Angry About Literature: Yes, We Must Read de Sade (Part 3 of 3)
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.
I would not blame you if you had forgotten that you signed up to my newsletter, Angry About Literature. Life, as it tends to, intervened between me and literature for a little while. But we're back. Welcome to the third, and I swear, I promise, really this time, final installment discussing de Sade's 120 Days of Sodom.
Content warning murder, stuff with piss, torture, current events.
It's been a while and you might want to refresh your memory by re-reading Must We Read de Sade? (Part 1) and Must We Read de Sade? (Part 2 of 3 (I'm so sorry)).
Shortly after I started reading 120 Days of Sodom, the infamous and controversial Steele Dossier, also known as the Piss Dossier, was published in full by Buzzfeed. The dossier alleges widespread improprieties, crimes, and corruption perpetrated by Donald J. Trump. Most amusingly, the dossier alleges that during one of his visits to Russia, Trump employed two prostitutes to urinate on a hotel bed where he believed President Obama to have once slept. Supposedly there is video. It was all very funny, in a grim way. This was before he took the reins of power and proceeded to personally, though metaphorically, piss all over every convention of propriety, honor, law, and sense. It seemed possible, even likely, that much of the dossier was unsubstantiated rumor. Then, you might recall, various people associated with the dossier began to disappear and occasionally die under odd circumstances. The Piss Dossier keeps coming back into the news. Although it’s taken me literally months to write this issue of the newsletter, as I started when the Piss Dossier came back into the news when US intelligence was able to substantiate some of its claims, it’s now, today, June 7, 2017, back in the news again with former FBI director, James Comey's prepared statement!
I'm not sure if de Sade would have considered the pissing prostitute constitute a simple passion, because the customer has no contact with the prostitutes and they merely defile an object, or a complex passion, because there are two prostitutes. It might even be a criminal passion because of the property damage, but probably not.
Now that some months have gone by and the visceral disgust I felt reading de Sade has passed, while meanwhile the political situation in the United States has become increasingly disgusting and shamelessly corrupt, I find I have to change my initial judgement about the necessity of reading de Sade. Yes, we must read de Sade.
For de Sade shows us how the rich and elite view the poor and plebeian: as mere objects. One of the most tiresome aspects of 120 Days of Sodom is the physically detailed but emotionally empty descriptions of sex acts and crimes. The description of sexual acts with corpses read no different than the descriptions of sexual acts with living humans. It made me realize I was so used to the objectification of women, that I hadn't noticed how objectifying these accounts were. It was only when the description of necrophilia came up that I realized it was no different. All people are objects to de Sade's libertines, corpses are essentially no different than living people. Rape isn’t even on the list of crimes enumerated in 120 Days of Sodom. To conceptualize rape, you must have a concept of the agency of the other. If every person is merely chattel to you, you can’t imagine them giving or withdrawing consent.
De Sade’s libertines achieve worldly power through their amorality, and when they achieve that power, they turn it towards evil. They feel completely entitled to act as they please by the virtue of having the power to do so. They consider themselves superior to those who have power and don’t use it for evil. Actually, it seems that in de Sade’s view, it’s impossible to be rich and powerful without being evil, and it’s only a question of whether you are hypocritical about it, exploiting and abusing the poor and less powerful while pretending to be virtuous, or doing it with unabashed gusto.
While the first two sections of 120 Days of Sodom, cataloguing what de Sade calls the simple passions and the complex passions, focus on acts we mostly would recognize as sex acts if extremely disgusting and degenerate ones, the third and fourth sections, which catalogue the criminal and murderous passions, start reading more like very short summaries of horror movies or criminal cases. Still, these things make sense to me as a modern reader. They follow what’s now a well-worn path of a movie serial killer’s perverse path to pleasure.
That’s not really where de Sade is relevant to modern life though. The perversions I found most intriguing were ones where the libertines took evil pleasure in what looked like simple economic exploitation. For example:
“...without the slightest exaggeration, I could enumerate above four hundred families reduced to beggardom, a state in which they’d not now be languishing had it not been for me.” “And,” said Curval, “I fancy you have profited from their ruin?” “Why yes, that has very frequently been the case, but I must also confess that often enough I have acted not to gain, but purely to undo, at the behest of that certain wickedness which almost always awakens the organs of lubricity in me; my prick positively jumps when I do evil, in evil I discover precisely what is needed to stimulate in me all of pleasure’s sensations, and I perform evil for that reason, for it alone, without any ulterior motive.”
They also took pleasure in perverting the rule of law, and didn’t distinguish between murder for pleasure and state sanctioned killing. They considered all killing murder, except instead of deploring it, took pleasure in it:
“When I was in Parliament I must have voted at least a hundred times to have some poor devil hanged; they were all innocent, you know, and I would never indulge in that little injustice without experiencing, deep within me, a most voluptuous titillation”
Finally, the libertines find it necessary for other people to be miserable so that they can be happy. It’s not enough for them to have personal pleasure. It must be in contrast to others’ misery:
“Wherever men may be found equal, and where these differences do not exist, happiness shall never exist either: it is the story of the man who only knows full well what health is worth after he has been ill.”
They simply cannot imagine happiness in an egalitarian state.
And there’s one more thing they, and de Sade, apparently can’t imagine, and that thing is one of the reasons why yes, we should read de Sade. Towards the end of 120 Days of Sodom , when the libertines begin to explore the murderous passions, they start to torture to death all of their human playthings, one by one. They even move beyond their previously established limits, and start killing off the kitchen assistants they had declared untouchable.
The enslaved children, the hired duennas, the hired fuckers, the hired kitchen servants, and the disfavored wives all can see their fellows tortured and see them disappearing and can draw their own conclusions from the pattern of story and action so far that they must be getting killed. There are only four libertines and they are not in great physical shape. They get drunk insensate at least every day. And yet, the victims never turn on them.
Yes, the libertines have bought off the villagers around the castle and have great worldly power, and the people they have enslaved or hired are relatively powerless. So it makes sense that the victims try to go along with all the awfulness as long as they hope they might get away with their lives, no matter how gruesome it all is. Yet when the choice is torture and certain death, or great risk, they still don’t rebel. They could kill the libertines, but they don’t.
Is it inconceivable to de Sade that this kind of rebellion could occur? That people could find common cause against their oppressors? 120 Days of Sodom was written before the French Revolution. The aristocrats, it seems, could not even imagine the kind of bloody uprising that the peasants were capable of, taking revenge for centuries of exploitation and abuse. And so de Sade could not imagine the victims turning on the libertines. But we can.