“The 120 Days of Sodom,” by the Marquis de Sade, is one of the most perverse works of 18th-century literaturewrites Elaine Sciolino.
It tells the story of four rich “libertines” who lock themselves in a remote medieval castle with 46 victims (including eight boys and eight girls, ages 12 to 15). The men are assisted by four female brothel keepers who arouse their hosts by recounting their outlandish (and embellished) experiences.
The work describes orgies and acts of abuse — sexual and otherwise — including pedophilia, necrophilia, incest, torture, rape, murder, infanticide, bestiality, violent anal and oral sex acts and the use of urination and defecation to humiliate and punish.Sade called it “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began.”There is nothing erotic about it.Even Bruno Racine, director of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France, the National Library, calls it “depraved.”But that hasn’t stopped him from negotiating long and hard to buy Sade’s manuscript. He has convinced the Foreign and Culture Ministries of its importance. He has argued in front of the Commission of National Treasures to declare it provisionally a “national treasure” that needs to be preserved in the library. And he is ready to pay more than $5 million to get it.
“The document is Sade’s most atrocious, extreme, radical work,” Mr. Racine said. “But we make no moral judgment about it.” A rambling, unfinished draft, “120 Days” has been praised and vilified. Simone de Beauvoir defended it as an important contribution to the dark side of humanity in her essay “Must We Burn Sade?”
… Since taking over as director of the Bibliothèque Nationale in 2007, he has sought to have important manuscripts classified as “national treasures” in order to acquire them for the library.Among other purchases, he has bought Casanova’s memoirs with $9.6 million from an anonymous donor; the archives of the French philosopher Michel Foucault; and the archives of the French Marxist theorist, writer and filmmaker Guy Debord (preventing them from leaving the country and going to Yale).“I don’t know of any director of a world-class library today who is making the kind of brilliant strategic acquisitions that Bruno Racine is making at the Bibliothèque Nationale,” said Paul Le Clerc, the former head of the New York Public Library and the director of Columbia University’s programs in Europe.Now Mr. Racine is negotiating with Mr. Perrone and the heirs of Mr. Nordmann to buy the Sade manuscript and give each party a cut. The estimated sale price — more than $5 million — would be raised from private donors.Mr. Racine’s goal is to put the manuscript on display, along with other Sade works in the library’s collection, for the 200th anniversary of Sade’s death next year.“It is a unique, exceptional work, and a miracle that it survived,” he said. “It is part of our cultural heritage. Whether we like it or not, it belongs in the Bibliothèque Nationale.”