Nietzsche's aesthetics and Pauline Reage's Story of O.
I would like to offer wholehearted thanks to David Bennett, John Frow, and Dion Kagan for their input into this essay. reception, contemporary scholarship has, from the perspective of varying feminisms, focused primarily on critiquing what it sees as the novel's patriarchal values. Numerous influential essays have argued that the narrative of Story of O and Reage's desire to write it are symptomatic of patriarchy's oppression of women. (3) Other critics have conducted more nuanced analyses of the novel's treatment of female subjectivity and heterosexuality. (4) Only a small handful of scholars depart from these concerns. (5) I aim to bring a fresh perspective to Story of O by demonstrating how it articulates the principles of Nietzsche's aesthetic philosophy, particularly the concepts of Apollo and Dionysus detailed in Nietzsche's first book, The Birth of Tragedy (1872), and revisited in The Will to Power (1901), the posthumously published collection of notebooks. Story of O employs Nietzschean aesthetics to construct sadomasochism as a sublime aesthetic experience that dissolves individual subjectivity and refashions collective subjectivity, enacting Nietzsche's critique of truth and essential identity. Although little is known about Reage's philosophical influences apart from the Marquis de Sade, she may have been familiar with those of Paulhan, her long-term lover. In 1926, Paulhan translated two lectures Nietzsche delivered in 1870, the content of which would form the basis of The Birth of Tragedy (Milne 261). Nietzsche's aesthetic realms of Apollo and Dionysus would influence Paulhan's The Flowers of Tarbes (1936) (Milne 263), and, whether intentionally or not, they also inform Reage's Story of O. (6)
Although it is not the primary aim of this essay to ask, in the same vein as Sontag, if Story of O qualifies as a work of literature, reading the novel as an illustration of Nietzsche's aesthetic approach to sexuality, suffering, and identity may further the case for the novel's sophistication and literary value. Of course, advocating Story of O as a work of literature is not denying that it can be classified as pornographic and interpreted as portraying--in either a justificatory or critical manner--anti-feminist gender relations. (7) The question of gender representation remains pertinent to discussions of Story of O. Because this concern has been so extensively addressed, however, I will limit its discussion to its connection with the novel's Nietzschean underpinnings.
Nietzsche's aesthetic philosophy centers on the Apollonian and Dionysian "art-worlds" (Tragedy 77) that comprise Greek tragedy as well as the "all-powerful artistic drives in nature" that dictate human instinct (25). For Nietzsche, Greek tragedy provides a model of human experience that consists of the alternating aesthetic states of Apollonian and Dionysian consciousness. Apollo offers the intoxication of "image-making," beauty, and dream through its "mirror of semblance," and is designated as the "daylight world" (15, 31, 77), an appropriate domain for a concept named after Greek mythology's sun god. Apollo is characterized by a tranquility articulated through the metaphor of the Apollonian subject sitting "calmly in his rocking boat in the midst of the sea" (26), a trope presented in The Gay Science as "quiet, stillness, calm seas" (234). Apollonian calm is both product and precondition of the principium individuationis, the principle of individuation (Tragedy 76) that defines the subject as "absolutely isolated," a "typical 'individual'" (Power 416). Nietzsche's notion of Apollonian semblance is based upon Schopenhauer's concept, articulated in The World as Will and Representation (1818), that the physical world and the individual body compose an illusory "veil of maya," a manifestation of the will, which is the Kantian "thing-in-itself," the inner essence of the world (642). Like human experience, tragedy, for Nietzsche, consists of the antagonistic interplay between Dionysian and Apollonian drives: the Apollonian aesthetic smothers and obscures man's Dionysian instincts while Dionysus destroys Apollo's "veil of maya" (Tragedy 21). Ultimately, Dionysus is the victor of this persistent rivalry and colors the Apollonian world: "Dionysos speaks the language of Apollo, but finally it is Apollo who speaks that of Dionysos." When this occurs, "the supreme goal of tragedy and indeed of all art, is attained" (Tragedy 104).
