In the Jewish ‘Book of Esther’ (also known in Hebrew as “the Scroll”) a tale unfolds that begins, as Wikipedia informs us, “with Ahasuerus, ruler of the Persian Empire, holding a lavish banquet, initially for his court and dignitaries and afterwards for all inhabitants of the capital city, Shushan. On the seventh day, Ahasuerus orders the queen, Vashti, to come and display her beauty before the guests by wearing only her crown. She refuses. Furious, Ahasuerus has her removed from her position and makes arrangements to choose a new queen from a selection of beautiful young women from throughout the empire.”
This marvellous image of the queen in all her regal beauty displayed before all and sundry secures for the tale the status of an early literary example of candaulism. We find candaulism aplenty in Story of O and one wonders if Pauline Réage (Dominique Aury) was familiar with the term first defined by Richard von Krafft-Ebing in his book: Psychopathia sexualis. Eine klinisch-forensische Studie (Stuttgart: Enke 1886).
‘O stared at them with eyes that, beneath her plumage, were darkened with bister, eyes opened wide like the eyes of the nocturnal bird she was impersonating, and the illusion was so extraordinary that no one thought of questioning her, which would have been the most natural thing to do, as though she were a real owl, deaf to human language, and dumb.
From midnight to dawn, which began to lighten the eastern sky at about five, as the moon waned and descended toward the west, people came up to her several times and some even touched her, they formed a circle around her several times and several times they parted her knees and lifted the chain, bringing with them on of those two-branched candlesticks of Provencal earthenware – and she could feel the flames from the candles warming the inside of her thighs – to see how she was attached…
But even though they thus made use of O, and even though they used her in this way as a model, or the subject of a demonstration, not once did anyone ever speak to her directly. Was she then of stone or wax, or rather some creature from another world, and did they think it pointless to speak to her? Or didn’t they dare?’
Candaulism, Wikipedia tell us, is a sexual practice or fantasy in which a man exposes his female partner, or images of her, to other people for their voyeuristic pleasure. The term may also be applied to the practice of undressing or otherwise exposing a female partner to others, or urging or forcing her to engage in sexual relations with a third person, such as during a swinging activity. Similarly, the term may also be applied to the posting of personal images of a female partner on the internet or urging or forcing her to wear clothing which reveals her physical attractiveness to others.
The term is derived from ancient King Candaules who conceived a plot to show his unaware naked wife to his servant Gyges of Lydia. After discovering Gyges while he was watching her naked, Candaules’ wife ordered him to choose between killing himself or killing her husband in order to repair the vicious mischief.
AND SO TO BED
The famous painting by William Etty shows the moment at which Nyssia, at this point unaware that she is being watched by anyone other than her husband, removes the last of her clothes.
Etty hoped that his audience would take from the painting the moral lesson that women are not chattels and that men infringing on their rights will justly be punished, but made little effort to explain this to audiences. The painting was immediately controversial, and perceived as a cynical combination of a pornographic image and a violent and unpleasant narrative, and it was condemned as an immoral piece of the type one would expect from a foreign, not a British, artist. It was bought by Robert Vernon on its exhibition, and in 1847 was one of a number of paintings given by Vernon to the nation – although in the case of Candaules a painting so controversial becoming government property was a source of some embarrassment.
Interestingly the art collector and connoisseur CharlesSaatchi has considered the influence of candaulism upon the work of Salvador Dali, citing episodes recorded by the artist’s biographers in which his wife Gala was displayed to other men.
Krafft-Ebing’s principal work was Psychopathia Sexualis: eine Klinisch-Forensische Studie (Sexual Psychopathy: A Clinical-Forensic Study), which was first published in 1886 and expanded in subsequent editions. The last edition from the hand of the author (the twelfth) contained a total of 238 case histories of human sexual behaviour. The book popularized the terms sadism (derived from the brutal sexual practices depicted in the novels of Marquis de Sade) and masochism (derived from the name of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch).
‘At coffee, when liqueurs had been brought, Sir Stephen pushed the table towards the other wall, and after having raised her skirt to show his friends how O had been marked and ironed, left her to them.’
Pauline Réage Story of O
©Stefan Prince with thanks to Shali Peach