A Fondness For Habits & Ritual
In her veiled and beautifully written confession A Girl in Love, published as an introductory essay to Retour à Roissy (Story of O Part Two) Dominique Aury, writing as Pauline Réage, identified the origins of her cast of characters. René was “the vestige of an adolescent love”. As was Jacqueline, “the first to break my heart”, but mixed with a young actress, “with whom I lunched one day… I never saw her again.”
Anthony Steele as Sir Stephen in Just Jaeckin’s 1975 ‘Story of O’
“As for Sir Stephen,” she writes, “I saw him, literally, in the flesh”. Her lover pointed him out to her, one afternoon in a bar near the Champs Elysées. “half seated on a stool at the mahogany bar, silent, self composed, with that air of some grey-eyed prince that fascinates both men and women… fifty years old probably, an Englishman certainly.” This ‘older man’ that Aury agreed women find desirable and in preference to younger men, drew, in a later interview, the response; “…women are always looking for a father figure.” Indeed, ‘O’ in the novel transfers from her young boyfriend René to Sir Stephen, the older man.
STORIES OF O : Sir Stephen as imagined by artist Stefan Prince (detail)
Not surprisingly we find the author’s father Auguste Victor Desclos was English by birth. He and her lover, literary giant Jean Paulhan (over twenty years her senior), and such literary eccentrics as Georges Bataille or William Seabrook, all men attached to learning and literature, could easily be contenders for the Sir Stephen of Dominique Aury’s imaginings. At least, this is my fancy.
Susan Sontag suggests Story of O is “rooted in the conventions of libertine potboilers written in nineteenth-century France, typically situated in a fantasy England populated by brutal aristocrats with enormous sexual equipment and violent tastes…”
And although Story of O is situated in the author’s home city of Paris, her “leading man” is indeed the aristocratic Englishman now famously known for his sometimes violent subjugation of ‘O’. Akin to the fiercely solitary Manfred of Lord Byron, and his, “lone thoughts and wanderings, the quest for hidden knowledge”, Sir Stephen claims he has “a fondness for habits and ritual.”
Sir Stephen as imagined by Guido Crepax
Upon first meeting Sir Stephen is described as “a sort of grey haired athlete” (with “hard grey eyes”). His gaze has an “attention so precise and so sure of itself” that O feels held and weighed. He is expressionless and speaks not a word, his bow is imperceptible. We know a little about him from the ‘suppressed’ chapter of Histoire d’O, that he is Scottish, a member of the Campbell clan (although he is everywhere described as an English lord), and that he is involved in international finance, perhaps in diamond mines in the Congo.
Such a protagonist and his literary lineage will have been familiar to Dominique Aury through her choice of reading. Particularly those books she read in private as a teenager, stealing into her father’s library.
Her English father Auguste Victor Desclos, who was born in London in the autumn of 1876 to restaurateurs Auguste and Victorine, in adulthood claimed noble roots and to have inherited the title of count of Robins of Brittany, the “men of dress” of the Ancien Régime (the claim has been disproved).
By her own account her father, “could in no way be described as handsome. On the contrary he was stocky and strong.” When asked if there was “a certain sensuality” in their father/daughter relationship Aury was quick to respond with the affirmative. She conceded, “I adored him. And admired him greatly… He was – “ladies’ man” would be the wrong term – someone who adored the ladies. He was so gallant and generous with them – not in a material sense, because he wasn’t wealthy, but generous in his sentiments and his friendship. He was marvellous. Open and attentive.”
What precisely are the habits and rituals Sir Stephen has a fondness for? The protocol rituals adopted within a dominant/submissive relationship have been described as “something that you do without fail with your partner or for your partner daily, weekly, monthly, or yearly.” (It provides reliability and consistency). Likewise a ‘rule’ can be interpreted as a ritual. ‘Collaring’ is one example of such a ritual and if demanded daily is a rule seen as ritual. Such rituals are seen as a way to “help keep the dynamic alive, and help deepen bonds between partners”.
