When I was building #dwitd, I decided to build a companion piece based on the Marquis de Sade’s The 120 Days of Sodom—because those are the two texts I’m juxtaposing in my (still unwritten) essay.¹ (There’s a link to this new thing below.)
The core of Sade’s work is a list of 600 “passions”—his term for transgressive sexual activity—four lists of 150 passions each, ranged under the headings “simple,” “complex,” “criminal,” and “murderous.” The first list is presented as a series of stories, but the circumstances of composition² prevented him from embedding the subsequent lists in a narrative—so they’re just lists, which makes them easy to browse (though the content sometimes makes them difficult to browse).
There’s a significant amount of narrative that sets up the relating of the 600 passions—settings set; characters introduced; rules, regulations, timetables, and punishments pronounced—but the bit that is significant to this project is the following explanation of ‘libertine refinement,’ which occurs almost immediately before the commencement of the main action:
“As for the diversity, it is authentic, you may be sure of it; study closely that passion which to your first consideration seems to perfectly resemble another, and you will see that a difference does exist and that, however slight it may be, it possesses precisely that refinement, that touch which distinguishes and characterizes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.”
So, tiny differences are the source of great pleasure—at least for more advanced libertines. This is, in my reading, the guiding principle of The 120 Days, the thing that dictates the logic of the lists. Maybe you already see why it doesn’t work, but for me, it took this entry, number 40 on the list of criminal passions:
“He fucks a goat in the nostrils which meanwhile is licking his balls; and during this exercise, he is alternately flogged and has his asshole licked.”
The first time I read this, I thought—well, which nostril? Does he pick one, or go back and forth? If he alternates, which nostril does he start with? What if the goat chews on his balls instead, or screams? Is the goat male or female? What color is it? What breed is it? And as far as the bit after the semicolon, well…
Let’s do a little math: there are four choices with regard to nostril, two with regard to the sex of the goat, and three actions (that I’ve listed) for the goat: 4 * 3 * 2 = 24 variations on this one entry. If we take into account the breed and coloration of the goat, other things the goat might be doing, and the dozens of possibilities for things happening to the man “during this exercise,” there are tens of thousands of variations.
Tens of thousands of variations on a single “passion,” and each one—according to the logic of the text—”possesses precisely that refinement” that produces pleasure for those advanced in libertinage. But Sade’s text collapses this profusion of passions into a single entry, and moves briskly on.
I built “he [blanks] a goat in the nostrils” (#hbgn) to illustrate the impossibility of Sade’s project—or, if not “impossibility,” at least the irresolvable tension between the text’s guiding principle and its rigid division and enumeration of libertine passions. I wanted to show both the huge amounts of variation possible within a particular format, and how boring those variations actually are—despite the appalling violence and unbelievable amounts of coprophagia, The 120 Days is relentlessly monotonous.
I wasn’t sure how to show that, though, until I found this macro for producing cycling links. The game (after a content warning) is just one screen, initially containing the text “he fucks a goat in the nostrils while it licks his balls while he is flogged” [noun, verb, noun, prepositional phrase, noun, conjunction, noun, verb, possessive pronoun, noun, conjunction, pronoun, verb phrase]. Thirteen moving parts, as it were—some with only a few choices, and some with many—out of which innumerable variations³ on a particular grammatical construction of a particular sex act can be constructed.
It is, I hope, both transgressive and boring, with occasional moments of genuine surprise:
2. Sade wrote the 120 Days while imprisoned in the Bastille, over the course of about five weeks, in a tiny script on a twelve-meter scroll of paper. It was lost when the Bastille was stormed—Sade had been transferred out about ten days beforehand—and though it was later recovered unharmed, Sade never saw it again, and never attempted to reconstruct it.
3. Well, not really “innumerable”: if I’ve done the math right, there are just under 76 billion grammatically-correct combinations. That number grows to 303 (and a half) billion if we ignore pronoun agreement rules, and 26 (and a half) trillion (American trillions) combinations if we ignore grammatical correctness altogether. This last number is what #hbgn is actually capable of producing, which is astounding.
