Nonfiction

Recommended Reads: Apocalypse Edition

 

Picturing the Apocalypse: The Book of Revelation in the Arts over Two Millennia

Natasha O’Hear and Anthony O’Hear

Revelation is one of the most vivid works of literature ever etched into papyrus. It has inspired artists for nearly Picturing the Apocalypse2,000 years, stoking the fires of Michelangelo, Blake and Bosch and establishing the premise of countless bad horror films. In this impressive study, Natasha and Anthony O’Hear examine 120 works of art rooted in the closing chapter of the New Testament. The authors (a father-daughter tandem) breakdown the works into 10 different themes, including the Four Horsemen, the Seven Seals and modern popular culture.

Picturing the Apocalypse is well-written and beautifully illustrated with all of the artworks discussed. I was personally drawn to the religious history of the book, but also enjoyed the art history and theory, the literary and cultural development of Revelation and, ultimately, a fresh look at the text through the modern lens.

If not for you, this is a great gift for fans of art, history, philosophy, literature or anyone looking to upgrade their dinner-party conversation.

 

Secret Science: A Century of Poison Warfare and Human Experiments

Ulf Schmidt

Few things whet the American appetite more than atrocity and conspiracy, and readers get a hearty portion of both inSecret Science this comprehensive account of 20th-century military research. Germany’s use of chlorine and mustard gas in WWI may be the most salient example of chemical warfare, but what makes Schmidt’s account so compelling is his emphasis on Allied experimentation.

The narrative revolves around the British research center, Porton Down, and chronicles the moral dilemmas created and ethics breached in the shadow of two world wars and a global nuclear standoff.

Secret Science is both history lesson and cautionary tale, though I imagine most readers will enjoy it for the former more than the latter. History tells us that ethics usually lose out to expediency. Note the use of torture, indefinite detention, drone warfare and citizen surveillance in response to the War on Terror.

When it comes to safety, there are always extenuating circumstances (politically speaking), so I’m doubtful that the lessons of Secret Science will make inroads where they’re most needed, unfortunately. Schmidt does, however, provide us with a darkly entertaining history of the uncomfortably recent past that should chill (and in some cases vindicate) the most hardcore conspiracy theorist.

Secret Science is not light reading (I’m referencing the text itself now, rather than the content). It’s an exhaustive academic study that may not grab casual readers.

But if you’re into military history and government cover-ups, this book is worth flexing a few more of those reading muscles.

 

Under the Black Flag: At the Frontier of the New Jihad

Sami Moubayed

The dialogue on terrorism has taken a sharper tone in the aftermath of Paris. Piled on top of the horror and despair Under the Black Flaghas flowed a polluted stream of rumor, wrath and confusion. Which makes Sami Moubayed’s Under the Black Flag all the more important.

Moubayed is a Syrian journalist and historian with roots in the country’s past — and an insider’s view of its turbulent present. He provides an account of ISIS and the rise of jihadism with a depth that no cable-news sound bite or Internet meme could capture.

If you want to understand where ISIS came from and where they (and us) are headed, read this book.

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Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

Littérature Francaise: Solidarité

No words can make sense of the terror attacks in Paris. No cause, no religion, no prior offence justifies the indiscriminate slaughter of civilians, and “coward” isn’t strong enough a repudiation of someone who fires an assault rifle into an unsuspecting crowd and then detonates a suicide belt to dodge the consequences.

In lieu of words, we have images. They are horrifying, but, sadly, they are not unfamiliar. We’ve watched this play out too often in the past two decades, but if you take the longview from France, it’s a struggle that dates back to November 1954 and the start of the Algerian War.

And that leads us, inevitably, to the Algerian-born writer and philosopher Albert Camus.

Sure, I’m biased, as Camus is my favorite author, but nobody has spoken so eloquently about French-Arab relations and terrorism as the 1957 Nobel Prize winner. His most challenging work, The Rebel: An Essay on Man in Revolt, details the rise of terrorism in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Terrorism is born of “nihilism, intimately involved with a frustrated religious movement,” he writes. “Absolute negation is therefore not consummated by suicide. It can only be consummated by absolute destruction, of oneself and of others… the dark victory in which heaven and earth are annihilated.”

