The characters in the book seem almost an afterthought but they are more remarkable and believable for their wealth and privilege. These men who hold positions of power and moral authority in society are the very men who are the most debauched and the most violent towards that conventional morality that defines the border between humanity and animal urge. As Santayana famously said, power corrupts, and Sade understands this as a (relatively) rich and powerful figure in his own right. He knows that the outmost limits of human potential and morality, for ill in this case, are best expressed by those who have the power and the authority to push these limits and to legitimize through their power and authority the very debauchery that they are supposed to be a hedge against. With the 120 Days Sade admits what we all suspected to be true: it takes wealth and power to be able to push the limits of consumption, morality, and convention beyond the pale. The more power we have the more potential for abuse we have within our reach. Again though, this is admitted, but there is no apology for this fact. The manuscript is better for this fact. Evil does not need an apology, it begs for comprehension, even if this is not possible.
Sade introduces his characters with brief biological sketches. Each featured player is described, but there is no deep analysis of disposition nor is there any real explanation for why these people have gathered together. The only explanation given is that they are men seeking to gratify their personal fantasies and are content to use each other and their victims in order to achieve this aim. Character is in fact all but irrelevant in this story beyond what is useful to advancing a philosophical point, and otherwise Sade gives us no more information about these people than is absolutely necessary for the advancement of the narrative. They are archetypes, stand-ins for men. They are merely the instruments in a grand experiment in inflicting agony for the sake of pleasure. It is no surprise that each of these men represents a facet of society: civil government, the Church, the law, and finance. These are the temples devoted to debauchery and to torment; these are the bastions of iniquity within society. Sade sneers at these revered institutions that are supposed to represent the civilizing impulse of society. He exposes the truth: those who rise to the heights of power and influence are not the best of our world, but the very often the worst. It is a pessimistic view but the view of a man who is cruel and cynical enough to know hypocrisy when he sees it. These men, and the equally cruel albeit poor women who entertain them and aid them in their hideous plans, are nothing but id. Sade is pure superego, a role this man who loved to torment and to in turn to be tormented by others only ever played when taking the form of narrator in his various books. He is a passive conscience, a pragmatic conscience even, but a conscience that guides us through this reverse-morality play just the same.
“Feeble, enfettered creatures destined solely for our pleasures, I trust you have not deluded yourselves into supposing that the equally absolute and ridiculous ascendancy given you in the outside world would be accorded you in this place [.]”
Sade puts this speech, which seem to be an accurate representation of his own sentiments when it came to how he understood society, into the mouth of his creation the Duc, the aristocrat mentioned earlier. This man is marginally the leader of this den of villains, and he outlines the rules agreed upon by all of the empowered parties. By that I mean all of those who are meant to derive pleasure from the arrangements they have painstakingly made and carried out. In a delicious bit of irony these men, and their creator, who in real life have no scruples when it comes to ignoring and flouting the laws of “civilized” society, have decided to establish an almost comically arbitrary set of rules governing the protagonists’ sexual conquests. There are to be no vaginal “de-flowerings” or anal penetration until pre-set dates. These dates are marked by the pairing of one of the young men with one of the young women in a “marriage” ceremony. This ceremony is a rather hilarious lampoon of the morality of sexual conquest in “normal” society: the man may not have his sexual desserts until he has satisfied the laws and customs set down by his peers.
As these laws are totally arbitrary and meant only to delay sexual gratification, it seems we are meant to reflect upon the meaning of such rules of sexual morality in polite society. If the world is a place of evil mitigated only on occasion by good, then why must we subject ourselves to rules that govern our urges and appetites? Surely some experiencing pleasure, even at the expense of others, must be better than no one experiencing it at all? The masses will suffer needlessly, so why not let them suffer for the pleasure of those daring enough to try to achieve some measure of pleasure? Sade believes in hedonism as a right for those willing to reach out and experience it and his philosophy of human morality is at its most coherent when understood through this point of view. He sets down the facts, the realpolitik of moral life on earth, and he comes to the conclusion that something must be done with this fickle thing we call “existence”. He truly believes he is correct about the nature of things. Yet he does not seem to be content with this fact, or satisfied with his own diagnosis; there is a real undercurrent of disappointment, or, boredom with the world
“One grows tired of the commonplace, the imagination becomes vexed, and the slenderness of our means, the weakness of our faculties, the corruption of our souls lead us to these abominations.”
