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December 21, 2006

DVD Journal: "Writer of O"

Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

Pola Rapaport's "Writer of O" -- a documentary about Dominique Aury, the Frenchwoman who, under the pseudonym Pauline Reage, wrote the 1954 erotic classic "Story of O" -- is a much more peculiar affair than the Bukowski documentary I wrote about recently. Peppered with filmmaker autobiography and staged tableaux vivants, it's part chic performance piece itself. And, even at its most straightforward, it maintains a tragic and solemn tone that suggests a collaboration between Ken Burns and Pina Bausch. Still, I found the story of Dominique Aury fascinating, and I'm glad to have watched the film.

Are you familiar with the novel? Or with the meta-story about the novel? Those who are may want to skip the next few paragraphs. As for the novel, "Story of O" is about a young woman fashion photographer. Identified only as O, she's taken by her boyfriend to a mysterious chateau outside Paris where she is bound, beaten, and used, until -- it's presumed -- she becomes more truly herself. Or does she?

On its publication, the book became an immediate bestseller and scandale. It won a French literary prize while at the same time being the object of obscenity charges. (Ah, the French, so much more comfy with paradoxes than we are ...) There are obvious reasons why this should have been the case, of course: sex, sex, and more sex.

But there were more subtle reasons for the worldwide fascination with the novel too. (The novel has sold millions of copies and has never been out of print.) One was the way the precise, clinical, "objective" language contrasted with and brought out the vulgarity, brutality, and subjectivity of the experiences portrayed. Another was a simple sociological fact: The novel wasn't just the usual sex-book thing -- a sweaty tale for lonely guys to jerk off over. It had sophistication, style, and content, if of a hard-to-nail-down kind. It was also embraced and celebrated by modern women, who -- as far as da boyz could gather -- saw much of themselves in it.

And what was the book's purpose anyway? Is O -- who is at every moment free to cast off her chains -- determined to prove her love? Or perhaps her boyfriend, in submitting her to these trials, is proving his love for her? Is the author arguing that masochism is at the heart of female sexuality? Perhaps. Yet there's no question that, despite her tribulations, O is in charge of her fate as well as the center of her own universe.

It would have been hard in any case to persuade the crowds of dynamic women who loved the novel that they were identifying with weakness. Feminists were understandably baffled by the whole affair. Should they celebrate the woman author's triumph, and the way O managed to be both her own subject and object? But there was that awkward bit about the heroine being repeatedly beaten and violated ...

Even the main character's name caused a lit-crit fuss. Why "O"? Does "O" stand for "orifice"? For zero? Looking into the heroine's psyche, body, and emotions, are we looking into nothingness? Into everythingness? Or perhaps into the primal center of it all, into which everything vanishes and from which everything emerges? O indeed.

In any case, the novel was an instant icon that established a link going back to de Sade and forward into the '60s and beyond. (The French have a long and extensive tradition of literary sexuality, outrage, blasphemy, and philosophy. I wish we did too. Robert Darnton's wonderful "The Forbidden Bestsellers of Pre-Revolutionary France" is an informative study of the way porn served as a vehicle for French philosophy and French revolutionary politics in the years leading up to 1789.) "Story of O" suggested, after all, what would result if one of the terrorized victim-women of the Marquis de Sade's fiction took charge of a Sade novel and, without changing the actions recounted, told the same story for herself.

In the years since 1954, the novel has emerged as one of those landmark works that "gets" something so completely that it's almost impossible to define what that something is. Whether or not you or I find the book hot, "Story of O" seems to be as archetypal a work of erotic fiction as any ever published. It's a grand, spare, and haunted promenade through the corridors (or certainly one particular corridor) of the feminine erotic imagination. Submitting in order to prevail ... The voluntary incarceration ... The movement back and forth between a recognizable daily life and the dream-setting of the chateau ... The pressures applied to transform girlishness into womanliness ...

