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Was 'Story of O' based on truth?

The Many Masks of 'Pauline Reage'

by Stefan

"To love is to live on the precipice." Pauline Reage


Holding fast like a barnacle to a sailing ship is a continual and widely held assumption and indeed belief, that the most famous underground novel of our time, Story of O, is based upon truth. At least one secretive Chateau Roissy 'society' maintains its original members inspired the novel. In America Stephen Flowers, self appointed Grand Master of the 'Order of the Triskelion' goes as far as to suggest that Story of O has concealed within it, "a great philosophical, and virtually mystical, message", and traces a lineage of secret societies devoted to Carnal Knowledge dating back to the nineteenth century.1

The Story of O has surrounded itself with secrecy, mystery, and conjecture for fifty years. When it was published in Paris in 1954 it provoked all sorts of scandals and for forty years the true identity of its author 'Pauline Reage' (actually Dominique Aury) was kept secret by a handful of friends close to the writer. Speculation concerning the author's identity produced many candidates, among them Andre Malraux, Henry de Montherlant, Andre Pieyre de Mandiargues, Raymond Queneau, and Jean Paulhan for whom, it turns out, the book was actually written.

The fact that it was written by a woman gives the novel, it has been said, a special 'diabolical' aura. Even twenty years after publication the novel was considered, "in some quarters," Pauline Reage maintained, "the most scandalous book ever written". Until 1994 Reage refused to be photographed and insisted on 'preserving her anonymity by referring to herself only by her pen name. Her customary reply to those - the police included - who asked directly whether she was the author of Story of O was always the same: "That is a question to which I never respond".' 2

This mask of anonymity for a book with a strange title found for sale more often than not 'under the counter' was bound to create an aura of mystery. Reage would declare, "My use of a pseudonym in my writing is much more than a mere artifice..." and in his preface to the original publication Jean Paulhan teasingly asked, "Who is Pauline Reage? A dreamer and no more? ... Or is this a lady of wide experience who has dwelt a time in this strange world?" 3


Paulhan continues, "lovers and mystics are familiar with this sense of grandeur, this taste of joy - in abandoning oneself to the will of others", and emphasises the element of myth, "I listen to her... I strive to follow her...Perhaps, after all, the flesh-devouring robe of the myths is more than mere allegory, and sacred whoredom something other than an historical curiosity". Yet he admits also, "it sometimes seems to me that, instead of a young woman, it is an idea, a mode of ideas, an opinion which in this book finds itself put to the torture".

Despite having worked along side Reage/Aury on a regular basis during and after the Second World War, and despite their continuing affair which would span thirty years, Paulhan in line with an agreed silence maintained he did not know who Pauline Reage was. Even in his deposition to the Paris vice squad he embroiders on the truth; "about three years ago Mme. Pauline Reage (a pseudonym) paid me a visit in my office... and submitted to me a thick manuscript..." Some twenty years later Reage appears more believable in her preface to the second part of Story of O when she recalls she, "gave it to him as soon as he got in the car" - that is, the first hand written pages of Histoire d'O, to her lover Paulhan, during one of a multitude of brief encounters 4. Journalist John Baxter maintains, "Since Paulhan couldn't drive, Aury chauffeured him around Paris and as she finished each episode read it aloud to him, usually in the car, parked in some discreet layby or in the secluded Bois de Boulogne".

That the manuscript was based on truth could be believed if one was to misconstrue the sentiments of these players in this game of masquerade. Reage herself proffered, "Story of O is a fairy tale for another world, a world where some part of me lived for a long time, a world that no longer exists except between the covers of a book." This is Paulhan's "lady of wide experience who has dwelt a time in this strange world..." but her emphasis is upon fairy tale, she is talking about childhood fantasies ("those slow musings just before falling asleep") and teenage reveries; "fantasies that persisted into my later life, that not only refused to go away but came back time and again..." 5

John de St. Jorre; "Because she knew he was an admirer of the Marquis de Sade and had written a learned introduction to his works, she began to draw upon her own sexual fantasies, which, she said, had begun during her lonely adolescence. The conjuncture of Paulhan's tastes and her fantasies gave the idea of writing something."


