Marquis de Sade’s manuscript, 120 Days of Sodom has been described as”depraved” but is also considered a cultural artifact. Bruno Racine, director of the Bibliotheque Nationale de France, the national library, is currently negotiating its purchase from a descendent of the Marquis. “The document is Sade’s most atrocious, extreme, radical work,” Mr. Racine said, “But we make no moral judgement about it.” He considers it a “national treasure,” and wants it restored to France.
Simone de Beauvoir defended it as an important contribution to the dark side of humanity is her essay, “Must We Burn Sade?” American writer Andrea Dworkin branded it a “vile”story written by a women-hating pornographer.
120 Days of Sodom tells the story of four rich “libertines” who lock themselves in a remote medieval castle with 46 victims, including 8 boys and 8 girls ages 12 to 15. The work describes orgies and acts of abuse – sexual and otherwise. Sade called it “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.”
Sade wrote the draft in 37 days in 1785 in the Bastille, where he was imprisoned for assaulting women and girls. He wrote in a tiny script on both sides of a sheaf of narrow paper, whose sheets he attached into a 39 foot roll. Fearing that his manuscript would be taken, he hid the roll in a crevice in the stone wall of his cell.
Sade was transferred to a prison for the insane a few days before the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789. He agonized over the manuscript’s loss, and died in 1814 without knowing what became of it.
Intellectually I can understand the work as a product of a human mind (and probably experience) and as such be preserved, but emotionally I have a problem with the identifying it as a cultural or national treasure.
Should we suspend “moral judgement” on works of literature? Should a work like 120 Days be enshrined as part of a nation’s or people’s cultural heritage?