Friday, March 5, 2010

You'll Never Get to Heaven If You Break My Heart

While procrastinating (a skill I've honed to perfection over the past several decades) I stumbled on this review of a graphic-novel adaptation of Pauline Reage's 1954 pornographic classic The Story of O. Well, L'histoire d'O if you want to be purist about it, and of course "Pauline Reage" is a pseudonym of the literary critic Dominique Aury, which was also a pseudonym for the novelist and journalist Anne Desclos.

As the reviewer, Sasha Watson, sums it up, "The main character, O, is a Parisian fashion photographer who submits to no end of sexual torture for the pleasure of her directing lover. In his approving presence, she is whipped, raped, and abused in countless ways." And as Watson says, the book is still powerfully disturbing after almost sixty years. I finally read O myself a couple of years ago, after reading Ashley Tauchert's Against Transgression (Blackwell-Wiley, 2008), a book whose arguments I still really want to grapple with here sometime.

I appreciated Aury's own comment, quoted in the review: "There is no reality here. Nobody could stand to be treated like that. It's entirely fantastic." Which reminds me of something Gore Vidal's said about his 1948 queer novel The City and the Pillar: even though people fantasize about sex a great deal, when they read about it they assume that the author could not possibly be making things up, so many readers of The City and the Pillar assumed that Gore Vidal had, like the book's protagonist Jim Willard, worked as a tennis pro and male escort.

Watson writes:
one can't help but feel, when reading Story of O, that there's something more than pornography going on here, that what Aury is really portraying is the beating heart of passion at its wildest and most raw.

It's the great paradox of women's lives that we are expected to begin life with a passionate union and then immediately put it away and get on with the business of working and raising children. Adult women who get stuck on the passion are deemed unstable or tragic. Given that, it takes an extreme act—an act of self sacrifice—to break out of the bind. ...

In describing the place where violence and tenderness, pleasure and pain, love and brutality all meet, she's not describing an eccentric fetish culture, but a universal desire. We can all recognize in this description the thrilling vulnerability of falling in love. To forge a deep connection with another human being is to transcend the bounds of our selves, Aury is saying, and only then can we truly be free.

Well, erm, I don't think so. First, once again, I think Watson is mistaking fantasy for reality. In The Story of O, the heroine gives up both her lovers as an act of self-annihilating sacrifice, but Aury wrote the book to seduce and stimulate her lover Jean Paulhan, and it worked -- their affair continued until his death, at 84, in 1968. Her protagonist was willing to immolate herself, but Reage / Aury / Desclos wasn't.

Or, depending on whom you believe, she wrote it to challenge Paulhan's assertion that women couldn't write erotica. Or maybe it was some of both, but either way -- Desclos was no O.

Watson also confuses Declos' fantasies with more recent women writers who have written about their practice of masochism, swinging, anal sex (gasp!): "Dominique Aury lit the way with Story of O, a novel that begins and ends with messy degradation, and in which every physical act leads to spiritual transcendence", choosing to forget that memoir and erotic fantasy are different things, genres, whatever. (Indeed, the degradation in O is rarely "messy": everything is tidy, regimented, controlled. O has to ask permission even to die.) Geraldine Bedell, the writer for the Guardian piece, makes the same mistake:

But beyond its merits as a literary work, its merits or limits as pornography, there lies the paradox that this incendiary book was written by a woman who wore little make-up and no jewellery, who dressed with quiet elegance, who lived out a polite, bluestocking existence in a small flat with her parents and son. Beneath this unlikely exterior raged terrible passions. In the end, the most instructive aspect of the book is that it demonstrates the demoniac nature of sexuality in any or all of us. This quiet, learned woman understood the power of sex. She knew that desire can ignite compulsions to commit sudden, arbitrary violence and induce a yearning for voluptuous, annihilating death.

Or not. Remember that, though Desclos was devastated by Paulhan's death (they'd been lovers for decades, and had lived together for the last 11 years of his life, so that's hardly an extreme reaction), she outlived him by 30 years. I wouldn't care to assume, or even speculate, what role her undeniably powerful fantasies played in her actual sexual life. But it seems equally clear that she didn't live them, nor did she want to. I'm not saying that being spanked, or being penetrated anally, or having multiple sexual partners, are particularly extreme -- certainly not compared to O's experience at the Chateau; what matters is how a person experiences them, and not everyone experiences them the same way. A good many people think of sex of any kind as a slippery slope -- once you put your toe in, you just have to keep going in deeper, until you drown. That may also be a fantasy, but most people do not do it.