The "concealed... mystical message" of Story of O is for Stephen Flowers "a message of personal transformation and change, of the path of the human soul on the road to empowerment and even transcendence". His interpretation of Story of O reiterates Susan Sontag 6 and also traces a history of "transformation of the personality through psychosensual experience" from the earliest shamans and fakirs through ancient tantric practices to the activities of the likes of Aleister Crowley, Gerald Gardner, and of William Seabrook, a member of the brotherhood La Fleche d'Or whose disciples apparently included French writers Michel Leiris, Georges Bataille, Pierre Klossowski and Jean Paulhan himself.

Flowers sees 'O' as a pun on the magical element eau (French for "water") being transformed in the narrative, "O is transformed into the essence of wisdom - a portrayal in her final apotheosis behind the mask of an owl - a symbol of the wisdom of Athena".

The owl mask can be counted amongst the many masks of Dominique Aury (actually she stole it, she admits, from the paintings of the artist Leonor Fini) and like the "triskelion" engraving upon the ring and pendant 'O' is required to wear, it is a clever device surely not part of "this strange world" that Paulhan would like us to believe existed but part of what Reage/Aury described as " from one end to the other, a fantasy."

Reage/Aury; "In order to... make it convincing, you have to give the details that provide the ring of truth. The premise may be false, or wildly fantastic, but the details must be authentic." This is what the writer spends his time doing. In a bar a man is glimpsed who is recreated later on paper as 'Sir Stephen'. 'O' - water/ zero/ the female sex? - Aury; "It has nothing to do with erotic symbolism or the shape of the female sex."

I am inclined to argue that there just is not concealed "a great philosophical, and virtually mystical, message." There is nothing concealed - Story of O began as a love letter, and ended up being a novel. A Sadien text was required to match the tastes of her lover. How was she to write a book? Reage/Aury was very well read and had read voraciously ("I was a voracious reader; I'd devour everything...") The answer to me is obvious: she chose to make Story of O the 'journey of the hero', the stuff of myth.

Look at the book that inspired filmmaker George Lucus - 'The Hero With a Thousand Faces' 7 ; the journey of metamorphoses underlies folklore, myth and story telling. Surely Aury wanted just to tell a story. But in the telling of it as "Pauline Reage", was not Aury also entering upon that "transformation of the personality"?

"The first sixty pages flowed out of me" she is reported to have said, "Because things that are so basic, so profound, within you have to come out ... and are just waiting for the right moment to find expression." But there was a limit; "After the explosive beginning, the writing slowed, she said, not because she found it difficult but because she tried to give the story more of a structure." 8 - "she tried to make the story more organised, more episodic."

In What Is A Story writer Don Cupitt has written, "When he came to write his gorgeous poetical compendium of mythology, Ovid chose to give it the title Metamorphoses. Why? (...) If I am right, then Metamorphoses is a metaphor for the transformative and productive power of language. That power is poiesis.... Constituted with language, the self can't help but be like everything else that language produces: insubstantial, metaphorical, transitional. Mysteriously, the self too is something whose identity is always in flux. It is always dying-and-rising, never got hold of, always slipping away. So the magical Metamorphoses is the book that is an image of its own reader, a mirror to the mind." 9

Isn't Dominique Aury just the perfect bourgeoisie throughout her life - doing the correct thing - or rather being seen to be behaving with propriety whilst in her private life she does quite the opposite - rebelling against kind. She even works with the Resistance.

"I often used to dream about secret societies. And of course when the war came along, with its
resistance network, I had one ready made" - Confessions of O

Knowing what we know about her it is surely easy to see that Aury is 'O' and that 'O' is the Aury 'Pauline Reage' would like her to be. Aury spent her teens and adult life in clandestine liaisons - covering her tracks less she embarrass her family, particularly her mother ( "my freedom lay in my silence, as my mother's lay in hers..." ) - even denying authorship of her one novel. At Jean Paulhan's funeral in 1968 only a select few recognised 'Pauline Reage', walking behind the coffin upon which could be seen a large wreath without a name.

Aury Creates a MYTH

"For me, to write is to breathe." - Reage/Aury

"We are listening to Scheherazade again, putting off death by telling tales through the night.
Narrative, only narrative, conquers darkness and the Void." - Don Cupitt


"Myth," suggests Don Cupitt, "embodying our human response to experience, is creative and expressive, poetic and constructive." Reage/Aury wrote Story of O, St Jorre tells us, "for an audience of one; she had never written anything like it before. She was in her mid-forties at the time, and Paulhan was almost seventy. It was both a private document of their passion and une entreprise de seduction, designed to ensnare - her word - a highly sophisticated man. "What could I do?" she said to me as we sat talking one recent afternoon. "I couldn't paint, I couldn"t write poetry. What could I do to make him sit up?".

