France has always been a bit more open to sexuality than other places in the world. This month, the French State has reinforced this cultural stereotype by saving a very unusual manuscript from auction.
120 Days of Sodom (Les 120 Journées de Sodome ou l’école du libertinage), commonly understood to be the most pornographic novel ever written, was declared a French national treasure right before the original manuscript was meant to go to auction, for fear that it would be sold into foreign hands. Written by the Marquis de Sade on scraps of paper while he was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1784, the document was taped together into a scroll and hidden in a wall, thought to be lost forever until it resurfaced in 1904.
De Sade’s novel is a terrifying and grotesque work that depicts hundreds of individual acts of sexual violence against young girls and boys. But its shocking and provocative content spurred later French writers to push the boundaries of morality and sexuality, a jump-start that brought about, if indirectly, French literature as we know it today.