who also belongs to no religion, I know something about the need to somehow outlast this all-too-brief stay here on earth. Toward the end of the semester, Mrs. Hecker requested that we write a paper about ourselves. “What I want,” she said, “Is for you to tell me about your future.” A collective moan swept through most of the class. Except for one: here was the opportunity to name my ambitions and win my first important critic. I would dazzle her. For days I struggled with all of the demons that can plague a ninth-grade boy’s existence. I pushed into the cavern of my mind like an ancient explorer, fearful but determined, armed only with the torch of needing-to-know. The words of the dead were my sole guide. I knew that Mary Shelley’s life was plagued by darkness and that Kafka was consumed by alienation and anxiety, yet they both lived on in the world. Looking about me at a home I felt was devoid of hope, the air clogged with cigarettes and decay, I understood what I had to do. Finally, proudly, I handed Mrs. Hecker a melodramatic, but deeply heartfelt essay on being a dreamer. There were obstacles, I said, but I knew that I could do anything I wanted. I wanted to be a famous writer, so that’s what I would eventually be. Along the way, I would also write poetry, create art, photography, and maybe even try to be a musician. Like a real Renaissance man, I would use my own pain and fear to set the world on fire. Certainly, I would have thawed her frozen pedagogic heart with this wondrous wave of poetry, this naked piece of my soul extracted and lain, battered and bloody, upon the page for her. I could imagine the moment when she first told the world about me. In the midst of belaboring the life and works of Samuel Pepys, she would be overcome with pride, explaining that there was someone great here among us now. She would turn and ask me to stand and read aloud, from my own work this time. Then, as my words filled the air, like a magical incantation, everything would change. Kathleen Wilcox would look up at me. Her eyes would fill with tears, and with love, her chest rising and falling in anticipation. Her lips would part, silently, with my name nestled there between them. The paper landed with a splat on the desk in front of me. The “C” that leapt off the page was a dagger in my heart. There weren’t even any comments written in the margins. Timidly, I waited after class to speak with Mrs. Hecker. I wanted to ask the old crone why my life’s inspirations were only worth this paltry grade. I stammered, explaining that I was busily writing, that I’d even be submitting stuff to magazines soon. I was sure to be a published writer by the time I left high school. A huge knot rose from my stomach into my throat. I lurched out of the classroom a couple minutes later, determined to hate her and her words to me forever. But I could never forget what she said: If dreams are all you have, then it’s nothing. I write about the eternal truths that bind together all of mankind, the whole world over. We eat, we shit, we fuck, we kill, and we die. – Geoffrey Rush as the Marquis de Sade Despite all the bodily fluids on display here, QUILLS is more about the mind (and even the heart) than the flesh. Granted, much of the Marquis’ motivation, as displayed here by Geoffrey Rush, is his abiding desire for the chambermaid who has been delivering his words to the outside world. Kate Winslet certainly does fill out a bodice nicely (if she worked at my local laundromat, I’d have the cleanest clothes in town). But even when presented with numerous opportunities to take advantage of her, his character does not. In the end, what he really feels for her is more akin to love than lust. Despite his way with words, he often seems more like a schoolboy of above-average intelligence with a crush and a temper tantrum than a real danger to society. At one point, Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), the kindly priest who runs the asylum and tries to care for the Marquis, delivers the greatest insult to his sinister reputation: “You’re not the Antichrist, you’re just a malcontent who can spell.” But it is his determination to keep writing, an almost pathological need to express himself, which most appeals to this writer. When his writing instruments are taken from him, the Marquis discovers that he can just as easily use wine and bed sheets to record his stories. The Napoleon-appointed alienist Royer-Collard quickly discovers this ruse and has the room stripped of nearly everything. In a kind of frenzy, the Marquis smashes the mirror and uses a shard of broken glass to write on his clothing in his own blood. Dressed in his own words, he escapes from his room and leaps onto a table, dancing and spinning about among his fellow inmates. While watching this scene, I was wondering why no one has yet thought to cast Geoffrey Rush as the Joker. “I didn’t create this world,” he says, “I just record it.” Stripped, with everything taken from him, the man still finds the means to spirit his words from a locked and lonely cell. I won’t take away the surprise, and even admiration, that any viewer might get from seeing how everything plays out. Some of the final scenes of this film manage to be genius, tragic, disgusting, and inspiring, all at the same time. Regardless of the fact that virtually none of them are really true. But it all left me inspired. Why do you complain of your fate when you could so easily change it? – the Marquis de Sade Kathleen Wilcox and I never even shared a cold, much less a limousine to the prom. She graduated a year before me, unaware of all the nights I traced the outline of her face into my pillow. The only small justice was when, several years later, my best friend had to point her out as we sat in a local Burger King. I didn’t even recognize her. Like my dream of instant literary fame and fortune, the memory of her had faded in the cold, uninspired light of reality that followed high school. When I returned to school, ten years after graduation, I began to write again. It was mostly required work for classes, but the flair for words was still there. Each nugget of pedagogic praise I received served as a reminder of the future I once envisioned. Some of the old stories I yearned to tell returned to me, seasoned now with a little more pain and wisdom. The dead writers were still in my head, but now they were more of an inspiration than an influence on my writing. My voice, through experience, had become my own. At thirty I was deep into a marriage destined for failure. In an attempt to become part of my wife’s world, I designed and maintained a monthly newsletter for her church. I was editor and main contributor of Grace Notes for two years, bagging a couple of minor journalism awards for my efforts. But, attempting to write spiritually relevant articles for people of the Church, I felt like the Marquis must have felt. I had a holiday-themed story appear in the Detroit Free Press, then I got divorce papers. Seemingly in regard to the end of my marriage, one of my poems appeared in a Tomb Raider comic book. It was called “I’d Leave My Wife For Lara Croft.” None of this was exactly The New Yorker, but it at least felt like a start. The darkness of childhood is still there. Part of that fourteen-year-old boy survives in my heart as well, adamantly telling me that I could still do anything. However, while hope still remains, I have come to understand what Mrs. Hecker was trying to tell me long ago. Dreams are a good motivation to get us out of bed each morning. But what are we supposed to do with these dreams once we’ve awoken? A dream is but a dream, after all, and will ultimately fade if we never try to realize it. If I want to reach the light, I must take those first steps forward from the shelter of the dark. – j. meredith Writing is not like working construction, but it can still be hard work. There’s a lot of time, thought, and sometimes even research that goes into every article appearing here. If you are reading this, then it was written for you. Please take a moment to “like” this, or any other piece, and feel encouraged to leave a comment (even if it’s to disagree with what you’ve read). See larger image Quills Rush gives a tour-de-force performance as history’s most infamous sexual adventurer, the Marquis de Sade. A nobleman with a literary flair, the Marquis lives in a madhouse where a beautiful laundry maid (Winslet) smuggles his erotic stories to a printer, defying orders from the asylum’s resident priest (Phoenix). The titillating passages whip all of France into a sexual frenzy, until a fiercely conservative doctor (Caine) tries to put an end to the fun, inadvertently stoking the excitement to a fever pitch. New From: $6.75 USD In Stock Share this:TweetShare on TumblrLike this:Like Loading... Related Leave a Reply Cancel ReplyYou must be logged in to post a comment.