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.
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 seeing 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 might 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. 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.