Monday, December 29, 2008

The 120 Days of Sodom, an Introduction

The 120 Days of Sodom is quite possibly the most vile book in the history of literature, and we only have a quarter of it. A bit of history:

Sade wrote Sodom while imprisoned in the Bastille. He had been arrested for blasphemy and assaulting a prostitute. He was accused of cutting her back and pouring wax on the wounds, defecating on a crucifix, and sodomizing the prostitute after inserting a communion wafer into her rectum. He was acquitted, but his actual guilt is questionable; he was an aristocrat, and as such could get away with a variety of crimes if committed against commoners; on the other hand, blasphemy was not tolerated, and sodomy was a capital crime in France. His imprisonment came about through a lettre de cachet (a special order from the king as a favor to a noble, used to keep unruly nobles in line). In this case, the lettre de cachet was granted to Sade's new mother-in-law.

Sodom was meant to be a catalogue of libertine passions, ranging from the mundane to the highly criminal. The "heroes" represent groups Sade despised:
  • The aristocracy is personified by the Duke du Blangis.
  • The Church by the Dukes brother, the Bishop of X.
  • The nouveau riche by the financier Durcet.
  • The courts by the President du Curval.
It is hard to determine who is most villainous, but my money is on Curval.

Now, as to why we only have a quarter of the book. Sade knew it was dangerous, so he hid it in his cell. When the Bastille was stormed, he thought it was lost, and frantically worked from his notes to rewrite it, so we have the first quarter in literary form, and the rest in outline. The original was eventually recovered, but was burned by his son.

I'll get further into the text later. If you are interested in reading Sodom there are two easily available versions of the book in English:
  • The 120 Days of Sodom & Other Writings translated & compiled by Austryn Wainhouse and Richard Seaver (pictured above).
  • The 120 Days of Sodom translated & edited by James Havoc (pictured below).
The Wainhouse/Seaver edition is much better. It is a literal translation, contains some similar stories, and has critical material from both the translators and other scholars. The Havoc version cuts out quite a bit of material, particularly the setup. Sade describes the libertines' histories quite a bit and you get to know just what kind of depravity is coming. Havoc edits a great deal of this out in order to get directly to the château. He also changes some of the flavor of the story. It reads a bit more quickly, but I think it sacrifices a good deal of what Sade is trying to say.

There is also Pier Paolo Pasolini's Salò o le 120 giornate di Sodoma (1975), which is a film based on Sodom that is very true to the book (more on that in a later post. It is currently available as Salò from the Criterion Collection.

That's all for now. Next time we'll look at the libertines, starting with the Duke du Blangis.


  1. I can't wait to see more of your postings. I read this years ago. I definitely read things in his writings that I've never even thought of before. Great post.

  2. People think all this fetish-y stuff is new. Sade wrote about things in this book that will make you shudder.

  3. Your account of the writing of the original manuscript of 120 Days is not quite accurate; Sade wrote it in the Bastille---as it has come down to us, partly in note-form---in 1785 and hid it in his cell. In 1789 he was suddenly removed from the Bastille, and his cell soon after was pillaged by the revolutionary mob. The ms. disappeared, eventually resurfacing and being published.