Intertextuality and Urtextuality: Sade™s Justine Palimpsest



Intertextuality and Urtextuality: Sade™s Justine Palimpsest
Intertextuality and Urtextuality:
Sade’s Justine Palimpsest
Will McMorran
nly relatively recently have all three incarnations of Sade’s
story of Justine become available in print at the same time,
and this availability raises a number of new issues for the prospective
reader. Although Michel Delon’s Pléiade edition accommodates all
three within a single volume, inviting the reader to begin with Les
Infortunes de la vertu, continue with Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu,
and end with La Nouvelle Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu , few readers,
other than those engaged in academic research or with a particular
enthusiasm for Sade, will ever read more than one of the three
“Justines.” No single, authoritative text subordinates the others,
and a strong sense of textual instability consequently permeates each
of the variations of Justine’s story. Sade reverses the direction of the
typical writing process: text reverts to paratext, finished article reverts
to rough draft as one version is consumed by the next. Nor does La
Nouvelle Justine mark the end of this evolutionary narrative. A copy of
La Nouvelle Justine seized by police in 1801, and covered in authorial
annotations, suggests the beginning of a process that would have
led, as Delon puts it, to a “nouvelle Nouvelle Justine, comme si ce texte
était infiniment voué à la réécriture.”1
The three versions of the Justine story offer three snapshots
of a text in flux, written to be written over, and which ends only
Michel Delon, introduction to vol. 2 of Sade, Œuvres, ed. Delon, 3 vols. (Paris: Gallimard,
1990–98), 2:xiv.
E I G H T E E N T H - C E N T U R Y F I C T I O N 19, no. 4 (Summer 2007)
© ECF 0840-6286
to begin again. The figure of the palimpsest, adopted by Gérard
Genette in his studies in intertextuality, seems to represent perfectly this process of rewriting undertaken by Sade. Genette
invokes “la vieille image du palimpseste , où l’on voit, sur le même
parchemin, un texte se superposer à un autre qu’il ne dissimule
pas tout à fait, mais qu’il laisse voir par transparence.”2 Genette
uses the palimpsest, or hypertext, in relation to what he classes as
a “littérature au second degré” that includes parodies, pastiches,
adaptations, and continuations of existing “hypotexts.” While he
suggests that hypertexts can offer prequels, sequels, or lacunaefilling additions to an existing hypotext, he does not allude to the
kind of rewriting that Sade undertakes in the Justine narratives,
which in many ways seems to conform more closely than any other
to the figure of the palimpsest. Curiously, it is Les 120 Journées de
Sodome, not the Justine narratives, that has previously attracted the
label of palimpsest. Delon, in the Pléiade edition of Les 120 Journées,
observes, “la réapparition, d’une partie à l’autre, de certaines figures,
selon une méthode comparable à celle des personnages récurrents
dont Balzac fera systématiquement usage, tend à superposer les
quatre parties comme quatre versions d’une même histoire, quatre
moments d’un palimpseste dont les gazes seraient progressivement
levées pour atteindre une idéale nudité du texte, un impossible
absolu de la cruauté et de la souffrance.”3 This article makes the case
for exploring the three Justine narratives, rather than Les 120 Journées,
as a palimpsest, and examines the questions of primacy, originality,
and authorship posed by this highly unusual form of intertextuality.
Although striptease, as Roland Barthes noted, is striking for its
absence in Sadean fiction, Delon’s striptease narrative is suggestive
here: it echoes Sade’s own use of the imagery of voile and gaze , but
more importantly for this article it offers an interpretive model for
the complex shifts in narration and focalization that take place from
one version of the palimpsest to the next.
Editors as Authors
The same textual instability that allows for the creation of the
Justine palimpsest also undermines the very status of one of its
Gérard Genette, Palimpsestes: La littérature au second degré (Paris: Seuil, 1982), 556.
Delon, in Sade, Œuvres, 2:1125.
three texts as a text in its own right. Les Infortunes de la vertu, the
first version of Justine’s story, only definitively acquires textual as well
as paratextual status long after the arrival of the other two versions
with its publication by Maurice Heine in 1930. It is both the first
to be written and the last to be recognized as an autonomous text,
and although its emergence has provided a significant addition to
the Sadean oeuvre, it has not assumed the mantle of the definitive
text—originality has not given it pre-eminence over its competitors.
Just as La Nouvelle Justine cannot erase its predecessors, Les Infortunes
cannot efface its successors; it is both urtext and text, a source as well
as a product. The primacy effect (a term borrowed from cognitive
psychology) plays a crucial role here, but not the one that it is typically
associated with in studies of narrative. The primacy effect has in the
past been invoked to describe the way in which the reader’s memory
of a narrative will privilege the first impression made by the early
stages of that narrative.4 This effect, however, need not be limited
to a single narrative, but may be observed in the manner in which
the reader’s reception of a series of texts will privilege the first text
in the series. The reader with no knowledge of Justine or La Nouvelle
Justine will read Les Infortunes as a text; a reading informed by the
later texts is by contrast likely to perceive or invest urtextual qualities
in Les Infortunes . For Guillaume Apollinaire, reading Les Infortunes
after Justine, and reading it moreover in the form of an unpublished
original manuscript as opposed to a published text, the order of
reading has evidently influenced his response: “J’ai sous les yeux le
manuscrit original [...] de la première version de Justine , le premier
jet, le premier brouillon de cet ouvrage avec toutes ses ratures.”5 The
emphasis is on Les Infortunes as a beginning rather than an end, a
first draft of a later, definitive version. The over-determining telos
for Apollinaire’s reading of Les Infortunes is provided by his prior
reading of Justine, and the former text thus always seems to him to be
aiming at the latter. The fact that Les Infortunes is only a manuscript
while Justine is a published text at this point no doubt reinforces
this retrospective and retroactive view, according to which the
See Manakhem Perry, “Literary Dynamics: How the Order of a Text Creates Its Meaning,”
Poetics Today 1 (1979): 35–64; and Emma Kafelenos, “Not (Yet) Knowing: Epistemological
Effects of Deferred and Suppressed Information in Narrative” in Narratologies: Perspectives on
Narrative Analysis, ed. David Herman (Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1999), 56–60.
