On The Death of O
“I didn't really find it that erotic. I think this was mainly because the characters are not developed at all, so it is just a long list of sexual encounters and events with no emotional impact or depth...”
“…found the alternative ending the most cruel and heartless thing I have ever read.”
Amazon book buyers
The Gods Are Cruel…
“… eroticism is the problem of problems.” Georges Bataille
The reader who complains that Story of O is not erotic or that they were left disappointed and ill at ease about the “alternative ending” (O’s ultimate demise), have unfortunately missed the point, or rather the poetry, that is Histoire d’O, - the poesis of an idea.
Pauline Reage (Dominique Aury) sought to write a Sadian text. Her lover Jean Paulhan had challenged her to write something in the style of the Divine Marquis. Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade was Paulhan’s inspiration. Paulhan, the French writer, literary critic and publisher, director of the literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française, had written a prologue to Justine ou les Malheurs de la vertu and later published Oeuvres completes de Sade (1968, 30 volumes).
Transcribed at night, written on inexpensive school book paper, Reage wrote her secret dreams that became Histoire d’O and read them aloud to Paulhan - like Scheherazarde wanting to escape death. This was an enterprise de seduction (a way of keeping his interest after an affair of almost two decades) in which Reage/Aury wanted to escape the death of love.
“For Sade,” wrote Octavia Paz, “love was an idea: the true reality was the pleasure that annihilates everything it touches”. Little wonder death is to be found in the mix. Paz recalls challenging Paulhan over dinner at a restaurant in the Parc Montsouris;
Paz: “Pauline confuses love with religion. O is a saint and saints have a tendency toward martyrdom…”
Paulhan: “Perhaps masochism, more than a perversion, is an idea.”
From across the table Dominique Aury (in reality “Pauline Reage”) is quoted as adding, “She has deified her lover and, as we know, the gods are cruel…”
Where there is strong taboo…
“In Sade,” writes Thomas Moore (Dark Eros), “the myth that informs all the particulars of his style and the details of his scenarios is Saturine.” The accent is on authority, number, ritual and death. Each of Sade’s erotic descriptions “turns into a geometry lesson,” writes Paz. “Sade’s pornography is cold,” continues Moore, “not like the warm sensuality of Venus one sometimes finds in erotica.” It has the brutality that can characterize modern pornography.
Reage too, portrays the pornographic side of quantifying, authority, and power. The reader of erotic books will have to look elsewhere for a more humane and sensual erotic literature. In Histoire d’O Eros is daimon and Reage tells a dark and difficult myth peopled with characters who are ultimately hard-hearted enough not to be engulfed by sentiment. Reage recognizes the soul’s need for forcefulness and images of violence, the soul’s necessities that we do not understand or which simply do not fit in with the accepted world-view. “The value of Sade’s literary creations,” Moore points out, “is that they give a mythic background to the violence of the heart.”
The "Poverty of Angels”
“Civilization offers strong resistance to anyone searching for a dark alternative,” writes Thomas Moore. The Marquis de Sade and Pauline Reage both give voice to the shadows of love. The society Sade creates, “the lords and chattels of libertinage” are exactly what we deny, repress, ignore and undervalue, suggests Moore, “The pedantic tone in his novels is not plain persuasion towards an actual life of moral abandon; it is a recognition of feelings and thoughts that already exist in the heart and in behavior.”
Pauline Reage exclaims, "Who am I, finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part... which communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself - ?"
As an artist, finding Thomas Moore writing, “Withdrawal from society’s values leaves the imagination free to create”, I cannot help thinking immediately of the modern painter Francis Bacon’s tiny, confining, cluttered and chaotic London studio at 7 Reece Mews.
Moore writes of Jean Genet’s isolation in prison writing the beginnings of a book on paper that was intended for making paper bags. Having his book confiscated for improper use of the paper Genet was forced to order some notebooks and under his bed covers attempt to recall, word for word, the fifty pages he’d written.
Similarly Sade had written, some two hundred years before, 120 Days of Sodom on a single roll of “toilet-paper” thirteen yards long and five inches wide. One that was lost then found.
One is put in mind of Aury’s night time writing, “using a soft black pencil”, in school exercise books. The first sixty pages flowed out of her, “they wrote themselves,” reported Aury. After the “explosive” beginning, the writing slowed. After three months Histoire d’O was finished.
