The 120 Days of Sodom
|The 120 Days of Sodom|
Vintage edition of 120 Days of Sodom
|Author||Marquis de Sade|
|Publisher||Arrow Books (recent English edition)|
Published in English
|Media type||Print (Manuscript)|
|ISBN||978-0-09-962960-3 (recent edition)|
The 120 Days of Sodom, or the School of Libertinism (Les 120 journées de Sodome ou l'école du libertinage) is a novel by the French writer and nobleman Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, written in 1785. It tells the story of four wealthy male libertines who resolve to experience the ultimate sexual gratification in orgies. To do this, they seal themselves away for four months in an inaccessible castle in Saint-Martin-de-Belleville, France, with a harem of 46 victims, mostly young male and female teenagers, and engage four female brothel keepers to tell the stories of their lives and adventures. The women's narratives form an inspiration for the sexual abuse and torture of the victims, which gradually mounts in intensity and ends in their slaughter.
The work remained unpublished until the twentieth century. In recent times it has been translated into many languages, including English, Japanese and German. Due to its themes of sexual violence and extreme cruelty, it has frequently been banned.
Sade wrote The 120 Days of Sodom in the space of thirty-seven days in 1785 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 (who used a pseudonym, "Dr. Eugen Dühren", to avoid controversy). It was not until the latter half of the 20th century that it became more widely available in countries such as United Kingdom, the United States and France. The original manuscript is currently located in the Bibliotheca Bodmeriana, Geneva, Switzerland.
Sade described his work as "the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began." The first publisher of the work, Dr. Bloch, regarded its thorough categorisation of all manner of sexual fetishes as having "scientific importance...to doctors, jurists, and anthropologists." He equated it with Krafft-Ebing's Psychopathia Sexualis. Feminist writer Simone de Beauvoir wrote an essay titled "Must We Burn Sade?", defending The 120 Days of Sodom because of the valuable light they shed on humanity's darkest side 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 (though not exclusively) female.
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. Gilles Deleuze considers The 120 Days along with the rest of Sade's corpus in conjunction with Sacher-Masoch, remarking, "the work of Sade and Masoch cannot be regarded as pornography; it merits the more exalted title of 'pornology' because its erotic language cannot be reduced to the elementary functions of ordering and describing."
The 120 Days of Sodom is set in a remote medieval castle, high in the mountains and surrounded by forests, detached from the rest of the world, either at the end of Louis XIV's reign or at the beginning of the Régence.
The novel takes place over five months, November to March. Four wealthy libertines lock themselves in a castle, the Château de Silling, along with a number of victims and accomplices. (The description of Silling matches de Sade's own castle, the Château de Lacoste.) They intend to listen 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.
The story does portray some black humor, and Sade seems almost light-hearted 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 lie ahead, suggesting that the reader should have doubts about continuing. Consequently he glorifies as well as vilifies the four main protagonists, alternately declaring them freethinking heroes and debased villains, often in the same passage.
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:
- Duke of 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 (l’Évêque) – Blangis' brother. He is forty-five, a scrawny and weak man, "with a nasty mouth." He is passionate about anal sex even when having sex with women and girls, refusing to have vaginal intercourse with them.
- The Président de Curval – aged sixty, a tall and lanky 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/cockmongers (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.
The novel is set out to a strict timetable. For each of the first four months, November to February, the prostitutes take 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. The anecdotes include men who like to masturbate in the faces of seven-year-old girls, and indulge in urine drinking and coprophagia/scatology. 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 their daughters and the kidnapped children.
- 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. 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 sodomise 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 who, along with 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.
- March – this is the shortest of the segments, Sade summarising 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 recurring figures, 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. 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 the final vignette of L'Âge d'Or (1930), the surrealist film directed by Luis Buñuel and written by Buñuel and Salvador Dalí, the intertitle narration tells of an orgy of 120 days of depraved acts—a reference to The 120 Days of Sodom—and tells us that the survivors of the orgy are ready to emerge. From the door of a castle emerges the Duc de Blangis. When a young girl runs out of the castle, the Duc comforts the girl, but then escorts her back inside. A loud scream is then heard and he reemerges with blood on his robes and missing his beard.
In 1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini turned the book into a film, Salò, or the 120 Days of Sodom (Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma). The film is transposed from 18th-century France to the last days of Mussolini's regime in the Republic of Salò. Salò is commonly referred to as the most controversial film in existence.
Viscount Charles de Noailles, whose wife Marie-Laure was a direct descendant of Sade, bought the manuscript in 1929. It was inherited by their daughter Natalie, who kept it in a drawer on the family estate. She would occasionally bring it out and show it to guests, among them the writer Italo Calvino.
Ms. de Noailles later entrusted the manuscript to a friend, Jean Grouet. In 1982, Grouet betrayed her trust and smuggled the Sodom manuscript into Switzerland, where he sold it to Gérard Nordmann for $60,000.
Ms. de Noailles filed suit in France, and in 1990 France's highest court ordered the return of the manuscript. Switzerland had not yet signed the UNESCO convention for restitution of stolen cultural objects, so Ms. de Noailles had to take the case through Swiss courts. The Swiss federal court sided with Nordmann, ruling in 1998 that he had bought the manuscript in good faith.
Nordmann's heirs offered to sell the manuscript to a French collector in 2012, but Natalie de Noailles' son Carlo Perrone intervened, saying a French buyer would need his consent. "My mother had a very strong wish that one day the manuscript would be given to the Bibliothèque Nationale, which is my wish as well," Perrone told The New York Times. "It's an important historical document, a piece of French history."
The director of the Bibliothèque nationale de France, Bruno Racine, is negotiating with the Nordmann heirs and Perrone to purchase the manuscript, with each party receiving a cut of the sales price, estimated at over $5 million.
- Philosophy in the Bedroom, L'Histoire de Juliette, and The Misfortunes of Virtue, other works by Sade
- Alternatively The School of Licentiousness
- Seaver, Richard and Austryn Wainhouse. Forward. 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings By Marquis de Sade. Eds. and Trans. Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver. New York: Grove Press, 1966.
- Sciolino, Elaine. (2013, January 22). It's a Sadistic Story, and France Wants It. The New York Times, pg C1.
- Deleuze, G. 1991. Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs. New York, NY.
- Sciolino, Elaine. (2013, January 22). It's a Sadistic Story, and France Wants It. The New York Times, pg C5.
- The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings, Grove Press, New York; Reissue edition 1987 ISBN 978-0-8021-3012-9
- "The 120 Days of Sodom" Arrow Books, London 1989 ISBN 978-0-09-962960-3