Aisling Campbell – Narrative and Desire in The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom

THE LETTER 02 (Autumn 1994) pages 69-86

The first symbolic binary language of “fort” and “da” introduces the subject to the world of the signifier, in which desire is implicated. The signifying chain implies an historicization of events – “fort” is significant only in terms of “da”, which has preceded it – and vice versa. Language and narrative attempt to articulate desire, but something always escapes, a beyond of language. Without language, the question of desire would remain closed – yet through language the subject eludes an ultimate satisfying of desire, which would bring death.

Sade, as perverse subject, sought to approach the object of desire directly, risking the death of desire in the process. Yet he was more famous for his writings than for his actual misdeeds; his writing allows a tension to be maintained between the subject and the object and between the subject and the object of his desire. It is impossible to read Sade in a dispassionate way. As linguistic and perverse act, The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom involves the reader as participant in Sade’s discourse. One is struck by a peculiar ennui – it is difficult to be as enthusiastic as Sade’s characters about their adventures. The most conscientious reader finds it difficult to accompany Sade’s heroes to a supposed endpoint (which, however, never comes). Far from being merely a pornographic archive, however, Sade’s discourse opens up essential questions regarding language, desire and death.

In The Hundred and Twenty Days of Sodom a cast of hundreds of personages gathers in the Chateau of Silling. Libertines, procuresses, young boys, maidens and deformed hags perform a vast…

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