Tuesday, January 19, 2021

The suprasensual fool

I approached the beautiful woman, who had never looked so seductive as today in her cruelty, in her scorn.

"Another step," Wanda ordered. "Kneel down and kiss my foot."

She stretched her foot out from under the white satin hem, and I, the suprasensual fool, pressed my lips on her foot.

Last summer I met a man who, after we'd met for a drink and parted ways, offered — rather, begged that I grace him who was not worthy with the divine privilege — to be my slave. I asked him what he meant by this and he told me it meant anything I wanted it to mean, it didn't have to mean anything at all, so long as I treated him like the dog he was.

He may as well have sent over a copy of Venus in Furs.

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, is such an unassuming little book, yet it is considered "the blueprint of masochistic aesthetics" in describing the condition named for its author: masochism. The book was published in 1870. The diagnostic term was coined in 1890, alongside sadism.

I found Venus in Furs listed among overlooked erotic classics; however, it's not likely to inspire one-handed reading. At most it may elicit a fascination with a certain kind of mind.

In Coldness and Cruelty, Gilles Deleuze notes:

But whether the descriptions are rosy or somber, they always bear the stamp of decency. We never see the naked body of the woman torturer; it is always wrapped in furs. The body of the victim remains in a strange state of indeterminacy except where it receives the blows. 

(I admit, I did not read the essay in its entirety. Why would I do that to myself? I just skimmed it for the juicy bits.)

A review of Roman Polanski's film version of a stage adaptation of the novel boldly claims that "A masochist is a power-freak disguised as a slave. Perhaps this is why we speak of sadists and masochists in the same breath."

While in popular culture we tend to think of sadism as masochism as complementary flipsides of the same coin, they require a very different mindset — a sadist would never choose a masochist as the object of their torture, and vice versa. Deleuze goes on to explain how Sacher-Masoch was "in search of a peculiar and extremely rare feminine 'nature.' The subject in masochism needs a certain 'essence' of masochism embodied in the nature of a woman who renounces her own subjective masochism." That is, it's a little more complex than meets the eye.

"It's no longer a whim!" she cried.

"What is it then?" I asked, terrified.

"It must have been latent in me," she murmured, lost in thought. "Perhaps it would never have seen the light of day, but you awoke it, developed it, and now that it has become a powerful drive, now that it fills me entirely, now that I enjoy it, now that I can't and won't help it — now you want to back out. You — are you a man?"

[I wonder sometimes what is latent in me, what do others recognize in me that I fail to see for myself. (Also, I cannot deny the glorious feeling of luxurious fur against my bare skin.)]

The relationship between Severin (an obvious stand-in for Sacher-Masoch) and the object of his devotion, Wanda, may not represent conventional love, but it's not trivial. The story is relayed from Severin's point of view, but Wanda's role is never dismissed — they are, after all, symbiotic.

According to Wanda, "I believe that you love me, and I love you too, and, even more important, we interest one another." They discuss the nature of their potential marriage "in order to see whether we can find ourselves in one another."

On the surface, Severin's motivation seems straightforward: "Give me a woman who's honest enough to tell me: 'I'm a Pompadour, a Lucretia Borgia,' and I'll worship her." (Though, the psychologists hint that something more manipulative is going on, consciously or not.)

"Because she's a hypocrite," I said. "I can respect a woman only if she is truly virtuous or openly lives for pleasure."

"Like me," Wanda countered jokingly. "But look, my child, a woman can do so only in the rarest cases. She can be neither as cheerfully sensual nor as spiritually free as a man. Her love is always a blend of sensuality and spiritual attachment. Her heart longs to captivate the man permanently, while she herself is prey to shame. And so, usually against her will, a dichotomy, a pack of lies and deception comes into her conduct, into her being, and corrupts her character."


"Make a point of remembering what I'm about to tell you: Never feel safe with the woman you love, for a woman's nature conceals more dangers than you think. Women are neither as good as their admirers and defenders would have it nor as bad as their enemies make them out to be. A woman's character is her lack of character. The best woman sinks momentarily into filth, the worst woman rises unexpectedly to great good deeds, putting her despisers to shame. No woman is so good or so evil as not to be capable at any moment of both the most diabolical and most divine, both the foulest and the purest thoughts, feeling, actions. Despite all progress of civilization, women have remained exactly as they emerged from the hand of Nature. A woman has the character of a savage, who acts loyal or disloyal, generous or gruesome, depending on whatever impulse happens to rule him at the moment. In all times, only deep and earnest formation has created the moral character. Thus, a man, no matter how selfish, how malevolent he may be, always follows principles, while a woman always follows only impulses. Never forget this and never feel safe with the woman you love."

Venus in Furs is a short novel of great historical and psychosexual interest, but it's also loaded with drama: romance, intrigue, exotic locales. It should also be noted that it tries to engage in social commentary. It ends jarringly on this note:

The moral is that woman, as Nature has created her and as she is currently reared by man, is his enemy and can be only his slave or his despot, but never his companion. She will be able to become his companion only when she has the same rights as he, when she is his equal in education and work. 

This is open to debate. I'm not convinced that the novel as a whole supports Severin's final argument; it strikes me as a last-ditch effort to rationalize his behaviour. And I'm not sure Wanda would agree with him either.

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