Dominique Aury, who (as "Pauline Reage") wrote the classic Story of O in 1954, died on May 2 at 91. Naively, perhaps, I was surprised that more thoughtful notice wasn't taken of the event. Searching the Web for comment or tribute, all I found were obituaries like "Dominique Aury: Frenchwoman who wrote an erotic bestseller to keep her lover."
"Bestseller" hardly covers it. Story of O has sold millions of copies, and hasn't been out of print in more than 40 years. It has influenced numerous erotic fictions, been made into two (wretched) films and given shape to countless fantasy lives.
But it's a difficult book to think about right now, its structure and assumptions somehow out of tune with our times. O, a young fashion photographer, goes with her lover to a mysterious chateau, where she's whipped, chained, exposed and humiliated, all in the supplest, most finely poised sentences imaginable. Elegantly choreographed and costumed, Story of O seems a bit of a period piece now -- like 1950s haute couture in a world of latex and piercings.
But it's the novel's pre-feminism that makes it seem so foreign to us. The chateau is run entirely by and for the pleasure of men: No male submissives or female dominants need apply (though in the character of Anne-Marie, there's a suggestion that some of the middle management is female). 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 is Story 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.
O doesn't have to learn to love -- if she learns anything, it's her utter need to be dominated by love. And she certainly doesn't have to learn to live, since the novel ends with her death or abandonment by her lover, convincing us that the two eventualities are equivalent. Time away from a lover -- a master -- is dead time for O. In popular contemporary pornographies, on the other hand, time away from the lover is almost a convention, an opportunity for healthy soul-searching before the books' happy -- even wholesome -- endings. Beauty and her prince cuddle in the saddle in Anne Rice's "Sleeping Beauty" trilogy. Pat Califia's lesbian biker girls ride off clean and sober at the end of Doc and Fluff. Even John Preston's eponymous leatherman, Mr. Benson, goes a little sappy on us, piercing his young partner with a diamond stud and growling, "I guess we're hitched now, asshole."
It's easy to smile at these simplified happy endings -- supermarket romance laced with the banalities of consciousness raising. But they also represent an achievement: a faith that it's possible to integrate daily life and supportive relationships with the extreme demands of the sexual imagination. And even if the stories get a little preachy at times, there's still a cheerful community spirit to them, as well as a nice dose of irreverence and a willingness to laugh at oneself. Contemporary sex radicalism's public conversation is in some way reminiscent of an earlier, equally pornographic era, the recklessly public and talky Enlightenment. Think of the Marquis de Sade's whacked out discourses on sex, power and "nature;" think of his dramatic dialogue Philosophy in the Bedroom as the proceedings of a group self-help session, perhaps with a hot tub nearby.
But is it possible to assimilate Story of O's lonely, pristine quest toward self-negation into this clamorous, self-actualizing, "sex positive" culture?
The answer to this question lies in the mysterious facts of the novel's genesis, first described by Jean de St. Jorris in a 1994 New Yorker article. As the obituary said, Aury did write the book in order to keep her lover, the critic and literateur Jean Paulhan. She'd become his mistress during the Nazi occupation, when both of them, unbeknownst to each other, worked for the same underground resistance journal. Their love affair, which spanned three decades, continued to follow wartime rules of silence and clandestineness -- the secret meetings, the meticulous planning. Though Paulhan never considered leaving his wife, who had Parkinson's disease, he expected her to accommodate to the affair, just as he expected Aury to fill in the lonely Sundays and vacation times. I think of the famous photograph of Francois Mitterrand's funeral, wife and mistress both in attendance, and what a fearsome investment of female tact and anxiety such an arrangement must entail.
For Aury, the anxiety came to a head in the early 1950s. She was in her middle 40s, and she began to fear that Paulhan might leave her for a younger woman. "I wasn't young, I wasn't pretty, it was necessary to find other weapons," she said.
"I could also write the kind of stories you like," she told him one day. Paulhan admired the work of de Sade; he'd written the introduction to an important edition of his work. When he had voiced his doubt that a woman could write compelling S/M, Aury said she knew that she could. The fantasy lay buried in the half-forgotten depths of her dreams, conceived before she had ever met Paulhan, before she had ever known sex or love. Story of O is in no way a humble entreaty by a woman terrified of abandonment. It was clearly meant to overwhelm. Revealing a fierce, complete and unsparing sexual imagination, it was every bit as much a dare as a love offering.
