Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, had what would be one of the most coveted front-row seats in history, if tickets were sold for such things: in 1789, he was among the (seven) inmates freed when a revolutionary mob stormed the Bastille. One imagines the others were at least momentarily pleased to find themselves released. The Marquis, however, was crushed. The thoughtless mob had pulled him from his cell without giving him time to grab the manuscript for his novel, The 120 Days of Sodom. While the text (written on glued-together fragments of paper to evade the prison censor) was later located in the walls of the cell, it would not be published until the 20th century.

The Marquis never doubted his own stature as a literary genius, and this week the French government backed him up. The Guardian reports that government officials declared the original manuscript a national treasure and banned its export from France, just as it was about to go up on the block at the Aguttes auction house. The manuscript was part of a cache of historic documents owned by the French company Aristophil, which had amassed a massive collection of French literary and historical manuscripts before police identified it as a pyramid scheme two years ago and arrested its owner, Gérard Lhéritier, who was known for selling rare books at stupendous profits.

As an example of the Marquis’ doctrine of absolute freedom (four libertines lock themselves in a castle to engage in radical acts of sexual experimentation and extreme cruelty), The 120 Days of Sodom, more than two centuries later, retains all its powers of shock, titillation, horror, and wit. Also declared a national treasure and pulled from the auction was André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto.” One imagines Breton would be pleased. A great admirer of the Marquis, he praised him effusively throughout his life, writing in the “Second Surrealist Manifesto” of the “impeccable integrity of Sade’s life and thought, and the heroic need that was his to create an order of things which was not …dependent on everything which had come before him.”

Laila Pedro is a writer and scholar based in New York. She holds a PhD in French from the Graduate Center, CUNY, and is currently at work on a book tracing artistic connections between Cuba, France, and...