A Match Made In Dominatrix Heaven

imgres-1While some followers of The Male Harem may envision The Sultanette as a whip-wielding dominatrix, I order you to ball gag that misconception. True, I don’t hesitate to hold a member’s feet to the fire when he lapses into a negligence of harem duties, i.e. not behaving worthily of The Sultanette’s attentions. But I’d never consider resorting to ropes, chains or handcuffs as disciplinary accouterments. And yet …

Mars and the Vestal Virgin, Jacques Blanchard, oil on canvas, ca.1860, Art Museum of New South Wales.

Mars and the Vestal Virgin, Jacques Blanchard, oil on canvas, ca.1860, Art Museum of New South Wales.

… but never mind. Far from a prurient interest, today’s meditation on domination and sadomasochism was aroused from a purely literary one. I was drawn to Toni Bentley’s February Vanity Fair profile of the dominatrix, Catherine Robbe-Grillet, because I had studied her late husband, Alain Robbe-Grillet, in college, as a freshly deflowered virgin. (My sexual status hardly matters here, just ignore that.) The spokesperson of a literary movement spawned in the sixties called the New Novelists, Robbe-Grillet (1922-2008) was an author, critic of critics, writer of award-winning flicks including Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad, and champion of ambiguity.

Amazing I remember him through the cloud of cannabis that informed academic life in those years but after revisiting the incorrigible contrarian in The Paris Review, I’m not surprised. His comments that Sartre just wanted “to please everybody” and that Gabriel Garcia Marquez was a Stalinist (“I can’t bear all this communist chic!”) are among my favorite pronouncements.

So imagine my delight when I opened this month’s VF to learn that my literary lion’s widow, the 83-year-old Catherine Robbe-Grillet, is France’s dominatrix de rigueur. There she was, all four feet eleven inches, weighing in at eighty-eight pounds, curtsying “girlishly” to Bentley upon their introduction.

The Marquis de Sade Swings His Whip.

The Marquis de Sade Swings His Whip.

Madame neither drinks nor smokes and has worn a child’s size ten all her adult life which would include the knee-high boots, black dress and turban she later appears in at the “theater of secular High Church sadomasochism” she stages with Bentley’s attendance. Up to the leather ensemble, there is an eerie resemblance to The Sultanette’s mother (RIP Yolanda) who wore hat and gloves to mass every Sunday but once admitted to reading all the books by the Marquis de Sade she could get her hands on at the Westmoreland Public Library.

And so back to literature! Alain Robbe-Grillet met his future bride, the 21-year-old Catherine on a train to Istanbul in 1951. He was a penniless agronomical engineer whose dirty little secret was writing in the attic above his parent’s Paris apartment, and it was love at first sight. “From the beginning” Catherine tells Bentley, “I knew what turned him on; it was cruelty.”

By 1957, Alain now established as a literary bad boy, proposed that Catherine be cruel to him until death did they part. On their honeymoon she learned that he enjoyed erections but was immune to penetration. (A similar ailment plagued the young Louis XVI, resulting in Marie Antoinette’s brother arranging for him to be snipped into submission, poor Louis thereby offering up two heads to the cutting blade.)

Catherine had already made it clear that she had no desire to become pregnant so the revelation was far from a deal breaker. The following year, Alain made another proposal, the Contrat de Prostitution Conjugale. The five-page handwritten scroll wrapped in red ribbon established the rules of future sadomasochistic events to be compensated at 20,000 (old) francs per session. Stating that “the young woman will be subjected to ill treatment, humiliation and torture beyond the extent of customary practice” and “accompanied by chains or any manner of restraint whose purpose will be to maintain the body in a specific position,” it makes The Mistress Contract by He and She, recently published to shocked reviews, read like a Girl Scout handbook.

Library of Virginia

Library of Virginia.

Catherine never signed the document because it fell short of all-inclusive submission. How can a respectable sex slave submit herself to a master who grants mercy? I scoured the Contrat at VF online (purely for research purposes) in its first published, unedited English translation and found the callous loophole: Should Catherine “experience pain too extreme as a result of this treatment, she might beg her master’s mercy which shall, in most cases be accorded.”

Marriage rules now established, Alain and Catherine tied the knots for the next fifty years until he died in 2008. The pact allowed for transgressions on both sides but the rules were theirs, not dictated by a marital industrial complex, and they endured. Alain’s ashes now hold court in an urn on a dining room bureau above the “Marital Whip” Catherine gave him in 1954 – still in use sixty years later.

In the VF images by Bettina Rheims, Madame comes across as an affable Nurse Diesel from High Anxiety (too much charisma for the Cuckoo’s Nest Nurse Ratched). And while she never appears in public until after 2pm (The Sultanette could benefit from lessons here) she has a full plate.

There is the vivacious, devoted Beverly (“I have given myself to her body and soul”) who met Catherine over twenty years ago when her late husband hosted an evening for Alain, and now resides in the gamekeeper’s former quarters at Catherine’s chateau and next door to her in Paris.

Quai of the Seine in Moonlight, Frank Boggs (1855-1926), oil on canvas, 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

Quai of the Seine in Moonlight, Frank Boggs (1855-1926), oil on canvas, 1898, Museum of Fine Arts, Houston.

There is the petit clan, a clandestine clique of six Parisian women, most married with children, including a prominent classical music critic and an actress with the Comédie-Francaise, for whom Catherine orchestrates events. Among the more memorable were the midnight whippings at a quai on the Seine in Paris, lit by passing boats. It is la complicité that bonds them, Catherine tells Bentley.

And of particular interest to The Sultanette are the fidèles, a “small circle of men she has known for many years with whom the trust is absolute.” At a ladies dinner cooked by a master-chef/submissive, Madame seated this game group under the table for an amuse bouche.

Something under your hat?

Something under your hat, mother?

Can The Sultanette learn a thing or two from this doyenne of dominance? Was there something mother didn’t tell me after reading every book by the Marquis? I cannot imagine any implements in our home more provocative than the hedge trimmer but what was hiding behind Yolanda’s hat boxes? In our time that pushes for full disclosure in relationships could a dose of la complicité hurt? It is what we don’t know about each other in the harem more than what we do know – the lives we don’t share more than the time we share – that provokes the desire to dig for more.

In my course on Alain Robbe-Grillet at the University of Wisconsin, the prof avoided themes of eroticism probed by The Paris Review. “My own erotic tastes are rather sadistic,” he told the interviewer, “I can’t give you more details but you can have fun with the idea.” Ever the agent provocateur. And when asked about the difference between eroticism and pornography, Robbe-Grillet replied, “Pornography is the eroticism of others … In eroticism, there is a critical distance and a judgment on sexual impulses, while pornography is the absence of judgment.”

Eve Tempted by the Serpent William Blake (1757-1827), Victoria and Albert Museum.

Eve Tempted by the Serpent, William Blake (1757-1827), Victoria and Albert Museum.

Is that true surrender? Allowing for the eroticism of others? Of wives, husbands, lovers, strangers, occasional others, and ourselves? Submitting to unrehearsed passions, desires and deviations? Kicking away the comfort of beliefs gone stale? Always keeping the door open a crack?

When asked if he had been tempted to write for the theater, the contentious author, unconventional lover, and instigator of literary movements answered, “I can’t fulfill all my temptations, can I?”

But temptation isn’t love. Real sex is penetration not presentation. Complicity is lying.

And yet …