In contrast with the Apollonian realm of image and semblance, the Dionysian aesthetic is associated with the "imageless art of music" grounded in the Dionysian dithyramb, a hymn to the god Dionysus (Tragedy 14, 51). Nietzsche's Dionysian aesthetic draws heavily on, but also diverges from, Schopenhauer's concept of the will. Schopenhauer argues that the will's manifestation as individuality is responsible for the "constant suffering and dying" (560), the "trouble, pain, [and] anxiety" that compose life (359). The only means of escape from this suffering, he argues, is through aesthetic experience. Music, in particular, allows one to transcend the will's objectification as individuality by allowing one to intuit the will in its metaphysical essence: "music is by no means like the other arts, namely a copy of the Ideas, but a copy of the will itself (Schopenhauer 259, emphasis original). By intuiting the will through aesthetic experience, humans are freed from the suffering that the will's manifestation in representation instates. Nietzsche anthropomorphizes Schopenhauer's metaphysical will using names including "the primordial being," the "father of all things" and the "Primordial Unity" (Tragedy 81, 26, 105). The will is also "the ground of things" (Tragedy 39) and identified with nature. It is the will, then, that manifests as the Apollonian and Dionysian "artistic drives" in man. While Schopenhauer views pain and suffering as functions of the will's objectification in the body, however, Nietzsche views these qualities as defining the will itself. For Nietzsche, Dionysian aesthetic experience, in enabling an intuition of the will, does not deliver one from suffering, but, on the contrary, unites one with "eternal, primal pain, the only ground of the world" (Tragedy 26). Death, destruction, and suffering are truths obscured by Apollonian semblance but embraced and celebrated in the Dionysian aesthetic: when put "in aesthetic terms," the "ugly and disharmonious" produce "aesthetic delight" (Tragedy 113). This aesthetic pleasure is like the pleasure offered by "musical dissonance," a "primal pleasure" derived from pain (Tragedy 114).
The dynamics of tragedy correspond with the drives registered in the human body, hence the precedence of tragedy in the sadomasochistic practices of the Dionysian Barbarians, who expressed the artistic drives of nature through their "repulsive mixture of sexuality and cruelty" (Tragedy 20). "Bliss born of pain" is both aesthetic and sexual, "talent for suffering [...] the correlative of artistic talent" (Tragedy 27, 25). The sadomasochistic tone of the Dionysian aesthetic, introduced in The Birth of Tragedy, is intensified in The Will to Power. Here, Nietzsche frames sadomasochistic sexuality as the core of the Dionysian aesthetic in his definition "Dionysus: Sexuality and cruelty" (Power 415, emphasis original). The Dionysian sublime enables one to derive pleasure from "the most excruciating suffering" (Power 421), demonstrating the way in which "art is the alleviation of the sufferer--as the way to states in which pain is willed, is transfigured, is deified, where suffering is a form of great ecstasy" (Power 291). Pain is always a product of power. The latter is crucial to the Dionysian aesthetic as the exertion of power characterizes aesthetic perfection (Power 244) and constitutes both foundation and effect of sexual pleasure: "pleasure appears with the feeling of power" (Power 403, emphasis original). Nietzsche reiterates the aesthetic foundation of sadomasochistic experience in his description of "sensual ugliness" (Human 196) and his claim that ugliness "excites our lust of cruelty" (Power 245).
The power exchange involved in Nietzsche's sadomasochistic aesthetic may be read in accordance with his gendered account of artistic roles. Nietzsche conceives of the role of artist as masculine and that of the art spectator as feminine, describing their relationship as mimicking the dynamics of heterosexual penetration. The artist--who takes pleasure in giving--and the spectator--who takes pleasure in receiving--are engaged in a natural, desirable, and very rigid antagonism: "one should not ask the artist who gives to become a woman--to 'receive'" (Power 255-56, emphasis original). Nietzsche denigrates the aesthetic philosophy of his time as a "women's aesthetic" because it focuses solely on beauty and takes into account only "the point of view of the receivers in art." He argues, rather, that attention should be shifted to the artist and his right to produce ugly and repulsive art, fulfilling his own desires at the expense of the receiver's (Power256). This view not only reiterates the value that Nietzsche attributes to ugliness but reveals that his conception of sexual relations is defined by the asymmetric power relations of the Dionysian aesthetic: the active male artist inflicts ugliness--the aesthetic form of pain and suffering--upon the female receiver. Dionysian and Apollonian consciousness structure the sadomasochistic themes of Story of O.
