Anatomy Lessons

The Corpse on Stage

Frontispiece of Vesalius’ Fabrica (1543).

Andreas Vesalius (of whom I have already written several times), was among the principal initiators of the anatomical discipline.
An aspect that is not often considered is the influence that the frontispiece of his seminal De Humani Corporis Fabrica has had on the history of art.

Vesalius was probably the first and certainly the most famous among medical scholars to be portrayed in the act of dissecting a corpse: on his part, this was obviously a calculated affront to the university practice of the time, in which anatomy was learned exclusively from books. Any lecture was just a lectio, in that it consisted in the slavish reading of the ancient Galenic texts, reputed to be infallible.
With that title page, a true hymn to empirical reconnaissance, Vesalius was instead affirming his revolutionary stance: he was saying that in order to understand how they worked, bodies had to be opened, and one had to look inside them.

Johannes Vesling, Syntagma Anatomicum (1647).

Giulio Cesare Casseri, Tabulae Anatomicae (1627, here from the Frankfurt edition, 1656)

Thus, after the initial resistance and controversy, the medical community embraced dissection as its main educational tool. And if until that moment Galen had been idolized, it didn’t take long for Vesalius to take his place, and it soon became a must for anatomists to have themselves portrayed on the title pages of their treatises, in the act of emulating their new master’s autopsies.

Anatomy lecture, School of Bartolomeo Passarotti (1529-1592)

Frontispiece commissioned by John Banister (ca. 1580)

Apart from some rare predecessors, such as the two sixteenth-century examples above, the theme of the “anatomy lesson” truly became a recurring artistic motif in the 17th century, particularly in the Dutch university context.
In group portraits, whose function was to immortalize the major anatomists of the time, it became fashionable to depict these luminaries in the act of dissecting a corpse.

Michiel Jansz van Miereveld, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem van der Meer (1617)

However, the reference to the dissecting practice was not just realistic. It was above all a way to emphasize the authority and social status of the painted subjects: what is still evident in these pictures is the satisfaction of the anatomists in being portrayed in the middle of an act that impressed and fascinated ordinary people.

Nicolaes Eliaszoon Pickenoy, The Osteology Lesson of Dr. Sebastiaes Egbertsz (1619)

The dissections carried out in anatomical theaters were often real public shows (sometimes accompanied with a small chamber orchestra) in which the Doctor was the absolute protagonist.
It should also be remembered that the figure of the anatomist remained cloaked in an aura of mystery, more like a philosopher who owned some kind of esoteric knowledge rather than a simple physician. In fact an anatomist would not even perform surgical operations himself – that was a job for surgeons, or barbers; his role was to map the inside of the body, like a true explorer, and reveal its most hidden and inaccessible secrets.

Christiaen Coevershof, The Anatomy Lesson of Doctor Zacheus de Jager (1640)

Among all the anatomy lessons that punctuate the history of art, the most famous remain undoubtedly those painted by Rembrandt, which also constituted his first major engagement at the beginning of his career in Amsterdam. The Guild of Surgeons at the time used to commission this type of paintings to be displayed in the common room. Rembrandt painted one in 1632 and a second in 1656 (partially destroyed, only its central portion remains).

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp (1632)

Countless pages have been written about The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicolaes Tulp, as the painting is full of half-hidden details. The scene depicted here becomes theatrical, a space of dramatic action in which the group portrait is no longer static: each character is shown in a specific pose, turning his gaze in a precise direction. Thanks to an already wise use of light, Rembrandt exploits the corpse as a repoussoir, an element of attraction that suddenly pulls the viewer “inside” the painting. And the lifeless body seems to counterbalance the absolute protagonist of the picture, Dr. Tulp: slightly off-centered, he is so important that he deserves to have a light source of his own.
Perhaps the most ironic detail to us is that open book, on the right: it is easy to guess which text is consulted during the lectio. Now it is no longer Galen, but Vesalius who stands on the lectern.

