Hang on to the doily

Jenny Diski

  • The Sexual Life of Catherine M. by Catherine Millet, translated by Adriana Hunter
    Serpent’s Tail, 192 pp, £12.00, June 2002, ISBN 1 85242 811 2

Unless you are one of those who don’t have a television set, or who only watch opera on BBC4, you will surely have noticed an advertisement currently playing between the acts on the commercial channels. A man and a woman are sitting at a table finishing a sandwich. He is guiltily unsatisfied with the neat, respectable snack/sex they’ve just had. ‘I do love Kate,’ he whispers to a friend on the phone. ‘It’s just those sandwiches. I need something filthy, like a kebab.’ His mate advises him to get himself a Pot Noodle. Cut to dark alleys, garish neon and gaudy young women outside ‘Live Food’ shows. Our man asks one if she does Pot Noodles and receives a slap round the face. Some things a girl won’t provide. He keeps trying and failing until eventually he finds a woman willing to give him what he wants. She looks about shiftily and whispers: ‘Round the back.’ The two of them are on a bed, guzzling their Pot Noodles and groaning with extreme pleasure. ‘It felt so wrong – and yet it felt so right,’ the man intones in a voice-over. The advertisement ends with a shot of a Pot Noodle and a woman’s voice declaring: ‘Pot Noodle – the slag of all snacks.’

The food/sex correlation is hardly new, but there is something novel about dragging it into the gutter rather than escorting it through the doors of the Ivy. The bland current assumption that food and sex are both commodities to be traded up by those with social aspirations is nicely overturned. You may love Kate but you hanker for a slag. And there’s the hint of a solution to the dilemma in the ad, which as well as making the connection between food and sex is also perhaps offering them as alternatives, suggesting that the lower appetite might be assuaged by substituting filthy eating for filthy fucking. You can have your cake and eat it, and hang on to the doily.

There is a Pot Noodle moment in Catherine Millet’s otherwise supercool, anxiety-free sexual autobiography. In a sauna she has sex with numberless men and even as she goes to the shower has her clitoris ‘aggressed and . . . nipples pinched’. A ‘little masseuse’ works afterwards on Catherine’s aching body and carries on a pretence that she doesn’t know what has been going on, that her client is just another stressed modern woman in need of a relaxing massage. Catherine M. enjoys the play-acting: ‘After all, I was no more the debauched little bourgeoise she must have taken me for than the steadfast one we were inventing.’ Because Catherine M., you see, is an intellectual, the editor of Art Press, a respected French art magazine, and even though she spends her nights servicing queues of men in the Bois de Boulogne (‘should I count only the men that I sucked off with my head squashed next to their steering wheels, or those with whom I took time to get undressed in the cabins of their trucks, and ignore the relay of faceless bodies behind the car doors?’), she does not like to be confused with a ‘debauched little bourgeoise’ or, to freely translate, a slag. Catherine M. is more of a Marks & Spencer take-away sushi – the courtesan of snacks.

A slag is someone who will let anyone do anything they want to her, do anything for them, and do it for nothing. She belongs round the back of the bike sheds, her hair is lank, her eyes are usually dull, and she is not expected to be a high-achiever academically. She’s dumb and she’s easy and she’s not just cheap: she’s free. But not a free spirit. That’s another kind of sexual woman, much more up Catherine Millet’s street. Catherine M. will let anyone do anything they want to her, do anything for them and do it for nothing, but no one could say she’s thick. I think we’re back to the old duality. If sex is just a bodily event, that’s slag: if you think or better still write about it, that’s freedom. No review of The Sexual Life of Catherine M. fails to mention that by day she lives and works comfortably in the world of intellectuals and that the book is well written. It is suggested that Millet’s project in writing about her sexual encounters is related to her intellectual concerns. Writing about pleasure, she says, is a work of art and she anatomises her sexual experiences and responses as a Cubist might the visual field. We are in the thought world of ‘paradoxical solitude’ among the writhing bodies, of jouissance, and the orgiast’s existential desire to achieve ‘annihilation of the senses’. There is a problem here in that the translation indicates very little of the clarity and style that Millet’s prose was praised for in the original. Either it was done in a great hurry, or the translator has only a passing acquaintance with colloquial English. Phrases such as ‘with retrospect’ and ‘That is, I, as I was want [sic], would jerk my hips rhythmically’ don’t give you confidence, but often the writing is so muddy that you can only hope it’s the fault of the translation: ‘But space is only ever an immeasurably large balloon with a hole. If you blow it up too fast, it will readily turn on you and deflate just as quickly.’ Even with a dictionary and a lot of thought I can’t understand ‘Is it because people were less interested in my bosom that it is more lymphatic by nature?’ And can you work out this shot of Catherine M. on video? ‘Later, on the screen, I will see myself taking on the shape of an upside-down vase. The base is my knees which I have brought up to my face, my thighs are squeezed up to my trunk forming a cone which gets wider as it reaches the buttocks, and then narrows at the neck after flaring widely on each side – would that be the curve of the iliac bones? [Christ knows] – leaving just enough room for the plunging rod.’ It would be hard to take Millet’s effort seriously, if you weren’t sure this was a bad translation.

