Sade Is Constantly Bookkeeping: Classes of Subjects, Orgasms, Victims

From Roland Barthes’ “Life of Sade,” a short biography of The Marquis de Sade. Translated from the French by Richard Miller.  Read the entire essay at Supervert (or here over the next few days, parceled out over 22 sections)—

12. In certain of the letters he received or wrote at Vincennes or in the Bastille, Sade discerned or inserted number utterances which he called signals. These signals helped him to imagine or even to read (supposing they were put there intentionally by his correspondent and had escaped the censor) the number of days between receipt and a visit from his wife, an authorization for outdoor recreation, or his freedom; these signals are for the most part malevolent (“The number system is working against me…”). The mania for numbers can be read at various levels; first, neurotic defense: in his fiction, Sade is constantly bookkeeping: classes of subjects, orgasms, victims, and, above all, like Ignatius Loyola, in a purely obsessive twist, he accounts for his own oversights, his errors in numbering; further, number, when it deranges a rational system (we may rather say made purposely to derange it), has the power to produce a surrealistic shock: “On the 18th at 9, the clock chimed 26 times,” Sade notes in his Journal; finally, number is the triumphant path of access to the signifier (here as a pun involving the similarity of pronunciation, in French, of the past tense of “to come,” vint, and the number “twenty,” vingt): (“The other day, because we needed a 24, a flunkey pretending to be M. le Noir [a police officer], and so that I might write to Monsieur Le Noir, came at 4 (vint le 4), thus 24 (vingtquatre).” Numeration is the beginning of writing, its liberating positioning: a connection apparently censured in the history of ideography, if we are to believe J.-L. Schefer’s current work on hieroglyphics and cuneiform: the phonological theory of language (Jakobson) unduly separates the linguist from writing; calculation will bring him closer.

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