Aury had never read the Marquis de Sade but later she did read him and thought that the first fifty pages of 120 days of Sodom were a masterpiece. “Unfortunately, the rest is no good,” she told John de St Jorre, “It’s unreadable.”
How fascinating it is that Aury too, writing with unsophisticated means, alone at night in her room, took “the writing away from the intentions and the comfortable designs of civilization.” Like Sade and Genet before her Aury managed to serve the “muse of the prison cell”. Necessity becoming Genet’s “poverty of Angels”.
John de St Jorre writes, ‘She was in her mid-forties at the time [during which Histoire d’O was written], and Paulhan was almost seventy. It was both a private document of their passion and une enterprise de séduction, designed to ensnare—her word—a highly sophisticated man. “What could I do?,” she proffered, “I couldn’t paint, I couldn’t write poetry. What could I do to make him sit up?”
In her interview with John de St Jorre, Dominique Aury was at pains to point out that apart from one word (“sacrifice”) Paulhan changed “nothing else – not a single comma.” Writing on questions of woman’s subjectivity in contemporary French literature and theories of authorship in contemporary European cinema, Adrienne M. Angelo has pointed out that whilst Aury/Reage sought to please, titillate, shock and ensnare her lover Paulhan, she took “ownership” of both the story and character. Indeed Reage scripts a “theatrical performance” of woman’s sexual role in the sexual orgies described. “Like the pseudonym under which it is written,” writes Angelo, “Histoire d’O is the story of O, from O’s perspective and masked voice…the quest for female subjectivity appears to coincide with woman’s quest to attain a certain amount of recognition, or power, in the very process of effacing herself.” Hans-Jurgen Dopp reading Jessica Benjamin on Histoire d’O observes, “Dependence and power are interwoven here inseparably; the conflict between the need for autonomy and that of confirmation can only be overcome by means of complete self-abandonment”.
“At the end of the novel,” Dopp continues, “O is ready to risk her complete destruction in order to continue to be the object of desire of her lover and thereby to find recognition”.
Death Scene: to music
That she chooses to die is O’s ultimate choice, it is within her power. If you try to imagine the scene and place the self sacrificing O within earshot of her lover’s gramophone playing the Sequenz from Mozart’s Requiem, then her death can be seen as a sublime martyrdom as the choir sings out “Rex tremendae majestatis – Who dost free salvation send us, Fount of pity, then befriend us.”
Am I wrong? The madness of O's complete giving and ultimate giving up to death, Susan Sontag reminds us, "should not be understood as a by-product of her enslavement to Rene, Sir Stephen, and the other men at Roissy, but as the point of her situation, something she seeks and eventually attains." This "voluptuous yearning for the extinction of one's consciousness, for death itself” puts Histoire d'O on a level few books occupy. The general reader not recognizing the difference will get little from Histoire d’O. “I took the most unusual step of throwing this book in the trash,” writes one disappointed Amazon buyer. Meanwhile Kinder readers have been confused simply by the appearance of the text!
The intense concentration on effect within the text, that both people and objects become fetishistic, – everything occurs as if in a dream, has been observed elsewhere. The false start and the alternative endings are almost cinematic devices, found since in Antonioni or David Lynch. They have something of the contrived as to be found in the Nouveau Roman novels of Alain Robbe-Grillet. Here plots are fractured, and the resulting novel resembles the literary equivalent of a cubist painting. Description often replaces the psychology and interiority of the characters.
As in Sade the fantasy of Histoire d’O is built upon exclusion. The characters are stripped of their flesh and blood, their everyday complexity. Male protagonists, though deific forces, never assume their full identity as human beings. They are little more than the human chess pieces occupying the tableaux vivants observed in Robbe-Grillet and Alain Resnais’s Last Year in Marienbad.
Sex in Histoire d’O, as in Sade, becomes a public act performed in front of witnesses. Its sadomasochism ensures the seriousness of the events, distinguishing the various acts from mere hedonism.
The whole relation between the sexes is bathed in religious as well as sadomasochistic imagery and as O journeys through her ordeals towards some higher, transcendent reality, the men are seen to be shallow and promiscuous. True metaphysical and spiritual devotion is reserved for O.
