No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.
Were they even open?
My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.
Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)
This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:
No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!
Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not seeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.
Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.
Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.
Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.
So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?
Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”
This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.
But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.
Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and might have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.
However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?
You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.
In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”
Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.
But let’s return to de Sade.
What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.
Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.
It does not end well for most of them.
Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity. Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.
By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)
Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.
De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.
“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”
Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.
Marquis de Moralist
Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “…though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.”
There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes.
How does he make the leap from monster to moralist?
There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness.
This is where we must consider the Marquis.
He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes.
I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another.
To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim.
This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?”
This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “…there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.”
This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder.
As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.”
Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place.
“Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes.
The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.”
This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”
Voice of the Victim
Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself?
On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground.
“One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism.
Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “…de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.”
(Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.)
Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim.
“In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.”
Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.)
As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.”
Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.”
Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability.
“And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.”
De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work.
I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today.
“The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”