That was mid-October. I don’t think I’ve managed to pull those thoughts together. I don’t think I ever will. I mean, I read some reviews going in to this book, but even the ones that were explicit about the contents didn’t prepare me.
I picked this book up because of the Read Harder Challenge. One of the challenges was to read a book that was written in prison. And sure, I could have picked any one of a bunch of different potential books. But I chose this one for two reasons: 1) The manuscript was lost for decades after the storming of the Bastille, devastating de Sade that he would never get to finish his “masterpiece,” and there seemed a sort of historical romanticism to the book because of that; and 2) My curiosity monster got the better of me. Why read any number of normal books when instead you can read one of the most famously perverse books ever written?
Before I get into what I will loosely call “the plot,” I do want to talk a bit about the historical context, which I find fascinating. The introduction to this book was in many ways much more interesting than the book itself.
The Marquise de Sade is one of the most famous Libertines, a philosophical “movement” (for want of a more accurate term) wherein the adherents did not subscribe to any social morality whatsoever. Instead, they devoted themselves to the pursuit of pleasure, which was to them their highest calling and the only thing that mattered. de Sade actually spent most of his life imprisoned (or hiding from imprisonment) due to the various pleasurable acts he committed, which ranged from the harmless but morally sanctioned (same-sex sexual relations, threesomes, orgies, “sodomy,” and what we would term kink today, i.e. watersports or bondage) to proclivities that harmed others and that were (and are) justifiably illegal (rape, kidnapping, sexual acts with minors, the giving of pain without consent). He was also later imprisoned for his prolific and shameless writings on the same subjects. In my opinion, as a man he was a selfish, privileged shithead, but as a historical figure, just for his sheer boldness and lack of shame in pushing back against the restrictive norms of his time, I do sort of kind of have a strange affection for the guy. The thing that’s important to remember about de Sade is that he drew no moral distinction between any of the acts I’ve listed above. To him, they were all the same, in that they were capable of giving him pleasure, and even imprisonment wasn’t enough deterrent to keep him from seeking that pleasure.
*It’s worth noting, though, that even though the term sadism derived from de Sade, BDSM today is a very different beast. de Sade himself never would have agreed to a culture where safe, sane and consensual were the expected norms, so the thing he inspired has grown beyond him. Whether or not the person acts were being performed upon had agreed to them did not seem to matter to him, and in fact, their lack of consent seems to have been a turn-on for him, if the text of this book is anything to go by.
Um, huge trigger warning for . . . pretty much everything.
So now, “the plot.” de Sade called this his masterpiece, because it is essentially an escalating documentation of the depths of his sexual fantasies. There are four men who are the main characters, and they are all pretty old and gross and perverted. (I could never decide while reading if this was de Sade’s attempt to distance himself from their depravities.) They come up with an idea to have the ultimate Libertine vacation (essentially). They will find the eight most beautiful and pure young girls, and the eight most beautiful and pure young boys, and get them one way or another (voluntarily, through kidnapping, bribing or slavery) to this old castle, where they will set up for themselves a months-long sexual experience. They hire old, ugly nannies, and wizened prostitutes to augment this experience. They are systematic about it all, and there is an extensive section of the book devoted to that planning, where all the men relish in the idea of the forthcoming pleasurefest. They structure it so that their days will be spent in various types of pleasure, and the nights will culminate in the prostitutes telling stories of their exploits, which all become increasingly deviant. They document and plan for the deflowering of each child, and each child’s specific orifice. They also all bring along their adolescent daughters, whom they all take turns having sex with (oh yes, did I mention the incest?). At any point, acts of depravity may also bust out.
At first, before the “pleasures” really escalated, I was morbidly fascinated by the book. But the longer it went on, it became clear that even as a piece of erotica it was very flawed. When something is designed like this, solely to titillate, you become numb to it after a while. The worse things got for these poor kids, the more numb to it I became, and my fascination towards the end turned to disgust. I assume this is probably also a problem with actually being a Libertine. If all you are seeking is pleasure, nothing real or concrete or genuine to back it up, you’re going to need to escalate your behaviors. The same things won’t you give that pleasure burst anymore, and like the men in this book, you’ll end up resorting to true depravity. There is no proof that de Sade himself ever actually committed a lot of the acts in this book (which get very, very extreme; when the men become bored of plain old sodomy, they start in with what is just actual torture and eventually, murder). Some scholars see this as a purely fantastical creation, and claim that de Sade was exercising the bounds of his literal fantasies, but I say if this is the stuff that got him going, it’s probably a good thing that he was stuck in the Bastille most of the time.
I do not ever want to revisit this book again, but I may do more reading on de Sade himself, or in some of the scholarly writings that have come from intellectual thinkers grappling with this text (it has incredibly been used by sexologists like Masters and Johnson, and people interested in kink as an educational tool, and seems to have been very influential).
All this to say, I do not really recommend reading this book unless you are prepared to live with the images you’ll then have in your brain until someone finally invents brain bleach.
Read Harder Challenge 2019: A book written in prison.