Pauline Rèage and the traps of the visible

Image: Colin Fearing


The alterities that are revealed in women's writing can be long-lasting and correspond to our time of excessive visibility and authorial presence.


A photograph captures the eyes of those who leaf through issue number 534 of the French magazine Black and White, published in June 1955. Even for a Brazilian reader searching for other information in the National Library of France, the image fixes her attention on page 23, provoking vertiginous curiosity. It was a black and white photograph with little definition for those who saw it on the microfilm of the originals.

In the center, a woman with her head covered by a scarf appears sitting between two men. The lighting, apparently on purpose, fell directly on the woman's face, but also on a book whose cover displayed the photograph. The caption softened the mysterious scenario, allowing the event and the main character to be identified. It was the awarding of the literary prize to Pauline Réage, in 1955. Two Maggots by the book history of O, published the previous year by Gallimard. The caption also stated that the author preferred to remain unknown, with her face covered by a scarf, even though the same photograph had been published on other occasions, such as, for example, illustrating the press conference organized in 1954 by editor Jean- Jacques Pauvert at the presentation of the book.

The magazine Black and White, created and edited by Jean Valdeyron (1911-1999), was launched in 1945. With a weekly circulation, it presented current facts and photos, attracting the reader with colorful episodes, notably about the lives of French and foreign artists, stars and celebrities, carrying sensationalist tones. The article about the prize awarded to Mme. Réage does not provide further information, it focuses on the author's eccentric appearance, exoticism ratified by the mystery and spectacularization built around her real identity.

Since the publication of history of O, classified in the literary genre “erotic romance”, it was not known for sure who she was or what name was hidden behind the name Pauline Réage. In photography, the guardians of his identity and visible presence are Albert Simonin (1905-1980) (left), scenario designer and writer of detective novels, and Raymond Queneau (1903-1976), the first novelist to receive the award Two Maggots, in 1933, at the traditional Café Parisiense.

Photography 1 – Source: Noir et Blanc, 1955/06, No. 534, p. 23. Archives of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France François-Mitterand, MFILM FOL-Z-1384 – 1955/01 (N514) – 1955/12 (N564).


Mme. Rèage's photograph in Black and White, a sign of the feminine representation of an absence through presence, raises very current questions about the foundation, intensity and developments of the concept of authorship. It probably served as a publicity piece around a book and an author that had become morally reprehensible. A book that caused a scandal, provoking the wrath of all orders of censorship, moral, political, intellectual, at the same time that it attracted the public due to the mystery of its authorship.

history of O tells the experiences of O, a woman cloistered in a castle near Paris, Roissy, living the domination practices and sexual fantasies of René, her executioner. According to the author, the novel was written at night, in secret, without truces or erasures, as if in a dream.”[1] In it, a young woman found sexual submission a form of freedom.

history of O deserves attention, above all, for reinventing the category of libertinism from the perspective of a woman, in solitude and in contact with her own body, giving wings to the exercise of imagination, displacing the feminine desire commonly appropriated by a certain awareness of evil. It is also important for placing its author in the genealogy of the erotic, inaugurated in the 18th century by the Marquis de Sade, and for anticipating by a few decades the commercial success of Erika Leonard James's trilogy, the 50 shades of gray.

After all, what can an author be in the realm of erotica? To answer the question, we propose a brief reflection on the limits imposed on literature by an orthopedic imagination of the mid-2012th century. Moral restrictions, recalls Roger Chartier (25: XNUMX), limit the conditions of composition and circulation of works, “whatever they may be”.

For Michel Foucault (1992), the author is born from a constraint. It is the person who allows himself or herself to be caught in the traps of the visible, most of the time by publishing a portrait, dedicating it to a prince, to whom it functions as patronage or clientele, or by signing one's name. These devices are part of the work. With this, the perpetrator can be identified, monitored, judged and punished. From antiquity until the end of the Middle Ages, continues Michel Foucault (1992), works circulated freely.

The authorial identity only prefigured itself. In the transition to modernity, little by little, the identity of the author takes shape and the copyists of erotic motifs are the first to be singled out by the censors for their illustrations, forced to show their faces and face criminal charges. Authorship is a category that can only be defined in the mobility of works. It goes through and continues to go through mutations from one era to another, from one social space to another.