And it's in this way that the novel transcends the circumstances of its creation -- the history, the manners. Foreign to our own manners and circumstances, it's as much a dare to us as it was to Paulhan -- an invitation to rediscover a dimly remembered place in the imagination. In an essay called "A Girl in Love," Aury remembers "those oft repeated reveries, those slow musings just before falling asleep, always the same ones, which the purest and wildest love always sanctioned, or rather always demanded, the most frightful surrender, in which childish images of chains and whips added to constraint the symbols of constraint."
At the bottom of Aury's elegant and urbane pornography lies the fantasy life of an impressionable child -- the sort who listens carefully to the overheated perorations of an overzealous religious school teacher, who pores endlessly over the lurid imagery of a comic book or an illustrated saint's life. Because pornography's power doesn't reside in the extremity of its images and motifs, but in their naivete and redundancy -- in the pornographer's need to employ the symbols of constraint, and to spell out the abstractions of power and passion in the most primitive terms possible.
Pornography is not only shocking -- it's embarrassing, a return to a time when we hadn't yet learned to defend ourselves against the outrages of our imaginations. But Aury wasn't embarrassed. She almost, I think, saw the humor of the thing (Return to the Chateau, Story of O's muddled and largely unsuccessful sequel, contains a few wildly self-parodic passages). But she didn't seem to see the need (as I do, for example, in my porn) to use irony to bridge the gap between the outer and inner lives. Vastly literate, circumspect, living a life of quietly constrained passion, she was as unshaken by the same raging desire within her as Emily Bronte.
And so this is the essay I couldn't find -- my tribute, recognition, thanks, to Aury for showing me, and others, the way into the chateau. Or the ways -- in the first pages of the novel O enters the chateau twice, once blindfolded, once not -- take your pick, it doesn't matter. Just as it doesn't matter how we stumble in, stupidly, haphazardly, purposefully, sex-positively -- the door will open to disclose our own half-forgotten, naively imagined visions waiting there for us. Just as Aury's imagination waited for her to write this most serendipitous of masterpieces, this most inevitable of visions.
From the Publisher
"A rare thing, a pornographic book well written and without a trace of obscenity." Graham Greene
Read an Excerpt
The Lovers of Roissy
Her lover one day takes O for a walk in a section of the city where they never gothe Montsouris Park, the Monceau Park. After they have taken a stroll in the park and have sat together side by side on the edge of a lawn, they notice, at one corner of the park, at an intersection where there are never any taxis, a car which, because of its meter, resembles a taxi.
"Get in," he says.
She gets in. It is autumn, and coming up to dusk. She is dressed as she always is: high heels, a suit with a pleated skirt, a silk blouse, and no hat. But long gloves which come up over the sleeves of her jacket, and in her leather handbag she has her identification papers, her compact, and her lipstick.
The taxi moves off slowly, the man still not having said a word to the driver. But he pulls down the shades of the windows on both sides of the car, and the shade on the back window. She has taken off her gloves, thinking he wants to kiss her or that he wants her to caress him. But instead he says:
"Your bag's in your way; let me have it."
She gives it to him. He puts it out of her reach and adds:
"You also have on too many clothes. Unfasten your stockings and roll them down to above your knees. Here are some garters."
By now the taxi has picked up speed, and she has some trouble managing it; she's also afraid the driver may turn around. Finally, though, the stockings are rolled down, and she's embarrassed to feel her legs naked and free beneath her silk slip. Besides, the loose garter-belt suspenders are slipping back and forth.
"Unfasten your garter belt," he says, "and take off your panties."
That's easy enough, all she has to do is slip her hands behind her back and raise herself slightly. He takes the garter belt and panties from her, opens her bag and puts them in, then says:
"You shouldn't sit on your slip and skirt. Pull them up behind you and sit directly on the seat."
The seat is made of some sort of imitation leather which is slippery and cold: it's quite an extraordinary sensation to feel it sticking to your thighs. Then he says:
"Now put your gloves back on."
The taxi is still moving along at a good clip, and she doesn't dare ask why Rene just sits there without moving or saying another word, nor can she guess what all this means to himhaving her there motionless, silent, so stripped and exposed, so thoroughly gloved, in a black car going God knows where. He hasn't told her what to do or what not to do, but she's afraid either to cross her legs or press them together. She sits with gloved hands braced on either side of her seat.
"Here we are," he says suddenly. Here we are: the taxi stops on a lovely avenue, beneath a treethey are plane treesin front of some sort of small private home which can be seen nestled between the courtyard and the garden, the type of small private dwelling one finds along the Faubourg Saint-Germain. The street lamps are some distance away, and it is still fairly dark inside the car. Outside it is raining.
