Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Nietzsche's Aesthetics and Pauline Reage's Story of O

Academic journal article Papers on Language & Literature

Nietzsche's Aesthetics and Pauline Reage's Story of O

Article excerpt

It is not surprising that Pauline Reage's Story of O (Histoire d'O), (1) which narrates a young woman's sadomasochistic journey of sexual enslavement to a group of elite men, has been critiqued for its portrait of gender relations. What is surprising, however, is that this concern has almost completely dominated scholarly engagement with the novel. Published in 1954, Story of O was immediately considered a classic work of erotic literature. It won the prestigious Prix des Deux Magots literary prize in 1955 as well as the esteem of the avant-garde literary milieu of its time. Surrealist writer Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues described O's "descent into hell" (xix) as a feature of "a mystic work" (xvi), incomparable to the "empty prattle" of Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs (xix). Writer, publisher, and literary critic Jean Paulhan--who was also Reage's lover--suggested that the novel displayed a set of ideas "rather than a young woman [...] being subjected to these tortures" (xxxiii). In the journal La Nouvelle Revue Francaise (edited by Paulhan at the time), Georges Bataille declared that the "eroticism of Story of O is also the impossibility of eroticism" ("Le paradoxe" 838). (2) Despite the diversity of the novel's critical

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). …

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