Detail of the illuminated face of Dr. Tulp.

The umbra mortis, a shadow that falls on the eyes of the dead.

The navel of the corpse forms the “R” for Rembrandt.

Detail of the book.

Detail of tendons.

The way the dissection itself is portrayed in the picture has been discussed at length, as it seems implausible that an anatomical lesson could begin by exposing the arm tendons instead of performing the classic opening of the chest wall and evisceration. On the other hand, a renowned anatomist like Tulp would never have lowered himself to perform the dissection himself, but would have delegated an assistant; Rembrandt’s intent of staging the picture is evident. The same doubts of anatomical / historical unreliability have been advanced for the following anatomical lesson by Rembrandt, that of Dr. Deyman, in which the membranes of the brain may be incorrectly represented.

Rembrandt, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Deyman (1656)

But, apart from the artistic licenses he may have taken, Rembrandt’s own (pictorial) “lesson” made quite a lot of proselytes.

Cornelis De Man, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Cornelis Isaacz.’s Gravenzande (1681)

Jan van Neck, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederik Ruysch (1683)

Another curiosity is hidden in The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Frederck Ruysch by Jan van Neck. I have already written about Ruysch and his extraordinary preparations elsewhere: here I only remember that the figure that looks like a pageboy and exhibits a fetal skeleton, on the right of the picture, is none other than the daughter of the anatomist, Rachel Ruysch. She helped her father with dissections and anatomical preservations, also sewing lace and laces for his famous preparations. Upon reaching adulthood, Rachel set aside cadavers to become a popular floral painter.

Detail of Rachel Ruysch.

A century after the famous Tulp portrait, Cornelis Troost shows a completely different attitude to the subject.

Cornelis Troost, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Willem Roëll (1728)

De Raadt writes about this picture:

This art work belongs to the transition period that takes us from humanism to modernism […]. Judging by the lack of interest in the students, the enlightened anatomy does not generate wonder in its students. A measure of disdain. The characters are dressed like French aristocrats with their powdered wig affecting wealth and power.

Anon., William Cheselden gives an anatomical demonstration to six spectators (ca. 1730/1740)

In Tibout Regters‘ version of the theme (below), the corpse has even almost completely disappeared: only a dissected head is shown, on the right, and it seems nothing more than an accessory to carelessly show off; the professors’ cumbersome pomposity now dominates the scene.

Tibout Regters, Lezione di anatomia del Dottor Petrus Camper (1758)

The rationalism and materialism of the Enlightenment era gave way, in the 19th century, to an approach largely influenced by romantic literature, as proof that science is inevitably connected with the imagination of its time.

Of all disciplines, anatomy was most affected by this literary fascination, which was actually bi-directional. On one hand, gothic and romantic writers (the Scapigliati more than anybody) looked at anatomy as the perfect combination of morbid charm and icy science, a new style of “macabre positivism”; and for their part the anatomists became increasingly conscious of being considered decadent “heroes”, and medical texts of the time are often filled with poetic flourishes and obvious artistic ambitions.

Thomas Eakins, The Gross Clinic (1875)

Thomas Eakins, The Agnew Clinic (1889)

This tendency also affected the representation of anatomical lessons. The two paintings above, by the American artist Thomas Eakins, painted respectively in 1875 and 1889, are not strictly dissections because they actually show surgical operations. Yet the concept is the same: we see a luminary impressing with his surgical prowess the audience, crowded in the shadows. The use of light underlines the grandiose severity of these heroic figures, yet the intent is also to highlight the innovations they supported. Dr. Gross is shown in the act of treating an osteomyelitis of the femur with a conservative procedure – when an amputation would have been inevitable until a few years earlier; in the second picture, painted fourteen years after the first, we can recognize how the importance of infection prevention was beginning to be understood (the surgical theater is bright, clean, and the surgeons all wear a white coat).