Camus’ most poignant writing on the topic appears in his essay collection, Resistance, Rebellion, and Death. Camus was outspoken against French colonialism and the treatment of Arabs in Algeria, but he was disgusted by the actions of the Front de Libération Nationale (FLN), which, in its efforts for independence, killed both French and Arab civilians. “Such terrorism is a crime that can be neither excused nor allowed to develop.”

He wrote the following passage in 1958, but it certainly applies to the cowards in ISIS who ordered and committed the atrocities in Paris on Friday.

“Whatever the cause being defended, it will always be dishonored by the blind slaughter of an innocent crowd when the killer knows in advance that he will strike down women and children.”

The most instructional of Camus’ writing on the topic is “Letter to an Algerian Militant,” written for his Arab friend Aziz Kessous. In it, he chronicles the transgressions of both the French colonists and the Algerian natives, imploring each side that the way to peace is not terrorism. “The inexcusable massacring of French civilians leads to equally stupid destruction of the Arabs and their possessions.”

This cycle of violence is difficult to stop, but Camus believed it was possible. It’s haunting to think that he wrote the following words 60 years ago, in 1955, and sad that they are as relevant today as they were when published.

“I want most earnestly to believe that peace will rise over our fields, our mountains, our shores, and that then at last Arabs and French, reconciled in freedom and justice, will make an effort to forget the bloodshed that divides them today.”

Recommended Reads: Writer’s Edition

 

The Reader’s Brain: How Neuroscience Can Make You a Better Writer

Yellowlees Douglas

Cambridge University Press

Most books on writing have the same fatal flaw: They may be inspiring and informative, but they seldom offer The Reader's Brainpractical advice. Typically, you’ll get some variation of the following: write something every day; write what you know; active voice; character before plot.

Got it.

Yellowlees Douglas wants to change that with The Reader’s Brain. Drawing on science rather than Strunk and White, she offers tips on how to be a more effective writer, whether you’re penning the Great American Novel, writing a grant or constructing an internal memo.

I spent three years and thousands of dollars in an MFA program where it was bad form to talk about sentence structure. Seeing Douglas give it the attention it deserves was refreshing.

The Reader’s Brain is not just a collection of tips and tricks. Douglas provides a compelling narrative, sharing anecdotes from her years as an author and professor, to guide the reader through the chapters.

The difficulty with reviewing a book like this is that it’s hard to give details without giving away too much information. Since it’s on the book jacket, I can say that it centers around what Douglas calls the five C’s: clarity, continuity, coherence, concision and cadence. In exploring these concepts, Douglas shows how to utilize devices such as priming and causation to create narratives that capture the reader’s attention and keeps your words in their memory.

A worthy addition to any writer’s nook.

 

Metamedia: American Book Fictions and Literary Print Culture after Digitization

Alexander Starre

University of Iowa Press

Want to start a conversation with me at a party? Mention House of Leaves. I’ll wax ecstatic on Mark Z. Danielewski’s Metamediamasterpiece for hours. So of course I loved Metamedia, an exploration of literature in the digital age, which uses House of Leaves as its jumping-off point.

For those unfamiliar with Danielewski’s debut novel, it’s… well, it’s not easy to explain. The five-word synopsis I’d offer is that it’s a found-footage film in book form, but what does “book” mean here? Sure, it’s on paper, with binding, but with its manipulation of text (sometimes sideways or upside-down or spread over numerous pages) Leaves could never be reduced to just the words themselves.

This leads Starre to ask, “How does the idea of a literary work change when we think of it not as a text, but as an embodied artifact?”

As a lover of both physical books and digital technology, I have no bias in this area. I have a classic Nook, a Kindle tablet and boxes of books that I won’t get through in my lifetime. I’ll read any time, any place, any way, and I appreciate the tone with which Starre discusses the topic.

If you’re looking for a work that romanticizes the digital frontier or deifies the paperback, this is not it. Metamedia applies history and theory and offers a unique perspective that will be of interest to academics and general readers.

And will hopefully inspire those who haven’t to read House of Leaves.