And (let's be frank) having it all be about you, and center on you, and be focused on you ... Narcissism crossed with romantic / sexual obliteration would seem to be a combo many women find potent. Readers of Anne Rice's "Beauty" books will certainly recognize these themes and attractions, as will romance-novel fans. In film, Catherine Breillat and Stanley Kubrick have clearly been transfixed by "Story of O." The scenes at the mansion at the end of "Eyes Wide Shut" seem lifted straight from "O." In "Romance," Breillat told her own version of a feminine sexual Grail-quest, going so far as to make use of a lot of zeros and circles. In "Romance," O's are everywhere.

Compounding the mystery of the book was its author. Who was behind this elegant filth that cast such a powerful spell? Was the book fantasy or autobiography? Some -- among them Albert Camus -- were convinced that the author was a man, certain that no mere woman could have delivered such a raw yet poised literary performance.

Until 1994 only a few people knew who "O"'s creator really was. In that year, the English journalist John de St. Jorre published a piece in The New Yorker revealing the book's author: Dominique Aury, a Parisian publishing figure who was by then nearly 90 years old.

Although a well-established figure as an editor, critic, and translator in French publishing circles, Aury didn't have any other fiction-writing credits to her name, a not-good sequel to "Story of O" aside. She didn't even consider herself a novelist. In fact, she'd written "Story of O" not as a novel but as a semi-private fantasy, a jeu intended to turn on and win back an older lover who she feared was losing interest in her. The lover, a prominent French man of letters (and Marquis de Sade fan) named Jean Paulhan, saw the potential in the writing, encouraged Aury to round the story off, and arranged for the book to be published.

In "Writer of O," we get to meet Dominique Aury as well as some of the people who knew her. (Aury died in 1998.) When she isn't playing fancy games, Pola Rapoport does a decent job of evoking postwar French intellectual and literary life. Her interviews and meetings with Aury don't seem to have been numerous or lengthy, but they're enough.

Staring at Aury, what comes as a surprise is how mousey and nondescript (if, since she was French, stylishly nondescript) she seems. There was nothing terribly glam, alluring, or obviously passionate about her. She was and apparently always had been a rather dowdy figure.


Who she was ...


... and what she imagined.

Let me back up. There's a kind of woman you run across regularly in the book publishing world. She's bookish, a good student, smart without being out-of-control brilliant, deferential yet full of extreme feelings of both misery and exaltation ... These women are creatures I think of as the nuns of literature. They don't create literature; instead, they serve it -- meekly, possessively, proudly.

It doesn't matter whether they have real-life romances or marriages; their real marriage is to books and to literature. The novelists and poets who create literature are the priests and bishops of their religion; the prize-winners and immortals are their saints. These nuns wash the feet; they guard the gates; they dream about experiencing their own private raptures.

Anyway, these self-denying (and, when encountered, usually bossy and intolerant) women turn out to have fervent and extravagant fantasy lives, often of a BDSM nature. Don't ask me how I know, please! For those who haven't run across the acronym BDSM before, it stands for bondage-domination / sado-masochism. Read, learn.

What occurred to me as I watched "Writer of O" was that Dominique Aury was one of these literary nuns. Bold-meek, thrilled to hold the hand of a French Academy-certified boyfriend, she was like an anxious A student thrilled unto death to have made a little place for herself at the literary table, surrounded by the true lions of literature.

In the footage we see onscreen, Aury is a quiet, reserved figure who occasionally emits teeny-tiny signs of mischief and self-pleasure. She seems so nun-ish that she almost seems lesbian. It doesn't come as a complete surprise to learn that she in fact had relationships with women too.

Given her nun-ishness, several things strike me as amazing. One is that she wrote a novel at all. Literary nuns are generally so worshipful that they're creatively paralyzed, yet Aury was able, if only this once (and of course with encouragement and guidance from the boyfriend she was trying to fascinate), to let her imagination rip and to capture the results on paper.

Another is that what she got on paper seems to represent -- in some half-dream, half-iconic way -- not just the inner life of a nun of literature (bondage, servitude, exaltation), and not just the inner life of that wonderful and strange creation the Frenchwoman, but the inner experience of many women. It's as though a batboy whose entire life has consisted of serving the athletes and megastars who are his heroes, were to be given one chance to go to the plate during an actual game, and with that one chance hit a World Series-winning grand-slam homer.