In Story of O, Apollonian consciousness is signified through the trope of the mirror, which produces images of beauty that appear real but are not. In the following passage, the mirror trope is coupled with the Apollonian metaphor of the calm sea, which defines as illusory the daylight world O observes while visiting Sir Stephen's villa in the south of France:
the clear blue sky, the almost mirror-like sea, the motionless pines beneath the burning sun: everything seemed mineral and hostile to her. "No real trees," she remarked sadly to herself [...]. "The sea doesn't smell like the sea," she thought. She blamed the sea for washing up nothing more than an occasional piece of wretched seaweed which looked like dung, she blamed it for being too blue and for always lapping at the same bit of shore. (180)
The authenticity of the sea is undermined by its scent, and the trees and seaweed appear to be something they are not. The coupled mirror and calm sea tropes are repeated when O views herself "in a slightly greenish antique mirror which was streaked like the wrinkles in a pond" (197). In this instance, water simile accompanies mirror metaphor, reversing the previous example in which mirror simile characterizes water metaphor. Besides its use of Nietzschean tropes, Story of O represents Apollonian consciousness in O's foil and lover, Jacqueline, a figure ignored in most analyses of the novel. Jacqueline, embodying the principium individuationis, is self-focused and self-contained, an isolated individual and happily so. O's belief that she possesses Jacqueline is an error of judgment flagged by the narrator with the statement "at least so she thought" (164). Jacqueline reinforces her unshakeable sense of self through the passion she shows for her possessions and her indifference toward those of others (136). She shores up her isolated individuality by being "disinterested in others, in anything that did not pertain directly to herself" (177), and, indeed, O comes to realize that Jacqueline is "completely egotistical [...] being interested in [O] solely because of O's manifest, and passionate, interest in her" (148). While O's clothes, as we shall see, signify the porous boundaries of her identity, Jacqueline's sartorial repertoire of tight-fitting pants and jumpers symbolizes the impermeable limits of her being and her described inaccessibility (187). Descriptions of Jacqueline are littered with Nietzsche's Apollonian tropes: she is "bronzed and sleek, so hard and bright in the burning sun" (187) and as composed as a tranquil sea, only occasionally hinting at "troubled waters beneath the calm surface" (129). She is, above all, associated with the image of beauty. O is mesmerized by Jacqueline's beauty, which she absorbs through the reflections of many mirrors and photographs throughout the novel. Jacqueline represents the "lovely semblance" of individuality, a function of Apollonian consciousness that O occasionally registers but disdains. This recognition occurs at O's workplace, where she is employed as an "image-making" photographer. Here she becomes aware of her separation from her lover Rene, conscious of her isolation (103). O also observes Apollonian consciousness in her first sexual encounter with Sir Stephen, noting and despising his self-containment in wanting him "to be chafing under the urge to touch her lips and penetrate her body, to devastate her if need be, but not to remain so calm and self-possessed" (82-83). She then experiences this state for herself when Sir Stephen arrives at her apartment during the Apollonian morning, finding her bothered by "her own self-consciousness" (111).
Besides these Apollonian moments, however, O primarily occupies the Dionysian consciousness incited by her sadomasochistic experiences. In Story of O, sadomasochism occasionally take place with musical accompaniment: in the "music room" of Anne-Marie's Samois chateau, where O is whipped, pierced, and branded, a record player drowns her screams (153), and in the novel's final sequence, a record player provides the music for O's owl-masked slide from humanity. Music forms a kind of Dionysian dithyramb, producing in aural form the pleasure to be found in aesthetic ugliness, which is not simply the pleasure O takes in pain but the pleasure others take in administering it. Observing one of her Roissy lovers, O recognizes that "to beg him for mercy would have been the surest method for making him redouble his cruelty, so great was his pleasure in extracting, or having the others extract, from her this unquestionable proof of his power" (13). O experiences her own "lust of cruelty" (Nietzsche, Power 245) when, whipping Yvonne at Samois, "she had been overwhelmed with a terrible feeling of pleasure" (162). In the main, however, the novel is largely focused upon O's "talent for suffering," her ability to derive "primal pleasure" from pain (Nietzsche, Tragedy 25, 114), which is always a manifestation of another's power. Sexual violence, for O, is like musical dissonance, with "aesthetic delight" always to be found in physical expressions of ugliness. "Her terror seemed itself so sweet" (23), it is declared; O is "happier still if [her torture] had been especially cruel and prolonged" (156-57).
The asymmetric power relations that compose sadomasochism in Story of O are gendered, as the novel's feminist critiques have emphasized: dominance is a masculine trait, submission a female one. Masculinity and femininity take precedence over sex. With her male lovers, O is feminine and therefore passive, and with her female lovers, O demonstrates "manifest masculinity" (98) and is accordingly active: it is she who penetrates, who caresses, who pursues, the "naturally trained bird of prey" (196). These gendered power positions, I suggest, are not simply demonstrative or symptomatic of patriarchy, as many of the novel's commentators have claimed, but are grounded in Nietzsche's patriarchal and often misogynistic aesthetic philosophy, cohering with his rigid notion of the masculine active artist--the "giver"--and his right to inflict ugliness upon the passive feminine spectator, the "receiver." I do not make this point to excuse or justify the gendered sexual roles of Story of O but simply to highlight their philosophical underpinning. (8)