“As if in a dream,” writes Maurice Charney, O has lost all power of volition, she is "fulfilling her strange and ineluctable destiny”. That her quest for anonymity results in her freely willed self-annihilation excited Georges Bataille to write, “"The eroticism found in Histoire d'O also contains the impossible aspect of eroticism. To accept eroticism means to accept the impossible - or more to the point, to accept that desiring the impossible constitutes eroticism. O's paradox is similar to that of the visionary who dies of not dying, or to martyrdom that consists of compassion shown by the torturer to the victim. This book reaches beyond the word, breaks out of its own bonds, dispels any fascination for eroticism by revealing the greater fascination exerted by the impossible. What is impossible here is not only death, but total and absolute solitude..."
In Greek religion, Thomas Moore reminds us, statues of Goddesses were sometimes tied up, “apparently in a ritual attempt to curb their powers". The Hungarian scholar Carl Kerenyi says that Artemis, one of the most widely venerated of the Ancient Greek deities (her Roman equivalent is Diana), was known as “she who arouses” and “she who is bound with lygos vines.” Such wide spread rituals Moore points out, suggest that even ordinary acts of bondage have a profound “archetypal level”, and that in considering such acts, “we tend to focus on the cruelty and miss the specific image – the desire to be bound.”
‘O’ as a Yawning Gap
Canadian psychoanalyst François Peraldi has written,
“At the centre of the erotic scene and space assigned to the orgy… there are secret rooms, pits, abysses, catacombs, a hole, a yawning gap, where the ultimate rites of the erotic action are performed. From those who descend there, few but the libertine return. In those pits is played out the Unnameable, for this hole metaphorizes a hole in the text. Brought to the edge of the precipice, the text can say nothing more than that there is nothing more to say. And there, where there is nothing more to say, in the bottomless pit where the ultimate act takes place is Death.”
When John de St. Jorre asked Dominique Aury about the second ending in Story of O Aury shrugged her shoulders, admitting, “I didn’t know how to end it…”
“Isn’t what we call eroticism,” asked Peraldi, “this vertiginous desire to be swallowed up… the attraction toward Death…”
“Passion is a serious matter”, Aury pointed out to Jacqueline Domornex, claiming later, "I find there are worse things than death…”
“Was not O using Rene and Sir Stephen..." asked Aury, "to achieve the fulfillment of her dreams, in other words her destruction, her death?" Seeing that Sir Stephen was about to leave her, O prefers to die, and Sir Stephen gives his consent. "To be killed by the person you love” considered Aury, “seems to me the height of rapture... Hell is everyday life, when you are alone."
Such a theme of transcendence necessarily scorns any concern for the preservation of life, “alchemy is a violent process.” maintains Thomas Moore, “It cannot take place where life is sentimentally valued over death.”
What kind of death should we imagine then, takes place? The death of the prima ballerina in the final act? The last act in the biography of the hero, - that which Joseph Campbell describes as, “death or departure…”?
Campbell writes, “the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave". O deems herself abandoned by her “God” in the dark night. And yet, we are not told O actually dies, is slain, or murdered. Could we read this again as St Theresa of Avila’s dying of not dying?
For St Teresa the "devotion of ecstasy or rapture," a passive state, in which the consciousness of being in the body disappears, was the fourth stage in the assent of the soul. Her longed-for swoon is achieved, but she did not die of her desire to experience that sensation.
George Bataille links the sexual and mystical experience and speaks of the various and variant forms of sexual activity harmonizing in the “nostalgia” for a moment of such disequilibrium. “The most significant manifestation of the necessity for this alteration of balance and lack of balance,” maintains Bataille in Eroticism, “is the violent and tender love of one being for another.” As if reiterating Dominique Aury, Bataille continues, “In essence, love raises the feeling of one being for another to such a pitch that the threatened loss of the beloved or the loss of his love is felt no less keenly than the threat of death”.
The Enigma of the Pit
Whilst in Confessions of O Aury maintains that it was not only books that, "provoked my fantasies; my fantasies are much more autonomous...", her voracious reading (she read Proust in the French, Shakespeare in the English, the Bible, Baudelaire, Villon, her father's hidden editions of Boccaccio and Crebillon, Malherbe, Bertaut, the English Gothic writers, Fenelon's mystical writings...) was without doubt a strong influence upon her writing of Histoire d'O and her scattering of poems and other texts. In Lady of Shalott she conjures her own lady singing her last song;
The boat rocks at the quayside
Trading dream for dream
And returns silence to the first
Beautiful death in dreaming.
