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Story of O
By Pauline Reage
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Happiness in Slavery
by Jean Paulhan of l’Académie Française
A Revolt in Barbados
In the course of the year 1838, the peaceful island of Barbados was rocked by a strange and bloody revolt. About two hundred Negroes of both sexes, all of whom had recently been emancipated by the Proclamations of March, came one morning to beg their former master, a certain Glenelg, to take them back into bondage. An Anabaptist minister, acting as spokesman for the group, read out a list of grievances which he had compiled and recorded in a notebook. Then the discussion began. But Glenelg, either from timidity or because he was scrupulous, or simply afraid of the law, refused to be swayed. At which point he was at first mildly jostled, then set upon and massacred, together with his family, by the Negroes, who that same evening repaired to their cabins, their palavers, their labors, and customary rituals. Swift action on the part of Governor MacGregor succeeded in suppressing the matter, and the emancipation pursued its course. As for the notebook of grievances it has never been recovered.
There are times when I think of that notebook. It is quite likely that it contained, aside from the justified complaints concerning the organization of the work-houses, the substitution of cell for lash, and the rule making it illegal for the “apprentices”—for such were the newly-freed workers called—to fall ill, it is likely that it contained at least the rough draft of an apologia for slavery. The remark, for instance, that the only freedoms we really appreciate are those which cast others into an equivalent state of servitude. There is not a man alive who thanks his lucky stars for the privilege of being able to breathe freely. But if, for example, I obtain permission to play the banjo merrily till two in the morning, my neighbor loses the right not to hear me play till two in the morning. If I manage to get along without working, my neighbor has to work for two. And, what is more, we know how an all-consuming passion for freedom in the world never fails to lead to conflicts and wars which are no less consuming. Add to this the fact that, since the slave, according to at least one dialectic, is in turn destined to become the master, then we would doubtless be wrong to precipitate the natural order of events. Finally, let it be said that to surrender oneself to the will of others (as often happens with lovers and mystics) and so find oneself at last rid of selfish pleasures, interests, and personal complexes, is in no wise a joyless act, nor one lacking in grandeur. In short, this notebook would seem even more heretical today than it did some hundred and thirty years ago: today it would be considered a dangerous book.
What we are concerned with here is another kind of dangerous book. To be more specific: with an erotic book.
I.—Decisive as a letter
Why, in fact, are they called dangerous? A somewhat risky business, to say the least. For since there is courage in numbers, the very act of referring to them as such would seem bound to make us want to read them and expose ourselves to the danger. And it is with good reason that geographical societies warn their members that, whenever they are relating their adventures, they should avoid dwelling overly on the dangers they have encountered. It is not a question of modesty, but rather of not leading anyone else into temptation (witness the ease with which wars are begun). But what dangers?
From where I stand, there is at least one danger I can easily perceive. It is a modest danger. From every indication, Story of O is one of those books which marks the reader, which leaves him not quite, or not at all, the same as he was before he read it. Such books are strangely involved with the influence they exert, changing in accordance with that influence. After a few years, they are no longer the same books, and consequently the initial reviewers soon seem to have been a bit simple-minded. But that cannot be helped, a reviewer should never be afraid to make a fool of himself. With this thought in mind, the simplest thing for me to do is admit that I hardly know what to make of it, or what it all means. I advance through O with a strange feeling, as though I am moving through a fairy tale—we know that fairy tales are erotic novels for children—through one of those fairy castles which appears abandoned, and yet the armchairs in their slip covers and the ottomans and the four-poster beds are all neatly dusted, and the whips and riding crops are too: they are, if I may say so, dusted by definition. Not a speck of rust on the chains or a trace of steam on the multicolored windowpanes. If there is one word which comes to mind when I think of O, that word is decency. It is a word which would be far too difficult for me to try and justify, so I shall not even try. And then this wind which blows endlessly through all the rooms. In O, there also blows some indefinable, always pure and violent spirit, endless and unadulterated. It is a decisive spirit which nothing disturbs, whether it be moans or horrors, ecstasy or nausea. And, if I must make another confession, this type of thing is not, generally speaking, my cup of tea. I incline to works in which the author is hesitant, indicating by some show of embarrassment that he was at first intimidated by his subject, that there were moments when he doubted he would ever be able to bring it off. But from beginning to end, the story of O is managed rather like some brilliant feat. It reminds you more of a speech than a mere effusion; of a letter rather than a secret diary. But to whom is the letter addressed? Whom is the speech trying to convince? Whom can we ask? I don’t even know who you are.
