Who Whips Whom

Leland de la Durantaye

On 2 July 1789, a man whose official designation in the prison fortress of the Bastille was ‘Monsieur Six’ addressed the people of Paris. He spoke – or shouted – from his cell in the Tour de la Liberté, and in no uncertain terms. The officials holding him, and the regime they served, were villains, devils, criminals and worse. What’s more, they had already begun to slit the prisoners’ throats. There was no time to lose. That evening, the governor of the Bastille, who had slit no throats, informed his superior that if Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, whom 13 years of imprisonment without trial had done nothing to mellow, were not removed from his prison that very night he could no longer guarantee its security. His wish was granted and Monsieur Six was taken in the night to a madhouse, where his screams would go unheeded. In the event, 11 days later, the security of the Bastille ceased to be guaranteed when it was stormed by a revolutionary mob.

The men and women who had been massing outside the building for the preceding weeks at last found themselves running through its halls (the governor’s severed head had already been placed on a pike), unlocking door after door as they went. Number six, untouched since its last occupant’s departure, was awash with paper. There was a library of more than six hundred books, many of them rare, and dozens on dozens of manuscripts in a Voltairean variety of genres (Voltaire himself – a friend of Sade’s father – had twice been a prisoner in the Bastille). There were so many manuscripts that their author had prepared a catalogue raisonné to keep track of them: two volumes of essays, eight of fiction, 16 historical novellas, twenty-odd plays, and much more work in progress. Reading conditions were not favourable that night and by morning virtually the whole oeuvre had been destroyed. For the remaining 25 years of Sade’s life there was one loss that he mourned more bitterly than the rest. This manuscript – which he had been careful to leave out of the catalogue – was written in a small clear hand on both sides of a forty-foot-long roll of paper hidden in a crevice of the cell’s 14th-century wall. When the fifty-year-old Sade emerged from his madhouse on Good Friday the following year, the Bastille had not only been stormed, it had been destroyed – burned down and carried away, brick by brick. And so Sade naturally abandoned all hope for the manuscript over which years later he still claimed to shed ‘tears of blood’.

Although Sade was never to know it, his manuscript had survived that night, and every night since: having been smuggled out of the Bastille it was handed down through three generations of one French family before appearing at auction and then being bought by a German sexologist, who published it in Berlin in 1904 as The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinage. Publication made the manuscript’s subsequent movements, if anything, still more mysterious. It has since been stolen at least once, and been the subject of a great deal of litigation. For decades it couldn’t travel outside Switzerland because of fears it might be seized by the French authorities. Last year it sold at auction for €7 million; Lloyd’s insured it for €12 million.

And this was just the informal beginning of the celebrations commemorating the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death. In October the manuscript, whose new owners are seeking to have it declared a national treasure, was presented to the public in a fifty-foot-long display case in Paris’s Institut des lettres et manuscrits as part of an exhibition entitled Sade: Marquis de l’ombre, prince des Lumières (the last word of the punning title might be translated as either ‘light’ or ‘enlightenment’). The Musée d’Orsay, too, mounted a lavish exhibition inspired by Sade’s visions with a title – Attaquer le soleil – taken from The 120 Days. It aimed to show, in the words of its organisers – one of whom was the writer and Sade scholar Annie Le Brun – ‘themes of the ferocity and singularity of desire … of the bizarre and the monstrous’ in artists ranging from Goya to Picasso, Ingres to Géricault, Cézanne to Rodin. In conjunction with the exhibition the museum organised conferences, lectures, round tables and a film series presenting adaptations of Sade’s works by Buñuel, von Stroheim, Pasolini, Guy Debord, Peter Brook and Nagisa Oshima. Meanwhile, the Bibliothèque de la Pléiade has published its fourth volume of Sade, a lavish 1150-page edition of the great erotic writings: 120 Days of Sodom, Philosophy in the Bedroom and Justine. The works span the decade between the end of one 13-year period of confinement in 1790 and the beginning of a final 13-year period in 1801. The hundreds of pages of critical and philological materials in the new volume situate Sade in his violent and Enlightened times. They also bear witness to the truly exceptional quantity of critical writing on him, from Beauvoir to Foucault, to Blanchot, to Lacan, to Bataille, to Barthes, to Deleuze, to Philippe Sollers.

These national celebrations have been surprising for several reasons. Sade was jailed by all three French governments under which he lived and each of his erotic works was banned by the authorities on publication: an interdiction so serious and durable that when a young publisher began issuing an edition of Sade in 1947 he was promptly arrested and only after more than a decade of appeals, calling on expert testimony from Bataille, Breton, Cocteau and others, was there an acquittal and a lifting of the ban. This radical reversal of official esteem is, however, far less surprising than that such an about-face was possible at all, given whom we’re talking about.

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