120 Days of Sodom

I don’t imagine there would be many more reviled books than The 120 Days of Sodom – Marquis de Sade, 1785. It’s a book that sits somewhat by itself, somewhere along the allegory…fiction…satire continuum, it’s got something for everyone to be repelled or revolted by, and it’s hardly the stuff of genteel company. It has been my first read in my year of reading dangerously, and I don’t imagine for a moment that there will be anything to equal it, and, if there is, frankly, I don’t want or need to read it. More about that later. First, to revisit the criteria for my year of reading dangerously (myord),

First, in order to acknowledge the future of the book, it must be available online – as a download, whatever.
Second, the book must be one I haven’t read.
Third, in order to be dangerous, the book must have been banned at some stage, somewhere.
Fourth, I’ll write a review of the book with the url so you can go mad with your year of reading dangerously too.

So, now, on with a potted history of the book. Sade was imprisoned in the Bastille in 1785. Somehow he manages to find an unused toilet roll and writes a story in his best hand writing. In 1789 (July 14) the Bastille was stormed, and Sade was devastated because he thought he’d lost the roll. Well, you can imagine. Other people were busy losing their heads, so a toilet roll with tiny handwriting would be quite special. Modern. Fast forward to 1904, and a German psychiatrist publishes the first edition. Somehow that came as no surprise to anyone. The book didn’t really go ‘mainstream’ – as much as it has – until the second half of the 20th century, when all the postmodernists thought it was worthy of their attention. Simone de Beauvoir, Camille Paglia, and other ‘ists’ of varying levels of shrillness; and not surprisingly, Michel Foucault – more about him later. 120 Days of Sodom has been rated as ‘Indecent within the meaning of the Indecent Publications Act 1963’ by New Zealand’s Indecent Publications Tribunal, 1 May 1972 (Publication Number: IPT 72-488).

OK, so why this book. I’d watched a part of a tv-docu-dramatisation of the Moors Murderers – Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. In the story, Brady was reading from one of Sade’s other books, Justine. By the way, according to wikipedia, Napoleon called Justine “the most abominable book ever engendered by the most depraved imagination”. Well, enquiring minds wanted to know; and thanks to the tv and wikipedia, a host of vileness oozed forth. Warning to parents thinking their cherubs are using wikipedia to do their homework…

What’s the story all about? Dealing with the storyline first – four wealthy perverts set off to a private retreat in the country (Switzerland), and take along menagerie of prostitutes (to tell inspirational tales of depravity) and some studs, and a selection of victims – daughters of the perverts, 16 beautiful kids aged 12-15 (kidnapped), and four repulsive old women (to contrast with the beauty of the children). Secure from the outside world the perverts wreck havoc – brutalising the victims over a five month period. Three of the daughters, and a number of the kids (and other characters) are killed in various perverse ways.

It’s easy to see why this author would appeal to Brady and Hindley. I found the book thoroughly unpleasant, and not easy to read either. Quite apart from the repellent content, the writing style is difficult – perhaps if read in the original French the story would flow better, however I am unable read well enough in French to be able to give real analysis.

The book has given me much to think about. Sure, on the first level, as I mentioned, it’s probably something to offend everyone. But somehow I found myself wondering about what Sade was showing in the four wealthy perverts – an aristocrat, a bishop, a banker, and a judge. These characters are totally devoid of compunction – their perversions, their passions are the only laws they obey. I wondered what had changed so dramatically in our society – for aristocracy, I read politicians and political processes; the bishop, the various church influences across denominations; the banker, the various financial forces; and the judge, the judicial processes. Together, these four horsemen of the apocalypse continue to stampede across the lives of common people everywhere – and in many respects the complete beauty of the children only serves to highlight the horror of their fates.

Sade possibly didn’t make up all of the various points of the story himself. Gilles de Rais, in the 1400s, and later, Elizabeth Báthory in the 1600s, were the Brady and Hindley of their respective days. Sade writes of the corrupting influence of complete power, and it’s not as though we don’t see evidence of this today. And this is where Foucault comes in. Wikipedia summarises Foucault nicely “Michel Foucault is best known for his critical studies of various social institutions, most notably psychiatry, medicine, the human sciences, and the prison system, as well as for his work on the history of human sexuality. Foucault’s work on power, and the relationships among power, knowledge, and discourse, has been widely discussed and applied.” In many ways this also summarises 120 Days, however this is my interpretation. Foucault limited the expression of his interest in Sade to fleeting references or comments, rather than in-depth analysis.

Overall, I reached the following perspectives about the book. Yes, it’s offensive, probably because knowing that the ability of power to corrupt each and every one of us is something that makes us uncomfortable. We like to think we’re bigger, better, but in reality no-one is exempt. What starts in small ways can quickly grow in perversely unpleasant ways. Who knows what darkness lurks in the hearts of men? And women. Let’s not be forgetting the women.

Initially I thought this could never be made into a film that truly reflects the content. And then there was a flash of realisation that made my blood run cold. I was absolutely shocked and sickened when I realised that it had been made into a film – a documentary – in fact, I’d seen it on the evening news. No, not the Brady/Hindley story, the Abu Ghraib prisoner abuse story. Here covered by 60 minutes, and here and here by Al Jazeera.

I’m extremely offended to discover 120 Days of Sodom is as fresh as the day it was written, and what’s more, appears to have become a textbook for certain military regimes.

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