For Paulhan, who is not her first secret lover, Aury promises a Sadien text. What is she going to write? She chooses to fantasise her own myth , her secret self - the other which in Histoire d'O wins the freedom she herself is denied (but a freedom with a cost: death. At the novel's close O chooses to die.) This is Dante's "dark wood, midway in the journey of our life" - the "dangerous task of self-discovery and self development" (J Cambell).

Being a scholar and well read in a huge variety of literature and scholarly texts Aury naturally chooses the language of the myth-story and chooses to make her heroine undertake the traditional "journey of the hero".

"A person who has been enthralled by many good stories is equipped with a large stock of actforms to draw
upon as she subsequently tries to make narrative sense of her own life." (D. Cupitt)

In this rite of passage Campbell tells us, "The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene -" If we follow O to and through Roissy we can see the monomyth pattern of "Departure & Separation; Trials &Victories of initiation; Return & Reintegration with society". And if Campbell will excuse me for overlaying his schemata we have the following pattern;

1. The Call to Adventure [The leaving by car/taxi from the Parc Monceau; O takes the journey to Roissy - Freud's "first separation" from the mother?]

"The mythological hero, setting forth from his common day hut or castle, is lured, carried away, or else voluntarily proceeds the threshold of adventure." ("the passage of the threshold is a form of self-annihilation... the hero goes inward, to be born again.") ("O is trying to be destroyed..." Reage Confessions)

2. The Crossing of the first Threshold [Arrival at Roissy] 'the first encounter of the hero-journey is with the protective figure' [is this O's lover Rene or the valet Pierre?]- ("there is an atmosphere of irresistible fascination about the figure that appears suddenly as a guide, marking a new period, a new stage" - "once having traversed the threshold, the hero moves in a dream landscape of curiously fluid, ambiguous forms, where he must survive a succession of trials. This is a favourite phase of the myth-adventure.It has produced a world of literature of miraculous tests and ordeals.")

3. The Belly of the Whale & The Road of Trials [O's ordeals at the hands of The Lovers of Roissy] Campbell tells us, "The oldest recorded account of the passage through the gates of metamorphosis is the Sumerian myth of the goddess Inanna's descent to the nether world,

"To the netherworld she descended, Abandoned lordship, abandoned ladyship,
To the nether world she descended."

"The ordeal is a deepening of the problem of the threshold and the question is still in balance; can the ego put itself to death? ... the original departure into the land of trials represented only the beginning of the long and really perilous path of initiary conquests and moments of illumination. Dragons now have to be slain and surprising barriers passed - again, again, and again. Meanwhile there will be a multitude of preliminary victories, unretainable ecstasies, and momentary glimpses of the wonderful land." ( "For O, the tortures to which she submits are the proof of her surrender. They are there to indicate and bring into closer focus the impossible, the inconceivable, the absolute...She displayed a great deal of courage." Reage: Confessions)

4. Atonement With the Father [ O is returned to Paris: Sir Stephen ( the father? Reage - "I adored him" and " women are always looking for a father figure.." Confessions of O ) - as threshold guardian or ogre? threatening punishment; Freud's castration complex? - a continuation of the trials; - "Everything came to a halt in her...She felt like a pillar of salt, a statue of ash..." Story of O]

5. The Meeting With the Goddess [ Samois? Anne-Marie? the girls of Samois as helpers along the way as were her fellows at Roissy, - the final trial, the branding?]

6. The Hero's Return, [O shows the next initiate Jacqueline, the way to Roissy] his "second solemn task and deed (as Professor Toynbee declares and as all the mythologies of mankind indicate) is to return to us, transfigured, and teach the lesson he has learned of life renewed".

