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On Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch



27 May 2023


On Venus in Furs


So Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch was a little-known Austrian literary whose flame died out before it could be fanned to conflagration. He wrote a lot, but most of what he wrote he did so for monetary gain, and thus his writing was much like what we’d see on news media today: fantastical and biased, thus lacking clout or value. These writings have largely fallen to the wayside.


What Sacher-Masoch is best known for is this novella, Venus in Furs, which in the Introduction Fernanda Savage claims is a deep-dive into the psychology of sexual masochism. Sacher-Masoch = masochism. Whyyy did it take me so long to realize that Leo is the father of masochism? Slay, Leo. Okay, but I’d disagree with Savage on this point: it is just one man’s psychological experience of sexual masochism. In that, it is exceptionally informative; however, in today’s culture, where it is far less taboo to talk about BDSM, I’ve learned that every flavor of kink is unique. This is not the psychology of masochism writ large; it is the psychology of masochism per one man’s experience. Again, not uninformative in its limitations—nevertheless, limited.


Sacher-Masoch received much blowback from the publication of this little story. It’s been banned, obviously, especially in the US. But why? Because American culture is prudish, unimaginative, and repressed. Because our institutions, to retain our compliance, require our ignorance. Freedom of thought, the understanding of our own psychology and impulses, might lead to suspicions about our suppressors (church, government, education, consumerism, etc.). They might lose control. Whatever. None of this is news to you, I’m sure.


The book’s premises (two, it seems) can be found in the prologue (our narrator’s dream) and the epilogue (Severin’s final words to our narrator)…


Prologue: “They are based on the experience of thousands of years,” [Venus] replied ironically, while her white fingers played over the dark fur. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.” (4)


Here we see clearly Sacher-Masoch’s faith that any so-called “love” or “commitment” between a man and a woman must necessitate a power struggle. This is reinforced at the end, as Severin tells our narrator, when he asks, “But the moral?”:


“That woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.” (144)


Okay. This second spin I find more interesting: it accounts more for the state of civilization than the former. In Venus’s quote, above, we are given to believe that this power struggle is elemental to the nature of women and man. In the latter, Sacher-Masoch admits that this struggle is influenced by culture—and that it might change over time if/when women are less subjugated by men. Pretty damn forward-thinking, Sacher-Masoch! Bravo.


In truth, Wanda highlights this same message straightaway from the beginning. She throws under the bright lamp of scrutiny the concept of Christian marriage insofar, specifically, as it invents immortality and vice:


“…It is only man’s egoism which wants to keep woman like some buried treasure. All endeavors to introduce permanence in love, the most changeable thing in this changeable human existence, have gone shipwreck in spite of religious ceremonies, vows, and legalities. Can you deny that our Christian world has given itself over to corruption?”


“But—”


“But you are about to say, in the individual who rebels against the arrangements of society is ostracized, branded, stoned. So be it. I am willing to take the risk; my principles are very pagan. I will live my own life as it pleases me. I am willing to do without your hypocritical respect; I prefer to be happy. The inventors of the Christian marriage have done well, simultaneously to invent immortality. I, however, have no wish to live eternally. When with my last breath everything as far as Wanda von Dunajew is concerned comes to an end here below, what does it profit me whether my pure spirit joins the choirs of angels, or whether my dust goes into the formation of new beings? Shall I belong to one man whom I don’t love, merely because I have once loved him? No, I do not renounce; I love everyone who pleases me, and give happiness to everyone who loves mee. Is that ugly? No, it is more beautiful by far, than if cruelly I enjoy the tortures, which my beauty excites, and virtuously reject the poor fellow who is pining away for me. I am young, rich, and beautiful, and I live serenely for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment.” (20-21)


Agh, okay. There’s so much for me to unpack here. First, in this story she calls herself, more than once, a Hedonist. And maybe—maybe that’s true. At least, it seems to be true at the outset. Toward the end, she does become quite cruel toward Severin. Hedonism to me is an embodiment of pleasure; to me, Hedonism does not encompass taking pleasure at someone else’s expense. But maybe I need to do more research on Hedonism.


