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
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
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 Frangois 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. ("And he was fuckin'
70 at the time," my husband marveled, not quite managing to
conceal his admiration.)
"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
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 naiveti 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 Brontk.
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.