Venus in Furs: The Story of a Real-life Masochist
Copyright 1998 Kathryn Grosz. Nothing in these articles in whole or in part may be duplicated in any way.
Who or what is Venus in Furs? How is it related to the term "masochist"? Where did it come from? Does it relate to mainstream America's sexuality? The fascinating chronicle follows.
To set the scene, the reader should know that the term "masochism" was coined first by a German psychologist named Krafft-Ebing; his inspiration for this term was the life of a man whose name was Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Leopold was a writer, born in 1836 in Galacia (now Poland). He was well-known and famous during his lifetime. Venus in Furs is the classic novel von Sacher-Masoch wrote detailing his masochist fantasies. What is more amazing is that this novel is the true story of one of von Sacher-Masoch's escapades.
The next part to the puzzle is a book titled The Confessions of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch. Wanda, of course, was Leopold's wife. Her book is essentially an autobiography focusing mainly on the ten years she was married to Leopold. Her life crossed the bridge between abject poverty and luxury, between happiness and pain and fear.
At this juncture I take a moment to comment. The rest of this narrative is an attempt to blend the revelations of these works in such a way that you will be able to experience some of the true aspects of masochism as played out in real life by these individuals. You have to decide for yourself if it is sex, pathology, mind games or to some degree an exaggerated reflection of life at that time and place.
In reading these books, the shocking element is that von Sacher-Masoch's "... contemporaries found nothing pornographic, let alone pathological, in his work. Its sentimentality, exaltation and covert eroticism meshed perfectly with his time." His works were quite popular. What was the nature of European society such that cruelty and coldness were not shocking?
I shall refer to the participants by first name because they are real people who lived and breathed the same air as we do today. Leopold's novel actually was somewhat slow moving. It was easy to put down. Wanda's "confessions", on the other hand, were spellbinding. She's a good writer and creates vivid pictures of what was happening. Some of Leopold's personal correspondence is included with his novel. It certainly reveals his true nature and masochistic obsessions.
Leopold experienced a childhood fraught with true violence. He witnessed the 1846 revolt of Polish landowners against the Austrian government and the revolt of the Polish peasantry against the landowners. Hanging, burning, live crucifixions and burials were common. In 1848 his father was Prague's Chief of Police during a rebellion. Again, scenes of execution were common. Somehow, amidst the cruelty of the time, Leopold developed his fantasy and compulsion to be whipped like a dog at the feet of a woman dressed in furs.
In Venus in Furs, Leopold describes a scene where the main character, Severin (pseudo Leopold), is confronted as a child, by an Aunt that he hated. She entered the room in her fur- lined jacket with the cook, kitchenmaid and cat. He was then bound hand and foot and whipped by his aunt with an "evil smile" on her face. He bled and cried and begged for mercy. Then he was untied and forced to get down on his knees and thank her and kiss her hand. Next, Leopold's character relates "Now you understand the suprasensual fool! Under the lash of a beautiful woman my senses first realized the meaning of woman. In her fur jacket she seemed to me like a wrathful queen, and from then on my aunt became the most desirable woman on God's earth." To Leopold, furs symbolized power and beauty.
Leopold's character, Severin, says "Nothing can intensify my passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman." And, from age 10 when he read the legends of martyrs and the tortures they suffered, he said "To suffer and endure cruel torture from then on seemed to me exquisite delight, especially when it was inflicted by a beautiful woman... I felt there was something sacred in sex; in fact, it was the only sacred thing. In woman and her beauty I saw something divine, because the most important function of existence -- the continuation of the species -- is her vocation. To me, woman represented a personification of nature, Isis, and man was her priest, her slave. In contrast to him she was cruel like nature herself, who tosses aside whatever has served her purposes as soon as she no longer has need for it. To him her cruelties, even death itself, still were sensual raptures."
The experience with his aunt imprinted itself on him with sufficient prominence to direct him for the rest of his life.
So goes the entire story, Venus in Furs. Leopold is obsessed with finding a beautiful woman to wear furs and whip him. He found one in real life, as in the story, in the form of Fanny Pistor, alias Baroness Bogdanoff, and on December 8, 1889 signed a contract giving her absolute power over him. He became her slave. Fanny went along with this for awhile taking Leopold traveling with her as her servant. Eventually the liaison ends. I won't tell you how because there is a surprise ending to the book and the real event. Of course, the real life saga continued and Leopold was out there looking for a replacement for his "Venus in Furs".
Onto the stage of our scenario steps Wanda Rumelin, born in Graz, Austria in 1845. Based on her writing, she was a very articulate and intelligent woman. There is so much packed into her autobiography that I can not possibly touch but the tip of the iceberg. As a young woman of 15, her view of love and happiness was 'marriage". It meant being protected by a pure and powerful love, in a beautiful home surrounded by lovely children. Then, her own father abandoned Wanda and her mother. They were immediately thrown into destitution. Women had few ways to earn a living then. They began to do sewing but barely survived. At one point she writes: "In just a few weeks my mother, who was very strong, wasted away in a terrifying fashion. Hunger tortured her day and night. ... When the hunger became unbearable, she would get up in the dead of night, glide softly into the court and dig in the garbage to find old morsels of bread thrown out by the baker's assistants or servants. ... On days when the farmers' market was held she would go at noon to the great square, and search the trash for cabbage leaves and carrots, which she devoured raw."
