October 10, 2016
Penguin Classixxx: The canonization of the Marquis de Sade
by Ryan Harrington
The iconic Penguin Classics imprint has rarely wavered in its sixty-year history of publishing sober editions of canonical texts. Sure, they have broken sobriety with cover design collaborations with fashion designers, architects, and other hip visionaries. And sure, they went decidedly non-canon by publishing Morrissey’s front list memoir in 2013. But would they ever peddle smut?
They will at least invite that question when they publish the Marquis de Sade’s erotic, sadistic (the man was such a sadist that he literally gave his name to sadism) 120 Days of Sodom as a black-spine Penguin Classic this coming December. (Perhaps you’ve at least snuck a peak at its truly gnarly 1970s film adaptation, Salò). The novel is, by the author’s own reckoning, “the most impure tale ever written.” It may well sit atop that throne of flesh to this day, but it was very nearly not written (indeed, it is unfinished), very nearly not saved from the Bastille where de Sade wrote it, and very nearly never seen outside of a small circle of elite readers.
In a piece for the Guardian about 120 Days’ ascendence to canonicity, the new volume’s co-translator (with Thomas Wynn), Will McMorran, summarizes the story thusly:
The 120 Days tells the tale of four libertines—a duke, a bishop, a judge and a banker—who lock themselves away in a castle in the Black Forest with an entourage that includes two harems of teenage boys and girls specially abducted for the occasion. Four ageing brothel madams are appointed as storytellers for each of the four months, and their brief is to weave a 150 “passions” or perversions into the story of their lives.
The passions increase in their violent creativity as the book carries on. It devolves into an outline of tortures as it enters its last, unfinished sections. A number of British publishers were emboldened to publish the work in English after D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterley’s Lover prevailed in a 1960 obscenity trial. Then, a twenty-year ban on the importation or publication cast a shadow over the work, making its impending publication under the iconic imprint (something close to “official” canonization) no small feat. And it says much about how we think of obscenity in literature these days — that is, we don’t think about it too much at all, focusing our concerns on the visual sphere. According to McMorran:
Do Sade’s novels now qualify as great literature? That a novel as extreme as The 120 Days is part of a “classics” collection tells us just how much our sense of literature has changed over the past few decades. And publishing The120 Days as a classic changes it still further: if it makes Sade a little more respectable, it also makes literature a little more dangerous than it was before.
Ryan Harrington is an editor at Melville House.