White abstract glyphs on black background

Angry About Literature: Must We Read de Sade? (Part 2 of 3 (I'm so sorry))

120 Days of Sodom by Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade

by AK Krajewska

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 and welcome to the third installment of Angry About Literature. This week I will pick up where I left off in my discussion of the Marquis de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom.

Content warning (inclusive and not exhaustive): rape, murder, child rape, coprophilia, coprophagia, sexual content, blasphemy, extremely poor personal hygiene, child abuse, child abuse by priests, stuff with piss, torture.

Last time I spent most of the newsletter talking about how de Sade connects intertextually with other works of literature. Today I will write about how de Sade's ethics connect with world events.

Let me talk first a little about the structure and history of 120 Days of Sodom. If you know of this work, you probably know of it mostly as a perverse book of pornography or even erotica, or so a certain close interlocutor tells me. I thought everybody knows about de Sade mostly as philosophy first, but that's probably my own bias from reading so much French philosophy. But what is it like as a book?

First of all, it's very organized and second of all, it's unfinished. De Sade wrote 120 Days of Sodom while he was imprisoned in the Bastille during the reign of Louis XVI, which is right before the French Revolution, for those keeping track at home. He wrote it on a single long roll of paper, which he hid in his cell. At some point during his imprisonment, before he had a chance to finish it entirely, it was lost. In his lifetime, he assumed it had been destroyed. It was re-discovered much later and published for the first time in 1904.

120 Days of Sodom is incredibly ambitious and doesn't deliver on its promise because it's unfinished. (Like this newsletter. I'm sorry.) It's basically a first draft, complete with Notes to Self from the author. The first section introduces our main characters, the four libertines and their wives. After describing the libertines' physical characteristics, which mostly means the size of their penises, their approach to hygiene (not washing is apparently a fetish), the state of their assholes (dirty, worn out, with hemorrhoids, etc) it gives a couple of particular notes on their history of crimes against nature and humanity. They are complete shitheels of human beings. Then it describes their playthings for the holiday in hell they are about to take: four wives, four hired old and ugly women, four madames who are the story tellers, eight hired "fuckers" who are men hired to sodomize the libertines during their holiday (and who are hired based on the sizes of their penises, sometimes hilariously referred to as "engines"), eight kidnapped early teenage girls, and eight kidnapped early teenage boys. Frankly it's a bit like reading the biographies of porn actors, except for the children. That part is just sort of well, scandalous. Maybe it's more scandalous to a modern reader than it would have been in de Sade's time. I don't know enough about just-pre-Enlightenment ethics to know.

The narrator addresses us, the audience, directly, and warns us multiple times that things are about to get disgusting and scandalous: "having said this much, I advise the overmodest to lay my book aside at once if he would not be scandalized." Things do get disgusting and scandalous, but what's sort of funny is they are pretty bad even before he makes the warning. He warns us again and again throughout the book, because it's structured so that the acts described are supposed to get worse as it goes on. Only, the thing is, I don't think the modern reader has the same notion of what's most horrible.

Then, helpfully, the narrator provides an index of the dramatis personae that the reader can easily refer to in future lest they get lost. And frankly, it's needed. De Sade is not good at painting a picture of the characters, interior or exterior, so it's hard to keep track of who is who, most of the time. As far as I can tell, de Sade either didn't have a concept of the interior existence of any human being beside himself, or else deliberately wrote the characters as flat actors with shallow personalities. I could excuse him a bit by saying interiority had not yet been invented, but then I cast my mind around for contemporaneous and earlier examples of works describing the inner lives of characters, and of course there is the Shakespeare with the self-revealing soliloquies, and even long before that, St Augustine's Confessions, which is one long journey through the inner life. Maybe de Sade rejected inner life along with God and the Soul.

But back to the structure of the novel. After the introductory remarks, the index of characters, and a little bit of a description on how they went about kidnapping and selecting their child sex slaves, the story begins.

The four libertines -- and I have to pause here because de Sade uses that word so freaking much -- libertines seems to mean amoral hedonists who can only find true pleasure in extremes of cruelty. Which is weird, because I live in San Francisco, surrounded by irreligious hedonists and most of them find pleasure in things like yoga, brunch, skiing, hugging puppies, and hackathons. That's not to say that a life dedicated to selfish pleasure in one of the most expensive places in the world doesn't have something of implicit evil by the principle of sinning by omission. But I would posit there is a difference in passively spending all your money on selfish pleasure instead of helping others, and affirmatively kidnapping and torturing homeless children. De Sade would probably disagree. This is where I suppose I'm getting ahead of myself with the morality of de Sade.

