June 2004

Julie Boulanger

la marquise

The "M" in S/M

Many are aware that the term “sadism” originates from the name of the Marquis de Sade, the 18th century author who spent many years of his life incarcerated, either in prison or in an insane asylum, for his outrageous lifestyle and even more outrageous erotic publications. Fewer are aware of the origins of the term masochism, the identity generally, and falsely, considered as the sadist’s complement. Yet the masochist is not a Justine type character, held and tortured against their will. The masochist is a teacher, in control of his fantasies, which are usually quite defined and thought-out, and is a stickler to the law of mutual understanding, usually authenticated with a contract. There is no better way to explore the masochist personae than to go straight to the source of its definition: Leopold Sacher-Masoch. Like the word sadism, masochism originates from the name of the man who first penned a masochistic character.

Sacher-Masoch was a renowned 19th century Austrian novelist. Unlike Sade, his reputation was not solely based on his outrageous writings. Sacher-Masoch was a history teacher of noble descent and was politically active, especially with issues concerning lower and/or agricultural classes. He began writing historical fictions but his more erotic works received most acclaim, especially because of their highly autobiographical nature. Venus in Furs is his best known novel.

The novel begins with its own fictitious preface. A man, speaking in the first person singular, is describing a scene with a woman who is wrapped in a huge, dark fur covering. They are seated by a fire place, she lounged out on a sofa and he on the floor at her feet. They are discussing their relationship. The man is then awoken by his servant (it was all a dream) reminding him that he has an appointment with a friend of his. It's while speaking of his dream to his friend that he realizes that the woman in it is the same one portrayed in a painting that hangs in his friend’s study. He inquires about her. Severin, his friend, offers him a manuscript based on his journal entries that explains the story behind the woman from the painting, his Venus in furs.

Here begins the novel’s true story, which is none other than that of a courtship. Severin, who is several years younger than in the preface, is vacationing at a luxurious hostel far from any signs of civilization. There he meets and falls in love with Wanda, a beautiful fellow vacationer. Their courtship is described with much detail, as they both define for the other the type of lover they wish to have. Wanda, not at all a cruel woman, wishes a strong man who can put her in her place, yet she is very attracted to Severin’s intellectual strengths and his sensuality. Severin, on the other hand, seeks a domineering woman whom he can dress up in furs and worship. He wants to be her slave, to be at her beck-and-call and to be chastised by whipping if he should disobey her (or if it gives her pleasure). He wants their relationship (mistress/slave) to be expressed in a contract of ownership, bounding him to her service. His biggest fantasy is to be cockled by her with a strong and virile man, the result of which would be an ultimate form of humiliation. Though this type of relationship is not Wanda’s ideal, out of affection for Severin she decides to play along. Their adventure leads them from Vienna to Florence where they live out a strict mistress/slave relationship up until the day Wanda, despite her emotions for Severin, can no longer bring herself to properly play her role. She feels that a slave could never be her ideal husband. After tricking Severin at his own game, she flees.

Venus in Furs is the type of book that confounds the term "erotic." The entire novel is sexual and erotic, yet due to the heavy censorship of the time there is not one explicit sex scene. The torture scenes are also deviated. Tied naked to a post, between two slashes from his mistress’ lover, Severin’s thoughts are explored more than his punishment and his physical sensations. Also, most of the story revolves around Severin and Wanda working out the terms of their relationship. The most intimate scenes are usually conversational. There is nothing voyeuristic about this novel. If one has read Sade and expects something similar from Sacher-Masoch, please be forewarned that they are nothing alike. Sade reads like a cruel fairytale. Sacher-Masoch reads like a romance novel.

Reading Venus in Furs, a relatively light read as many romance novels tend to be, reveals much about our present stereotypes of S/M, and how masochism and sadism are not complementary. A masochist would be offended and threatened by the sadist’s institution of violence while the sadist would be impassive of the masochist’s need of lawful understanding. We can deduce that even the S/M world’s motto “safe, sane and consensual” comes from the masochist’s language and not the sadistic one. Also, Severin and Wanda’s passion strangely resembles any other one except for the fact that it spells out the need to worship instead of covering it up with words like love and fidelity. Last, we tend to see the masochist as a victim, yet Severin is never victimized. Quite the contrary, he does his utmost to be the master of his destiny. If you look at it that way, it kind of makes you wonder: maybe we are all much more masochistic than we’d like to believe.

Note: The edition I read included Deleuze’s introduction to Venus and Furs entitled "The Cold and the Cruel." I recommend it to all and anybody who wishes to learn more about the masochistic language and does not shy away in the face of psychoanalysis.

Venus in Furs by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch
Penguin
ISBN: 0140447814
144 Pages