In this village, in fair weather the accepted neutral site for mutual discussion of current events (whether political or meteorological or agricultural) is the bridge. A person standing on the bridge, leaning over the stone balustrade, looking down through the water and weeds for fish, often smoking, is signaling their availability for discussion. It was here that an elderly neighbour, Jacqueline, a retired librarian, knowing that I was waiting for news back from a job interview that was important to me, advised me to pray to the holy virgin. The pragmatism of it. Maybe I did not know how to pray.

I think that now America needs better pornography. This idea has been influenced by my early-summer romance with Pauline Reage and The Story of O. Living in France, reading in French, coming across the plain yellow paper volume in a used book shop in the next town, having an ongoing need to build for myself a history of how women have thought, so that I might have a sense gradually of what thinking will be for me in my life, what thinking could become—this is an abbreviated background for my immersion in a text whose anarchism is as sustained, feral and relentless as it is elegantly poised. I think this is the magic formula of O. Each limit or expectation one could have regarding the relation of the subject to desire, to power, to sex, to identity, is systematically obliterated, but this happens in a language whose stylistic achievement is so restrained, so balanced, so modest , that the reader has the feeling she is participating, with sublime effortlessness, in a masque. The only obscenity is the reader’s repeated need to stop and build a moral defense against her own immersion in the imaginary, her own identification with a punitive sadism. Yet L’Histoire d’O is really the first book I’ve read in French nearly effortlessly, voraciously, fast, with full-on admiration. This complex tension, between the sinuous ease of the text as a styled object, the questions it allegorizes—around the relation between embodied will and desire and thus the political—and the reader’s suspension between a received moral hygiene of gender and a freefall into a fantastical extreme—this confused yet poised tension says things about thinking itself as a open form of sustained erotic anarchy.

Pauline Reage was a pseudonym of the Parisian critic, scholar, and editor Dominique Aury. Dominique Aury, in turn, was a name assumed for the length of her professional life by the young woman Anne Desclos. O was first published in 1952, though it was written in the previous decade. The story is a sort of sadistic fairy tale, in the tradition of the sadist contes of Perrault—Bluebeard, Cinderella, Sleeping Beauty. O follows also of course the tradition of de Sade himself, where the orgy in the castle is a discourse on the practice of political power, and the need to dissolve the accepted limits of philosophical thought, so that philosophy might become a form that opens political life to the variousness of bodies and their many ways of being constituted as subjects, erotic and otherwise. That was a long sentence. What I want to indicate is that this book is part of more than one tradition in French letters, and that it is part of a political history of philosophy, and that, like philosophy, it could show us something new about being a person.

There is a new biography of Dominique Aury, written by Angie Davis, and published this year by Editions Leo Scheer. I came across it in a bookstore in Paris near the Pompidou centre, on my way to lunch a few weeks ago, after seeing the Hans Bellmer show. It’s big, a bedside book rather than a slim traveling volume, the way I prefer biographies, but it has no photographs, except for the one on the cover showing Aury with pen in hand, at a table with her lover Jean Paulhan. Both of them glance out with mild surprise, and behind them is a disorderly book shelf, and what appears to be a screen or room divider covered in toile de jouy fabric. The photograph is dark, and Aury’s face glows with what I am tempted to call frankness, though it is only the light. The book has no index either, by choice of the publisher says a note at the end. I started to make up my own on the back flyleaf as I read.

Some entries:

Aury, bilingual since childhood, was a scholar of 16th and 17th century poetry, and translated Donne into French. Her first book, published by Gallimard during the war, was an anthology of French religious poetry of the 16th century. I want to track down her Donne translations, and her anthology. For now I just pull down my old green Norton anthology. (I should also buy a decent edition of Donne) She translated The Good Morrow—“I wonder, by my troth, what thou and I / did til we loved? Were we not weaned til then. / But sucked on country pleasures, childishly?” Such supple teasing. She wrote the story of O as a love letter to Jean Paulhan, a Gallimard editor and for several decades, and with extreme clandestine discretion, her lover. The myth of the writing of The Story of O, told by Aury herself in an essay called “Une Fille Amoureuse,” is that she wrote in her bed at night, in school notebooks, with no corrections and few pauses, sending the notebooks by mail to Paulhan one at a time, to a poste restante address. In both Donne and Reage, the erotic emblem is opened out, slowed down, suspended, given space, so that something more than a simple identification happens. One is forced to analyze the terms of an identification as it is experienced. The analysis does not cancel the identificatory force; it troubles its transparency, inserting in it a baroque dynamics. In reading we become someone we can’t fully believe.