L’Œuvre du Marquis de Sade, ed. Guillaume Apollinaire (Paris: Bibliothèque des curieux,
1909), 21.
manuscript connotes a paratextual phase of preparation while the
published work constitutes a definitive end to the preparation. In a
figurative as well as in a literal sense, the publication of Les Infortunes
is what makes it a text of its own as well as a draft for another. This is
confirmed by the comments of Heine, the editor of the first edition
of Les Infortunes : the creator of the text—the first person to read it
as a publishable text—is the first to recognize the double life he has
created: “Le manuscrit des Infortunes de la vertu tient également lieu
de brouillon pour Les Malheurs de la vertu.”6
The form Les Infortunes has taken as a printed text has also been
teleologically influenced by an awareness of its successors. The version
Delon offers of Les Infortunes in his Pléaide edition is, for example,
determined by the collection of all three texts within the same volume:
“Comme nous pouvons regrouper dans un même volume les formes
successives prises par l’histoire de Justine [...] nous avons opté pour
un retour plus scrupuleux au premier jet, matériau brut, parfois
plus brutal qu’on l’a dit, que l’auteur a eu à cœur ensuite de polir
stylistiquement, en même temps qu’il en élargissait et développait
le propos.”7 Editors of single-work editions of Les Infortunes have
conversely incorporated some of the corrections to the manuscript
made by Sade in his preparation of the text of Justine . In so doing
they have been guided, Delon suggests of Heine at least, by “un souci
littéraire et une volonté apologétique” that further blurs the already
indistinct line between Les Infortunes and Justine : by a curious
inversion the second text thus appears to influence the first by its
impact upon the editorial process.8 Ironically, Delon’s inclusion of
the later texts within the same covers keeps them from encroaching
too far upon the text of Les Infortunes . He thus notably includes in his
edition Rodin’s extraction of two of Justine’s teeth and amputation
of two of her toes, an episode omitted from the editions of Heine,
and more recently those of Jean Marie Goulemot and Béatrice
Didier. While Delon’s approach distinguishes his text from those
of previous editors, he shares their perception of Les Infortunes as a
primitive, raw version of what is to come.9 The temptation to impose
Maurice Heine, preface to Les Infortunes de la vertu by Sade (Paris: Fourcade, 1930),
reprinted in the Œuvres complètes du marquis de Sade, 15 vols., 2nd ed. (Paris: Cercle du livre
précieux, 1966–67), 14:322.
Delon, in Sade, Œuvres, 2:1133.
Delon, in Sade, Œuvres, 2:1133.
Gilbert Lély confirms this view when he observes: “Heine est parvenu à dégager avec la
an evolutionary narrative upon this sequence of texts is apparently
irresistible, although the sequence may just as easily be read as a
narrative of decline, as an ostensibly civilized veneer peels away to
reveal the naked savagery of the final text.
The difference in editorial approaches to the establishment of Les
Infortunes provides a reminder of the instrumental role played by a
figure often forgotten in discussions of literary transactions between
author, text, and reader. The editor, who is generally relegated to the
role of midwife, delivering a fully formed text into the world rather
than giving it shape himself, arguably rivals Sade as the author of Les
Infortunes. Instead of authors masquerading as editors, a common
topos of the French eighteenth-century novel (including, as we shall
see below, La Nouvelle Justine), we here find editors with pretensions
of authorship. As Delon observes, “Le texte des Infortunes de la vertu
n’a jamais été publié du vivant de Sade. Son établissement même
reste hypothétique, puisque nous possédons, dans les collections de
la Bibliothèque nationale, un manuscrit de travail [...] abondamment
corrigé, et qui superpose une première version du conte et plusieurs
strates de corrections et additions.”10 It is the editor, not the author,
who decisively transforms the manuscript of Les Infortunes into a text.
While he adds no words of his own, the paratext of authorial notes
and alterations becomes a collage from which he assembles and
therefore institutes the text he desires. The selective editorial use of
the notes made by Sade in the course of writing Justine further erodes
any sense of Les Infortunes as a stable text, and each new edition
thus appears as a less than definitive version of another less than
definitive version of the Justine story, although the Pléiade edition
has the distinct merit of refusing the temptation to make evaluative
editorial choices on the basis of Sade’s notes.
Delon’s striptease narrative offers an intriguing model in more
than one way for an exploration of the “three Justines.” It could be
applied to the editorial process by which, for example, Les Infortunes
has been stripped of all its layers of corrections and ratures to reveal
the original text. One could extend the analogy to include Justine and
La Nouvelle Justine as further veils concealing the naked and primitive
Infortunes. Or, in line with the kind of narrative model Delon suggests
dernière rigueur la version primitive de Justine.” Lély, Vie du marquis de Sade, 2 vols. (Paris:
Cercle du livre précieux, 1966), 2:477–78.
10 Delon, in Sade, Œuvres, 2:1133.
for Les 120 Journées , Les Infortunes and Justine might constitute layers
to be stripped away to reveal the naked ideal of La Nouvelle Justine,
or at least an ideal to which La Nouvelle Justine comes closer than
its predecessors. According to this scheme, the first text to be
written is the first layer to be removed, and the palimpsest therefore
reveals a chronology that reverses that of its own composition, but
parallels the progress of the reader who begins with Les Infortunes
and ends with La Nouvelle Justine . If, as a progressive narrative, the
striptease is as vulnerable here to reversal as the evolutionary model
mentioned above, this is itself revealing of the peculiar qualities
of the Justine palimpsest (of Les Infortunes, Justine , and La Nouvelle
Justine ) and the game of origins and endings that it invites.11 In a
manner that ironically anticipates the editorial interference that will
eventually lead to the publication of the “unauthorized” Infortunes,
La Nouvelle Justine strikingly offers itself as a rival point of origin for
the palimpsest:
Le manuscrit original d’un ouvrage qui, tout tronqué, tout défiguré qu’il était,
avait néanmoins obtenu plusieurs éditions, entièrement épuisées aujourd’hui,
nous étant tombé dans les mains, nous nous empressons de le donner au public
tel qu’il a été conçu par son auteur, qui l’écrivit en 1788. Un infidèle ami, à
qui ce manuscrit fut confié pour lors, trompant la bonne foi et les intentions
de cet auteur, qui ne voulait pas que son livre fût imprimé de son vivant, en
fit un extrait qui a paru sous le titre simple de Justine ou les Malheurs de la
Vertu, misérable extrait bien au dessous de l’original, et qui fut constamment
désavoué par celui dont l’énergique crayon a dessiné la Justine et sa sœur que
l’on va voir ici [...] Nous certifions, au reste, que dans cette édition tout est
absolument conforme à l’original que nous possédons seul.12
Sade is here author, editor, and unfaithful friend. In contrast to his
denial of the authorship of Justine on apparently moral grounds in
the Idées sur le roman, there is a partial avowal. The authorship of
Justine is no longer refuted, but the published text is presented as
a truncated version that betrays the author’s original artistic vision.
With Les Infortunes absent from the scenario, and Justine discredited,
Though concerning a different heroine, the Histoire de Juliette might be included as part
of the palimpsest, because it adds an interpolation and an ending to La Nouvelle Justine .
Sade, La Nouvelle Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu (1797), in Œuvres, ed. Delon, 2:393–94.
References are to this edition, cited as NJ. References to Sade, Les Infortunes de la vertu
(I), which was composed in 1787, and Justine, ou les Malheurs de la vertu (J), which was
published in 1791, are also from vol. 2 of this edition.
the “editor” seeks to establish La Nouvelle Justine as the authoritative
text. Originality is apparently a prerequisite of this claim to legitimacy,
and Sade therefore attributes to it a date prior to the publication
of Justine in 1791 (although a year later than the completion of Les
Infortunes manuscript in 1787). Rather than confirm that La Nouvelle
Justine is an amplification of Justine , Sade prefers to present the latter
as an unauthorized extract of a complete text. Nevertheless, the link
between the two texts is crucial to the marketing of this new (but
ostensibly old) and exclusive “uncut” version, with Justine providing a
teaser for the real thing.13 In contrast to the modern reading public,
who may choose between all three available versions of Justine’s story
but are unlikely to choose more than one, the reader apparently
implied by this branding exercise is the former reader of Justine , whose
appetite for more the editorial persona here promises to satisfy.
