The first time I learned about “Loab,” it sent shivers down my spine. A strange dead-eyed ghoul that began haunting an AI image generator last year, Loab reminded me of a fiend I’d been tracking for years. One in a different medium, in a different era, and under a different name: the Marquis de Sade.
This may not seem like an obvious connection to make. The Marquis de Sade, one of the most infamous names in all of writing, was an 18th century French aristocrat, a man known for debauchery and evading authorities, breaking out of prison and eluding his own public execution in 1772. Loab is very much a product of the modern age, the accidental creation of artist Supercomposite, who claimed to have “discovered” her in an AI text-to-image generator in April of last year. The two couldn’t be more different. Yet, what Sade’s writing showed humanity about their unspoken fascinations and what chatbots like ChatGPT and Google’s Bard unearth about similar interests seem all but destined to intersect. The question is: Who will be prepared for it?
Sade’s efforts to chronicle humanity’s—or at least his own—forbidden desires began, somewhat famously, in the bowels of the Bastille. In the late 1770s, after being locked away following a series of scandalous offenses, Sade became obsessed with putting quill to paper, resulting in a body of work so obscene that its author would be variously described as “the freest spirit who ever lived” and an “apostle of assassins.”
His most notorious effort was The 120 Days of Sodom, penned on a 40-foot scroll. Sade called the novel “the most impure tale ever written since the world began.” It tells the story of four wealthy degenerates who lock young subordinates in a castle and subject them to months of escalating depravity: incest, bestiality, coprophilia, necrophilia, disemboweling, amputation, cannibalism, and more. By the end of the novel, the chateau is awash in blood and body parts. Thanks to his writing, Sade became so deeply associated with cruelty that he inspired the term sadism—deriving pleasure from pain.
While Sade believed the scroll was destroyed in the 1789 storming of the Bastille, in reality it embarked on a continent-spanning odyssey that involved underground erotica collectors, pioneering sex researchers, Nazi book burnings, scandalous Surrealist art, an audacious heist, international court battles and, most recently, a massive manuscript scandal in France. In fact, due to its horrid subject matter and the upheaval it’s been associated with, some authorities believe the scroll to be cursed.
Damned or not, the novel’s very existence is a mystery. Why would anyone have bothered with such a herculean effort at a time when the results could never be openly published? Who exactly was the man behind it? Was Sade a revolutionary, working to expose the rotten core of the aristocracy into which he was born? Or was he simply an unrepentant criminal, chronicling his own atrocities, committed or simply dreamed of?