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  • Quixotic SadeEchoes of Cervantes in 120 Days of Sodom
  • Elena Deanda-Camacho (bio)

In the foreword of El ingenioso hidalgo don Quijote de la Mancha (1605, 1615), the narrator recommends that his readers lower their expectations because he conceived his work in prison, a space full of noise and interruptions: “se engendró en una cárcel, donde toda incomodidad tiene su asiento y donde todo triste ruido hace su habitación.”1 Francisco Rodríguez Marín suggests that this prison is the Real Prison of Seville, where Miguel de Cervantes Saavedra (1547–1616) stayed in 1597.2 Two centuries later, in another infamous prison in Paris, one cell was particularly ‘infected’ with Don Quijote’s deranged influence: the cell belonging to Donatien Alphonse, marquis de Sade (1740–1814).3 Like Cervantes, Sade undertook from his dungeon the colossal task of rewriting and exhausting a literary genre: the pornographic.

120 Days of Sodom (written in 1785, published in 1904) tells the story of four libertines who sequester themselves for four months in the castle of Silling along with 42 people, 30 of whom are tortured and ultimately assassinated.4 Four bawds recount their adventures as prostitutes, inspiring the libertines to perform a total of 600 acts of sex and torture. While Sade remained imprisoned in the Bastille (where the manuscript for 120 was found), he outlined an anonymous, but distinctly Spanish, novel that [End Page 21] appears to anticipate 120.5 For this “philosophical novel,” he listed Hispanic names like the duke of Corte Real, don Gaspard, or don Carlos, for its main characters. He also asked close friends for the names of the brothels, lodgings, and main streets of Madrid, Lisbon, and Toledo: “je veux … le nom de deux ou trois rues de beau monde et autant dans le quartier des courtisanes avec celui des principales promenades de … Lisbonne, Toledo, et Madrid.”6 While Sade’s interest in the Spanish Black Legend and the Inquisition clearly resonate in 120, Sade’s fascination with Cervantes’s work, especially with Don Quijote and the Novelas ejemplares (1613), truly unlocks a vantage point to the poetic understanding of 120, his opera prima.7 Sade considered Cervantes the root of “all evils,” that is, of all of his writing; in Idées sur les romans (1799), Sade pays homage to Cervantes, Don Quijote, and the Novelas, and he even confesses that he would have loved being their author.8 Idées precedes twelve novels collectively entitled Crimes de l’amour, a Sadean take on Cervantes’ Novelas.9 In 1791, he also presented a play called Oxtiern ou les malheurs du libertinage—a rewriting of Cervantes’s La fuerza de la sangre.10 In his diary, Sade placed La fuerza de la sangre in a list of novellas that gravitated around a perversion or, as he called them, a “passion,” placing it under the title “rape.” Cervantes thus influenced Sade’s work and, more importantly, 120.

120 can be considered quixotic insofar as Sade aims to write the most important piece of obscene literature in mankind’s history by conjuring (that is, both invoking and destroying) all previous masterpieces. In Don Quijote, the narrator says that he would like his novel to be “el más hermoso, el más gallardo y más discreto [texto] que pudiera imaginarse.”11 Similarly, Sade presents the reader with “le plus impur [texte] qui ait jamais été fait depuis que le monde existe.”12 Both writers want to write not only the best novel in their particular genre but also the best novel ever written. In order to achieve their goal, they had to include all previous masterpieces … if only to destroy them. By connecting with these previous works, Don Quijote and 120 found a niche for their own narratives. Don Quijote pays homage to its predecessors by naming chivalric works such as Amadís de Gaula, Tirant Le Blanc, or Palmerín de Inglaterra. Sade, however, never mentions the key works that informed 120Fanny Hill (1748), Thérèse Philosophe (1748), or Dom Bougre (1741)—but his novel does include all of the subgenres of enlightened pornography: the autobiography of the whore, the catalogue...


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