 

Workshops of Empire: Stegner, Engle, and American Creative Writing during the Cold War

Eric Bennett

University of Iowa Press

As a survivor of an MFA program, there are a lot of ways I would describe writing workshops, but until reading this Workshops of Empirebook I never imagined a connection to the Cold War. Leave it to the University of Iowa Press, the publishing wing of the school that invented the Platonic form of the modern workshop, to offer this rich, counterintuitive history of the MFA.

These days, there’s nothing very revolutionary about a creative writing program. In fact, I still refer to mine as a conformative writing program, since anything that deviated from the cookie-cutter formula was dismissed.

But following World War II, Bennett argues, there developed an optimism that “the complexity of literature” would fend off the proliferation of simple sloganeering. Advances in science and technology had created weapons of terrifying power. It was time to advance the study of human nature, which happened to coincide with an increase in college attendance, thanks to the GI Bill.

“To understand creative writing in America, even today, requires tracing its origins back to the apocalyptic fears and redemptive hopes that galvanized the postwar atmosphere,” Bennett writes.

I’ve often mused about how the World Wars produced more great fiction writers than any others, and Bennett helps explain (in part) why this was: “Veterans wanted to write, and taxpayers were willing to pay for it.”

Bennett’s focus is on the Cold War era, particularly two of the most influential figures in the history of the MFA: Paul Engle and Wallace Stegner (who founded the programs at Iowa and Stanford respectively).

It’s a fascinating read and should be required reading for anyone enrolled in or considering an MFA program.

Recommended Reads: August Adieu

As we careen toward September, let’s take a moment to reflect on some August titles you may want to add to your late-summer reading list.

Building God’s Kingdom

Inside the World of Christian Reconstruction

Julie J. Ingersoll

From Oxford University Press comes the most detailed account of Christian Reconstructionism I’ve come across. In Building Gods Kingdomfact, I hadn’t heard of many of the major players in Ingersoll’s insider account. Rousas John Rushdoony? Cornelius Van Til?

The names may be unfamiliar, but their influence lives on in the policies of the Tea Party and the Christian Right.

Ingersoll has a singular view of Reconstructionism. Now a professor of religious studies, she was once a pro-life activist and married into one of Reconstruction’s most influential families. Building God’s Kingdom is neither an outsider’s critique nor an escapee’s expose. From her unique perspective, Ingersoll offers a deep, honest look at the history of the belief, its adherents and rather than editorializing, she lets the movement’s leaders speak for themselves.

This is a fascinating, enlightening read that taught me new things and inspired me to research them on my own. Perusing the teachings of Rushdoony, his continued influence on faith-based politics is apparent.

This thorough study should adorn the nightstand of anyone interested in the intersection of politics and religion.

Code Grey

Clea Simon

Though cozier than my usual bedtime stories, if you love books, cats and mysteries more cerebral than chilling, CodeCode Grey Grey belongs on your bookshelf. This novel ticked the first two boxes for me (books and cats… I would have liked more chill factor).

Simon is a prolific author specializing in cat-themed mysteries. This is the ninth installment of the Dulcie Schwartz series. Schwartz, a grad student working on her dissertation over spring break, gets caught in the middle of a book theft, a wrongful arrest and receives guidance from a deceased companion animal.

To quote one of my heroes, Alice Cooper, “That Was the Day My Dead Pet Returned to Save My Life” (if you didn’t sing the melody just now, do yourself a favor and listen to it ASAP).

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 2)

In May, Ensuing Chapters visited Paris and soaked up the books and culture of France. We’ve been celebrating this experience through the ongoing series, Littérature Francaise. Previous installments have covered Simone de Beauvoir, Albert Camus and part I of a discussion of Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom.

This week, we conclude our discussion of de Sade. In part I, we covered:

  • The international art scandal surrounding the original manuscript of Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome
  • The surface-level content of 120 Days, including layout
  • Some of the absurd fantasies explored in the text
  • Some critical commentary of the work from de Beauvoir and Georges Bataille

We closed with the assertion that despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

Marquis de Moralist

Let’s begin the reckoning with de Beauvoir, whose essay, “Must We Burn Sade?”, is arguably the greatest critical 120 Days2account of 120 Days. She writes of de Sade, “…though not a consummate artist or a coherent philosopher, he deserves to be hailed as a great moralist.”

