Strike, Dear Mistress, and Cure His Heart:
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs
Originally Published on About.com’s Classic Literature Page
Not many writers have the distinction—or the notoriety—of having a psycho-sexual term named after them. The astonishing and ingenious sexual cruelties in the Marquis de Sade’s works—particularly in The 120 Days of Sodom—have made his name a byword, and in 1890 the German psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing introduced the word “sadism” into medical terminology, even though the sole manuscript of The 120 Days of Sodom had yet to be discovered and published, the full fury of which would come to wildly intensify the meaning of the term. Fittingly in the shadow of the overpowering de Sade, the Austrian writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch inspired the term for sadism’s flip-side, masochism, which was also introduced by Krafft-Ebing. Von Sacher-Masoch was a historian, folklorist, collector of stories, and progressive thinker of the mid-to-late 1900s, but even though he produced dozens of books in any number of genres, he’s almost solely known for his infamous novella Venus in Furs.
Initially meant to be part of an epic novel-sequence called The Legend of Cain, whose grandiose plan von Sacher-Masoch abandoned after a few volumes, Venus in Furs was published as the fourth part of the first book, which was entitled Love. Each book was named after one of the “evils” that Cain introduced into the world, and with this underlying premise—that love is an evil—von Sacher-Masoch reveals a seriously uneasy view of human relations. Venus in Furs is the only work of von Sacher-Masoch’s to be translated into English, and as even people who haven’t read the book know, its fame is certainly not because it’s about love.
The book starts with an epigraph from the biblical book of Judith—a book that narrates the story of a clever and powerful woman beheading Holofernes, an Assyrian general—and then opens into an unnamed narrator’s strange dream of an icy Venus who wears furs and who leads a philosophical discussion about how women’s cruel nature increases man’s desire. When the narrator awakens, he goes to meet with his friend Severin, to whom he relates his dream. Severin is a strange and sober man who at times, the narrator relates, “had violent attacks of sudden passion and gave the impression of being about to ram his head right through a wall.” Noticing a painting in Severin’s room depicting a northern Venus who wears furs and holds a lash that she uses to subjugate a man who is clearly a younger Severin himself, the narrator wonders aloud if the painting perhaps inspired his dream. After a short discussion, a young woman enters to bring tea and food for the pair, and to the narrator’s astonishment, a very slight offense on the woman’s part causes Severin to berate, whip, and chase her from the room. Explaining that you have to “break” a woman rather than let her break you, Severin produces a manuscript from his desk that tells how he was ostensibly “cured” of his obsession with being dominated by women.
Entitled “Confessions of a Suprasensual Man,” this manuscript comprises all but the last few pages of the rest of the novel. Entering into this frame, the narrator (and the reader) finds Severin at a Carpathian health resort where he meets and falls in love with a woman named Wanda, with whom he draws up and signs a contract that makes him her legal slave and gives her full power over him. At first, because she seems to like him and enjoy his company, Wanda shies away from the degradations that Severin asks her to subject him to, but as she slowly allows herself to take up her dominant role, she takes greater pleasure in torturing him and increasingly grows to despise him for how he allows her to treat him.
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, a reality that he was in no way prepared for, but although 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 devices.
The breaking point comes when Wanda finds a nearly superhuman lover in Florence and decides to make Severin subject to him as well. Unable to bear subjugation to another man, Severin ultimately finds himself “cured” of his need to be dominated by women. Telescoping back to the novel’s outer frame, the narrator, who’s seen Severin’s current cruelty toward women, asks him for “the moral” to all of this, and Severin answers that a woman can only be a man’s slave or despot, adding the caveat that this imbalance can only be remedied “when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work.”
|Charlotte Rampling as Venus in Furs,|
by Helmut Newton, 1973
This egalitarian last touch squares with von Sacher-Masoch’s socialist leanings, but clearly the events and stresses of the novel—which were mirrored closely in von Sacher-Masoch’s personal life, both before and after writing it—prefer wallowing in inequity much more that eradicating it. And this has been the novel’s main appeal for readers ever since. Unlike the works of the great de Sade, which soar as striking feats of both writing and imagination, Venus in Furs is much more of a masochistic sex fantasy than an artistic piece of literature. Its symbolic orders are muddled; its philosophical excursions are both ponderous and corny; and although its characters are vivid and memorable, they too often fall into “types” rather than exist as fully explored individuals. Still, it’s a curious and often enjoyable read, and whether you take it as literature or as psychology—or as erotica—there’s no question that this book’s whip will leave a distinct mark on your imagination.