Sade: compulsion and insight

Les 120 journées de Sodome

Manuscript of Les 120 journées de Sodome

‘The fruit of solitude is originality, something daringly and disconcertingly beautiful, the poetic creation. But the fruit of solitude can also be the perverse, the disproportionate, the absurd and the forbidden.’ Thomas Mann’s linking in Death in Venice of beauty, excess and the taboo evokes much of what is characteristic about the ‘poetry’ born of Sade’s solitude. This poetry is most evident in Les 120 journées de Sodome, which Sade began on 22 October 1785 and finished thirty-seven days later whilst imprisoned in the Bastille.

It is not mere provocation to describe a catalogue of horrors as poetry. The relentless dismantling of bodies according to a demented logic creates an effect of abstraction; partly by dint of stylistic repetition, the violence enacted upon the victims makes of them little more than an assemblage of parts to be reconfigured at will.

The Marquis de Sade

Portrait of the Marquis de Sade, by van Loo, c.1760

Yet just as Roland Barthes was wrong to state that ‘écrite, la merde ne sent pas’ (shit does stink, page after page), so these bodies do not belong solely to the abstract; the victims do not stop screaming, and it is the reader’s continued connivance that is responsible. In sharing the author’s bleak and acutely personal delirium (think of those times Sade addresses and corrects himself in the text), the reader confronts ethical and aesthetic challenges that no other literary work offers.

A new possibility to penetrate Sade’s solitude will be available when the famed manuscript of Les 120 journées goes on show at the Musée des lettres et manuscrits from 26 September 2014. Will the sight of an artefact that owes its existence and singular form to harsh solitary confinement prompt new ethical responses? Will one’s reading of the text be altered by the material testimony of imprisonment? How might one’s sympathy for a writer change the way one confronts his fictional violence?


SVEC has published widely on Sade’s work, including Caroline Warman’s Sade: from materialism to pornography (2002:01), William Edmiston Sade: queer theorist (2013:03), and my own Sade’s theatre: pleasure, vision, masochism (2007:02). In this bicentennial of Sade’s death at the asylum at Charenton, the reassessment of his broad range of writing continues in many other ways.

For instance, Michel Delon and Stéphanie Genand have each recently published new editions of Sade’s short stories; Chiara Gambacorti’s new book explores his late historical novels; Nicholas Cronk and Manuel Mühlbacher have edited a volume of essays that offer new approaches to Sade; and Jean-Christophe Abramovici and Florence Lotterie are hosting a major international conference from 25 to 27 September 2014.

One of the characters in Jennifer Haley’s play The Nether states ‘I have been cursed with both compulsion and insight’; if Sade has often been seen as compulsive rather than insightful, the current fizz of scholarly and editorial activity may well modify that view.

Thomas Wynn, Reader in French at Durham University. His translation of Les 120 journées de Sodome, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, London), will appear with Penguin Classics in 2015.

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