A fascinating case was recently brought before the Italian courts. After six years of conjugal submission to her padrone (far better than master, give it that) a woman has filed for divorce with accusations of abuse. The slight snag is that prior to marriage she signed a contract with her lover agreeing to offer herself slavishly to his every whim, if not whip – some may be surprised to learn that physical marking and asphyxia were strictly forbidden.

Tedious and predictable comparisons have been made with 50 Shades of hot air, but somewhat more interestingly, also, with Story of O (1954) by Pauline Réage (Anne Desclos).

Réage’s novel is hugely erotic, but is all the more discomforting for being so. Relative not least to the other title, I’d wager Réage’s classic is a book many are happy to quote, but few enjoy to read. It’s the feminists’ favourite of the two, and the better written, partly because it forces the question of what we class as erotic, and what, like the divorcee of Padua, we’d rather term abuse.

O (for ‘orifice’) is a beautiful photographer who allows her lover René (the book was originally written in French) to take her to a chateau called Roissy, where she is chained and whipped and consensually screwed every which way by a group of men like a slave girl on an ancient Greek vase painting. She’s happy with the set-up at first, agreeing that her principal lover’s decision to lay her open to others is an endorsement of his love and pride in her.

His motivation, on the other hand, is originally less clear. But one thing it is not, or not principally, is driven by pleasure. A little way through the novel it’s said that, rather, he gives her up to others as an extension of himself:

‘Thus would he possess her as a god possessed his creatures whereupon he lays hands guised as some monster or bird, as some invisible spirit or as ecstasy itself’.

The Greek god Zeus became famous for such ploys long before the myths were written down – a time when an Oral Tradition was still in operation. The ancients also had difficulty finding the words to describe these ploys; most translated them, at least, in terms of abuse, as ‘rape’. Much though René might wish to play god and self-metamorphose, the best he can do is view others as an extension of himself, until he’s sick of the sight of the O. It’s pathetic.

As O slips from love to submission to fascination with a girl named Jacqueline and still further to submission, it becomes impossible for her to escape objectification. And that’s the main problem, there’s a point from which no one can turn back the clock, not Jacqueline, nor René, nor O.

Resigning things to paper is never a good idea, and sometimes it’s best to leave Zeus to the world of fantasy and Oral Tradition. At the very least do what the Greeks knew best, everything in moderation.

Tags: Classics, erotica, Fiction, French, Sex