Quills: Madness in the Age of Reason

quillsQuills (2000), a quasi-historical movie about the infamous writer Marquis de Sade and his internment in Charenton asylum in Charenton-Saint-Maurice, France, wonderfully echoes the themes in French philosopher Michel Foucault’s book, Madness and Civilization (1965). Michel Foucault (1926-1984) originally wrote Madness and Civilization as his doctoral thesis. It examines ideas, practices, institutions, art, and literature relating to insanity in Western history.

Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade (1740–1814) was a French aristocrat imprisoned for crimes including blasphemy and sodomy. He became a revolutionary politician and anonymously authored several erotic novels, including Justine and Juliette. He spent his twilight years imprisoned in Charenton asylum after Napoleon Bonaparte ordered the arrest of the author of Justine and Juliette, which he considered blasphemous and obscene. At Charenton, under the care of Abbé de Coulmier, de Sade had an affair with 14-year-old Madeleine LeClerc. These events formed the historical basis for the movie Quills.

Directed by Philip Kaufman, Quills is based on a play of the same name by Doug Wright. The film opens during the French Revolution. Marquis de Sade (Geoffrey Rush) witnesses the execution of a young aristocratic woman from the window of his prison cell in the Bastille. The executioner is none other than Bouchon, who later appears as the most disturbed patient at Charenton. “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,” de Sade explained to the audience. Later, when his services were no longer needed, the poor wretch was locked up without any kind of treatment (because, as Foucault tells us, madness was not considered to be an ‘illness’ at the time). The implication was that justice in the “Age of Reason” was dolled out by the insane.

When Napoleon orders de Sade’s execution, an advisor suggests instead that he send Doctor Antoine Royer-Collard, “a staunchly moral man of impeccable character,” to appraise the situation at Charenton and reform its notorious inmate.

“Welcome to our humble madhouse doctor,” de Sade says as Doctor Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) arrives at Charenton. “I’m sure you’ll find yourself at home.” Historically, Royer-Collard arrived in 1806. He did not believe de Sade was insane and petitioned to have him sent to a regular prison. In Quills, the character of the doctor symbolizes several themes in Foucault’s work. He presents himself as a purely rational and moral man. Because human passions were seen as a form of madness, the doctor shows his sanity by being totally dispassionate. He places an iron barrier between himself and those he considers insane.

Quills quickly shows us, however, that the doctor’s methods of relieving madness are cruel, and he shows himself to be morally bankrupt by acquiring a girl, twice his junior in age, from a nunnery to be his wife. The madhouse, which was at the limits of the law where any form of punishment could be inflicted, was an ideal place for the doctor to administer his reign of terror.

Royer-Collard’s goal is to maintain order, and he treats the mad like animals in cages that need to be broken to his will. The doctor represents a more modern view of madness, as opposed to Abbe Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix), who saw madness as a moral failing. The doctor has no moral dilemma. He sees madness is an animality that needs to be confined and contained by brutality and discipline. Royer-Collard expresses this view when he yells, “take this beast back to his cage!” after de Sade escapes from his cell and creates a ruckus in the dining hall.

The doctor marginalizes Abbe Coulmier and his moral mission, as morality in the modern age had been confined and “bound to Reason.”1 Likewise, the doctor also confines the passions of his heart. When he brings his young bride home for the first time, he instructs the repairmen working on the mansion to put a lock on her bedroom door and bar her windows, making her a prisoner as well.

“The doctor is a man after my own heart,” de Sade says.

The forbidden love-affair-that-never-was between Abbe Coulmier and Magdeleinge (Kate Winslet) perfectly illustrates Foucault’s last type of madness: desperate passion. Foucault writes, “To the moral world, also, belong the madness of just punishment, which chastises, along with the disorders of the mind, those of the heart.”2 In this case, the Abbe chastises himself for having a “disorder of the heart”― having the desire to break his vow of chastity. He punishes himself for his immoral thoughts towards Magdeleinge.

At the film’s climax, Magdeleinge is killed by the brutal executioner-turned-inmate, who is driven into a frenzy when he hears one of de Sade’s stories. Abbe, unable to show his love publicly or even in private, has a necrophilia-driven fantasy when his mind finally breaks from the strain. “Love disappointed in its excess, and especially love deceived by the fatality of death, has no other recourse but madness,” Foucault explained.3

Abbe Coulmier and Doctor Antoine Royer-Collard both stand in the gray area between madness and reason, but Coulmier is the only one who winds up raving mad and confined in the cell de Sade once inhabited. This symbolizes the triumph of the modern conception of Reason, as a confiner of animals, over the classical view of Reason as a guardian of morality and moral education.

