Subscribe to Newsletter
Monthly Newsletter: Join more than 3,000 African literature enthusiasts!
Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our "Guide to African Novels."

120 Days of Sodom

If the book does not shake us awake like a blow to the skull, why bother reading it in the first place?” — Franz Kafka

I may have followed Kafka’s exhortation beyond its illogical extreme when I opened Marquis de Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom, an exhaustive index of sexual excesses in their most revolting form.  4 aristocrats, 46 sex slaves, 4 prostitutes, and 120 days in a heavily guarded castle tucked far far way from the “just” world of society.

120 Days is a cross between a fairytale and the Arabian nights though turned inside out. There is a Duke, a Bishop, a castle, and damsels. The 4 prostitutes have the task of weaving the numerous acts of sexual abuse and savage killings into stories. But the stories end up being told and retold, stringed and framed, appear and die off, begin again and break off.

Sade warns, “I advice the overmodest to lay my book aside at once if he would not be scandalized.” What he is not saying is that 120 Days is light reading for no one, not even for the radically immodest. Even the ancient city of Sodom will blush at reading the book.

“The Bastille was a desert.” — G. Battaile

Sade wrote 120 Days of Sodom while Sade was confined in the infamous Bastille. In many ways, the book bears the marks of confinement.

What is Sade trying to do?

If eroticism is the threshold where violence meets sexuality, Sade wants, it seems, to communicate what life in this threshold would be like, a threshold where sex is equivalent to mass murder, rape, and incest. A world where the only currency–the only thing exchanged or circulated–are mutilated and disfigured bodies?  120 Days is not a novel. There are no characters. There are only bodies memorable because of their deformities and for their capacity to be killed. For Sade, eroticism is a kind of sexual state of exception and 120 Days is a manual on how to live constantly in this state of exception. Not even Sade, despite the libertine that he was, could have been able to live out the extreme violence imagined in the book.

Is it madness that drove Sade to write a book like this? Is it solitude?

Since madness is a kind of solitude, which is also a kind of madness, it is hard to say. It’s funny though because the erotic is always a private experience sought for in secret places far from the social world of convention. Like madness, eroticism is also silent. Eroticism flowers where, as with madness, desire exceeds the boundaries of the law. My guess is that only madness could take Sade to the solitary places of the heart where eroticism could unite with the most extreme form of violence and death.

“His writing was the outlet for his passions and in it he pushed back the limits of what was possible beyond the craziest dreams ever framed by man.”G. Battaille

Should we burn 120 Days of Sodom? No.

Photo Credit: Sociopath (Album cover)

Tags: , , , ,

I hold a doctorate in English from Duke University and recently joined the Marquette University English faculty as an Assistant Professor. I love teaching African fiction and contemporary British novels. Brittle Paper is the virtual space/station where I play and experiment with ideas on how to reinvent African fiction and literary culture.

4 Responses to “120 Days of Sodom” Subscribe

  1. Boye 2010/09/29 at 19:56 #

    If we can’t burn it can we send it to Terry Jones?

  2. Ainehi 2010/09/30 at 05:18 #


  3. Bryant Stieglitz 2011/04/15 at 08:10 #

    Hi there, You’ve performed an incredible job. I will certainly digg it and in my opinion recommend to my friends. I am confident they’ll be benefited from this website.

  4. Black pinstripe suit 2011/08/27 at 06:40 #

    Allison Virgin

Leave a Reply

Welcome to Brittle Paper, your go-to site for African writing and literary culture. We bring you all the latest news and juicy updates on publications, authors, events, prizes, and lifestyle. Follow us on Twitter and Instagram (@brittlepaper) and sign up for our "I love African Literature" newsletter.

Monthly Newsletter!

Subscribe for African literature news, and receive a free copy of our
"Guide to African Novels."


Teju Cole Joins Harvard’s Department of English as Gore Vidal Professor of Creative Writing

teju cole sydney morning herald

Teju Cole has joined Harvard University’s Department of English as the Gore Vidal Professor of the Practice of Creative Writing. […]

Always Another Country | Sisonke Msimang’s North America Book Tour

sisonke msimang

Last October, Sisonke Msimang’s debut memoir Always Another Country was published by Jonathan Ball Publishers in South Africa. The account of […]

Chimamanda Adichie Adds Her Voice to Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis

anglophone crisis - image from actu cameroun

Chimamanda Adichie has added her voice to Cameroon’s Anglophone Crisis, following efforts by Cameroonian novelists Imbolo Mbue and Patrice Nganang. […]

Deji Olukotun’s Novels, Nigerians In Space and After The Flare, Optioned by Major Film Company

Image from ASU Events.

Deji Olukotun’s novels Nigerians in Space and After the Flare have been optioned by major film company. The crime novelist shared this […]

Petina Gappah Is Working on a Rhodesia Trilogy Comprising a Comedy, a Tragedy, and an Epic

petina gappah

Petina Gappah is working on a series, what she calls the Rhodesia Trilogy. The Zimbabwean writer and novelist, whose short […]

Nnedi Okorafor Announces New Project Due in December, Set in the Universe of Binti and Lagoon

Nnedi okorafor - la guardia

Fresh from her trending appearance at the Emmys with Game of Thrones author George R.R. Martins, Nnedi Okorafor has announced […]

Thanks for signing up!

Never miss out on new posts. Subscribe to a digest, too:

No thanks, I only want the monthly newsletter.