Whitehot Magazine

Saving The 120 Days of Sodom

Detail of Marquis de Sade’s manuscript Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage, photo by Joseph Nechvatal

By JOSEPH NECHVATAL, February 2023

On February 13th I attended the conference Papier en restauration : le rouleau des 120 Journées de Sodome at the Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal (1, rue de Sully, Paris) on the restoration of the Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage (The Hundred Twenty Days of Sodom or the School of Libertinage) ~ the legendary manuscript of decadence clandestinely completed by the incarcerated Marquis de Sade in 1785. It is made up of 33 recto verso written upon sheets of paper (with a width of 11.3 cm) glued end to end; forming a roll 12.10 meters long. It was announced at the conference that the manuscript will be exhibited in its unrolled entirety at the BnF (The Bibliothèque nationale de France) Musée Richelieu (5 Rue Vivienne, 75002) from September 16, 2023 till September 15th, 2024 and that should be really something to see.  

BnF acquired Les 120 journées de Sodome only in 2021 at a price of nearly 4.5 million euros after the French culture ministry in 2017 stepped in to prevent the sale of the manuscript at auction ~ declaring it a national treasure and banning its export. The 4.5 million sum was provided entirely by Emmanuel Boussard, a former investment banker and co-founder of the Boussard & Gavaudan investment fund.

The location for physically viewing a section of the roll ~ protected by a vitrine ~ and listening to the explanations of archival rigor practiced in preserving the document ~ was fascinating as presented by Caroline Bertrand, Magali Dufour, Anne-Laure Fessart and Marlène Smilauer. l’Arsenal ~ created by the Marquis de Paulmy (Marc Antoine René de Voyer) in 1750 ~ is just off the Bastille and thus is the appropriate piquant location for the Les 120 journées de Sodome manuscript to rest, as Sade (aka Donatien-Alphonse-François (1740—1814)) wrote it secretly while imprisoned in the Bastille where he was incarcerated on February 29th, 1784. During his lifetime, Sade was found guilty of sodomy, rape, torturing the 36-year-old beggar woman Rose Keller, holding six children in his chateau at Lacoste, and dosing five prostitutes with aphrodisiacs. I recommend reading the book Marquis de Sade: Journey to Italy, translated by James A. Steintrager, for the fuller story of Sade’s extensive and cruel debauchery.

Detail of Marquis de Sade’s manuscript Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage, photo (c) Béatrice Lucchèse BnF

Sade hid Les 120 journées de Sodome ~ that tells the tale of four rich aristocrat libertines in search of sexual gratification in a castle in the Black Forest systematically and imaginatively sexually abusing forty-two victims ~ rolled up in the wall of his cell. But on the night of July 3rd, 1789 ~ after haranguing the crowd from his cell window ~ de Sade was abruptly transferred to the lunatic asylum Charenton, leaving behind this manuscript hid in the wall. Sade’s taste for sodomy, pedophilia and flagellation ~ in addition to his fictional accounts of excessive orgies which describe sexual cruelty and murder in excessive detail ~ already had led many to presume he was deranged. When the Bastille was stormed and looted on July 14th ~ during the height of the French Revolution ~ Sade believed the work was lost forever. He later wrote that he wept tears of blood over its loss. But, unknown to him, the roll was recovered from the destruction of the Bastille and sold to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans, and so, after many strange and shocking exchanges, is with us today at Bibliothèque nationale de France.  

The fascinating history of this manuscript ~ hidden, stolen, lost, censored, illegally exported (most likely in a coffee can, we were told at the conference) ~ still is the object of some speculation. For example, during the restoration process it was x-rayed and a Dutch water mark was discovered on a small part of it. All this mystery only further enhances its appeal as a vehicle of transgressive power.  

Detail of Marquis de Sade’s manuscript Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage, photo (c) Béatrice Lucchèse BnF.

The published text has come a long way from the ghetto of erotic literature of the 1950s, to the honors of the Pléiade and Gallimard editions today. The German psychologist Iwan Bloch was the first to allow its publication in 1904 ~ even as it remained banned in Britain until the 1950s. 

The entry of the manuscript ~ an emblem of violent perversion but also literary and artistic freedom ~ into the national collection is allowing serious researchers to continue to study it, for Sade is deemed deliriously divine by many intellectuals and artists who interpret his writings to be a black mirror held up to reflect man’s inhumanity to man. This is most notably seen in Pier Paolo Pasolini’s film Saló (1975) which restages Sade’s 120 days of Sodom in fascist Italy as a means of addressing the horrors of war and totalitarian regimes. So perhaps it is symbolically justified that the rolled Les 120 journées de Sodome resembles a roll of toilet paper ~ even as the look of the text is achingly beautiful ~ written in fine minuscule. It is no wonder that Eluard, Breton, Bataille, Blanchot, Pasolini, Annie Le Brun, Philippe Sollers are only some of the creators deeply marked by what some call the power of its black sun. WM


Joseph Nechvatal

Joseph Nechvatal is an American artist and writer currently living in Paris. His The Viral Tempest limited edition art LP was recently published by Pentiments Records and his newest book of poetry, Styling Sagaciousness: Oh Great No!, by Punctum Books. His 1995 cyber-sex farce novella ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~venus©~Ñ~vibrator, even was published by Orbis Tertius Press in 2023.

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