Today, for perhaps the first time really, for the first time in this way, it struck what a waste of resources tertiary education may be. I mean, a total waste of money and manhours on minds too young, and too inexperienced, to genuinely benefit. This even before we factor in the tremendously homogeneous education they receive, and the limited range of experiences they have had, in this country.
I was doing a presentation on Pauline Reage’s The Story of O for a literature class mainly concerned with censorship. The Story of O is one of the major pornographic novels, together with Georges Bataille’s The Story of the Eye and the opus of Marquis de Sade. It’s a work of high modernism, published in France in 1954, and follows, in third person, a woman referred to only as ‘O’, through a series of sadomasochistic escapades. It is unmistakably porn. It is not an erotic novel, but one that graphically depicts a stockstandard range of situations unmistakably drawn from smut. It is not concerned with feelings, with consent, with empowerment, with mutual adoration. It is, also, unmistakably, art.
What makes The Story of O so fascinating is its idiosyncracy. It is both obscene and morbid; superficial and profound; arousing and repulsive. It reads like a nightmare, and has all the allure. O is the typical pornographic heroine, abused by a number of men in a variety of ways; but the book adds psychology to the stereotypical narrative, in a most disconcerting way. O is submitted to torture by her lover, Rene, and yet she both suffers and enjoys her suffering. She submits herself gladly, as a proof of love for Rene. The intensity of her debasement escalates from the cliched, through mildly offensive, to completely morbid: in the last pages of the novel, naked, tattooed, chained and masked, O has lost any trace of individuality and isn’t even spoken to anymore. Yet the narrator points clearly to the deep satisfaction she feels in this renunciation of self, despite the pain she feels. Around the middle of the book, when her psychology is first brought into the light, the narrator even notices that Rene himself doesn’t seem to enjoy O’s ordeal very much, making it conceivable that O is orchestrating the entire show for her own purposes.
It is a very complex book, and shouldn’t at all be read as realist fiction. Susan Sontag has compared it to other modernist works interested in exploring the deepest recesses of the mind (notable surrealist fiction, for example, and Bataille), and to many works of mystic literature. O’s shedding of the layers of the self is comparable to the path of a Zen pupil or Jesuit novice. For other commentators, it is an expression of the deeply rooted human desire “to be free from oneself, to have the gratifications one associates with the self without the obligation of making the choices by which moral character and personality are defined.” From Peter Michelson’s perspective, it’s possible to read The Story of O as an allegory of falling in love. Or as a prolonged rape fantasy akin to those appearing at the beginnings of romance novels. O’s path towards self-obliteration is as extreme as it is familiar; it evokes not only the usual porn plots, but maps mental territory we genuinely cross. It doesn’t normalise sadomasochism; but it delves straight into it.
I was very interested in how other students have reacted to the book, and was not so much surprised, as deeply disappointed, with the narrowness of their reactions. Unlike a one-joke book like American Psycho or Lady Chatterley’s Lover, time hasn’t softened the transgression of The Story of O; students who would quickly defend the right of Wilde, Lawrence or Rushdie to chart difficult territories were more than ready to be shocked by Reage. What surprised me was how few of them understood any of it. They found O sad, pathetic, impossible to understand. They clearly had no direct experience of the death drive, of the self-destructive potential, which made me think that most of them have probably never even been properly in love.
Over and over again, it was called religious, and all these kids distanced themselves from the religious vocabulary they considered removed from their own lives. They couldn’t find a way into self-renunciation. This disturbed me greatly: I brought in the self-negation of a collective experience, but struggled to find anything Australian apart from the sporting event. Finally, I brought up the housewife: living through your husband and children, what a healthy human being would need to do in order to accept such fate, and how the mental mechanism employed wouldn’t differ greatly from O’s self-obliteration for love. “It’s a not a distant, exotic thing you have no contact with,” I was exclaiming at this point, “do you know a woman who has never worked? A stay-at-home mum? Is that a religious experience too?”
There was a genuine break-through at this point. One of the girls said, after a pause, “I think it’s just that it goes against everything we’ve been taught at school about how we should live, and about what love is.” Telling, the notion of being told at school what love is. This is where I realised we cannot discuss something like The Story of O in that class. It was, quite simply, too early for them.
So much knowledge is experiential, and so obvious this becomes when art criticism tries to happen. Brett Easton Ellis was one of the first artists I’ve read who drew the line between youth and formalism. In your twenties, he said, you don’t understand consequentiality: you’ve had only limited life experience, and you don’t have a proper understanding of the consequences of the things you’re doing. As a result, he said, your capacity to tell stories is limited: you cannot match causes and effects. Instead, the young artist is a formalist; and so is the young critic.
I cannot count how many theatre shows I’ve seen recently that had no understanding of the stories they were telling; and how much criticism I have read that showed no understanding of the meaning of the shows it was criticising. The semi-literary discussion surrounding The Story of O was only the last and the most exasperating case. I’ve been very reluctant to write because I’m getting not so much tired of form (form is always there), but tired of this overwhelming lack of understanding of the stories shaped by the form. A little while ago I read a newspaper article on Beautiful Kate, in which Rachel Ward, the scriptwriter and director, was asked about why she portrayed incest with a bit of sympathy. As if the inner side of all art can be reduced to plot plus artist’s message and goddamn sympathy or condemnation.
Someone, somewhere, once defined good literature as that thing you read and go, Yes, that’s exactly how life is! I never thought of it that way, but that’s how things are! In order to recognise that that’s how things are, though, you have to have known the things themselves. No amount of reading can do it instead.