To be clear: Catherine M. began at the age of 18 to have sex with multiple partners when her first lover suggested it, and has continued to make herself available to groups either at private encounters or in public places, as arranged by her current lover. In between the organised gang-bangs she is prepared to have sex with anyone (preferably male) who suggests it. Her sexual encounters have been innumerable, but she declares that there are only 49 men whose faces or names she could recognise. At some orgies there were 150 people and she ‘would deal with the sex machines of around a quarter or a fifth of them in all the available ways’. In such circumstances, you don’t ask for a formal introduction. She has both personal and doctrinal reasons for her activities. She has always been socially awkward, she says, and finds the usual ways of getting to know people excruciatingly embarrassing. What she calls the preliminaries, the flirting and the banter that precede most sexual encounters are, apparently, beyond her. Getting straight down to sex avoids the social encounter at which she is so inept. But she is also contemptuous of preliminary rituals. She expresses great moral disapproval of one group who insist on dining at a restaurant before they get down to the serious business of sex, and she thinks it ‘obscene’ to tell salacious stories at an orgy. She deplores play-acting and delay. She prefers the ‘soirées curated by Eric and his friends . . . the inflexible sequence . . . their exclusive goal: there were no outside factors (alcohol, demonstrative behaviour . . .) to impede the flow mechanics of bodies. Their comings and goings never strayed from their insect-like determination.’ Catherine M. has very decided views on how a sex object ought to behave. At one orgy a young woman waves her arms and legs around under her heaving throng of men and makes a lot of noise indicating her pleasure. ‘I observed this sort of extrovert behaviour with placid indifference. One of the participants expressed their admiration, saying she was “really going for it”, and I thought this was stupid.’

As a ‘Sixties’ libertarian expressing the ideal of freedom with her body, transgressing norms, despising the bourgeois evasion of desire, Catherine M. is perfectly understandable. She takes her radical philosophy from Bataille, and admires Pauline Réage’s über-underling O for her perpetual readiness for sex, her propensity for being sodomised and her reclusiveness. She is an absolutist, despising those opportunists who take time out of normal life for a little promiscuity. ‘I believed that fucking – and by that I mean fucking frequently and willingly whoever was (or were) the partner (or partners) – was a way of life. If not, if this thing were only permitted when certain conditions were met, at predetermined times, well then it was carnival!’ Certainly she is a very rigorous, not to say humourless, libertine. She acts out her paradoxical freedom paradoxically by being completely available, by refusing nothing and seeing herself as a heroine of abjection. Feminism is rejected as another subset of morality, as a drag on the will. But even the will is a drag on the will. What she wants or does not want is subsumed in absolute indifference and the great overarching project of finding the perfect negation of ego. Numbers are only part of it; where and how she is used and in what part of her person must also be a matter of sublime indifference. Everything is permitted and pleasure is not in itself a goal. ‘I paid no . . . attention to the quality of sexual relationships. In cases where they didn’t give me much pleasure, or they even bothered me in some way, or when the man made me do things which weren’t really to my liking, that wasn’t reason to call them into question.’ She will admit to an inclination for self-abasement but true freedom must go beyond disgust for Catherine M. Disgust raises one ‘above prejudice’, breaking through taboos to the clear air of unmediated liberty. This is what she sees herself as primarily doing, but it is hard to read her account of providing anal relief for a man she depicts as ‘dirtier than is usually acceptable for intellectuals who often neglect their physical appearance’ without feeling that her inclination towards self-abasement has the edge over her passion for putting radical philosophy into practice.

Contradiction abounds in her account of herself. As well as being a fighter on the barricades for freedom, she describes herself as a resolutely passive woman, never having any goals other than those set for her by other people, but being absolutely dependable and unwavering in the pursuit of those aims. She insists that this is her character, that even in the world of work she gets on with the job ‘more like a driver who must stick to the rails than a guide who knows where the port is’. So she has no ideals, she says, in work or love, only obedience to the will of others. Her lover (Claude, Eric, Jacques over the years) set up the venues and kept watch as men held her splayed against walls or on floors while they made use of her. She consciously performs – is performed on – for the pleasure that her lover takes in watching her being used and for the delight she takes in feeling herself become nothing more than an object. But there is pride in this, and, of course, a sense of power over the men who are physically beholden to her and the watching man who depends on her submission for his pleasure. She is at one and the same time a passive masochist, a powerful enabler, a victim of her pathology, a seeker after unbridled freedom of spirit. Even in its insect-like formulations, sex is a complicated business. There isn’t one story to tell and though I suspect she would like to keep it simple, Millet either doesn’t or can’t.

