DESIRING THE IMPOSSIBLE
In her poem which begins 'Even long after my death' Maria Martins (1900-1973), the vivacious wife of the Brazilian ambassador to the United States who was known to others as simply 'Maria' the surrealist sculptor and lover of artist Marcel Duchamp, exclaimed;
Even long after my death
Long after your death
I want to torture you
I want the thought of me
to coil around your body like a serpent of fire...
I want the nostalgia of my presence to paralyse you.
A passion reciprocal is offered here amid "sleepless nights", a legacy wherein a "haze" of "desires" stretches through time until death.
In the 14th century the poet laureate at Rome Francesco Petrarca, famous for his poems addressed to Laura, an idealised beloved, bequested a sum of money to astronomer and horologist Giovanni de Dondi to be exchanged for a ring - a simple O ring - "to be worn by him in my memory." This image, a simple O was used as a mnemonic device following Petrach's death, to teach the alphabet in a book about memory Giovambattista Della Porta's The Art of Memory.
One is put in mind of another 'O', and the rings worn by the protagonists in Story of O, particularly that which is worn by O herself in order that memories of 'Roissy' might sustain her paralysis of subservience. Indeed, Dominique Aury (1907-1998) who hid behind the pseudonym Pauline Reage for forty years, created in Histoire d'O another simple 'O' which has become a bequest, a simple (and as it turned out, single) gift which after 50 years still weaves its own haze of desires, and might even be blamed for many of our "sleepless nights", our "desiring the impossible".
Histoire d'O (Story of O) relates the tale of a young Parisian fashion photographer, called O, and her wilful debasement at the hands of her lover Rene and the members of a clandestine society dedicated to the pleasures of sadomasochism. O is taken by Rene to a chateau 'Roissy' on the edge of Paris where she is systematically turned into a slave through sexual assaults, regular whippings, and long hours in solitude. Once back in Paris O is 'given' to an Englishman Sir Stephen who has her whipped, branded and pierced. Finally in one of two alternative endings, O chooses death and her demise is granted.
Histoire d'O by Pauline Reage with a foreword by Jean Paulhan, was published in an initial edition of 600 copies by Jean-Jacques Pauvert and appeared in Paris in June 1954. Its publication caused immediate controversy. Pauline Reage, unmasked before her death in 1998, as journalist and translator Dominique Aury, claims the book was nothing more than a love letter to her lover Jean Paulhan, une entreprise de seduction, a way of keeping his interest after an affair of almost two decades. Paulhan, one of France's most respected literary figures, loved it and had suggested immediate publication. The daring nature of the novel became the talk of the French salons and cafes and there was much speculation as to the true identity of its author. In the following year Histoire d'O won the Prix des Deux Magots, a literary prize generally awarded to new and unconventional books, with a number of famous writers amongst its earlier recipients. The literary quality of Histoire d'O was confirmed and the novel's notoriety was firmly established. Despite subsequent public outrage and a police investigation involving the interrogation of the publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert, the book continued to be published, and the identity of Pauline Reage, who, it is said, quelled further police intervention after meeting the Minister of Justice over lunch, remained a well kept secret. Molly Weatherfield has written, " 'Bestseller' hardly covers it. "Story of O" has sold millions of copies, and hasn't been out of print in more than 40 years."
During those forty odd years Histoire d'O has surfaced from "under the counter", been forced to run the gauntlet of the Women's Movement ( many feminist critics assumed the author a man ), and has had to face competition along the top shelf from numerous contenders for the erotica 'crown' from a plethora of 'pornography' claiming to be "in the tradition of Story of O". No other book has managed to steal that crown and Histoire d'O has not only become the SM bible (which quite possibly many SM practitioners have not actually read) but has become almost politically correct . "Such a voice," Emily Apted has written, "even as it seeks to blot itself out, stands out against the backdrop of the male canon, articulating a credo of feminine pleasure." Molly Weatherfield has said, "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 our 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.'
Jean Paulhan inspired Histoire d'O, Aury explained, when he remarked that no woman could ever write a truly erotic novel. Aury decided to try her hand, both as a literary challenge and in the hope that it would rekindle their long-standing affair. Many maintain the book is based upon the experiences of its author. Montel asked the most obvious question of all. Had she ever experimented with any of the rituals described in the book - the whippings, brandings, sex with anonymous partners? "I would have quite liked to have tried sex with many lovers," Aury said wistfully. "But Jean was too jealous. And he, I think, would have enjoyed submitting me to the whips and chains. But I didn't care for that. And so we never did."
Aury's acolytes have spent half a century making up for her self-denial and one wonders just how far the individual is prepared to take this tabooed force inspired by what the author claimed was simply "from one end to the other, a fantasy."
If death in Maria's poem is offered as a gift, a present of nostalgia, a time regained, then the death which O in Histoire d'O requests and is granted at the end of the story is something a little more problematical. After a giving so all-embracing the result of which is the complete emptying out of the self, - O has become a negation, - O welcomes death as the end result of freedom in slavery.
Does Aury over step the mark? Does she take O's slavery too far? George Bataille thought Histoire d'O contained "the impossible aspect of eroticism", in that, "O's paradox is similar to that of the visionary who dies of not dying..." In one of the few reviews which heralded the publication of Histoire d'O Bataille concluded, "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..." Certainly the mask that was Pauline Reage attained a certain solitude but what comes over most from the Aury voice in interview is her passion and deep commitment in loving. And yet 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. "What Story of O unfolds is a spiritual paradox," Sontag maintains, "that of the full void and of the vacuity that is also a plenum. The power of the book lies exactly in the anguish stirred up by the continuing presence of this paradox." Readers return again and again to Histoire d'O to share in this paradox, a mystery which invites the reader to experience sexual feelings strong enough to make a person feel he is losing his "self", an invitation perhaps, to desire the impossible.
RETURN TO KEY O