Georges Chicotot, Professor Poirier verifying a dissection (1886)

A painting from 1886 by physician and artist Georges Chicotot is a mixture of raw realism and accents of “involuntary fantasy”. Here, there’s no public at all, and the anatomist is shown alone in his study; a corpse is hanging from the neck like a piece of meat, bones lie on the shelves and purple patches of blood smear the tablecloth and apron. It’s hard not to think of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.

Enrique Simonet Lombardo, Anatomy of the heart (1890)

But the 19th century, with its tension between romanticism and rationality, is all ideally enclosed in the Anatomy of the heart by the Spanish artist Enrique Simonet. Painted in 1890, it is the perfect summary of the dual soul of its century, since it is entirely played on opposites. Masculine and feminine, objectivity and subjectivity, life and death, youth and old age, but also the white complexion of the corpse in contrast with the black figure of the anatomist. Once again there is no audience here, this is a very intimate dimension. The professor, alone in an anonymous autopsy room, observes the heart he has just taken from the chest of the beautiful girl, as if he were contemplating a mystery. The heart, a favorite organ for the Romantics, is represented here completely out of metaphor, a concrete and bloody organ; yet it still seems to holds the secret of everything.

J. H. Lobley, Anatomy Lessons at St Dunstan’s (1919)

With the coming of the 20th century the topos of the anatomy lesson gradually faded away, and the “serious” depictions became increasingly scarce. Yet the trend did not disappear: it ended up contaminated by postmodern quotationism, when not turned into explicit parody. In particular it was Dr. Tulp who rose to the role of a true icon, becoming the protagonist – and sometimes the victim – of fanciful reinventions.

Édouard Manet, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Tulp, copy from Rembrandt (1856)

Gaston La Touche, Anatomy of love (19 ??)

Georges Léonnec, The Anatomy Lesson of Professor Cupid (1918)

Although Manet had revisited the famous painting in the Impressionist manner in 1856, La Touche had imagined an ironic Anatomy of love, and Léonnec parroted Rembrandt with his cupids, it’s actually in the last quarter of the 20th century that Tulp began to pop up almost everywhere, in comics, films and television.

Asterix and the Soothsayer (1973) Goscinny-Uderzo

Tulp (1993, dir: Stefano Bessoni)

With the advent of the internet the success of the famous Doctor spread more and more, as his figure began to be photoshopped and replicated to infinity.
A bit like what happened to Mona Lisa, disfigured by Duchamp’s mustache, Tulp has now become the reference point for anyone who’s into black, un-pc humor.

Tulp, Lego version.

Hillary White, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Bird (2010)

FvrMate, The Anatomy Lesson of Dr. Nicholaes Tulp, (2016)

HANGBoY, The Anatomy Lesson (2016)

Contemporary art increasingly uses the inside of the body as a subversive and ironic element. The fact that Tulp is still a “pop icon” on a global scale proves the enormous influence of Rembrandt’s painting; and of Vesalius who, with his frontispiece, started the motif of the anatomical lesson, thus leaving a deep mark in the history of visual arts.

This article is a spin-off of my previous post on the relationship between anatomy and surrealism.

Le Violon Noir

Italian conductor Guido Rimonda, a violin virtuoso, owns an exceptional instrument: the Leclair Stradivarius, built in 1721.
Just like every Stradivarius violin, this too inherited its name from its most famous owner: Jean-Marie Leclair, considered the father of the French violin school, “the most Italian among French composers”.
But the instrument also bears the unsettling nickname of “black violin” (violon noir): the reason lies in a dark legend concerning Jean-Marie Leclair himself, who died in dramatic and mysterious circumstances.

