The unwilling misogynists

Sade, according to Andrea Dworkin, is ‘the world’s most foremost pornographer’. This is not a compliment.

With this dubiously preeminent status, Sade apparently ‘embodies and defines male sexual values’, and before one has time to interject ‘Those aren’t my values’ or ‘That’s not my locker room chat’, Dworkin continues: ‘In him, one finds rapist and writer twisted in one scurvy knot. His life and writing were of a piece, a whole cloth soaked in the blood of women imagined and real.’

One would be hard pushed to see The 120 Days of Sodom as anything less than a deeply misogynistic work, soaked in the blood of imaginary women. The Duc informs the women at Silling that they are ‘feeble, fettered creatures’, destined solely for the libertines’ pleasures, and that ‘the life of one woman – did I say of one woman? of all the women inhabiting the earth’s surface – is as insignificant as the swatting of a fly.’ The female body is reviled: ‘I’ve never understood how tits could really serve any other purpose than wiping arses’, says the Duc, while Curval asks ‘do you realize what kind of creature a woman is? One who can, like an oven, hatch some snot deep inside her vagina?’ The male libertines are squeamish at the sight of a vagina, and their female victims are warned ‘As a rule, offer your fronts to us only very rarely – remember that the rancid part of your body which Nature only formed in a moment of madness is always the one that revolts us the most.’ And with the female victims of violence in the tales far out-numbering the male victims, could Sade’s novel be any more misogynistic?

Yes, is the unfortunate reply.

Will and I have arguably made The 120 Days of Sodom more misogynistic than Les 120 journées de Sodome, because we have certainly – though unwillingly – made it more violent against women.

We have, for instance, clearly identified the victim’s sex when it is suggested more discreetly in the original French. When Sade writes, for example, ‘Il coupe les deux fesses, après l’avoir enculée et fouettée’, we give ‘He cuts off both her buttocks, having buggered and flogged [her]’, replacing the quiet agreement of the past participle by a more strongly identified personal pronoun (in our defence, we flag up our intervention). Moreover, we have often been obliged to designate the victim’s sex where none exists in Sade’s original. French uses gender-neutral pronouns (e.g. ‘Il lui fend les lèvres et les narines’; ‘Il lui arrache plusieurs ongles des doigts, des mains ou des 
pieds’) whereas English must introduce a gendered possessive pronoun (‘He splits his/her lips and nostrils’; ‘He tears off several nails from his/her fingers or toes’). But options aren’t, well, an option, and we must specify the victim’s sex, though which one?

Because Sade’s victims are almost always female (identified by the appropriate pronoun, or primary and secondary sexual characteristics); because he flags it up when the victims are male (‘She announces that the following are buggers who murder male victims only’) thereby implying that female victims are the norm; and because we haven’t found a single occurrence when a victim is identifiable as male solely because of the agreement of the past participle, we make these victims female…

… ‘He splits her lips and nostrils’ and ‘He tears off several nails from her fingers or toes’.

The requirement to provide as straightforward and as clear as possible a translation of Sade’s novel has, it turns out, obliged us to make The 120 Days of Sodom even more misogynistic than the source text. We point out some of these predicaments and decisions in the editorial notes, but we can’t – we won’t – identify them all. To do so would distract the reader too much. It would also smack not so much of disapproval than of priggishness. Translators should not protest too much.



10 of the Strangest ‘Passions’ from The 120 Days

1. Makes her run naked on a freezing winter’s night in the middle of a garden, and there are ropes stretched across at intervals to trip her.

2. A bugger of men and women alike employs another powder whose effect is to deprive you of your senses and render you as if dead; you are indeed believed to be so – you are buried and you die in despair in your coffin, where you immediately come to your senses. He endeavours to stand over the spot in which you are buried to see if he can hear any screams – if he does he faints with pleasure. He has some of his family killed in this way.

3. They make her swallow a serpent which in turn will devour her.

4. He lets a girl sleep in her usual bedroom, the window of which she knows is very low to the ground: she is given opium; when she is fast asleep, she is moved to another bedroom identical to her own save for a window far higher off the ground that opens on to sharp stones; next, he barges into her bedroom, terrifying her; he tells her he is going to kill her; knowing her window to be low to the ground, she opens it and leaps through in great haste, but she falls on to the sharp stones from over thirty feet high, killing herself without anyone laying a finger on her.

5. He attaches a young girl, slim and attractive, to serve as a rod for a large rocket – she is carried off and falls back to earth with the rocket.

6. Sends for a woman with beautiful hair under the sole pretext of examining it, but treacherously cuts it off and comes when he sees her lament this misfortune, which makes him laugh a great deal.

7. He sews a girl into a fresh donkey-skin, with her head sticking out; he feeds her, and leaves her inside it until the animal’s hide suffocates her as it shrinks.

8. The seducer mentioned by Duclos gathers two women together: he exhorts the first to save her life by renouncing God and her religion, but she has been prompted beforehand not to do anything of the sort and told that if she does she will be killed, while if she does not no harm will come to her. She stands firm and he blows her brains out – ‘There’s one for God!’ He summons the second woman who, struck both by this example and by what she was told on the sly – that the only way to save her life was to renounce God – does everything that is asked of her. He blows her brains out – ‘There’s another for the Devil! The scoundrel plays this little game every week.

9. To combine incest, adultery, sodomy and sacrilege, he buggers his married daughter with a host.

10. He has the girl placed on a small trestle facing a deep pond, beyond which is a wall that offers an escape all the more assured as there is a ladder leaning against it, but first she has to dive into the pond, and this is all the more urgent as behind the trestle upon which she is placed a slow-burning fire is gaining on her little by little – if the fire reaches her she will be consumed, and if she dives into the water to avoid the fire she will drown as she does not know how to swim; with the fire upon her, she nevertheless chooses to throw herself into the water and head for the ladder she sees against the wall. Often the girl will drown, and there is no more to be said; if she is fortunate enough to reach the ladder she climbs up it, but a sabotaged rung near the top breaks underfoot when she reaches it, tipping her into a pit covered over with earth, which she had not seen and which, buckling under her weight, drops her into a flaming brazier where she perishes.

The 120 Days of Sodom: 10 Curious Facts

1. It was written in roughly 120 hours, over 37 consecutive days.

2. It was written on sheets of paper glued together to form a scroll 11cm wide and 12 metres long, which Sade kept in a copper cylinder.

3. Sade failed in his attempt to smuggle an earlier version of the story out of prison.

4. Sade features in one of the passions described on the 23rd Day as ‘the Marquis de …’

5. There are actually over 140 Days of Sodom – as the libertines arrive in Silling Castle on 29th October and don’t leave the castle before 20th March (their departure delayed by bad weather).

6. Silling Castle moves from Switzerland to the Black Forest in Germany in the course of the introduction.

7. Sade was moved from the Bastille prison on 3rd July 1789, just 11 days before it was stormed in the Revolution, and he never saw the scroll again.

8. It was first published in 1904 by Iwan Bloch, a pioneering sexologist.

9. Samuel Beckett almost translated it for the Obelisk Press in Paris in the 1930s.

10. A private foundation, Aristophil, paid €7 million for the scroll in 2014.