This leads me to acknowledge that there’s something inherently Buddhist in this citation: first, in the sense that morality is a construct—that society’s/Christianity’s morals are in some ways quite arbitrary and terribly limiting. Like, there is a voice inside of me that calls: if the things I do bring joy and no harm, then why are they considered wrong/immoral/sinful? One of my favorite tenets of Buddhism is that nothing is inherently good/evil, but that we should wish to alleviate suffering as the highest form of virtue. In this, the nature of Severin’s agreement with Wanda, expressly to induce suffering (as virtue), confounds. Although I am inclined to call it “unvirtuous” per Buddhist standards, still I cannot: the compulsion appears to be founded in psychological disorder—as I’ll address later—and disorder cannot be aligned with vice/virtue since it is “dis-order,” right? It is not a strictly natural/healthy state and likely informed by trauma.


But it’s Wanda’s startlingly Buddhist grasp of impermanence that engaged me most. Severin’s submission to Wanda is predicated on one horribly toxic misbelief: that it is possible to keep/own another human being. The truth too few people want to acknowledge is that we cannot own anyone! Not in any healthy situation, we cannot. Each person retains their own autonomy and agency. To wish to keep them, to own them, to enslave them—is unnatural at best and destructive/deadly at worst.


A healthy understanding of impermanence can probably heal many attachment wounds. Buddhism posits that attachment, too, is impermanent. It is a choice we make, daily, to commit ourselves to a particular person. It is their choice, daily, hourly, moment-by-moment, to do the same. We cannot expect or anticipate anything beyond each moment—beyond every single now.


Christian marriage (or any similar Judeo-Christian marital institution) proposes a false sense of permanence. It presents a toxic sense of ownership and manipulative control of outcomes: you are mine for better or for worse, ‘til death do us part means that I am strapped to you, no matter what, no matter how miserable I might become with you. I cannot find this mindset healthy.


On the other hand, when we give our partner complete freedom, in full knowledge that they may leave us at any time, we give them choice. They are then able to choose us; and in that freedom, they may find that either they want to leave, or they might well find the space to grow into a more actualized version of themselves—and realize that it was the space we held for them that permitted it. Then, perhaps, they will choose to stay because that connection is healthy for them.


But too many of us fear change. We cling to certainty. We cling to people. We want reassurance of the comfortable known—even to the detriment of our health. Clinging to anything in this life is the greatest cause of suffering; if only there were some straightforward way to teach this to the masses. And yes, traditional Christian marriage reinforces all of this: clinging, control, subjugation, manipulation, toxicity, often deadly societal expectation. Don’t fret, I recognize I know myriad Christians who will argue with this; they will claim my argument as a strawman, that the institution of Christian marriage can be free and equal; nevertheless, it binds two people together for, presumably, life. How is this not ownership?


No wonder whatsoever that such commitments (faith-based and legal) lead to power struggles, right? That is not to say, however, that I think one party or the other must fall into Severin’s trap of masochism.


Is our society at a place, finally, where women are men’s equals in both education and work, such that they could find balance, man and wife--as Severin posits in the conclusion? I think so…I do. But more so for those who’ve married within the past decade or so—more so than for me. I was brought into this institution so long ago that we were not in this space, societally, as yet. Nobody I knew talked freely of sex, of women’s rights/desires, of women’s careers, of love and kink and bodies and psychology and BDSM. I envy the woman today, raised in awareness of these things—in addition to an awareness of her own inner demons—who might choose the particular flavor of her marital bonds from the outset. I dream of a society where more women choose to enter such a commitment with eyes so wide-open—not so that they might dominate their men as Wanda was cajoled to do, but rather so that they might engage in a more balanced power dynamic, as Sacher-Masoch suggests via Severin at the conclusion of this novella.


