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How the Marquis de Sade became a pillar of the French establishment

10 August 2021

In early July 1789, the inhabitants of the faubourg Saint-Antoine, in the east of Paris, were harangued by a prisoner from a window of the Bastille. The guards were killing the prisoners, he roared, urging the people to come and free them. This was not the first time that Donatien-Alphonse-François de Sade had caused trouble during his long periods of incarceration. Sade was dispatched to the asylum at Charenton on 4 July, leaving behind nearly 12 metres of a manuscript recounting imaginary acts of extraordinary depravity, written during the four years he spent at the Bastille and secreted in the wall of his cell. When the fortress fell, less than a fortnight later, Sade assumed the work was lost. In his words, he ‘wept tears of blood’.

On 9 July, the French government announced that it had acquired that lost manuscript – De Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom – for the princely sum of €4.6m. Discovered during the demolition of the Bastille in 1789, and sold to a French nobleman, in the 20th century the work passed into the hands of the German psychiatrist Iwan Bloch, and then to the French art collectors and patrons Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, the latter a descendant of Sade. Stolen in the 1980s, in 2014 the manuscript was purchased by Gérard Lhéritier on behalf of his unusual investment fund, Aristophil, whose ‘capital’ was comprised of literary and historic manuscripts and autographs.

The manuscript of ‘The 120 Days of Sodom’ written by the Marquis de Sade while he was imprisoned at the Bastille in 1785.

The manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom, written by the Marquis de Sade while he was imprisoned at the Bastille. Photo: MARTIN BUREAU/AFP via Getty Images

Why did the French state acquire what its author described as ‘the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began’? The official announcement of the purchase describes the book as a ‘veritable monument’: an indication of how, more than 230 years since Sade composed his account of elaborate, violent, and bizarre torments, he has firmly entered the ranks of the French cultural establishment. The manuscript was already designated a ‘national treasure’ in 2017, when an export ban was put in place after the collapse of Aristophil. Now, in the words of the French Ministry of Culture, the text can truly become part of the nation’s patrimoine écrit (written heritage) – a term that conveys Sade’s inclusion in the French canon, as well as the object’s perceived cultural and historic value.

That 120 Days of Sodom has acquired a kind of respectability and become an object of both tangible and intangible cultural heritage may well have amused Sade, frequently seen as the ultimate libertine. Yet Sade may also have relished official recognition. The ‘divine Marquis’ hoped that his literary output might place him among the ranks of the Enlightenment philosophes, enjoying the kind of literary renown – and, potentially, financial reward – enjoyed by Voltaire who, like Sade, had once been a prisoner of the Bastille.

Sade’s present-day recognition owes much to the Surrealists. Their interpretations and interpolations of Sade’s work in the early decades of the 20th century across literature and the visual arts brought him to greater global attention. ‘Sade is surrealist in sadism,’ stated André Breton in his Manifesto of Surrealism (1924). It is fitting, then, that the manuscript of 120 Days was purchased alongside a collection of Breton’s own works, including the manuscript of the 1924 manifesto.

For the Surrealists, as for the previous generations of young artists who discovered his work via clandestine editions, Sade represented complete artistic liberty. In the absence of authenticated contemporary portraits of the adult Marquis, they created imagined ones. Man Ray’s portrait of Sade of 1938 was based on a drawing to accompany a new edition of 120 Days prepared by his neighbour, Maurice Heine. The work’s depiction of a mature, heavy-set Sade echoes the author’s description of his ‘corpulence’, as well as the pen-portrait of him from 1807 by the writer and librarian Charles Nodier, who once presided over the Arsenal library that is now home to the manuscript: ‘An enormous obesity restricted, to a certain extent, his movements…His tired eyes, however, preserved something bright and feverish which revived from time to time, like a spark expiring on an extinguished coal.’

Imaginary portrait of the Marquis de Sade Imaginary portrait of the Marquis de Sade

Imaginary portrait of the Marquis de Sade (1938), Man Ray. The Menil Collection, Houston. © Man Ray Trust/Artists Rights Society (ARS), New York/ADAGP, Paris

In Man Ray’s imagined vision of Sade, the author gazes on the Bastille aflame, mourning the presumed loss of his manuscript. At the bottom of the painting, Man Ray reproduces the final line of Sade’s will, where the Marquis requests that he be buried in a forest, his grave planted with acorns, ‘so that […] the traces of my tomb will disappear […] just as I flatter myself that my memory will fade from the minds of men.’ The point, of course, is that his memory and his work live on. The artwork affirms him, almost literally, as the ‘veritable monument’ he has become. Sade’s face is made up of the same enormous building blocks as the fortress, reflecting the importance of incarceration in his artistic and imaginative development, but also – as the writer and critic Samm Deighan notes – inserting Sade into the very fabric of Paris, birthplace of Surrealism. The demolition of the Bastille began on the evening of 14 July 1789 and continued for two years; many of its stones made their way into building works around the revolutionary capital.

The centrality of the Bastille in the portrait points to another factor in the value of the Sade manuscript for France: its physical status as a unique artefact created in the confines of the fortress. The storming of the Bastille on 14 July 1789 liberated only a handful of prisoners, but the prison rapidly became a byword for repression – and, conversely, a symbol of hard-won liberties and a crucial element in the founding mythology of modern France. Sade’s manuscript, seen by some as an expression of total creative freedom, produced in the Bastille, might be read as mirroring the process of political liberation. At the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal, near the site of the fortress, 120 Days of Sodom will join other Sade manuscripts – and the archive of the Bastille.