According to Nietzsche, the Dionysian aesthetic expresses the ugliness of the will, the bliss of destruction and pain, by shattering Apollo's principium individuationis, causing "subjectivity to vanish" (Tragedy 17). The "breaking-asunder of the individual" is essential to aesthetic experience because "the prime demand we make of every kind and level of art is the conquest of subjectivity, release and redemption from the 'I'" (Tragedy 29). Of course, the Apollonian drive is also an expression of art and therefore this statement, which speaks of Dionysian self-shattering as essential to art per se, suggests that Nietzsche holds the Dionysian aesthetic in higher regard than the Apollonian and perhaps views it as definitive of aesthetic experience. This statement also highlights how the expression of the will constitutes subjectivity. It makes clear Nietzsche's distinction between the expression of the will as individuality--"individual willing"--and the expression of the will as universality. In destroying the former, the Dionysian aesthetic creates the latter, a process that involves "a mystical sense of oneness" (Tragedy 19) that restores the bonds between all humans:
now all the rigid, hostile barriers, which necessity, caprice, or "impudent fashion" have established between human beings, break asunder. Now, hearing this gospel of universal harmony, each person feels himself to be not simply united, reconciled or merged with his neighbor, but quite literally one with him, as if the veil of maya had been torn apart, so that mere shreds of it flutter before the mysterious primordial unity. (Tragedy 18)
Accordingly, in Story of O, the effect of the sadomasochistic aesthetic experience shared by masculine and feminine counterparts is the dissolution and reconstruction of subjectivity. O's "emptying out of herself," as Sontag puts it (180), has been addressed in most analyses of the novel. Several critics suggest that the absence of O's subjectivity is symbolized by her initial (Dworkin 108; Sontag 56). I am suggesting that O's individual subjectivity dissolves because she experiences the Dionysian destruction of the Apollonian principium individuationis. O releases her individual subjectivity by relinquishing her body to her lover. Giving up ownership of one's body means divorcing that body from one's notion of self, as the following monologue, delivered to O upon her arrival at Roissy, demonstrates:
Your hands are not your own, nor are your breasts, nor, most especially, any of your bodily orifices, which we may explore or penetrate at will. You will remember at all times--or as constantly as possible--that you have lost all right to privacy or concealment, and as a reminder of this fact, in our presence you will never close your lips completely, or cross your legs, or press your knees together [...] This will serve as a constant reminder, to you as well as to us, that your mouth, your belly, and your backside are open to us. You will never touch your breasts in our presence: the bodice raises them toward us, that they may be ours. (15-16)
At Samois, O is tied to an apparatus that spreads her legs widely apart, so that her sense of her submission dissolves her consciousness of self: "she could think of nothing save her enslaved condition" (163). The same effect is produced by other physical symbols of her enslavement: "she no longer felt anything but the collar, the bracelets, and the chain" (24). The chains that hold O in bondage, that "should have bound her deep within herself [...] on the contrary freed her from herself (38-39). The pain of branding causes O to completely lose consciousness (167), but more profound is the way in which she simply loses awareness of her individual self:
beneath the gazes, beneath the hands, beneath the sexes that defiled her, the whips that rent her, she lost herself in a delirious absence from herself which restored her to love and, perhaps, brought her to the edge of death. She was anyone, anyone at all, any one of the other girls, opened and forced like her. (39)
As this final sentence indicates, it is specifically an awareness of her individual self that O loses. Sir Stephen's mid-morning visit to O's apartment, which initially stokes her self-consciousness, signifies the point at which the Apollonian daylight world will begin to adopt the character, or "speak the language," of the Dionysian. This is why it is declared in the novel's final sequence that it "was only after daybreak" that Sir Stephen and the Commander "possessed [O] one after the other" (203). When Dionysian consciousness pervades the Apollonian realm, O's tragic quest for "a mystical sense of oneness" (Tragedy 19) has reached its pinnacle. O's masochism, as Maffesoli would put it, is not "a pathological 'case'" (47) but "something like 'an ecstatic liberation'" (48), liberation from the bonds of her individuality. The pervasiveness of the Dionysian state O achieves is reflected in the written style of the final paragraph. While an omniscient narrator conveys O's inner experience throughout the novel, the following paragraph is void of O's subjectivity. O is now an object for her lovers and for her readers alike:
in a final chapter, which has been suppressed, O returned to Roissy, where she was abandoned by Sir Stephen. There exists a second ending to the story of O, according to which O, seeing that Sir Stephen was about to leave her, said she would prefer to die. Sir Stephen gave her his consent. (204)
Through the dissolution of her individual subjectivity, O becomes one with all that exists, her identity refashioned in the image of the primordial unity. This fusion with the totality, the source of O's ecstasy, is conveyed through the trope of openness; to be open, or ouvert, is also a popular reading among scholars of O's initial. The imperative of openness is declared on O's first night at Roissy and is reiterated by Rene upon her return home, whereupon O observes that "the word 'open' and the expression 'opening her legs' were, on her lover's lips, charged with such uneasiness and power" (57). To be open metaphysically means being opened physically: O must never wear clothes that close or contain her body, so underwear and pants are forbidden, while skirts, bras and blouses must be easily raised or opened. O's thighs must always be open so that her nether lips are too, and O is rendered "doubly open" (43) with the widening of her anus. These strategies, as Benjamin notes (299), destroy the boundaries that instate isolation, allowing O to experience unity with her lovers. O is no longer an individual and is thus no longer closed; she revels in the way in which "there was no limit, no restriction" to her lover's use of her body (191). The novel's terminology suggests that the primordial unity that O is opened up to is indeed a Nietzschean form of the Schopenhauerean will that is reflected in the bodies of her lovers. For example, in relation to Rene, O feels "totally committed to a will which was not her own" (60), and in Sir Stephen she perceives "a will of ice and iron" (84). (9) This reflection of the will is alluded to in O's instruction that the cruelty she endures is "intended less to make [her] suffer, scream, or shed tears than to make [her] feel, through this suffering, that [she] [... is] totally dedicated to something outside [her]self" (17, emphasis original). (10)
