The Story Of O, written in 1954. Opening up that book I didn't know what to expect; a romance? Porn? Something in-between?
What surprised me is that it's none of that. What I read was a really disturbing but darkly fascinating character study of a woman and her relationship with love. The female protagonist, O, would do ANYTHING to keep her lover. She wants to belong to him, she'll agree to any subjugation/humiliation to prove to him that she truly is his and she's proud of her efforts. In the end of the book we see that O's training is finally complete in that she completely loses herself...she is no longer an individual as much as she is an object.
Now there are a lot of ways you can look at that story. You can see it as literally a story about the characters in the book and that's all. Or you can see it as some kind of societal statement about women and the way they should or shouldn't treat "romantic" love. In other words you can take it as the author taking a concept and painting it in intense extremes to force us to look at what we weren't really looking at before.
At the time of publication most people saw it through the latter lens. Feminists picketed, articles were written decrying the violence in the book, it made people angry, uncomfortable and yes, many found it titillating...and they found their own titillation worrying.
Body without mind is brutish; mind without body...is a running away from our double beingAnd that quote brings me to another point, it was lyrically written.
Emmanuelle in 1967 which was marketed as a feminist erotic novel...I suppose that compared to The Story Of O it was. But mainly it was just very...French. It was a full scale attack on what the characters saw as "Bourgeois Values." The last part of the book is written in almost a dream-like quality where the man the young, married Emmanuelle has fallen hard for leads her through a night of sexual exploration all the while explaining how the Western religions of the world and the bourgeoise have failed us and we need to embrace the forbidden in order to be free. I didn't agree with about 85% of what seem to be the messages of this book.
But I won't forget it. It was well written(although not always well researched) and it got me thinking about different cultural values and perceptions and how those have changed over the years. It made me consider why people might want to stop and think before they pronounce a wholesale rejection of anything, and how we all define "freedom" and "virtue" in different ways.
Of course there were and are lots of erotic novels that are really just straight up porn. Anne Rice (under the pen-name A.N. Roquelaure) wrote a little of that. Anaïs Nin wrote a few pornographic stories too but I'm talking about the erotica that wasn't first, last and only about sex. The books I mention above all got their fair share of praise and a lot of criticism. They created a lot of controversy and like their pornographic cousins they made people a little uncomfortable even as they enticed. But unlike some of the porn stories no one ever dismissed these books out of hand. Also...they weren't romances.
|Can't believe I'm someone's PostSecret|
But then I realized that in the novels that are now typical of this genre the female protagonists represents all that's good. There's always something kind of pure about these heroines and if they make mistakes they're not distasteful ones. Again, they're romances, fairytales...explicitly sexual but sweet.
There isn't meant to be any societal or psychological commentary that goes beyond those characters.
But for The Stranger there are two basic messages. The first, and to my mind, most obvious, is this: If you repress your own true nature, if you refuse to be yourself you will eventually become self-destructive in a very big way. Self-destructive people are like suicide bombers, when they blow everyone close to them gets hit with the shrapnel.
The second point speaks to something a little more complicated and more difficult to see in real life and perhaps in the book: If you've been betrayed by someone you love the chances are their betrayal was more about their feelings about themselves than their feelings about you. Kasie doesn't cheat on her fiancé because she's unhappy with him. She cheats on him because she's unhappy with herself. Furthermore she wouldn't even be with Dave if she was comfortable with who she really is. Over and over again I've seen friends overcome with insecurity when their significant others cheats on them...rarely do they realize that their betrayers are the ones who are truly insecure...and it's an insecurity that doesn't stem from the relationships, it stems from something ingrained inside. Betrayal is almost always more complicated than people like to think it is...
...and so is revenge.
Revenge is a theme that comes up later in the series but the message is similar. How many Hollywood movies are out there glorifying revenge? We're being taught to believe that revenge = justice. It's not true. Revenge, like betrayal, usually hurts the perpetrator more than the receiver. And in the case of revenge the usual result is that it ends up empowering and elevating the very person you're trying to hurt while at the same time bringing you low.
I could have made Kasie an innocent and tried to make these same points but that would have been like arguing against the death penalty by pointing to an innocent person on death row. All I'd really be doing is suggesting that we need to improve our court system so that the people slated for death were actually guilty. But if you really don't believe in the death penalty you have to believe that the real murderers shouldn't be killed by the State either. It's a harder argument to make but it's the only honest one for those who hold that position.
A friend suggested to me that all this is a little deep for erotica. Maybe it is. But it didn't used to be. Erotica was once controversial and if I'm going to write this stuff I'm embracing the controversy....
...and just to keep it interesting I'm going to throw in a lot of very steamy, detailed sex scenes. Any deeper message must be balanced by scenes of intense pleasure.
Because after all, it is erotica.