Seabrook: “the desire to torture women in a more or less benign manner” (Man Ray)
One man who knew of ritual in a wider sense was American in Paris, Lost Generation occultist, explorer, traveller, cannibal, and journalist William Seabrook (1884 – 1945). Like Georges Bataille, Seabrook transgressed taboo lines most obviously by way of sexual sadism. David Rolfe has written, “William Seabrook was a popular writer… notably weirder than most, and pressed by psychological dysfunction to run in oddball directions and write about what he found. His reports were personal and often had a lurid and/or supernatural edge. Among other adventures, he spent a year in Haiti, mingling among the locals, finally producing a book about voodoo (The Magic Island, which introduced the term “zombie” to the American culture). His odyssey was a strange one, carrying him through alcoholism and eventually mental hospitals and ultimately suicide. For his small but unusual place in history, some people will be drawn to hear his story.”
Seabrook’s slave photographed by Man Ray
Seabrook claimed. “The key to a locked man is his supreme want.” Eric Hoffman, drawn to Seabrook’s story, writes, “Seabrook’s supreme ‘want’ involved women in chains, an obsession he traced back to an almost hallucinatory childhood memory of being led by his laudanum-addicted grandmother to an imaginary ruined castle in which he discovered a young woman chained to a throne.”
Surrealist photographer Man Ray (1890-1976) records one occasion in Paris where he was asked by Seabrook to “baby-sit” a young slave for him during his absence:
“She was nude except for a soiled, ragged loincloth, with her hands behind her back chained to the post with a padlock. Seabrook produced a key and informed me that I was to release the girl only in the case of an emergency – a fire, or for a short visit to the bathroom. She was being paid to do this for a few days, was very docile and willing… Seabrook was so pleased with the docility of his hired girl he took her with him when he went down south for the summer.” (Man Ray Self Portrait)
William Seabrook photographed with Lee Miller
Marjorie Worthington in her memoir of life with Seabrook recalls, “He was about six feet tall, with broad shoulders and narrow hips. He dressed in a style of his own: in winter he wore brown corduroys or heavy tweeds, made to order by Lloyds of London, with a red bandanna handkerchief tied round his neck; in summer he wore blue denim pants or red-orange ones from Brittany, with short sleeved tricot shirts and bare-foot Capucine sandals. – He had blue eyes, a rather pudgy nose, a smallish mouth with a brush mustache, and a cleft chin… What was more important, he had a tremendous amount of personal magnetism.” Worthington met Seabrook in 1926 and moved with him to Paris. They married in 1935 in New York and were divorced in 1941.
Hoffman explains, “Seabrook married three times, and because of his fetishism, his first two marriages were strained to the breaking point. Possibly sexually impotent, Seabrook’s appetite for bondage and sadism were pronounced… (he) hired young women, whom he bound and gagged, and he took to designing his own bondage gear; the artist Man Ray photographed him with one of his restraints around the neck of photographer Lee Miller. Seabrook married a final time, in 1942; they were divorced the same year. He committed suicide by drug overdose in 1945.”
The fantasies of William Seabrook captured on camera by surrealist photographer Man Ray.
Slave Mask designed by William Seabrook
Georges Bataille: “with his charming looks, his white hair, his voice as unctuous as a priest.” (Jean-Jacques Pauvert)
Georges Bataille (1897 – 1962), French intellectual and literary figure working in literature, philosophy, anthropology, economics, sociology and history of art (His writing, which included essays, novels, and poetry, explored such subjects as eroticism, mysticism, surrealism, and transgression) almost single-handedly established de Sade’s place in the realm of 20th century ideas.
He credits de Sade for revealing a link between sexuality and a wish to destroy oneself; “this tormenting fact: the urge towards love, pushed to its limit, is an urge towards death”. This links nicely to the journey towards the destruction of the ego and towards death which ‘O’ in Histoire d’O is invited to take.
‘Fantasies of Mr Seabrook’ Paris, 1930 gelatin print owned by Georges Bataille
“Besides appealing to the authority of Sade in defending this claim,” writes Geoffrey Roche, “Bataille cites examples from natural history, of animals who expend themselves in coitus (suggesting the danger of sex), the mystic insights of St. Theresa, and the association of sex and death implicit in the French expression for orgasm, ‘la petite mort’ (‘the little death’).” Both Sade and Bataille, in “the name of ‘authenticity’ and the ‘natural,’ seek to convince the reader that sexuality cannot and should not be separated from the notion of sin and from the infliction of pain.”
Mark Hudson has written, “With so many central taboos long since blasted into history, it’s difficult now to imagine the constricting atmosphere that formed Bataille’s obsessive preoccupations. “Fascinated by human sacrifice, Bataille founded a secret society, Acéphale, the symbol of which was a headless man. According to legend, Bataille and the other members of Acéphale each agreed to be the sacrificial victim as an inauguration; none of them would agree to be the executioner.