Born in Lyon on May 10, 1697, Leclair enjoyed an extraordinary career: he started out as first dancer at the Opera Theatre in Turin – back in the day, violinists also had to be dance teachers – and, after settling in Paris in 1728, he gained huge success among the critics and the public thanks to his elegant and innovative compositions. Applauded at the Concerts Spirituels, author of many sonatas for violin and continuous bass as well as for flute, he performed in France, Italy, England, Germany and the Netherlands. Appointed conductor of the King’s orchestra by Louis XV in 1733 (a position he held for four years, in rotation with his rival Pierre Guignon, before resigning), he was employed at the court of Orange under Princess Anne.
His decline began in 1746 with his first and only opera work, Schylla and Glaucus, which did not find the expected success, despite the fact that it’s now regarded as a little masterpiece blending Italian and French suggestions, ancient and modern styles. Leclair’s following employment at the Puteaux Theatre, run by his former student Antoine-Antonin Duke of Gramont, ended in 1751 because of the Duke’s financial problems.

In 1758 Leclair left his second wife, Louise Roussel, after twenty-eight years of marriage and collaboration (Louise, a musician herself, had copper-etched all of his works). Sentimentally as well as professionally embittered, he retired to live alone in a small house in the Quartier du Temple, a rough and infamous Paris district.
Rumors began to circulate, often diametrically opposite to one another: some said that he had become a misanthropist who hated all humanity, leading a reclusive life holed up in his apartments, refusing to see anyone and getting his food delivered through a pulley; others claimed that, on the contrary, he was living a libertine life of debauchery.

Not even the musician’s death could put an end to these rumors – quite the opposite: because on the 23rd of October 1764, Jean-Marie Leclair was found murdered inside his home. He had been stabbed three times. The killer was never caught.

In the following years and centuries, the mystery surrounding his death never ceased to intrigue music lovers and, as one would expect, it also gave rise to a “black” legend.
The most popular version, often told by Guido Rimonda himself, holds that Leclair, right after being stabbed, crawled over to his Stradivarius with his last breath, to hold it against his chest.
That violin was the only thing in the world he still truly loved.
His corpse was found two months later, still clutching his musical instrument; while the body was rotting away, his hand had left on the wood a black indelible stain, which is still visible today.

The fact that this is indeed a legend might be proved by police reports that, besides never mentioning the famous violin, describe the discovery of the victim the morning after the murder (and not months later):

On the 23rd of October 1764, by early morning, a gardener named Bourgeois […] upon passing before Leclair’s home, noticed that the door was open. Just about that time Jacques Paysan, the musician’s gardener, arrived at the same place. The violinist’s quite miserable abode included a closed garden.Both men, having noticed Leclair’s hat and wig lying in the garden, looked for witnesses before entering the house. Together with some neighbors, they went inside and found the musician lying on the floor in his vestibule. […] Jean-Marie Leclair was lying on his back, his shirt and undershirt were stained with blood. He had been stabbed three times with a sharp object: one wound was above the left nipple, one under his belly on the right side, and the third one in the middle of his chest. Around the body several objects were found, which seemed to have been put there deliberately. A hat, a book entitled L’élite des bons mots, some music paper, and a hunting knife with no blood on it. Leclair was wearing this knife’s holster, and it was clear that the killer had staged all of this. Examination of the body, carried out by Mister Pierre Charles, surgeon, found some bruises on the lumbar region, on the upper and lower lips and on the jaw, which proved that after a fight with his assassin, Leclair had been knocked down on his back.

(in Marc Pincherle, Jean-Marie Leclair l’aîné, 1952,
quoted in
Musicus Politicus, Qui a tué Jean-Marie Leclair?, 2016)

The police immediately suspected gardener Jascques Paysan, whose testimony was shaky and imprecise, but above all Leclair’s nephew, François-Guillaume Vial.
Vial, a forty-year-old man, was the son of Leclair’s sister; a musician himself, who arrived in Paris around 1750, he had been stalking his uncle, demanding to be introduced at the service of the Duke of Gramont.
According to police report, Vial “complained about the injustice his uncle had put him through, declared that the old man had got what he deserved, as he had always lived like a wolf, that he was a damned cheapskate, that he begged for this, and that he had left his wife and children to live alone like a tramp, refusing to see anyone from the family”. Vial provided a contradictory testimony to the investigators, as well as giving a blatantly false alibi.

