Venus in Furs (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading) [NOOK Book]

Overview


Most of us are familiar with the term "masochism," but few have read the scandalous story that gave a name to the fetish: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz), first published in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1870. A sensational depiction of an erotic passion that defies the norms of nineteenth-century sexuality and gender, the story charts the stages of masculine obsession and collapse, leading a cultivated European aristocrat from his fantasy of abasement at the hands of a domineering ...
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Venus in Furs (Barnes & Noble Library of Essential Reading)

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Overview


Most of us are familiar with the term "masochism," but few have read the scandalous story that gave a name to the fetish: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz), first published in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1870. A sensational depiction of an erotic passion that defies the norms of nineteenth-century sexuality and gender, the story charts the stages of masculine obsession and collapse, leading a cultivated European aristocrat from his fantasy of abasement at the hands of a domineering woman to a climax of brutal physical violence. It remains a foundational work of modern culture, defining a sexual perversion while also offering a critical lens through which to view persistent structures of masculinity and power.
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Meet the Author


Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born on January 27, 1836, at the Eastern fringes of the multinational, multiethnic, and multireligious Hapsburg Empire. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism are values that underpin his writing, from his early works as an academic historian, to his sympathetic literary portrayals of Jewish ghetto life in Galicia, to his erotic fictions. At the peak of a prolific career, Sacher-Masoch was considered a Realist of the first tier and was respected and admired on the international scene by authors including Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Henrik Ibsen. In 1883, he was awarded the prestigious Cross of the Legion of Honor, but by the time of his death his reputation was compromised, in no small measure due to his name's association with the word "masochism."
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Introduction

Most of us are familiar with the term "masochism," but fewer have read the scandalous story that gave a name to the fetish: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's novella Venus in Furs (Venus im Pelz), first published in Stuttgart, Germany, in 1870. A sensational depiction of an erotic passion that defies the norms of nineteenth-century sexuality and gender, the story charts the stages of masculine obsession and collapse, leading a cultivated European aristocrat from his fantasy of abasement at the hands of a domineering woman to a climax of brutal physical violence. It remains a foundational work of modern culture, defining a sexual perversion while also offering a critical lens through which to view persistent structures of masculinity and power.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born on January 27, 1836, in the Austrian city of Lemberg (today the Ukrainian Lvov), which lay at the Eastern fringes of the multinational, multiethnic, and multireligious Hapsburg Empire. Of mixed Slavic and German heritage, Sacher-Masoch grew up in the province of Galicia speaking Polish and became fluent in German only when his father, a high-ranking civil servant, took a position in Prague in 1848. Tolerance and cosmopolitanism are values that underpin his writing, from his early works as an academic historian, to his sympathetic literary portrayals of Jewish ghetto life in Galicia, to his erotic fictions. At the peak of a prolific career, Sacher-Masoch was considered a Realist of the first tier and was respected and admired on the international scene by authors including Victor Hugo, Emile Zola, and Henrik Ibsen. The French public embraced him: In 1883, he was awarded the prestigious Cross ofthe Legion of Honor, and he was greeted as a literary star on a visit to Paris in 1886. However, by the time of his death, in 1895, in Lindheim, Germany, his fortunes had reversed, and his literary reputation was compromised. This was in no small measure due to the notoriety Sacher-Masoch's name gained from Venus in Furs and to the invention of the term "masochism."