At Roissy, O is united with her lovers through the bodies of other men, demonstrating that connection with the will means union with other humans:
[Rene] was participating in whatever might be demanded of or inflicted on her [...] it was he who possessed and enjoyed her through those into whose hand she had been given, by the simple fact that he had given her to them. She must greet them and submit to them with the same respect with which she greeted him, as though they were so many reflections of him. (32)
The hands of her Roissy lovers "were [Rene's] hands, their orders his orders" (83). The union O achieves with Rene transcends the physical limits imposed by individuality, and it effectively transforms all involved participants into a single metaphysical being. O also achieves connection with her male lovers through her sexual liaisons with women. She wrests pleasure from Jacqueline because "it made her constantly aware of the pleasure which she in turn gave when she tightened around whoever was holding her, whenever she sighed or moaned" (196). Just as O achieves union with her lovers through sexual encounters with others, so too does she enable the union of others. Her sexual encounters with women bind her conquests to her lovers: "it seemed to her that the girls she caressed belonged by right to the man to whom she belonged, and that she was only present by proxy" (196). O's submission to Sir Stephen unites him with Rene: "O realized that through the medium of her body, shared between them, they attained something more mysterious and perhaps more acute, more intense than an amorous communion" (105). O becomes, in Nietzschean terms, "a medium, the channel" for "artistic projections for the true creator of art" (Tragedy 32).
Nietzsche explains how one may be refashioned as a Dionysian collective subject but still appear as an individual through the figure of the lyric poet Archilochus, a Dionysian artist merged with the primordial unity (Tragedy 30) who continually asserts his subjectivity, who "always says 'I'" (Tragedy 29). Archilochus invokes Apollonian semblance, transposing the "image-less and concept-less reflection of the original pain in music" into a second reflection of "a symbolic dream-image" (emphasis original). Apollonian semblance gives "sensuous expression" to Dionysian music so that the "'I' of the lyric poet sounds out from the deepest abyss of being; his 'subjectivity,' as the concept is used by modern aestheticians, is imaginary" (Tragedy 30). When Nietzsche specifies that "music, by its essence, cannot possibly be Will" but that it "appears as Will, understood in Schopenhauer's sense, which is to say, in opposition to the aesthetic, purely contemplative, will-less mood" (Tragedy 35, emphasis original), "will" refers to the Apollonian manifestation of individual subjectivity, not the Dionysian expression of the "world-Will" (Tragedy 83). The lyric poet maintains semblance of individual subjectivity even though it has been shattered by the Dionysian aesthetic; "this 'I'-ness is not the same as that of the waking, empirically real human being, but rather the only 'I'-ness which truly exists at all, eternal and resting in the ground of things" (Tragedy 31). The metaphysical intuition of the will achieved through the Dionysian aesthetic means that mankind is "happily alive, not as individuals, but as the one living being" (Tragedy 81, emphasis original). Indeed, he becomes "a medium, the channel" for "the one truly existing subject" (Tragedy 33). This is an experience of "blissful ecstasy," "sublimity," and horror (Tragedy 17-18). The experience of self-shattering is horrifying, but it is sublimely pleasurable to learn that individual subjectivity is a matter of semblance, its destruction revealing the will as the primordial unity (Tragedy 80).
In Story of O, Dionysian unity is constructed in place of the shattered Apollonian principium individuationis. O's individual subjectivity is replaced by collective subjectivity. This event is reconciled with the appearance of O's individual body in a way that echoes Nietzsche's exposition on Archilochus. Despite her self-loss, O, like Archilochus, continues to assert her subjectivity, to say "I," as it were, by acknowledging her appearance in the mirror. When O arrives at Roissy, female servants attend to her toilette, seating her before a mirror that covers the entire wall so that O "could see herself, thus open, each time her gaze strayed to the mirror" (7). With this begins a recurring event: O's first whipping takes place between two large, three-sided mirrors (7), and it is the particular wish of her hosts that O should see herself in these mirrors as she is being whipped (11). After she is whipped, O goes to urinate in the bathroom and finds that "every inch of wall space was covered with mirrors" (21); Pierre the valet watches her relieve herself, and she "could see him in the mirrors, and see herself (46). Invading O's privacy in such a manner is another strategy of possessing O and of stripping her of her self-possession. In each of these instances, O sees an image of herself in the mirror, but this self is a being stripped of individuality, rent by pain, being opened. The mirror gives "sensuous expression"--Apollonian semblance--to the Dionysian primal pain O experiences and the unity, or openness, inherent in it. This strategy is used at crucial moments in O's sadomasochistic trajectory. When Anne-Marie takes O to view herself in a three-sided mirror before her buttocks are branded with Sir Stephen's initials, she says "this is the last time you'll see yourself intact" and tells O that "the day before you leave I'll bring you back here for another look at yourself. You won't recognize yourself" (164). Although the being O will see before her will have O's appearance, at this point O's individual subjectivity will have been demolished, and in its place will be a refashioned subjectivity that reflects the collectivity of the primordial will. It is while gazing at her reflection in a "large three-faced mirror" in her apartment that O feels herself "totally committed to a will which was not her own" (60), a statement suggesting that she is aware that the being she sees before her is not, despite its appearance, an individual. The mirror produces a "symbolic dream-image" of "image-less" Dionysian subjectivity, so that a reflection of "the one living being," the primordial will (Tragedy 81, emphasis original), is reflected again through Apollonian semblance.