That you are a woman I have little doubt. Not so much because of the kind of detail you delight in describing—the green satin dresses, wasp-waist corsets, and skirts rolled up a number of turns (like hair rolled up in a curler)—but rather because of something like this: the day when René abandons O to still further torments, she still manages to have enough presence of mind to notice that her lover’s slippers are frayed, and notes that she will have to buy him another pair. To me, such a thought seems almost unimaginable. It is something a man would never have thought of, or at least would never have dared express.
And yet, in her own way O expressed a virile ideal. Virile, or at least masculine. At last a woman who admits it! Who admits what? Something that women have always refused till now to admit (and today more than ever before). Something that men have always reproached them with: that they never cease obeying their nature, the call of their blood, that everything in them, even their minds, is sex. That they have constantly to be nourished, constantly washed and made up, constantly beaten. That all they need is a good master, one who is not too lax or kind: for the moment we make any show of tenderness they draw upon it, turning all the zest, joy, and character at their command to make others love them. In short, that we must, when we go to see them, take a whip along. Rare is the man who has not dreamed of possessing Justine. But, so far as I know, no woman has ever dreamed of being Justine. I mean, dreamed aloud, with this same pride at being grieved and in tears, this consuming violence, with this voracious capacity for suffering, and this amazing will, stretched to the breaking point, and even beyond. Woman you may be, but descended from a knight, or a crusader. As though yours was a dual personality, or the person for whom your letter was intended was so constantly present that you borrowed his taste, and his voice. But what kind of woman, and who are you?
In any event, the story of O has deep roots. It has, in my opinion, that feeling of repose, of spaciousness as it were, which one finds only in a tale which the author has nurtured within her for a long time: a tale with which she is wholly familiar. Who is Pauline Réage? Is she—for there are such people—a mere dreamer? (It is enough, they say, to listen to the dictates of your heart. It is a heart that nothing can dissuade.) Is she a woman of the world, who knows whereof she speaks? Who knows whereof she speaks and is astonished that an adventure that began with such promise—or at least with such sobriety, in a climate of asceticism and chastisement—should turn out so badly and end on a note of dubious smugness, for, it seems generally to be agreed, O remains in that kind of brothel to which she was led by love; and not only does she remain there, she rather likes it. And yet, in this connection:
II.—A ruthless decency
I too was surprised by the end. And nothing you can say will convince me it is the real end. That in reality (so to speak) your heroine convinces Sir Stephen to consent to her death. He will remove her irons only after she is dead. But, obviously, there are things that have been left unsaid, and that busy little bee—I am referring to Pauline Réage—has kept part of the honey for herself. Who knows, perhaps this once she let herself be seduced by a writer’s concern: that she might one day want to write a sequel to O’s adventures. Besides, that ending is so obvious it was hardly worth stating. We discover it without any trouble. We discover it, and somehow it obsesses us. But you, the author, how did you think it up—and what is the open sesame which explains it? I keep harping on this because I feel certain that once it has been found, then the ottomans and the four-posters, and even the chains will be explained and will allow this tall, dim figure, this scheming phantom, these curious breaths of air, to move freely to and fro among them.
At this point I must pause and consider what there is about masculine desire which is in fact strange and indefensible. We hear of those formations of rocks which suddenly shift when the winds blow upon them, or else emit a soughing sound or give forth a mandolin-like music. People come from near and far to see them. And yet one’s initial impulse is to turn and run from such phenomena, no matter how much one may love music. Actually, what if the role of the erotic (or of dangerous books, if you prefer) was to inform and instruct us? To reassure us on the subject, the way a father confessor does? I realize that, in general, people grow accustomed to it. Nor do men remain embarrassed for very long. They make up their minds, they claim that they were the ones who started it all. They are lying and, if I may say so, the facts are clear: obvious, too obvious.
Women do too, I shall be told. No doubt they do, but with them the act is not visible. They can always say that they’re not. How decent! Whence no doubt derives the notion that women are the more beautiful of the two, that beauty is feminine. More beautiful, I’m not so sure. But more discreet in any case, less obvious, and this is a kind of beauty. I have twice now alluded to the idea of decency with respect to a book in which decency is hardly the question.…
But is it true that decency is hardly germane here? I am not thinking of that kind of colorless, hypocritical decency which limits itself to dissimulation, which flees from the presence of the stone and denies having seen it move. There is another kind of decency, indomitable and quick to punish, a decency which humbles the flesh sufficiently to render it its original integrity, which by force returns it to the days when desire had not been made manifest and the rocks had not yet sung. A decency into whose hands it is dangerous to fall. For, to satisfy it, nothing less than the hands tied behind the back will do, than the knees spread apart and bodies spread-eagled, than sweat and tears.
