The 120 Days of Sodom
From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
The 120 Days of Sodom or the School of Freedoms (Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage) is a book written by the French writer Marquis de Sade in 1784. It relates the story of four wealthy men who enslaved 24 mostly teenaged victims and sexually tortured them while listening to stories told by old prostitutes.
Written in 1785, while at the Bastille, the book was not published until 1905. Due to its extreme sexual and violent nature, it remained banned in many countries for a long time. Salò, the film adaptation by Pasolini underwent a similar fate.
Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom in the space of thirty-seven days in 1784 while he was imprisoned in the Bastille. Being short of writing materials and fearing confiscation, he wrote it in tiny writing on a continuous, twelve-metre long roll of paper. When the Bastille was stormed and looted on July 14, 1789 during the height of the French Revolution, Sade believed the work was lost forever and later wrote that he "wept tears of blood" over its loss.
However, the long roll of paper on which it was written was later found hidden in his cell, having escaped the attentions of the looters. It was first published in 1904 by the Berlin psychiatrist Iwan Bloch in Neue Forschungen über den Marquis de Sade und seine Zeit. It was not until the latter half of the 20th century that it became more widely available in countries such as Britain, the USA and France.
The first publisher of the work, Dr. Bloch, regarded its thorough categorization of all manner of sexual fetishes as having "scientific importance...to doctors, jurists, and anthropologists." He equated it with Richard von Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. Feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote an essay titled Must We Burn Sade?, defending the 120 Days of Sodom when, in 1955, French authorities planned on destroying it and three other major works by Sade.
On the other hand, another feminist writer, Andrea Dworkin, condemned it as "vile pornography" and its author as the embodiment of misogyny, especially as the rape, tortures and murders are inflicted by male characters on victims who are mostly (but not exclusively) female.
Noted Sade scholar Alice Laborde has charged Dworkin with "intentionally misreading the satirico-novelistic elements of the text." Instead, Laborde advocates a view of '120 Days of Sodom' that stresses the signifying, as opposed to the symbolizing, function of Sadian language and person. The "misogynistic" elements of the text thus become, for Laborde, a method of both social critique and the re-invention of the French literary corpus. Sade's fiction thus instantiates a ritual by which history is transcended and "authenticité" regained. (Laborde, A.M. Sade romancier. 1974).
Camille Paglia considers Sade's work a "satirical response to Jean-Jacques Rousseau" in particular, and the Enlightenment concept of man's innate goodness in general. Much of the sexual violence in the book draws from the notorious historical cases of Gilles de Rais and Elizabeth Báthory.
The 120 Days Of Sodom has been described as a Gothic novel. It is set in a remote medieval castle, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, detached from the rest of the world and not set at any specific point in time (although it is implied at the start that the events in the story take place either during or shortly after the Thirty Years' War, which lasted from 1618 to 1648).
The novel takes place over five months, November to March. Four wealthy perverts lock themselves in a castle, the Château de Silling, along with a number of victims and accomplices. They intend on listening to various tales of depravity from four veteran prostitutes, which will inspire them to engage in similar activities with their victims.
It is not a complete novel. Only the first section is written in detail. After that, the remaining three parts are written as a draft, in note form, with Sade's footnotes to himself still present in most translations. Either at the outset, or during the writing of the work, Sade had evidently decided he would not be able to complete it in full and elected to write out the remaining three-quarters in brief and finish it later (he obviously did not get a chance).
The story does portray some black humor, and Sade seems almost lighthearted in his introduction, referring to the reader as "friend reader." In this introduction he contradicts himself, at one point insisting that one should not be horrified by the 600 passions outlined in the story because everybody has their own tastes, but at the same time going out of his way to warn the reader of the horrors that lay ahead, suggesting that the reader should have doubts about continuing. Consequently he glorifies as well as vilifies the four main protagonists, alternatingly declaring them freethinking heroes and debased villains, often in the same breath.
The four principal characters are incredibly wealthy men, who are libertine, incredibly ruthless, and "...lawless and without religion, whom crime amused, and whose only interest lay in his passions...and had nothing to obey but the imperious decrees of his perfidious lusts." It is no coincidence that they are authority figures in terms of their occupations. Sade despised religion and authority and in many of his works he enjoyed mocking them by portraying priests, bishops, judges and the like as sexual perverts and criminals. They are:
- The Duc de Blangis - aged fifty, an aristocrat who acquired his wealth by poisoning his mother for the purposes of inheritance, prescribing the same fate to his sister when she found out about his plot. Blangis is described as being tall, strongly built and highly sexually potent, although it is emphasised that he is a complete coward, and proud of it too.
- The Bishop - Blangis' brother. He is forty-five, a scrawny and weak man, "with a nasty mouth." He is passionate about anal sex and, even when having sex with women and girls, he refuses to have vaginal intercourse with them.
- The Président de Curval - aged sixty, a tall and lank man, "frightfully dirty about his body and attaching voluptuousness thereto." He is a judge and used to enjoy handing out death sentences to defendants he knew to be innocent.