These words, but into the mouth of the pasty little banker Durcet, speak volumes about the predisposition of the most debauched of all artists. These are the words of a human being disgusted and humiliated by the fact that he is, in fact, only human and not capable of experiencing the unhindered heights of elation and pleasure that his imagination is able to conjure up. We are limited, mortal creatures inhabiting this all to imperfect world, a world that is so obviously what it is (“nasty, brutish and short” to quote Hobbes). Something, anything must be done in order for it to remain interesting and worth living for. It seems such a simple, even facile reason for such delicious villainy, but it is in fact a thoroughly human reason. The heart (and mind and loins and senses) wants what it wants. The creature may always be frustrated in the pursuit of eternal pleasure, but that does not mean it will stop pursuing that pleasure. As the Banker, Durcet, puts it: “I must declare that my imagination has always outdistanced my faculties[.]”
Perhaps because of this fact there is a real current of frustration that flows throughout the book; frustration at the world as it is, frustration with those who would stymie or stifle the impulse towards unlimited hedonism, and above all frustration with oneself for being born into a world where unlimited elation and pleasure is not possible. At the same time the ability to fully conceive of the possibility of such pleasure and power is entirely possible, and it is this dichotomy that fuels the violent frustrations of these men. Sometimes this frustration erupts forth from the protagonists in appalling acts of cruelty perpetrated against those whom they have power over, as I will discuss soon enough, but at other times this frustration takes the form of rants and declarations that are quite exquisite for their pure unrestrained and exultant fury:
“’There are’, said [the Judge] Curval, ‘but two or three crimes to perform in this world, and they, once done, there’s no more to be said; all the rest is inferior, you cease any longer to feel. Ah, how many times, by God, have I not longed to be able to assail the sun, snatch it out of the universe, make a general darkness, or use that start to burn the world! Oh, that would be a crime, oh yes, and not a little misdemeanor such as are all the ones we perform who are limited in a whole year’s time to metamorphosing a dozen creatures into lumps of clay.’”
The impulse towards pleasuring ones’ self thus goes so far as to suborn the wholesale destruction of the Universe itself. Annihilation becomes the only real outlet for this unyielding passion the libertine always has inside of him/herself. But is it really the world that this apocalyptic minded libertine aches to destroy? Simone de Beauvoir in her classic essay on Sade’s morality “Must We Burn Sade?” quotes another Sadean “Monster”, the Count of Bressac:
“The man who can become callous to the pains of others becomes insensitive to his own.”
So does that make The 120 Days a work of extreme catharsis or pure escapism? Is the cruelty contained within its pages meant to be taken as guide for libertines, a warning, or as a sly joke at our expense? The answer, of course, to all of these questions is “yes”. But where does that leave Sade’s morality? If there is no one limit to the moral message of the book does that mean that there is no moral meaning to the work at all? Is this then an irrelevant exercise in pure pornographic frivolity?
Well of course not. No matter how much Sade wants to confuse or frustrate our attempts at a moral analysis of his work, the moral message is there, but not as a guide to action or as plan for an ideal society. Sade is simply showing us what it is within the capabilities of human to do to another human , in this case in the pursuit of pleasure. Just because Sade or any other man may want to achieve ecstasy through universal destruction, such power is, mercifully, outside of the ability of any one man. So we must look beyond the declarations and the rants and on towards the acts and impulses Sade chooses to illustrate and explore in the text. And while not burning the world to a crisp, these crimes are no less heinous for their feasibility or their horrifying ease of execution.