The Beaver Coat.
The first time she made any half decent money as an arts journalist and critic, and could stop teaching art history to disinterested American students, Aury splurged on a coveted beaver coat, broad-shouldered and extravagantly fashionable. Yet she was known all her life for her soberness, even nunishness, in dress. She preferred the simplest dark toned tailored suits. And then—the beaver coat. Clothing in O plays a highly coded and central role in the story, and is described with almost documentary remove. At the beginning, (and this is my translation) “She is dressed as she always is: shoes with high heels, a matching jacket and pleated skirt, a silk blouse, no hat. But long gloves that go up over the sleeves of her tailored jacket, and in her leather handbag her identity papers, her powder, and her lipstick.” A simple tension in the image is introduced here already—in a story set in Paris in the middle of the last century, a chic woman wears no hat, but wears long formal gloves. Later in the book, corsets, piercings, brandings, lash wounds, and animal masks are described with the same discrete precision.

Knitting, the Knitted Suit.
Yes, she was knitting herself a suit during the war. She alternated between writing and knitting. I imagine it tightly worked on small steel needles, in navy blue. She would have lined the skirt, which was maybe knitted in the round. Since I recently started knitting again, this gives me a little thrill. How I would love to knit the supple navy suit of Dominique Aury. But it would have to be perfect. In every particular, Aury’s style was immaculate. I don’t yet have the skill. My tension is off. During the war she was also working for the resistance. In occupied Paris she distributed forbidden publications of political journalism and analysis. Some of her colleagues were captured and killed. I imagine her sitting knitting waiting for the delivery that wouldn’t arrive. Wearing that suit.

Porcelain Animals.
She had a group of them always in her room, on the mantel, or on her bedside table. She wrote in bed habitually, and imagined them to be her interlocutors. She gave her porcelain zebra to her lover (the one before Paulhan) when he was mobilized in the war. On my desk I have a small bear on yellow skis, a life-sized china toad, a terracotta head of a dog, a tiny glass elephant, a black lead Anubis, a metal swan with outstretched wings and white paint chipping off. Now I feel less odd about that. (admittedly my desk animals were partly influenced by the audience of godlets on Freud’s desk, which I saw in his house in North London in 1997, while strangely hungover on alcohol/sleeping pills/jetlag) I really don’t think Aury was any sort of follower or devotee of psychoanalysis, at least not of psychoanalysis considered as  the uncovering or revelation of the self. She believed in maintaining secrets, in duplicity, in dissimulation, in pseudonyms, in invented identities, in tales. She was perhaps trained into the imperative of the clandestine by her resistance work, but already it was a literary taste. She believed in the 18th century of Declos. She wrote an essay on les Liasons Dangereuses in the ‘30s. I thought I had translated a passage from this essay in my notebook, but, looking back, I did not—only the jotted phrase—“and for the erotic education of intelligence.” I did, though, translate a bit from her 1946 essay on Violette Leduc’s first book, L’Asphyxie: “There is no longer a secret garden or a lost paradise. Because, in the novels of women today, paradise never existed. Yet the world exists—a world stifling and splendid, crushing and despised, The titles of the women’s books give an emblem to the tone and atmosphere of their stories. And so, Violette Leduc entitles her first book Asphyxia.” (My battered Panther edition is wordily translated as In the Prison of her Skin) It’s an interesting exercise to consider the forms these two mid-twentieth women chose, the confession, and the erotic conte, as two faces of the 18th C. The construction of an image of complete self disclosure, in Leduc, beside the mythically disciplined, and disciplinary restraint of Aury, two versions of responses to the asphyxiating sensation and experience of female corporality in a world of men. It’s a dialectic I’d like to think more about: Confession/dissimulation. I think one reason I decided to move to France, a reason that’s just now becoming apparent to me, is to continue my research on the 18th century. France, especially in the towns and villages, is still in the 18th century. I love how here a conversation is often structured on the mutual presentation of theories, not as conflictual stances, but as entertaining bibelots. Talking together in the evening in a mown field above the river is a formal masque of theories, and also a real politics.

Aury was a passionate devotee of Poussin. What did she love in him? Grandeur and restraint, perhaps, a formal, even emblematic approach to the symbolic structure or logic of the image, stylistic exactitude and rigor, but over all this a gentle or even humorous or loving sense of the glorious inevitability of human stupidity. Lytle Shaw and I have been having an off and on conversation about why the English Romantics loved Poussin. (they did. Hazlitt wrote on him, (see Tom Paulin on Hazlitt) Keats owned the first memoir of Poussin’s life, written in 1820 by Maria Graham—a book I impulsively ordered from Abe two years ago simply because at the time I was earning money and I could). It seems at first like such a deep mystery, this love of Poussin, if you approach the idea of romanticism as an expressive plenum, the romantic artwork as an elevation of individual passions. But what if we think of romanticism’s austerity, the measured analysis of convention in social expression, a sustained dignity of formal attention paid to the minutae of quotidian stories? Then emotions become treated as ritual. They become visible, discernable as more than encompassing flows. In this way, Poussin could be a kind of key to the cabinet that is the story of O.

Violette Leduc. (see above)
What is it about all these fabulous French women writers? Aury, Weil, Leduc, Colette, de Beauvoir, Sarrazin. Not that many other nations aren’t also yielding brilliant women, haven’t always for centuries. But in France they seem more part of the centre of the culture, more accepted as necessary fixtures in the history of thought. For example: a common brand of Dijon mustard, typical in every grocery store and pantry cupboard, comes in a re-useable water glass with a blue or green round bauble for a stem. The glass, my 76 year old neighbour tells me, is a copy of the stemware of Georges Sand. So Georges Sand’s stemware is part of the domestic vocabulary of French kitsch. Can we even begin to imagine the same with Emily Dickinson? Would her thimble arrive as the prize in a cereal box? Collect the set? Or Susanah Moodie? Who? I digress. A few weeks ago at a local dinner party I was overcome by the excitement of meeting two people who found it perfectly normal to spend the evening talking about Bergson and Hannah Arendt. (Why should I have been surprised? The dinner was at the house of the pornographic bookseller who had sold me my copy of The Story of O, in its original ample format and plain yellow cover, then later, Reage’s Une Fille Amoureuse, and Regine Deforges’ O m’a dit, a book of interviews with Aury from 1975). We ate with our fingers the fat white asparagus the French love, dabbing it in various sauces before stripping the soft pulp from the fibrous part by slowly extruding the dripping shoot from between tight teeth. I dipped and blabbered on about Arendt, in the full excitement then of delving through The Life of the Mind. I said how few seriously recognized women thinkers there have been. I was called for my thoughtlessness immediately. Not true. They started naming women philosophers—and all of them were French. I was reading Kristeva on Arendt too at the time. (A book that’s part of a trilogy on the notion of genius in women, and includes Melanie Klein and Colette.) I saw they were right. Here Kristeva and Cixous and Irigary or Duras or Yourcenar or Labe for that matter are not part of a dated or quaint marginal camp called French feminism. They are simply serious thinkers in the culture. They offer analysis on current politics and on history. They are part of public life. Ah, public life. Maybe because there still is a tenuous public space here, a serious sense of the necessity of a critical and unsponsored secular discourse, women can be part of it. Discourse as I know it in the USA and Canada seems to be a mostly private activity, sheltered or promoted or squashed by corporations. And so there is not the space for a public tradition of thinking to accrue. I’m familiar with the Habermasian critique of the public sphere, its basis in class privilege. Yet here public discourse seems to persist in spite of the inevitable circulation of power. It is still a site where unimaginable change or resistance exerts creative force. As in the most recent public protests—the student protestors won. Women can be part of public life because public life exists. (But I distrust the simplicity of this formula.) (and public life erodes also. See the recent essay on political life in France in the London Review of Books, by Alain Supiot: Which unfortunately doesn’t guarantee anything at all about the status of individual women in family or social life. Aury, after her early divorce, refused re-marriage or even cohabitation, preferring to conduct her love affairs with women and men clandestinely, and to maintain her status as an autonomous member of french cultural life. She worked at Gallimard for about 30 years, and was the only woman in that field during that time. So her compartmentalizing was not only a question of intellectual erotics. It stemmed also from a pragmatism in relation to the real politics of gender, the way it circulates in marriages, families, workplaces.