And yet, probably discouraged by the double lead, investigators decided to close the case. Back in those days, investigations were all but scientific, and in cases like this all the police did was questioning neighbors and relatives of the victim; Leclair’s murder was left unsolved.

But let’s get back to the black stain that embellishes Rimonda’s violin. Despite the fact that the sources seem to contradict its “haunted” origin, in this case historical truth is much less relevant than the legend’s narrative breadth and impact.

The violon noir is a uniquely fascinating symbol: it belonged to an artist who was perfectly inscribed within the age of Enlightenment, yet it speaks of the Shadows.
Bearing in its wood the imprint of death (the spirit of the deceased through its physical trace), it becomes the emblem of the violence and cruelty human beings inflict on each other, in the face of Reason. But that black mark – which reminds us of Leclair’s last, affectionate and desperate embrace – is also a sign of the love of which men are capable: love for music, for the impalpable, for beauty, for all that is transcendent.

If every Stradivarius is priceless, Rimonda’s violin is even more invaluable, as it represents all that is terrible and wonderful in human nature. And when you listen to it, the instrument seems to give off several voices at the same time: Rimonda’s personality, as he sublimely plays the actual notes, blends with the personality of Stradivari, which can be perceived in the amazingly clear timber. But a third presence seems to linger: it’s the memory of Leclair, his payback. Forgotten during his lifetime, he still echoes today through his beloved violin.

You can listen to Rimonda’s violin in his album Le violon noir, available in CD and digital format.

(Thanks, Flavio!)

Sade, diamante oscuro

144418646-16a5edd1-fb32-476c-ae10-547830b22236

Dopo trent’anni di battaglie legali, il manoscritto delle 120 giornate di Sodoma del Marchese de Sade è ritornato in Francia. Si tratta di un rotolo di foglietti incollati l’uno all’altro, come un antico libro sacro (o, meglio, sacrilego…), lungo 12 metri e largo 11,5 centimetri, vergato in una calligrafia microscopica sul fronte e sul retro. Un’opera colossale, lunghissima, composta di nascosto dal Divin Marchese mentre si trovava prigioniero alla Bastiglia. E proprio durante l’assalto alla prigione, quel famoso 14 luglio del 1789, nel trambusto il manoscritto scomparve. Sade morirà convinto che l’opera che riteneva il suo capolavoro fosse andata perduta per sempre.
Il manoscritto, invece, ha percorso l’Europa fra rocambolesche peripezie (ben riassunte in questo articolo), fino alla notizia di pochi giorni fa dell’acquisto per 7 milioni da parte di una collezione privata e del suo probabile, prossimo inserimento all’interno della Bibliothèque Nationale. Questo significa che il libro – e di conseguenza il suo autore – saranno presto dichiarati patrimonio nazionale.

144418808-ac006033-12fb-48ec-acba-70e84d8866ac

Screenshot 2014-04-03 19.23.44

144419017-774fede2-6c7c-45a6-996a-1091eb51a449

Questo riconoscimento arriva nel duecentenario della morte dell’autore: tanto ci è voluto perché il mondo si accorgesse appieno del valore della sua opera. Sade ha pagato con il carcere e con l’infamia postuma la sua ricerca artistica, ed è per questo il caso più interessante di rimozione collettiva della storia della letteratura. La società occidentale non ha infatti potuto tollerare i suoi scritti e, soprattutto, le loro implicazioni filosofiche per ben due secoli.
Perché? Cosa contengono di tanto scandaloso le sue pagine?

Chiariamo innanzitutto che non sono le scene erotiche il problema: la tradizione letteraria libertina era già ben solida prima di Sade, e contava diversi libri che si possono certamente definire “crudeli”. Sade, in effetti, era un ben mediocre scrittore, dalla prosa ripetitiva e noiosa e dall’originalità linguistica limitata; ma anche questo è un elemento importante, come vedremo più avanti. Allora, perché tanta indignazione?
Ciò che risultava inaccettabile era la totale inversione filosofica operata da Sade: inversione dei valori, inversione teologica, inversione sociale. La visione sadiana, molto complessa e spesso ambigua, prende le mosse dall’idea del male.