Veiling and Unveiling
While it has often been said that Sade wanted to say everything,
Justine is, as a narrator in Les Infortunes and Justine , caught between
wanting to move her audience and not wanting to reveal why
they should be moved. Her attempts to implement a storytelling
contract as old as the Odyssey—the exchange of a stranger’s story
for a host’s hospitality and protection—may appear masochistic in a
fictional universe virtually devoid of reciprocity. Her ordeals offer a
catastrophic counterpoint to the experiences of an earlier orpheline ,
Marivaux’s Marianne, who enacts the same charitable model with
contrasting success and transforms a succession of avid listeners
into benefactors and benefactresses. With few exceptions in any
versions of the Justine palimpsest, the typical response provoked by
Justine’s tale of woe in her succession of male narratees is rape.14
She is both a compulsive and reluctant storyteller, desperate in her
appeals to her listeners and ashamed at the role of historienne that she
has to assume. Instead of attributing this to a masochistic impulse,
As John Phillips observes, “the new title has a ring of authorial pride about it and is clearly
designed to maximise sales … and there are impertinent parodic echoes of Rousseau’s La
Nouvelle Héloïse .” Phillips, Sade: The Libertine Novels (London: Pluto Press, 2001), 101.
The only notably sympathetic audiences that Justine stumbles across in the course of her
journey (other than Juliette and Corville in Les Infortunes and Justine) are Dubreuil, who
figures in all three versions, and Mme Delisle, an innkeeper in La Nouvelle Justine . Both of
these characters are predictably murdered for this transgression of Sadean inhospitality.
as one might in a realist context, the reader is more likely to regard
Justine as compelled rather than compulsive, the victim of her
author as she is of her listeners. Accordingly, the contrary impulses
of withholding and revealing may well be assigned by the reader to
the narrator’s pudeur and the author’s libertinage respectively. The
balance between the two may be seen to shift from Les Infortunes to
Justine in a way that foreshadows Justine’s loss of voice in La Nouvelle
Justine , as the reader increasingly perceives Justine as the puppet in
an unconvincing act of narrative ventriloquism. In Les Infortunes,
Justine seeks permission to limit the description of her initiation
ceremony in Sainte-Marie-des Bois: “Vous me permettrez, madame,
dit notre belle prisonnière en rougissant prodigieusement ici, de
vous déguiser une partie des détails obscènes qui s’observèrent à
cette première cérémonie” (I, 61). A curtain is ostensibly drawn to
shield both the narrator and the listener from obscenity. In Justine ,
the curtain has already thinned to a veil, transparent enough to
offer a glimpse of debauchery to her audience:
Vous me permettrez, madame, dit notre belle prisonnière en rougissant, de
vous déguiser une partie des détails obscènes de cette odieuse cérémonie; que
votre imagination se représente tout ce que la débauche peut en tel cas dicter
à des scélérats; qu’elle les voie successivement passer de mes compagnes à moi,
comparer, rapprocher, confronter, discourir, et elle n’aura vraisemblablement
encore qu’une faible idée de ce qui s’exécuta dans ces premières orgies bien
légères sans doute, en comparaison de toutes les horreurs que j’allais bientôt
éprouver. (J, 233–34)
Justine still blushes, if not quite as much, but the invitation to the
imagination of her audience is barely hidden beneath the thin
pretence of censorship. She reveals where her stated aim is to
conceal, first offering the image of the monks examining her and
her companions, then a hint of the greater atrocities that lie ahead.
The narrator’s grim prolepsis simultaneously reads like an authorial
promise. It is moreover striking that Justine here, as elsewhere in
both Les Infortunes and Justine , directs her story to Mme de Lorsange
instead of M. de Corville—understandable, perhaps, given the
typical response of her previous male narratees. The storytelling
situation creates a double case of narrative transvestism, as both
narrator and narratee appear as the barely concealed male author
and reader in disguise.
The reader who is expecting the removal of Justine as a narrator
in the transition from Justine to La Nouvelle Justine to entail the stripping of all veils and the filling of all gaps may be surprised to find
the same rhetoric of voile and gaze in the latter text. The tension
between revealing and concealing that characterizes the earlier incarnations of the Justine palimpsest is not erased by the change of
narratorial voice. As John Phillips has observed, Sade builds “areas
of secrecy” into his third-person narratives as part of a process of
“self-censorship.”15 In La Nouvelle Justine , the former narrator’s
constraining pudeur apparently gives way to a more pragmatically
motivated restraint so that the reader should not be overwhelmed,
or even bored, by the seemingly endless succession of scenes and
tableaux he encounters. Here, as in Les 120 Journées (which also
has its petits cabinets), textual gaps are represented spatially as the
reader is denied admittance to a cabinet in Sainte-Marie-des-Bois:
Ici Sévérino qui bandait ferme fut tenté d’un charmant giton de treize ans, dont les
fesses ruisselaient de sang. Il le saisit, passe avec lui dans un cabinet, et le ramène,
au bout d’un quart d’heure, dans un tel état, que l’assemblée resta convaincue
que le supérieur venait, suivant son usage avec les garçons, d’employer des
épisodes si cruels, que le jeune homme pourrait bien n’en pas relever. Jérôme, à
l’exemple du supérieur, avait de même isolé ses plaisirs: il avait entraîné Aurore,
et une autre fille de dix-sept ans, fort jolie, et les avait soumises, l’une et l’autre,
à des humiliations si désespérantes, à des actes de férocité si monstrueux, que
toutes deux furent encore remportées dans leurs chambres.
Tous les yeux se portèrent alors sur les deux victimes. Qu’on nous permette
de jeter un voile sur les atrocités qui terminèrent ces exécrables orgies. Notre
plume serait insuffisante à les peindre, et nos lecteurs trop compatissants pour les
écouter de sang-froid. Qu’ils se contentent de savoir que les supplices durèrent six
heures, pendant lesquelles tout ce que la cruauté put imaginer de plus féroce fut
employé, mêlé d’épisodes lascifs, d’un tel genre de monstruosité, que jamais les
Nérons ni les Tibères ne purent rien inventer de semblable. (NJ, 813)
The narrator’s ostensible concern for his reader here recalls that
of Justine for Juliette and Corville, and is similarly open to ironic
interpretation. There is a charade of bienséance as the details of what
happens offstage in the cabinets are elided, and the curtains are then
drawn across the main stage of the orgy.16 Sade’s side-rooms, whether
See Phillips, “Sade and Self-Censorship,” Paragraph 23 (2000): 108; and his earlier “Sade
in the Corridor,” Nottingham French Studies 37, no. 2 (1998): 26–36.