Anyway the four libertines, worn out by a life of drunkenness, gluttony, sodomy, coprophagia, incest, murder for fun and profit, and so on, require a new and sharper pleasure to titillate their senses. There is an idea here, which still holds currency, that sexual perversion must constantly escalate in order to still provide pleasure. I don't know if it originates with de Sade, but he's a major proponent of it, as I will demonstrate once I get past all my asides. I'm sorry it will be a long newsletter because I have so much to say. In his book, Sensuous Magic: A Guide for Adventurous Lovers, about contemporary BDSM practice, Patrick Califia discusses the common misapprehension (which as I say perhaps starts with de Sade) that participants in sexual paraphilias require a constant escalation and by the time they are old perverts will be doing the most extreme horrific things possible. Not so in his broad experience, or those of other long time players, says Califia. In the beginning exploratory period of a young pervert's life that may be so, as they experiment with various new sexual practices, the world of kink having opened to them like a treasure house of pleasure. But in the long run, they find what they like, and then they settle on it, and keep doing it until they are too infirm to fuck, or whatever it is that they like. Which point is anybody's guess, as the brilliant experimental performance artist Frank Moore (you can find recordings and I warn you they are generally NSFW) demonstrated with his entire life and corpus of work. But de Sade couldn't imagine a life where a person could freely and with consenting partners indulge in various sex acts with no serious societal repercussions, exhaust the possibilities, find what they like, and then do it forever. I don't think he really had a concept of sexual consent. He doesn't even list rape as one of the crimes from which someone might take pleasure. And fundamentally de Sade claimed that it was exactly the feeling of breaking a law or taboo that was the cause of pleasure, not anything inherent to the act. As he has one of his libertines philosophize:

"The man who is addressing you at this very instant has owed spasms to stealing, murdering, committing arson, and he is perfectly sure that it is not the object of libertine intentions which fires us, but the idea of evil, and that consequently it is thanks only to evil and only in the name of evil one stiffens, not thanks to the object, and were this object to be divested of the power to cause us to do evil, our prick would droop, ’twould interest us no more.”

Yet, considering just how much time de Sade spends in 120 Days of Sodom describing coprophagia, I think it was a key fetish to him, at least in his imagination, giving lie to the idea that it's only in breaking the taboo, and in breaking increasingly more serious taboos, that pleasure lies. There is a lot of of shit eating in 120 Days of Sodom, especially the first quatrain. Like holy shit, so much. I bet it's the number one reason people put down the book. Variations on the theme are explored in exacting detail and then in later included again as asides incorporated into other passions.

Alright, so these four libertines, who take pleasure primarily in breaking increasingly more serious taboos, have come up with a scheme to waken their deadened sense of pleasure. To wit, they have secured a castle in some remote location, and have hired, kidnapped, or married a variety of men and women, and they are going to live there all winter and very systematically enjoy themselves.

First we start with a set of strict bylaws by which they will conduct themselves. Because of course they have to have bylaws. This is the Enlightenment. Everything is organized, systems are complete, and even for breaking the laws of Man and Nature, one must have rules. Such as "The company shall rise every day at ten o’clock in the morning."

Now we finally come to what's supposed to be the bulk of the book, but isn't really, because de Sade spent so much time writing the introductory matter and organizing his ideas, that he never got to really talk in detail about the really hardcore stuff. Frankly, not unlike my newsletter.

The libertines want to systematically explore all the passions, and to this end have separated them into four categories, enumerated all the possible passions within each category, and ranked them. They have broken up their days into a settled structure like monks in a monastery, except the structure is one of austere devotion to debauchery. They hired the four madames to every evening entertain them with stories, drawn from their own lives, that slowly unveil the passions. As the passions are spoken of in the stories, the liberties interrupt the stories and try them out themselves.

The passions are categorized as Simple Passions, Complex Passions, Criminal Passions, and Murderous Passions. I mentioned at the outset that 120 Days of Sodom is unfinished. De Sade only fully wrote the first quatrain, the Simple Passions. For the remaining passion types, we have only notes.

I'm not going to recapitulate all the various passions, because if you have the stomach for that sort of thing, you might as well go and read the book yourself. I will mention that de Sade seemed to have a really odd view of what's not a big deal and what's pretty hardcore. One of the earliest of the simple passions is a young girl hired to pee into the mouth of a monk. Much, much later on we have an account of a man who liked to sniff the sweaty armpits of red haired prostitutes. If I were ordering perversions I would use a rather different schema.

Here I have to pause to wonder: was de Sade deliberately laying out a ridiculous encyclopedic schema to make fun of his contemporaries like Diderot and his Encyclopédie, or did he really think his system made sense? Maybe there was a bit of both impulses. If you think of the various passions entirely from the point of view of the men who are experiencing them, and don't consider at all the experiences of the women and boys who are providing the experience, they sort of make more sense as ordered. Still, only sort of. Nonetheless, de Sade embarks on the great Enlightenment project of organizing every fucking thing, even if he has to awkwardly shove some things in to make it fit his system.

And I'm afraid that's all for this week. Tune in next week for more on murder, blasphemy, water sports, necrophilia, ethics and intertextuality.