Who Says Adultery Doesn't Pay?
The Mystery Of Pauline Réage Is Finally Laid To Rest.
By Jolie Chat
FEBRUARY 15, 1999:
The Story Of O, by Pauline Réage (Ballantine Books). Paper, $5.99.
THE STORY Of O appeared mysteriously in Paris in 1954. It opened with an essay by the celebrated Marxist intellectual Jean Paulhan, "Happiness in Slavery," which discussed an odd occurrence in Barbados in 1838 in which 200 slaves, newly freed under an abolitionist regime, asked their former master to take them back into servitude.
Paulhan's point, which he tried to put forward without losing his Marxist cred, was that submission could be sought after, even if it was only in cases of "bad faith" or a failure to come to class consciousness.
The book that followed the essay was a bit more shocking, as it described one woman's movement toward total slavery--first to her lover, then to his half-brother, after the lover grows bored by her. The book begins with this character, known only by the letter "O," being taken to a private chateau to be stripped of all the trappings of independence and turned into a sexual servant with no will of her own.
It's actually the question of will that makes this more than pornography (although there are an abundance of hot sex scenes, if DS/BD/SM is your scene). Can someone willingly give up the right to have a will? Do people really have the kind of freedom to choose that capitalist philosophies and economies assume? Can submission and the absolute surrender of all choice actually be proof of the complete freedom of the individual, or even the freest expression of will?
In asking these questions through its series of extremely graphic sexual vignettes, the book draws parallels to the works of medieval Christian mystics who excoriated the flesh and gave up all their worldly velleity to more fully live as instruments of God's or Christ's will. There are, in the S&M adventures of O, exercises in overcoming the confines of the body through the infliction of pain, just as one finds in St. Theresa or St. John of the Cross.
But there's also lots of steamy sex scenes, which are all but missing from those mystics (although there's lots of hints about St. Theresa's early lesbian encounters in her autobiography--good reading for devout Catholic masturbators). There was also, until the mid-'90s, the nagging question of who wrote The Story of O.
When the book was awarded the prestigious Deux-Magots prize in 1955, no author came forward to claim it, and efforts at uncovering the identity of the mysterious Réage were unsuccessful. There was some general consensus that Paulhan had written it, since his was the only name associated with the book, but others claimed it must have been written by a woman.
The evidence for this was, of course, entirely textual, but it was compelling. The description of clothing in the book is very rich and subtle, indicating that it was written by someone knowledgeable in the nature of the materials and accessories of a wide variety of women's fashions. Settings are given inordinate attention, and many claimed that if a man had written the book the emphasis would have been more simply on the mechanics of sex, and less on mood-building elements and the psychological effects of outfits and environments. Critics also claimed that O's internal narrative was quintessentially feminine, something that no man could properly have written. Others, of course, claimed this was all bunk, and that you couldn't tell a writer's sex by his or her product.
Nonetheless, in 1994, the author--one Dominique Aury--came forward, and her claims were well supported. Both the book's original publisher and Jean Paulhan confirmed her story, which was nearly as interesting as her philosophical/ pornographic novel.
Aury had chosen the name "Pauline Réage" because it sounded like the French for "Reacting to Paulhan." She had been Paulhan's lover, and when Paulhan said that they would have to stop seeing each other, because he was married, she wrote Story of O as an expression of her deep devotion to him and the depths to which she would go to keep him. Luckily, rather than re-start the affair on those terms he got the book published, setting off Aury's literary career and providing her with a steady source of income from the countless reprints, translations and films that have come from O.
Aury died last year at the age of 83, not long after coming out as Réage. She was able to spend her last few years basking in the adulation of perverts around the world, who had turned her book into one of the classics of erotic literature.
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