See Peter Cryle’s discussion of Sade’s use of ellipsis, and the theatrical curtain as a narrative metaphor, in chap. 5 of The Telling of the Act: Sexuality as Narrative in Eighteenth- and
in the Silling of Les 120 Journées or in the Sainte-Marie-des-Bois of
La Nouvelle Justine, reveal surprising limitations in their respective
narrators that recall those of Justine. Whereas the narrator of Les 120
Journées is simply denied admittance from the cabinets in a manner
that echoes the constraints of a first-person narrative, in La Nouvelle
Justine the narrator has the access but not the power to express what
he has seen. Peter Cryle describes the side-rooms of Silling as “a kind
of narrative safety-valve” that allows “libertine behaviour of a kind
that would be disproportionate in erotic intensity and perversity with
the passions currently being rehearsed.”17 The episodic narrative of
La Nouvelle Justine, however, does not share the overall scheme of
controlled gradation that characterizes Les 120 Journées. Although
there is a sense of escalation in the crimes committed against Justine
up to the point at which she is raped by Saint-Florent, the same
cannot be said of the remainder of the narrative. While the kind
of intensification Cryle identifies may de detected within individual
episodes in La Nouvelle Justine, the cabinet in Sainte-Marie-des-Bois
cannot be said to perform the same function as its counterpart in
Silling: it is not introduced at an early point in an orgy as a means of
averting a premature narrative climax to the episode, but brings the
description of the orgy to a close, as if the narrative were unable to
sustain the intensity shown by the monks themselves, who continue
their torture for another six hours. The same impression is given a
little later, when an orgy led by Verneuil in Gernande’s mansion ends
in a decidedly cursory fashion, and with an explanatory footnote:
Verneuil encule son fils, qui, comme on vient de le dire, foutait Dorothée;
Bressac fout son oncle; John sodomise Bressac; Marceline fouette ... encourage
tous les acteurs de cette furibonde orgie, qui ne se ralentit que pour prendre
de nouvelles formes, et pour se prolonger jusqu’au lever de l’astre qui devait
éclairer enfin la séparation de ces scélérats.*
* “On dit mieux les choses en les supprimant” (écrit La Mettrie quelque part);
“on irrite les désirs, en aiguillonnant la curiosité de l’esprit sur un objet en
partie couvert, qu’on ne devine pas encore, et qu’on veut avoir l’honneur de
deviner.” Tels sont les motifs de la gaze que nous jetons sur les scènes que nous
ne faisons qu’annoncer (NJ, 952)
Nineteenth-Century Narrative (London: Associated University Presses for University of Delaware Press, 2001).
Cryle, 114.
Rather than the sense of a narrative pacing itself, along the lines of
Cryle’s model, one has an impression of a narrative on the point of
exhaustion, with the footnote an unconvincing rationalization of a
fatigued imagination. Such a suspicion is confirmed when the secrets
of the cabinets in Gernande’s mansion are revealed. Verneuil, crowned
as the “autorité suprême” for an orgy and seated on “une espèce
de trône,” makes the following ruling: “Si, pendant cette première
tournée, dit Verneuil, il vous prend fantaisie de soumettre à des
choses plus énergiques quelques-uns des objets qui vont s’offrir à vous,
pour ne pas troubler l’ordre, vous irez à l’instant vous enfermer dans
un cabinet; et votre passion une fois apaisée, vous ramènerez l’objet
dans le cercle” (NJ, 906). The introduction of the side-rooms here
appears at first to fit Cryle’s model well: the side-rooms are used at an
early point in the orgy in order to defer scenes of disproportionate
intensity. However, with Verneuil’s second ruling following the return
of all from their respective rooms, the model collapses:
Mes amis [...] comme l’aveu public des voluptés où l’on s’est livré ne peut
que disposer à l’embrasement général des désirs, j’exige que chacun rende
compte à haute voix, et le plus en détail possible, de toutes les luxures dans
lesquelles il vient de se plonger. Parlez, Gernande; vos amis vous suivront:
souvenez-vous surtout d’écarter les gazes, de peindre à nu, et d’employer tous
les mots techniques. Gazons la vertu, si l’on veut; mais que le crime marche
toujours à découvert. (NJ, 906)
The concealment lasts only as long as it takes for Gernande’s guests,
and Verneuil’s subjects, to return to the main room, but the secrets
of the side-rooms prove, by Sadean standards, mundane. They are
revealed, one is left to infer, because there is nothing particularly
appalling to hide. Nevertheless, the banality of what is unveiled
undermines the idea of the unwriteable that is suggested in the
earlier cabinet episode in Sainte-Marie-des-Bois, suggesting instead
that there is nothing behind the veil previously cast.
While Phillips observes that these moments of ellipsis may
be the deliberate ploy of a “consummate story-teller [who] has
doubtless realized that every successful narrative contains elements
of mystery,” he also persuasively argues that these may be read
as symptomatic of an unconscious longing for what, in Lacanian
terms, is the lost object of the mother’s body—“for Sade, the most
hated of all bodies, the body that must be destroyed but cannot
be described.”18 Phillips’s reading is compelling because it offers
a more profound explanation for the narratorial declarations of
ignorance than Cryle’s pragmatic approach, which unsatisfactorily
reduces these to mere “Sadian whimsy.”19 It seems difficult, however,
to reconcile these highly self-conscious moments of ellipsis with
Phillips’s unconscious yearning. Sade, it seems to me, is very aware
of what he is doing at such points, even if he may not be entirely
in control. There is something almost Shandean in this regard of a
narrator teetering on the brink of his own limitations, and, indeed,
in the rhetoric that tends to accompany Sade’s use of the imagery
of veiling and unveiling. Laurence Sterne’s Tristam Shandy, another
narrator who wants to say everything but ends up saying much less,
regularly drops a theatrical curtain across scenes when he has given
up on making progress with them.20 Sade’s self-conscious intrusions
into his narrative, in both his text and his footnotes, echo Sterne’s
rhetoric of leaving something for the reader to imagine.21 In an
authorial footnote, Sade observes, “Il y a sans doute beaucoup d’art
à laisser ainsi des scènes sous le voile; mais combien de lecteurs
avides et insatiables désireraient qu’on leur dise tout! Eh, Bon Dieu!
si on les satisfait, que leur resterait-il donc à imaginer?” (NJ, 884).
While there is a much clearer distinction to be made between
Sterne and Tristram than that which more murkily operates
between Sade and the narrator of La Nouvelle Justine , Sterne’s
example suggests that the self-consciousness of La Nouvelle Justine is
a playful solution to local imaginative crises. In these, the narrative
requires a change of scene to engage afresh the author’s—and the
reader’s—imagination. It appears that even Sade’s extraordinary
sexual imagination had its limits, occasionally and temporarily
leading him into dead ends that he resolved by moving onto the
next scene. This indeed tallies with the insight into the writing
process that an examination of the palimpsest reveals.
Phillips, Sade: The Libertine Novels, 108, 114.
Cryle, 116.
After failing for a number of chapters to get his father and uncle down a staircase, he
notably performs a coup de théatre , dropping “a curtain at the stairs foot.” Laurence
Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, ed. Melvyn and Joan New,
3 vols. (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1978–84), 3:343. He also repeatedly ends
a chapter by dropping the curtain on a scene (see, for example, Sterne, 2:114, 169).
“The truest respect which you can pay to the reader’s understanding, is to halve this
matter amicably, and leave him something to imagine, in his turn, as well as yourself”
(Sterne, 2:68).
