"The 120 Days of Sodom" is now freely available from your nearest proper bookshopby Kevin Jackson / October 7, 2016 / Leave a comment
“Faut-il bruler Sade?” asked the pioneering feminist Simone de Beauvoir in a famous essay, first published by Les Temps modernes in 1951. Must we burn the works of the Marquis de Sade? Her answer, roughly speaking, was: no, absolutely not. “The supreme value of his testimony,” she wrote, “lies in its ability to disturb us. It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man…”
This seemed a startling, even a perverse contention. Some of her contemporaries in France, notably Albert Camus, believed that “Silling,” the remote castle in The 120 Days of Sodom where a group of libertines carry out hideous experiments in the defiling and mutilation of human bodies, was—as Raymond Queneau put it—“a hallucinatory precursor of the world ruled by the Gestapo, its tortures, its camps.” Sade was the theory, the SS was the practice. And in 1951, the wounds left by Nazism were still wide open. When, five years after de Beauvoir’s essay, the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert brought out a supposedly complete edition of Sade’s writings, he was convicted of committing an outrage on public decency. To this day, it is illegal in France to display Sade in shop windows.
In the twenty-first century, de Beauvoir’s verdict would raise few eyebrows, if any. Indeed, newly translated by Will McMorran and Thomas Wynn, The 120 Days of Sodom is now freely available from your nearest proper bookshop.
Popular editions of Sade began to appear in the 1960s, first in France, then in the USA, and eventually in the UK, with a cheap paperback of what purported to be Sade’s novel Justine, though it was actually an earlier work about the same character. But any further British publication of Sade was blocked from 1966 till 1989, and for the most terrible of reasons. During the trial of the Moors Murderers Myra Hindley and Ian Brady, it came to light that Brady was a fan of the Marquis. This was more than enough evidence to justify a ban that lasted more than two decades.
Matters were very different across the Channel, where literary intellectuals were busy reclaiming Sade for the French canon. This was the second, or possibly the…