All the toxicity and jazz aside (by the way, in this day/age, such a dynamic could not be expected to exist except but that those involved were both traumatized by parents in childhood—I’d give my right arm to read Gabor Maté’s take on all this), there was just so much about the terms of Wanda and Severin’s agreement that seemed untenable. The more she hurt him, the more he was supposed to become attached to and enamored by her; yet it did not always seem that this was the case. Indeed, at times, it felt as though Severin’s ideas about the boundaries of their engagement changed or altered over time. It was my understanding, as they entered into this agreement, that Wanda should be allowed to take other lovers once she was done with Severin, but that he would be okay with this, so long as he could remain bound to her as a slave. Yet when Wanda then takes as a lover this Greek sphinxlike man, Severin loses his mind. How is this not in direct contradiction to what Severin claimed he wanted—or is that the whole point, Sacher-Masoch, that it is untenable in reality? The logic falls apart. He begs her to debase him, but then when she does, it does not seem to be the case that he really, truly loves her more for it. Ultimately, he learns to hate her.


…and likewise she learns to hate him for being so weak. Sure, she knew what she was getting into by engaging in a contract with an artist; still, when she meets any man more dominant and masculine than Severin, she is taken by that masculinity. Wanda did not enjoy wielding that power over Severin, it seems. She did it because of the contract—because she did, at one point, love him. Still, it undermined her respect for him to witness him so devoid of agency (I mean, like, duh).


Severin kept repeating this appeal: “I will do anything, only do not send me away from you.” It’s the critical call of the over-attached. We cannot sell our soul to another human being and expect not to suffer in extremes. Attachment is suffering.


Savage writes that this novella is a discourse on “the curious interrelation between cruelty and sex.” This point is interesting to me. With all that I’ve just written about cruelty, the truth is that I really do believe that masochism can be healthy in the bedroom—just not in the terms Sacher-Masoch presents here.


Sacher-Masoch’s story lacks the nuance of a sub/dom relationship that I think is actually healthy, where it falls to the dom to be cruel during critical intimate moments, but also to remedy that cruelty with equal parts authenticity, vulnerability, tenderness, and care. Severin’s contract with Wanda establishes no expectations for tenderness or care. Wanda never cares for Severin’s wounds after she inflicts them. We read nothing of her treating his injuries, either physical or emotional. Rather, when she is done hurting him, she leaves him completely alone to recover—then she often doubles-down on this by prohibiting him from seeing her for long spans of time afterward (days, weeks, even months!).


Moreover, wherever Wanda gives Severin affection, such affection falls outside their agreement! In these brief and all-too-infrequent moments she acts on her own, according to her own heart, contrary to what Severin outlined his interests to be at the beginning of their engagement. No; this is totally untenable. Nobody could survive on hate, cruelty, and malice alone—at least, I don’t think anyone healed could. Perhaps if there were still latent unresolved traumas, it might be possible. Or perhaps if the person were a psychopath of some sort.


The toxicity of this arrangement is made double-clear by Wanda’s waffling affections. One moment she loves Severin, the next she despises him. This is fueled by their agreement, by her hatred of herself for being so cruel, and by her hatred of his perceived ineptitude and weakness for allowing his own subjugation. Her affections are all over the place, and it makes me want to barf. But then, so are Severin’s. He loves her. He hates her. If this isn’t trauma-bonding, then frankly I don’t know what is.


So yeah. I guess I think Savage makes a valid point about the “curious interrelation between cruelty and sex.” That interrelation exists—undoubtedly. Moreover, I think that the interrelation can be expressed in healthy, deeply connecting ways. Nevertheless, Sacher-Masoch’s portrayal of it, again, is just one flavor of masochism—one man’s experience. This flavor I find, myself, distasteful, because it does not hold space for care, intimacy, vulnerability, and it places too high a price on the ownership/control of another human being.


Whew! Well if that wasn’t a crash-course in BDSM! Well worth the read.

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