So: nun / convent-chateau-prison / intellect / daddy-God / taste / yearning-submission / religion / Frenchwomen / literature ... The pieces fall into place to form a pretty coherent picture. There's one final twist in Aury's story that I muse about still: "Pauline Reage" wasn't her only pseudonym -- "Dominique Aury" was a pseudonym too. In fact, Aury had been born Anne Desclos. She began to call herself Dominique Aury during WWII, when she was involved in publishing Resistance literature, and she chose Dominique because it can be both a male and / or a female first name. After the war, she continued calling herself Dominique Aury until she died. What to make of this? Was she all about self-willed self-transformation?

To my mind, what's greatest about the book and the phenomenon of the book is this: "Story of O" demonstrates, dramatizes, and proclaims that, where pleasure is concerned, women can be as amoral, driven, and principle-free as men are. It seems to me that that must have been what was exciting and difficult for people to hear in 1954, and what remains surprisingly hard for many people to get used to now. Not coincidentally, the book also rams home the connections between the pleasure-quest and religious yearnings.

Oh, and that bit about the heroine being named "O"? Aury didn't intend the name to be taken symbolically, or for "O" to represent anything at all, really. Aury had initially named her heroine Odile. Then, not wanting to embarrass a friend whose name was Odile, she changed her heroine's name to O. Small lesson for all of us: Much of what we find fascinating in art is what we ourselves bring to it and put there.

I wrote about some other erotic books by women here. I'm a big fan of Toni Bentley's "O"ish "The Surrender." I raved about Bentley's other books here. John De St. Jorre's website is here. Geraldine Bedell's piece for the Observer about Aury is an excellent one. Though it conveys little of the novel's intensity, the 1975 Just Jaeckin movie of "Story of O" is a sexy and enjoyable softcore entertainment that has a nice '70s fashion-magazine look. I thought Guido Crepax's comic-book version of "O" was an elegant, hot beauty with some real oomph of its own.



posted by Michael at December 21, 2006


Wrong timing, MB.
If you casually note to a 20yo woman, insecure in her newly-established womanhood, eager to be taken seriously by an older man, that you see through her - then your provocation would be successful.

But if "mousey publishing type" are indeed like what you describe - I am afraid this [adjectives deleted] speech will only succeed in soliciting condescenting smirks.

Poor MB; you'll have to shift your operations to -gradually- younger and yet younger audiences...such banality...

Posted by: Tat on December 21, 2006 11:48 AM

Tat -- I'm discussing an adult documentary about an adult book-author, not trying to impress 20 year old interns. Sadly, the intern set stopped noticing me many years ago. But maybe I don't get your point? Eager to hear your thoughts about mousey publishing types, though!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 21, 2006 12:37 PM

No one who follows the comments on this blog will be surprised that I come out diametrically opposite to Tat's opinion. The only work that I know that is as complex and as erotic as this one is that of Marguerite Duras, known mostly for the Alain Renais movie of "Hiroshima, Mon Amour." Maybe it is even more powerful since it mixes the intense Japanese erotic tradition in subtle ways with French -- introducing horror and devastation as background. I DO know women, both young and old, who are this sort of devotion-as-eroticism type, which is partly why I was upset by MB's earlier enthusiasm for a Japanese porn film about nuns, which mocked both the religious discipline and the sex. I often ran across these women in the humane movement. One woman would talk about the ecstacy of death in the jaws of a predator. She always chose abusive boyfriends. Maybe there's a bit of that philosophy in the last episode of "Touching Evil" when the French immolator speaks of women who torched themselves as "dying in ecstacy."

I'm very impressed with MB's analysis. Opposites often have an irresistible pull, so that for women who must constantly be in control, irreproachable by someone else's standards, achieving yet humble, there is a great release in surrender, no matter the consequences unto total destruction. The farther one goes in one direction, the more magnetism there is in the opposite.

Another aspect of "O" is that today's version would probably have something to do with drugs, so there is almost a purity to O's situation. She can't plead she didn't know what she was doing.

