Slate has relationships with various online retailers. If you buy something through our links, Slate may earn an affiliate commission. We update links when possible, but note that deals can expire and all prices are subject to change. All prices were up to date at the time of publication.
“As the age of handwriting comes to an end,” Joel Warner asks in his new book, “what is the value of the original texts left behind?” As it turns out, quite a bit. Warner’s The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History tells the story not of the narrative to be found in Sade’s book The 120 Days of Sodom, but of the manuscript itself. This 40-foot scroll, made up of sheets of paper pasted end to end, which Sade wrote while imprisoned in the Bastille, subsequently embarked on a strange and fantastical journey involving a level of criminality that rivaled the life of Sade himself.
Sade had been removed from his cell, where he had been imprisoned for multiple counts of kidnapping and rape, mere days before the storming of the Bastille in 1789, and he was unable to secure his manuscript, which he spent the rest of his life believing had been lost. Strangely, though, it had been found and preserved by a man named Arnoux. Little is known about this rescuer, and even less is known about his reasons for taking and keeping the scroll. It was eventually purchased by a nobleman, Charles-André de Beaumont, who kept it for decades, and likewise never divulged the nature of his interest in the work. It passed to Beaumont’s son-in-law, and then to his son, who fashioned a phallus-shaped wooden case to house it, and then, as his family’s money began to dwindle by the 1870s, repeatedly and unsuccessfully tried to sell it to various erotica collectors in France and England.
Up until the 20th century, it’s not entirely clear that anyone had ever read the manuscript itself. Written in a tiny, cramped hand, it was barely legible—but the ambivalence toward the text seemed to go beyond that. The scroll’s owners seemed to treat it as if it were a slug of plutonium: Everyone understood that, on some level, it was incredibly valuable, but no one wanted to actually go near it.
Indeed, it might have been lost forever, or stuffed, still unread, in some bibliophile’s library somewhere, if it had not made its way finally to the German sexologist Iwan Bloch, who was the first to have it transcribed and published in a limited, anonymous edition. Bloch belonged to the great generation of Berlin psychologists and sociologists who rapidly pushed forward our understanding of sex and sexuality. (Among them also was Richard von Krafft-Ebing, who first coined the term sadism, as a reference to Sade.) Bloch had begun his career believing that the best path to a healthy sexuality lay in the heterosexual monogamy of marriage. But reading The 120 Days of Sodom, Warner suggests, changed everything for him.
Bloch saw Sade’s methodical catalog of all manner of sex acts—sodomy, orgies, sadomasochistic torture, incest, coprophilia, and so on—as itself a kind of scientific inquiry into sex, one that shook his previous understandings of “perversion.” The text, Warner explains, suggested to Bloch that “sex wasn’t just a matter of right or wrong, moral or depraved, but existed on a wide spectrum”; in particular, a comment from one of Sade’s characters, that “it is from Nature that I receive these tastes,” gave Bloch his first inkling that non-heteronormative sexuality was perhaps not deviant at all. Bloch soon threw himself into actually observing his object of study: spending time in Berlin’s gay community, realizing gayness was far more common than he’d supposed and that gay men and women (surprise, surprise) were as psychologically healthy as straight people. Bloch would go on to devote the rest of his life (alongside peers like Magnus Hirschfeld) not just to further understanding the wide spectrum of human sexuality but also to overturning unjust laws like Germany’s notorious Paragraph 175 (which the Nazis would use to devastating effect, and which wouldn’t finally be written out of the German penal code until 1994).
