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Michel Foucault and Quills: The Other Side 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.

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