August 23, 2013

The NSFW Files: "The Story of O," by Pauline Reage

The NSFW Files | A CCLaP essay series

(Once a month through 2013, CCLaP staff writer Karl Wolff investigates literature of a more carnal kind with The NSFW Files. Despite the erotic, is there literary value to be found? For all the essays in this
series, please click here.)

Story of O, by Pauline Reage

Story of O,
By Pauline Reage
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: During my high school years, I spent most of my time at the bookstore at the mall. Back in those days it would have been Scribner's at Mayfair Mall in Wauwatosa, Wisconsin. Before the emergence of omnipresent Barnes & Noble, I hung around the various different sections of the rather smallish bookstore. On one of those occasions I wandered into the comics and graphics novel section. While there I happened upon The Story of O by the comics artist Guido Crepax. Needless to say, since I was in high school, I didn't really dwell on the text of said comic. Then I imagine I exited the store, simultaneously curious and horrified at humanity's darker nature.

Some time later I became a fan of cultural critic and essayist Susan Sontag. In her groundbreaking essay, "The Pornographic Imagination," she wrote about The Story of O. Up to this point, I had never read the actual novel. This essay series gave me reason to read and analyze the novel, determining if Sontag was correct about assessing it with literary value.

The History: Written in 1954 by Pauline Reage, the pen name for the novelist Anne Desclos, it became a literary sensation in Europe and the United States. Once again, Grove Press became the delivery vehicle for sophisticated titillation. As John Updike sardonically quipped, "Its courage has preceded its commercialism; it pioneered in the territory it now so cheerfully exploits with its black-mass version of Book-of-the-Month Club, its roguish get-with-the-sexual-revolution ads, its stable of Ph.D.s willing to preface the latest "curious" memoir or "underground" classic with admonitory sermons on the righteousness of fornication." Story of O is one of those books.

Reage (I'll use Desclos's pen name hereafter) was the lover of her employer, the publisher Jean Paulhan. When the Second World War ended, Paulhan decided to publish the complete works of the Marquis de Sade. Paulhan considered Sade to be the greatest of French writers. This was also a kind of literary rehabilitation since Sade was now blamed for every kind of fascist atrocity and genocidal excess. (An ironic charge, since Sade was an adamant opponent of the death penalty and enough of a societal nuisance to be imprisoned by Bourbon King Louis XVI, the French Revolutionaries, and Emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. This doesn't mean he was a good person, but even John Cheever or Evelyn Waugh would be an awful person to get stuck with on an elevator.) Despite these accusations, Sade still holds a valued place within French literary tradition. His virulent atheist philosophy made him a counterpart to fellow Enlightenment philosophers Voltaire and Denis Diderot.

Reage was challenged by Paulhan to write a Sadean novel. She complied, writing a Sadean novel from a female perspective. (Sade's greatest novels also had female perspectives, most notably Justine and Juliette.)

While written during the apogee of postwar French global power, the novel possesses a fairytale quality. It is a strange reflection of the Victorian classic Gynecocracy by Viscount Ladywood. In 1954 France had the Fourth Republic (1947 - 1954) and Algeria and Indochina were firmly under French control. France in the Fifties was a picture of Modernist confidence. Meanwhile in the United States, undercover cops were spending their time arresting people for selling Betty Page photographs and Grove Press operated as a kind of erotica samizdat.

The Book: A story of two beginnings and two endings. In the first beginning, we see O and her lover Rene get into a taxi. On Rene's command, she takes off her panties. Rene then orders to get out and enter an apartment to await further instructions. End of scene. Beginning Number 2: Dressed in the same way, her lover is driving now, and she is driven to a chateau to await further instructions.

Once inside the chateau, she is subject to various humiliations and several scenes of sexual dominance. Rene whips her as well as his friend Sir Stephen, an older English aristocrat. Included in her laundry list of tortures include getting whipped by various characters, male and female, including a negro maid. She is also restrained, forced into servitude, pierced, and finally branded. She endures all these things joyfully, on both an emotional and erotic level. Rene "prostitutes" her to other men and then hands her off to Sir Stephen. (It is later revealed that Sir Stephen and Rene are related; both have the same mother but different fathers.)