Warner’s book argues that Sade’s manuscript was a central player in one of the most important civil rights revolutions of the 20th century, and while that may be something of a stretch, it’s clear the book had finally begun to find its readers. As the limited copies Bloch had published made their way around Europe, Sodom found its way into the hands of the artists and intellectuals who would help define the 20th century. The story figures in Luis Buñuel’s first feature film, L’Age d’Or, which was financed by Marie-Laure de Noailles, the French patron and socialite who acquired the original manuscript in 1929. The Surrealists, beginning with Guillaume Apollinaire, had made a hero of “the divine marquis,” in whose life and work they saw an antecedent to their automatic, stream-of-consciousness writing style, their embrace of the libidinal unconscious, and their rejection of bourgeois morality. (Men like surrealist André Breton were also quick to distill Sade’s pansexualism into something distinctly more heterosexual.) By the time publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert was charged with obscenity for publishing The 120 Days of Sodom, Simone de Beauvoir was among many defending him (famously asking, rhetorically, “Must We Burn Sade?”)—for, by then, he had become nothing short of a national icon.
The journey of the scroll makes up 1 of 3 overlapping narratives in The Curse of the Marquis de Sade; it parallels a biography of Sade’s life, with a catalog of his repeated arrests and imprisonments for blasphemy, sodomy, and rape. These depravities, in turn, are interspersed with a third narrative, subtitled “The Empire of Letters,” which follows the scroll in recent decades, when an entirely different form of lawlessness came to be associated with Sade.
In the early 1980s, the manuscript was stolen from Noailles’ descendants and sold to Swiss collector Gérard Nordmann. Nordmann, it happens, was one of the owners of the manuscript who actually seemed to value it for its content, not just for its value. (“It is my dream to have this manuscript,” he reportedly told Noailles’ grandson, Charles Perrone. “I will keep it the rest of my life.”) Even after learning that he’d purchased stolen goods, Nordmann refused to return the scroll. After a lengthy court case, amazingly, the Swiss Supreme Court decided that Nordmann had acted in good faith and wasn’t required to return the scroll to the Noailles family. (Nordmann had been dead for six years by that point.) The brazenness of the court’s decision makes little sense, given how clearly it had been established that the manuscript had been stolen—unless, of course, one considers how many artworks and artifacts in various European museums are themselves stolen; perhaps the Supreme Court was afraid of opening the floodgates by recognizing that one shouldn’t keep looted art.
Despite his family’s defeat in court, Perrone kept trying to get the scroll back to France, and had nearly secured financial backing to buy it outright from Nordmann’s estate, to be donated to the National Library, when it was snapped up by Gérard Lhéritier. Lhéritier, through his company Aristophil, had begun a relatively novel business strategy of securitizing priceless works of art: If you could not afford to buy an original manuscript, you could instead buy a share of it through Aristophil, which would pool money, sell the work at a profit, and then pay out that profit to the work’s shareholders. It was a model that seemed to rob all the art, mystery, and expertise from the antiquities market, reducing priceless works and unique documents into mere financial instruments. Dealers became horrified and authorities became suspicious as Aristophil’s business model came to look increasingly like a Ponzi scheme—leading to a fascinating literary scandal that makes up the last third of Warner’s book.
Lhéritier was not interested in the scroll as a valuable piece of French heritage; he saw it as an investment opportunity, and ultimately paid more than twice what Perrone had originally been able to offer. Lhéritier then sold shares of it, hoping to flip it for even more money. The more valuable it became, the less interested anyone was in buying it. Once Lhéritier securitized the manuscript, he sold shares for 5,000 euros each, to people like insurance executive Sylvie La Gall, who, Warner reports, was fascinated by the backstory of the scroll but had little interest in Sade’s writing itself. (“As a student,” Warner explains, “she had read Sade’s Philosophy in the Bedroom, which she’d found daring if a bit boring.”) Lhéritier himself had apparently once tried to read The 120 Days of Sodom but gave up after a few pages, repulsed. Much like the Mona Lisa, the scroll seemed to have become valuable precisely because it was stolen, and its actual contents ceased to be meaningful in this contemporary age of securitized antiquities.
