October 18, 2013

The NSFW Files: "The Image," by Jean de Berg

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.)

The Image, by Jean de Berg

The Image
By Jean de Berg
Review by Karl Wolff
Personal History: Virtually none. While the previous entry, Story of O is a minor classic and a well-known novel within the BDSM community, I had known little to nothing about Jean de Berg's novel, The Image. Susan Sontag's mention of the novel in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination," was the extent of my previous knowledge. For all intents and purposes, I read this novel cold. In some ways, this is beneficial for criticism. It's nice not being weighed down with a novel's fame or notoriety, let alone one's preconceived opinions. My only preconception about The Image was that Susan Sontag considered it to be a pornographic text with literary merit.

The History: This is the last novel Susan Sontag discussed in her essay, "The Pornographic Imagination." Along with Story of the Eye and Story of O, Sontag considers The Image to be a pornographic novel that has literary merit.

Written in 1956 by Jean de Berg, the pen name for Catherine Robbe-Grillet, the wife of nouveau roman pioneer Allain Robbe-Grillet. Like Story of O, the novel became emblematic of Mid-Century Modernist erotica. In the process of postwar recovery and still possessing much of its colonial empire, France was a hub of high culture, fashion, and commercial success. Along with heightened national pride and disposable income, France returned to its tradition of creating challenging experimental work and nurturing its aesthetic avante-garde. Allain Robbe-Grillet's work creating the nouveau roman ("the new novel") went along with the early pioneers in Cahiers du Cinema (Francois Truffaut and Jean-Luc Godard). The years Pauline Reage and Jean de Berg published their books, Samuel Beckett disassembled the novel with his landmark Trilogy. The Fifties re-ignited artistic experimentalism in everything from books to plays to art. A Streetcar Named Desire laid bare an inarticulate, yet charismatic, American masculinity. Jackson Pollock's canvasses confounded gallery patrons. Bebop ripped apart the pre-war jazz elegance with technical virtuosity and boundless energy.

In the United States, one could still get arrested for reading "Howl" or drooling over Bettie Page photographs. It wouldn't be until the Sixties when censorship would be relaxed enough for people to appreciate erotica on an aesthetic and philosophical level. Susan Sontag's essay would make inroads towards legitimizing this otherwise notorious and prurient genre.

On a much larger historical level, The Image, like Story of O before it, would continue the French literary legacy begun by the Marquis de Sade: the bondage novel. It's difficult for American readers to understand that there's a literary tradition for these books. It's too easy to either consider erotica akin to thermonuclear waste and not touch it, unless one has a moral hazmat suit, or medicalize the genre and see the kinky world of bondage as a realm best left to the psychologically damaged. Both these lines of argument won't be dealt with, because, in the end, they are irrelevant to appreciating this piece of literature.

The Book: The Image is peculiar, even by the standards of Mid-Century Literary erotica. With a preface by Pauline Reage, the book doubles down on the pen names. A literary sensation writes effusively about a book written under another pen name. Nothing like starting a book about bondage and domination with some mind-games for the reader.

The story itself is pure simplicity. Like Waiting for Godot with its minimal stage direction, The Image has a limited number of locations and only three major characters. Unlike Story of O, this story is barely over one hundred pages. The narrative involves Jean, the male narrator, witnessing and occasionally participating in various humiliations of Anne. Anne is privately and publicly humiliated by her mistress Claire. In the end, Claire submits to the will of Jean and lets Jean dominate her sexually.

This is bare-bones erotica. Written in a style that's simultaneously explicit yet detached and clinical, the reader identifies with Jean and his mounting shock and arousal at the humiliations he witnesses. Like O, Claire is a fashion photographer. The novella's climax is when Claire shows Jean a series of pictures. The pictures involve ascending levels of sexual humiliation visited upon Anne. Jean thinks they are staged until he sees Claire do the same things to Anne. This shocks and arouses him. He eventually becomes a participant in these humiliations. While Anne is Claire's subject, she gets verbally harassed by Claire, who treats her like a child, using language that infantilizes her.

Story of O had an intricately built erotic underworld created around O and her torturers. The Image is like a stage-play. Actors, setting, situation. The barest necessities to create a plausible narrative.

The Verdict: The Image is a classic bondage novel and it does have literary merit. But this brings up some relevant points. Would I have considered it "literary" if Susan Sontag hadn't given it her critical imprimatur? Possibly. Perhaps it would have shown up in the bin of forgotten classics like Gynecocracy? It's the same conundrum with other aesthetic judgments. Just because it's in a museum and has a nice frame around it, does that make it "art"? Does the incomprehensible gibberish on the museum label also make it "art"? (Although the incomprehensibility of museum labels is most rampant in contemporary art galleries, where artists writing grants and galleries catering to the academic crowd create a feedback loop of obscurantist jargon.)

With the barest elements present, what makes this novel an example of erotica and not pornography? Sontag thought it was pornography. My issue is that there are two words to begin with. "Erotica" and "pornography" implies we are talking about two different things. (In the visual arts and cinema, there's probably merit to that argument.) Either the distinction is inherently classist (hence the old joke: "The difference between erotica and porn is the lighting.") or narrative based (plot equals erotica; plotless equals porn). Is that always true? Beckett's Trilogy has explicit language, a couple horrific sex scenes, and then becomes a jumble of hallucinations and plotlessness. Hardly porn, especially to those who awarded him the Nobel Prize. There's also prurience. Molloy's actions with the old lady do not inspire arousal.

In the end the distinctions between erotica and porn seem like historically contingent definitions. Sontag was writing in the Sixties about books written in the Twenties and the Fifties. Today, The Image appears like a quaint relic from the past. The challenge with assessing literature is figuring out the lens to interpret the narrative. As a historian, I like historicizing the novel, contextualizing it with the events, politics, and trends of the time period. But I also like reading books for the sheer joy of reading something new and unknown. I also had to juggle critical assessments. Art for the ages versus historical relic, although I find either/or judgments constricting and self-defeating. I neither want to diminish a novel by historicizing too much and I don't think "art" is something special and beyond-the-ordinary. This ends up being a roundabout way to say that The Image is both historically important to the literary history of erotica and an entertaining read. It is minimalist erotica: a novel about sexuality and domination sanded down to its barest components necessary for a narrative.
Read even more about The Image: Official site | Amazon | GoodReads | LibraryThing | Shelfari | Wikipedia
Coming next: Ada, or Ardor, by Vladimir Nabokov

Filed by Karl Wolff at 9:00 AM, October 18, 2013. Filed under: Karl Wolff | Literature | Literature:Fiction | Reviews |