If, for most of us, the process of rewriting seems laborious, for
Sade it appears to have been a labour of love, or rather lust. In the
Histoire de Juliette , the heroine offers her pupil in libertinage , Mme de
Donis, advice on desiring beyond one’s means:
N’est-il pas vrai, ma belle amie, que vous avez déjà trouvé vos désirs bien
supérieurs à vos moyens [...] Je connais cet état affreux, il fait le malheur de
mes jours; quoi qu’il en soit, voici mon secret.*
*Soyez quinze jours entiers sans vous occuper de luxures, distrayez-vous,
amusez-vous d’autre chose; mais jusqu’au quinzième ne laissez pas même
d’accès aux idées libertines. Cette époque venue, couchez-vous seule, dans le
calme, dans le silence et dans l’obscurité la plus profonde; rappelez-vous là tout
ce que vous avez banni depuis cet intervalle, et livrez-vous mollement et avec
nonchalance à cette pollution légère par laquelle personne ne sait s’irriter ou
irriter les autres comme vous. Donnez ensuite à votre imagination la liberté de
vous présenter, par gradation, différentes sortes d’égarements; parcourez-les
toutes en détail; passez-les successivement en revue; persuadez-vous bien que
toute la terre est à vous ... que vous avez le droit de changer, mutiler, détruire,
bouleverser tous les êtres que bon vous semblera. Vous n’avez rien à craindre là:
choisissez ce qui vous fait plaisir, mais plus d’exception, ne supprimez rien; nul
égard pour qui que ce soit; qu’aucun lien ne vous captive; qu’aucun frein ne
vous retienne; laissez à votre imagination tous les frais de l’épreuve, et surtout
ne précipitez pas vos mouvements; que votre main soit aux ordres de votre tête
et non de votre tempérament. Sans vous en apercevoir, des tableaux variés que
vous aurez fait passer devant vous, un viendra vous fixer plus énergiquement
que les autres, et avec une telle force, que vous ne pourrez plus l’écarter ni le
remplacer. L’idée, acquise par le moyen que je vous indique, vous dominera,
vous captivera; le délire s’emparera de vos sens, et vous croyant déjà à l’œuvre,
vous déchargerez comme une Messaline. Dès que cela sera fait, rallumez vos
bougies, et transcrivez sur vos tablettes l’espèce d’égarement qui vient de
vous enflammer, sans oublier aucune des circonstances qui peuvent en avoir
aggravé les détails; endormez-vous sur cela, relisez vos notes le lendemain, et
en recommençant votre opération, ajoutez tout ce que votre imagination, un
peu blasée sur une idée qui vous a déjà coûté du foutre, pourra vous suggérer
de capable d’en augmenter l’irritation. Formez maintenant un corps de cette
idée, et, en la mettant au net, ajoutez-y de nouveau tous les épisodes que vous
conseillera votre tête. Commettez ensuite, et vous éprouverez que tel est l’écart
qui vous convient le mieux, et que vous exécuterez avec le plus de délices. Mon
secret, je le sens, est un peu scélérat, mais il est sûr, et je ne vous le conseillerais
pas si je n’en avais éprouvé le succès.22
Sade, Œuvres, 3:753.
As Lucienne Frappier-Mazur has observed, “Le caractère autobiographique de cette ‘recette’ ne ferait aucun doute, même si une note
en bas de page, attribuée au scripteur, ou à Sade, ne l’accompagnait.”23
While this passage has attracted considerable commentary, no critic
has noted its obvious pertinence to the writing and rewriting of the
Justine story.24 Like the palimpsest, it reveals, as Barthes observes, an
essentially cumulative process of composition.25 The libertine author
becomes his own reader, and his reading, punctuated crucially by
periods in which he removes himself from his material, allows him to
supplement his original text. In the Justine palimpsest, the casting of
a veil, either to ease the monotony of a particular episode or to hint
at unnameable horrors, provides a break in the narrative—a change
that is as good as a rest to its author’s imagination, and an opportunity for the next phase of the palimpsest to exploit.
The Rape of the Text
It is striking that Sade does not simply limit himself to the natural
spaces and lacunae of the former version when he is writing the next
version of the palimpsest according to the striptease model outlined
above, but also chooses to engineer and fill new gaps of his own.26
Rape, rather than striptease, offers a more appropriate analogy for
these moments in which La Nouvelle Justine in particular forces itself
with increasing violence upon the text of its antecedents. An example
of this is aptly enough provided by Sade’s addition of a rape scene
Frappier-Mazur, Sade et l’écriture de l’orgie (Paris: Nathan université, 1991), 91. The footnote in question reads: “Toutes les personnes qui ont quelque penchant au crime voient
leur portrait dans ce paragraphe; qu’elles profitent donc soigneusement de tout ce qui
précède, et de tout ce qui suit, sur la manière de vivre délicieusement dans la genre de
vie pour lequel les a créées la nature, et qu’elles se persuadent que la main qui donne ces
avis a l’expérience pour elle” (Œuvres, 3:752).
Frappier-Mazur describes the passage only within the immediate context of the Histoire de
Juliette . Among the other notable critical discussions of this passage are those in Roland
Barthes, Sade, Fourier, Loyola (Paris: Seuil, 1971), 167–68; Marcel Hénaff, L’Invention du
corps libertin (Paris: Presses universitaires de France, 1978), 102–11; and Annie Le Brun,
Soudain un bloc d’abîme, Sade (Paris: Pauvert, 1986), 300–2.
Barthes argues that in “l’écriture sadienne la correction n’est jamais une rature, elle n’est
pas castratrice, mais seulement augmentative” (168).
The Histoire de Juliette contains some of the more extreme examples of this creation of
new gaps in the palimpsest when Noirceuil is revealed as the murderer of the parents of
Justine and Juliette (Œuvres, 3:310). There is a further twist when the Histoire de Juliette
rewrites the parentage of the two sisters, transforming them into the products of an affair.
Bernole, their real father, is introduced only to be seduced and murdered by Juliette
(Œuvres, 3:594–602).
to the Bressac episode of the palimpsest. The calculated escalation
that Sade seems so carefully to observe up to this point is abandoned
here as Bressac’s rape of his mother is inserted as an isolated episode
that reduces the impact of his matricide a few pages later. In Justine,
Bressac’s anti-religious diatribe is followed by a pause (“Il y avait
quatre ans que j’étais dans cette maison” [J, 187]) as the buildup to
the episode’s climax, his matricide and savage assault of the heroine,
begins. In La Nouvelle Justine , Bressac’s rape is inserted shortly after
a now expanded tirade, but returns to the slightly amended thread
of Justine’s narrative in the following chapter (“Il y avait deux ans
que Justine était dans cette maison” [NJ, 499]). The narrative then
proceeds as if no rape had taken place—it is a crisis with no aftermath,
no repercussions in the ensuing narrative.27 Thus, when Mme de
Bressac learns from Justine that her son is preparing to commit an
atrocity against her, she assumes, as she did in Justine, that “il ne
s’agissait ici que de quelques extravagances ordinaires à son fils”
(NJ, 512). The earlier rape is irreconcilable with the “extravagances
ordinaires” that La Nouvelle Justine inherits from Justine , as is Mme
de Bressac’s disbelief that her son could be capable of such a crime
against her. The wound opened in the narrative of La Nouvelle Justine
by the inserted rape scene is not healed by its careful integration,
but, untended, leaves a visible scar.