According to Foucault, the classical view of madness administered morality like a trade or commodity. In Quills, de Sade writes a satirical play lampooning the excesses of Doctor Royer-Collard, which is performed by the other inmates for a paying audience. These plays had been put on by Abbe Coulmier in the past, as a way to keep the inmates of Charenton busy, in line with the old Hộpital Général policy, which “set itself the task of preventing ‘mendicancy and idleness as the source of all disorders.”4

The doctor disapproves of this and chastises Coulmier for exploiting the inmates for financial gain, although he was clearly embarrassed by the Marquis’ characterization of his marriage. Foucault writes about this briefly in Madness and Civilization. “Madness became pure spectacle, in a world over which Sade extended his sovereignty and which was offered as a diversion to the good conscience of a reason sure of itself,” he wrote.5 Never the less, the doctor has the asylum theater shut down, as did the historical Antoine Royer-Collard. In the closing scene of Quills, however, the doctor takes up this mission against idleness in a different form. He puts the inmates to work printing and selling copies of De Sade’s books, in an ironic twist.

This new regimen’s mission was different from that of the theater. Its purpose was menial work designed to produce order in the asylum. It imposed a routine on the inmates and even exploited some of their disorders by having the neurotic inmates set the type, the docile ones press the pages, etc. However, Foucault says of the Modern view of madness, “the relation between the practice of confinement and the insistence on work is not defined by economic considerations.”6 While some of the doctor’s motives might not be related to economics, the film leaves us with the impression his primary goal is to profit from de Sade’s books.

“My glorious prose filtered through the minds of the insane… Who knows, they might improve it!”

In Madness and Civilization, Foucault tells us that people once viewed madness as a mirror of the world. They believed the world itself was mad, and that somehow madness lay in everyone. Likewise, in Quills, de Sade tells Abbe Coulmier after his satirical play enrages the doctor, “We merely held up a mirror, apparently he didn’t like what he saw.” De Sade repeats over and over again that he is just writing what he sees. His books, however extreme, are really no more extreme than the brutality of the world. In that way his madness reveals an unpleasant truth.

De Sade’s writing and political views are constantly reaching new extremes, embodying the idea that the madman is at the limits of humanity. As Foucault says, madness “calls into question the values of another age, another art, another morality,” but also “reflects all the forms, even the most remote, of the human imagination.”7 De Sade searched the darkest places of his imagination to come up with increasingly excessive examples of sex and brutality, as the movie Quills (although certainly nowhere near these limits) becomes more excessive as it progresses.

It’s rumored de Sade wrote his book 120 Days of Sodom on a long scroll that he hid in the Bastille’s wall. Like that scroll, which he pulled from the darkness, Foucault says that madness itself was considered a kind of darkness during the Modern Age. In the movie Quills, the characters frequently emerge from a dark or surprising region. Foucault often characterized madness as being the threshold of human behavior―the limit that kept being pushed back. The wall containing 120 Days of Sodom is symbolic not only of this threshold, but also of the barrier Foucault says artists use to keep their madness at bay. Their work is an attempt to control the uncontrollable aspects of their mind.

According to Foucault, there is an anxious possibility of freedom in the darkness of the mad. This freedom is unleashed during the climax of the film, when a fire ravages Charenton and the inmates escape. De Sade is blamed for having instigated Magdeleinge’s murder during the chaos, but with the absolute freedom of the mad comes no adherence to laws or morality. Many of the inmates are seen outside the asylum having sex or dancing naked, oblivious to the burning building and chaos around them. That beastial freedom is what terrified, and fascinated, people in the Modern Age because they could only dream of letting go of their inhibitions.

“Madness is the purest, most total form of qui pro quo; it takes the false for the true, death for life, man for woman, the beloved for the Erinnys and the victim for Minos,” Foucault explained.8 This characterization plays itself out during the many interweaving subplots of Quills, all orchestrated by the madness of the Marquis de Sade. The film  illustrates many of the points that Foucault outlines in Madness and Civilization through historical settings, characters, and interpretations of de Sade’s stories. Foucault would have appreciated the movie’s depth in exploring and giving a voice to this ‘other side’ of Reason.

1 Michel Foucault, Madness and Civilization. Trans. Richard Howard. (New York, NY: Vintage Books, 1988), 64.
2 Ibid., 30.
3 Ibid.
4 Ibid., 47.
5 Ibid., 69-70.
6 Ibid., 58.
7 Ibid., 29.
8 Ibid., 33.

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