This week I’m reviewing the book that spawned the word “masochism.” There’s a curious interrelation between cruelty and sex. Everyone surreptitiously wants to be treated like shit sometimes—especially Austrian history professors from the 19th century.
You have to admire the balls on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Imagine: in 1870, while his peers were wearing terrifying masturbation-inhibitors and penis clamps and Rousseau was whining about going to hell for stealing apples, this guy signed a legal contract with his lover to act as her slave. One of its stipulations was that for every crime of lese-majeste, the prototypical dominatrix would punish him with a cat o’ nine tails.
Sacher-Masoch then wrote about it in his novel, Venus in Furs, the dreamiest recounting of masochistic fantasies you’ll ever (not) read. Sure, you can find traces of sexual savagery everywhere from Dostoevsky to Joyce, but none will be as savagely beautiful as this. Lou Reed called it “the funniest dirty book he’d ever read,” and the “Severin,” who Lou references in the fifth verse of his song, "Venus in Furs," is actually the name of the anguished protagonist.
Severin realizes an important lesson early on:
“the more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him…the worse she uses him…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.”
In other words, the worse you treat them, the more they adore you—if that sounds familiar, it’s probably because Tucker Max has been proselytizing his disciples with the same message through his asinine fratire for the last ten years.
Unlike Tucker, however, Severin thinks of beautiful women as poetically demonic goddesses, with men as their priests and slaves. He compares his appetite for degradation and abuse to the afflictions of holy martyrs, who similarly “sought out the most frightful tortures, even death itself, as others seek joy.” After entreating the object of his infatuation—a woman named Wanda—to become his wife, Severin gradually convinces her to also treat him as her slave.
She agrees to embody his ideal, but not before warning that their experiment will only end with her becoming a “despot in miniature, a domestic Pompadour.” Then the wild ride begins, with cameo appearances by slave “negresses” who perform a number of creative maltreatments, including: thrashing him while he’s tied to a pillar, poking him with golden hair needles, and (my favorite) driving him through the field, harnessed to a plough, with a yoke around his neck and whips upon his back.
After a few months of cruelty, however, Wanda admits her heart is both void and dead. She says to Severin, “your love doesn’t mean any more to me than a dog’s, and dogs are kicked.” Then, she pulls her final act: after tying him to the bed, her other lover pops out from behind the posts and takes over the whipping while she laughs, reclining on the ottoman. Poor Severin nearly dies of shame and despair.
The most surprising part of this deliciously twisted retro-romance is its proto-feminist conclusion. Severin mournfully realizes at the end that women and men are doomed to be enemies—she can only be his slave or his despot. Companionship can only be achieved when “she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.”
Which is not to say that this novel deflates into some lame social announcement; it continuously brings up interesting ways to think about female-male power dynamics, as well as the mechanics of masochism. At one point, Wanda muses that “our unnatural way of life must generate such illnesses,” suggesting that the 19th century’s rapid industrialization might be the cause of sexual perversity. Masochism, then, is simply an “unsatisfied craving for the nudity of paganism,” and a need to return to Dionysian roots.
Rating: 5 Dildos. Goethe once said, “be the anvil or the hammer.” Love is cruel, and whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped. Top or bottom—which are you gonna be tonight?
Previously - Burn