Wednesday, October 10, 2012

Books read in 2012: No. 85 -- The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings

by Marquis De Sade

compiled and translated by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver

Amazon link: The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings

Started: Oct. 9
Finished: Nov. 3

Notes: This is a collection of a longer novel, several plays, and even some articles concerning the Marquis. As might be expected from this author, within these pages are supposed to be some of the most vile, disgusting and disturbing fictions ever put to pen. So of course I've got to read it. That being said, there has been some argument over whether De Sade's work was satirical or ironic or not, of if he was simply a madman. I'll have to make up my own mind.

Mini review: It is difficult to discuss these works of Marquis de Sade. There is so much vileness here, but also more than a little genius, and perhaps a touch of madness. I know enough of de Sade's life to consider him no angel, yet I'm not quite sure he is the complete monster many seem to think he was. His fiction is steeped in the philosophical literature of his era, especially falling upon the works of Kant to some extent, and borders on that of the Gothic, though in many ways is ant-Gothic literature, focusing not upon supernatural elements but the evil found within the darkest of men. De Sade is also not a moralist, but most of the tales here do have a morality within them, though some might argue otherwise. Let me say this, de Sade could write. In fact, he might be my favorite 18th Century writer and one of my favorite from the 19th Century. His characters are living, his plots are excellent though a little contrived (which was common for the time he was writing), and his prose rings well to the modern ear. As this is a collection of works, below I will focus to some extent on these writings individually.

"Must We Burn Sade?" is a lengthy essay by Simone de Beauvoir, first published in the 1950s. This is, in my opinion, an overly scholarly look at de Sade's writing, but one that I feel is also important in preparing the reader for what's to come and to place de Sade above the mere criminal, which would be an easy way to consider de Sade.

"Nature as Destructive Principle" is another essay, this one by Pierre Klossowski. This essay gets more into the philosophy of de Sade, libertinage, and its relations to literature and other forms of philosophy. Interesting, but again, in my opinion, overly pedantic.

"Reflections on the Novel" is the first writing of de Sade's presented in this collection. It is an essay on writing a novel. I found this interesting and somewhat amusing, mainly because so much de Sade writes about here is still quite relevant to writers today. Novelists and budding writers would be doing themselves a service by reading this.

"Villeterque's Review of Les Crimes de l'Amour" is just that, a critic's review of one of de Sade's works. This reviewer takes de Sade and his writing at face value, for the most part, and finds nothing in it redeeming. Personally, I feel the critic was mistaken.

"The Author of Les Crimes de l'Amour to Villeterque, Hack Writer" is de Sade's written reply to the above review. Here, de Sade shows he is the much better writer than the critique, and does not so much argue for his own literature as compare it to others. This I also found amusing, reminding me somewhat of the back and forth dialogues that happen in today's online flame wars.

"Florville and Courval, or The Works of Fate" is a short story, the first fiction from de Sade in this collection. It is quite possibly my favorite piece in this collection, though it is not the most philosophical. Not quite a horror tale, and not Gothic, this is one of the most tragic tales I have read in my life. The multitude of tragedies visited upon the characters, specifically the female protagonist, is beyond the dreadful fate of even Oedipus. One of the things I truly enjoyed about this story was that I could see where it was going, and de Sade does indeed take the reader in the expected direction, but then he goes beyond it to an extent nearly unimaginable. Shocking? To some extent, but probably not to most modern readers. A very well plotted story for its period.

"The 120 Days of Sodom" is the novel that takes up the bulk of this collection. De Sade wrote it while imprisoned, and he believed the work lost during his lifetime once he was moved to another prison. Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending upon one's view), the manuscript for this novel was found and released a century after de Sade's death. He considered it his masterpiece, and that seems to be the general impression of those who appreciate his work. To keep things simple, the plot involves four wealthy gentlemen (for lack of a better word) who kidnap dozens of children and teens, then take them along with a host of prostitutes and others to a remote fortress that is then blocked off from all who would enter or exit. These four villains then spend the next four months having four prostitutes recite to them some of the most godawful, terrible stories ever to be heard, 150 stories per month (approximately five per day) and each one more detestable than the last. During all of this, the four villains amuse themselves by raping and torturing their prisoners, eventually killing nearly all of them in some truly brutal fashions. The store is more complex than that, but that's the gist of it. There is no happy ending here. Do not expect one. And whatever horrors you can imagine, physical and sexual, they will be found here and worse. "The 120 Days of Sodom" is likely the work that has turned many against de Sade, at least during the 20th Century when it was available, but I believe that is a mistake, oversimplifying what de Sade is doing here. He not only shows these terrors, but takes the reader into them, makes the reader part of them. It is, at times, nearly enough to churn one's stomach. At the same time, for the most part this work is not overly detailed about the gore and sexual assaults, either merely suggesting that they happen or describing them in mostly common language. Also, there would seem to be no redeeming value to this tale at first glance, but I think if one does so, one is underestimating the author. De Sade was obviously a libertine, would likely even be considered a sexual predator by modern standards, but there is no evidence he was a serial killer or the like, and there is much evidence that he did appreciate his fellow men, especially the commoners in regards to dealing with aristocracy and the church. Also, de Sade is generally believed to have been an atheist (not hard to believe from his writings), but personally I feel his thoughts on spirituality must have been more complex, making him at least an agnostic and possibly a Deist, or perhaps something else. "The 120 Days of Sodom" forces man to look at himself in the very worst of lights, nearly into hell itself in the end, but I think in taking this view, in reaching these depths, de Sade is also making the reader ponder what is best about humanity. Also, much like director Sam Peckinpah tried to do with his Western film "The Wild Bunch" (though Peckinpah failed, by his own accounts), de Sade here turns one away from violence and butchery merely by the glut of it forced upon the reader.

To finish, De Sade is a writer who will give me much to think about for some while. I've only touched upon the myriad of thoughts in my head concerning his works here. If others come to mind, I might add them in the future. I can't quite say I'm a fan, though I do appreciate his skills as a writer and to a lesser extent his talents as a philosopher. Part of the question, though, is ... what is this philosophy? Libertinage? That would seem too easy. De Sade was obviously a libertine in his life and makes arguments for libertinage, but they are not very good arguments, in my opinion, and it seems as if he almost made those arguments badly on purpose, as if he intentionally wants someone to not only refute him, but to prove him wrong so strongly that he would be forced to change his ways. Perhaps I'm reading too much into all of this, but some of de Sade's work seemed to me to be a cry for help, a cry to be pulled out of a life or world of sin.

One last detail ... I was quite surprised that of all the writers I have read over the years, it was de Sade who provided one of the best arguments for Christianity being the one, true religion over any other spiritual beliefs. I'm not suggesting his argument is unassailable, nor do I myself mean to argue for Christianity, just that I was nearly confounded to find such in the writings of this author. Also, interestingly, despite the many awful blasphemies committed by de Sade's characters, there is quite a bit of Christian thought in some of his writings.

1 comment:

Charles Gramlich said...

I've read bits and pieces. I think it's not so vile compared to modern stuff I've read, though pretty remarkable for the time.