About the cult of invalidism in Fin-De-Siecle culture Bram Dijkstra has written, "As every properly trained, self-denying woman knew, true sacrifice found its logical apotheosis in death." A cold draught blows all the way from the "four grey towers" up river from Camelot to the cloistered corridors of Roissy. "There she weaves by night and day/ A magic web with colours gay," wrote Tennyson, and Aury would have been familiar with both Tennyson's Lady of Shalott and Elaine ("I loved you, and my love had no return,/ And therefore my true love has been death.") and with the mid-nineteenth century writings of French intellectuals Auguste Comte and Jules Michelet. What these mid-century males wanted most of all (writes Bram Dijkstra) "was a woman who would become a mere extension of himself, who would let herself be absorbed completely by him". Jules Michelet fantasized, " She throws at your feet what you were about to adore; she trembles and begs your pardon - she is so grateful for the pleasures she bestows!"
"Do me evil with your large hands, / Do me evil with your strength that commands," wrote Marguerite Burnate-Provins in Summer Songs (1910). Death became a woman's "ultimate sacrifice of her being to the males she had been born to serve," states Dijkstra ("Once a woman was dead she became a figure of heroic proportions...") and we can not only see the literary influences upon Aury's writing but the logic of having 'O' choose death at the close of Histoire d'O.
For much of the ‘O’ decade, the relationship between eroticism and death preoccupied writer and philosopher Georges Bataille. Author of the inimitable Story of the Eye, Georges Bataille sought the “truth of pain”, where masochistic acceptance and sadistic provocation entwine, and how to reach “the mediating point between sacrifice and ecstasy”.
By way of Nietzsche and Freud, Bataille formulated his own meditations upon the sexual instincts, “which in the end,” he writes in an introduction to de Sade’s Justine, “explain the horrors of sacrifice”. His Les Larmes d’Eros illustrates the Lascaux cave paintings and it is the image of a dead figure with his sex erect and portrayed with a bird’s head or mask, that inspires Bataille to write,
“We have here a desperate enigma… posed at the dawn of time… Being the first enigma posed by humans, it asks us to descend to the bottom of the abyss opened in us by eroticism and death.”
Seeing that Sir Stephen was about to leave her, O prefers to die, and Sir Stephen gives his consent… “We cannot imagine a more obscure contradiction,” continues Bataille, “nor one better contrived to guarantee disorder in our thinking.” Little wonder the Reage reader is confused by her seemingly cruel and heartless close to Story of O. This is for us all, Bataille’s enigma of the pit.
© Stephan Prince
Figure top & bottom of page: The ouroboros is an ancient symbol depicting a serpent or dragon eating its own tail. Carl Jung interpreted the ouroboros as having an archetypal significance to the human psyche. The Jungian psychologistErich Neumann writes of it as a representation of the pre-ego "dawn state"... The Ouroboros according to Ostanes: One nature delights in another nature, one nature conquers another nature, one nature dominates another.
Texts referred to in my article include the following:
Dominique Aury: O m'a Dit
Dominique Aury: Vocation : clandestine
Georges Bataille: The Tears of Eros
Georges Bataille: Eroticism
Joseph Campbell: Hero With a Thousand Faces
Jacqueline Demorne: Elle magazine (Paris 1974): Pauline Reage interviewed
Maurice Charney: Sexual Fiction
Hans-Jurgen Dopp: Sadomasochism: On the Ecstacies of the Whip
Catherine Duncan & François Peraldi: Discourse of the Erotic - The Erotic in the Discourse
John de St Jorre: The Good Ship Venus
Thomas Moore: Dark Eros: the Imagination of Sadism
Jean Paulhan: A Slave's Revolt (to be found in most editions of Story of O)
Octavia Paz: An Erotic Beyond: Sade
Pauline (Aury) Reage: Story of O
Pauline (Aury) Reage: A Girl in Love (essay to be found in Retour a' Roissy)
Susan Sontag: The Pornographic Imagination (from Styles of Radical Will)
To what music might you imagine the death of O?....
RETURN TO KEY O