Right now, I am currently in the middle of editing my thesis, a four-channel video installation initially inspired by the characters of the “raconteuses” in 120 Days of Sodom. Some historical scaffolding:
In de Sade’s half-finished pornographic screed, written while he was imprisoned in the Bastille before the French Revolution, four corrupt nobles stage an orgy with their wives (who are also each other’s daughters), twelve boy virgins and twelve girl virgins.
But something is missing! The most important element of this whole party is the hiring of four older women, brought in to narrate the spectacle. These women are to sit and tell stories of their lives. They are taxonomists of the perverse, and de Sade goes to great lengths to communicate that the party can absolutely not happen without them:
“the plan was to have described to them, in the greatest detail and in due order, every one of debauchery’s extravagances, all its divagations, all its ramifications, all its contingencies, all of what is termed in libertine language its passions. There is simply no conceving the degree to which man varies them when his imagination grows inflamed…and he who should succeed in isolating and categorizing and detailing these follies would perhaps perform one of the most splendid labors…it would thus be a question of finding some individuals capable of providing an account of all these excesses, then of analyzing them, of extending them, of itemizing them, of graduating them, and of running a story through it all, to provide coherence, and amusement.”
DeSade’s novel can be seen as an Anti-Rousseauian text–man’s innate nature isn’t good or noble. Man’s nature is perverse and disgusting.
In L’Age d’Or (the film through which I came to this story), Bunuel sets his final act at the end of the orgy; the nobles totter out of the castle, one by one–the leader of the band, Duc d’Blangis, looks startlingly like Jesus. A virgin limps through the open door, suffering and bleeding, and collapses. Jesus/Blangis approaches her, wraps her in a tender embrace, and brings her back inside. We hear a blood-curdling scream, and Jesus/Blangis reappears, strangely without his beard. Here, Bunuel shocks the audience by ending a tale of impossible bourgeois love with a vision of Jesus as a corrupt murderous libertine.
Salo, the Pasolini adaptation of the novel from the 1970s, by setting the story in Fascist Italy, becomes a humanist fable about the corrupt nature of power.
In my research on de Sade and early pornography, I discovered the ‘whore’s dialogue’, a popular and famed form, in which the old whore educates the young novice about sex and human nature. I feel that de Sade’s old whores, left narrating and maintaining the titillation of the nobles’ orgy, must have emerged from this tradition.
In thinking about the theoretical purposes of pornography; it makes the personal political by transforming intimate bodily acts into written language.