I seem to be saying frightful things. Perhaps I am, but in that case terror is our daily bread—and perhaps dangerous books are those which restore us to our natural state of danger. What lover would not be terrified if he were to weigh for one moment the full implication of his declaration, which is not made lightly, to commit himself for life? And what mistress, if she were to measure for a moment the meaning of her words: “Before I met you I have never loved anyone else.… I have never experienced real emotion before I knew you?” would not be equally terror-stricken at the words slipping past her lips? Or these, more sagacious—sagacious?—: “I should like to punish myself for having been happy before I met you!” There she is, trapped by her own words. There she is, so to speak, getting what she asked for.
Thus, in the story of O, there is no lack of torture. There is no lack of flogging, with a riding crop, or even of branding with a red-hot iron, not to mention the leather collar and the spectacle on the terrace. Almost as many tortures as there are prayers in the life of ascetics in the desert. No less carefully distinguished, and as though numbered—separated one from the other by little stones. They are not always joyous tortures—I mean inflicted joyfully. René refuses to inflict any, and although Sir Stephen consents to them, it is as though he is performing a duty. So far as we can tell, they do not enjoy themselves. There is nothing sadistic about them. It all happens as though it were O alone who, from the outset, demanded to be chastised, to be forced in her retreats.
At this point some fool is going to mention masochism. I don’t mind, but all it will do is to add a false mystery to the real one, a mystery of semantics pure and simple. What does masochism mean? That pain is at the same time pleasure, that suffering is also joy? That may well be. These are the kind of affirmations widely used by metaphysicians—who are also prone to proclaim that all absence is presence, all speech silence—and let me be the last one to deny that these declarations may indeed have their meaning (though one I do not understand), or at least their usefulness. But it is a usefulness that does not, in any event, derive from simple observation—and is therefore not the concern of doctors or mere psychologists and, all the more so, of simpletons or fools. “No,” I can hear someone saying to me, “while we are dealing here with pain, it is a pain the masochist is capable of transforming into pleasure; a suffering which he, by some secret alchemy he alone possesses, can turn into pure joy.”
What a wonderful piece of news! At last man has discovered what he has been searching for so doggedly through the ages, in medicine, ethics, philosophy, and religion: the means to avoid pain—or at least to transcend it, to understand it (were it only by seeing therein the effect of our stupidity or mistakes). What is more, man might easily have made this discovery in ages past, for in truth masochists are not a recent invention. And so I am amazed that this discovery was not greeted by a great fanfare and bestowal of signal honors; that no attempt was made to steal the secret. And I’m also surprised that these masochists were not rounded up and herded into the laboratories and museums, in cages, the better to be observed and studied.
Perhaps men never pose themselves any questions which have not already been answered. Perhaps it would be enough to get them together to wrest them from their solitude (as though it were not some purely visionary, human desire). Well, here at least is the cage, and here is this young woman in the cage. All we have to do now is listen to her.
III.—Strange love letter
She says: “You shouldn’t be surprised. Take a closer look at your love. It would be terrified if it realized for one moment that I’m a woman, and alive. And it is not by ignoring the fiery wellsprings of the blood that you will dry them up.
“Your jealousy does not deceive you. It is true that you make me healthy and happy and a thousand times more alive. Yet there is nothing I can do to prevent this happiness from turning against you. The stone also sings more loudly when the blood flows free and the body is at rest. Keep me rather in this cage, and feed me sparingly, if you dare. Anything that brings me closer to illness and the edge of death makes me more faithful. It is only when you make me suffer that I feel safe and secure. You should never have agreed to be a god for me if you were afraid to assume the duties of a god, and we all know that they are not as tender as all that. You have already seen me cry. Now you must learn to relish my tears. And my neck: is it not charming when, filled with a moan I am striving to stifle, it grows tense and contorted in spite of my attempts to control it? It is all too true that when you come to call on us, you should bring a whip along. And, for more than one among us, a cat-o’-nine-tails.”