This was Wanda's environment when she met Leopold. Their relationship flourished and she moved in with him. They lived together one year during which time she had a child that died. Then, they married. You need to read Wanda's book to learn of all the interesting intrigues that led to the marriage.
Wanda was not interested in being Leopold's 'Venus in Furs", or at least so she says. However, she did play the role for him apparently nonconsensually. How does someone coerce someone else to be his "Venus in Furs", a beautiful woman wielding a whip? In this case it appears to be economic control. Soon after the marriage, Wanda had two sons and in addition took in Leopold's illegitimate daughter by a previous mistress. She constantly worried about the survival of these three children. Women did not own property, nor did they have much access to significant income producing jobs. She could not leave him. It would risk starvation for the children. But still, if she stayed, why play the "Venus in Furs"?
All of Leopold's income was from his writing. For many years the main female characters in his works were very similar, all possessing the sadistic characteristics that he was obsessed with. Finally, it became apparent that the readers would soon become bored with this repetitive character. He needed to create different ones. He told Wanda that as long as he had no way to live out his fantasies, he would continue to write about them. If however, she would play out his fantasies with him, he would then be free of his obsession and could create other characters in his writing. She feared for their economic demise and so agreed.
Even so Wanda did not always cooperate. When she refused to cooperate with his desires, he simply stopped writing. After a few months, she knew their income would soon dry up so she would give in to him. In their relationship, as in the rest of Europe during the 1800's, the real economic and legal control rested with the man.
Over a period of time, Leopold's demands on Wanda grew excessive. He had her literally by his side moment by moment. Eventually he wanted her to take on a lover so that he could experience the pain. Remember his character, Severin, said "Nothing can intensify my passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman." For years Leopold continually tried to set up liaisons for Wanda with many men. She says she managed to evade following through. At one point Leopold was offered a job (ie., secure steady income, food for the children). He used that to try to force her to fulfill his fantasy of being cuckolded. The following paragraph depicts her feelings.
"At first, I did not listen to my husband when he spoke to me about this. But he soon made it clear that the success of the publication depended on me; which is to say that Leopold not only wanted to work, but also sought to entertain himself, and that it was up to me to procure him this entertainment if I truly had our livelihood at heart. Although, knowing him to be capable of risking everything in order to obtain the realization of his desire, I answered him coldly and flatly: "No!" each time he asked." Eventually Wanda left Leopold and moved in with Armand who had arranged for sponsorship of the publication, a man with whom Leopold previously had tried to set her up.
Armand promised to love her and keep her forever safe. She never had a sexual relationship with Armand. But their lives continued to be intertwined with Leopold, writers and the politics of the times. They lived in Paris where Armand became famous as a foreign affairs editor and writer. Armand finally decided that he needed a wife of high social status. Wanda was unceremoniously dumped. It appears poverty then ruled again.
During the ten years of marriage Wanda met the political, social and literary elite of the period. She went from a destitute starving young woman to a wife, mother and woman of some stature and eventually returned to poverty. Her book is filled with absolutely fascinating vignettes about her experiences. She and Leopold engaged in a weird encounter with crazy King Ludwig of Germany. Ludwig was the king that built the fairy tale castle that is on all the German travel posters. She tells of their adventures living with the Jewish and the gypsies in Hungary. Her descriptions of the intrigues involved in the world of wives and mistresses were eye opening. There are wonderful descriptions of her friend, Catherine. Catherine was one of the few women who had economic freedom and so proceeded to live a flamboyant and capricious lifestyle.
Near the end of her book, Wanda synthesizes her feelings and thoughts about marriage, love and the state of women. Keep in mind that women could not own property, had little possibility of earning any significant amount of money and essentially had few rights. Child birth was not particularly safe. Many women and children died. They were truly dependent on men for their support whether they liked it or not. Little wonder that women were concerned with security then and now.
Wanda advocates contractual agreements between men and women instead of marriage. Divorce in Europe, then, meant her children could be taken away and there need not be any child support or alimony given to a woman who retained her children. Her thought was that a contract signed when a couple began their relationship would define how children would be supported in the event of separation. She was upset that the "feminist movement" was not pushing for the abolition of the institution of marriage.
She felt that women needed to realize that the sons they raised were future husbands and were at fault for raising sons that were not accepting their responsibilities for their families. If women raised their sons better things would change. She thought "The woman and the man will not be bound by law but solely by their will, their love and their friendship. There will be no more laws that reduce a woman's love to a duty and make her the property of the man. They will give themselves to one another freely and voluntarily, ... "
"Above all, the woman must have the right to leave a man whose lack of morality poses a danger to her and her children, without a judge being involved and her whole life put on trial."
Wanda said "To love oneself is important. Life will be better if one loves oneself better. And the love must be free of all social shackles, of all constraints, so as to be able to develop itself in all its beauty, and produce that which it alone can produce: noble human beings."
Wanda's story pretty much ends there. She returned to poverty and obscurity. Armand eventually became too involved in politics, his world collapsed and he died. Leopold went on to have more mistresses, at least one more wife and other children all the time following his fantasy to play slave to the "Venus in Furs". And so masochism was born out of the fantasies, the obsessions, and the real-life experiences of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
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