Although La Nouvelle Justine appears at first to sew up the loose
threads of Les Infortunes and Justine , closer inspection reveals that
this process is not limited to filling in a mystically non-textual space
in the text but writing over the text itself. It is thus not the case
that in La Nouvelle Justine we find out what “really” happened to
Mme de Bressac and Rosalie in Justine . Sade does not exploit the
third-person voice to reveal all that Justine, as a first-person witness
obliged to leave these characters behind, could not tell the reader
in an earlier version. In La Nouvelle Justine , the conclusions to the
Bressac and Rodin episodes are rewritten, and place Justine as a
witness to the murder of both Mme de Bressac and Rosalie. Even
though her services as a narrator are not required, her services as
a witness continue to provide a focus to the narrative. When Henri
Coulet, expressing a preference for Les Infortunes in his survey of
In this respect it resembles its heroine, whose remarkable powers of recovery are repeatedly called upon to erase the traces of her former torturers from her body.
the Justine palimpsest, complains that Justine “n’est qu’une victime
entre les autres”28 in La Nouvelle Justine , he fails to take into account
her crucial double role: Justine is both focalizer and focalized on
numerous occasions throughout the novel, a seeing subject as well
as a watched object.29 She may be deprived of her voice, but her eyes
and ears continue to determine a significant proportion of what the
reader of La Nouvelle Justine is allowed to see and hear. In a scene that
parallels the author’s elimination of Justine’s storytelling function,
but his retention of her as a focalizer, Rosalie confides in her new
ally but promises her to secrecy when she reveals an opportunity for
eavesdropping upon her father:
“On peut tout observer du cabinet de notre chambre, voisin de ses expéditions;
rendons-nous-y sans bruit; et garde-toi surtout de jamais ouvrir la bouche de
tout ce que je te dis et de tout ce que je te fais voir” [...] elle suit les pas de
Rosalie, qui la place entre près d’une cloison assez mal jointe pour laisser,
entre les planches qui la forment, un jour suffisant à distinguer et à entendre
tout ce qui se dit et tout ce qui se fait dans la chambre voisine. (NJ, 524).
The narrator then explicitly limits his description to Justine’s
experience of the scene unfolding in the next room: “Nous allons
rendre le compte le plus exact de tout ce qu’ils se disent, du moment
où Justine put les entendre” (NJ, 524). While Justine is no longer
the narrator, she is retained as the mediating point of view for the
reader. Similarly, when Bressac leads Justine home following their
initial encounter, the change effected by the transition from firstto third-person voice is minimal. The heroine in Justine tells her
audience, “Jasmin et son maître causaient bas ensemble, et je les
suivais humblement sans mot dire” (J, 178),30 but the narrator of
La Nouvelle Justine states simply, “Jasmin et son maître causaient bas
ensemble; Justine les suivait humblement” (NJ, 472).
Whereas the reader here is no wiser than Justine as to the exchange
between Bressac and his servant, this is not the case throughout La
Coulet, “La Vie intérieure dans Justine ,” in Le Marquis de Sade (Paris: Armand Colin,
1968), 93.
Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, following Genette, states that “The subject (the ‘focalizer’) is
the agent whose perception orients the presentation, whereas the object (the ‘focalized’)
is what the focalizer perceives.” Rimmon-Kenan, Narrative Fiction: Contemporary Poetics
(London and New York: Methuen, 1983), 74. See also Genette, Figures III (Paris: Seuil,
1972); and Mieke Bal, Narratologie: Essais sur la signification narrative dans quatre romans
modernes (Paris: Klinksieck, 1977).
The equivalent passage in Les Infortunes is virtually identical (I, 28).
Nouvelle Justine . On several occasions Justine resembles the unwitting
victim of a candid camera show, as the implied author and reader
share a joke at her expense. Perhaps the most striking of these
moments is her interview with Dom Sévérino. In the equivalent
episode in Justine, she notices the monk’s interest is sexual rather
than charitable, but not quickly enough; in the latter, she is no longer
required as a witness:
quelques mouvements, quelques paroles le trahirent pourtant: hélas, ce ne fut
qu’après, que j’y réfléchis mieux; quand je fus plus calme sur cet événement,
il me fut impossible de ne pas me souvenir que le moine s’était plusieurs fois
permis sur lui-même plusieurs gestes qui prouvaient que la passion entrait
pour beaucoup dans les demandes qu’il me faisait. (J, 227)
Alors arriva dans l’église, par le chœur, un jeune garçon de quinze ans, de la
plus jolie figure du monde, et vêtu d’une manière si indécente, que Justine en
eût conçu quelque soupçon, si elle l’eût observé [...] si Justine eût été moins
aveugle, aux mouvements du père, à ses soupirs entrecoupés, au bruit assez
violent qu’il fit en courbant le jeune homme pour l’enculer, assurément elle
eût cessé d’être dupe. (NJ, 594)
The difficulty in the former passage is evident, as the first-person
narrator is required to narrate an event without being wholly
aware of it. Justine sees Sévérino masturbate, but only registers this
retrospectively in order to make her entrance to the monastery appear
credible. A gap is thus created in her consciousness, represented
by quelques mouvements, then filled after the event by plusieurs gestes.
The passage from La Nouvelle Justine fills the same gap in a different
way, as masturbation gives way to concealed sodomy, and in so doing
dramatically rewrites the original scene. Justine now provides a form
of anti-focalizer, as the emphasis of the narrative shifts from what she
saw to what she should have seen. The implausibility of her delayed
perceptual decoding in Justine is pushed to a farcical extreme in La
Nouvelle Justine , as Justine’s failure to notice Sévérino having sex with
a boy is followed by her failure to notice his sexual assault on her own
body as she offers penitence in the following scene: “Justine n’entend
rien, ne voit rien, et se prosterne [...] son esprit était tellement élevé
vers les choses célestes, que le bourreau l’eût déchirée, sans qu’elle eût
seulement osé s’en plaindre” (NJ, 596). The emphasis is once again
upon the failure of Justine’s ability to bear witness, as the narrative
abandons her as a focalizer in order to retain her as the focalized
object of the narrative. By drawing attention to the limitations of
Justine’s powers of perception, the narrator of La Nouvelle Justine
implies that Justine’s view of the world is compromised in a very
basic manner by the problems she has viewing at all. The failure of
her ideological position is thus attributed, according to a materialist
logic, to a physical cause—because she cannot process what she sees,
she cannot understand the world as it really is. This inability, the
narrative suggests, is why she cannot learn from her experiences.
