"Some toys are dangerous."
Venus in Furs by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch
The term masochism was coined in 1890 by Kraft Ebbing, the author of Psychopathia Sexualis ( I have copy printed in English in 1903). The name came from Sacher-Masoch who detailed in his stories the desire to be bound, whipped, insulted, and enslaved by a beautiful and haughty woman of aristocratic bearing. Although Ebbing thought these desires to be anomalous, they were later revealed to be quite common, or at least more common than Ebbing would have supposed. Several cases in later editions of Psychopathia Sexualis drew inspiration from Sacher-Masoch work. In the 12th edition case 57 explicitedly stated he wanted to find a woman like Sacher-Masoch's heroines, case 68 a young artist thought only women of the nature depicted in Sacher Masoch's works would be able to charm him, and case 80 actually went so far as to correspond with Sacher-Masoch about his foot fetish.
Although his work was influential in terms of modern psychology, very few of his works appear in translation. I myself have been trying to find a copy of his story The Black Tsarina in which a female paramour of the Tsar is given power over him for a single day. But I recently found a rather nice translation of Venus in Furs and read it.
The story begins with a rather tradition Victorian set up, an unidentified narrator has a dream of a statue of Venus curled up in front 0f his fire. He relates the dream to his friend Severin who then hands over a memoir. The memoir constitutes the majority of the text. The use of a false memoir is a fairly standard framing device for Victorian literature. Frankenstein made use of several different types of memoir: Dr. Frankenstein's journal and the captain's log. Dracula is patched together from several different narratives mainly Harker's journal, news articles, and Mina's journal. The advantage of several memoirs spliced is that it gives different perspectives on the text. Here it is a single perspective.
The memoir tells the story of Severin's love of the young rich widow Wanda Dunajew. Severin's love of Wanda is intense, and he asks her either to be his wife or be his ideal: a haughty woman who treats him like a slave. The acknowledgement of there being a difference between his ideal woman and his ideal wife is unusual for the time period. Even more unusually, Wanda accepts, at first reluctantly, the role of ideal woman. Initially she several times asks Severin to leave off of his "insane" desire, but he will brook no middle ground. She must choose her role and continue with it.
Wanda decides that she and Severin must leave and go to Italy where he knows no one and therefore can truly be enslaved by her. She alternates between cruel mistress and loving paramour. For example after leaving him trapped in a dungeon tied up without food or water, she enters, saying "Are you sick? Your eyes are glowing so intensely. Do you love me? I want you to love me" (85). Her alternation makes it impossible to know which is her true self. Is she the cruel mistress who orders Severin to drive her to an assignation with another man to flaunt her power? Or is she, as she points out, playing a role so as to keep him? "I have to have admirers so I won't lose you. I never want to lose you, never, do you hear?" (86)
One of the failures of the text is that Wanda's character changes suddenly and because it is Severin's narrative, it is impossible to tell when this change takes place.After telling him she wishes to love only him, within twenty pages she has not only lost her love of him, but she is willing to give Severin up for the love of a young Greek noble man. The transformation is sudden and doesn't feel entirely real. This problem is compounded by the ending. Wanda tells Severin that her Greek will not accept Severin's presence in her household. Severin becomes enraged saying, "'If you become his wife, I'll kill you'...I clutched her and held her tight, and my right hand automatically reached for the dagger in my belt" (110). Wanda instantly transforms again, "'You appeal to me like this,' she said coolly 'Now you're a man, and I know at this moment I still love you'" (110). She claims that everything up until this moment has been a sham to incite his love. She proclaims they will leave Italy together and get married, a regular marriage, now that she has "cured" him of his desire.
But the following day after she has made all her good-byes, she asks to whip him. He agrees, but from behind a curtain the Greek emerges and whips Severin for Wanda's entertainment. Then the Greek and Wanda leave together. Was this Wanda's plan all along? Did she pretend to love Severin just to get him into this tableaux? Was she genuine in her conversation with Severin and then reconverted to cruelty by the Greek? Because it is Severin's narrative, the reader can not know. However, Severin is "cured" if his fantasy, and he visits upon women the same haughty disdain that Wanda once was visited upon him.
At the conclusion of the story, the anonymous narrator asks Severin what the moral of his story is. Severin replies, "The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be his slave or his despet, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work"(119). His conclusion, that woman can only be equal when she achieves financial, legal, and educational equality is curious. Wanda is richer than Severin although Severin is aristocracy. Certainly she IS his equal financially and educationally, yet she still wishes to be dominanted by a man. Severin also seems perfectly happy to remain despot over his female servants. He, although he thinks himself cured, is merely a creature of extremes. He has gone from slave to master, not from extreme to equal.
In addition, the suddenness of the ending, the "cure" does not seem true. This is perhaps because Sacher-Masoch himself was never "cured" and could not imagine what life would be like without this domination. Or more likely such a normal life did not capture his imagination. Once the final confrontation between Severin and Wanda is over, he added a conclusion to the story because he had to, but it didn't have the same sway over him as writing about Severin's first encounter with Wanda in the garden at night.
Venus in Furs
Gracious, devilish, mythical lady.
Put your foot upon your slave,
Stretching out your marble body
Under myrtles and agaves.

Comments: Post a Comment

    This page is powered by 
Blogger. Isn't yours?