“Who I am finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part which has never betrayed itself in public by any thought, word, or deed, but communicates through subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself?”
-Dominique Aury (All quotes attributed to Aury were pulled from this article.)
In her late 40s, worried about her lover’s devotion, Dominique Aury, whom I have seen described as “nun-like” in more than one place (though this could be a single source echoing out into the chattering set) penned the opening of The Story of O. She and her lover, the writer Jean Paulhan, had had one of those conversations that is the staple of romantic comedies and op-ed pieces penned by misogynists: can a woman write erotica? It seems quaint now to ask this this way – women are overwhelmingly the producers of sex writing in romance novels and related narratives of the domestic. But, of course, the real question is whether a woman could write erotica like a man, the man in this case being Marquis de Sade.
Without preamble or explanation, O is taken by her lover to a chateau in the Paris suburb of Roissy. She is stripped, costumed, beaten, and violated, tied up in dungeons, used. Strictly speaking, this is consentual, though as the narrative continues, the question of consent becomes murky, to put it mildly. The only words she utters, and those only late in this sequence, are “I love you.” Her internal monologue is not one of pleasure or of pain – there are no descriptions of shattering orgasms or deeply felt soul-twinning pleasure – a mainstay of sex writing now – nor is there much commentary about the physical pain O is enduring – we are told of her screams, but not the feelings that cause them, either emotional or physical. Indeed, despite the very clear concrete picture of how exactly O is laid out, strung up, and entered – there is very little description of the sex act itself – though I assume some of this is the coy translation I was reading, that insisted on using the term “belly” in place of more common phrases for the female sex. (I assume. I can’t read French.) The eroticism is strange, of the mind, dissociated, and theological – a submission of the godly sort.
Yet dearly I love you, and would be lov’d fain,
But am betroth’d unto your enemy;
Divorce me, untie or break that knot again,
Take me to you, imprison me, for I,
Except you enthrall me, never shall be free,
Nor ever chaste, except you ravish me.
–John Donne, from Holy Sonnets: “Batter my heart, three-person’d God”
As such, I think it could be successfully argued that O is a form of ventriloquism, acting out the masculine erotic in female terms…but then I say stuff like that, I start balking at terminology for gender, and for the expression of desire in gendered terms. Without getting into a bunch of shit about why men and women are different, and if that is essential or learned or blahblahblah, in this one case, with this one story, which is a seduction between a man who admires de Sade and a woman who desires that man…O is almost a pronoun – a third person feminine “I” – or possibly “eye”, if you want to get cute like the academics do and talk about dis/ease and the male gaze – which you could without much resistance to the penetrating insight, pun intended. Roissy is written with 18th Century Gothic furniture – the dungeons and stone floors, the anachronistic clothing – carefully detailed – the fire in the grate that O tends. This is the Sadeian playset, and the O is set in the middle of it and beset. O is the great emptiness of female desire which provokes while accepting. Provokes by accepting.
‘I wrote it alone, for him, to interest him, to please him, to occupy him. I wasn’t young, nor particularly pretty. I needed something which might interest a man like him.’ (Pressed as to why she wrote in pencil, she replied mischievously: ‘So as not to stain the sheets.’) -Dominique Aury
I love this person, this Aury who became pseudonymous, her seductions public but veiled. Her pencil, like the Woolfian Manx cat, this joke about the phallic pen and its untidy eruptions of ink. There’s something here that eludes, that isn’t spoken, a lack of commentary on a lack of narrative. These few forays I’ve taken into the feminine literary erotic – into which category I would put Wifey & The Ravishing of Lol Stein – just baffle me, but baffle me with the horror of recognition. And I see O in so many fictions, now that I have met her. Stephenie Meyer, imagining the tableau that became Twilight: the image of a woman and a man in the gloaming, a man who “was having a difficult time restraining himself from killing her immediately”. (Citation here) It’s not nihilism, exactly, but still a strange negation, striding out onto the prison of the stage and enacting male fantasies through a woman’s mind, or a woman’s fantasies through a man’s eyes, or the strange silence when one reads the other.
Many people did not believe O could have been written by a woman.
[…]I do not think I ever opened a book in my life which had not something to say upon woman’s inconstancy. Songs and proverbs, all talk of woman’s fickleness. But perhaps, you will say, these were all written by men.”
“Perhaps I shall. Yes, yes, if you please, no reference to examples in books. Men have had every advantage of us in telling their own story. Education has been theirs in so much higher a degree; the pen has been in their hands. I will not allow books to prove anything.”