Il problema del male attraversa secoli e secoli di filosofia e teologia cristiana (nel concetto di teodicea). Se Dio esiste, come può permettere che esista il male? A che fine? Perché non ha voluto creare un mondo privo di tentazioni e semplicemente buono?

Secondo gli illuministi, Dio non esiste. Esiste soltanto la Natura. Ma il bene e il male sono comunque chiaramente definiti, e per l’uomo tendere al bene è naturale.
Sade invece fa un passo ulteriore. Guardiamo, suggerisce, cosa succede nel mondo. I malvagi, i violenti, i crudeli, hanno una vita più prosperosa delle persone virtuose. Indulgono nel vizio, nei piaceri, a discapito delle persone deboli e virtuose. Questo significa che la Natura è dalla loro parte, che anzi trova giovamento dal loro comportamento, altrimenti punirebbe le loro azioni.
La Natura dunque è malvagia, e fare il male significa accordarsi al suo volere – cioè in realtà far cosa giusta. L’uomo, secondo Sade, tende al bene soltanto per abitudine, per educazione; ma la sua anima è nera e torbida, e al di fuori delle regole imposte dalla società l’uomo cercherà sempre e solo di soddisfare i suoi piaceri, trattando i suoi simili come oggetti, umiliandoli, sottomettendoli, torturandoli, distruggendoli.

144418731-56e4aa95-530f-4906-bd39-adffecb457f8

144418367-f068fbdf-3199-4c2f-94d1-7b763758f3e5

144418382-02d2cac9-83cb-446f-96ce-e4c06cd2bacf

La ricerca di Sade è stata paragonata a quella di un mistico; ma laddove il mistico si dirige verso la luce, Sade cerca al contrario l’oscurità. Nessuno prima o dopo di lui ha mai osato scendere così in fondo alla parte tenebrosa dell’uomo, e paradossalmente egli vi riesce spingendo fino alle estreme conseguenze il pensiero razionalista. Torna alla mente il famoso dipinto di Goya, Il sonno della ragione genera mostri: leggendo Sade, si ha la netta impressione che sia invece la ragione stessa a crearli, se portata all’eccesso, fino a mettere in discussione i valori morali.

Ecco quindi l’ultima spiaggia: non solo non condannare più il male, ma addirittura promuoverlo e assumerlo come fine ultimo dell’esistenza umana. Ovviamente, dobbiamo ricordare che Sade passò in carcere la maggior parte della sua vita proprio per queste idee; così, man mano che gli anni passavano, egli diveniva sempre più amaro, furibondo e carico d’odio verso la società che l’aveva condannato. Non sorprende che i suoi scritti composti in prigionia siano quelli più sulfurei, più estremi, in cui Sade sembra prendere piacere a distruggere e scardinare qualsiasi codice morale. Ne risulta, come dicevamo, una totale inversione dei valori: la carità e la pietà sono sbagliate, la virtù porta sventure, l’omicidio è il bene supremo, ogni perversione e violenza umana non solo è scusata ma proposta come modello ideale di comportamento.
Ma ci credeva veramente? Era serio? Non lo sapremo mai con certezza, ed è questo che lo rende un enigma. Di sicuro possiamo solo dire che nei suoi scritti non c’è quasi traccia di umorismo.