"Don't move," Rene says. "Sit perfectly still."
His hand reaches for the collar of her blouse, unties the bow, then unbuttons the blouse. She leans forward slightly, thinking he wants to fondle her breasts. No. He is merely groping for the shoulder straps of her brassiere, which he snips with a small penknife. Then he takes it off. Now, beneath her blouse, which he has buttoned back up, her breasts are naked and free, as is the rest of her body, from waist to knee.
"Listen," he says. "Now you're ready. This is where I leave you. You're to get out and go ring the doorbell. Follow whoever opens the door for you, and do whatever you're told. If you hesitate about going in, they'll come and take you in. If you don't obey immediately, they'll force you to. Your bag? No, you have no further need for your bag. You're merely the girl I'm furnishing. Yes, of course I'll be there. Now run along."
Another version of the same beginning was simpler and more direct: the young woman, dressed in the same way, was driven by her lover and an unknown friend. The stranger was driving, the lover was seated next to the young woman, and it was the unknown friend who explained to the young woman that her lover had been entrusted with the task of getting her ready, that he was going to tie her hands behind her back, unfasten her stockings and roll them down, remove her garter belt, her panties, and her brassiere, and blindfold her. That she would then be turned over to the chateau, where in due course she would be instructed as to what she should do. And, in fact, as soon as she had been thus undressed and bound, they helped her to alight from the car after a trip that lasted half an hour, guided her up a few steps and, with her blindfold still on, through one or two doors. Then, when her blindfold was removed, she found herself standing alone in a dark room, where they left her for half an hour, or an hour, or two hours, I can't be sure, but it seemed forever. Then, when at last the door was opened and the light turned on, you could see that she had been waiting in a very conventional, comfortable, yet distinctive room: there was a thick rug on the floor, but not a stick of furniture, and all four walls were lined with closets. The door had been opened by two women, two young and beautiful women dressed in the garb of pretty eighteenth-century chamber-maids: full skirts made out of some light material, which were long enough to conceal their feet; tight bodices, laced or hooked in front, which sharply accentuated the bust line; lace frills around the neck; half-length sleeves. They were wearing eye shadow and lipstick. Both wore a close-fitting collar and had tight bracelets on their wrists.
I know it was at this point that they freed O's hands, which were still tied behind her back, and told her to get undressed, they were going to bathe her and make her up. They proceeded to strip her till she hadn't a stitch of clothing left, then put her clothes away neatly in one of the closets. She was not allowed to bathe herself, and they did her hair as at the hairdresser's, making her sit in one of those large chairs which tilts back when they wash your hair and straightens back up after the hair has been set and you're ready for the dryer. That always takes at least an hour. Actually it took more than an hour, but she was seated on this chair, naked, and they kept her from either crossing her legs or bringing them together. And since the wall in front of her was covered from floor to ceiling with a large mirror, which was unbroken by any shelving, she could see herself, thus open, each time her gaze strayed to the mirror.
When she was properly made up and preparedher eyelids penciled lightly; her lips bright red; the tip and halo of her breasts highlighted with pink; the edges of her nether lips rouged; her armpits and pubis generously perfumed, and perfume also applied to the furrow between her thighs, the furrow beneath her breasts, and to the hollows of her handsshe was led into a room where a three-sided mirror, and another mirror behind, enabled her to examine herself closely. She was told to sit down on the ottoman, which was set between the mirrors, and wait. The ottoman was covered with black fur, which pricked her slightly; the rug was black, the walls red. She was wearing red mules. Set in one of the walls of the small bedroom was a large window, which looked out onto a lovely, dark park. The rain had stopped, the trees were swaying in the wind, the moon raced high among the clouds.
I have no idea how long she remained in the red bedroom, or whether she was really alone, as she surmised, or whether someone was watching her through a peephole camouflaged in the wall. All I know is that when the two women returned, one was carrying a dressmaker's tape measure and the other a basket. With them came a man dressed in a long purple robe, the sleeves of which were gathered at the wrists and full at the shoulders. When he walked the robe flared open, from the waist down. One could see that beneath his robe he had on some sort of tights which covered his legs and thighs but left the sex exposed. It was the sex that O saw first, when he took his first step, then the whip, made of leather thongs, which he had stuck in his belt. Then she saw that the man was masked by a black hoodwhich concealed even his eyes behind a network of black gauzeand, finally, that he was also wearing fine black kid gloves.
