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  • Sade's Interior Motives:The Importance of the Unseen in the Château de Silling
  • Melissa Deininger

Given the Marquis de Sade's well-deserved reputation as an author who continually sought to shock his audience, why does the work he most treasured insist on hiding certain details from the reader? In Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome, ou l'École du libertinage, the medieval Château de Silling is transformed into a highly functional space dedicated solely to libertine sexual pleasures. Through a combination of various seductions and tortures, the characters in the novel are transformed into receptacles of pleasure, for both the libertine masters and the audience. While numerous scholars have called attention to the unseen activities that take place in Silling, none has fully considered the impact of these hidden moments on the reader as libertine-in-training. Sade's literary seduction of his reader pulls us into the spiral from public to private spaces, and from passive reading to active imagination. Although Sade happily provides salacious details about most activities that will take place in the château, he shelters certain privileged spaces from the reader's gaze. It is time to look behind the closed door at what goes on in those rooms, and why Sade chooses to keep his audience out of them.

Despite Sade's continuous refrain of "il faut tout dire," his chef-d'œuvre contains numerous moments of accepted silence and secret activities, seemingly in direct contrast with the copious details presented in other sections of the work. In a later novel, Sade warns his reader that "tu ne connaîtras rien si tu n'as pas tout connu."1 Indeed, many of Sade's characters demonstrate this need to push the imagination in order to develop ever-more intense pleasures. While later readers might have easily filled in the blanks using other Sadean texts, the audience for Les Cent vingt journées, his first major work, would have had to rely heavily on the clues and instructions found within the novel. [End Page 1]

Les Cent vingt journées provides the reader, as libertine-in-training, with the means of accomplishing this quest for complete knowledge and unlimited imagination. Absorbing the various delights and tortures described in the text gradually allows the reader to become more knowledgeable about the libertine lifestyle. By the time of the first omission, the reader has already been provided with a large list of possible activities to suggest what might be happening in these hidden moments. From the beginning of the narrative, Sade provides explicit information on what is to come, including acts ranging from fondling to orgies. While the aforementioned deeds take place in public view, the reader is also required to embellish additional details in order to explain occasional acts requiring privacy. The reader's eventual willingness and ability to improvise during these key moments stand at the heart of Sade's project.

Les Cent vingt journées de Sodome, ou l'École du libertinage was written in 1785 and is considered by many critics to be Sade's masterpiece, although it was not published during the author's lifetime. Most of Sade's other works contain hidden locations and secret torture chambers, but the reader is almost always invited into these spaces to survey the action. The rare exceptions to this formula are conspicuous for their unwillingness to enlighten the reader. A classic example of this sort of hidden text is found in La Philosophie dans le boudoir (1795), when Dolmancé takes Augustin into an adjoining cabinet and emerges later, only to explain that "il est de certaines choses qui demandent absolument des voiles."2 In this case, the female characters insist on knowing what will take place; they are told in a whisper and immediately react with revulsion. The reader is never let in on the secret, forcing him to fill in the details.3 Obviously, Les Cent vingt journées is not the only work to employ this technique of titillation, but it stands out for the sheer number of times the reader's voyeurism is abruptly interrupted.

Les Cent vingt journées tells the tale of four wealthy...


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