Sacher-Masoch was the son of a prominent Austrian civil servant, Leopold von Sacher, police chief of the region around Lemberg, while his mother, Caroline Masoch, was the daughter of a prominent Ruthenian doctor. (The term "Ruthenian" refers to Ukrainian inhabitants of Galicia). Since there were no male children to continue the Masoch family line, Leopold von Sacher created a double-barreled name for his son with the addition of his father-in-law's surname. The first Sacher-Masoch studied history at Prague and Graz, earning his doctorate at the age of twenty, and for a decade he pursued an academic career in Graz and Lemberg. Writing dry academic history was not enough of a creative outlet for a writer of Sacher-Masoch's particular brand of imagination. (Readers of Venus in Furs may recall that in the frame story his narrator has fallen asleep over an unidentified volume of Hegel.) Sacher-Masoch's scholarship tends to focus on historical personalities; in particular, he concentrates on powerful females such as Catherine the Great, anticipating the obsession with female tyranny and cruelty that resurfaces in his later works. It was an instinctive turn from scholarship, which in his case had always been about colorful narrative, dominant personalities, and conflicts between individuals in historical narratives and, ultimately, in erotic fiction. Sacher-Masoch, though he was not himself Jewish, popularized the genre of the "ghetto story." Anti-Semitic conservative critics went out of their way, indeed, to label him Jewish, citing his detailed knowledge of Jewish culture in Galicia. He was influenced by literary models such as the Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, but his greatest inspiration was his upbringing in a richly multicultural region that was composed of German settlers, Austrian bureaucrats and soldiers, and Slavs and Jews (the latter formed around 10 percent of the population). Sacher-Masoch's Polish Ghetto Stories (1886) and Jewish Stories (1878) offer a sympathetic and informed view of what would have been, to most readers, closed Eastern European communities. Recently these works have renewed interest in Sacher-Masoch and some have been translated into English. Sacher-Masoch's open-minded depiction of Jewish culture, coupled with the erotic scandals provoked by several of his later works and by his own behavior, no doubt contributed to the precipitous decline in his reputation in a climate that was becoming increasingly conservative and nationalistic. To readers today, Sacher-Masoch's outlook might appear contradictory, combining as it does social progressiveness and a reactionary eroticism whose slogan is that in the eternal conflict between the sexes one must be either hammer or anvil.

In Lindheim, Sacher-Masoch continued to be active in liberal social and cultural causes. But the last decade of his life was one of social, financial, and not least personal ruin. Much of his output of erotica was written to pay off mounting debts. Though he had remarried - he legalized his relationship with his secretary Hulda Meister in 1890 -- his first marriage to Wanda von Sacher-Masoch had ended spectacularly badly, and his son Alexander predeceased him in 1885. There was one final act of social defiance: Sacher-Masoch refused to allow a religious funeral and was cremated, an unusual practice for this time.

Sacher-Masoch wrote the novella Venus in Furs as part of an ambitious cycle, The Legacy of Cain, which remains uncompleted. His intention was to provide a systematic literary analysis of love, property, the state, war, work, and death. The Venus of the novella's title represents the sensual and uninhibited world of classical antiquity. Transposed into a modern civilization that is chilly, rationalistic, and governed by Christian ideas about the body, the goddess of love is forced to don furs. Sacher-Masoch's male protagonist, Severin von Kusiemski, stands for cold modernity. The Russian root of Severin's name, the same root as for the name Siberia, classifies him as a man "of the North." Severin pursues his aberrant passion of submitting himself to cruelty and abuse at the hands of women. In a manuscript handed to the frame narrator, Severin tells of his love affair with the statuesque widow Wanda von Dunajew, the woman who poses as Venus and with whom Severin enters into a masochistic contract of his own devising. Initially resistant to Severin's propositions, Wanda increasingly shows herself a willing pupil and participates with escalating cruelty in Severin's mental and physical abuse. When a mysterious male figure ("the Greek") turns the scenario into a threesome, enacting Ovid's grisly story of the flaying by the god Apollo of the satyr Marsyas, the torture reaches its peak. Severin claims that this incident has persuaded him to renounce his masochistic fantasies and that he has been "cured." To be sure, the frame story shows him taking the reins at his father's estate, living "like clockwork," and lashing out cruelly against his maid. If we follow traditional ideas about masochism as a peculiarly masculine perversion, since for Krafft-Ebing and Freud, women's "natural" disposition is masochistic, it would seem that Severin has been restored to "normal" male behavior. At the same time, the circularity of the narrative suggests a ritualistic masochistic repetition and a loss of masculine mastery. The narrator looks closely at a fascinating painting of Venus in Furs hanging in Severin's study and finds in it a shockingly abased representation of his friend: ". . .her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. . .he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eyes of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin. . ."

