Friday, 15 March 2013

VENUS IN FURS: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch

Titian (artist)
Italian, c. 1490 - 1576
Venus with a Mirror, c. 1555
oil on canvas
National Gallery, London

“From the man after whom "masochism" was named comes a sexual fetish novel inspired by the author’s own life.”

Venus with a Mirror, by Titian is the image from which Severin gets the idea of Venus in furs.

“Slavery is a vocation comparable and equal in everyway to any religious calling.”

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836 – 1895) was an Austrian writer and journalist who embraced utopian thinking; socialism and humanism were the ideals that human beings should aim for. Von Sacher-Masoch was born in a province of the Austrian Empire and studied law and history. He became a man of letters and an editor of a progressive magazine. He is best known for writing a series of short stories that expressed his fantasies and fetishes. The term ‘masochism’ was derived from his name by the  psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing.

Venus in furs is the best known of his works; it is the only piece of his work to be translated into English. The novella was intended to be part of an epic series that Sacher-Masoch envisioned called Legacy of Cain. Venus in Furs was just one part of “Love”; the first volume of the series. It was published in 1870.

Sacher-Masoch’s novella reads like an instruction manual for Dominants and submissives. The narrative concerns a man who dreams of speaking to Venus about love while the goddess wears furs. The unnamed narrator tells his dreams to a friend, Severin, who tells him how to break his fascination with cruel women by reading a manuscript, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.

Severin, the protagonist of the manuscript, is infatuated with Wanda von Dunajew. Wanda is not only beautiful, but wealthy. All that Severin asks of her is that she treats him brutally. He wants to be abused emotionally and physically. Throughout the novella Severin encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways. He is routinely whipped and humiliated.

At first Wanda does not understand or accede to the request, but after humouring Severin, she finds the advantages of the method to be interesting and enthusiastically embraces the idea, although at the same time she disdains Severin for allowing her to do so.

Severin describes his feelings during these experiences as suprasensuality.

Leaving the Carpathian mountains for Florence, Wanda makes Severin dress and act like a common servant, forcing him to sleep in disgusting quarters and keeping him isolated from her company unless needed to serve some whim or another. These changes make Severin feel the palpable reality of his desires. They are a reality that he was in no way prepared for; while he loathes his detestable new position, he finds himself unable to resist, and to keep from requesting new humiliations. At times Wanda offers to put an end to their game, because she still has feelings of affection toward him, but those feelings fade as her mantle of power gives her free rein to use Severin for her increasingly twisted device. In Florence, Wanda recruits a trio of African women to dominate him.

"To be the slave of a woman, a beautiful woman, whom I love, whom I worship - !"
"And who mistreats you for it," Wanda broke in, laughing.
"Yes, who ties me up and whips me, who kicks me when she belong to another man."

The relationship arrives at a crisis when Wanda herself meets a man to whom she would like to submit, a Byronic hero known as Alexis Papadopolis. At the end of the book, Severin, humiliated by Wanda's new lover, loses the desire to submit.

 Sacher-Masoch makes it absolutely clear that Severin’s life has no apparent shape or meaning unless he is able to express his desire for a commanding, withholding woman. The electrical charge that Severin feels when he kneels at a woman’s feet, sensing her anger and the bristling of the furs she wears, gives him his identity; a presence to be trampled on.

Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch drew from his own masochistic experience with Baroness Fanny Von Pistor. He agreed to be her slave, and renounce all claim on his own life; she could even kill him if she wished, and this is reflected in Venus in Furs. The "contract" gives Wanda, or "Mistress" free rein to make Severin suffer in a variety of ways; whipping him regularly, kicking him around, starving him, torturing him emotionally. And Severin is in his element. In fact, he begs her to punish him "I want to be your dog". As long as she wears her furs whilst doing it, he is happy and fulfilled.

I enjoyed Venus in Furs. I had to keep reminding myself that it was written in 1869. Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s prose style is relaxed and he deals with intense needs and desires in an impersonal, matter of fact manner. Submission was Sacher-Masoch’s own fetish and he voices startlingly modern sentiments. It is a passionate and powerful portrayal of one man's struggle to enlighten and instruct himself, and others in the realm of desire.

As writers of erotica I think that there is a lot we can learn from Sacher-Masoch. He places the darker side of desire unequivocally at the heart of any discussion about sadomasochism. In writing about his own fetish he is stating his position quite clearly. This is what I am; get used to it!

He manages to convey an erotic experience, an erotic journey without a single prick, cock, cum, pussy, cunt, fanny, erection or genitalia. He has a unique sense of imagery; he writes in a visual way which has made the book accessible to stage and film adaptations.

So should I take Sacher-Masoch’s book as literature or as psychology --or as erotica? It doesn’t matter; there’s no question that this book, has left a distinct mark on my own imagination. Highly recommended!

 'Venus in Furs' arrived at my home, delivered by mail. A gift from my dear, sweet friend Jan Vander Laenen! Thank you Jan!

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