VENUS IN FURS
“But the Almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.” — The Vulgate, Judith, xvi. 7.
My company was charming.
Opposite me by the massive Renaissance fireplace sat Venus; she was
not a casual woman of the half-world, who under this pseudonym wages
war against the enemy sex, like Mademoiselle Cleopatra, but the real,
true goddess of love.
She sat in an armchair and had kindled a crackling fire, whose
reflection ran in red flames over her pale face with its white eyes,
and from time to time over her feet when she sought to warm them.
Her head was wonderful in spite of the dead stony eyes; it was all
I could see of her. She had wrapped her marble-like body in a huge
fur, and rolled herself up trembling like a cat.
“I don’t understand it,” I exclaimed, “It isn’t really cold any
longer. For two weeks past we have had perfect spring weather. You
must be nervous.”
“Much obliged for your spring,” she replied with a low stony voice,
and immediately afterwards sneezed divinely, twice in succession. “I
really can’t stand it here much longer, and I am beginning to
“What, dear lady?”
“I am beginning to believe the unbelievable and to understand the
un-understandable. All of a sudden I understand the Germanic virtue of
woman, and German philosophy, and I am no longer surprised that you of
the North do not know how to love, haven’t even an idea of what love
“But, madame,” I replied flaring up, “I surely haven’t given you any
“Oh, you–” The divinity sneezed for the third time, and shrugged
her shoulders with inimitable grace. “That’s why I have always been
nice to you, and even come to see you now and then, although I catch
a cold every time, in spite of all my furs. Do you remember the first
time we met?”
“How could I forget it,” I said. “You wore your abundant hair in
brown curls, and you had brown eyes and a red mouth, but I recognized
you immediately by the outline of your face and its marble-like
pallor–you always wore a violet-blue velvet jacket edged with
“You were really in love with the costume, and awfully docile.”
“You have taught me what love is. Your serene form of worship let me
forget two thousand years.”
“And my faithfulness to you was without equal!”
“Well, as far as faithfulness goes–”
“I will not reproach you with anything. You are a divine woman, but
nevertheless a woman, and like every woman cruel in love.”
“What you call cruel,” the goddess of love replied eagerly, “is
simply the element of passion and of natural love, which is woman’s
nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love
everything, that pleases her.”
“Can there be any greater cruelty for a lover than the
unfaithfulness of the woman he loves?”
“Indeed!” she replied. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you
demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of
herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there–woman or man? You of
the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk
of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.”
“That is why our emotions are honorable and virtuous, and our
“And yet a restless, always unsatisfied craving for the nudity of
paganism,” she interrupted, “but that love, which is the highest joy,
which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you
children of reflection. It works only evil in you. _As soon as you
wish to be natural, you become common._ To you nature seems something
hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and
out of me a demon. You can only exorcise and curse me, or slay
yourselves in bacchantic madness before my altar. And if ever one of
you has had the courage to kiss my red mouth, he makes a barefoot
pilgrimage to Rome in penitential robes and expects flowers to grow
from his withered staff, while under my feet roses, violets, and
myrtles spring up every hour, but their fragrance does not agree with
you. Stay among your northern fogs and Christian incense; let us
pagans remain under the debris, beneath the lava; do not disinter us.
Pompeii was not built for you, nor our villas, our baths, our temples.
You do not require gods. We are chilled in your world.”
The beautiful marble woman coughed, and drew the dark sables still
closer about her shoulders.
“Much obliged for the classical lesson,” I replied, “but you cannot
deny, that man and woman are mortal enemies, in your serene sunlit
world as well as in our foggy one. In love there is union into a
single being for a short time only, capable of only one thought, one
sensation, one will, in order to be then further disunited. And you
know this better than I; whichever of the two fails to subjugate will
soon feel the feet of the other on his neck–”
“And as a rule the man that of the woman,” cried Madame Venus with
proud mockery, “which you know better than I.”
“Of course, and that is why I don’t have any illusions.”
“You mean you are now my slave without illusions, and for that
reason you shall feel the weight of my foot without mercy.”
“Don’t you know me yet? Yes, I am _cruel_–since you take so much
delight in that word-and am I not entitled to be so? Man is the one
who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but
decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into
woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her
subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the
end is not wise.”
“Exactly your principles,” I interrupted angrily.
“They are based on the experience of thousands of years,” she
replied ironically, while her white fingers played over the dark fur.
“The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers
down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the
more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she
plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will
she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has
always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine
the Second and Lola Montez.”
“I cannot deny,” I said, “that nothing will attract a man more than
the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel, and despotic woman who
wantonly changes her favorites without scruple in accordance with her
“And in addition wears furs,” exclaimed the divinity.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I know your predilection.”
“Do you know,” I interrupted, “that, since we last saw each other,
you have grown very coquettish.”
“In what way, may I ask?”
“In that there is no way of accentuating your white body to greater
advantage than by these dark furs, and that–”
The divinity laughed.
“You are dreaming,” she cried, “wake up!” and she clasped my arm
with her marble-white hand. “Do wake up,” she repeated raucously with
the low register of her voice. I opened my eyes with difficulty.
I saw the hand which shook me, and suddenly it was brown as bronze;
the voice was the thick alcoholic voice of my cossack servant who
stood before me at his full height of nearly six feet.
“Do get up,” continued the good fellow, “it is really disgraceful.”
“What is disgraceful?”
“To fall asleep in your clothes and with a book besides.” He snuffed
the candles which had burned down, and picked up the volume which had
fallen from my hand, “with a book by”–he looked at the title page–
“by Hegel. Besides it is high time you were starting for Mr.