There’s a lot to unpack in that conclusion. De Sade’s enduring legacy is having sexual cruelty named in his honor. His definitive work is an epic of non-stop debasement, dismemberment, torture, rape and murder. De Sade was imprisoned more than once for acting out some of these fantasies on prostitutes.

How does he make the leap from monster to moralist?

There is something in de Sade’s philosophy that predicts Nietzsche. Human nature has a cruel streak, but rather than dividing us, it creates a de facto relationship between sadist and victim. This relationship exists prior to and outside of moral or utilitarian judgements. Opinions may be imposed a posteriori, but de Sade is more concerned with the relationship itself — the moment the whip kisses flesh, without the labels of good and evil, in what Sartre would call the unreflective consciousness.

This is where we must consider the Marquis.

He developed his philosophy, de Beauvoir writes, in his youth, when the young aristocrat realized that his sexual appetites deviated from the norm. But he did not wish to be an outsider. “The immensity of his literary effort shows how passionately he wished to be accepted by the human community,” she writes.

I won’t pretend to fully grasp all of de Beauvoir’s reasoning (and recommend you read the source material for yourself), but my takeaway from her essay is that the body limits freedom of the mind and prevents connections between people (what Bataille would call discontinuous beings). This distance robs others of their individuality and leaves us indifferent to one another.

To accept this indifference would be lazy. And it must be said that though the kill count in 120 Days is high, each death itself is singular. The uniqueness of each murder gives meaning to the flesh of its victim.

This sets up a curious tension within de Sade’s narrative. Curval, a judge whose greatest pleasure came from sending innocent men to the gallows (and one of the novel’s four “heroes”), makes the following observation: “What the devil difference can it make to Nature whether there are one, ten, twenty, five hundred more or fewer human beings on earth?”

This sets him at odds with the prostitute-storyteller, Duclos, who, though she dutifully relates her 150 tales, says, “…there is an almost unavoidable monotony in the recital of such anecdotes; all compounded, fitted into the same framework, they lose the luster that is theirs as independent happenings.”

This is a philosophy that would evolve through de Sade’s later writings. Though he wrote 120 Days prior to the Reign of Terror, seminal works such as Juliette, Philosophy in the Bedroom, The Crimes of Love and the third and final version of Justine were written following the Terror. In these books, de Sade revolted against the depersonalization of mass murder.

As de Beauvoir explains, “It is by such wholesale slaughters that the body politic shows only too clearly that it considers men as a mere collection of objects, whereas Sade demanded a universe peopled with individual beings.”

Rationalized or self-righteous murder, particularly in large, indiscriminate quantities, was not to be tolerated. Neither would the neutrality that left one’s conscience clean whilst atrocities took place.

“Is it not better to assume the burden of evil than to subscribe to this abstract good which drags in its wake abstract slaughters?” de Beauvoir writes.

The key phrase here is “burden of evil.” It’s not enough to act good or to avoid doing “evil.” It would be irresponsible to deny the dark side of our nature, and the consequences of willful ignorance are bloody. She adds, “He was sure, in any case, that a man who was content with whipping a prostitute every now and then was less harmful to society than a farmer-general.”

This is the brilliance of de Beauvoir writ large. Whether or not you agree with de Sade’s philosophy, de Beauvoir cuts through the complexity and offers coherence the narrative lacked. In one of philosophy’s more mind-blowing, yet erudite passages, she concludes that de Sade was a moralist for the simple fact that, “He chose cruelty rather than indifference.”

Voice of the Victim

Bataille takes a particular interest in de Sade’s use of language. What is the Marquis really saying with his fiction? What is he truly revealing about himself?

On the one hand, 120 Days is about logical consequences. In a subversive twist on Kant’s categorical imperative, his120 days3 characters strictly pursue Libertine philosophy to its logical end. This is the place where all dogmas and ideologies fail. Belief systems (be they moral, religious or political) belie their logic when strictly enforced and universally applied. The Libertine philosophy of living by no moral constraints, in particular, is on shaky ground.

“One can see how the excesses of pleasure lead to the denial of the rights of other people which is, as far as man is concerned, an excessive denial of the principle upon which his life is based,” Bataille writes in Eroticism.

