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Hammer and Anvil: Venus in Furs
Essay by Anastasia Mavromatis

"I was with Paris when he gave the fateful apple to Venus, I saw Troy burn, and followed Ulysses on his wanderings." - Severin

Venus 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.

Some 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:

“Look 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!”
“Nonsense nothing. That is the way you have to break in women.”
“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.”

Thus, 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.

Severin 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.

At 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?

Havelock 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:

“As 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.”

It 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.

The 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?

Venus 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

Anastasia enjoys writing erotic, literary and mainstream fiction. She also has a penchant for horror. Her work has appeared in publications such as Scarlet Magazine (UK), Oysters & Chocolate, and Good Vibrations. She currently divides her time between work, publishing Lucrezia Magazine, her blog and other writing projects. Her erotic story, the Art of War, will appear in the February 2008 issue of Scarlet Magazine. She currently resides in Sydney, Australia.

Venus in Furs (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch) can be purchased at most book outlets.