Pointed out as the invisible inventor of the novel, everything indicates that Mme. Réage threatened the social ties of young French readers, thirsty for new things, displacing them towards an awareness of evil. Her greatest risk would be to absorb them in identifying with female sexual pleasure, especially with the desire for women. The questioning about the “sex” of those who created the plot of history of O, curiosity about the author's gender would reveal the same risk of separation from social life.

The book violates the romantic conception of the feminine and designates its author with the image of a face covered by a scarf. With this, it inaugurates an authorial function, one that tells us about how the text points to a figure that is external and previous to it, characterizing the social functioning of a discourse. This function, variable in time and space, shows all its effectiveness in linking the internal coherence of a discourse – written texts, images, oral reports – to a given subject (Chartier, 2001, 2012).


Pauline Réage was the pseudonym of Anne Cécile Desclos (1907-1998), a writer who also adopted the name Dominique Aury throughout her literary career. The figures of Pauline Réage and Dominique Aury became forms of clandestinity found by the young woman, who graduated in English from the Sorbonne, to write with relative autonomy, still escaping “violent and tyrannical” domination.[2] of her husband. Daughter of an English father, she made French translations of important modern English authors. She also dedicated herself to literary criticism, writing essays, prefaces, poems, secretariat and directed collections and editions of notable literary publications, practical ways found to assert herself in a hegemonically masculine intellectual field.

At the time of the release of history of O, Cécile Desclos worked on the Reading Committee of the publisher Gallimard, in addition to working at the prestigious NRF, the French Nouvelle Revue. He worked on producing his own work, facing the pitfalls of visibility and, therefore, not restricting himself to the exclusive universe of writing. A conduct probably adjusted to the circumstances. Or rather, an author's strategy developed by Anne Cécile Desclos, under the skins of Pauline Réage and Dominique Aury, whose heuristic matrix can be known in the study of internalized dispositions in the course of existence, whether through family inheritance or social acquisition (Sapiro, 2014 : 81).

Photography 2 – Anne Cécile Desclos/Dominique Aury/Pauline Réage, November 1994. Source: © Getty – Frederic REGLAIN/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images.

In the sexual division of intellectual labor, its production, when carried out, was certainly considered less legitimate (Charron, 2013). Today, with her notoriety recognized, her originality is reaffirmed not only as the creator of a new literary genre, a “feminine libertine literature”, but notably as an exponent of French letters and literature. Her work on style produced a strong mark, even without the signature of her own name, and, above all, produced a distinction from a literary perspective, gaining critical legitimacy. And imposing her strategy as a writer, intentionally elaborated on the written work and in the photography that associates a covered face illuminated by a book with the novel history of O.

Recourse to clandestinity was not enough to break the guarded predispositions to guide their social destiny. An only child, raised by her paternal grandmother in an impoverished Catholic family, she married the Catalan journalist Raymond d'Argila at the age of 22. She found in her degree from the Sorbonne, and consequently in her work outside the home, ways to live her failed marriage and escape the condition of “housewife” (Aury, 1988).

By the way, the marriage, although short-lived, to some extent calmed social suspicions about his sexuality, without apparently cooling his desire for women, even though he had an intense relationship with the writer and editor Jean Paulhan, who wrote the preface to history of O since its first edition. Especially for writers who face the work of symbolic domination with their own erotics, secrets and narratives of intimacy.

This is only part of what you have faced in your long existence. Having spanned the entire 20th century, the two world wars, circulated through intellectual and political circles from the most conservative to the most progressive, Cécile Desclos's professional life expresses the social conditions of production of the different types of domination supported. Without the risk of committing anachronisms, her willingness to allow herself to be photographed unusually with her face covered, putting into question the authorship of her own work, seems to denote, in addition to the socially created controversy surrounding her identity, an identity crisis experienced by herself. in the face of the restrictions imposed on her and her work, as well as her legitimate circulation as an author in different public spaces.


Before the slight denunciation, taking as an object of study the trajectory of an author who is renowned in these terms, is to dedicate oneself to examining the subtle ways, and the harshest ones too, of constructing the self-limitations of the intellectual and professional ambitions supported by women who , having incorporated the unfavorable prejudice into their place, silently (clandestinely) faced their exclusion. The attention, however brief it may be, dedicated to the life of Cécile Desclos is done without heroism or miserabilism that could, perhaps, separate her from the men and women of her time.