Another unstated dimension is that O in her voluntary dependence is returning to childhood, when parents and others have total access to the baby's body. Maybe some of the bi-sexuality comes from having a parent of each sex. If one has a violent, punishing, controlling parent (See "The Drama of the Gifted Child" that was so popular back a few years) and is constantly required to perform without really having the power to understand, then one's psyche might be shaped in this way.

I think this "take" on the book is quite brilliant, Michael. Bravo.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 21, 2006 12:48 PM

I don't argue with you, MB.
And I am not familiar with nuns-of-literature, either.

Posted by: Tat on December 21, 2006 12:59 PM

However intriguing (or not) the final product is (I haven't read it) it does seem to me that the public and lit-types brought a more complicated interpretation to it than its origen, kind of like sweating over what "O" meant---and then finding out it meant not much.

It sounds to me that this was a woman trying to create a sex fantasy that would intrigue a man; i.e., this older lover she was trying to win back. Maybe he in particular had some thing about wanting to believe that women want to be dominated, etc. I don't know that this sounds exactly like a "typical" woman's fantasy; more like what her lover wanted to believe a woman's fantasy was. Men always seem to want to think women have rape fantasies. I don't, I don't know anybody who does (not true "rape" at least, which is quite different from a man attractive and known well to her taking her impulsively, as in "not rape."). But to your point, that a woman actually invented and wrote the story--does demonstate that women can whip up sexual fantasies which are as out of the mainstream as men. Yep, it's true. But to extrapolate to assume this is the real female fantasy seems like lit-types over-reaching. That old getting beaten-and-violated thing should give more than "feminists" pause, and God forbid any idiotic teenage boys took their cue from this and somehow thought "this is what she really wants." Yikes.

Posted by: annette on December 21, 2006 1:05 PM

Great piece Michael -- plus it directed me to your earlier great pieces on Bentley that I hadn't read, so it's a two-fer (or three-fer). Can't wait to check out Bentley's books.

Posted by: Steve on December 21, 2006 1:10 PM

"Maybe some of the bi-sexuality comes from having a parent of each sex".

Any comment to this astonishing phrase will only diminish the effect.

Posted by: Tat on December 21, 2006 1:12 PM

P. Mary -- I think you just outdid me, and with 1/100th the verbiage! Duras is pretty great too. Curious to hear if you've watched the movie of "The Lover." Seems to be one of those erotic films many women embrace. I wonder what's happening with today's young women too. A lot of the old inhibitions have been cast off, and many young gals seem as crude, hard-hitting, out-there and aggressive as young guys usually are. Does this mean that the aspiring thing, the religious do-gooding drives, the reservations, etc -- were they all culturally imposed? On the other hand, maybe the new female extraversion is culturally imposed too.

Annette -- Dicey, touchy stuff, isn't it? (Which of course is part of the fun, or maybe just the allure ...) And you're raising a perennially important and interesting question: What are the relations between our pleassure-fantasies and what we really want in our lives? How seriously should we take our pleasure-fantasies, especially as guides to practical behavior? I've always enjoyed my own pleasure-fantasies as play and theater myself -- they're fairly independent of what I might actually want to do (though of course it's fun thinking of them that way too). But I understand that many people are drawn to looking to their pleasure-fantasies as significant indicators of what they really, really, deep-down, deep-inside want from life. I wonder if Americans (so literal, so earnest) are especially prone to that. Your hunch?

Steve -- Glad you enjoyed. Let me know how you react to Toni Bentley!

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on December 21, 2006 1:55 PM

Yes, I loved "The Lover" which I saw when it came out and then forgot the name of it! (I guess it's like trying to think of the name of someone named "Smith.") Maybe now I can ask for it from Netflix. I loved the architecture (all that sliding paper and poles and courtyards -- very inappropriate for Montana, but I still love it) as well as the plot, which I gather is autobiographical. One of those early patterns that can't be erased and sometimes must be repeated and repeated in an attempt to resolve it. (I think one of the things Freud got right was "repetition compulsion." Of course, that's simply one definition of being nuts.)

