by Rikki Ducornet
Sade completed “that most impure tale”—and the words are his—The 120 Days of Sodom—in the Bastille where he was confined for infractions that, if they were outrageous, were not murderous and—unlike civilians in war-time—involved consenting adults. Sade was an outspoken atheist, a libertine, and a sodomist at a moment in history when sodomy was punishable by a public breaking of the offending body on the wheel. The 120 Days was a purposeful declaration of war against those who would never cease to persecute its author for his singularity. Like a suicide bombing, it is a cry of rage and a rending of the veil; it is an act of defiance and morbidity, the willful embrace of the role of the bogeyman—whose arbitrary and inescapable destiny is acute humiliation and a horrendous death.
The 120 Days is so relentlessly obscene that Sade himself declared he hadn’t the stomach to revise it. Yet, when on the 14th of July the Bastille was stormed and it seemed the manuscript was lost, he “shed tears of blood” and this because, despite its flaws, he knew he had achieved his object: he had written a book that would never cease to do violence to its author and to the world simultaneously. And yet this novel, unlike any other, also provides a place of reflection (Sade always demands a great deal of reflection from his readers) and, for those who share his anomalous vertigo, sexual restlessness, perhaps release. Sade’s brand of restlessness, however, provokes moral disquiet, and, for all its flamboyance, The 120 Days is less a pillow book than a novel of dystopia. Its manic restlessness and lethal mockeries all lead to a question whose answer was a matter of urgency for Sade himself and is, more than ever, a matter of urgency for us all:
Why is it . . . that in this world there are men whose hearts have been so numbed, whose sentiments of honor and delicacy have been so deadened, that one sees them pleased and amused by what degrades and soils them?
In other words, Sade, who wrote the most impure tale that has ever been told since the world began, a book that was the measure of the horror that would, in the name of brotherhood, drench Paris with blood, was on to something. The 120 Days is not only a rageful (and at times rueful) procession of the author’s own determinisms, it is a mirror of Hell—600 crimes!—and like Jenin—where this morning as I write, Palestinian civilians are digging in the rubble for their dead—a Hell of human manufacture. One man’s imaginary war zone, The 120 Days offers an occasion for necessary thoughtfulness. This is, unexpectedly, a moral novel. Sade called it his Book of Sorrows.
The 120 Days of Sodom opens thus:
The extensive wars wherewith Louis XIV was burdened during his reign, while draining the state’s treasury and exhausting the substance of the people, nonetheless contained the secret that led to the prosperity of a swarm of those bloodsuckers who are always on the watch for public calamities, which, instead of appeasing, they promote or invent so as, precisely, to be able to profit from them the more advantageously.
Sade’s satirical intention cannot be clearer. He continues:
One must not suppose that it was exclusively the low born and vulgar sort which did this swindling; gentlemen of the highest note led the pack.
Sade next offers up his champions, the four bloodsuckers and traffickers who will assume the major roles in these unusual orgies, orgies that will take place in the faraway castle of Silling. They are: The Duc de Blangis and his brother the Bishop of X*** (a nobleman, therefore, and a man of the church), the celebrated Durcet and the Président de Curval (business and secular authority. How much fun Sade would have had with Enron, the current scandals rocking the Catholic church, the skeletons that continue to kick in Kissinger’s closets!).
Now let us examine, beneath Sade’s burning glass, his four uncharitable and immutable villains, ces messieurs who will live out their errant, their costly lusts, in Silling.
First of all, the Duc de Blangis, the inheritor of immense wealth, has been endowed by nature with every impulse, every inspiration required for its abuse. What’s more, he was: Born treacherous, harsh, imperious, barbaric, selfish . . . (he is) a liar, a gourmand, a drunk, a dastard, a sodomite, fond of incest, given to murdering, to arson, to theft . . . His brother, the Bishop of X***, has the same black soul, the same penchant for crime, the same contempt for religion, the same atheism, the same deception and cunning. Our financier Durcet’s loftiest pleasure is to have his anus tickled by the Duc’s enormous member (speculators have always been tickled by inherited wealth). Finally—and I have purposefully saved the Président de Curval for last—we come to this pillar of society worn by debauchery to a singular degree and who is little more than a skeleton caked with shit. Curval is exemplary of Sade’s emblematic, self-hating, pleasure-fearing endeavor. He surges throughout the novel in various guises—for example the man from Roule who fucks in shrouds and coffins and who, familiar with the idea of death [is] hence unafraid of it. A sentiment familiar to those who have read the tales of torturers whose little ceremonies make them feel more virile, more alive, even immortal. Like all men who torture, Sade’s champions are fearful of the body and its determinisms: shit, sex and death, and so must shiver it, reduce it from three dimensions to two, make it into meat—Frigs the whore’s clitoris . . . chops it up with a knife . . .—and in this way demonstrate it never had any meaning, any individuality (Silling’s slaves are silenced, reduced to dumb beasts; their tongues may be cut out, their mouths sewn shut). Silling’s victims are emptied out and flattened—as some would do to an entire country in order to establish that it was never there.