The critic and theorist Roland Barthes once described Sade’s writing as being devoid of eroticism, despite all its sexual perversity, for the simple fact that nothing is hidden: There are no preliminaries, no innuendoes, no ambiguities, no deferrals. Instead, in Sade’s writing, everything is rendered visible, and transgressions proceed in a methodical, almost mathematical manner, bodies and actions combined and recombined until all possibilities have been exhausted. “The function of the discourse” in Sade’s work “is not in fact to create ‘fear, shame, envy, an impression,’ etc.,” Barthes concludes, “but to conceive the inconceivable, i.e., to leave nothing outside the words and to concede nothing ineffable to the world.” Sade, in this light, parallels Lhéritier (and the entire market of securitized art), the goal being to reduce anything of value, anything with an aura, anything that might be considered “priceless” into an instrument of finance, leaving nothing outside the markets and conceding nothing ineffable to capitalism.
It may be easy to miss this parallel in Warner’s book, for the one thing largely absent from The Curse of the Marquis de Sade is the novel itself, The 120 Days of Sodom. While the manuscript—the physical book—is discussed at length, Warner, like many of his subjects, seems to not really want to talk about the text itself. Aside from offering a short summary in the introduction, Warner barely discusses it.
Perhaps in a book of general nonfiction, this is wise: As a novel, The 120 Days of Sodom is utterly singular, being both utterly vile and also, somehow, utterly tedious. It is unreadable because it depicts unspeakably depraved acts, and it is unreadable because it manages to do so in the most boring ways imaginable. To try to read Sade’s masterpiece is like entering Castle Silling, the chateau where it is set: Once inside, you’re trapped in an abyss from which you cannot escape.
And while the history of the manuscript itself is more than fascinating enough to justify Warner’s book, it may be worth reinvestigating Sade’s own writing, and what value—if any—it has for us these days.
Over the past century, the tendency to misread Sade has clouded our actual perception of his work. We’ve gone from the Surrealists’ misappropriation of Sade, turning his work into a celebration of unrestrained male, heterosexual desire, to the sanitized Sade of Philip Kaufman’s 2000 film Quills, a randy but mostly kindly free-speech advocate played by Geoffrey Rush. Neither of these are accurate, nor has either vision of Sade aged particularly well. But taking a more direct look at the life of the writer and his works leaves one to wonder if we still need to champion the filthy rantings of a rapist as some kind of exemplar of free speech.
And yet, we have entered a new and dire age of book banning, and as Hirschfeld and Bloch could have told you, it is a dangerous, slippery slope from banning smut to physical attacks on those deemed “degenerate.” Their own Institute of Sexual Science was destroyed by Nazi vandals in 1933; three years earlier, a screening of Buñuel’s L’Age d’Or had been disrupted by white nationalists who attempted to destroy the theater while shouting “Death to Jews!” It mattered little that Buñuel wasn’t Jewish; all that mattered was cementing the libelous connection between Jews and sexual deviancy as a means to legitimize violence—a playbook that’s once again being used, this time with trans athletes and drag brunches added to the list of acceptable targets.
The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History
By Joel Warner. Crown Publishing Group.
But Sadean politics themselves are tricky. Sade has often been championed by left-wing artists and thinkers, who cite his unapologetic transgressive ideas as a resolute attack on the repressed bourgeoisie and their economic stranglehold on culture. But authoritarians also see themselves in Sade’s cruel fantasies, and when filmmaker Pier Paolo Pasolini sought out an allegory for fascist Italy, he found it in The 120 Days of Sodom.
One way or another, then, Sade is a bellwether that must be reckoned with. Does Sade offer a radical critique of bourgeois liberalism, a celebration of authoritarianism, an amalgamation of both, or some other, as-yet-undefined politics? And what to make of a writer whose name spawned a term that now denotes not just wanton cruelty and violence but also an aspect of consensual and healthy sexuality, comprising a quarter of the acronym BDSM?
While an inquiry into Sade’s writing itself may be outside the scope of Warner’s book, the fact remains that it may once again be time to treat his writing as more than just an artifact. It’s time to pull Sade’s works down off the shelf and take a look at what’s really inside.