Shlomith Rimmon-Kenan, in her study of narrative poetics,
expresses reasonable concern at the limiting “optical-photographic
connotations” of such terms as “perspective,” “point of view,” and
indeed “focalization,” and argues instead for this “purely visual sense
... to be broadened to include cognitive, emotive and ideological
orientation.”31 There are, however, good reasons in the case of the
Justine palimpsest for limiting the sense of focalization precisely
to its visual aspect. In La Nouvelle Justine , for example, it is entirely
appropriate to limit the concepts of point of view and focalization to
their optical or photographic connotations, for the reader sees what
Justine does but not as she does. At certain moments, she captures
the world in a way that recalls a camera rather than a human agent, as
she relays images without being able to invest them with meaning.32
It is thus not simply when she is focalized that she is reduced to an
object, but also at times when she is the focalizer. While the Justine
narrating Les Infortunes and Justine may have just about enough
psychological credibility to constitute a speaking subject, the Justine
focalizing La Nouvelle Justine is often reduced to a seeing object. She
possesses the perceptual but not the psychological or cognitive facets
that Rimmon-Kenan attributes to the figure of the focalizer.33 On
occasion, she is even deprived of her perceptual facet, as her temporal
and spatial situation provides no more than an approximate marker
for the insertion of the narrator’s own focalization. Thus, when
Justine spends her first night in Sainte-Marie-des-Bois, the narrator
seizes the opportunity to provide a more complete picture than the
heroine’s limited perceptions could offer: “Continuons de peindre
à grands traits: Justine se repose; les moines soupent; nous avons
Rimmon-Kenan, 71.
Compare Suzanne’s descriptions of lesbianism throughout Diderot’s La Religieuse (1796).
Rimmon-Kenan, 79–81.
le temps de finir quelques tableaux” (NJ, 603).34 Soon after, when
Omphale briefs Justine on their directrice , Victorine, the narrator
substitutes his own portrait: “Profitons du moment où Omphale met
Justine au fait du caractère et de la figure et cette directrice, pour
la peindre nous-mêmes au lecteur” (NJ, 632). The narrative thus
respects the timing of the portrait offered by Omphale to Justine,
but not the portrait itself.
The narrator of La Nouvelle Justine, in exchanging his own focalization for that of Justine, makes explicit processes that remain
implicit throughout the earlier versions, as Justine appears to see
with the eyes of a libertine. The portrait of Mme de Gernande in
Justine , a passage that attracts Coulet’s attention, demonstrates
these processes clearly:
Mme de Gernande, âgée de dix-neuf ans et demi, avait la plus belle taille,
la plus noble, la plus majestueuse qu’il fût possible de voir, pas un de ces
gestes, pas un de ses mouvements qui ne fût une grâce, pas un de ces regards
qui ne fût un sentiment: ses yeux étaient du plus beau noir, quoiqu’elle fût
blonde, rien n’égalait leur expression, mais une sorte de langueur, suite de ses
infortunes, en en adoucissant l’éclat, les rendait mille fois plus intéressants;
elle avait la peau très blanche, et les plus beaux cheveux, la bouche très petite,
trop peut-être, j’eusse été peu surprise qu’on lui eût trouvé ce défaut [...]
Ses bras, sa gorge, sa croupe, étaient d’un éclat ... d’une rondeur faits pour
servir de modèle aux artistes; une mousse légère et noire couvrait le temple
de Vénus, soutenu par deux cuisses moulées; et ce qui m’étonna, malgré la
légèreté de la taille de la comtesse, malgré ses malheurs, rien n’altérait son
embonpoint: ses fesses rondes et potelées étaient aussi charnues, aussi grasses,
aussi fermes, que si sa taille eût été plus marquée et qu’elle eût toujours vécu
au sein du bonheur. Il y avait pourtant sur tout cela d’affreux vestiges du
libertinage de son époux, mais, je le répète, rien d’altéré ... l’image d’un beau
lys où l’abeille a fait quelques tâches. (J, 294)
As Coulet observes, “Justine peint les personnages, Mme de Gernande
par exemple, tels que les libertins les voient, non pas tels qu’elle a
The same device is employed upon Justine’s arrival in Bandole’s chateau: “Pendant que
[...] cette pauvre créature cherche à trouver un peu de repos au milieu des nouvelles
horreurs qui l’environnent, développons ce qu’il faut qu’on sache de cette aventure,
pour y prendre un peu d’intérêt” (NJ, 573). What is most striking about this self-conscious
metalepsis is that it suggests another parallel with the early modern comic novel. In Jacques
le fataliste et son maître , Diderot’s narrator also takes advantage of sleeping characters:
“Tandis que Jaques et son maitre reposent, je vais m’acquitter de ma promesse, par le
récit de l’homme de la prison, qui raclait de la basse, ou plutôt de son camarade, le sieur
Gousse.” Diderot, Jaques le fataliste et son maitre, ed. Simone Lecointre and Jean Le Galliot
(Paris: Droz, 1976), 120.
pu les voir.”35 Although Justine does provide the point of view in a
strictly visual sense here, as Coulet suggests, the cognitive aspect of
the focalization implies a libertine perspective. The reader has the
impression of a mask slipping, as the initially sentimental language of
the narrator’s portrait soon slides into the more eroticized language of
the implied author. The transition is signalled by the libertine attention
to detail in the curiously detached focalization on the subject’s mouth,
although this coolness soon gives way to an increasingly heated tone
signalled by the use of both ellipsis and the sexual emphasis in the
physical description of this “figure enchanteresse.” La Nouvelle
Justine reproduces the same portrait with only one or two minor (yet
predictable) deviations,36 but the transition from one focalizer to
another explicitly takes place before the portrait is allowed to begin:
“c’est l’instant où elles s’observent, où elles s’examinent toutes deux,
que nous allons choisir pour donner à nos lecteurs une idée de cette
femme intéressante” (NJ, 859); we see Mme de Gernande when Justine
sees her, but not as she sees her.37
In episodes that have direct precedents in Les Infortunes and Justine ,
there are occasions when the narrator of La Nouvelle Justine seems to
forget that he is not limited by Justine’s own sense of pudeur. Justine
retains her focalizing role for the scene that opens the Bressac section
of the narrative, as she witnesses Bressac and his servant Jasmin
having sex in a thicket. The earlier first-person accounts of the scene
provide the model for the third-person account of La Nouvelle Justine ,
as the scene is anchored in the protagonist’s sensory experience:
“elle a pourtant le courage de prêter l’oreille,” and that “aucun de
leurs propos, aucun de leurs mouvements ne peut lui échapper” (NJ,
468). While Justine therefore offers an unrestricted view of the sex
scene unfolding before her, the narrator seems inhibited at first by
the depth of her imprint on the scene, as if she were still its narrator,
not just its focalizer. He seems about to cut short his narration of the
scene only to think again:
Coulet, 93.
The “temple de Vénus” becomes “le plus joli con du monde,” while “ses fesses” becomes
“son cul” (NJ, 859).
This is the focalizing equivalent of the narratorial hijacking that takes place on the aforementioned occasion when the narrator replaces Omphale’s portrait of Célestine with his
own. Once again this self-conscious procedure is reminiscent of the tradition of comic
fiction: in Scarron’s Roman comique , a story told by the character Ragotin is stolen by the
narrator: “Ce n’est donc pas Ragotin qui parle, c’est moy.” Scarron, Roman comique, in
Romanciers du XVIIe siècle, ed. Antoine Adam (Paris: Gallimard, 1958), 552.
