Anyone knowing how the author’s name has become a byword for masochism and expecting something racy, along the lines of The Whippingham Papers (1888) or Sadopaideia (1907) perhaps, will be disappointed by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 exploration of the pleasures and pains of abasement. No one here says anything like ‘Oh, you naughty boy, won’t I make your arse tingle for this!’ (The Whippingham Papers); the tone is much more elevated. Severin von Kusiemski is a young man of a somewhat aimless disposition who falls for the wealthy Wanda von Dunajew, a widow from Lemberg who is staying in the apartment upstairs at a Carpathian resort. Severin has a bit of a fetish for being enslaved and having pain inflicted on him, not merely as role play but in earnest, something he sees as an aesthetic experience, a pagan freeing from rigid Christian morality. His libidinal urges are dressed up in an intellectual covering.
Severin and Wanda become close and contemplate marriage. There is interminable discussion between them as Severin puts his point of view, and after initial resistance and repeatedly asking if that is what he really wants, she eventually agrees to give his domination a go during the year-long engagement she has stipulated so they can see how they suit each other. He even signs a contract which in part says that Wanda can kill him is she sees fit, and a supplementary document that is a suicide note. He associates his pleasure with seeing Wanda in fur, and as he has identified her with the goddess Venus, she becomes his Venus in Furs.
What follows is the epitome of being careful what you wish for, as he finds he has bitten off rather too much. Wanda becomes extremely enthusiastic and tests the limits of what he expected. He finds that fantasy is one thing, but the practice is rather more sordid as they travel around and he is treated as a lackey. Cleverly (and cruelly) Wanda keeps him guessing about her attitude towards him by flipping between being solicitous and being a bitch, but instead of enjoying it he finds her behaviour disconcerting. When he realises the game is getting out of hand, no longer moving in a direction that suits him, he accuses Wanda of being ‘common’ and is affronted, thereby confirming he is a mere dilettante.
Unfortunately for Severin, Wanda cannot love a man who places himself below her. Severin fantasises about being mistreated by Wanda while she belongs to someone else, but when it happens he can’t handle it. In the end she breaks off her engagement to Severn and runs off with Alexis, a Greek officer so beautiful he could pass for a woman, and had when dressed as one and breaking male hearts. The reader surmises that despite his own little sexual proclivity he is able to give Wanda more than Severin can. But these Greeks can be jealous and Alexis severely whips tied-up Severin before he and Wanda depart forever; you didn’t expect that in your little scheme, eh Severin? Wanda decides she needs a real man and her love for Severin has become contempt. And why wouldn’t it, when Severin has objectified her and made her the tool of his fantasy. There is a line between having a healthy consensual sex life and a single-minded compulsion which leads to narcissism. Severin in his obsessiveness crosses it, and worse becomes a bore, as Wanda realises.
Fetishists on this showing are made, not born; Severin acquired his interest from an aunt who severely disciplined him as a youth – while wearing fur, naturally. But what of Wanda? Is there some innate desire within her which Severin elicits, or does he mould her to his will by constantly entreating her to mould him to hers? Either way, Severin considers women to be ‘the enemy’, making his craving for Wanda’s domination ironically misogynistic rather than a form of female liberation. He thinks that, the way society is at present constituted, love can never occur between equals, but one must be above the other. However, if the woman is above, it is only because the man puts her there. Severin still sets the agenda even as he claims to give it up to Wanda. Paradoxically the greatest punishment Wanda could have served him would have been to ignore his desires, punishing by not punishing.
This was a brave book for the period and brought out a hitherto hidden aspect of private life, but Severin was not much of a role model, for anyone except Sacher-Masoch himself that is; an appendix contains a couple of contracts, very similar to those Wanda drew up for Severin, which Leopold signed in real life. Even with this blurring of life and fiction Sacher-Masoch seems aware of Severin’s limitations, and the end of the novel shows Severin apparently cured of his predilection: the ‘suprasensual fog has dissolved’ as a result of Wanda’s antidote (i.e having taken him at his word rather than his thought). Now he thinks he should have whipped her. Or is he just saying that? It is easy to say one is cured of an addiction, but proving it is another matter. Perhaps now he can do something useful with his life, but who knows how he will react when the next Wanda comes along dressed in fur.
Before we get to Severin’s grandly titled Confessions of a Suprasensual Man about his relationship with Wanda, the central core of the book, there is an introductory section. This is an account of a dream experienced by a friend of Severin’s, which is only made clear later. The dream section ends with the friend being woken by a servant because it is time to go to Severin’s for tea. Amusingly the book the friend had been reading when he fell asleep was by Hegel, so slumber was perhaps an unsurprising outcome. Severin’s memoir is certainly more entertaining than the dour German philosopher’s oeuvre.