Severin’s who is expecting us for tea.”
“A curious dream,” said Severin when I had finished. He supported
his arms on his knees, resting his face in his delicate, finely
veined hands, and fell to pondering.
I knew that he wouldn’t move for a long time, hardly even breathe. This
actually happened, but I didn’t consider his behavior as in any way
remarkable. I had been on terms of close friendship with him for nearly
three years, and gotten used to his peculiarities. For it cannot be
denied that he was peculiar, although he wasn’t quite the dangerous
madman that the neighborhood, or indeed the entire district of Kolomea,
considered him to be. I found his personality not only interesting–and
that is why many also regarded me a bit mad–but to a degree
sympathetic. For a Galician nobleman and land-owner, and considering his
age–he was hardly over thirty–he displayed surprising sobriety, a
certain seriousness, even pedantry. He lived according to a minutely
elaborated, half-philosophical, half-practical system, like clock-work;
not this alone, but also by the thermometer, barometer, aerometer,
hydrometer, Hippocrates, Hufeland, Plato, Kant, Knigge, and Lord
Chesterfield. But at times he had violent attacks of sudden passion, and
gave the impression of being about to run with his head right through a
wall. At such times every one preferred to get out of his way.
While he remained silent, the fire sang in the chimney and the large
venerable samovar sang; and the ancient chair in which I sat rocking
to and fro smoking my cigar, and the cricket in the old walls sang
too. I let my eyes glide over the curious apparatus, skeletons of
animals, stuffed birds, globes, plaster-casts, with which his room
was heaped full, until by chance my glance remained fixed on a
picture which I had seen often enough before. But to-day, under the
reflected red glow of the fire, it made an indescribable impression
It was a large oil painting, done in the robust full-bodied manner
of the Belgian school. Its subject was strange enough.
A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant
hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a
soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm.
She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash,
while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like
a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed
linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate
devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a
martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but
beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.
“_Venus in Furs_,” I cried, pointing to the picture. “That is the way
I saw her in my dream.”
“I, too,” said Severin, “only I dreamed my dream with open eyes.”
“It is a tiresome story.”
“Your picture apparently suggested my dream,” I continued. “But do
tell me what it means. I can imagine that it played a role in your
life, and perhaps a very decisive one. But the details I can only get
“Look at its counterpart,” replied my strange friend, without
heeding my question.
The counterpart was an excellent copy of Titian’s well-known “Venus
with the Mirror” in the Dresden Gallery.
“And what is the significance?”
Severin rose and pointed with his finger at the fur with which
Titian garbed his goddess of love.
“It, too, is a ‘Venus in Furs,'” he said with a slight smile. “I
don’t believe that the old Venetian had any secondary intention. He
simply painted the portrait of some aristocratic Mesalina, and was
tactful enough to let Cupid hold the mirror in which she tests her
majestic allure with cold satisfaction. He looks as though his task
were becoming burdensome enough. The picture is painted flattery.
Later an ‘expert’ in the Rococo period baptized the lady with the
name of Venus. The furs of the despot in which Titian’s fair model
wrapped herself, probably more for fear of a cold than out of
modesty, have become a symbol of the tyranny and cruelty that
constitute woman’s essence and her beauty.
“But enough of that. The picture, as it now exists, is a bitter
satire on our love. Venus in this abstract North, in this icy
Christian world, has to creep into huge black furs so as not to catch
Severin laughed, and lighted a fresh cigarette.
Just then the door opened and an attractive, stoutish, blonde girl
entered. She had wise, kindly eyes, was dressed in black silk, and
brought us cold meat and eggs with our tea. Severin took one of the
latter, and decapitated it with his knife.
“Didn’t I tell you that I want them soft-boiled?” he cried with a
violence that made the young woman tremble.
“But my dear Sevtchu–” she said timidly.
“Sevtchu, nothing,” he yelled, “you are to obey, obey, do you
understand?” and he tore the _kantchuk_ [Footnote: A long whip with a
short handle.] which was hanging beside the weapons from its hook.
The woman fled from the chamber quickly and timidly like a doe.
“Just wait, I’ll get you yet,” he called after her.
“But Severin,” I said placing my hand on his arm, “how can you treat
a pretty young woman thus?”
“Look at the woman,” he replied, blinking humorously with his eyes.
“Had I flattered her, she would have cast the noose around my neck,
but now, when I bring her up with the _kantchuk_, she adores me.”
“Nonsense, nothing, that is the way you have to break in women.”
“Well, if you like it, live like a pasha in your harem, but don’t
lay down theories for me–”
“Why not,” he said animatedly. “Goethe’s ‘you must be hammer or anvil’
is absolutely appropriate to the relation between man and woman.
Didn’t Lady Venus in your dream prove that to you? Woman’s power lies
in man’s passion, and she knows how to use it, if man doesn’t
understand himself. He has only one choice: to be the _tyrant_ over or
the _slave_ of woman. As soon as he gives in, his neck is under the
yoke, and the lash will soon fall upon him.”
“Not maxims, but experiences,” he replied, nodding his head, “_I have
actually felt the lash_. I am cured. Do you care to know how?”
He rose, and got a small manuscript from his massive desk, and put
it in front of me.
“You have already asked about the picture. I have long owed you an
Severin sat down by the chimney with his back toward me, and seemed
to dream with open eyes. Silence had fallen again, and again the fire
sang in the chimney, and the samovar and the cricket in the old
walls. I opened the manuscript and read: