I am posting here, on several pages, the end of my translation of Régine Deforges’ s interview of Pauline Réage (1975) . The beginning is here.
RD – What seduces you in a woman, what draws you to her?
PR – Her beauty, and her courage.
RD – Her beauty?
PR – In essence, yes. I am full of admiration. I so easily find beauty in a woman, I am so moved by women’s beauty, without the slightest temptation to even touch a beautiful hair, but I always have the same emotion, admiration.
RD – But what is it that moves you so much? Fragility?
PR – But it is not at all fragile, a woman’s beauty, it is not always fragile the beauty of eyes, skin, the beauty of the body, so beautiful. Men also are beautiful, and they have started showing it, fortunately.
RD – And are you a conquering individual when you are interested in a woman?
PR – It’s going too far. I have been, a little. It seemed evident then.
RD – And you could share this love with another woman or another man?
PR – It never was the case, as those were unique relationships, unequivocal. But it felt natural, the one not preventing the other.
RD – Through the ordeals, the tortures you have your heroines subjected to, one senses a contempt for that body that you say , elsewhere, to be an instrument, and as an instrument to be maintained in good order.
PR – Of course, it used for procreation, for pleasure, it’s an instrument. It is horrible not to be master of one’s own body, but it is also wonderful. If you cannot be master of your body, let someone else be, whether by your consent or by your wish. In all cases the body is something to be subdued, mastered, possessed.
RD – It is used, as you say, but why that taste for destroying that body?
PR – Because all things are made to be destroyed, thrown away, not to last. It’s books, or paintings, that last, or stone statues. A bit more than us in any case. When you give birth to a child, you give him death at the same time as life. When you write a book, it may not die.
RD – What strikes me too in Histoire d’O, is that women are treated, and ill-treated, in the most erotic manner, but never men. Why not?
PR – Ah! It’s like that. It’s a world of men who love women, not of men who love men. One of the most interesting letters I received when the book was published, was written by a man who told me that what I was writing about did exist, but to his knowledge for men with “garçons”. For, he said, it was much easier and pleasurable to subdue boys than girls. Strange observation.
RD – But wouldn’t it have been very erotic to place some men in the same situations as O and her colleagues?
PR – I did not even think of it. It meant nothing to me.
RD – So it is really as if eroticism can only be lived through a female body?
PR – For me, yes.
RD – Ah! I, sometimes, would love to see the object changed… There is something that recurs often, that is O’s exposure.
PR – Ah! Yes!
RD – There, you’re going too far.
PR – Yes. In “la Condition Humaine” Malraux makes a short comment about a female character, where he says that for many women “eroticism means being naked in front of the chosen man.” And then it stops there, besides, she’s not that keen on giving herself to him, to sleep with him. Well, I think that exposure is that, I did not think of it, but I realised what it was once, later, it was finished.
RD – Yes, but (in your book) there, O is more than naked, the girls are opened, offered, they are placed in obscene positions.
PR – Atrocious, grotesque.
RD – And why that desire for grotesque? They could be exposed without it.
PR – It’s a form of nastiness, of anger…
RD – Towards?
PR – I don’t know. Oneself? Yes, towards oneself. This need to go all the way, that furore, it’s a form of destruction, the need to break something, to desecrate something.
RD – Furore towards that body?
PR – Towards that body. But that body is something atrocious.
RD – Something that betrays you, that deserts you?
PR – Something that drops you on the way, that cannot be trusted.
RD – One feels that, at times, you are not so sure what to think of the female body?
PR – But I don’t know what to think of any kind of body! A body is the locus of happiness and unhappiness, of triumph and sacrifice, and finally and always, of disaster. What better use for it than to prove to whom we love that one belongs to him, and thus that one no longer belongs to oneself? Do you want a sacrilege quote? What O says to her lover, without saying it, is what believers repeat endlessly: in manus tuas, Domine (in your hands, Lord). It is just that, for her, and her companions, the proof which is requested from them ceaselessly, they are ready to provide, ceaselessly. The fate they meet is the demonstration of their will to achieve a total abandon, to submit themselves totally. They want to be possessed, utterly possessed, to death. What they seek is to be killed. What does the believer seek, if not lose himself into God? To be killed by someone one loves seems to me the ultimate rapture. I can’t think otherwise. And I am not alone. The famed Japanese suicide contracts are but examples in reality of a phantasm which is wide-spread.
RD – What do you exactly mean by “abandon”? Listening to you, one would think that is what you are seeking most, but also, that being abandoned by the one you love, is what you fear most?
PR – Thank goodness my unhappiness is behind all my hopes. I don’t see the contradiction, or rather the ambiguity, other than the use of the same term. Active in one case, passive in the other. But this is clear: to give oneself to one, is to depend on him. You are no longer your own, you rely on him, you are carried by the noise and fire you have given yourself to. But if the one you love ceases loving you, looking at you, living at least in part for you, as you live for him, if he abandons you, then you fall back in the outer darkness, the obscurity that is hell. Hell is every day life when no-one loves you, when you are alone. But, at the same time, that has not such importance. One gets used to it, and that is for the best. One learns modesty. One should not take one too seriously, and use big words. It’s the common fate from which, from time to time, one is freed by the love of someone one loves. I don’t know if you have noticed them, sometime in the tube, on a bus, in the street, women, girls, men, with a sort of radiating face, who say nothing, walk as if on a cloud, those are in love, probably. It is that kind of blessing that means that all a sudden, one feels preserved, protected, for a while, for sure, one knows it’s precarious, that it won’t last. But while it is there, one is alive, one is in a sort of paradise.
RD – Why does it not last? It should last forever.
PR – It’s a fact, it never lasts, there is always something, one of the two gets tired, leaves, or dies. “Two doves loved each other tenderly, one of them was bored at home.” It happens: one of the two gets bored.
RD – Ah, this is so unbearable.
PR – What can I do? I think so too!
RD – Ah, I can’t stand it, one would rather die.
PR – Particularly if it is always the other who’s bored, but let’s be honest, it’s sometimes us.
RD – That’s what (Françoise) Sagan was telling me last night, love, passion, never lasts more than two years.
PR – She’s right, only, for some people it’s two years, for others it’s twenty years.
RD – You think so?
PR – Naturally.
RD – I am not completely utopian then, if I pray for it to last?
PR – Or, it’s me who is. But one cannot receive one thing without also its opposite. Love is a garden which is open to you, whose fruits you can enjoy for a while. Then, as in Arabic tales, the garden disappears, and you find yourself in the desert. But don’t complain: you had the garden (for a while), you were lucky.
RD – Why does one find peace in torment?
PR – Because one is taken out of oneself, I think. But torment is always the same: it is purely in the mind. I have no taste for tortures, which I feared dreadfully. But I had that obsession from childhood, perhaps from pious books. There is nothing better than pious books to give one a good idea of tortures. For example the Golden Legend of Jacques de Voragine, with pictures. I was given a nice copy, a strange idea, with pictures of wood prints from the fifteenth century. There I could look at all the tortures of martyrs and saints.
RD – And was it voluptuous for you that reading?
PR – I can’t say, but I was greatly impressed.
RD – Did you not think that by describing complacently erotic tortures in Histoire d’O you would inspire a following?
PR – No, absolutely not. Tortures and violence in Histoire d’O are entirely of the same order as fights in crime novels. Heroes get butchered on page ten, then pop out on page fifteen, fresh and healthy, it’s phantasmagoric and unreal. It belongs to the domain of dreams. It’s the same thing for Histoire d’O. This is, if you will, a sort of convention of the genre, not that I wanted to follow a genre, it is just that the genre imposes itself spontaneously, innocently I dare say. One over-does this in order to give the idea of what it is about, one puts in more of it to say very little. The excess is a symbol, not a reality. I can assure you that the tortures of erotic novels, and the fights, injuries and violence of crime novels, are the same thing. This arises from the same principle, the same genre.
RD – Okay, and as Jean-Jacques Pauvert [publisher of Sade’s work, and of Histoire d’O] has often said, Sadism existed before Sade, and even before Gutenberg [Johannes Gutenberg, the German blacksmith credited with the western re-invention of the print press], but it would appear that, as soon as one enters the erotic genre, one touches more than a simple description of tortures or fights. Those scenes are not merely spectacular fighting.
PR – But the clashes in crime novels are not only spectacular fighting. They are enlarged images of the courage, of the strength of the story’s hero. They are proof of his invulnerability. For O, the accepted torments are proof of her abandon. They are there to signify, and make closer, the impossible, the inconceivable, the absolute.
RD – I’d love to know what remains now of O for you. Do you feel tenderness for her now?
PR – Tenderness goes too far, I see her with a little pity, and sympathy. She was very courageous.
RD – But when you say “pity”, you are saying that she always had a choice.
PR – Yes, but it’s very cruel all the same, even when one has a choice; she was not free, since she loved, one is not free when one is in love.
RD – Why not? Why can’t we be free and in love?
PR – Because one depends entirely on the feelings of the person one loves. One depends on him, on his happiness, on his unhappiness, on his breathing. One of the most admirable sentences I have heard, that was just before the war [WWII] with a man I loved [probably Thierry Maulnier]. I could not be with him in public – another clandestine life – and we had booked a private box, to be private, to watch Ondine, Giraudoux’ play. At one point, you might remember, Ondine realises the knight no longer loves her, and she says: “The grass has turned black.” It’s like that. When one loves, and one believes, fears, that one is no longer loved, the grass turns black.
RD – But isn’t your freedom returned to you then?
PR – No, your freedom is not returned. I have never forgotten the grass turned black. Many years later, one of my friends was left by a boy he was very much in love with. There was over Paris a splendid sky, with grey and pink clouds. “Ah,” he said, “one cannot be entirely unhappy, for as along as there are clouds like that.” And I replied: “But, Pierre, this shows you are not really unhappy, when one is really unhappy, one cannot see the clouds.”
RD – There is no longer any beauty, when we are really unhappy?
PR – No, all is gone. It comes back later, love gives, love takes away. Love is something really cruel. You remember Virgil? One of very few quotes I have retained from my classical studies, there is nothing more pedantic than quote the Aeneid.
RD – It’s a very beautiful story. I read it three times when I was fifteen to seventeen.
PR – But who now reads it, or re-reads it? Not me, evidently. The only episode I remember is Aeneas in Hell, who sees Dido through the shadows, as the moon through clouds, Sicut per nubile lunam, and explains:
“Hic quod durus amor crudely tabe per edit
Secreti celant calles, et myrtea circum sylva tegit.”
“Where, those whom pitiless love has wounded of its cruel pestilence, secret paths hide them, and the forest of myrtle surrounds them in its shelter.” Those woods of myrtle ands asphodel’s, inhabited by white and sad ghosts have always stayed with me, mysterious and familiar. Those stances I translated and learnt by heart when I was fifteen or sixteen, and never forgot them, for I read and learned them at the time I was reading and learning Racine [Jean Racine, French dramatist], and as I fell in love for the first time in my life. With one of my school girl friends as it was; classical, perfectly innocent love. Every day that summer I was waiting for the postman. I learned a lot that year. I learned all this together; and it was learnt once and for all. Today I feel that I have followed those secret paths all my life. I really believe that the joy of living, the possibility of living I was given, were given through love, so that when love goes away, all goes away. It is not true, of course, since nothing stops, and there comes a time when pain gets diluted, one sees the clouds again, when grass no longer is black. But at the time, it’s really black grass, gone clouds, dead light.
RD – When all beauty, all life disappears.
PR – All life. One lives for the other, and if he goes, what remains?
Thus my life, thus my body
My spirit being joint to yours
The union of our fires
Makes one soul of our souls
You live in me, I live in you
I am more you than not me…
RD – Who said this?
PR – (Jean) Bertaut, a writer of the sixteenth century who wrote a poem about the legendary Hermaphrodite, named Fantasie.
RD – Fantaisie!
PR – Fantasie – as in the English fantasy – in sixteenth century French, meant imagination, phantasm. It’s a beautiful baroque poem. I copied it, kept it, I still have it, on the right in my desk, in the folder where I keep phone numbers.
RD – You spoke earlier of clandestinity, we come back to that often.
PR – Ah, yes with the theatre box. It was at the Edward VII theatre, with Madeleine Ozeray and Jouvet, and I recall being moved by Ondine’s despair. Everything then was for me so precarious, so threatened. Threatened. Vigny: “Her quiet and always threatened love.” You see I am full of literature, as others of religion. But literature helps to live too. My country is books.
RD – It’s weird, we have had quite different lives, but we have this in common: we belong to the world of books. I have been librarian, publisher, book binder: with passion. Literary prestige is the one I am really sensitive to. My lover told me once, after ten years: I know what we have deeply in common: literature. What books do you reread most often?
PR – Proust, whom I discovered at the NRF [La Nouvelle Revue Françcaise, the literary magazine of Gaston Gallimard. Pauline - Dominique Aury, was literary secretary of the NRF until Jean Paulhan's death in 1968], as he was published. Shakespear, Villon, Beaudelaire, the Bible. I have four versions. The one I prefer is King James’.
[to be continued on next page]