“Shiny, shiny, shiny boots of leather/Whiplash girlchild in the dark/Comes in bells, your servant, don’t forsake him/Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart.” The Velvet Underground performed “Venus in Furs” in their 1967 self-titled album. The song was about the novel of the same name, written in 1870 by an Austrian history professor named Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Many more people have heard of the psychological condition than read his book, although this might change with the popularity of Fifty Shades of Grey. Venus in Furs is a literary ur-text, a book that establishes a genre and its conventions. (The Lord of the Rings is an ur-text of the epic fantasy genre.)
Masoch’s name is forever linked with another erotic philosopher, the Marquis de Sade. The nineteenth century German sexologist Richard von Krafft-Ebing linked the two writers together when he used the term sadomasochism to describe a particular sexual peculiarity involving pain and power. Krafft-Ebing wrote Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 and inventories over 200 case studies. This work is the reason people lump together Masoch’s work with Sade’s, despite each author espousing radically different philosophies and writing styles. Masoch’s style is more symbolic and impressionistic, lacking the verbal crudity and explicitness of Sade.
Venus in Furs is the story of a man named Severin and his desire to become the slave of Wanda. Masoch planned the novel as part of a larger work called The Legacy of Cain. (Unlike the works of Sade, most of Masoch’s works have not been translated.) In a book length essay entitled Masoch: Coldness and Cruelty, French philosopher Gilles Deleuze explains how masochistic fantasies occur throughout Masoch’s work, but these scenes were linked to ethnic rituals and patriotic sentiment. Masoch lived in the Austro-Hungarian Empire, a multiethnic monarchy that had been ruled by the Hapsburg dynasty since the sixteenth century. In his other works, Masoch wrote about the empire’s various ethnic minorities.
The central narrative is what makes people uncomfortable. Not only does Severin reduce himself to the status of slave, but also he does so willfully. The term slavery should be properly qualified in this context. In the world of Venus in Furs and in the BDSM community at large, slaves and masters are roles. Temporary and theatrical, Severin makes him a slave through her signing a contract. Unlike the torture porn of Fifty Shades of Grey, which exists more within the Sadean universe, Severin and Wanda create ritualized tablueas. Deleuze relates how these scenes have the frozen quality of photography, then a burgeoning technology.
What is one to make of a situation where an individual willfully dehumanizes him or herself? It is a tricky subject, investigated by psychologists and literary theorists. However, unlike chattel slavery or international sex trafficking, these contractual situations have a definite termination. It is also another means for individuals to receive personal satisfaction. The discomfort comes when readers or self-righteous politicians feel the need to judge Severin’s kinks. Just because his desire to be enslaved superficially resembles America’s peculiar institution doesn’t make it morally wrong like American slavery. In fact, connecting the two is both intellectually dishonest and inaccurate. (America’s fetish for sexual regulation, repression, and oppression is causing enough heartache and hypocrisy this election cycle.)
So what does Venus in Furs tell us about being human? Masoch illustrates the linkages between power and desire. One should not prejudge the predilections of others, except where health and minors are concerned. Being human also means that some of our fellow beings don’t automatically desire to be the dominant figure. Some, like Masoch, desire to be the subservient member of the scenario. But one shouldn’t see this behavior as existing in a psychological vacuum, since Masoch tied his literary works with his commitment to championing the rights of ethnic minorities within the Austro-Hungarian empire. With Venus in Furs the personal is the political.