Libertinism is a self-defeating philosophy. De Sade revels in its fictitious excesses, which Bataille views as paradoxical: “…de Sade’s sovereign man has no actual sovereignty; he is a fictitious personage whose power is limited by no obligations.”

(Without going too far into the weeds, he means the sovereign man is dependent on the subjects who consent to his rule. Absolute power requires no consent, which negates its sovereignty. I think. It’s complicated.)

Let’s bring this philosophy back to the level of language. Bataille observes something curious in de Sade’s narrative, which I missed in my read. Despite appearances, when his “heroes” speak, de Sade’s protagonists use the language of the victim.

“In this way they fall short of the profound silence peculiar to violence, for violence never declares either its own existence or its right to exist; it simply exists,” he writes. “If such people had really lived, they would probably have lived in silence.”

Violence is deed, not words. Words are the realm of the victim, “the ground of the moral man to whom language belongs.” (The song goes “Give peace a chance.” Nobody’s ever had to make a PSA to promote violence. It propagates itself.)

As a result, de Sade is not writing about violence, but rather “a reflecting and rationalized will to violence.”

Bataille admits that reading de Sade is no easy task, both because of the content and the layers of complexity. His preference, he writes, is not to converse with de Sade’s champions, but rather with “people who are revolted by him.”

Enlightenment is not all puppies and rainbows, in other words. To confront reality is to assume de Beauvoir’s “burden of evil.” It is accepting the full spectrum of human capability.

“And if today the average man has a profound insight into what transgression means for him, de Sade was the one who made ready the path,” Bataille writes. “Now the average man knows that he must become aware of the things which repel him most violently — those things which repel us most violently are part of our own nature.”

De Sade shed light on our violent impulses and how they can become tangled up with sexuality and liberation. He posed a moral challenge that continues to trouble anyone confronted with his work.

I cede the final word on that to de Beauvoir, who nails the legacy of de Sade and why his work is still relevant today.

“The supreme value of his testimony lies in its ability to disturb us,” she writes. “It forces us to re-examine thoroughly the basic problem which haunts our age in different forms: the true relation between man and man.”

Review: Exposure

Exposure: A Sociologist Explores Sex, Society, and Adult Entertainment

Chauntelle Tibbals

From the opening essay in Exposure, you will laugh (a lot) and you will cringe (occasionally). Which is appropriate. ExposureAfter all, this is a book about porn — that laugh- and cringe-inducing industry of id. It’s the shadow market force that accelerates tech innovation and the economy as surely as it does libidos, and both mirrors and molds our culture in more ways than we realize.

Once relegated to shady theaters and sticky arcades, porn is now a billion-dollar business with crossover into the mainstream. Still, a stigma remains, and new hang-ups have emerged along with new media.

Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist specializing in gender, sex and media, is our guide through present-day Porn Valley in this collection of anecdotes, theories and observations from her decade-plus of researching the industry.

Tibbals is a prolific writer and commentator. In Exposure, she only skims the surface of her academic research, but you can find much of it online (and I highly recommend you do). Here, she gives us the broad strokes of the industry. Her essays raise more questions than they answer, and that’s the point. Pornography impacts us on many levels, and our relationship with it gets knotted up with our needs, values and feelings on gender, politics and social mores. Untangling these knots is beyond the scope of a single book.

Instead, Tibbals reveals the human side of adult entertainment that will reframe the way you think about the business — not in a judgemental way, but an intellectual one.

Tibbals traces her foray into porn scholarship to a provocative streak and a rejection of unscientific generalizations about adult entertainment. Sadly, she discovered this short-sightedness had infiltrated academia when her graduate advisor belittled her dissertation topic. However, this rebuke only further entrenched her scientific curiosity.

“Porn was capable of making people lose their common sense, analytic skills, and composure,” she writes. “It could scramble the smartest, most educated of brains. And that was it for me. I was hooked — porn for life.”

But it was more than the thrill of the maverick driving her interest. She was also fascinated with her own fear of pornography, which, once she delved deeper into the topic, she realized was actually a fear of “the socially constructed idea of it.”