7. Freedom to Live [O in the Owl mask: "Was she then of stone or wax..."] "When the envelopment of consciousness has been annihilated, then he becomes free of all fear, beyond reach of change" Vajracchedika.
"Pain and pleasure do not enclose him, he encloses them - and with profound repose." (J.Campbell)

8. Departure of the Hero [O chooses to die] " The last act in the biography of the hero is that of the death or departure... Needless to say, the hero would be no hero if death held for him any terror; the first condition is reconciliation with the grave". ("I find there are worse things than death." Reage Confessions)


"There exists a second end to O's story. In that version O, seeing that Sir Stephen was
on the verge of leaving her, preferred to die. Sir Stephen gave his consent." - Story of O


Dominique Aury is 'O'

"Who am I, finally, if not the long silent part of someone..." Pauline Reage

"our stories, dreams and fantasies work continuously to produce and maintain the dynamics of the self." Don Cupitt


By the time Reage/Aury "received in the mail... a manuscript entirely devoted to a psychoanalysis of O," her subterfuges and masquerades were so complete and so completely a way of life that she was well aware that her pen names had created a clean break between several interior selves , that O was " someone in search of her destruction" and that her sharing of identities which she deemed necessary was in fact, simply accomplished. Her masks had become pieces of a wilfully broken mirror. Ultimately Reage/Aury recognised Story of O, "was a book by an unknown woman, and I am amazed beyond belief that I was she."

In 'A Girl In Love' she distances herself from her novelist persona 'Pauline Reage', writing in the third person; "this girl for whom I am speaking, and rightly so, since if I have nothing of hers she has everything of mine, the voice to begin with..." So complete is the masquerade that what is suggested here is that Aury (whose real name is actually Anne Declos - an identity she discarded during the Second World War), creates a Pauline Reage and it is Reage who can admit to the clandestine encounters, and it is Reage who would like to be 'O'. Aury lives propriety, Reage lives the passion of Aury's loving, and 'O' suffers for them both (willingly) with all the self-freedom that is denied the two of them. 'O' is the Aury 'Pauline Reage' would like her to be. Look at Aury's poems;

... I am other
This other knows not who I am

Aury would prefer the three identities not even recognise each other, that they should live quite independently. Thus the denial of the book's authorship less she embarrasses her mother, her academic father, her revered lover, and herself, - both her public self and private self (the mask behind the mask). "So the self is a literary product," Don Cupitt suggests, "a privatisation of culture, made of and by stories."

Reage/Aury - "I saw, between what I thought myself to be and what I was relating and thought I was making up, both a distance so radical and a kinship so profound that I was incapable of recognising myself in it.. I no doubt accepted my life with such patience (or passivity, or weakness) only because I was so certain of being able to find whenever I wanted that other, obscure life that is life's consolation, that other life unacknowledged and unshared - and then all of a sudden thanks to the man I loved I did acknowledge it, and henceforth would share it with any and all, as perfectly prostituted in the anonymity of a book as, in the book, that faceless, ageless, nameless (even first-nameless) girl."

She wrote that she frequently wondered about the origins of her "oft-repeated reveries ... in which the purest and wildest love always sanctioned, or rather always demanded, the most frightful surrender, in which childish images of chains and whips added to constraint the symbols of constraint..."

"For a long time I've lived two parallel lives: work and family on the one hand, and love or loves on the other, and I have meticulously kept those two lives quite separate, so separate in fact that the invisible wall between them seems to me normal and natural"

In her own summing-up of the interview between Deforges and herself Aury stated, "... I have tried to be candid and fair in my answers as I could be, tried to see myself from a certain distance, as though I were someone else, to discuss this part of me known as Pauline Reage, who is not me entirely and yet in some obscure way is: when I move from one to the other the fragments scatter, then come back together again in a pattern that I'm sure is ever changing. I find it harder and harder to tell them apart anymore, or at least not with sufficient clarity. Did I ever? I think I did."


Story of O stands not as the single dream of the daydreamer. In November 1960 Dominique Aury 's "Dreams" were published in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise. In a small number of poems Aury invites the reader once again to advance into her night, to find;

The voluntary captive
The speechless the prisoner
Which I hide in my very depths...

and to follow dream horses that lead her to deserted castles, to a lonely rendezvous. Again the voice of the poet or narrator is other than Aury;

When you advance into my night
you are not you, I am other
This other knows not who I am
You know not that I am your own

The poems are implicitly a daydream exchange between that other self and a lover;

And I cry without a cry without a word
for night has reclaimed you
The floods have cut the towpaths
Ah, might I be carried off in the flotsam

And in Aury's version of Lady of Shalott we can see perhaps a suggestion that 'O' is a distant cousin of Ophelia, "the flower beneath the foot", and "All the dead women of the fin de siecle" 10

La Barque au quai se balance
Réve pour réve échangeant
Et rend au premier silence
La Belle morte en révant.

and that Aury "weaves a tapestry through a mirror -doubly removed from the distant, mutable world" 11 As the Lady "tired of an aesthetic feast of reflected shadows", who has worked out "her patterned mythology" which Jan B. Gordon sees as Harold Bloom's "internalisation of quest romance", the Lady of Shalott "hopes to transcend the mirror", and "escape the imaginative solitude of insular consciousness". Would Gordon, I wonder, see Aury as one of his quest-artists "both detached and involved", combining "autobiography and art within the frames of a divided existence", - the artist "as victim of mirrors of the self" - ?


