Sade is a cruel man, but I do not believe he is in any deep or unequivocal sense a bigot or a misogynist, at least not in a sense that would limit his ability to identify with or explore the feelings of female characters in his work. Literary professor and Sade critic and scholar Alice Laborde is known for her view that Sade attempted through his outrageous use, abuse and depiction of women in his works a criticism of the treatment of women in the French society of his day. She says feminist critics of the writer “intentionally [misread] the satirico-novelistic elements” of the 120 Days in particular. I do not think I would go so far as to call Sade a proto-feminist (the cold and cruel ways he treated his wife and those female servants and subordinates who were unfortunate enough to be around him puts the lie to that notion), at least not in a personal sense in his everyday life. de Beauvoir asserts that he sees nature’s unequal distribution of ability and strength from creature to creature as itself a justification for his perverse philosophy of taking whatever pleasure you are able to prize from someone else.
That being said in his work I see that there is a sense of “fair play” in how he depicts women, and he certainly treats the male victims of his fictional tortures with no less cruelty. In fact none of the male victims really have any role as a substantial character in the book, while there are a few women who Sade empathizes with and even seems to identify with. The women fight back, a futile fight perhaps, but they do not go quietly to the erotic abattoir. But I will explore that facet of the text in due course. First we must begin to delve into the nauseating, but admittedly exhilarating, meat of the story: the tortures, or as Sade prefers to label them, the “passions”.
The detail with which Sade describes his many passions is breathtaking and a wonderful example of literary exuberance; the pain described is so acute as to elicit a palpable feeling of discomfort from the reader. The simple, complex, criminal and murderous passions each have their own benefits, from a purely hedonistic point of view, and drawbacks. The drawbacks become more apparent as the story progresses into the criminal and murderous passions. This is so because the first two categories may trample upon polite convention or taboo but very rarely stray into the realm of actually violence against public safety and law. The simple passions are mostly coprophilic in nature or have to do with other bodily excretions or functions. The pleasure derived, as with most of the passions it seems, comes more from the preparation and contemplation of the act than its actual consummation. In one particularly odious case, recalled by the hired maid and storyteller Duclos, a “grog-blossomed old rake” of a man has the Madame of a bordello where Duclos and her sister work procure for him a “bidet filled with champagne” in which he can wash one of the girls. In preparation for this exercise the Madame
“Ordered [her] not to wipe her behind, that the wine immediately took on a brown and dirty hue [when the girl was washed in it] and an odor which could not have been very agreeable.
The Rake obviously takes pleasure in these preparations and in washing the girl for Sade goes on to describe his arousal and the joy with which
“he downed the putrid and disgusting wine in which he’d just finished washing body laden for so long in impurities.”
Given the time Sade spends having the storytellers describe the charming physical attributes of the girls in the tales it is no wonder that he focuses on the aspects of the fetishes that make these girls “impure”. As with his novel Justine Sade here shows his predilection with meticulously deconstructing, even destroying, objects of beauty in the world around him. For the sake of his tales these “objects” include human beings, especially young women of theretofore unimpeachable virtue. In the case of Justine Sade goes on to give a moral accounting of what this destruction and debasing does to those who witness, or are made party to, the crimes. The 120 Days is not a manuscript of moral chastisement or ethical reassurance though; it is a catalogue of the utmost that can be done in the pursuit of personal pleasure through debasement and rejecting all scraps of moral aggrandizement or even appeasement. He is not trying to teach us how to be good through the lens of evil; he is showing us how far we are able to push the boundaries of our own hedonistic moral turpitude. The Rake is gratified not so much in the act itself but in the contemplation of how the act “debases” and “befouls” this virginal woman whom society has deemed to be “clean” by virtue of, well, her virtue.
