The Sexual Life of Catherine M. , by Catherine Millet. Grove Press, 209 pages, $23.
Catherine Millet’s astonishing memoir of physical desire, frequent orgiastic sex and rich psychic debasement, The Sexual Life of Catherine M. , was first published in France last year as La Vie Sexuelle de Catherine M . It was greeted with praise, shock, anger, droll and incomprehensible commentary by Baud-rillard (always a sign of “making it” in France, akin to being a joke on David Letterman here), and huge sales: more than 300,000 copies. If French critics-that’s French and critics ; one cannot decide which most deserves the italics-thought Ms. Millet’s adamantly frank look at her sexuality was an outrage against morality, against decency, and against some putatively more noble tradition of French porn, well, what are Americans going to think? We don’t even have a putatively more noble tradition of porn. We don’t have any “tradition” of porn at all; what we have is an endless stream of dull product and, somewhere in Joseph Biden’s safe, Clarence Thomas’ video-rental records.
Which is to say that to be an American reading the book, slightly in awe of it as well as entertained, is to spend part of one’s literary energy rotating around it, looking for, pardon, the proper position.
Ms. Millet is a respected figure in the Paris art scene, a curator, founding editor of Art Press , and author of eight books of art criticism, including one that is reputed to be the “standard” French guide to contemporary art. She begins her memoir with a snapshot or two of what one senses was a difficult Catholic girlhood. As a teenager, she read Hemingway (presumably The Sun Also Rises ) and was shocked to find a female character that had many lovers-so shocked that she put the book aside. Clearly, however, the notion stuck with her, for shortly after losing her virginity at age 18 she began a life of frequent group sexual activity, in arrangements both spontaneous and organized. She did it in sex clubs, at what the French call, roughly translated, “dirty” parties, in parking lots, alongside roadways, at the Bois de Boulogne, even in the back of a municipal van with a line of men waiting outside-and to judge by the narrative of detailed encounters, she might at any one of these encounters accommodate from 10 to 20 to 40 men, and sometimes a woman or two as well. Thus it is natural to estimate that she has had some form of sexual congress certainly with hundreds and perhaps even more than a thousand people. But in her memory, she says, she can put a name or some signifier of identity to only 49 of them. The rest are faceless.
From the early 1970’s until today, she has lived with the French writer and photographer Jacques Henric, who has published over the years many nude photographs of Ms. Millet.
What is truly extraordinary about her story, however, is how she tells it, the profoundly rattling self-confidence and psychological depth with which she examines her desires, her inclinations, her sensations and her satisfactions. What makes the self-confidence and depth even more striking is that she deploys them in the face of an incomprehensible need, and a vast sense of sadness. She describes minutely, carefully, coldly: What we can tell of her language, through a truly awkward and bloated translation, evokes the painful dispassion, the distance, and the melancholy and grim wit of Nathalie Sarraute and Robbe-Grillet and the films of Godard. There is not a little of the pretentiousness of those figures as well, but one is not certain how much to blame her for that-she is an art critic, after all-and how much to blame the translator, Adriana Hunter, whose tumescent Latinates and grammatical clumsiness must be all her own.
Ms. Millet spends a great deal of time describing the sheer physicality of sex, but through the lens of an erotically tense and desperate imagination: Her body is like a sexual filament, a carrier of electric pleasures, and in sex she sees a vast landscape of personal disintegration, an explosive escape from self that she greatly longs for. She does not apologize for this near-suicidal eroticism, and she is adamantly unashamed. The ultimate liquid animalism of sex, the sense of melting and heat, the stains and drips (which she describes with a particularly loving attention), are for her an integral part of the pleasure of the act: As a result, her descriptions either will strike you as being among the most effective erotic writing you have seen, or you will find them fabulously disgusting. Quite often she walks the line between the two, a zone between pleasure and horror where she has, for many years, and with some unexplored sadness, lived:
“The layout of the bathroom is perfect: while the basin offers a perfect gripping point to brace the shocks to my rear end, I intermittently catch sight of my harshly lit face in the mirror above it, a face that-quite unlike my lower half, which is totally mobilized-is almost lifeless. The cheeks are hollow and the mouth half open like a windup doll whose mechanism has wound down. It could be the face of a dead woman except for the eyes, which are intolerably listless …. Sometimes I bring myself to this peak of pleasure all by myself, as an interval in my bathroom routine. With one hand on the edge of the basin and the other one masturbating, I watch myself in the mirror out of the corner of my eye.
“A particular porn film made quite an impression on me. The man was taking the woman from behind. The camera was facing her so that her face was in the foreground. Thanks to the pressure exerted on her whole body, her face was projected forward and distorted, as things are when they come too close to the lens. You could hear the man’s orders: ‘Look! Look at the camera!’ and the girl’s eyes looked directly into yours, the viewer’s. I thought he might well be pulling her hair to force to raise her head. This scene has given me a lot of inspiration for the little scenarios that nourish my masturbating. In real life, a man I met only once gave me such intense pleasure that I have very precise memories of the encounter, and this was because with every thrust, he would order me to ‘Look me in the eye.’ I did as I was told, knowing that he was witness to the disintegration of my face.”
The French publisher and writer Jean-Jacques Pauvert, who published The Story of O and Emmanuelle , called Ms. Millet’s memoir “the end of eroticism.” It is, in fact, the end of a certain kind of eroticism: the kind in which the woman is an instrument of male sexual desire and sexual fantasy; the kind in which the woman’s own pleasure is derived in part from her exposure and shame, and in part from the desire a man has revealed to her. Ms. Millet brings into the equation of literary eroticism a modern pathology of narcissism and self-debasement that simply hasn’t existed before.
Ms. Millet is uniquely feminist. It will be interesting to see how the more desiccated schools of American academic feminism react to her work. Her entire sexual stance, her story, as it were, is an impudent and fundamentally inarguable challenge to the assumptions about female sexuality on which most of the world’s social arrangements are built. Back at least to the story of The Bacchae , social convention has feared, detested and suppressed the truly explosive possibilities of female sexuality, with its vastly greater capacity for orgasm and for sustained activity-and, we ultimately fear, with its vastly greater depths of desire. Once these are unleashed, a single man is not capable of fulfilling them. Much that men and women are taught (and come to believe) about sex and courtship, about love and marriage, has been constructed to evade these simple facts.
For this reason, Catherine Millet’s book strikes me not only as provocative, but dangerous. In this country, we succeed best in neutralizing dangerous ideas either by ignoring them or by a process of bland absorption: mild approval, a spot on the Today show, and bye-bye idea. So what will it be?
Vince Passaro is the author of Violence, Nudity, Adult Content: A Novel (Simon and Schuster) .