One of the authors of this post is the Brazilian reader who fixed her gaze on page 23 of number 534 of the French magazine Black and White. The other used sociological writing strategies to organize the ideas in the text. The duo was very careful with the risks of cultural exoticism from those who anachronistically treat historical documents as eccentricities worthy of scoops. For the two sociologists, the alterities that are revealed in women's writing can be long-lasting and correspond to our time of excessive visibility and authorial presence.

*Andréa Borges Leão is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Cear(UFC). Author of Norbert Elias & Education (authentic).

*Mariana Mont'Alverne Barreto Lima is a professor at the Department of Social Sciences at the Federal University of Ceará (UFC).

Originally published on the blog of Virtual Library of Social Thought.


AURY, Dominique. (1988). Clandestine vocation: Entertainment with Nicole Grenier. L'Infini. Paris: Gallimard.

CHARRON, Hélène. (2013). Les forms de l'illégitimité intellectuelle – Les femmes dans les sciences sociales françaises 1890-1940. Paris: CNRS Éditions.

CHARTIER, Roger. (2001). Write down the practices. Foucault, De Certeau, Marin. Buenos Aires: Matial.

CHARTIER, Roger. (2012). What is an author? Review of a genealogy. São Carlos: Edufscar.

FOUCAULT, Michel. (1992). What is an author? Nova Vega Publisher.

SAPIRO, Gisèle. (2014). La sociologie de la littérature.Paris: La Découverte.


[1] Radio France. Dominique Aury (1907-1998), “Histoire d'O”, Series “Un parfum de scandale”, 14/08/2020.

[2] Id. Ibidem.

the earth is round exists thanks to our readers and supporters.
Help us keep this idea going.

See this link for all articles


  • Reasons for the end of the strike at Federal Universitiesbenches 16/05/2024 By TADEU ALENCAR ARRAIS: The Federal Government's new proposal announced on May 15 deserves debate on whether or not to continue the strike
  • Environmental denialism and the flooding of Porto AlegrePorto Alegre airport flooded 14/05/2024 By CARLOS ATÍLIO TODESCHINI: Porto Alegre has the best flood protection system in Brazil. It is considered a “Dutch mini-system”. Why did this system fail in its function of preventing the city from being flooded?
  • Oza's handJoao_Carlos_Salles 14/05/2024 By JOÃO CARLOS SALLES: The duty of the Brazilian State and the contracted university
  • How to lie with statisticschair 51 18/05/2024 By AQUILES MELO: The numbers presented by the federal government to education employees on strike confuse more than they explain, thus demonstrating a lack of interest in resolving the problem
  • The operational universityMarilena Chauí 2 13/05/2024 By MARILENA CHAUI: The operational university, in university terms, is the highest expression of neoliberalism
  • “Multipolarity” and the chronic decline of the WestJose Luis Fiori 17/05/2024 By JOSÉ LUÍS FIORI: The defense of multipolarity will increasingly be the banner of countries and peoples that are currently rising up against the global military imperium exercised by the West
  • The Caramel horsecaramel horse 15/05/2024 By LEONARDO BOFF: We must admit that we have not respected the rights of nature and its intrinsic value, nor have we controlled our voracity to devastate it
  • The strike at universities and federal institutes does not…path time 17/05/2024 By GRAÇA DRUCK & LUIZ FILGUEIRAS: The left-wing and democratic forces need to get out of passivity, as if waiting for Lula and his government, as well as the STF, to resolve the political impasses
  • SUS, 36 years old – consolidation and uncertaintiesPaulo Capel Narvai 15/05/2024 By PAULO CAPEL NARVAI: SUS was not the “stillbirth” that many predicted. Almost four decades later, the SUS is institutionally consolidated and has developed a notable process of republican governance
  • Fake freedom and the Marquis de SadeEugenio Bucci 18/05/2024 By EUGÊNIO BUCCI: Fake freedom, sadistic freedom, which in essence is the denial of all freedom, is leading Brazil to total shipwreck