Although we know nothing of the actual ritual we do know from Pierre Klossowski’s account that;
Georges Bataille & Colette Peignot (1933-34)
“About twenty of us took the train to … Saint-Nom-la-Bretéche… We were told: ‘meditate, but secretly. Never speak a word of what you felt or thought!’ Bataille never told us anything more. He never explained what this kind of ceremony represented. I can tell you that it was very beautiful… I only remember that particular evening as pouring with rain. There was a Greek fire at the foot of a tree struck by lightening. A whole stage set… It was very beautiful. But we all had the feeling of participating in something happening within Bataille, in his head.” (Les Aventures de la liberté)
If no sacrifice took place we know at least that Acéphale had its day. Indeed, the topography of Bataille’s “impossible plan” has been recorded. It included a brothel in the rue Pigalle “where Bataille and Colette Peignot indulged their tastes, and another in Saint-Germain-en-Laye which they frequented more often”. (Michel Surya quoting Isabelle Waldberg)
Jean Paulhan: “this tall, thick-set man, his head resembling an owl a bit… who talked in a thin little voice”. (Jean-Jacques Pauvert)
Dominique Aury (Anne Desclos) photographed with Jean Paulhan
Jean Paulhan (1884 – 1968) was a French writer, literary critic and publisher, and director of the literary magazine Nouvelle Revue Française. He was a member of the Académie française. His work includes stories and writings on art (cubism and informal art), but it is especially for his essays on language and literature that he acquired fame. It was Jean Paulhan who passed the manuscript of Histoire d’O to publisher Jean-Jacques Pauvert.
William Seabrook’s “Lizzie in Chains”
Story of O had been written for him, Paulhan, by his lover Dominique Aury as a series of seductive ‘love letters’. The ‘episodes’, with their kinship to de Sade (of whom Paulhan was a great admirer), were an inspired response to Paulhan’s challenge that no woman could write such material. Georges Bataille and André Pieyre de Mandiargues praised its subsequent publication.
Aury first met Paulhan at the beginning of the Second World War. He was on his second marriage and already well established as one of France’s leading intellectuals. He had been editor of the Nouvelle Revue Française since 1925.
During the German occupation they worked together at Gallimard and became lovers. Aury loved him passionately and he loved her. He was however, married and had a family. He also had a roving eye and Aury was forced to avert her gaze from other women who came into his life.
Aury described Paulhan thus: “He was tall, broad-shouldered, somewhat heavy set, with a Roman like face and something both smiling and sarcastic in his expression. Existence filled him with wonder. Both the admirable and the horrible aspects of existence. Equally so. The atrocious fascinated him. The enchanting enchanted him. A phenomenal temperament. He had his whole life that same gift my father had, but much more consciously so, almost deliberately so. A gift for happiness, of being there, being present and of finding it fascinating.”
Aury’s essay A Girl In Love was accurate, she told interviewer John de St Jorre. “It is a moving piece of writing describing the clandestine love affair between a single woman (living with her mother) and a married man living with his family.” That it was written at the hospital bedside of her dying lover sharpens the poignancy. This remains Dominique Aury’s story behind Story of O.
As for de Sade, Aury claimed she didn’t read him before the writing of Histoire d’O. And of torture? “O submits to it in various forms, and we’re told she finds peace through torture. I think that requires some explanation.” prompts Régine Deforges in her interview with ‘Pauline Réage’ (Confessions of O). Aury (Réage) answers thus;
“One speaks of the peace that passes understanding. There’s a parallel here, I think, in that in both instances one is taken out of oneself. Bear in mind that, as I’ve said before, this notion is an intellectual one with me. I have no talent for torture, nor any propensity for it. The very thought frightens me to death. But it might be meaningful to trace it back to where it came into my life. I remember as a child being obsessed by the matter – probably the influence of devotional books. There’s nothing like devotional books to give you a good idea of what torture is all about. All the martyred saints, for instance, each tortured in a different way. And all these books were profusely illustrated.”
“A body is the place where happiness and misfortune conjoin, the site of triumph and sacrifice…”
Dominique Aury (Confessions of O: Conversations with Pauline Réage by Régine Deforges)
text © Stefan Prince