VENUS IN FURS By LEOPOLD VON SACHER-MASOCH
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born in Lemberg, Austrian Galicia, on January 27, 1836. He studied jurisprudence at Prague and Graz, and in 1857 became a teacher at the latter university. He published several historical works, but soon gave up his academic career to devote himself wholly to literature. For a number of years he edited the international review, Auf der Hohe, at Leipzig, but later removed to Paris, for he was always strongly Francophile. His last years he spent at Lindheim in Hesse, Germany, where he died on March 9, 1895. In 1873 he married Aurora von Rumelin, who wrote a number of novels under the pseudonym of Wanda von Dunajew, which it is interesting to note is the name of the heroine of Venus in Furs. Her sensational memoirs which have been the cause of considerable controversy were published in 1906.
During his career as writer an endless number of works poured from Sacher-Masoch’s pen. Many of these were works of ephemeral journalism, and some of them unfortunately pure sensationalism, for economic necessity forced him to turn his pen to unworthy ends.
There is, however, a residue among his works which has a distinct literary and even greater psychological value. His principal literary ambition was never completely fulfilled. It was a somewhat programmatic plan to give a picture of contemporary life in all its various aspects and interrelations under the general title of the Heritage of Cain. This idea was probably derived from Balzac’s Comedie Humaine. The whole was to be divided into six subdivisions with the general titles Love, Property, Money, The State, War, and Death. Each of these divisions in its turn consisted of six novels, of which the last was intended to summarize the author’s conclusions and to present his solution for the problems set in the others.
This extensive plan remained unachieved, and only the first two parts, Love and Property, were completed. Of the other sections only fragments remain. The present novel, Venus in Furs, forms the fifth in the series, Love.
The best of Sacher-Masoch’s work is characterized by a swift narration and a graphic representation of character and scene and a rich humor. The latter has made many of his shorter stories dealing with his native Galicia little masterpieces of local color.
There is, however, another element in his work which has caused his name to become as eponym for an entire series of phenomena at one end of the psycho-sexual scale. This gives his productions a peculiar psychological value, though it cannot be denied also a morbid tinge that makes them often repellent. However, it is well to remember that nature is neither good nor bad, neither altruistic nor egoistic, and that it operates through the human psyche as well as through crystals and plants and animals with the same inexorable laws.
Sacher-Masoch was the poet of the anomaly now generally known as masochism. By this is meant the desire on the part of the individual affected of desiring himself completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex, and being treated by this person as by a master, to be humiliated, abused, and tormented, even to the verge of death. This motive is treated in all its innumerable variations. As a creative artist Sacher-Masoch was, of course, on the quest for the absolute, and sometimes, when impulses in the human being assume an abnormal or exaggerated form, there is just for a moment a flash that gives a glimpse of the thing in itself.
If any defense were needed for the publication of work like Sacher-Masoch’s it is well to remember that artists are the historians of the human soul and one might recall the wise and tolerant Montaigne’s essay On the Duty of Historians where he says, “One may cover over secret actions, but to be silent on what all the world knows, and things which have had effects which are public and of so much consequence is an inexcusable defect.”
And the curious interrelation between cruelty and sex, again and again, creeps into literature. Sacher-Masoch has not created anything new in this. He has simply taken an ancient motive and developed it frankly and consciously, until, it seems, there is nothing further to say on the subject. To the violent attacks which his books met he replied in a polemical work, Über den Wert der Kritik.
It would be interesting to trace the masochistic tendency as it occurs throughout literature, but no more can be done than just to allude to a few instances. The theme recurs continually in the Confessions of Jean Jacques Rousseau; it explains the character of the chevalier in Prévost’s Manon l’Escault. Scenes of this nature are found in Zola’s Nana, in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved, in Albert Juhelle’s Les Pecheurs d’Hommes, in Dostojevski. In disguised and unrecognized form it constitutes the undercurrent of much of the sentimental literature of the present day, though in most cases the authors as well as the readers are unaware of the pathological elements out of which their characters are built.
In all these strange and troubled waters of the human spirit one might wish for something of the serene and simple attitude of the ancient world. Laurent Tailhade has an admirable passage in his Platres et Marbres, which is well worth reproducing in this connection:
“Toutefois, les Hellènes, dans, leurs cités de lumière, de douceur et d’harmonie, avaient une indulgence qu’on peut nommer scientifique pour les troubles amoureux de l’esprit. S’ils ne regardaient pas l’aliéné comme en proie a la visitation d’un dieu (idée orientale et fataliste), du moins ils savaient que l’amour est une sorte d’envoûtement, une folie où se manifeste l’animosité des puissances cosmiques. Plus tard, le christianisme enveloppa les âmes de ténèbres. Ce fut la grande nuit. L’Église condamna tout ce qui lui parût neuf ou menaçant pour les dogmes implaçable qui reduisaient le monde en esclavage.”
Among Sacher-Masoch’s works, Venus in Furs is one of the most typical and outstanding. In spite of melodramatic elements and other literary faults, it is unquestionably a sincere work, written without any idea of titillating morbid fancies. One feels that in the hero many subjective elements have been incorporated, which are a disadvantage to the work from the point of view of literature, but on the other hand raise the book beyond the sphere of art, pure and simple, and make it one of those appalling human documents which belong, part to science and part to psychology. It is the confession of a deeply unhappy man who could not master his personal tragedy of existence, and so sought to unburden his soul in writing down the things he felt and experienced. The reader who will approach the book from this angle and who will honestly put aside moral prejudices and prepossessions will come away from the perusal of this book with a
deeper understanding of this poor miserable soul of ours and a light will be cast into dark places that lie latent in all of us.
Sacher-Masoch’s works have held an established position in European letters for something like half a century, and the author himself was made a chevalier of the Legion of Honor by the French Government in 1883, on the occasion of his literary jubilee. When several years ago cheap reprints were brought out on the Continent and attempts were made by various guardians of morality — they exist in all countries — to have them suppressed, the judicial decisions were invariably against the plaintiff and in favor of the publisher. Are Americans children that they must be protected from books which any European school-boy can purchase whenever he wishes? However, such seems to be the case, and this translation, which has long been in preparation, consequently appears in a limited edition printed for subscribers only. In another connection Herbert Spencer once used these words:
“The ultimate result of shielding men from the effects of folly, is to fill the world with fools.” They have a very pointed application in the case of a work like Venus in Furs.