Sade: a national treasure?

What do Ian McKellen and the Marquis de Sade have in common? They’re both national treasures in their respective countries.

Manuscript of Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome.

In Britain, a national treasure is someone who’s been around for quite a while, and generally regarded with respect and affection. Think Judi Dench and David Attenborough, Joanna Lumley and Alan Bennett, who are probably Britain’s favourite national treasures even though they might blanch at the label. Such is the enduring love for these reassuring yet sometimes quirky figures that even when scandal strikes – as when La Lumley was embroiled in that ghastly garden bridge brouhaha – we collectively sigh, shrug and continue in our comfortable love. This points to a trait common to many British national treasures: their pasts as well as their presents are rarely conservative. Though they may have a traditional keep-calm-and-carry-on attitude, there’s often something irreverent, naughty or even queer about them – think of Irvine Welsh, Helen Mirren and David Hockney. That’s why Kate Moss is already a national treasure, Nicola Adams might be one day, but the Queen will never be. Longevity doesn’t translate into insipidness, and Mary Beard exemplifies how a national treasure continues to stimulate, provoke and upset (some of) us.

National treasures in France, however, are not people but ‘des biens culturels qui présentent un intérêt majeur pour le patrimoine national au point de vue de l’histoire, de l’art ou de l’archéologie’, and whose expatriation is temporarily blocked so that their value can be determined by experts and potentially for the State to raise sufficient funds for their purchase. On 18 December 2017 France’s Ministère de la culture declared the manuscript of Sade’s 120 journées de Sodome to be a ‘trésor national’, a decision taken just before the twelve-metre long scroll was about to be auctioned off as part of a sale of manuscripts owned by the now discredited company Aristophil, a French investment firm that went bankrupt in 2015 after buying more than a 100,000 manuscripts and whose founder was charged with fraud last year. Sade’s scroll – as well as André Breton’s Manifestes du surréalisme which were also owned by Aristophil and were similarly designated a national treasure – cannot leave France for at least thirty months, during which time the State is expected to rustle up the funds to purchase it at a price such as it would reach on the international market. According to Le Figaro, that sum is in the region of 8 million euros, slightly more than the 7 million euros paid by Aristophil, which bought the manuscript in 2014, the bicentennial of Sade’s death.

Les 120 journées de Sodome – described by its author as the ‘récit le plus impur qui ait jamais été fait depuis que le monde existe, le pareil livre ne se rencontrant ni chez les anciens ni chez les modernes’, and somewhat surprisingly by both the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail as ‘an erotic masterpiece’ – appeared in the Pléiade series in 1990 and as a Penguin Classic in 2016. As the official website of the Ministère de la culture notes, ‘ce manuscrit, remarquable par sa forme particulière résultant des conditions de sa création en cellule lors de l’incarcération du marquis de Sade à la Bastille, son parcours fort mouvementé, sa réputation sulfureuse et son influence sur un certain nombre d’écrivains français du XXème siècle, est d’une importance majeure dans l’œuvre de Sade, en tant que premier véritable ouvrage, à la fois le plus radical et le plus monumental, bien que resté inachevé.’ Frédéric Castaing, member of the committee that advises on which works should be classified as national treasures, is quoted in the New York Times as describing Les 120 journées as a work that ‘that challenges, that reaches into the depths of humanity, of the obscure, […] a serious document of literature, of France’s literary history.’ Its canonization is now complete and irrefutable.

Ironically, Les 120 journées de Sodome works against the idea of nationhood. One of the books that inspired Sade’s novel is the Abbé Bertoux’s Anecdotes françaises (1767), which provides a pithy story or two to exemplify the ‘mœurs, […] usages et […] coutumes’ of the French nation for many of the years since 487. In contrast to Bertoux, who deploys the conventional anecdote to forge a collective and nationalist readership, Sade uses the obscene anecdote to create an individual and subversive reader. And yet there is a logic to this violent, obscene and radically atheist novel being declared – and publicly funded – as a national treasure. Sade writes in ‘Français, encore un effort si vous voulez être républicains’, the political pamphlet intercalated in La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795):

‘Que les blasphèmes les plus insultants, les ouvrages les plus athées soient ensuite autorisés pleinement, afin d’achever d’extirper dans le cœur et la mémoire des hommes ces effrayants jouets de notre enfance [the phrase “effrayants jouets de notre enfance” of course refers to religion]; que l’on mette au concours l’ouvrage le plus capable d’éclairer enfin les Européens sur une matière aussi importante, et qu’un prix considérable, et décerné par la nation, soit la récompense de celui qui, ayant tout dit, tout démontré sur cette matière, ne laissera plus à ses compatriotes qu’une faux pour culbuter tous ces fantômes et qu’un cœur droit pour les haïr.’

With his manuscript now classified as a national treasure, it transpires that Sade has won just that kind of prize. Whether his fellow Europeans are in the mood to award a similar prize is less clear for now.

– Thomas Wynn, Durham University

Thomas Wynn’s translation and edition of The 120 Days of Sodom, produced in collaboration with Will McMorran (Queen Mary, University of London), was published by Penguin Classics in 2016.



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.