Some of Tibbals’ finest work is when she’s exploring the meta-space between real and fantasy — real actors with fake personas having real sex presented as fantasy. What impact does this have on the performers? It’s complicated, of course, but the important thing is that Tibbals poses the question in a way that humanizes the participants.

Talk shows flock to porn-star tragedies and draw broad conclusions. Tibbals considers each performer as an individual being. One such star is Joanna Angel, a Rutgers graduate who runs her own production company and stars in its films. Tibbals found one of Angel’s more hardcore flicks to be both intense and empowering.

“It showed an educated woman business owner in control of exactly the kind of sex she wanted, all in order to make exactly the kind of creative product she wanted to sell.”

In her survey of the genre, Tibbals challenges her own assumptions of empowerment and exploitation. In spending time with performers and their fans at conventions, she confronts a complicated culture that she describes as “the strangest mix of human adoration and disgust.” There are earnest and endearing fans, but also stalkers, self-righteous assholes and seemingly well-intended folks who unconsciously break social norms (asking intimate questions or making lewd comments) simply because of the perceived intimacy they have with the performer.

And of course there are the insecure misogynists who simultaneously desire and degrade the women they adore, often in a flurry of bipolar comments (“I love you”/”You’re a whore”) on social media. As though porn actors didn’t have enough detractors on the outside, they also suffer the abuse of so-called fans who “slut-shame” them online.

And it’s not just anti-porn activists and misogynists who get in on the action. Media exploitation of the industry is as pernicious and predatory as it accuses Porn Valley of being.

Take as an example the recent documentary Hot Girls Wanted, which I enjoyed but which ultimately disappointed when it devolved into a patriarchal rescue narrative. The lead subject, Tressa, willingly and knowingly pursues a career in porn, but is infantilized by the documentarians. She starts dating a guy who is aware of what she does for a living, but then he whines about how her career is hurting him. He implores her to give up her job for him. Were you to replace “porn star” with any other occupation — say “ER surgeon” — the jealous, insecure boyfriend would be, at best, an unsympathetic character, if not an outright villain.

In Hot Girls Wanted, though, he is the white knight.

But don’t take my word for it. Tibbals happened to write a fantastic review for Uproxx, which explains the film’s failings far better than I could.

I have long been fascinated with this bizarro intersection of pornography, feminism and media, and Exposure did not disappoint. This book is proof of the importance of porn scholarship, and Tibbals’ is a welcome and needed voice in the field.

Littérature Francaise: Marquis de Sade (part 1)

No trip to Paris is complete without a visit to the Louvre and Musee d’Orsay, but our most interesting cultural stop was at the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits, along Boulevard Saint-Germaine. Something was off from the moment we stepped inside. The entrance ramp was just a rickety plank of plywood set at an incline. Instead of the reverent whispers of the typical museum lobby, there was chatter and the rumble of movers and workmen.

Were they even open?

My girlfriend — fluent in français — was chatting with the woman behind the front desk. I had no idea what they were saying, but deduced that it wasn’t good news. Then the clerk uttered two words I understood: Bernie Madoff.

Sacré bleu!

Turns out the owner of the museum was on the run for defrauding investors and had to close down. (Madoff wasn’t actually involved, but turns out to be an international synonym for “con man.”)

This led me to revise the opening sentence of this essay:

No trip to Paris is complete without stumbling upon an international art scandal!

Mostly, this was better than the museum being open. Instead of exhibits, we got an experience. Still, I regret not 120 Daysseeing the one piece that had led me to the Musee de Lettres et Manuscrits in the first place: the patchwork scroll on which the Marquis de Sade had penned his notorious masterpiece, Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome, from within the walls of the Bastille.

Until recently, I’d never given much thought to 120 Days. It was one of those books that remains a cultural point of reference, and as a classic of transgressive fiction, I knew it was something I should peruse someday. But, well, it didn’t really strike me as a must-read.

Certainly, nothing penned in the 1700s could still be shocking today.

Then two years ago I read Georges Bataille’s essay on de Sade in Literature and Evil. Then I watched the film translation, Salò, which, despite its reputation, is like a PG-13 version of the book. This is not because Salò is tame (it is one of the most troubling films ever made), but because 120 Days is so beyond anything that could be recreated on screen.