O also gains knowledge of herself as a collective rather than an individual subject through her recognition of others as such. This event is also worked through the mirror trope, as demonstrated in the following passage: "what O missed was not, properly speaking, Jacqueline, but the use of a girl's body, with no restrictions attached [...] it wasn't so much that she was in love with Jacqueline, nor for that matter with Natalie or any other girl in particular, but that she was only in love with girls as such, girls in general--the way one can be in love with one's own image" (195). Dionysian lust renders women anonymous, exchangeable, and, hence, collective, and through the mirror image they provide O of herself, O recognizes her own status as such. Conversely, when O sees herself in the mirror, she recognizes the anonymous, united mass of women to which she belongs: "the beauty of other women [...] reassured her concerning her own beauty, in which she saw, whenever she unexpectedly caught a glimpse of herself in a mirror, a kind of reflection of theirs" (100). Through the mirror trope, the Dionysian expression of the will, the "only 'I'-ness which truly exists" (Tragedy 31), is given a second reflection in the image of Apollonian semblance.
Nietzsche's account of becoming one with the metaphysical will through the Dionysian aesthetic suggests complete access to it, and, therefore, that the collective subjectivity it constructs boasts metaphysical authenticity in opposition to Apollonian semblance. Indeed, the Dionysian aesthetic is framed as having a connection to the metaphysical will that is closer, or more authentic than, the Apollonian realm of semblance. Quoting almost directly from The World as Will and Representation, Nietzsche states that "music is not, as all the others are, a copy of appearances, but a direct copy of the Will itself, so that it represents the metaphysical in relation to all that is physical in the world, the thing-in-itself in relation to all appearances" (Tragedy 77, emphasis original). The capacity for Dionysian experience to reveal the will in all its truth is limited, however. Nietzsche describes both Apollo and Dionysus as expressions or representations of different truths of the will: Apollo expressing the will as beauty and individuation and Dionysus expressing the will as ugliness and unity. The language Nietzsche uses to describe Dionysus is central to this point: in the Schopenhaurean statement quoted above, Dionysian music is a copy and representation of the will. It shatters Apollonian semblance to allow an intuition, rather than absolute knowledge, of the will. The mirror trope that characterizes Apollonian semblance is also used to describe Dionysian music, foregrounding its status as representation: the Dionysian aesthetic offers "a general mirror of the world-Will; a vivid event refracted in this mirror expands immediately, we feel, into a copy of an eternal truth" (Tragedy 83). Accordingly, when Nietzsche describes the way in which Apollo is created by Dionysian need, by describing the former as "the semblance of the semblance" (Tragedy 26, emphasis original), he indicates that this category applies to the Dionysian aesthetic as well as the Apollonian. Thus, despite contradictory statements such as "Dionysiac art, too, wants to convince us of the eternal lust and delight of existence; but we are to seek this delight, not in appearances but behind them" (Tragedy 80), Dionysus, too, is always bound within appearance and cannot distinguish a "behind." Both realms are always forms of appearance defined as true only in their distinction from the other, and, therefore, while Nietzsche incorporates Schopenhauer's split between will and representation in his aesthetic philosophy, he denies the possibility that the truth of the will may be known absolutely. Appraising The Birth of Tragedy in The Will to Power, Nietzsche declares that "the contrast of a true and of an apparent world is entirely absent here" (Power 289) and states that art is posited as "more 'divine' than truth" (Power 292). While The Birth of Tragedy is steeped in the metaphysical rhetoric that Nietzsche would rail against in The Will to Power, Nietzsche's first book, as Rampley notes (91), also critiques metaphysical dualism by refusing a distinction between clear-cut categories of appearance and essence, suggesting that essence is also a form of appearance. Thus, although the notion of a true self lingers in The Birth of Tragedy, I suggest that it is ultimately usurped by Nietzsche's claim that complete access to metaphysical truth is impossible. Nietzsche's notion of universal subjectivity must not be conceived as the authentic self underlying appearance but as simply one possible mode of being. The Birth of Tragedy, then, introduced the notion of an unstable and contingent self that Nietzsche would develop in his later works.
