The Marquis de Sade: classic author?

"The 120 Days of Sodom" is now freely available from your nearest proper bookshop

October 07, 2016
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“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 third great wave of French Sade-ism. As early as 1909, the poet Guillaume Apollinaire had published a small volume of selections from his work. Then, in the early 1920s, Andre Breton and his band of Surrealists took him up as a rebel hero who anticipated their own shock tactics. Following the Surrealists, the avant-garde likes of Georges Bataille and Maurice Blanchot wrote idiosyncratic appreciations. By the 1960s and 1970s, Sade was all the rage again, thanks to best-selling books by Philippe Sollers and Roland Barthes, whose Sade/Fourier /Loyola coolly side-stepped all questions of ethics by considering the Marquis as a mental system builder, the unlikely kin of a Utopian socialist and the Jesuit thinker.

By the late 1990s, Sade was finally published as part of the highly distinguished Pleiade collection of French immortals. The fiend, the ur-Nazi, the horrifying bogey-man of the Enlightenment, was now thoroughly respectable. And so now Sade has been granted permission to enter our own reasonably-priced counterpart to the Pleiade: the McMorran and Wynn translation will be published by Penguin Classics.

In one respect, this is an old, old story: the scandalous book of one period—Baudelaire’s Fleurs du Mal, Flaubert’s Madame Bovary, Joyce’s Ulysses—becomes the set text of later generations, shunned by idle students not because it is obscene but because it demands too great an engagement on the reader’s part. But the case of de Sade is different from such cases, since his work is so studiedly devoid of those humanistic “redeeming features” to which lawyers used to appeal in defense of, say, Lady Chatterley’s Lover or Howl or The Naked Lunch.

At a pinch, you could claim that The 120 Days of Sodom is a satire, and that all its acts of anal rape and copraphagia and mutilation are in fact shots aimed at the corruption of the Church and the Nobility. Well, perhaps a little, but not much more than that. While Swift did not in fact relish the idea of eating ragout of human infant, de Sade is clearly engaged in an act of what the church used to call morose delectation. He enjoys his horrors, and whether or not he literally masturbated when writing the book—which runs to about 400 pages of close print in the Penguin edition—it reads like long sequence of masturbatory fantasies.

And here is the true dark secret of de Sade’s prose. Unless you happen to have the same kind of kinks as the Marquis—he describes about 600 of them—these fantasies are not all that arousing. Taken one by one, they are rather dull; taken in bulk, they are crushingly dull. Dull as in filing a tax return, dull as in browsing Wisden if you don’t like cricket, dull as in a study of Andalusian grain prices in the 1830s. Perhaps (and some critics have advanced this as a serious theory, not merely a cheap quip) this is the Marquis having his laugh on posterity. He wrote a supposedly hideous book that is in reality so boring that to read it is a kind of torture.