The more contemporary obsessive erotica, like the paeans to anal sex or incest, are lacking something. At least to me. Still, I think we are all drawn to the puzzle of "flesh," why we are made as we are and why the flesh seems to control our minds, which we would like to think are guiding us. Flesh must be where the repetition compulsion lives. Now that we know it's all molecules, it still seems unresolved. The flesh always wants to eat the same things, sleep in the same places, sing the same songs -- yet try new things. We're busy trying to imagine homo sapiens nesting erotically with neandertals. (Do you know Molly Gloss "The Dazzle of Day," a sci-fi tale about a runaway woman who takes refuge with a family of "bigfoots" who sleep entwined with each other?)

Do you know the Canadian book "The Bear?" It resulted from an idle wager to a woman writer that she could not write a realistic erotic book about a woman getting it on with a bear. She won. In Canada it is taught even in high school, with the explanation that the bear is symbolic of Nature.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 21, 2006 2:22 PM

The new female extraversions: I think they were always there. The difference today is that they were traditionally accompanied by dire consequences, and today less so.

Nuns of Literature - this describes a girl I once dated to a Tee! A perpetual grad student, a mousy introvert with intense thoughts, overexalted notions of romance... for some reason I played the Priest of Literature to her Nun. (I'm not in a literary field; I think I dazzled her with "art talk" during our early dates).

I've married since then, she's dating a much older and a "more literary" version of me. Yet I still get occasional emails from her... timid requests for small favors, full of flattery and passive-agression, buried hostility...)

Anyway, who cares. I just wanted you to know that your post gave me a "That's Exactly It!" feeling when you described that particular personality.

Posted by: PA on December 21, 2006 2:29 PM

I would add to this discussion basket the film called "Breaking the Waves." Coming at erotic submission from this direction leads straight to "The Little Mermaid." That Walt! He had an uncanny way of choosing the deepest fears and fascinations on which to shape his marzipan!

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 21, 2006 3:16 PM

Excellent piece, Michael -- very insightful. And you perfectly described a woman I used to work with who wrote erotica on the side . . . looking at her, you never ever would have imagined . . .

Posted by: missgrundy on December 21, 2006 3:59 PM

Women don't want to be dominated. Really? But then how come they're put off when the man isn't decisive? He must be decisive...but not boorish. Though boorishness may be better than sensitivity, which in the male always runs the risk of being interpreted as wimpishness, for which the female of the species has no tolerance whatsoever. Help!

Posted by: ricpic on December 21, 2006 4:01 PM

Most people my age seem to find supposedly erotic books and movies about people, usually women, breaking through the taboos of the time to achieve some kind of sexual ecstasy, to be quaint. Myself included. I think sexuality for my generation has always been an entitlement so that the histrionics of characters struggling with the battle between societal mores and their carnal desires doesn't really resonate. I would exclude gay literature and movies from this, as gay people still have that struggle to deal with.

The Story of O and especially Lat Tango in Paris are perfect examples of this. Much ado about nothing.

Posted by: the patriarch on December 21, 2006 4:27 PM

*ricpic, if you didn't figure it out for yourself at your age, I'm sorry to say - there is not much hope you'll ever.

Posted by: Tat on December 21, 2006 5:07 PM

ricpic, I see a clear difference between being domineering and being decisive. You can be decisive AND attuned to a woman's needs at the same time. At least I can.

Also, re: sensitivity. Women want that in a man so far as it means being sensitive to what they want from him. Women most certainly don't want a man for whom "sensitivity" manifests in being acutely effected by life's ebbs and flows, which is usually how young men interpret women's desire for a "sensitive man." Hell, nobody wants that from a partner, be it man or woman.

This may seem unfair to men in that we have to walk some kind of emotional tightrope, but hey, life is unfair. Don't be so "sensitive."