Venus in Furs is known today primarily as the foundational clinical case study of a perversion, not as the literary work that it is. Like that of the Marquis de Sade before him, Sacher-Masoch's name has become synonymous with a sexual perversion. In 1890, the Viennese psychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing coined the term "masochism" in his catalog of sexual deviance, Psychopathia sexualis. Both men lived in Graz between 1877 and 1880, so Krafft-Ebing would likely have heard gossip about Sacher-Masoch's personal proclivities. With Krafft-Ebing's term, Sacher-Masoch almost immediately gained cultural immortality - for all the wrong reasons, as he saw it -- but at the same time he lost credibility as an artist. Krafft-Ebing's psychological term, denoting "the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force," would be taken up by Sigmund Freud, Theodor Reik, and more recently Gilles Deleuze, but would also effectively stall the literary reception of Sacher-Masoch's novella. Instead, it became an "underground classic" of pornographic literature. It speaks volumes about the work's fate that the English translation by Fernanda Savage was originally published in the United States in 1921 "for private circulation," presumably to avoid censorship.

In real life, as Krafft-Ebing had no doubt heard, Sacher-Masoch repeatedly entered into contracts such as that between Wanda and Severin. As Albrecht Koschorke has argued, Sacher-Masoch, like his protagonist, staged his life as a performance complete with fetishistic props and accessories. His first contract, with Anna von Kottowitz in the 1860s, included an escape clause that conveniently permitted Sacher-Masoch six hours a day to devote to writing. In 1869, he traveled to Italy with a woman named Fanny Pistor and is said to have signed himself over to her as her slave for a period of six months. It was under these circumstances that he wrote Venus in Furs. Three years later, Aurora Rümelin, a young woman of modest social origins who aspired to "marry up," seduced him with a series of letters signed "Wanda." In entering into the relationship, "Wanda" was from the outset a collaborator in Sacher-Masoch's fantasies. The twelve years of their marriage represent Sacher-Masoch's extended attempt to live out the narrative of Venus in Furs. While in the novella Severin changes his name to Gregor, the author made his wife take the name Wanda. He urged her to dress in furs even during sweltering summer months. Finally, corresponding to the last act of the novella, he demanded that she commit adultery (when she did, he promptly broke off the marriage). Aurora also capitalized on the notoriety of her situation, however. In 1906 she published, once more under the name Wanda, the autobiographical My Confession -- a book whose cover was luridly bedecked with a thorny whip. Caught up in legal battles with Hulda Meister over Sacher-Masoch's will, Aurora even invoked Krafft-Ebing as an authority on her late husband's irrational state of mind.

The afterlife of Sacher-Masoch's novella was colored by these public scandals. Sacher-Masoch himself became a figure of identification for people who shared his sexual preferences. According to the reliably malicious Wanda, Lindheim became a kind of "Mecca" for pilgrims seeking instruction from the master. Venus in Furs also acquired the titillating reputation as a classic of nineteenth-century pornographic literature. This may well surprise readers today, as it is a comparatively discreet work that does not turn on sexual acts or bodily depictions. Even the flagellation motif is just that, a cultural motif that works with second-hand representations of martyrdom and torture. Perhaps a more serious charge is that the novella does not provide the pleasures of a page-turning plot. The work may appear clichéd, artificial, static, even poorly written. Sacher-Masoch has more than once been called a middling artist. Repetitive conversations between the lovers, lengthy descriptive scenes, and theatrical scenarios akin to tableaux vivants outweigh plot development or action. The locales in which the novella unravels, a Carpathian spa town and a villa near Florence, have the quality of stage sets, particularly in the shift from a neoclassical white palette to the blood red that dominates the Italian scenes. Sacher-Masoch recycles a wide range of cultural materials, including Ovid, Goethe, Turgenev, Prévost, and Eichendorff; the legends of the Christian martyrs; feminine "idols of perversity" (to use Dijkstra's term) such as Messalina, Delilah, Judith, and Brunhilde; and the sixteenth-century Venetian artist Titian, whose Venus With a Mirror is the centerpiece of the frame narrative.