Brothels, lavatories, garbage heaps and grimy back alleys are the places in which pleasure is found and where the powerful can be found seeking pleasure. The castle the four primary libertines have chosen to inhabit is principally an oasis of perfect law that is made to be corrupted. What starts as pristine, four powerful men with much public esteem to their names, degrades at the pace they themselves dictate into the slums and decrepit moral black-holes that fill the world outside of their immediate influence or knowledge. They create a world within these walls where they can indeed “assail the sun” and uncouple morality from pleasure in a complete and un-prosecutable sense. This men are above the law in the outside world; within the confines of their pleasure kingdom they are the law, or at least the law comes from their whims and their urges as opposed to a Rousseau-esque social contract that builds upon the concerns, wants, fears, and needs of all or at least most aspects of a civil society. Society is but a fancy to be discarded when it becomes inconvenient to hedonistic exploration, exploitation and self-expression. The Rake described above is most likely a man who in polite society would go unnoticed at the very least, or perhaps he is even admired. He is not transformed by the lowly surroundings he inhabits to seek pleasure; he brings them low with his desires and colors them an ever darker shade of black the more he pursues the law until himself that is hedonism. Each brothel room is his own private castle and the laws within are dictated fully by his libido and his scruples, if he at all possesses them.
After all that, the “simple” passions are indeed that; there is little more in the first part of the narrative then juvenile flouting of basic hygienic taboos. The second aspect of the simple passions ups the ante slightly; instead of befouling oneself or allowing a virtuous girl to be befouled in order to find pleasure in her debased state the next stories describe men who take pleasure in seeing the girl debased by contact with the libertine himself. A subtle change leads to a much different set of pleasures.
Sade has the storyteller Duclos, who herself was one of the women in the brothel scenes described, talk of the decrepit state of the men themselves. Some are described as “corpses” others as caked in fecal matter or semen or drenched in urine. Most are corpulent or aged and some are deformed. The details are less important than the fact that they are in fact unfit for public consumption, so to speak. For the task of pleasuring these foul men is left to girls brought in directly for the task, virgins all and most likely of the most un-reproachable virtue from proud families. Throughout his oeuvre Sade shows a great relish in telling tales of “good girls” from “good families” tricked into or persuaded financially to take part in schemes meant to gratify the perverse needs of libertines of all stripes. Not all of the acts led to the debasing of feminine purity. Some of the fetishes described by Duclos are more or less benign, if bizarre and complicated
“Another [man] used to have brandy rubbed over every part of his body where Nature had placed hair, then I’d put a match to those areas I’d rubbed with alcohol, and all the hair would go up in flames. We would discharge upon finding himself afire, meanwhile I’d show him my belly, my cunt, and so forth, for that fellow had the bad taste never to want to see anything but fronts.”
In a Sadean world the height of “bad taste” is not fecal play or sexual exploitation but the very idea of enjoying a woman’s vagina. So we see what we are dealing with here. Different aspects of the 120 Days stories move these four men in different ways. The Bishop in particular is a complex case and seems to be the one aroused by the strangest and most perverse of details. Sade spares no chance to lampoon the clerical caste
“The Bishop of X*** […] is deceitful, adroit, a faithful sectary of sodomy, active and passive, he has absolute contempt for all other kinds of pleasure […]he is a nervous type, so sensitive he nearly swoons upon discharging.”
Sade also makes a point of telling the reader that the Bishop is a rather ruthless child killer and pedophile. Each of the main four also makes an attempt to cultivate the libertine career of Curval’s wife, Julie the daughter of the Duc de Blangis. She is the only woman the men actually seem to enjoy the company of, with the exception of the storytellers, and she is almost treated as though she were the “fifth man” in the castle. She is also one of the lucky few to survive the bloodbath that comes near the end of the soiree at the castle. She alone of the non-storytellers seems to enjoy, to a degree, the debauchery that surrounds her at all time. It is clear that the author loves this character and bestows upon her the great Sadean honors of horrific physical and personal traits; she is a blasphemer, an alcoholic, and an “appalling mouth” that nonetheless drove her husband and the Bishop in particular wild with desire. Once more ugliness and filth defiling purity are the greatest tokens of attractiveness in the sexual universe of the 120 Days.