First, a few things about the game itself:
I refer to “dirty words in the Dictionary” (hereafter #dwitd) as a game, although it lacks one of the more important features of games: it can’t be won or lost (maybe this makes it not-a-game; I don’t really care). Play continues as long as the player has patience.
#dwitd is an exploration of the gaps, omissions, lacunae, and loops in the definitions of sex-and-sex-related words in Samuel Johnson’s 1755 Dictionary of the English Language. It is, literally, the Twine-enabled equivalent of flipping through a dictionary—and, like that activity, it is potentially endless.¹ Beginning with either fornication or debauchery, players “look up” the words used to define other words, building—at least ostensibly—a fuller picture of what it means to “commit lewdness.” Not every word in every definition is an active link to a new entry: only those words that I thought important to the task at hand have their own entry/passage.
#dwitd contains 73 playable passages, 69 of which are entries from the Dictionary; some passages contain multiple, related words. “CORRUPT,” for example, includes the definitions for three senses of that word (active [transitive] verb, neutral [intransitive] verb, adjective) as well as “corruption”—and it lists, but does not define, eight other derivatives of corrupt. Whore, sensual, and lewd are also compound entries. The entries themselves are quoted directly from Johnson’s Dictionary (which is why he gets an author credit). I’ve omitted the etymological notes and the example quotations (with one exception), and sometimes omitted some of a word’s definitions. (I’ve retained the order of the included definitions, but the numbers don’t always match the numbers in the Dictionary.)
There are four words for which I’ve made the subtext explicit (under a horizontal rule, in a different font)—and, with two of these, I’ve made leaps that aren’t strictly permitted by the game’s internal logic: from sex to genitals, and from genitals to castration. With the first, I just wanted to include genitals—but the second leap was suggested by the supporting quotation included with genitals (the only one I included, and I included the fuller quote from which Johnson [or his source] edited the example).
So, why did I make this thing?
I’m working on a conference-paper-draft-of-a-dissertation-chapter about Johnson’s Dictionary and Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom. I’m arguing (at least at this point) that each of those texts works against its own organizing principle. Here’s part of the abstract:
In the Preface to his Dictionary of the English Language (1755), Johnson writes that the lexicographer’s task is cultivation: he ‘toils’ to “remove rubbish and clear obstructions,” tending the language in order to preserve and prolong its earlier state of undefiled perfection. The Dictionary is, according to its compiler, an attempt to regulate and control an otherwise dangerously fecund and indiscriminate tongue. But in practice it is something else, containing as it does a number of “obsolete,” “low,” “vulgar,” and “cant” words; the lexicographer allows the language to remain defiled.
Sade’s 120 Days is structured, like the Dictionary, as a list: 600 perverse sexual “passions” are equally distributed under four major headings. But its ‘preface’ describes proliferation instead of pruning: it is the minute differences between two sexual acts that contain “precisely that refinement … which characterizes and distinguishes the kind of libertinage wherewith we are here involved.” The text works against its stated principle, however: with only 600 slots to fill, multiple variations on the same act are limited, and the ‘refinement’ necessary to pleasure is foreclosed. Indeed, where the lists are most in line with Sade’s theory of libertinage, they are the most monotonous.
Elsewhere in the abstract I write that I want to “read the Dictionary as erotica,” and that’s what #dwitd is an attempt to do.
