If you’ve never read the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom, please, please, please let this serve as an admonition: it’s harrowing.
When you think of Sade, you probably picture the 18th-century equivalent of stern, bossy men wearing leather chaps or dominant women in black corsets with artisanal whips. You’re wrong. The 120 Days of Sodom is the story of kidnapping, depraved sex acts, spectacularly creative torture, elaborate rape, even more upsetting creative torture and, well, sadistic murder. If not exactly a satire, the book is a melodramatic polemic, making an unmissable point as it lashes out at social mores under the ancien régime. There. is. a. character. named. Bum-Cleaver.
Elaine Sciolino reported on Monday in The New York Times that Bruno Racine, director of the Biblioth√®que nationale de France (BnF) (the French national library), has been in negotiations to acquire Sade’s original manuscript as a “national treasure.” Which, harrowing plot aside, it clearly is. The manuscript is in the form of a single, 39-foot long scroll, covered front and back with Sade’s tiny writing. Between the 1920s and 1980s, it was, amazingly, in the possession of some of the Marquis’ descendants in Fontainebleau, but has ended up owned by a Swiss collector of erotica.
Another admonition: Do not date anyone who considers The 120 Days of Sodom to be erotica.
According to Sciolino’s article, Racine has worked actively to collect important French literary and philosophical archives and manuscripts on behalf of the Republic. In several cases, convincing the Commission of National Treasures to grant that designation to the manuscripts has proved an effective tool for Racine. The BnF is prepared to spend more than $5 million on Sade’s scroll; it has already paid nearly twice that much for Casanova’s memoirs (in both cases, the money was raised from private donations). Its other recent acquisitions include the archives of both Michel Foucault and Guy Debord.
Next year is the bicentennial of Sade’s death, and Racine plans to display the BnF’s holdings of the Marquis’ works. The 120 Days of Sodom manuscript would be an important focal point in that exhibition.
Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom in his cell in the Bastille; he was transferred from the prison to an insane asylum just days before the revolutionary storming of the Bastille in 1789. For the rest of his life, he believed the manuscript lost in the tumult. Of course, it did survive, but was not published until the 20th century. And now it’s a “national treasure!” However, to borrow a phrase from David Foster Wallace, “the integrity of [your] sleep [will be] forever compromised” should you undertake to read it.