“I imagine that the goddess of Love has come down from Olympus to visit a mortal. So as not to die of cold in this modern world of ours, she wraps her sublime body in great heavy furs and warms her feet on the prostrate body of her lover. I imagine the favourite of this beautiful despot , who is whipped when his mistress grows tired of kissing him, and whose love only grows more intense the more he is trampled underfoot. I shall call the picture “Venus in Furs.”
“Venus in Furs is a novel by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, and is by far the best known of his works, and was published as the first part of an intended trilogy in 1870. If the modern upstart, 50 Shades of Grey is an unbearable read, Venus in Furs is a sprightly feminist, poetic, and at times quirkily romantic one with serious social comment at it`s core – most particularly at the end when the author states that women will never be equal in relationships until they are equal in education and employment. If 50 Shades of Grey is a puerile exploitation of a human basic instinct without intellectual or genuine emotional depth, Venus in Furs is the Gutenberg Bible of pornography, with it`s almost suspense thriller tension and insight into the human psyche.
We are taken on a journey through the psychological sufferings of it`s hero to understand why he has become the man he is: we are made to wait for gratification and explanation before being led into the revelatory art of the dominatrix.
Sacher-Masoch`s name is forever linked with another erotic philosopher, the Marquis de Sade, but the characters in de Sade are shallow and mere cyphers for his S&M obsessions; so desperate is he to get straight to the “action” he tends to lose interest in characterization and plot with his vaudevillian set-pieces and villains. Sacher-Masoch is a novelist, de Sade is a bad pantomime act.
“The individual who rebels against the arrangements of society is ostracized, branded, stoned. So be it. I am willing to take the risk; my principles are very pagan. I will live my own life as it pleases me. I am willing to do without your hypocritical respect; I prefer to be happy.
The inventors of the Christian marriage have done well, simultaneously to invent immortality. I, however, have no wish to live eternally. When with my last breath everything as far a Wanda von Dunajew is concerned comes to an end here below, what does it profit me whether my pure spirit joins the choir of angels, or whether my dust goes into the formation of new beings?
Shall I belong to one man whom I don`t love, merely because I have once loved him? No, I do not renounce; I love everyone who pleases me, and give happiness to everyone who loves me.
Is that ugly? No, it is more beautiful by far.”
Venus in Furs is the story of a man called Severin who wishes to be the slave of Wanda, reducing himself willingly and unequivocally into her control. Both parties are acting out roles: it is far removed from the torture porn of 50 Shades of Grey, which is purely Sadean in it`s construction; Venus in Furs is a ritualized tableau of role playing which is emotionally and physically satisfying to both parties.
In a sense, both are de-humanizing themselves in acting out Severin`s fantasies: this is something which the novel puts over quite well, adding a psychological depth which most other subsequent S&M novels have discarded in favour of concentrating on the sadistic intent, and not the why and wherefore. Like de Sade, they are more interested in displaying the content rather than the reason underlying the need for submission and domination by a woman in such circumstances.
Of course, Severin`s slavery must not be associated with modern sexual slave trafficking: there is a definite expiry date on the contract he and Wanda make with each other at the outset; they can then walk away with mutual consent.
Venus in Furs is a novel about power and desire, but also the search for emotional contact with another human being: Severin is inexperienced with women, he likes to caress marble statues of a naked Venus rather than have a genuinely physical relationship with a woman. And there is perhaps the nub of his problem: his lack of emotional empathy towards women prevents him from trying for a lasting, warm and loving relationship with a living, breathing woman. S&M with Wanda is a kind of love by proxy: it`s the only way he can feel sexual pleasure. To be dominated, to be chained and whipped is as good as it`s going to get because of his sexual repression.
The book ends with Wanda meeting a man with whom she would like to submit: Severin feels humiliated by this new Byronic hero figure who has barged in and destroyed his world of male fantasy. He loses the desire to submit, and says of Wanda………….
“That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man`s enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is equal in education and work.”
So, the book ends on a call for female emancipation and equality. Political and social comment in an S&M novel………..Venus in Furs has more layers than an onion to explore for anyone with an interest in human affairs. I would even go as far to say that it is a sociologically important book, with a bit of S&M thrown in as a side dressing.