So where to begin when discussing this notorious tome?

Bataille may have said it best, “Nobody, unless he is totally deaf to it, can finish Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome without feeling sick.”

This, from the author of The Story of the Eye (which, if you haven’t read it, do so ASAP). The Story of the Eye is an absurd tale of ovular fixation, blasphemy and transgressive eroticism. In it, the narrator and his teenage lover embark on a journey of extreme sexual awakenings. There are blood orgies, spree murders, gratuitous body fluids and a gleeful desecration of the eucharist.

But in both content and exhaustiveness, it’s a viral kitten video compared to de Sade.

Bataille is right. There are some brutally sickening moments in 120 Days. I recoiled more than a few times, and Salomight have even thrown up in my mouth a little. This is not good reading before dinner, as the book’s “heroes” have an insatiable taste for excrement.

However, though it can be thoroughly unsettling at times, for the most part my response was laughter while reading 120 Days. I was enthralled with the prose, appalled by the brutality and intellectually challenged by the philosophy, yet laughing out loud throughout. What other response is there to a purported sexual fantasy of screwing a goat via the nostrils in order that its tongue can work the undercarriage?

You have to laugh, because you just can’t take an anecdote like that at face value. It is these moments that temper the more gruesome scenes. The outrageousness of it creates a buffer for the reader. It’s like that groan-moment in a horror film when the monster is finally revealed in all its plastic-prop foolishness.

In her essay “Must We Burn Sade?” Simone de Beauvoir offers a more sophisticated analysis: “Not only does he tell tall stories, but most of the time he tells them badly.”

Agreed. Does de Sade really expect us to suspend disbelief when a local aristocrat pays a hooker to be dipped in shit so he can lick her clean, head to toe? I was much more disturbed by transgressive classics like Lolita and Evan S. Connell’s The Diary of a Rapist, both of which employ a rational tone that is far more upsetting than the description of their exploits.

But let’s return to de Sade.

What about 120 Days’ plot and characters? It was surprising to me that, despite the book being a cultural touchstone, despite the author having an entire genre of sex and a commonly used adjective named for him, I had no idea what 120 Days was actually about.

Consider it the Winter of Disquiet. In a remote castle, a quartet of wealthy, powerful men indulge their darkest Libertine desires. To assist them are four experienced prostitutes/brothel madames, a handful of servants, hired studs (selected for their endowment) and a harem of kidnapped children, elderly women and the Libertine’s own daughters.

It does not end well for most of them.

Each day, one of the prostitutes tells five tales of her most interesting clients, in ascending levels of depravity.Eroticism Afterward, the Libertines act out the stories on their captives, each page more horrifying than the last. Think you’ve got a dirty mind because you read 50 Shades of Grey? Please. 120 Days makes 50 Shades look like a Disney picture book.

By the way, what’s with all the numbers? De Sade was methodical in outlining the book, and the numbers are very important here. The 120 days are divided into four 30-day sections, each showcasing one of the prostitute story-tellers. They tell 150 stories apiece, so altogether there are 600 sexual acts performed in the book. However, only the first 30 days were actually drafted (the tales of Madame Duclos). The unfinished manuscript was lost when the Bastille was stormed in 1789. (While the remaining 90 days and 450 sex acts were never fleshed out in narrative, de Sade meticulously outlined the entire book, so each of the sex acts, as well as the full plotline and character arcs, are described.)

Supposedly, de Sade’s obsession with numbers played out in his real-world rendezvous as much as in his fiction, and, according to Bataille, “His own stories are also full of measurements.” In a story told by one of the many prostitutes he frequented, he savored the lashings of the whip, but hurried to record how many blows he had received when it was finished.

De Beauvoir weighed in on this anecdote: “What was peculiar in his case was the tension of a will bent on fulfilling the flesh without losing itself in it.

“He never for an instant loses himself in his animal nature,” she adds, “he remains so lucid, so cerebral, that philosophic discourse, far from dampening his ardor, acts as an aphrodisiac.”

Despite its occasional absurdity, the book has a very serious side to be reckoned with.

We’ll address that in the next installment.