An alternative way of reading the work looks at these stylistic features - repetition, stylization, clichés - as deliberately chosen and critical poetic tools. Gilles Deleuze has brilliantly explained the connection between the masochist's deferment of fulfillment and the suspension of motion in the novella: "Masoch. . .has every reason to rely on art and the immobile and reflective quality of culture. In his view the plastic arts confer an eternal character on their subject because they suspend gestures and attitudes. The whip or the sword that never strikes, the fur that never discloses the flesh, the heel that is forever descending on the victim, are the expression, beyond all movement, of a profound state of waiting. . . ." The novella cannot be reduced to or explained by individual sources. Rampant with inter-textual allusions and reproductions, it reflects the nineteenth-century context in which art has become subject to mass production and in which all human desire is mediated and "artificial." In the tradition of the German Bildungsroman or novel of development, Severin cultivates himself as an artwork and through his relationship with art, treating Wanda interchangeably with artworks such as statues, paintings, photographs, or cameos. Severin is an aristocratic idler who has removed himself from modern capitalism, with its emphasis on progress and technical specialization. He achieves this by styling his own life as if it were a series of paintings or scenarios. Severin admits early in the novella that: "I am nothing but a dilettante, a dilettante in painting, in poetry, in music. . . . Above all else, I am a dilettante in life. Up to the present I have lived as I have painted and written poetry. I never got beyond the preparation, the plan, the first act, the first stanza." As Rita Felski has suggested, it may be productive to judge Sacher-Masoch's protagonist, the self-proclaimed dilettante, not by the standards of literary Realism, but as an older brother of decadent heroes such as J. K. Huysmans' Des Esseintes (Against the Grain, 1884) or Oscar Wilde's Dorian Gray (The Picture of Dorian Gray, 1890). Many of the operas and paintings of the fin-de-siècle, notably Wilde's Salome, are indebted to the work. When Kafka's hero Gregor Samsa awakens from uneasy sleep in The Metamorphosis (1915) and finds himself unable to join the daily grind because he has been transformed into a monstrous beetle, one of the first items we notice in his room is a painting of an alluring, unidentified woman in furs. Later in the twentieth century, a particular theatrical staging of male subjectivity, for example in the films of Rainer Werner Fassbinder, owes its repertoire and props to Sacher-Masoch's scenarios.

Venus in Furs has rightfully been reconsidered as both a challenge and a provocation to repressive nineteenth-century sexual norms and disciplinary regimes, that is, to modernity itself. The novella contains little that can be considered pornographic, nor is it a psychological treatise on a pathology. It is, however, a startling artwork. Read as a literary experiment that pushes the conventions of nineteenth-century culture, language, and erotic desire to their limits, Venus in Furs still has the power to fascinate and disturb.

Catriona MacLeod is Associate Professor of Germanic Languages and Literatures at the University of Pennsylvania. The author of Embodying Ambiguity: Androgyny and Aesthetics from Winckelmann to Keller, she focuses in her current scholarship on visual culture in nineteenth-century Germany.
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Sort by: Showing 1 – 12 of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted November 7, 2010

    Brilliant and Disturbing

    Now i just find out from where the term of ''Masochism'' is coming from. The book is brilliant i finished it in one day . You agree or not with Masochism is truly disturbing to see how far an obsession of a man can go. Remember fellows ! One obsession can finish one true love relationship.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 11, 2009

    Venus in Furs"

    "Venus in Furs" is truely beautiful. If you haven't read it yet, you need to. Definitely has landed itself in my top 5 favorite books.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 22, 2012

    Great read

    This is a great read, witty and a must read

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