Posted by: the patriarch on December 21, 2006 5:16 PM

This is a brilliant entry, Michael Blowhard. I have been coming to this blog regularly for over a year, I think, but it's just dawning on me how remarkably better this blog is than just about any other arts-covering blog out there. The types of analyses you set forth -- "the nuns of literature" stuff, for example -- is the type of juicy, consequential, original thought that is missing just about everywhere else. I just love what you have to say.

Posted by: James on December 21, 2006 9:26 PM

Michael: "What are the relations between our pleasure-fantasies and what we really want in our lives?"

A cop told me once that if a perp's computer has a million types of freaky porn, he's probably a harmless fantasist. But if it concentrates on one type of freakporn to the exclusion of others, there's a good chance he's willing to act on it, and in all likelihood is already doing so. That's the rule of thumb anyway.

James: Ditto!

Posted by: Brian on December 22, 2006 11:10 AM

Can't agree more with James and everyone else above. I saw the O movie late this summer, "taught" the O book about ten years ago in a senior level course on "Sex and Death." (Few of us knew what to say--and we were even reading also Bataille.)

Michael--this is the best discussion of the book and all it relates to (psychology and fantasy etc) I've ever seen. Terrific.

Posted by: Bob Garlitz on December 22, 2006 4:21 PM

a few random NSFW thoughts:

first, link to story of o online (complete text).

By sheer chance I stumbled upon The Pearl, a collection of Victorian erotica published in the late 1800s. Reading it, I see how era-specific the erotic imagination seems to be.

A few days ago I watched the film Secretary with james Spader. It was--I don't know--fun and titillating--but little else; you can call it"Story of O comes to the 21st century America office". Reage wrote her tale beautifully, but the writing had a romantic almost Lautremontesque quality to it. Dialogue was minimized; everything was a brooding prayer-like contemplation of sex and submission.

Interesting how a film version of the O story can be titillating but not as absorbing or as subversive.

IBID on the story about the provenance of O. There's a similar behind-the-scenes description of Eliot's Wasteland. He made audiences think the inspiration for the poem came from Greek and Roman texts when actually the main inspiration came from problems with his wife. Just goes to show you the real juicy dirt doesn't come out until people are comfortably in their graves.

By the way, as an erotic writer, I follow lots of online erotic writers, and there are hundreds if not thousands of imitators of Reage. Her works and motifs have become a cliche. When she wrote the work, it was subversive; now though, submissive stories by women hardly attract any attention because there are so many of them. Perhaps it's simply because the taboo is gone, and now women have the freedom to talk about what's really on their minds; I found the movie Secretary pretty throwaway until a woman friend told me how taken she was by it. It intrigued me that she was so taken by it; I never would have taken this film seriously.

Odd thing about nuns. I run an erotic fiction site, and I have one harmless/not sexual story about nuns (it's more about the fetishization of nuns by men than anything else). Ironically the most common search term to bring traffic to my site is now erotic + nun, sexy + nun, things like that. Which is funny, because the median age of nuns in usa is in the 60s.

Posted by: hapax legomenon on December 22, 2006 4:26 PM

Poor old priests! Since "Thornbirds" they haven't fared as well as nuns.

Prairie Mary

Posted by: Mary Scriver on December 22, 2006 5:41 PM

I see - I was mistaken in one aspect: MB pseudo-psychological ruminations will always attract one kind of reader: sexually frustrated clueless men struggling to retain their "know-it-all" domineering position; if not physically controlling then mentally so. And of course, the parasites: the "erotic writers", those who "taught on senior level on Sex and Death", etc.
Not sure now that it wasn't the target audience; or maybe it was a secondary, safe market: the mousey nuns-of-literature didn't bait (as expected - not in their quiet, rational nature to engage in public squabbles, is it?) but at least you can always count on fellow solidarity.

Brian - your cop was right; for illustration just look into this site's archive on Men-Woman and Sex topics: does it look like "all over the place" or "concentrated on one particularity" for you?
Tip: a faux clinical tone used in descriptions of cinematic blowjobs, crying-for-attention female adepts of anal sex, or indignation with tabu-less young women: a disguise of almost scientific interest in doings of inferior biological species.

Posted by: Tatyana on December 23, 2006 7:57 AM

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