One of France’s most notorious literary sons is receiving fresh rounds of literary rehabilitation. After the recovery and display earlier this year of the toilet roll-like original manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom, the most infamous work of Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, a.k.a. the Marquis de Sade, now, 200 years after his death on December 2nd, 1814, his descendant, Elzéar de Sade, has revived his notorious ancestor’s title of Marquis.
“Since the death of Donatien, none of his descendants wanted to wear the Marquis de Sade’s title to avoid the risk of being identified with this devilish character; they prudently chose to style themselves counts de Sade instead,” the newly-styled Marquis told Paris Match. However, France has been pushing a full-scale program of rehabilitation for the bicentennial of Sade’s death, including two major exhibitions in Paris and the publication of three of his works in the prestigious Pléiade series. Now even his family seems ready to embrace his legacy and reputation.
The history of The 120 Days of Sodom is a fascinating literary crime story in its own right. Written in the Bastille in 1785 on a continuous 12-metre (40 foot) paper roll, during one of its author’s spells of detention at the behest of his family (who obviously had different feelings about him then), it was believed lost in the storming of the Bastille in 1789. Sade himself wept “tears of blood” over its presumed destruction. But it was recovered and finally published in 1904 by a German psychiatrist as a case study in sexual deviance. The manuscript was then bought in 1929 by the Noailles family, also descendants of Sade, but stolen from them in 1982 and sold to a Swiss collector. Swiss law protected the buyer against recovery claims by the Noailles family, but his son later sold it to rare manuscripts company Aristophil, which has now returned it to Paris for display.
Sade is now held up as an icon of intellectual liberty as well as libertinism, not least because of the many attempts to censor and ban his work. “Sade will be read! Democracy is in danger!” his descendants proclaim. “Dare to face him to better appreciate (if not admire and love him …) Dare, yes we must dare, want, desire and fight because Sade deserves it … He is above all a symbol of freedom.”
Does this complete sadism’s journey to respectability begun by Fifty Shades of Grey? I hope this isn’t flogging a dead horse, but that might be a sore point with some…