In Story of O, the mirror trope is used to show the way in which Dionysian unity, a reflection of the will, is reflected for a second time through the Apollonian expression of individuality, demonstrating that "the ground of things" (Tragedy 31) is always bound within layers of appearance. While deploying the metaphysical discourse of The Birth of Tragedy, the novel also refuses to posit the notion of metaphysical truth underlying appearance, and, accordingly, it denies the possibility of subjective authenticity. The state of unity that O achieves through Dionysian sadomasochistic experience, although it shatters Apollonian semblance, is only ever an expression, a copy, a reflection of the truth of the will, true only in its distinction from its Apollonian other. Thus, throughout the novel Rene "rightly" calls O's enslaved state her "true condition" (177). Yet such claims to truth are undermined by O's failure to distinguish reality from dream when reflecting upon her sadomasochistic experiences. At Roissy, O reflects, she had been "protected by a feeling of improbability, as though it were all a dream, as though she existed only in another life and perhaps did not really exist at all." But then she considers that her few weeks at Roissy did constitute reality "in a closed circle, a private universe" (76). The Dionysian experience of Roissy is thus both dream and contingent reality. Now that she has brought her sadomasochistic affairs outside Roissy, O anticipates that this uncertain reality will engulf her everyday life as it is "no longer satisfied with signs and symbols." O thinks that by making sexual enslavement a feature of the everyday, the dream-state that Roissy signified will be suspended, "assuming, she was saying to herself, that this really was the end, that there was not actually another [dream] hiding behind this one, and perhaps still another behind the next one" (76). Sadomasochistic existence, for O, is a web of semblance underlying semblance in which classifications of reality and dream are always tremulous. Her inability to distinguish between dream and reality is reiterated during Sir Stephen's morning visit. For O, this visit means that her sexual enslavement will no longer be constrained to "night, thereby partaking of a dream" as it did at Roissy, but then she undermines this reference to dream by deciding that "the reality of the night and the reality of the day would be one and the same" (111). Reality is always a dream, and the totality of the dream the only certain reality. At Sir Stephen's villa O listens to a conversation he has with the Commander: "it was in a dream that she heard the stranger complimenting Sir Stephen on her, paying special due to the pleasant contrast between her ample bosom and the narrow waist, the irons which he found longer, thicker, the more visible than usual [...] Sir Stephen, taking her by the nape of the neck, gently told her to wake up" (194).
The authenticity of O's experience is always contingent and thus it remains uncertain whether O will awaken to reality or if, as she has wondered, there is only semblance underlying semblance. Notions of absolute truth and being are also destabilized through the novel's pervasive metafictive strategies, exemplified by the novel's title, Story of O. The term "story" does not delineate between a fictional or true account of events, but it does indicate that the content of the story will be relayed through a semiotic construct. Any truth will always manifest through interpretation and creation and is thus always contingent, never absolute. This lack of ontological certainty is emphasized by the metafictive bookending devices. Near the beginning of the novel, the narrator announces that "another version of the same beginning was simpler and more direct" (5), and, at the end, the narrator declares, "there exists a second ending to the story of O" (204). Not only does this destabilize narrative authority, but it replicates the Apollo/Dionysus duality and its inherent ontological instability on a structural level. The novel indicates to the reader that the story it contains is only one version of events, only one interpretation, never absolute or final. I would argue that such devices work to forbid the production of a "logically distinct and stable sexual identity," contrary to one critic's interpretation of the novel (Ziv 73). In Story of O, one mode of identity is always at risk of dissolving and giving way to another, and both individual and collective forms of subjectivity are always only appearances or expressions of truth, never absolute in their own right. As in Nietzsche's own appraisal of The Birth of Tragedy, the sadomasochistic experience in Story of O ensures that "the contrast of a true and of an apparent world is entirely absent" (Power 289).
Story of O articulates the principles of Nietzsche's aesthetic philosophy to construct sadomasochism as a sublime aesthetic experience. This experience refashions subjectivity in a way that shatters the semblance of Apollonian individuality but that fails to find a more authentic self in the collective subjectivity created in its place, suggesting that subjectivity, like truth, is always provisional, lacking an essential core in its persistent sadomasochistic trajectory of creation and destruction.
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Dworkin, Andrea. "Woman as Victim: 'Story of O.'" Feminist Studies 2.1 (1974): 107-11. Print.
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(1) "Pauline Reage," it is now well known, is a pseudonym used by Anne Desclos.