It all began with the definition of “fornication”: to “commit lewdness.” Well, what’s lewdness? and what are lustfulness, and libidinousness? The Dictionary circles around “the physical act of love” without ever candidly defining it (even the words penis and vagina are absent). This circling can certainly be read as reticence and propriety on Johnson’s part, but it can also be read as lexicographic foreplay, a definitional tease-and-denial game. That’s the reading #dwitd foregrounds: clicking through the looping and intertwined definitions might be enjoyable (or not), but it offers no sense of closure or completion—there is no clear place to stop.²
I have no idea if the game is “fun” or not; I can’t play it for more than a few minutes at a time, but I also find myself clicking through it for no real reason. I built it as a way of visually organizing the connections between the words, because trying to sketch it on paper was insufficient. That didn’t quite work: with 73 passages and 228 connections, it’s hard to parse as a diagram:
[Also, Twine doesn’t count multiple links between passages: so debauch, for example, is only connected to corrupt and intemperate once each, despite each word appearing five times in the definitions for debauch and its forms.]
In the course of building #dwitd, though, I realized that a clearly parseable word-web isn’t really what I wanted; the image above is about as clear as I want things, because the game—like the dictionary—is something to get lost in.
1. With one exception: there is one word which doesn’t loop back into the others; finding that word is as close to a win (or loss) as #dwitd gets. There’s also one—I think just one—unescapable loop (unless one deploys one’s browser’s ‘back’ button).
2. Again, with the exception mentioned in the first footnote. This is an exception I may remove in a future revision, though I also like that the only word offering closure is a bit of a disappointment.
There are a lot of asinine proverbs out there, and “Live every day as if it were your last” is one of them. It can’t be done. You know why? This is why:
Damn, Bill Murray.
Of course, the Book doesn’t want me to live every day like I’m going to be dead tomorrow—just one. It even provides me a handy hypothetical scenario—a meteorite is about to obliterate the planet, and only I know!—so that I’m healthy and there are no consequences, for me or anyone else. I’m Phil Connors for a day, I guess.
What would I do with a day like that? Have a ridiculous breakfast, yes—but I’d be drinking champagne from the bottle, and not coffee from the carafe. I’d be drinking all day, in fact. I’d play with my kids, I’d take my wife on a date (for lunch, before I got too drunk), I’d ignore the stacks of work that I’m mostly ignoring anyway. I might pick a fight with my asshole neighbor. No, no, I wouldn’t do that: I’d just burn his house down. No consequences, right?
Living a “last day” that’s radically different from all your other days seems, I don’t know, wrong somehow? I mean, I wouldn’t go to work if I knew I was going to be dead in twenty-four hours—but I also wouldn’t walk through a parking lot smashing car windows, or hire a van-ful of prostitutes, or gorge myself on french fries and doughnuts and cupcakes. I wouldn’t do any of those things anyway: why would I do them just because I was going to be dead soon?
Because my life is sad and miserable, and I need the extraordinary circumstance of my impending death to enable me to do what I’ve secretly desired to do all my life, the things that will finally make me happy, finally make my life worth living, when it’s finally too late——that, at least, is what the Book assumes. Stupid fucking book.
The sexual positions in question are illustrated in the Book with those wooden models artists use, and are rated in terms of difficulty, like ski slopes. Naturally, today’s task required a conversation with my wife:
Me: So, today’s task is to try one of these sexual positions. I was thinking we could try [REDACTED]?
Wife: We’ve tried that before, and it didn’t work.
Me: Well, what about [REDACTED]?
Wife: You’re not flexible enough to do that, remember?
Me: You don’t have to be mean about it.
Wife: I’m not being mean; you’re just not flexible. You’re like the Tin Man, before he gets oiled.
Me: [pause, trying to decide if I should make an inappropriate comment about ‘getting oiled’]
Wife: [knowing look, slight discouraging nod]
Me: Alright. There’s always [REDACTED]…
Wife: Absolutely not. Not even if I was drunk. Not even if I was so drunk I’d passed out.
Me: Look, the Book says we have to do this, so we have to do it. We have no choice in the matter!
Wife: What about [blank] and [blank] and [blank]? You didn’t do those.
Me: [sheepish pause] …this is different.
Wife: Because it involves you getting laid?
