Michael's Reviews > The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings

The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings by Marquis de Sade
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Jun 11, 12

bookshelves: classics, left-hand-path, literary-studies, literature, philosophy, satire
Recommended to Michael by: Robert Anton Wilson
Recommended for: Radicals, libertines, philosophers
Read in January, 1992, read count: 1

Viewed as a critical introduction to a historically significant thinker, this is at least a four-star book. It places the Marquis within his literary, philosophical, and political context well, and gives several viewpoints (including his own) on his importance and originality. As a work of literature, the main work “The 120 Days of Sodom,” is probably one of the most difficult pieces of “narrative” (and I use that term loosely) to read that one could choose. In terms of enjoyment, I could probably only give it two stars – but, I didn’t necessarily read it for enjoyment.

I began this book in my last year of college, and finished it on my honeymoon, which took place partly in France (appropriately). It was a daunting volume to read “for pleasure” (meaning, not as an assignment) and foreboded the future of my reading habits. I had been introduced to the idea that de Sade was an important radical thinker by authors who tended to overlook his autocratic and anti-Nature views and uphold him as someone willing to go to extremes. It had also been suggested that he was perhaps the most accurate advocate for the kind of untrammeled capitalism that was ruining the world at the time – thus, he was presented both as hero and villain, somewhat uncritically.

In truth, he was neither, and both. From reading his own defenses of his work (which include disavowal of some of the most controversial works), one gets the impression of a man who was driven by forces he did not completely appreciate himself. It has always seemed to me that, for all of his attempts to break absolutely with the morality of his times, de Sade was still trapped by the trick of deciding that anything disapproved of by the morality of his times must, perforce, be a virtue. Thus, he winds up an anti-moralist, who celebrates all of evil without establishing a truly original ethical re-valuation.

The “120 Days” (which is the bulk of this volume) was to have been his master-work, but it was lost with the destruction of the Bastille. De Sade believed it had been destroyed forever, and his later writings were largely devoted to the task of reinventing it. It is the sort of thing a man with a lot of time on his hands would undertake – a more or less encyclopedic erotic fantasy, intended to cover every possible perversion. The basic plot is that of a group of four extremely debauched libertines holding a variety of victims hostage in a chateau and indulging themselves in sensuality, beginning with minor interests and building towards the most corrupt imaginable. It was not truly finished, although in outline form all 120 days had been covered.

From his description of the characters, one aspect of de Sade’s perspective becomes clear – beauty is bound up in innocence, and this beauty is lost as experience and indulgence are enjoyed. His libertines are described in the most disgusting manner possible, none of them could be remotely attractive, while the victims described as the most beautiful are virginal (and often, children). I see this as part of the holdover from Catholic morality – for some reason de Sade found it impossible to imagine a healthy sexuality which did not debilitate the indulger. As an interesting note, however, I found almost nothing in this book erotic when I read it as a younger man, while in preparing this review, I found several passages that stimulated me. Evidently I am now more “debauched” by de Sade’s definition, and perhaps a more receptive audience to his views than I was at the time.

Still, I cannot imagine anyone short of a psychopath who would not find something in this book objectionable and horrifying. That is really the point, I think. It is something of a trial to read, but it may be the sort of trial that allows one to understand one’s own sexuality and internalized morality more honestly. In that, it is perhaps a worthwhile undertaking, as in the process of coming to understand the concept of “sadism” in its original context.
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