Marc De Kesel  

In matters of love, O has a history. Histoire d’O tells the story of a beautiful young woman named by the single initial O, who in order to prove her love, gratifies her lover’s wish to give herself to other men’s cruelest sadistic phantasies. No, O is not forced. Time and again she is asked if she is deliberately willing to do so. If she finds herself in the position of erotic ‘victim’, it is out of her own free will, but out of pure love.

The author mentioned on the cover is Pauline Réage, a name totally unknown in 1954, the year the novel appeared. Only in 1994, Dominique Aury, a French literary critic and assistant editor in the famous Parisian editing house Gallimard, revealed herself to be the one behind Pauline Réage. Which is to say that the author was Anne Desclos, for this was Dominique Aury’s real name. 

Anne  Declos / Dominique Aury at the time she revealed the identity of Pauline Réage

Anne Declos / Dominique Aury at the time she revealed the identity of Pauline Réage

The story behind those pseudonyms is not without a link to the love story behind the novel. Anne Desclos was the secret lover of Jean Paulhan, the director of Gallimard. One day, Jean had bragged that writing erotic literature is a men’s matter; in this, female writers never reach the standard of their male colleagues. Ann took up the challenge and wrote Histoire d’O. The book was – and still is – a huge success. Jean lost, Ann won: women can write on erotic matters as good – or even better – than men do. 

The novel’s success is similar to that nowadays of  E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey (2012). Why are sadomasochistic phantasies enjoyed by a wide audience, from literary scholars to people who seldom (if ever) read a book?  Certainly not because these readers are sadomasochistic perverts themselves. The majority of them are just ‘normal’ people who definitely would be horrified if ever they were confronted with similar things in reality. But why, then, do they read and enjoy such things? What has this to do with the love relations they themselves cherish? 

One of the elements that may help our understanding is the fact that novels such as Histoire d’O or Fifty Shades of Grey appeal to hidden ideas from the past which secretly haunt our modern mind. As if, on the level of the unconscious, today’s common discourse is still structured by tropes and ideas which we all too easily consider definitively behind us. Contrary to what we think, they still take a part in the basic semantic grammar of the modern discourse we daily breath. 

To confess your love by proving that no humiliation or rejection is able to ever stop you from loving: this idea has its Christian origin in the tradition of the pur amour. Even if God has condemned you to eternal suffering in hell (which, aware of your sins, you cannot but thankfully accept), you nonetheless are capable of loving him. It is even the best condition to do so. Precisely because you have no ‘return’ whatsoever, you love him for reasons that have nothing to do with your own interest. Purified from any selfish motive, you relate to God with a pure love. This is the way François de Fénelon and so many other mystic authors in the seventeenth and eighteenth century defined the pur amour.  (See earlier posts F and I.)  

Novels like Histoire d’O or Fithy Shades of Grey are the explicitly erotic version of the religiously promoted idea of ‘pure love’ – of love as radical selflessness. In a sense, pur amour still belongs to the ‘hardware’ of the way we look at love. This is why, even in post-Christian times, the sacrificial dimension of love is far from being absent. 

Francisco de  Zurbar á n,  Saint Agatha , 1630-1633

Francisco de Zurbarán, Saint Agatha, 1630-1633

The strange thing, however, is that modernity lacks a proper – scientific or other – discourse to talk about it. This is why the success of such sadomasochistic novels remains a mystery for us, although such fantasy has been a constant in our culture for two millennia. 

In a way, antiquity’s tragedy has been incorporated in the sanctity of the Christian saints, iconographically represented at the same time as victims of sadistic cruelty and exemplary figures of love. They perform their torture as  evidence of their love for the Savior. 

One glimpse of, for instance, Zurbarán’s Saint Agatha teaches you that the function of beauty is to make the unbearable bearable.