The ugliness of human desire and of human action is elucidated to an even more nauseating degree as the story moves forward into the more dramatic and violent passions. This is the point in the manuscript when a full narrative falls apart and we are left with what amounts to the draft notes of a man who planned a magnum opus of torment and pain. The complex, criminal, and murderous passion are (perhaps mercifully) left to us only in draft form, with the long storytelling format that allowed for the description of all the fetishes in great detail never completed. It must be noted at this point that the young girls and boys who were kidnapped and purchased in order to be “deflowered” (raped) are meant to be used only when this segment of the narrative is reached. They are obtained for the express purpose of violating them in tune to the symphony of horror being directed by the men and their storytelling accomplices.
They are not simply mute victims of course, these girls and boys; some violate the strict rules governing hygiene while others flout the laws prohibiting fraternization with one another. These laws, including proscribed times and places where the victims can be violated and a divvying up of the children between the various men, are made only to prolong and therefor enhance the pleasure of the men. Only certain of the assembled harem are allowed to engage in sexual acts with the four men, in fact they have hired the services of several well-endowed men, “fuckers” as Sade calls them, who are used as an outlet for their self-imposed sexual frustration. That does not keep them, especially Durcet and the Bishop, from tormenting the girls and boys in other ways; defecating on them, beating them, denying them food or the ability to relieve themselves. Every single torment, no matter how simple, is allowed so long as it does not cross over the line into actually vaginal or anal penetration. This prohibition ends with the coming of the final three passions.
The degree to which Sade choreographs these debauches and the rules that govern them is astounding. His control over the minutia of the story is such that he even sees a need to issues a note apologizing for mistakes that he made in the narrative that only he or one with a most obsessive analytical predilection would ever notice
“If I said that Aline [daughter of the Bishop] was a virgin upon the arrival at the chateau, that was an error: she isn’t and could not be. The Bishop has depucelated her in every sector”
Sade was obsessed with his craft and such fidelity to his own artistic vision was unyielding. He never quite got over the loss of the 120 Days manuscript during his removal from the Bastille in the days before it was stormed and razed. One cannot fault Sade for being anything less than devoted to the art of writing.
This devotion would serve him well in the relation of the later passions. These take the form of floggings and masochistic acts with a smattering of horrid examples of violent pedophilia. This is the part of the book that begins to test the fortitude of even the most jaded reader. I myself had to pause and give myself a break from the narrative every few minutes to keep from totally abandoning the book. That being said the writing and the detail with which he describes even the most abhorrent of fetishes is nothing short of amazing, genius really. He never wavers in his devotion to the details and even these draft sketches of the fetishes are compelling and well structured. Freud, Jung, Kraft-Ebbing and others recognized in the 120 Days a catalogue of sexual and psychological pathologies that are so ahead of their time as to be still beyond the comprehension of analysts and sexologists today. No writer had ever explored the psychology of “perversion” before and this tome was the beginning of what would become a library of writing on sexuality and psychosexuality. Sade was perhaps one of the first to understand that the mind was indeed the greatest sexual organ and that the fetish itself, rather than the inevitable physical release, was the true purpose and aim of hedonistic pursuit. Sade revolutionized the way that human beings thought about sex and psychology.
The criminal and murderous passions increasingly incorporate torture and blasphemy into the mix, blasphemy at the time being seen almost universally as perhaps as grave an offense to man and God as the former. There are real elements of humor to the episodes involving desecration of sanctified Catholic rituals and artifacts. You can sense the relish with which Sade set out to shatter every single ridiculous theological taboo he could think of. In one scene a man outrages a nun during a full Latin Mass and in another a communion wafer is inserted into the anus of a man while being anally penetrated by another. This latter deed is reenacted by the four with apparently glee. These episodes act as a palate cleanser for the real show to come. By the end of the book we get to the point where wholesale mutilation and slaughter take center stage and crimes against decency and human dignity reach such a pitch as to almost take the form of satire. The Murderous passions lead to the inevitable slaughter of most of the young participants and the servants hired to care for them. No limb is left un-amputated, no infant left un-immolated and no orifice is left un-filled. It really is something to behold. One can only speculate as to how much deeper Sade would have delved into this horror if he had been allowed to finish his masterpiece. It is certainly hard to see how he could have pushed the envelope any further.