(Original Review, 2008)
Good old erotica. Instead of just 'lets do it'.....wine and dine, ballroom dance, see the city lights, drink some coffee, and then 'lets do it'.
The book is quite mildly interesting regarding the psychology of sexuality. It describes the the progression/escalation of some types of non-normative types of sexuality and sexual fetishes to serious deviations from the norm. One example in the book is the evolution from 'normal' sexual penetration in the first part to full-scale mass piquerism in the last part. Which is why Bloch, Hirschfeld and Eulenberg found the book very relative to their studies of human sexuality.
On the other hand, this book is deeply unpleasant, I forced myself to read almost all of it and somewhat regret the experience. It took me some time ( years ) to get over it, 120 Days is certainly not a titillating pornographic novel like American Psycho, which is disturbing as you can 'get off' on the sex and murder thinly veiled as literature. Arguing over whether it is literature misses the point. Philosophically, it describes a particular point on the map. A brutal, bleak, horrifying philosophical space, but a space nonetheless. The main characters in Sade don't just torture people to death, they describe in great detail why they are doing it. It's a description of what happens when power ends up in very bad people's hands, at the same time as it's a rational refutation of religion and superstition.
Personally,I think the way to understand De Sade is as a global pioneer in the art of trolling. His actual sexual acts were fairly tame in the broad scheme of things - 15 year-old servants, but people were getting married at that age in his time. As far as history records, his actual practical sexual tastes didn't extend much further than a little light flagellation and buggery. What he really loved was to shock and upset people with what he wrote, and he was extraordinarily good at it. In 'Philosophy in the Bedroom', he extends the theory that God must want us to have anal sex, or he wouldn't have made our arseholes so deliciously tight. In one paragraph he lands a perfect hit on both sexually prudish Christians and atheistic, Rousseau-ite Pangloss / Natural Man types. Troll perfection! But it's more about unpacking what the concept of 'troll' might mean. There have always been people who enjoy poking away at society's dark places through transgressive writing. De Sade was very good at spotting the hypocrisy of the morality and dogma of his time, and at picking it to pieces and laying it bare. During the period, Christians (as some do now) were prone to explaining the world in terms of God's intentions, within a tradition that goes back to Boethius. But Rousseau had painted a picture of a world in which everything is as nature intends, and that if we follow nature, all will be well. In the example I gave, De Sade managed to poke fun at both parties in one go, pointing out by implication that all of the distasteful things in life might also be made the way God or nature intended, including the most distasteful human desires. I used the term 'troll' because I think that De Sade would have loved the internet, and would have totally understood the urge to get a reaction by giving calculated offence. But I also think that you can see a broader picture around the people who do that now if you put it into historical context. Many contemporary 'trolls' probably also feel that they are exposing hypocrisy and broadening minds.
De Sade was 'lucky' enough to exist at a time of great personal affluence in his class, and huge personal peril. I think he would have loved the internet with its infinite possibilities.
Bottom-line: No, the book is not really aiming to be titillating at all. It's an experiment to see how far boundaries and morality can be pushed...and then push a step further, and a step further, on and on to see what the logical conclusion is. I think I'm pretty unflappable but I couldn't make it through it. Nauseating. Very boring reading, out of this world monologues and almost no smut.