I really dislike the idea that the ideal, the telos, of love and sex is self-sacrifice, self-annihilation. Or the sacrifice and annihilation of others ("If I can't have you, no one will"). Death may be a popular metaphor for orgasm, and vice versa, but they are not the same thing. Watson also mentions Cristina Nehring's A Vindication of Love, which I promise I'm going to read soon! But I still say that terrible, raging "passion" (which means suffering) is something to be avoided, not courted or cultivated.

I don't mean that I'm immune to the visceral power of Desclos' fantasies; they touch deep and scary parts of me too. Brian Eno used to say that art is a safety net (both for the artist and the audience, I think): you can vicariously experience things that you couldn't and wouldn't want to experience in reality. I think he was right, and I think it's an important function of art.

But I also find useful T. S. Eliot's concept of the "objective correlative", that explicit symbols and signs in art can refer to inexplicit emotional states. (Possibly it's another way of phrasing Eno's dictum.) I know that I often find myself weeping at certain scenes in movies, usually about the loss of a beloved person, or reunion with a beloved person, or (as in Awakenings) the loss of important human capacities, like literacy or even consciousness. My point is that it's the emotional reaction, not the situation that evokes it, that is the important thing -- the payoff, if you like. It doesn't mean that I want to be reunited with my late parents, or with former boyfriends, or that I should have fathered children; or that, like Robert DeNiro's character in Awakenings, I have been (or wish I had been) in a cataleptic state for several decades. It's just that these situations in art touch me deeply in a specific way. (By analogy, the fact that I may laugh uproariously at slapstick humor in a movie doesn't mean that I'd laugh if someone slipped and fell in the street, or that I think I ought to.) Whatever the meaning of O, I don't think that anyone should treat it as a handbook for sexual or emotional relationships. When someone tries to act out "the demoniac nature of sexuality" by giving in to "compulsions to commit sudden, arbitrary violence and induce a yearning for voluptuous, annihilating death," something has gone wrong. Such things will happen sometimes no matter what we do, but I think it would help if writers, preachers, and teachers did not mistake them for the "nature of sexuality."

One other thing. Though both Sasha Watson and Geraldine Bedell pay lip service to the "universality" of The Story of O, I get the impression that the "we" they have in mind is "women." That may be comforting to many men, but it's worth remembering that The Story of O was celebrated by the French male literary establishment, not just by Paulhan but by André Pieyre de Mandiargues, who contributed an introduction to the first English translation. From what I've always heard, masochists are often (usually?) male, looking for a woman (usually) to dominate them as O was dominated; a perennial complaint in s&m circles is the shortage of tops/dominants. Contrary to the book's feminist critics, I suspect that most male readers of the book identified with O, not with her masters. How many straight men have written fantasies of straightforward male abjection? There must be some, but at the moment I'm drawing a blank; what comes to mind is Allen Ginsberg's queer poem "Please Master," his ode to Neal Cassady. Gay men, who are culturally assumed to be 'feminized,' don't count, and Anne Rice's tales of male submissives in her Sleeping Beauty trilogy and Exit to Eden, being the work of a woman, probably don't count either. (As I remember -- it has been over 40 years since I read it -- Henry Miller's Sexus had some such elements, without overt sadomasochism. And then there's war fiction, which may well serve some of the same emotional function for men.)

It seems that a lot of "post-feminist" women writers have embraced the old Freudian notion of essential female masochism, ignoring the abundantly visible (but ignored, therefore invisible and therefore officially nonexistent) "deadly masochism of the male," as Adrienne Rich called it. And men in general, while many secretly hope for the strong but loving dominatrix who will take away the painful necessity of being responsible for themselves, prefer to talk out and act out fantasies of aggression, dominance, supremacy. But like passivity, submission, abjection, they are fantasies, not realities. This is a knot we all need to work at disentangling.