“Flee for your lives! Don’t look back, and don’t stop anywhere in the plain! Flee to the mountains or you will be swept away!” This is the stern command of the angel to Lot upon their escape from Sodom, the city of sin which was annihilated by God through fire from heaven. Lot’s wife disobeyed, curious to witness the spectacle of destruction behind her, and became a pillar of salt. Marquis de Sade, however, relished the fire, characteristic of the pyromaniac that he is. What better way to play with fire than reading the masterwork of the man whose name is the etymological root of the word sadism, one the words my pervert friend is fascinated in?
de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom is indeed a spectacle under fire by the moralists. Curiosity, or maybe titillation, pushed me to undertake the tortuous (I guess this is somewhat literal) task of reading this classic in PDF. Having finished the book and currently nursing an eye sore, I’ll give three adjectives for it: gruesome, nasty, delightfully morbid. The story revolves around four wealthy libertines who locked themselves in a castle to undertake different ‘experiments’ on pleasure. It was arranged quite haphazardly, with four prostitutes narrating their travails, the four ‘heroes’ (as the narrator described them) listening attentively with nefarious relish to their immoral life’s work. Practically the plot is very simple, the highlights were focused on the different creative ways to inflict pain upon the victims. They recruited men and women of the most beautiful sort, together with some of ugliest (oops..) most physically unfortunate individuals so as to contrast them to the former. Nasty, huh? Not quite, since the craziness escalates from then on as the book goes on.
de Sade’s fantasies pales even the most insane sex gimmicks you will ever see in bukkake-inspired Japanese porn sites. There are mutilated tongues, scalded skins while copulating, six-year-old child rape, mutilated breasts and other puke-inducing scenes that I never imagined to read in an 18th century piece of literature. Wow, the Tarantino films everyone complains about days films are less than child’s play compared to de Sade’s violence pornography.
The characters in the story are not the usual ‘libertines’ which we are accustomed to see in every art school today. They do not post pictures of them caressing a python in Facebook or dressing in outlandish costumes. They are plain elites, cowards with bright minds and sharp dicks. What makes de Sade’s characters scary is precisely their pedestrian façade, the normality in their gestures which masks their dark and wicked madness. It goes without saying that 120 Days of Sodom is candidly philosophical, similar to his Philosophy in the Bedroom which is relatively less twisted, and Justine, or the Misfortunes of Virtue (Madicatt has a review here). The book’s philosophy can be summed in the Duc’s monologue from the introduction:
“Oh, there are plenty of people,” the Duc used to observe, “who never misbehave save when passion spurs them to ill; later, the fire gone out of them, their now calm spirit peacefully returns to the path of virtue and, thus passing their life going from strife to error and from error to remorse, they end their days in such as way there is no telling just what role they have enacted on earth. Such persons,” he would continue, “must surely be miserable: forever drifting, continually undecided, their entire life is spent detesting in the morning what they did the evening before. Certain to repent the pleasures they taste, they take their delight in quaking, in such sort they become at once virtuous in crime and criminal in virtue…They [principles] have persuaded me that through vice alone is man capable of experiencing this moral and physical vibration which is the source of the most delicious voluptuousness; so I give myself over to vice…Thus nothing but the law stands in my way, but I deft the law, my gold and my prestige keep me well beyond reach of those vulgar instruments of repression which should be obeyed only upon the common sort
Before reading the book, I thought I would embark on another difficult 18th century text obscured by antediluvian language and obligatory formality. Thank God de Sade was indeed a libertine, who you might have guessed is someone who subverts against the pretentions of his time, so the narrator’s language is easier than I expected. The narration was very fluid, even poetic but sometimes didactic (maybe de Sades tries to show off his intellect to dispel the dismissive attacks of its critics that it is nothing but vulgar porn), and in many instances grimly sarcastic. There is morbid humor in de Sade’s language, a teasing and provocative style that seeks to expose the pretentious lifestyle and folly of many of his contemporaries. All in all, the book is trying to picture the extreme borders of vice and self-indulgence, the vain callousness of human desire. It seems to me that Fredric Jameson’s ‘waning of the affect’ cannot be limited as a singular symptom of postmodern experience, but as a general effect of the reckless and escalating satiation of stimuli. de Sade’s work transcended the boundaries of a society bound by hypocrisy and tried to illustrate the grim fascistic underside of humanity’s craving for contentment (Erich Fromm said something about this in his Escape from Freedom).
Though I really don’t buy de Sade’s libertinism (and Fromm’s anti-totalitarian analysis in the said book, for that matter), I still find 120 Days of Sodom a good read. Maybe it was a matter of taste, especially since I love gore and other things that make my stomach cringe. Probably also because I have a guilty fascination for self-obsessed idiots like de Sade who have shitty political views (John Lennon and his idealistic pacificism, Mishima and his obsession over theocratic feudalism, Liam Gallagher for his, well, i-dont-care attitude, Charlie Sheen, Kim Jong Il, Ozzy Osbourne, and so on.).
One thing I find disappointing is that the book is somewhat sketchy, with some of the scenes scantily described, almost in footnote detail, which of course can be attributed to the conditions de Sade is in (he wrote the story while inside the Bastille, the notorious prison fortress in France; having no proper paper to write, he used fragile material as paper in minute fonts). Nonetheless, if one is inflicted with the pitiful malady of porn-overdose, or if one wants to find a glimpse into the minds of intelligent but mad people who are hard to understand, or maybe just for the fun of it, I’d recommend 120 Days of Sodom to your reading list. So far I never heard of someone becoming a pillar of salt after reading de Sade, so don’t fret.
Pier Paolo Pasolini adapted the book into a film. Here is a fan-made trailer from Youtube:
Here’s the perfect soundtrack, hehe..