Back to Curval. He is entirely jaded. He is, as was Sade, nearly impotent, and needs nearly three hours of excess, and the most outrageous excess . . . before one could hope to inspire a voluptuous reaction in him. Already dead, animated by fantastications and the unlimited power Silling affords him, Curval frolics in the boneyards of his making and leaps to a particularly inspired danse macabre. He embodies all of Sade’s libertines for whom the spasms of orgasm and the death throes converge. This convergence never ceases to throb at the icy core of The 120 Days and to propulse an extremity of longing that, as time passes, seems less a boast and more a possibility:
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 star to burn the world.
The promise of general darkness is the shadow beneath which the universe of Silling leans into entropy, a jaded universe, its ancient machinery—space and time—grinding to a deafening halt, yet capable of igniting in one last hideous conflagration. Masters of space, Curval and the other champions toil, with furious detachment, on the side of Time; they excel in the service of its machinations. Their little ceremonies assure an eternity of agony, and, paradoxically, precipitous death. (Most of the victims of Silling are very young.) As the old saw would have it, money buys time; Curval is filthy rich and it is wealth, Sade reminds us, that enables him and the others to indulge in unusual pastimes. Excessive wealth makes all our Sillings possible. It buys U.S. F-16s and Apache helicopters.
Like the One Thousand and One Nights, The 120 Days is propelled by stories. Radical and inexorable malice is assured by the virago storytellers’ unavoidable soliloquies that, decorated with numerous and searching details . . . apt to have an immense influence commence punctually at six o’clock, like the evening news. The storytellers are moulins à paroles—word mills—whose narrations keep the mill of death oiled with cum and ceaselessly wheeling. Like the ogresses of fairytales or the winds of war, their mills grind bones. The sounds of bones breaking castanet the air, as do, with whirlwindish velocity, the champions’ groans. To keep the mill turning, the four agree to banish rational thinking from Silling and to replace it with the logic of nightmare—Any friend who may take it into his head to act in accordance with a single glimmer of common sense . . . shall be fined ten-housand francs—a rule that could have been invented by Robespierre (who sent lace-makers to the guillotine for practicing a frivolous craft), Sharon (who, as I write, will not allow ambulances into places he has besieged, nor allow for the burial of the dead), and our own President, for that matter, so eagerly gearing up for a war with Iraq.
When coupling—and their couplings are hectic and meticulous—the Messieurs, their jaded imaginations ignited by the storytellers’ descriptions of bodies reduced to scarlet shambles, of pricks stabbed with a heavy cobbler’s awl, of bone-shattering cuffs are incapable of not only compassion but erotic delight; they collide into the bodies of those they hold in thrall like tanks slamming into kitchens. Is it surprising, then, that they like to dine on shit? In Silling, sexuality is the embodiment of fury, a bloody theater, an act of terror. Like a species of athanor in reverse, Silling transmutes everything into lead.
You will recall that in his Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals, Kant proposes that each one of us always acts in such a way that you can also will that the maxim of your action should become universal law. It is evident that for the individual with a will to do good, Kant’s criterion affords a rigorous practice in moral living, one that, above all, demands a searching conscience and fearless inquisitiveness, and the willingness to restlessly question dogmatic thinking—one’s own and that of others—to engage in, and tirelessly, a process of disenthrallment.
Sade’s Silling offers a Manichean reversal and negation of such a moral practice. In Silling, Libertine Law, Universal Law and the Law of Nature are one and the same. The friends are simply acting as Nature intends: brutal and blind. Sade, an anti-Rousseau (although he did admire that threat for dull-witted bigots!) and, curiously, very much in keeping with the teachings of the Inquisition which was fed by stories of naked New Worlders worshipping devils and buggering one another, argues that nature—a satanic realm studded with glamors and perversions, demons in the shapes of bears, wenches and wolves, the semen of frogs and serpents teased into malefic powers—leads straight to madness. Such pessimism evokes a radical Gnosticism, proclaiming as it does man’s active place in a scheme of chronic pain and interminable night. Sade’s Nature knows nothing of pity and is forever tormenting her creatures with plagues and mortifications; later, in Juliette Sade will write: are plants and animals acquainted with mercy, pity . . . brotherly love?
Sade, always paradoxical, offers up this curiosity; he despises both the church and its stultifying myths, yet climbs into bed with a churchy arsenal of crucifixes and wafers and, when it comes to Nature, embraces with a vengeance the Catholic world view at its most extreme; an awkward backwardness for a man who was in so many ways a radical thinker—a champion of female sexuality, a vociferous detractor of the guillotine. In an earlier age the four libertines of Silling would have been witches.