She hastens to add: “That joke is in such poor taste! But the fact is you’ve missed the whole point. And if I were not so madly in love with you, do you think I would dare to speak to you in this way? and betray my peers?”
She adds: “What constantly betrays you is my imagination, my vague dreams. Then weaken me. Rid me of these dreams. Deliver me. Take whatever steps are required, so that I won’t even have time enough to dream of being unfaithful to you. (And reality, in any case, is less absorbing.) But first make sure to brand me with your mark. If I sport the mark of your riding crop or your chains, or if I am still wearing those rings in my lips, let the whole world know I am yours. As long as I am beaten and ravished on your behalf, I am naught but the thought of you, the desire of you, the obsession of you. That, I believe, is what you wanted. Well, I love you, and that is what I want too.
“If I have ceased, once and for all, to be my own mistress, if my mouth and loins and breasts no longer belong to me, then I become a creature of another world, a world in which everything has a new meaning. Perhaps one day I shall have lost all knowledge about myself. Then what will pleasure matter to me, what will the caresses of so many men—your envoys, whom I am incapable of telling one from the other—mean to me, when I can no longer compare them to you?”
This is the way she speaks. I listen to her, and I can see that she isn’t lying. I try to follow her (what bothered me for a long time was her prostitution). Perhaps, after all, the burning mantle of mythology is not a simple allegory, and sacred prostitution no mere historical curiosity. It may be that the chains in naive folk songs, and the “I would die for love of thee” are not mere metaphors, and that when streetwalkers tell their pimps: “I’ve got you under my skin; do whatever you like with me,” this too is no simple figure of speech. (It is strange how, when we are intent upon ridding ourselves of some feeling which baffles us, we ascribe it to hoodlums and whores.) It may be that when Héloïse wrote to Abelard: “I shall be thy whore,” she was not merely turning a pretty phrase. Without doubt, Story of O is the most ardent love letter any man has ever received.
I am reminded of the Dutchman who was fated to sail the seven seas as long as he failed to find a girl ready to give up her life to save him; and of the knight Guiguemar who, to be healed of his wounds, awaited a woman who would suffer for him “what no woman has ever suffered.” To be sure, the story of O is longer than a lay or a legend, and far more detailed than a simple letter. Perhaps it also had to rise from greater depths. Perhaps it has never been more difficult than it is today to understand what boys and girls are saying in the streets—much the same thing, I suspect, that the Barbados slaves were saying. We live in a time when the simplest truths have no choice but to come back to us naked (like O), clothed in the mask of an owl.
For today we hear seemingly normal people, even those with a level head on their shoulders, blithely speaking of love as though it were some frothy feeling of no real consequence. They say it offers many pleasures, and that this contact of two epidermises is not completely devoid of charm. They go on to say that charm or pleasure is most rewarding for the person who is capable of keeping love imaginative, capricious, and above all natural and free. Far be it from me to object, and if it’s all that simple for two people of the opposite sex (or even of the same sex) to give each other a good time, then indeed they should, they would be crazy not to. There are only one or two words in all this which disturb me: the word love, and also the word free. Needless to say, it is quite the opposite. Love implies dependence—not only in its pleasure but by its very existence and in what precedes its existence: in our very desire to exist—dependence on half a hundred odd little things: on two lips (and the smile or grimace they make), on a shoulder (and the special way it has of rising or falling), on two eyes (and their expression, a little more flirtatious or forbidding), or, when you come down to it, on the whole foreign body, with the mind and soul enclosed therein—a body which is capable at any moment of becoming more dazzling than the sun, more freezing than a tract of snowy waste. To undergo the experience is no fun, you make me laugh with your entreaties. When this body stoops down to fasten the buckle of her dainty shoe, you tremble, and you have the feeling the whole world is watching you. Rather the whip, the rings in the flesh! As for freedom … any man, or any woman, who has been through the experience will rather be inclined to rant and rave against freedom, in the vilest, most horrible language possible. No, there is no dearth of abominations in Story of O. But it sometimes seems to me that it is an idea, or a complex of ideas, an opinion rather than a young woman we see being subjected to these tortures.