"In our sleep and in our dreams," Dr Jung quotes Nietzsche, "we pass through the whole thought of earlier humanity. I mean, in the same way that man reasons in his dreams, he reasoned when in the waking state many thousands of years... the dream carries us back into earlier states of human culture..." As if reiterating the sentiment Pauline Reage/Dominique Aury wrote aptly, "Who am I, finally, if not the long silent part of someone, the secret and nocturnal part... which communicates through the subterranean depths of the imaginary with dreams as old as the world itself - ?" And, as if in epilogue, Don Cupitt has written, " We are not content simply to be borne off by the flood... No, we will accept that our life is no more than a bundle of stories, mostly half-finished. Our makebelief will be a fictioned belief that, nevertheless, our life still matters, fragmentary and fictitious though it is. We'll have to produce from nowhere, and just by spinning stories, the conviction that our life is worth living."

After the interview with 'Pauline Reage' conducted by Jacqueline Demornex for Elle (1974 ), and that conducted by Regine Deforges (1975), Aury in her guise of 'Reage' promised to refuse further interviews. In 1994 however she finally removed the Reage-mask in an interview conducted by John de St Jorre who declared in The New Yorker, in August 1974, Reage's true identity as Dominique Aury. Thereafter interviews were granted to French and Canadian television and the grand old lady of letters ( Aury was awarded the Legion d'honneur ) could be seen on screen before and after her death in April 1998 at the age of 90, as the "small, neat, handsome woman" with clear grey-blue eyes, "the French Scheherazade who wove her strange and compelling story night after night to save her relationship with the man she loved..."



1. See Stephen Flowers and Crystal Dawn: Carnal Alchemy (Runa-Raven Press 1995)

2. John de St Jorre: The Good Ship Venus - The Erotic Voyage of the Olympia Press (Hutchinson 1994)

3. Jean Paulhan: A Slave's Revolt An Essay on The Story of O included in Histoire d'O by Pauline Reage (Société Nouvelle des Editions Jean Jacques Pauvert 1954)

4. Pauline Reage: A Girl In Love, preface to Retour Á Roissy (Société Nouvelle des Editions Jean Jacques Pauvert 1969)

5. Regine Deforges: Confessions of O - Conversations with Pauline Reage (Viking Press 1979)

6. "In the vision of the world presented by Story of O, the highest good is the transcendence of personality. The plot's movement is not horizontal, but a kind of ascent through degradation..." Susan Sontag: The Pornographic Imagination (from Styles of Radical Will 1967 and included in the UK publication of Story of the Eye by Georges Bataille)

7. Joseph Campbell: The Hero With a Thousand Faces (first published 1949)

8. John de St Jorre: (New Yorker, August 1974)

9. Don Cupitt: What Is A Story (SCM Press, London 1991)

10. Philippe Jullian: Dreams of Decadence (Pall Mall 1971)

11. Jan B. Gordon: 'Decadent Spaces': Notes for a Phenomenology of the Fin de Siécle to be found in Decadence and the 1890s, Stratford-Upon-Avon Studies 17 (Edward Arnold, 1979)

12. Dominique Aury: Songes ("Dreams") first published in the Nouvelle Revue Francaise November 1960 (Les Éditions Perpétuells 1991). Selected verses translated by for this article by Chris Ely:

The boat rocks at the quayside
Trading dream for dream
And returns silence to the first
Beautiful death in dreaming.

13. After Paulhan's death the original manuscript of Histoire d'O, "a dozen or so" hand written small school exercise books, were sold for "several thousand francs" to a wealthy Swiss collector, who died shortly after of a "brutal, stupid illness". (see Good Ship Venus pp230)

Dominique Aury with Jean Paulhan (centre) and Marcel Arland

Stefan Prince (2002) *

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* For another article of interest by Stefan Prince
Go to:
Corridors of the Marvelous *