In fact, the great open space of sexuality permits all the possibilities of abjection, power, narcissism, pleasure-seeking, dour determination, creativity and mechanisation. It would be very hard to devote such a great deal of life and thought, time and effort to it as Millet does without getting it all pretty much confused. Everyday pornography is linear in order to keep a single idea afloat in an ocean of polymorphous potential. Sexuality gets out of hand, it runs rampant with meaning unless you keep to a very firm remit. The sexual story can transform from pumpkin to princess to swan with injured wing and back again in the blink of a thought. It is a nothing, an empty arena, that might be everything. And everything is more than we can cope with. The obsessive, fetishistic, single account that pornography provides is what keeps sexuality within bounds. Here is the danger of writing the sexual life: you lose the boundaries unless you steadfastly restrict yourself to the detail. At times Millet seems to be attempting to do this, but again and again, like a painter who writes explanatory notes over her picture, she tries to explicate, to flesh out the doing with her intellect, and then the sexual life is shown up for the kaleidoscopic and random playground of ideas it is. She has complained because reviewers have not seen that The Sexual Life is not the entire life, but she herself spills over her own boundaries. Ideally, the sexual life of Catherine M. would have been just that, but the person behind the sexual life can’t manage it. On the one hand, she tells us: ‘I have always thought that circumstances just happened to mean that I met men who liked to make love in groups or liked to watch their partners making love to other men, and the only reaction I had . . . was to adapt willingly to their ways.’ If this is ridiculously disingenuous, it’s not unusual for determined erotica. But she cannot leave it there. She needs us to know about the world beyond the sex, she has to give us the sexual life in relation to the social and psychological life:

Given that, in other ways, I obviously had to comply with all sorts of constraints (a very demanding and stressful job, a destiny determined by poverty, and, the worst shackle of all, the baggage of family conflicts and rows in relationships), the certainty that I could have sexual relations in any situation with any willing party . . . was the lungfuls of fresh air you inhale as you walk to the end of the pier.

Out go purity and freedom, in come consequence and motivation. The smallest injection of reality opens the account of Millet’s sex life to questions that a mythic pornographic depiction would not stir up. Perhaps the Catherine M. of the title might not be precisely the Catherine Millet who wrote the book. You begin to doubt the prodigious numbers, and one woman’s capacity to withstand exhaustion, and her tolerance for pain and discomfort, and her uncommon resistance to any sense of either despair or the ridiculous in these endless anonymous copulations. You have to question her assertion that she has never suffered any kind of clumsiness or brutality, and wonder at the absence of unpleasant diseases. Of course, you wouldn’t if it were a fiction: the purely sexual story would be enough. But the documentary nature of Catherine M.’s account of her sexual life raises huge questions about how much the human spirit can tolerate and how far the boundaries of the self can be stretched before the individual explodes.

Perhaps it’s sentimental to assume that the source of the self is so frail that it must be damaged or deranged by such copious invasion. I suppose it’s sentimental to suppose even that there is a source of the self. But Catherine M.’s notion of the annihilation of self sounds in reality too much like a psychic retreat from violation. She never feared being found by the police in public places:

I would only have been put out if I had been caught in the act of exhibiting myself on the public highway. The body discovered by the representative of the law would have been no more or less than the body penetrated by the stranger in the Bois, not so much an inhabited body as a shell from which I had withdrawn.

Later, she explains how she

endures all the risks of coitus . . . the eccentricities of each partner and the minor physical discomforts. This can be put down to an ability to programme the body independently of physical reactions. A body and the mind attached to it do not live in the same temporal sphere, and their reactions to the same external stimuli are not always synchronised.

Which suggests not so much nirvanic ecstasy as closing her eyes and thinking of France. And when she tells us that ‘for a large part of my life I fucked without regard to pleasure,’ and concedes that ‘for someone who has known so many partners, no outcome was ever as guaranteed as when I sought it alone,’ you begin to wonder if you are not reading an old-fashioned morality tale after all.

What is exhilarating about Millet’s book is her impeccable lack of guilt. In spite of a Catholic upbringing and her reading of Lacan, she claims to be quite free from sexual (as opposed to social) anxiety. You cheer her on and hope it’s true. It would be nice if someone had got away scot-free. But there is nothing Dionysian about this freedom. Her project is to write about her sexual activities as plainly as if she were a housewife describing her domestic round. In this she succeeds perhaps too well. It’s perfectly true that sex can be humdrum, and it is sort of heroic of Millet to devote her life to proving it. Certainly the book is not pornography. It sets out to make sex smaller than it seems to be, whereas what Susan Sontag calls literary pornography contrives to do the opposite. In Story of the Eye, as in most erotic work, there is an underlying rage against inescapable loss, a nihilism that comes from the knowledge of the impermanence of flesh and consciousness. Fetishism and grim repetition battle against the necessity of decay and destruction, and entropy always wins. The structural movement that gives us sex but reminds us of something else is entirely lacking in Millet’s book. There is no real sense of transgressing anything more than a few social rules, no battle with the way things are and have to be, and as a result her freedom is dowdy in comparison with Bataille’s ability to shimmer the absurdity and despair of being human through the limited possibilities of the flesh.