Me: Look, it’s the penultimate task. Sure, I skipped a bunch in the middle, but…
Wife: Fine. What about [REDACTED]?
Me: Yeah, that’s a possibility. We’d have to go buy some rope, a gallon of orange juice, and a monkey wrench, but——
Wife: [interrupting] I was kidding.
Me: [embarrassed pause] …oh.
Wife: I’m going to bed. Have fun with this one.
By itself, this doesn’t make any sense: a “contemporary artist” is just an artist working now, and how could I do anything else?
Fortunately, the Book provides a few “ideas” for its readers, which give one an idea of the sort of thing it means.
A two-meter test tube filled with semen, containing billions and billions of spermatozoa. A canvas filled with nothing but the artist’s signature, over and over. “A feminist video installation featuring nuns discussing their sexual fantasies about Jesus” — although that’s been done, after a fashion. Similarly, a performance piece involving a monk who has taken a vow of chastity lying in bed with two female nymphomaniacs — which has been done, ad nauseum.
The best one, though, is a supercomputer that connects two phone numbers at random, and records the conversation: this “the best” because these things already exist, and we’ve been down this road before. It’s a fun road, so I did it again.
There was — of course! — a better conversation before this one, but it was lost. Alas! And I lied in this one, which I try to avoid doing. It has its moments, though, despite not being nearly as good as the one before, in which I turned the conversation to hedgehogs after ten minutes of nonsense.
Fucking hedgehogs — they make everything funnier.
“Don’t waste the 4 minutes and 22 seconds (on average) you will spend on the toilet. Read the much-neglected Old Testament Book of Habakkuk instead, and try and improve yourself.”
Habakkuk is an odd book. The one verse from it I’ve ever heard quoted is: “For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea” (2:14). That verse is always taken out of context, though, as almost all verses from the Old Testament are — and it’s almost unavoidable, really, because so much of the Old Testament is unremittingly bizarre.
Habakkuk is, like most of the Prophets, full of blood and thunder, death and destruction, wailing and weeping and gnashing of teeth. It’s also not really clear to me what the occasion of the death and destruction in Habakkuk is: there’s blood and violence, but there’s also drunkenness and foreskins.
So, here’s the context for 2:14:
Woe to him that buildeth a town with blood, and stablisheth a city by iniquity! Behold, is it not of the LORD of hosts that the people shall labour in the very fire, and the people shall weary themselves for very vanity? For the earth shall be filled with the knowledge of the glory of the LORD, as the waters cover the sea. Woe unto him that giveth his neighbour drink, that puttest thy bottle to him, and makest him drunken also, that thou mayest look on their nakedness! Thou art filled with shame for glory: drink thou also, and let thy foreskin be uncovered: the cup of the LORD’s right hand shall be turned unto thee, and shameful spewing shall be on thy glory.
Really, verse 14 seems really out-of-place, and it’s not at all surprising to me that preachers who are on about the “knowledge of the glory of the Lord covering the earth” are less excited about explaining what that has to do with cities founded in blood, full of drunken carousers waving their foreskins around.
Speaking of foreskins, does anybody remember the part in Exodus when Zipporah hastily circumcises her son and throws the foreskin at Moses’ feet — or maybe his genitals? — so that God won’t kill him (him being Moses)? That’s a good one.
I’m also a fan of the story at the end of Judges about the Levite who allows his concubine to be raped to death, and then cuts her into pieces and sends them to various tribes to incite the Israelites into killing all the Benjaminites. Oh, and when Elisha had two bears kill forty-two kids for calling him ‘bald-head’? Classic.
What point was I trying to make? I’m not sure. I guess it’s this: read the Old Testament, sure, but only if you’re willing to appreciate the truly bizarre and discomfiting moments — of which there are many — without attempting to fit them into some preconceived framework of meaning.
I mean, the Bible is full of sex and violence and intrigue and things that make you say “what the fuck” — and none of that is as much fun if you’re trying to pretend it isn’t there.