- Durcet - aged 53, a banker described as short, pale and effeminate.
Their accomplices are:
- Four prostitutes, middle-aged women who will relate anecdotes of their depraved careers to inspire the four principal characters into similar acts of depravity.
- Eight studs (or 'fuckers') who are chosen solely on the basis of how big their penises are.
The victims are:
- The daughters of the four principal characters, whom they have been sexually abusing for years. All die with the exception of the Duc's daughter Julie, who is spared for becoming something of a libertine herself.
- Eight boys and eight girls aged from twelve to fifteen. All have been kidnapped and chosen because of their beauty. They are also all virgins, and the four libertines plan on deflowering them over the course of events.
- Four elderly women, chosen for their ugliness to stand in contrast to the children.
- Four of the eight aforementioned studs.
There are also several cooks and female servants, those in the latter category later being dragged into the proceedings.
As mentioned above, the novel is set out to a strict timetable. For each of the first four months, November to February, the prostitutes takes turns to tell five stories each day, relating to the fetishes of their most interesting clients, and thus totalling 150 stories for each month (in theory at least; Sade made a few mistakes as he was apparently unable to go back and review his work as he went along). These passions are separated into four categories - simple, complex, criminal and murderous - escalating in complexity and savagery.
- November; the simple passions - these anecdotes are the only ones written in detail. They are only considered 'simple' in terms of them not including actual sexual penetration. However, most people would not regard them as simple because the clients mentioned in the anecdotes indulge in activities many would find bizarre or disgusting, such as men who like to masturbate in the faces of seven-year-old girls, who drink urine or eat excrement. As they do throughout the story-telling sections, the four libertines - Blangis, the Bishop, Curval and Durcet - indulge in activities similar to those they've heard with the kidnapped children and their daughters.
- December; the complex passions - these anecdotes involve more extravagant perversions, such as men who vaginally rape female children, indulge in incest and flagellation. Tales of men who indulge in sacrilegious activities are also recounted, such as a man who enjoyed having sex with nuns whilst watching Mass being performed. (Like all his major characters, Sade was an atheist, and he himself indulged in an act of sacrilege when he paid a prostitute to trample on a crucifix, which led to one of his many arrests.) Sade was, however, well aware of the contradiction created by that of an atheist insulting a God he/she does not believe in, and this point is raised and discussed by the characters in a number of his works, although not this one. The female children are deflowered vaginally during the evening orgies with other elements of that month's stories - such as whipping - occasionally thrown in.
- January; the criminal passions - tales are told of perverts who indulge in criminal activities, albeit stopping short of murder. They include men who sodomize girls as young as three, men who prostitute their own daughters to other perverts and watch the proceedings, and others who mutilate women by tearing off fingers or burning them with red-hot pokers. During the month, the four libertines begin having anal sex with the sixteen male and female children, and these children, and the other victims, are treated more brutally as time goes on, with regular beatings and whippings.
- February; the murderous passions - the final 150 anecdotes are those involving murder. They include perverts who skin children alive, disembowel pregnant women, burn alive entire families and kill newborn babies in front of their mothers. The final tale is the only one since the simple passions of November written in detail. It features the 'Hell Libertine' who masturbates whilst watching fifteen teenage girls being simultaneously tortured to death. During this month, the libertines brutally kill three of the four daughters they have between them, along with four of the female children and two of the male ones. The murder of one of the girls, 15-year-old Augustine, is described in great detail, with the tortures she is subjected to including having flesh stripped from her limbs, her vagina being mutilated and her intestines being pulled out of her sliced-open belly and burned before her eyes.
- March - this is the shortest of the segments, Sade summarizing things even more by this final point in the novel. He lists the days on which the surviving children and many of the other characters are disposed of, although he does not give any details. Instead he leaves a footnote to himself pointing out his intention on detailing things more in a future revision.
It is perhaps significant that Sade was interested in the manner in which sexual fetishes are developed, as are his primary characters, who urge the storytellers to remind them, in later stages, as to what the client in that particular anecdote enjoyed doing in their younger years. There are therefore a number of men who appear a number of times, such as a man who, in the early tales, enjoys pricking women's breasts with pins and, at his reappearance in the tales in the 'murderous passions' category, delights in killing women by raping them atop a bed of nails. It was this evident fascination with the manner in which the various off-shoots of sexual desire can manifest themselves in fetishes, which can be taken to the extreme, that lead to this work being equated with Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis.
At the end of the novel, Sade draws up a list of the characters with a note of those who were killed and when, and also those who survived.
In 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini turned the book into a movie, Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (Salo, or The 120 Days of Sodom). The movie is transposed from 18th century France to the last days of Mussolini's regime in the Republic of Salo. It is considered by many to be one of the most disturbing and disgusting films ever made. However, despite the horrors that it shows (simulated) rape, coprophilia, and ritual mutilation, it can barely touch the perversities listed in the book. The film is banned in many countries around the world.
- Philosophy in the Bedroom, L'Histoire de Juliette, and The Misfortunes of Virtue, other works by Sade
- Marquis de Sade