I recall a story by the Belgian writer of fantasy, Jean Ray, in which a diabolical house—much like the Aztec universe—demands to be fed fresh corpses. Silling is such a place. And ces messieurs are famished; their famishment, too, is cosmical. They would take on everything, even the weather:
He passes an entire brothel in review; he receives the lash from all the whores while kissing the madame’s asshole and receiving therefrom into his mouth both wind and rain and hailstones.
Such a madame, one supposes, can be nothing but the embodiment of Mother Nature.
When the four reach Silling, they destroy the bridge that allows them access and once inside decide
. . . it were necessary . . . to have walled shut all the gates, and all the passages whereby the château might be penetrated, and absolutely to enclose themselves inside their retreat as within a besieged citadel, without leaving the least entrance to an enemy, the least egress to a deserter. . . . They barricade themselves to such an extent there was no longer any trace of where the exits had been; and they settled down comfortably inside.
Tomb, gnostical world hermetically sealed, Silling is colonized like a defeated country, and like terrorized civilians its slaves are given two choices only: to be corrupted (some like certain survivors of Auschwitz become accomplices) or to submit. All resistance, imaginary and fabricated (the slaves are given emetics and forbidden to shit) is punished by torture and execution. Never does good resist evil; it is as if Sade cannot conceive it, as if helplessness and passivity serve as puissant aphrodisiacs. Then again, the victims have always been figments only, flat, with no minds of their own. Silling is, after all, a Looking Glass world; the world of the Red Queen whose vassals are merely cards. Among the vast store of things the four friends have brought with them are many mirrors; Silling, you understand, is the mirror of our most acute failures: a city under siege, a country burning with no road leading out, a place of perfect moral isolation. If I have chosen to evoke Sade’s sinister castle in this essay, it is not only because Silling’s mirror of bloody ink affords an exhaustive inquiry into what a world ruled by killers is like, but because it is Silling’s banality, after all, that should make us shudder, not its singularity.
Fantasy allows the reader to burn her own bridges and continue the tale à sa guise, to, in Sade’s own words, sprinkle in whatever tortures you like. Silling is potentially everyman’s fable, mirror, tomb. And if one has read The 120 Days to the bitter, the ironical end, has one at any moment been complicitous? Has one dared acknowledge and investigate this complicity? Has the reader sprinkled in whatever tortures she likes? Or was she made too ill to think and did she turn her head away in disgust? Fatal mistake! Or will she, will we, take up Silling’s challenge and offer a refutation? One that does not entail melting our enemies’ cities, as some fool recently proposed in the Denver Post—a jaded response that embraces Silling’s vertiginous bestiality, Sade’s own longing for cosmical conflagrations. What is needed, of course, is far less simple (and shall take much more than a single glimmer of common sense!); it depends upon a painful and necessary disentanglement from fatal habits of mind, a lasting and muscled recognition of common humanity, an ordered, a passionate vision for global justice, a veritable setting to rights. Compassion—for those the hottest heads among us choose to call, without knowledge or distinction “the enemy”—if it is to bring about peace, must be perceived as an active principle (unlike sentimentality which is, after all, simply another form of cowardice). In order to survive our next confrontation with Silling—the calamity we will suffer or inflict upon others—we will have to, each one of us, act in the manner Kant proposes and this if we are to, finally, overcome and abandon the pathology that dictates our unreason.
Silling, once seemingly so far, is now very close. If Sade has been so vilified—and, despite the vagaries of fashion will continue to be, just as he always risks being embraced for all the wrong reasons—it is because Silling has never been one man’s uniquely aberrant vision, but a species of accelerated perspective, an anamorphosis that, when seen through the world’s own looking glass, is recognizable. Silling, like Ground Zeros everywhere, like the killing fields that separate our country from our neighbor to the south, like our own densely populated penitentiaries, is simply another name for all our own worst mistakes. It is my conviction that had we dared read Sade rigorously, dared respond to the terrible questions he poses, we might have been prepared for the worst. Silling’s fires continue to burn; they gather strength and momentum.
Many years ago (this was in 1965) I was invited to have tea with the French wife of the American consul in Algeria. She received me, her face slathered in cream, in a room across the street from a notorious prison. I suggested that living in such close proximity to a place where so many Algerians had been tortured during the war for independence must be a cause for much distress. But no; she told me she’d had a maid tortured there herself, for stealing silverware. “But then,” she laughed, “I found the silverware!”
Needless to say, I didn’t stay for tea but left at once to learn soon after that the maid had been tortured so severely she had been crippled. The soles of her feet had been beaten to a pulp with heavy rods—a method perfected by the thugs of Francoist Spain. The consul’s wife’s allegresse reminds me of those criminally vapid presidential debates when Bush spoke so gleefully of the death penalty. In Curval’s words: Better everytime to fuck a man than seek to comprehend him.
SELECTED LIST OF WORKS MENTIONED
Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom and Other Writings. Grove Press, $17.95.
Marquis de Sade, Juliette. Grove Press, $21.95.
Immanuel Kant, Grounding for the Metaphysics of Morals. Hackett Publishing Company, $6.95.