Warning – this review contains spoilers…
If you give your name to a concept and the word is still in popular use over a century later, then you’ve clearly made a significant impact as a writer. Not many could claim such a concrete legacy. As a keen masochist, I’ve always intended to read Masoch’s ‘Venus in Furs’, but didn’t get around to it until I was instructed to write this review.
The story is told by a man called Severin, who falls in love with Wanda: a beautiful, Russian noblewoman. Severin has long fantasised about being dominated by a femme in furs and, seeing Wanda as the perfect incarnation of Venus, he pleads with her to make his dreams come true. She’s reluctant, at first, warning him that demons will inevitably be unleashed. However, after agreeing, she really gets into the Domme role (even making him write and sign a suicide note, in advance, in case she decides he should kill himself). Severin goes on to suffer in all the ways he so desired.
Severin’s masochism is, of course, ultimately definitive of the whole concept of masochism itself (except for the fur fetish thing, which should be considered as a personal eccentricity). Severin wants to be: dominated, subjugated, humiliated, tortured, bullied, ordered around, enslaved. And he’s very hardcore about it… even erotically fantasising about getting emotionally rejected by Wanda, beaten by her new lover and then killing himself because he can’t live without her. In return for all this abuse, Severin worships and adores his tormenter – desperate to serve and please her in any way she might desire.
Naturally, Wanda is the quintessential archetype of a Domme: stunningly attractive, evil, imperious, sadistic, commanding, terrifying. As full of cruel caprice as an Olympian goddess. Going from ice cold to raging hot at the drop of a hat. When not in Domme mode, Wanda is actually a lovely person: compassionate, thoughtful, kind, sweet, sincere. But with her pathetic slave prostrated before her, the Venus in Furs comes increasingly to the fore and Severin truly ends up getting more than he bargained for. Wanda’s evil high point comes when she pretends to have fallen back in love with her slave, lulling him into a false sense of security before she has him brutally thrashed by her new lover. She certainly goes all out!
ViF is highly erotic and very sexy. The deep eroticism of the extreme Dom/sub relationship pervading the atmosphere at all times. Dazzling visions of the Venus in Furs radiate from the page as she luxuriates on her ottoman couch, with her slave as a footrest. And the whipping scenes descend violently, like the red-hot mist that wreathes our psychopathic goddess. Wanda is sickeningly sexy. And so is the lover she ends up choosing over Severin. How hot is this description of Alexis:
‘He is the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion’s lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face – Appollo flaying Marsyas.’
Wow! That really makes me wet! As Severin says: ‘I now understand the masculine Eros’.
From a modern perspective, it’s amusing how coy the writer is when describing sex (no genitalia are mentioned and it’s not even clear whether the central protagonists ever had sex). Yet when it comes to BDSM, the action is highly explicit and the violence is graphically described.
One key idea propounded in ViF is that people must either be the ‘hammer’ or the ‘anvil’ (Dominant or submissive). It’s postulated that a woman naturally wants to be dominated by a man, but if confronted with a submissive male, then she will come to dominate him… and love doing it. Masoch underlines how deeply-ingrained, instinctive and primal these sadomasochistic feelings and behaviours are with references to the natural world. Observing how a lioness will watch her mate fighting a rival lion and ultimately side with whichever one wins. And describing how Severin’s pet bird tended to direct love-songs at its human owner (the one who caged and controlled it), rather than towards its intended mate.
As I read ViF, all these sweeping generalisations about the ‘natural’ relations between men and women had me wondering: what’s Masoch’s point here? Is he saying that men should naturally be dominant over women… and that the weakness of submissive men is unnatural and problematic? Or is he saying that both men or women can be dominant, depending on what’s natural for the individuals concerned? The writer (expertly) keeps this ambiguous until the last page of the novel. And I thought it would remain ambiguous – assuming that a Victorian-era gentleman wouldn’t deliberately build such a feminist question into the heart of his defining literary masterpiece. Masoch: I would like to apologise for underestimating you.
The last mini-chapter begins with the question: ‘And the moral of the story?’ At first Severin answers: ‘That I was a donkey… If only I had beaten her!’ But then, a few sentences later, turns it around completely by saying:
‘That woman, as nature has created her and as man is at present educating her, is his enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he, and is his equal in education and work.’
So his theory seems to be: the brutality and ruthlessness of the natural world has made it natural for humans to love power and dominance… and this has led us to a situation where it is the norm for men to dominate over women. Our cultures, societies and politics leaned heavily into this natural tendency, creating a situation where all gender relations must be overshadowed by the question of dominance. But if society gave women the same rights as men – and equal educational and professional opportunities – then the world would be a much better place for everybody. Go Masoch!
His perspective is interesting for many reasons. Notably, he’s arguing that male dominance over women is, in many ways, ‘natural’ (because the lioness doesn’t really have any choice except to back the winning lion). And yet just because something’s ‘natural’, that doesn’t make it right… or inevitable… or mean that it’s the best way things could be. This contrasts with views espoused by people of all different political stripes (including some feminists), who often base their arguments on the fundamental assumption that what’s ‘natural’ is synonymous with what’s right. Yet Masoch seems to contend the path of progress often leads away from what is ‘natural’, as we move from the brutal laws of the jungle towards the sophistication of advanced civilisation. And I’m inclined to agree with him.
On a side note: I wonder how far Masoch’s views on nature and dominance were influenced by the recently-developed theories of evolution and competitive natural selection (Darwin’s ‘Origin of Species’ was published about 10 years before ViF).
I’d also like to take a moment to ogle the writer’s word-craft. He keeps his main point wonderfully ambiguous right until the end of the novel. Then he starts the last page explicitly asking the moral of the story (surely doing that should come across as a cheap cheat… and yet Masoch more than gets away with it). He masterfully wrong-foots the reader into thinking he’s saying one thing, before coming from the blind-side to say the exact opposite. I can’t think of another example of a writer doing anything quite like this. I’m massively impressed!
One issue I have, with Masoch’s central thesis, becomes clear as one follows along the logic of what he’s saying. Because in ViF: masochism, dominance and submission are essentially portrayed as bad things, that we should aim to ‘cure’ ourselves of, on both the individual and societal levels. In the ideal world where men and women are equal, Masoch seems to be saying that D/s relations should become obsolete. As a proud submissive, who enjoys her masochism, I would strongly disagree that this should have to be the case (instead we can compartmentalise our D/s feelings and express them during consensual BDSM games). But I won’t hold that against Masoch – you can’t be a hundred years ahead of your time on everything!
Anyways, I really enjoyed ViF. It’s great, classic literature and as an erotic novel: it’s bone-tremblingly sexy! On a personal level, I was interested to observe many similarities between Wanda and someone I know in real life. I know a Russian Domme who shares many of the Venus in Furs’ dominant characteristics. She’s also crazy, evil, capricious, imperious and obnoxiously attractive (and fucking terrifying when she’s holding a whip and you’re strung up naked in front of her!) And she flies into a violent rage at the slightest provocation. They’re very similar (although Katya wears leathers rather than furs and isn’t nearly as intelligent as Wanda is;) I don’t know whether Katya has read ViF and decided, conscious or unconsciously, to model herself on Wanda. I don’t even know whether she reads these book reviews… but I suspect I’ll soon find out.