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.