The Truth about the Revolt
Strange, that the notion of happiness in slavery should today seem so novel. There is virtually nothing left of the ancient law which gives the family the power of life and death over their children; corporal punishment and hazing have practically been eliminated from the schools, and the old prerogative of wife-beating banished from the home. Men who in past centuries were proudly decapitated on public squares are now left cheerlessly to rot in dank cellars. The only tortures we inflict these days are undeserved and anonymous ones. Therefore, they are a thousand times more terrible, and wars today manage to roast, in a single, searing blast, the population of an entire city. The excessive kindness of father, teacher, or lover is paid for by blankets of napalm bombs and the atomic explosion. Everything happens as though there exists in the world a mysterious equilibrium of violence, for which we have lost all taste, and even our understanding of the term. And, personally, I am not displeased that it is a woman who has found them again. I am not even surprised.
To tell the truth, I do not have as many preconceived ideas about women as most men do. I am surprised there are any (women). More than surprised: somewhat amazed and filled with admiration. This perhaps explains why they seem so marvelous to me, and why I can’t stop envying them. What is it precisely that I envy?
There are times when I regret my lost childhood. What I regret, though, are not the surprises and the revelations of which the poets speak. No. I remember a time when I thought I was responsible for the whole world. I was by turns a champion boxer or a cook, an orator-politician (yes), a general, a thief, even a redskin, a tree, or a rock. I shall be told that this was only a game. Yes, for you adults it may have been, but not for me, not in the least. This was when I bore the whole weight of the world on my shoulders, with all the cares and dangers it comprised: this is when I was universal. What I am trying to say is this:
Women at least are fated to resemble, throughout their lives, the children we once were. A woman understands a thousand things which totally escape me. She generally knows how to sew. She knows how to cook. She knows how to decorate an apartment and can tell which styles clash (I’m not saying she knows how to do all these things perfectly, but then I wasn’t a perfect little redskin either). And she knows a lot more besides. She’s comfortable with dogs and cats; she’s able to converse with those half-mad creatures we allow among us, children: she teaches them cosmology and how to behave, to wash their hands and brush their teeth and other basics of hygiene, and she tells them fairy tales; and she has even been known to go so far as to teach them the piano. In short, from earliest childhood we are constantly dreaming of a man who would be all men at once. But it would appear that to each woman is given the capacity to be all women (and all men) at once. And there is something even more curious.
We hear it said nowadays that to understand fully is to forgive fully. Now, it has always seemed to me that with women—however universal they may be—it is just the opposite. I’ve had a fair number of friends who have always accepted me for what I am, and I in turn have taken them for what they are—without the slightest desire on my part or on theirs to change one another. I might even say that I was delighted—as were they—that each of us was so unique, so unlike the others. But there is not a woman alive who isn’t interested in changing the man she loves, and at the same time changing herself. As though the proverb were lying, and the truth of the matter is that to understand fully is to forgive nothing at all.
No, Pauline Réage does not forgive very much. And I even wonder, to pursue this thought to its conclusion, whether she does not exaggerate slightly, whether her fellow-females, her peers, are actually as much alike as she assumes. But this is what more than one man is all too willing to grant her.
Should we regret the loss of the notebook compiled by the Barbados slaves? I fear, I must confess, that the worthy Anabaptist who drew it up may have cluttered it, in the section dedicated to apologetics, with a fair number of platitudes: for instance, that there will always be slaves (which, in any case, seems to be borne out by the evidence); that they will always be the same (which is open to question); that one must resign oneself to one’s condition and not waste in recriminations a time that might better be spent in games, meditation, and customary pleasures. And so on and so forth. But I suspect that he was not telling the truth, which is that Glenelg’s slaves were in love with their master, that they could not bear to be without him. The same truth, after all, which lends Story of O its resolute quality, its incredible decency, and that strong, fanatic wind which never ceases to blow.
I have always wondered why stories so often touted as great romances end tragically. Story of O is no exception. Considered a classic work of erotic literature, it seeks not to arouse the reader, but to caution against desire, a divergence of purpose that perfectly reflects the splintering of body and mind experienced by O.
A story has a beginning, middle, and end. Yet O’s narrative is the tale of an ending. It is with helpless fascination that we watch O be violated and humiliated to please her lover. The anonymous narrator is detached from the proceedings, relating events and reactions with broad strokes and selective insight. This aloofness does not spare the reader. Instead, it serves as a naked light bulb in the room, casting an unforgiving glare on O’s vulnerable flesh.
In this way, we take the journey from individual to object with O. It is a difficult and troubling road to travel. We are warned at the beginning. “If she begins to like it … get past the pleasure stage. Until you reach the stage of tears.”
- On Sale
- May 8, 1998
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Running Press