(2) Story of O, Bataille adds, resolves the fascination of eroticism through the fascination of the impossible, that is, the impossibility of death and "a solitude which absolutely encloses" ["L'erotisme d'Histoire d?O est aussi l'impossibilite de l'erotisme ... Ce livre est le depassement de la parole qui est en lui, dans la mesure ou, a lui seul, il se dechire, ou il resout la fascination de l'erotisme dans la fascination plus grande de l'impossible. De l'impossible qui n'est pas seulement celui de la mort, mais celui d'une solitude qui se ferme absolument" (838-39)]. I am grateful to Virginie Basset for this translation.
(3) See, for example, Dworkin, Carol Cosman's "Story of O" ('Women's Studies 2 : 25-36), Maria Marcus's A Taste for Pain: On Masochism and Female Sexuality (Trans. Joan Tate. London: Souvenir Press, 1981), and Susan Griffin's "Sadomasochism and the Erosion of the Self: A Critical Reading of Story of O" (Against Sadomasochism: A Radical Feminist Analysis. Ed. R. R. Linden, et al. San Francisco: Frog in the Well, 1982. 184-201).
(4) See, for example, Jessica Benjamin's The Bonds of Love: Psychoanalysis, Feminism, and the Problem of Domination (New York: Pantheon Books, 1988), Kaja Silverman's "Histoire d'O: The Construction of a Female Subject" (Pleasure and Danger: Exploring Female Sexuality. Ed. Carole S. Vance. Boston: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1984. 320-49), and Nathaniel Brown and Rebecca Blevins Faery's "The Total 'O': Dream or Nightmare?" (Mosaic 17.2 : 189-206).
(5) An alternative approach, taken by Sontag and John Phillips ("'O, Really!': Pauline Reage's Histoire d 'O." Forbidden Fictions: Pornography and Censorship in Twentieth-Century French Literature. London: Pluto Press, 1999. 86-103), has been to show how the novel straddles the border between pornography and literature. Another approach has been to interpret the novel's construction of sadomasochism as a secular form of spirituality (see Maurice Charney's "Erotic Sainthood and the Search for Self-Annihilation" [Sexual Fiction. London: Methuen, 1981. 52-70] and Bonnie Shullenberger's "Much Affliction and Anguish of Heart: Story of O and Spirituality" [Massachusetts Review 46.2 (2005): 249-72]). To my knowledge, the only critic to engage in a philosophical reading of the novel is D. R. Koukal, who examines the work in relation to Sartre's Being and Nothingness in "Sartre/Reage" (Mosaic 34.3 : 111-26).
(6) In addition to examining Story of O's philosophical influences, it may also be fruitful to consider the novel's influence on and place in French representations of sexualized violence and BDSM, an investigation that lies outside the scope of this essay. Catherine Breillat's 1999 film Romance, for example, may prove to be a particularly productive point of comparison.
(7) In using the term "pornographic," I do not invoke its common conception as the vulgar and lowbrow other of the erotic: that which is defined against the aesthetically sophisticated and refined (Mey 88). I use "pornographic" simply to refer to the text's depiction of sexual acts and its capacity to arouse its readers.
(8) The commonly held view that Nietzsche's writing on women is misogynistic has been challenged by Frances Nesbitt Oppel in her book Nietzsche on Gender: Beyond Man and Woman. Oppel argues that Nietzsche's writing actually attempts to critique cultural attitudes toward gender difference. Her argument takes a similar approach to the claim made by Brown and Blevins Faery (above) that Story of O does not promote and reinforce, but exposes and criticizes, patriarchal institutions.
(9) "Will" is the English translation of "volonte" in the original French text. "Volonte" was also the term used in French translations of The Birth of Tragedy and The World as Will and Representation.
(10) It is not surprising that Bataille appreciated Story of O. Three years after the publication of Reage's novel, Bataille would expound a theory of sexuality in Erotism: Death and Sensuality (Erotisme) that coheres in many ways with the sexual schema presented in Story of O. In Erotism, Bataille defines eroticism as that which shatters the isolation that otherwise characterizes human existence. Erotic experience, which is one of disorder and violence (90), dissolves one's sense of self and one's limits (102) so that the subject achieves "continuity of being" (16), a "primal continuity linking us with everything that is" (15). In making this connection, I do not suggest that Bataille's Erotism was influenced by Reage's work but rather that Bataille shared the same influence as Reage: Nietzsche's aesthetics. Nietzsche's influence is also apparent in Michel Maffesoli's book The Shadow of Dionysus: A Contribution to the Sociology of the Orgy, first published in 1985. Maffesoli maps the role of Dionysian concepts and practices in literature, mythology, and everyday life using an explicitly Nietzschean notion of Dionysian experience. For Maffesoli, sexuality involves "orgiastic effervescence" and a "bursting of the self that ignites a transition from the individual to "a larger ensemble" (6).
Romana Byrne was awarded her PhD from The University of Melbourne in 2011. Her thesis maps the cultural history of aesthetic sexuality in modern Western culture by examining the relationship between literary constructions of sadomasochism and aesthetic philosophy. She has lectured on queer theory, art and pornography, and sadomasochism, and she is currently based in Southern France.