But not is all humiliation and torture in the hermetically sealed chateau. After her first session, O returns to her normal job as a fashion photographer. As is typical of these kinds of stories, O becomes jealous of Jacqueline, a beautiful fashion model. In the final set piece, O wears an owl mask and becomes the plaything of a rotund man known only as the Commander. In a second ending, written in italics, Reage relates how the final chapter had been suppressed, since the subject matter related how Sir Stephen granted O's wish to be killed by him. (Controversial, yes, but also a bit of metafictional trickery.)

The Verdict: While this may sound like the epitome of understatement, Story of O is a problematic book. While I agree with Sontag's assessment that is a literary classic, as a heterosexual male, it left me feeling titillated and uncomfortable. Like hearing a bigoted joke, but also understanding all too well why the joke is funny, this novel is a potential hand grenade. One has to be especially delicate and nuanced in its appreciation. While some scenes were arousing to me as a reader, others left me frankly horrified and nauseated. BDSM and kink practices are pretty run-of-the-mill. There are obvious consent issues, but enlightened partners should be given the benefit of the doubt. But literary critics shouldn't be distracted by either medicalizing or moralizing the novel, as Sontag warns in "The Pornographic Imagination." Still, when it is described that O is "getting beaten," it leaves a bad taste in my mouth. Despite the imprimatur of O's consent to all this, it still radiates the foul vibe of domestic violence and violence against women. But that is my imprinting my prejudices on the novel.

Even with its sensational subject matter, Reage writes in a detached, almost clinical style. This isn't the obscenity-studded novel of Sade with its endless orgiastic acrobatics and lengthy atheist treatises. It more closely resembles Gynecocracy with a limited set of characters acting within a closed space. Annie Le Brun, the French literary critic, likened Sade's novels with fairy tales, since they made the reader afraid. It is a fear borne of childhood and childlike innocence. Reage performs a similar operation. Le Brun also restores Sade's heroine Justine as a heroic figure, her naivete coupled with her saintlike endurance of tortures. O is a similar figure, ending all manner of personal, physical, and emotional tortures, each session increasing her love for Rene. It doesn't seem logical, but when has love ever been logical?

Finally, there is the matter of erotica itself. The popular argument by anti-pornography feminists is that pornography perpetuates degradation and objectification of women, along with empowering the Male Gaze. So what do we do with this novel? It is written by a woman and told from O's perspective. O herself is simultaneously a figure of objectification and endurance. Strengthened by her love for Rene, no matter what humiliation he puts her through, she remains loyal, a pillar of fidelity. The biggest challenge to politically correct thinking is O's willingness to be dominated. She becomes a slave in these situations, but it is of her own free will. This confounds issues like sex and power. The interplay between dominant and submissive participants is predicated on consent and a mutual understanding of the situation. The freedom to be dominated is not a popular notion and doesn't sit well in our post-colonial society that aspires towards greater egalitarianism. But an evolving societal maturity involves understanding and appreciating seemingly distasteful personal predilections. Like criticism itself, it all boils down to taste. Story of O definitely is not for everybody ...

Then again, if all those suburban housewives who devoured the Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy want to read something really good, then they should read Story of O. Reage can at least write well and her chaste prose doesn't come across like it was written by a prudish serial killer.

Additional: Pauline Reage wrote a sequel to Story of O in 1969, called Return to the Chateau: Story of O, Part II. In the further adventures of O, Rene, and Sir Stephen, O returns to Roissy where she undergoes further tortures and humiliations. There is an espionage subplot involving a "client" and some untoward business practices. Like similar authors, Reage attempts to revisit an original premise and can't recapture the lightning. Part of that is historical context, along with an "Is this really necessary?" vibe. Not a shameless cash-in, but it lacks the ascetic nightmarish fairytale quality of the original. What was once groundbreaking has now become stale and quaint. The increasing permissiveness of literature and the visual arts (along with the mainstreaming of hardcore pornography) made Reage's chaste descriptions and aristocratic swingers seem obsolete. I would recommend Return to the Chateau for completists and those curious about Sixties-era French erotica.
Read even more about Story of O: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: The Image, by Jean De Berg

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, August 23, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |