I recently watched Writer of O, the 2004 documentary about Pauline Reage/Dominique Aury/Anne Desclos, the multiply-aliased author of the most famous work of French pornography since de Sade. Story of O was a big influence on me, as I noted in that birthday book meme. Three things stood out to me from the documentary.
# The attempts to film scenes from the book are ludicrous. It’s all arty pseudoporn, too refayned to be hot and too lewd to be sensual. Black silk sheets and similar Fifty Shades trappings. If you ever read the book, and look, I’m extremely not telling you to do that because it’s death-driven s/m porn and no part of that is good, but if you do, you’ll find that it creates a hushed, remote world, feverish but also in an odd way pristine. You’ll think of words like lambent and elegiac. The only element of the book’s tone which the documentary gets right is when we see golden autumn leaves drifting down over the car as O and her lover drive to the chateau. That autumn-afternoon feeling is key to the book’s power, the spell it casts. You can read anywhere on the internet countless stories of thrusting whatnot and pulsing whosits. Story of O creates an actual artistic atmosphere: the piano playing in a far-off room, as the curtains blow in that first chilly breeze of dusk.
# Aury met Jean Paulhan, the man to whom all of the O work is written as a lover’s correspondence, in the French Resistance. After the war they began an affair. While Mme. Paulhan was suffering from Parkinson’s. You’ll be unsurprised to learn that Paulhan played around on Aury too; and that it made her feel bad, because for all your jokes about French adultery, promiseless hotel love isn’t good for them either. The lover in the hotel tryst can feel special, singled out and set apart from the normal world of obligations and hopes–time stands still. And there can be a feeling of glamor in sacrificing those hopes of a future with the one you love. But then time starts up again and he moves on and you’re left with just those grubby mammal feelings.
Aury had a very demure personal style, and Paulhan even told her not to be so self-effacing. Which I do love. “Ostentatiously self-effacing” is more or less exactly how I hoped the author of Story of O would be.
# Toward the very end the film finally gets into one of the most compelling aspects of the book: the unsubtle mysticism. This is a mysticism of dissolution of the self–death, as Aury states bluntly. O is always aggressively surrendering control only to slyly show that she retains it. But her final desire is for total (ostentatious!) obliteration.
O is a book about ecstasy, the sudden rapture of standing outside one’s self. That’s a lot of what I loved in it. When I was baptized I was baptized into Christ’s death, and I don’t think the religion would have made as much sense to me or been as compelling if that complete surrender weren’t a part of its demands. I love every story which explores the hunger for ecstasy, whether the self is surrendered in sex or music, alcohol or prayer, in doing violence or suffering violence. Probably my favorite song about how all these forms of ecstasy can strike the same chord in the soul is that U2 song, “Desire,” which is seriously just a list of hungers. Over the counter–with a shotgun/Pretty soon, everybody’s got one/I’m in a fever when I’m beside her/Desire. Or let me also submit the great wrestling anthem, “Choked Out.” At one, at last, with the universe! Ah, this bravura.
The ferocious desire for ecstasy can take you to a lot of different places. There are solitary ecstasies and ecstasies of union. Alcoholic drinking is always eventually a solitary ecstasy–the dissolution of the self, sending occasional illegible missives from the great drowned kingdom of the mind. There are ecstasies which make you less individual; O dissolves into her costume. Or which make you less alive. O literally dies (maybe–the ending is playfully, mythically coy). Story of O looks like it should be about ecstasy of union, but it’s really about solitary ecstasy–which you should guess as soon as we learn that O doesn’t menstruate. So there is no danger of conception, the most thorough form of union between male and female. O is the sovereign of her world, albeit a Summer Queen who burns briefly and then dies.
Christianity offers an ecstasy of union which makes you more alive and more individual, hence the weirdness of the saints. To put it as bluntly as possible, Jesus wanted Anne Desclos to be weirder than Jean Paulhan wanted Dominique Aury to be. You journey through the death into an unimaginably weirder and more intense life. (Or, I mean, Christianity promises this after death but you’re not guaranteed to feel like you’re on fire all the time while you’re alive.)
So recovery the way I’m trying to do it is an alternative form of ecstasy, not an alternative to ecstasy. When I say everybody should be Catholic, even gay people, I’m not saying you guys should be cut off from ecstasy. I think by this point I’ve proven that I would literally rather die than stop seeking ecstasy. But I try now to turn from the pursuit of solitary ecstasy to the ecstasy of union. I don’t often experience it, not in a way I can taste; I get a lot more “consolations” from prayer than I think most people do, which is not comforting since basically every spiritual writer says you get fewer and fewer consolations as your prayer life deepens. Or maybe that is comforting, since I internally feel God’s presence much less often nowadays than I did when I was just converting. I still trust that He’s there, though if that’s a lot harder for you, know that it’s more likely because of my generally stubborn personality than because of my shambolic, dutiful and distracted prayer life. I still trust that the purpose of my life is not solely to stick my face in the flame, but to meet my Lover there, in a kiss of fire.