was with Paris when he gave the fateful apple to Venus,
I saw Troy burn, and followed Ulysses on his wanderings."
in Furs was part of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s The
Legacy of Cain, a planned six volume series of short
stories. Only two volumes were completed, as Sacher-Masoch
abandoned the idea in the middle of the 1880’s, but
Venus in Furs arrived in the world in 1870. Centuries
later, it is considered a classic work that explores
power exchange from the eyes of its submissive male
protagonist, Severin. The story inspired psychiatrist
Krafft-Ebing. He coined the term 'masochism', and
the novel been a source of inspiration for contemporary
lyricists and filmmakers.
reviews note Severin’s preference to be dominated
by woman from the outset, but this view is simplistic,
and often attaches to the contemporary S & M scene,
which did not exist (in its current formation) during
Sacher-Masoch’s time, as a scene that operates on definitive
categories: sub, Dom, Domme, and so on. Severin appears at the beginning
of this novel, as an older man who has shifted roles.
His masochistic preference does not manifest in the
opening of the novel; Severin seen brandishing
a whip (kantechuk) to his maid, telling his male visitor
that one needs to be cruel in order to keep her gender
at bay, thus raising the issue of gender conflict
and power exchange:
at the woman,” he replied, blinking humorously with
his eyes. “Had I flattered her, she would have cast
the noose around my neck, but now, when I bring her
up with the kantchuk, she adores me.”
“Nonsense nothing. That is the way you have to break
“Well if you like it, live like a pasha in your harem,
but don’t lay down theories for me…”
“Why not,” he said animatedly. “Goethe’s ‘you must
be hammer or anvil’ is absolutely appropriate to the
relation between man and woman.”
Venus in Furs isn’t a definitive manifesto on psychiatric
anomaly or BDSM role types, but an intrepid exploration
of power exchange, or the struggle to maintain an
ideal quantity; love is the ideal that Severin wrestles.
He is the alchemist pursuing the panacea, or elixir
of life. This novel explores the length one will go
to forge an everlasting love or relationship. Severin
makes one exception, and that exception is Wanda von
Dunajew, the beguiling roguish widow, who represents
the alpha and omega of love within his tormented mind.
Wanda strips Severin to his elementary particles;
he steps down to a subservient role, accepts a change
of name, and endures Wanda’s wanderlust and existentialism.
and Wanda are not members of a predefined social group.
Their journey doesn’t wholly conform to today’s BDSM
scene. Severin doesn’t intentionally seek domination;
he is a dilettante.
the beginning of his account or diary, he is in a
state of flux. He isn’t dominant or submissive. He
is a mere vessel, questioning his vocation and talents.
He is like any one questioning the path of life, and
the promise it may hold. He takes a sabbatical, relocating
to an idyllic setting, which offers little inspiration.
He meets Wanda and his world alters; each forward
step tests his limits, and unravels his persona. What
of novella’s author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and
the elements that inspired him to construct an unforgettable,
if not arresting, romance?
Ellis (Studies on the Psychology of Sex: Volume 3),
explored von Sacher-Masoch’s background, providing
a vivid image of von Sacher-Masoch’s interests, life,
society and events that shaped his writings:
a child, he was greatly attracted by representations
of cruelty; he loved to gaze at pictures of executions,
the legends of martyrs were his favorite reading,
and with the onset of puberty he regularly dreamed
that he was fettered and in the power of a cruel woman
who tortured him. It has been said by an anonymous
author that the women of Galicia either rule their
husbands entirely and make them their slaves or themselves
sink to be the wretchedest of slaves. At the age of
10, according to Schlichtegroll’s narrative, the child
Leopold witnessed a scene in which a woman of the
former kind, a certain Countess Xenobia X., a relative
of his own on the paternal side, played the chief
part, and this scene left an undying impress on his
imagination. The Countess was a beautiful but wanton
creature, the child adored her, impressed alike by
her beauty and the costly furs she wore. She accepted
his devotion and little services and would sometimes
allow him to assist her in dressing; on one occasion,
as he was kneeling before her to put on her ermine
slippers, he kissed her feet; she smiled and gave
him a kick which filled him with pleasure.”
is interesting to note that the elements in Venus
in Furs mimicked Sacher-Masoch’s life; he married
a woman who performed a role similar to Wanda. He
is known to have entered a slave-mistress arrangement.
path to pleasure is as individual as a fingerprint.
Venus in Furs is the polar opposite of contemporary
romantic literature. Severin isn’t introduced as a
prepackaged quantity, or a man who has achieved impressive
wealth at a stupendous, if not unrealistic, age. He
can be any man at life’s crossroads: vulnerable, ambitious,
and ambivalent. Severin feels walls closing in, whereas
recently widowed Wanda is wriggling out of society’s
corset. Their volatility is sharp and subtle; Goethe’s
observation looms in the background, like a subtle
musk: Hammer or anvil?
in Furs can be either hammer or anvil: daunting, arresting,
unforgettable, and controversial. Sacher-Masoch deftly
illustrates the malleability of the human spirit,
and most importantly, free will.
2007 Anastasia Mavromatis