In the next section, O returns to her life as a photographer, and is given by her lover to another man, Sir Stephen, an Englishman who is a brotherly cousin to her lover. I don’t have much background in French lit, but I am aware of the characterization of the French in English literature as oversexed and irrational. I am willing to bet this Sir Stephen is one of a species of the French construction of the English – a blue-eyed titled imperialist who does not profess to love O, who uses her exclusively “as he would a boy”.
The narrative, such as it is, begins to falter in this section, the fantasy of Roissy and its strictures stitched messily to the more modern word of apartments and the work day – the playset uncomfortably expanding to include daily life – the wardrobe amended to include only those things dictated by her lover, her camera framing a model of exotic Russian poverty, her dress up over her head and her body commented on in the rudest of terms by her lover and his near-brother. She becomes a sort of erotic intercessor for the men – the creation of one, given to the other. We begin to see O balk – she will not masturbate for Sir Stephen – not give him this image of her pleasure? – so he pins her to the couch and stops up her mouth with his cock. Never once is O said to climax, or to flinch but in the most autonomic of ways.
Sexual power and privilege in “Story of O” are rigid, systematic, almost metaphysically encoded — O is like a supplicant joining a religious order. But what seems most out of sync with our time isStory of O‘s utter lack of that therapeutic quality that pervades so much contemporary porn: that remarkable insistence that this stuff is good for you, bringing with it self-knowledge, autonomy and the ability to love. –Molly Weatherfield
The final section finds O deposited again in a Roissy-like chateau, this time run and peopled almost exclusively by women. Her sumbission begins to be written on her body – chains bound to her belly, as this translation so coyly puts it, brands marking her as Sir Stephen’s burned into her flesh. The men for whom she has submitted all of this time begin to recede, no longer using her in the ways she has been used; supplicant, novice, intercessor. They begin to demand she seek out other women to people Roissy – the exotic model, her very underage sister. The fantasy is its own bait, just to misquote Donne again; once it is conjured, it can be discarded, but each invocation is a escalation.
The ending of O is abrupt. As my husband pointed out, all seductions have to end, and the end is not really that – at which point I imagined Aury and her lover, over the next decades, smiling together with knowing that she was the one who wrote this for him. She didn’t come out as the writer until after his death, though there is a wonderful anecdote about his funeral:
Jacqueline Paulhan didn’t find out Dominique was the author until the day of her father-in-law’s burial. ‘There was a very big bouquet of flowers with no name attached,’ she told me. ‘I was standing next to Dominique Aury, whom of course I knew well, and I remarked, “I suppose they must be from Pauline Reage.” Dominique turned to me and said, “Mais Jacqueline, Pauline Reage, c’est moi.”‘
Oh, c’est moi. C’est moi!
The abruptness is odd, conditional: O is abandoned by her lover to Roissy again, or she decides to die, which her lover permits. It is not clear whether the lover is the original one, or Sir Stephen. She had been completely negated, so much so there is no finality to the ending, no closure, to use pop teminology that I hate. She does not understand herself, or misunderstand herself; she is not. The story – or lack of story, as there is no causality here, really – simply ends.
I think I’m going to play chicken with this one, and leave it unrated. I can’t talk about simple enjoyment with this one – like I haven’t been able to with all of the literary erotic penned – or penciled – by women that I’ve read. This isn’t sexy, in the strictest sense – not something that fires my libido – but I can’t deny its naked eroticism – eroticism that is impossible and disembodied in a way, even as it orchestrates the furniture and clothing, blocks the players, writes the limited dialogue. It feels like an expert act of misdirection.
So, I just let my husband read this, and he, after pointing out a few odd phrasings that I have since corrected, noted that this is incredibly impersonal for one of my reviews – this is not about me, or my reactions, or my desires. True. We’ve been talking about it for a half hour – he has just been called off by our son, because our daughter is crying, and I am here, interstitial. There’s something so intimate about this story – so specific – that I don’t feel my way to myself – and if and where I do – it is no business of yours. He dared me – my lover of decades – to write a seduction of him. What do I imagine turns him on? This made me blink – and blink – imagining Aury writing with her pencil in the cool, dark sheets. This book is an incredible act of daring, of bravery, and of the terror that underpins bravery – Aury holding her lover in her mind with such specificity that he wanted her to broadcast this to the world. Jesus. Can you imagine? It almost folds in on itself – the lovers watching each other watching each other. I can’t even imagine conjuring someone like O, what that would take. And once conjured, I can’t imagine letting her die, and I can’t see it going any other way.
(And just fyi, the kindle edition of Story of O
is absolute shit. Go paper or not at all.)