At this point my index dwindles on to:

Poetry as political resistance.
Curiosa, Locked Cabinet of.
The Peruvian Copiest
Libertinage at the Louvre
The imaginary cabin or house

But to return to my first proposition: America needs better pornography.

O begins when the heroine and her lover, strolling in an unfamiliar neighbourhood, enter a car that is like a taxi, yet is not a taxi, and O’s lover has her undo the closure of her perfect grooming. First he asks her to give him her handbag, containing makeup and identity papers. Then he asks her to remove her under wear, her garter belt, her stockings. She sits feeling the embarrassing sensation of her silk slip on her bare thighs. He blindfolds her. He takes her to a chateau at Roissy (now site of the Charles de Gaulle Airport) were she agrees to be prostituted to the desires of a group or cult of men. They may ask anything of her, and she agrees to comply. She agrees to submit herself to this condition. She is dressed by another woman in an open-bodiced gown that lifts easily to emphasize the general availability of her breasts and groin. Her mouth and nipples and labia are rouged and perfumed. It is a banal fantasy really, making use of the usual props and humiliations. It’s the extreme to which Aury stretches it, coupled with her cool stylistic reserve, and her innate understanding of the simultaneous layerings of allegory, that make more of this fantasy than the typical titillation. O, passed among men like a sort of emptied token of exchange, becomes a slave, then an owl, then nothing. These men become progressively more limited in their capacity for any sort of thinking or compassion. The final man is called simply The Commander. Who consents to the dissolution of personhood inside a cult of authority?

Searching for an explanation for this intuition I have about L’Histoire d’O, I think of Swift then pull Bakhtin’s Rabelais and His World from the shelf, a book I haven’t looked at since the late ‘80s. Then I open a new notebook, a big dark grey one from muji, and start writing a story. As I write I have a feeling the story might be for Allyson Clay. Together we’ve been talking about a video script that would be a conversation between two identical images of the same woman.

The Economy.
As in myth and ritual and politics, nothing was true in this landscape. Violence, prohibitions, limitations, fear, and intimidation together moulded a grotesque, a living tableau that night gave over to the imaginary. Nothing was left for the senses, nothing but the feminine in its extremity. I noticed the extreme difficulty in separating out external compulsion from the experience of desire. Maybe they weren’t different. The entire system of degradation and travesty, the relation to social and historical transformation, the element of relativity and becoming, the material bodily lower stratum: change became this image to which I learned to submit. Nothing was left but the smell of nightherbs crushed in passing. I myself am an ornate and abstract allegory.

It’s not far from evening and its autumn. Part of political life is not visible. I am dressed as I always am. I go into the world. I’ve emptied all the pronouns. The religiosity is structural, rather than ideal.

I am interested here in new thought. I am standing dressed in the skin of a sheep or a cow in the occidental forest. My name shall be she to them. It is a shame. It is velvety, voluptuous, and odorous. The sky, the cunt, each thing’s hunger is my fate, is universe of the undiscussed. My name shall be she to them, in grotesque, monstrous, most ancient mixture. This is a class.

This work was made under the auspices of material opulence. I think we talk about their ancient secret glowing like a money.

A good blouse, long gloves that go up over the sleeves of the tailored jacket, in the leather handbag the identity papers and minimum of makeup: Our entire relation with objects can’t be subsumed under the rubric of reification.

In my own pornographic experience I accept the imperceptible harnesses, the deafening panting of desire, the unregulated passivity. If I went home to this one emotion, to lovingly read obedience as liberty falsely improvised, that is, specific spiritual liberty, this is my account, is universe of the undiscussed, is nobility of information, is a class, like the inward opening window, called also a casement. I’m still you, in axis inward flung. I simply watch. And the breezes licking the lush terrains peopled with creatures, the authority, the virility, her submissive fidelity: I solicit all this. Each is progressively more limited. I demand a more exigent passivity and I supply it, to see what will happen. The private lumber turns dangerously.

Originally Published: June 26th, 2006

Poet Lisa Robertson was born in Toronto in 1961. She lived for many years in Vancouver, where she studied at Simon Fraser University, ran an independent bookstore, and was a collective member of the Kootenay School of Writing, a writer-run center for writing, publishing, and scholarship. While in Vancouver, Robertson...