Using the familiar tu form of address, he told her not to move and ordered the women to hurry. The woman with the tape then took the measurements of O's neck and wrists. Though on the small side, her measurements were in no way out of the ordinary, and it was easy enough to find the right-sized collar and bracelets, in the basket the other woman was carrying. Both collar and bracelets were made of several layers of leather (each layer being fairly thin, so that the total was no more than the thickness of a finger). They had clasps, which functioned automatically like a padlock when it closes, and they could be opened only by means of a small key. Imbedded in the layers of leather, directly opposite the lock, was a snugly-fitting metal ring, which allowed one to get a grip on the bracelet, if one wanted to attach it, for both collar and bracelets fit the arms and neck so smuglyalthough not so tight as to be the least painfulthat it was impossible to slip any bond inside.
So they fastened the collar and bracelets to her neck and wrists, and the man told her to get up. He took her place on the fur ottoman, called her over till she was touching his knees, slipped his gloved hand between her thighs and over her breasts, and explained to her that she would be presented that same evening, after she had dined alone.
She did in fact dine by herself, still naked, in a sort of little cabin where an invisible hand passed the dishes to her through a small window in the door. Finally, when dinner was over, the two women came for her. In the bedroom, they fastened the two bracelet rings together behind her back. They attached a long red cape to the ring of her collar and draped it over her shoulders. It covered her completely, but opened when she walked, since, with her hands behind her back, she had no way of keeping it closed. One woman preceded her, opening the doors, and the other followed, closing them behind her. They crossed a vestibule, two drawing rooms, and went into the library, where four men were having coffee. They were wearing the same long robes as the first, but no masks. And yet O did not have time to see their faces or ascertain whether her lover was among them (he was), for one of the men shone a light in her eyes and blinded her. Everyone remained stock still, the two women flanking her and the men in front, studying her. Then the light went out; the women left. But O was blindfolded again. Then they made her walk forwardshe stumbled slightly as she wentuntil she felt that she was standing in front of the fire around which the four men were seated: she could feel the heat, and in the silence she could hear the quiet crackling of the burning logs. She was facing the fire. Two hands lifted her cape, two othersafter having checked to see that her bracelets were attacheddescended the length of her back and buttocks. The hands were not gloved, and one of them penetrated her in both places at once, so abruptly that she cried out. Someone laughed. Someone else said:
"Turn her around, so we can see the breasts and the belly."
They turned her around, and the heat of the fire was against her back. A hand seized one of her breasts, a mouth fastened on the tip of the other. But suddenly she lost her balance and fell backward (supported by whose arms?), while they opened her legs and gently spread her lips. Hair grazed the insides of her thighs. She heard them saying that they would have to make her kneel down. This they did. She was extremely uncomfortable in this position, especially because they forbade her to bring her knees together and because her arms pinioned behind her forced her to lean forward. Then they let her rock back a bit, so that she was half-sitting on her heels, as nuns are wont to do.
"You've never tied her up?"
"And never whipped her?"
"No, never whipped her either. But as a matter of fact . . ."
It was her lover speaking.
"As a matter of fact," the other voice went on, "if you do tie her up from time to time, or whip her just a little, and she begins to like it, that's no good either. You have to get past the pleasure stage, until you reach the stage of tears."
Then they made O get up and were on the verge of untying her, probably in order to attach her to some pole or wall, when someone protested that he wanted to take her first, right there on the spot. So they made her kneel down again, this time with her bust on an ottoman, her hands still tied behind her, with her hips higher than her torso. Then one of the men, holding her with both his hands on her hips, plunged into her belly. He yielded to a second. The third wanted to force his way into the narrower passage and, driving hard, made her scream. When he let her go, sobbing and befouled by tears beneath her blindfold, she slipped to the floor, only to feel someone's knees against her face, and she realized that her mouth was not to be spared. Finally, they let her go, a captive clothed in tawdry finery, lying on her back in front of the fire. She could hear glasses being filled and the sound of the men drinking, and the scraping of chairs. They put some more wood on the fire. All of a sudden they removed her blindfold. The large room, the walls of which were lined with bookcases, was dimly lit by a single wall lamp and by the light of the fire, which was beginning to burn more brightly. Two of the men were standing and smoking. Another was seated, a riding crop on his knees, and the one leaning over her fondling her breast was her lover. All four of them had taken her, and she had not been able to distinguish him from the others.