La scène est longue ... scandaleuse, remplie d’épisodes ... entremêlée de
luxures et de saletés bien faites pour scandaliser celle qui gémit encore
d’outrages à peu près semblables. Mais quelles étaient ces infamies? Nous
voyons d’ici quelques lecteurs, plus curieux de ces obscénités que des détails
vertueux de l’intéressante Justine, nous supplier de leur dévoiler ces horreurs:
eh bien, nous leur dirons, pour les satisfaire, que le jeune maître, nullement
effrayé du dard monstrueux dont on le menace, l’excite, le couvre de baisers,
s’en saisit, s’en pénètre, se pâme, en l’introduisant dans son cul. (NJ, 468–69)
In a scene that explicitly engages with its earlier counterpart in
Justine , the narrator is apparently led into further exposition by his
readers, and thus offers a textual equivalent to Justine’s narratorial
submission to the wishes of Corville. The unveiling of the libertine
readership thus parallels the unveiling of the narrator as a libertine
voice in La Nouvelle Justine .
While this Bressac episode suggests that the third-person narration of La Nouvelle Justine carries a trace of the first-person narration
of its precedents, the description of Mme de Gernande suggests a
converse influence, as the mask of the female first-person voice slips
to reveal an ur-third-person maleness in its focalization of its subject.
The illustrator of the first edition of La Nouvelle Justine makes a
focalizing slip of his own, when he depicts the aforementioned scene
in which Justine eavesdrops upon Rodin’s orgy. In this engraving
(NJ, 527), Justine has a smile on her face, as if no distinction were
necessary, or tenable perhaps, between the virtuous focalizer and the
libertine narrator.
In contrast to the engraver’s graphic (con)fusion of focalizer
and narrator, the text of La Nouvelle Justine multiplies its focalizers,
although Justine remains pre-eminent among these. As we have
already seen, the narrative repeatedly creates situations in which
Justine is either compromised or rendered entirely unavailable
as a focalizer. The freedom of perspective offered by third-person
narration is apparently exploited with initial reluctance on such
occasions, as if the narrator were left with no choice but to resort to
another point of view. Not until the appearance of Saint-Florent, in
the third chapter of La Nouvelle Justine , is the reader given more than
a cursory insight into the thought processes of another character.
When Justine offers him a chance to escape from Cœur-de-fer and
his brigands, the narrator switches focalizer in order to add to the
sense of impending danger faced by Justine: “On rendrait mal l’état
dans lequel se trouvait Saint-Florent” (NJ, 461) begins the narrator,
as if Saint-Florent’s thoughts were a far more daunting prospect to
transcribe than those of Justine. The reason for the honour conferred
on Saint-Florent becomes clear when he renders Justine unconscious
with “un vigoureux coup de canne, qui l’étend sans connaissance
aux pieds d’un arbre” (NJ, 465). Justine’s loss of consciousness,
reflected in a divine sensory failure (“Les dieux furent sourds” [NJ,
465]), occurs immediately prior to her rape, leaving her unable to
focalize what is both the defining and undefining moment of her
loss of virginity—undefining because it constitutes the removal of
the physiological sign of her virtue. In Justine , tied to its focalizing
and narrating heroine, this apparent gap in the text can only be
filled by a second encounter with Saint-Florent, who later reveals to
Justine what he did to her (J, 312–13).
Although Sade deliberately misleads his readership as to the order
in which his texts are composed, those who do arrive at La Nouvelle
Justine having read previous incarnations of the palimpsest may well
feel that, of the three texts, it is the most consistent. The change
in narratorial voice and an uncompromising ending almost entirely
erase the tension that exists in both Les Infortunes and Justine
between the ostensibly moralizing frame and the “immoralizing”
narrative that it is ostensibly designed to contain. While the narrator
of the opening of Les Infortunes warns the reader not to listen to the
“sophismes dangereux” (I, 4) of the libertines, and his counterpart
in Justine apologizes for them (“nous demandons au lecteur de
l’indulgence pour les systèmes erronés qui sont placés dans la
bouche de plusieurs de nos personnages” [J, 133]), the equivalent
point in La Nouvelle Justine claims to strip away the moral disguise:
“C’est, nous ne le déguisons plus, pour appuyer ces systèmes, que
nous allons donner au public l’histoire de la vertueuse Justine”
(NJ, 396; emphasis added). The clear suggestion is that Justine , and
by implication, Les Infortunes, are disguised versions of this true
original—the veracity of which is literally revealed in capital letters
as the work of an “homme de lettres, assez philosophe pour dire
le VRAI” (NJ, 396). Nevertheless, the use of plus (as opposed to pas)
here, in positioning La Nouvelle Justine in relation to an antecedent,
identifies the implied reader as the former reader of Justine , and
thereby undermines its very assertion of textual autonomy. In so
doing, it offers a persuasive argument for reading each version of
the Justine story against the others, and focusing on the palimpsest
rather than the single text. Once again, a palimpsestic approach
offers some insight into the limits upon the nakedness of the truth
offered in La Nouvelle Justine , as another veil survives the transition
from the earlier Justine : although the authorial voice of the opening
pages of La Nouvelle Justine no longer maintains the moral pretences
of his precedents, the editorial voice of the Avis de l’éditeur cited
above retains the vestiges of the ostensibly moral position occupied
by his counterpart in the equivalent Avis in Justine . The anti-libertine
frame, an (editorial) outer shell without its (authorial) inner casing,
weakened and heavily loaded with irony, has not entirely evaporated:
“il n’y a que les sots qui se scandalisent; la véritable vertu ne s’effraie
ni ne s’alarme jamais des peintures du vice, elle n’y trouve qu’un
motif de plus à la marche sacrée qu’elle s’impose. On criera peut-être
contre cet ouvrage; mais qui criera? ce seront les libertins, comme
autrefois les hypocrites contre le Tartuffe ” (NJ, 393).38
While the chronology of composition given by the éditeur of La
Nouvelle Justine may be false, its positing of La Nouvelle Justine as a
point of origin in some respects seems credible. The order of reading
creates its own order of composition, and the reader turning (or
returning) to Justine after La Nouvelle Justine is likely to feel that
it does read like the sanitized extract suggested in the Avis of the
latter. A reading of Les Infortunes that followed either Justine or La
Nouvelle Justine will produce a similar reversal in the reader’s sense
of the sequence that is not reducible to explanation by the primacy
effect alone. If we accept that Les Infortunes and Justine can seem like
expurgated versions of a text that has yet to come into existence at
the time they were written, then La Nouvelle Justine, not Les Infortunes,
would come closest to constituting the urtext of the palimpsest.39
It is two steps closer to its origin and telos, its source and ideal—a
As Delon notes, the comparison with Tartuffe has a precedent in the Dédicace to Justine :
“Le procès du Tartufe fut fait par des bigots; celui de Justine sera l’ouvrage des libertines”
(J, 129).
Coulet suggests something like this position when he argues, “Nous pouvons comparer,
dans ces trois versions, trois expressions d’un sadisme qui, dès la première version est
impliqué dans sa totalité, mais qui devient de plus en plus organisé et systématique dans
la seconde et la troisième version” (89).
hypothetical Justine with an infinite number of “Nouvelle ”s before it
(or Nouvelle n Justine). Each successive version of Justine’s story goes
further than the last, and in aiming to complete its predecessor also
aims to incomplete it, to create by its own amplification the impression
of an incomplete original. Even if the general reader will inevitably
continue to choose one of these texts over its sibling rivals, no critical
reading of any of the three versions of Justine’s story could ever be
complete without its being read with and against the others.
Queen Mary, University of London

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