The name “Sade,” previously the cause of visceral disquietude and moral panic, now sends us directly to the archives. What was once scandalous is now part of our literary heritage, a “classic.” To introduce the present volume, we might briefly consider the conditions by which this drastic change of reception occurred, and the reasons why, despite the entry of Sade into “acquired knowledge,” this philosopher of the bedroom still claims a decisive role in understanding both the limits of human possibility and the emerging critique of culture in postmodernist discourse.
Nineteenth-century belles-lettres abound in references to Sade by the most diverse group of writers, including such figures as Michelet, Stendhal, Baudelaire, Flaubert, Fourier, Huysmans, and Swinburne. These writers demonstrated varied interest in Sade's work, although most, like Swinburne, admired it from afar. This interest was countered, at the end of the century, by a vehement disapproval in other quarters: namely, the appropriation of Sade's name by numerous “scientific” medical authorities, who stigmatized it with a psychological reference of violence and opprobrium – sadism.
It was not until the rediscovery of Sade by Apollinaire and, later, by the Surrealists in the 1920s, that he came to play a central role in modern intellectual history. This interest was in great part made possible by Maurice Heine's efforts to establish and distribute an accurate contemporary edition of Sade's works. The Surrealists – most notably Breton, Aragon, Eluard, Char, and Peret – who celebrated Sade's work did so with a double intent.