Angry About Literature: Must We Read de Sade? (Part 1)
120 Days of Sodom by Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade
This article originally appeared in my newsletter, Angry About Literature, which ran from January 2017 to June 2017. I am reproducing it at rinsemiddlebliss so that more people can read it, and to keep the archive in my own space.
Hello friends. For this, the second installment of my newsletter, Angry About Literature, I will be discussing de Sade's infamous book, 120 Days of Sodom. In happier times, three weeks ago, I warned you that I would warn you if I were going to discuss disturbing material. Here we are then. Disturbing material is about to commence. I considered trying to write about de Sade obliquely so I could spare you, but first I don't think it's possible, and even to the extent it is possible, I think it would get in the way of discussing the material anyway.
A warning about the warning: you might think you're a sophisticated and jaded modern person and that you won't be bothered. Well, you might want to check yourself before you wreck yourself. One of de Sade's enduring charms is that he manages to offend us still, and while some of the things he discusses have become no longer shocking, others are still shocking, or maybe more shocking now than they would have been in his time because of our attitudes about personal hygiene. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
As it happens I've had to split this newsletter into two parts, and part one is not that objectionable, only mentioning in passing coprophagia. Part two will be worse.
The first question to ask about de Sade is why the hell even read him? I think for most people the answer is probably, maybe don't bother. Go ahead and read Simone de Beauvoir’s excellent long essay "Must We Burn Sade?" to learn about his place in philosophy. Read about Sade second hand from Camus in The Rebel. Read about him in Andrea Dworkin’s Pornography for a condemnation of not only Sade but everyone who accepted him into the literary canon. (It was only when I read Dworkin that I learned de Sade’s imagined crimes against women weren’t only imagined, which is the sort of thing people would often say to defend him from a free speech point of view. While his imagination outstripped his ability, he did really harm real women.)
I can only answer for myself that I felt I must read de Sade. And now that I have finished 120 Days of Sodom, which I wasn't even sure I'd be able to do, I know it was important for me to read him. The reasons I started and the reasons I finished are different. In 2016, there were three works of culture that steered me towards de Sade.
First, I read Ada Palmer's science fiction novel, Too Like the Lightning, which takes place in a future that's undergoing something of a revival of the Enlightenment. In Too Like the Lightning, Palmer has one of the characters explain that de Sade was satirizing certain elements of Enlightenment thought. As Simone de Beauvoir says in "Must We Burn Sade?" “Atheists and deists united in the worship of the new incarnation of the Supreme Good: Nature. They had no intention of forgoing the conveniences of a categorical, universal morality.” De Sade mocked morality and systems based on the assumption of a just Nature. In addition, one of the characters is named Donatien, after de Sade's full name: Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade. And, this is something that only became clear to me after finishing 120 Days of Sodom, the crimes of another of the characters seem to follow the systemic pattern of what Sade classifies as The Murderous Passions in the last quarter of Sodom.
Second, I read Samuel R. Delany’s Dhalgren (a book that took many attempts and that deserves its own newsletter issue) which describes a city where law and social conventions have broken down, and so have some laws of nature. In one of the wonderful philosophical conversations interspersed with graphic descriptions of sexual encounters (actually, now, as I write it, I realize - a very Sadian narrative structure) two characters are discussing the appropriate societal response to murder. Our hero opines that while killing another human being is wrong, punishing them for doing that, and especially having the state kill them for it, is absolutely wrong.
“I don’t believe in capital punishment period! I think if one person kills somebody else because he gets his rocks off, or he just wants to, that’s...well, maybe not right. But a bunch of people getting together and deciding to kill somebody else because it’s anything from right to expedient, is wrong!”
“Lord,” Lanya said again. “Donatien Alphonse François de --” (p 511)
If I hadn't just read Too Like the Lightning I wouldn't have known his interlocutor meant de Sade. And indeed although de Sade is full of murder for fun, he is philosophically opposed to state sponsored capital punishment for supposedly moral reasons.
Third, I watched The Handmaiden, a film directed by Chan-wook Park, an adaptation of Sarah Waters’ novel Fingersmith. If I were writing a newsletter about film, I'd write a whole issue about The Handmaiden, too. But as I am not, I will content myself by telling you about just a tiny bit of this really fantastic film. A major character in the Handmaiden is a male rare book collector and seller who specializes in pornography. He has trained his niece to dramatically read out loud from his obscene books to an audience of interested male buyers. Some of the books she reads appear to be de Sade. He's done more than that inspired by de Sade, and I won't really go into it. The Handmaiden is a refutation of de Sade, which I see even more clearly now that I have read him.
I've of course heard of de Sade in other contexts as well. I don't know where I first heard his name. I do know that I first tried to read one of his works, though I don't remember which, as a freshman in college. All I recall from that foray was extremely repetitive descriptions of improbably proportioned penises and coprophagia. Which I believe describes most of his works.
But it was these three works, which were also some of my favorite pieces of culture in 2016, Too Like the Lightning, Dhalgren, and the Handmaiden, which seemed to be in conversation with de Sade that made me think I needed to see the other side of the conversation.
There is a concept that books talk to each other, and I first learned about it in a book, Umberto Eco's The Name of the Rose. The academic term for the conversation is intertextuality. These conversations go on for centuries or even millennia. Writers today are still in conversation with texts from, for example, Ancient Greece, responding to the ideas and stories of Plato and Sophocles and Sappho.
And for some reason, in 2016 it seemed like everybody was talking about de Sade. These were my reasons for starting. They are not my reasons for finishing.
But I've been three weeks writing this newsletter and I've decided to split it into two rather than keep you waiting even longer. You will have to wait until the next installment to find out my reasons for finishing.