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French Forum 30.2 (2005) 49-66

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Riveted By The Voice

The Sadean City at Silling

Sade's "récit le plus impur qui ait jamais été fait depuis que le monde existe" (60)1Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome (1785)—has been so oddly neglected by critics that in her influential book Sade: A sudden abyss, Annie Lebrun dedicates a whole chapter to what she calls that "strange omission."2 Critics seem unanimously attracted to Sade's two most celebrated stories of vice and virtue written after the Revolution—Justine and Juliette—but not so much to the journey to the Castle of Silling. Lebrun speculates that one of the possible reasons is the book's unbearable physical effect:3 as Georges Bataille put it, "[n]obody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish [it] without feeling sick" (Literature and Evil 121). When critics do take up the challenge of closely reading it, there seems to be yet another "strange omission" in the labor of interpretation:4 the fact that the entire narrative is framed by the scenario of listening to stories. Aurality dominates the narrative to such an extent that one could even say that this, and not the repetitive transgression with which critics have labeled Sade's work, is the text's texture par excellence.5 Significantly, the scenario of listening is yet one more aspect of the book's physicality: for what is at stake, I will argue, is not the word or the story to which the libertines listen—in other words, not the law—but the voice. And, as we will see, much in line with what critics like Lebrun or Bataille felt was the revolting physicality of Sade's text, it is not so much the "pleasure" of the voice that the libertine Castle of Silling highlights, but rather its intolerably pressing command to obey, and consequently, its irresistible socially binding power. The aural nature of the Castle, I will argue, is a figuration of its political space: in a world with no laws, the voice operates as the rivet that compels the libertines to form an alliance. [End Page 49]

A brief, interpretative account of the story is due here. For all that critics insist in reading the libertine séjour at the Castle as the story of its infamous four-month long sexually (or linguistically) perverse (or transgressive) orgy, it is rather the story of the formation of a bond. The tale's starting point is a call for order, against the background of war, at the end of Louis XIV's rule, when the kingdom is subdued in "guerres considérables" (1—"extensive wars" [191]). In the midst of civil dissolution, the four friends in crime imagine a way to "resserrer leurs liens par des alliances où la débauche avait bien plus de part qu'aucun des autres motifs qui fondent ordinairement ces liens" (2).6 The duc de Blangis and his brother the bishop summon Curval, the judge, and Durcet, the financier: each of them will marry the daughter of another, and at the same time will remain in possession of the women's bodies, just as when they were their fathers. They celebrate the "pact" with preliminary secret orgies and then decide to set out to the Castle of Silling, the property of Durcet, where they will continue their celebration in the bloodiest of orgies. The peculiar transaction out of which the libertine "pact" emerges borrows not from the language of the law, but from the language of war: against contractual exchange, it is an alliance that establishes a clear line between "us" and "them" with the initial accumulation of what becomes common property—the bodies—for all its members. Before the absence of law, their "liens" are reaffirmed by extraordinary means: "la débauche" at the Castle, for which they have chosen four vicious and skilled female narrators who will provide them with libertine stories to emulate each day—Madame Duclos, La Martaine, Champville, and La Desgranges...


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