Academic journal article French Forum

Sade, Vanille et Manille: Urology and the Body of the Text

Academic journal article French Forum

Sade, Vanille et Manille: Urology and the Body of the Text

Article excerpt

The malady that D.A.F. Sade complained about to his wife in the famous "La Vanille et la Manille" letter from the Bastille at the end of 1784 has never been satisfactorily identified. Sade thought his suffering was due to a congenital defect of some kind, while modern opinion has tended more towards the notion that he had venereal disease. (1) In either case, scholars have had little to go on and have generally preferred to focus on Sade's mental rather than physical condition when interpreting his life and work. (2) The body, however, has made a comeback in criticism in recent years, so it may be timely once again to ask not only what it was Sade suffered from, but how one is to locate the articulation of that complaint in his work. This is matter for a longer study--one that would continue the line Annie Le Brun first took on the body in Sade--but I would propose at least the following thoughts and ruminations on both the nature of the illness and how it intersects with Sade's writing.

Sade was adamant that there was to be no autopsy performed on his body, so the only real information we have on his illness comes from the above letter. As always in Sade, pain and sexual release go together, but the detail and figural language of the Vanille et Manille letter remind us that this conjunction has a material rather than mental origin. Writing to his wife, he uses a bow and arrow metaphor to describe his painful ejaculations:

    ce n'est pas que l'arc ne soit tres tendu--oh ne vous faches pas, il
    y aura sur cela tout ce qui pourra vois plaire--mais la fleche ne
    veut pas partir--et c'est ce qui tue--parcequ'on veut quelle parte--
    faute d'objet la tete va--

Lacking a sexual "object" in prison. Sade goes slightly crazy with the time and effort needed to reach what are finally unnatural and painful orgasms. Prison is bad, he says, because solitude gives strength only to ideas. And it is these "ideas"--the countless imagined scenarios of Sade's hallucinatory sexual prowess and pain--that fill and animate his writing. (3) He continues:

    Mais j'ai parfaitement pris mon parti sur l'opiniatrete de cette
    fleche a ne vouloir point partir, d'autant plus que quand elle fait
    tant que de fendre les airs.--c'est veritablement une attaque
    d'epilepsie--et sans d'ennuiy[eu]ses precautions, je suis bien sur
    qu'on s'en douterait au faubourg St antoine ...

There then follows the likeness, or metaphorization of the problem as thick cream that cannot escape through the narrow neck of a bottle, so that the thickness inflates "les vaisseaux" and tears them. Sade writes:

    si j'avais ces autres moyens que j'emploiye quand je suis libre--la
    fleche devanant moins retive et partant plus souvent, la crise de
    son depart ne seroit plus ni aussi violente, ni aussi dangereuse--
    car son danger s'explique par sa difficulte ... si la fleche, plus
    fluide, partait plus souvent; et d'apres cela moins d'episodes--et
    reversiblement episodes terribles efforts violens, si la fleche trop
    nourrie par son trop long sejour, est oblige de dechirer le carquois
    en le traversant--

And we then get the even more striking rifle metaphor where Sade asks us to imagine a rifle with a bullet that grows larger in the firing chamber the longer it is not fired, until finally "elle faira crever le canon" (OEuvres 12, 449-50).

This is the best Sade can do to tell us about what he suffers: he likens it to an attack of epilepsy. The notion put forth by Jean-Jacques Pauvert and du Plessix Gray, therefore, that what Sade called "un defaut de conformation" and likened to an epileptic seizure was really some kind of undiagnosed venereal disease runs up first against the fact that Sade himself, who had some experience in these matters, thought otherwise. Second, when Sade is freed from prison and has access once again to the objects of desire he needs to maintain his required frequency of orgasms, the complaint disappears. …

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