Marquis_de_Sade_prisoner

La sua personalità era fiammeggiante e mai doma, perennemente inquieta e tormentata. Impulsivo, sessualmente iperattivo, anche la sua scrittura era febbrile e senza freno. Ne Le 120 giornate di Sodoma, Sade si propone di declinare tutte le possibili perversioni umane, tutte le violenze, catalogandole con precisione maniacale: un romanzo enciclopedico, colossale anche per dimensioni, compilato di straforo perché ad un certo punto le autorità gli proibirono penna, carta e calamaio. Sade arrivò a scriverlo con un pezzetto di legno utilizzando inchiostri di fortuna, e talvolta perfino con il proprio sangue, pur di non interrompere il flusso di pensieri e parole che da lui sgorgavano come un fiume in piena. Per un personaggio così, non esistevano le mezze misure.

La sua opera è contro tutto e tutti, di un nichilismo talmente disperato e terminale che nessuno ha mai avuto il coraggio di replicarla. È il nostro specchio nero, l’abisso che tanto temiamo: leggerlo significa confrontarsi con il male assoluto, la sua opera sfida continuamente qualsiasi nostra certezza. Scriveva Bataille: “L’essenza delle sue opere è la distruzione: non solamente la distruzione degli oggetti, delle vittime messe in scena […] ma anche dell’autore e della sua stessa opera.”
La sua prosa, dicevamo, non è elegante né piacevole; ma credete davvero che, viste le premesse, a Sade interessasse essere raffinato? La sua opera non è pensata per essere bella, anzi. La bellezza non gli appartiene, lo disgusta, e quanto più rivoltanti sono le sue pagine, tanto più sono efficaci. Quello che gli interessa è mostrarci il marcio, l’osceno.

Ignoro l’arte di dipingere senza colori; quando il vizio si trova alla portata del mio pennello, lo traccio con tutte le sue tinte, tanto meglio se rivoltanti. (Aline e Vancour, 1795)

Ritratto-del-Marchese-de-Sade-1740-1814-eseguito-nel-1760-da-Charles-Amédée-Philippe-van-Loo

È comprensibile quindi perché, a suo modo, Sade sia assolutamente unico in tutta la storia della letteratura. C’è bisogno anche di lui, c’è bisogno della sua crudeltà, è il nostro gemello oscuro, il rimosso e il negato che tornano a galla per perseguitarci. Possiamo rimanere scandalizzati dalle sue posizioni, anzi, dobbiamo scandalizzarci: è ciò che vorrebbe anche il Divin Marchese, in definitiva. Quello che gli artisti veri fanno da sempre è appunto proporci dei dilemmi, dei dubbi, delle crisi. E Sade è un problema dall’inizio alla fine, che ha spiazzato per lungo tempo anche gli studiosi. Bataille ha paragonato l’opera sadiana a un deserto roccioso, riassumendo splendidamente il senso di smarrimento che ci fa provare:

È vero che i suoi libri differiscono da ciò che abitualmente è considerato letteratura come una distesa di rocce deserte, priva di sorprese, incolore, differisce dagli ameni paesaggi, dai ruscelli, dai laghi e dai campi di cui ci dilettiamo. Ma quando potremo dire di essere riusciti a misurare tutta la grandezza di quella distesa rocciosa? […] La mostruosità dell’opera di Sade annoia, ma questa noia stessa ne è il senso. (La letteratura e il Male, 1957)

All’inizio del ‘900 Sade è stato finalmente riconosciuto come una figura a suo modo monumentale, e la sua riscoperta (ad opera di Apollinaire, e poi dei surrealisti) ha dominato l’intero XX Secolo e continua ad essere imprescindibile oggi. L’acquisto del manoscritto diviene quindi simbolico: dopo due secoli di oscurantismo, Sade rientra trionfalmente in Francia, con tutti gli onori e gli allori del caso. Ma sarà molto difficile, forse impossibile, che un testo come Le 120 giornate venga metabolizzato nello stesso modo in cui la nostra società riesce a inglobare e rendere inoffensivi tabù e controculture – si tratta davvero di un boccone troppo indigesto. Un grido di rivolta contro l’universo intero, in grado di resistere al tempo e alle sue rovine: un nero diamante che continua a diffondere la sua luce oscura.