by Nicolas Veroli

The Sexual Life of Catherine M.
by Catherine Millet

(Grove Press) $23

Between the moment you are ejected from your mother's womb, screaming and covered in blood, and the moment you die, groaning and on your way back to the primal muck, you have to find some way of passing the time. That is the human condition and there is no haggling with it. Some people get into politics or art or they go bowling. Catherine Millet picked sex as her existential hobby and that is what she writes about in her memoir, The Sexual Life of Catherine M.

Sex is frequently more boring than tying your shoe. This is the perennial problem of erotism. There are, after all, only so many positions one can adopt, so many exotic sites in which one can do it, so many sex toys. What's more, all of the rituals we invent around these variations lead, more or less, to the same conclusion--over and over again, one brief moment of pleasure. Sex is based on a dreadfully monotonous repetition and this is surely the origin of so much unfaithfulness: Lovers, after some time, discover each other as boring and begin looking for greener pastures, as though they hoped exchanging the body of their beloved for a newer model would make any but the most temporary difference.

The alternative to this hedonistic path is that of the moralist. The moralist assigns to sex a deeply redemptive function: Sex saves. Or rather it has a necessary affective significance that makes the collision between any two random particles, anywhere in the cosmos, sacred. In short, love is supposed to save sex from both profaneness and profanity. But, of course, since that is not the case, since sex is nothing but a frenetic pantomime the meaning of which depends strictly on the intentions of the parties involved, the moralist is bound to disappointment: He curses humanity for its fallenness and sings the praises of the one true path. He writes romance novels and treatises on "sex addiction" without realizing that they are so many admissions of the utterly compromised nature of his position.

The moralist thus fails as lamentably as the hedonist in resolving the problem of erotism. Enter Catherine Millet, who attempts to provide her own answer to this problem. In doing so she follows a long tradition of erotic aestheticism: to make the exchange of fluids into a work of art rather than a hunt for variety or a quest for redemption. The title of her book, The Sexual Life of Catherine M., is at once reminiscent of several other classics in this tradition: My Secret Life, the 11-volume meticulous record of an anonymous Victorian gentleman's sexual escapades, published at the end of the 19th century, and Story of O, a novel published in the mid- '70s by the pseudonymous author "Pauline Réage," who tells the story of a young woman called "O" and of her quest for sexual humiliation.

At once, however, the singularity of Millet's vision is apparent, for she does not, like the author of My Secret Life, present her account as a story lived in the first person, told "from the inside" so to speak, but rather as an objective or scientific case study--"The Sexual Life of..."--reminiscent of such classics as Sigmund Freud's The Case of Anna O. or Bronislaw Malinowski's The Sexual Life of Savages in North-Western Melanesia.

Nor, unlike Réage's Story of O, is this a fictional tale spun by a pseudonymous author. On the contrary, it is an explicitly autobiographical account by a fairly famous intellectual personality (Millet is a well-known art critic in France), though one that is told in the mode of anonymity. For it is not Millet who is the protagonist of this memoir of a sex life, but her alter ego, "Catherine M."

It is precisely those characteristics--impersonality and anonymity--that hold the key to Millet's attempts at solving the problem of erotism. Impersonality because sexual coupling is considered, in the Milletian erotics, in abstraction from the moralist's concept of love: Sex is neither about personal redemption nor about grasping the truth or the essence of the beloved (that famous "soul mate"). It is not so much that Millet has never fallen in love but that Catherine M. has never really associated sex and love: "Feeling desire and having sex were almost two separate activities; I could want a man very much and feel no frustration if nothing ever actually happened."

Anonymity is the other central postulate of the Milletian erotic sensibility. It goes hand in hand with impersonality but is distinct from it; whereas impersonality collapses the ego or reaches to a pre-personal level--the level of the phantasm that guides all of our copulatory behaviors, from the most twisted to the most abjectly normal--anonymity dictates a principle of combination, the purpose of which is to organize a material community of bodies. In fact, and this is perhaps what is most striking about Millet's account, sex appears quite frequently as a blissful alternative to the difficulties of conversation. It is a tool for the construction of an alternative sort of community, based not on a consensus of minds but on a convergence of bodies, their articulation into giant networks of flesh.

Does Millet successfully resolve the problem of erotism? I am not sure. On the one hand, her experimental attitude certainly leads her into interesting places. On the other, the book as a whole does tend toward the monotonous and the repetitive, as is frequently the case with erotic literature: It never seems to completely extirpate from itself a fascination with the mechanics of it all.

One final note: In spite of the blurbs and the reviews that try to convince you otherwise, there's nothing particularly French about Millet's book. It's about her, not about the French in general. To assume otherwise would be about equivalent to supposing that Pat Robertson is a faithful stand-in for all Americans. If French fucking is what you're looking for, I recommend consulting a tourist guide. I should know: I am French.