Curious about the first ever masochist? Want to get to know a “beautiful, cruel and despotic woman”? Spice up your reading list with some erotic literature.

Looking for some exciting reading material at the end of a long day in the university library, or sitting in front of spreadsheets at work? Wondering how to find some erotica which won’t be as cringeworthy as the now infamous 50 Shades of Grey? Velislav Ivanov brings you the first in a series of sneaky peeks into the wonders of European erotic literature.

Venus in furs

venus_mirror
Image: Venus with a Mirror, by Titian (copyright free). Titian’s famous painting, “Venus with a Mirror,” was one of the inspirations for Sacher-Masoch’s portrayal of a “beautiful, passionate, cruel and despotic woman.”

“Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart!”

It is perhaps this slightly startling punchline of The Velvet Underground’s iconic song “Venus in Furs” that has lead you to track down the deviant book it derives its title from, and guiltily skim through its pages in search of the naughty bits. Or possibly it is after mulling over the pornographic perversities of the Marquis de Sade that you decided to see what the other side of the coin conveyed – to discover the “masochism” to match his “sadism”. In terms of literature, at least. Or maybe you stumbled across the irresistibly seductive Penguin edition with Gustav Klimt’s Judith on its cover and just had to read the text beneath it. Or was it that you saw Luis Buñuel’s shockingly suggestive masterpiece, Belle de Jour, and felt compelled to track down its influences? In any case, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s most cherished work is much less famous – or notorious – than some of the works it inspired, or its sadistic counterpart. And much to everyone’s surprise, absolutely undeservedly.

For whatever reason you decide to open the book, there are certain sexual standards; particular erotic expectations that you would imagine it should meet, especially if you’ve been through even a couple of pages of de Sade. What is initially shocking, however, is actually the lack of bedroom scenes until well into the novella. It would not be too much of a spoiler to reveal that instead of covering us in kink from page one, it starts with an aesthetic dream scene in which the narrator and the goddess Venus (you guessed it, wearing furs) discuss in a detached manner the nature of love and desire.

“I cannot deny that nothing will attract a man more than the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel, and despotic woman who wantonly changes her favourites without scruple in accordance with her whim…”

And this image, like Titian’s painting “Venus with a Mirror”, which in part inspired the work, becomes a blueprint for the plot to follow. Severin, the original masochist, willfully and contractually submits himself to his lover’s every depraved whim, and what is more, encourages her to treat him in a degrading manner, both socially and sexually. In a European journey to Florence, he voluntarily takes the role of Wanda von Dunajew’s servant, which she slowly starts abusing, up to the immensely amusing, climactic, and melodramatic denouement.

“Nothing will attract a man more than the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel and despotic woman.”

But if there is not an abundance of explicit kink, why would you want to read this book? There are a number of reasons – most of all, a page-turning curiosity. Much like Nabokov’s great controversial novel, “Venus in Furs” makes you eager to see if it goes further with each page, how deviant the next paragraph may be. The short length of the book, barely over a hundred pages, only increases the desire to know what happens at the end. It is in fact a challenge not to finish this book in one night.

Nevertheless, perhaps the greatest virtue of “Venus in Furs” lies in its emphasis on the psychologically, rather than physically, sexual. It is because of this that it is also regarded as a central work of the respective branch of psychology which deals with the desire for submission. And it also gave us the term “masochist.” The story is actually by and large autobiographical, or at least that’s what was claimed by von Sacher-Masoch himself. This is in any case evident in the vivid passages in which he explains his twisted urges, and tries to analyse their reasons and origins:

“If I can’t enjoy the full and total happiness of love, then I want to drain its torments, its tortures to the dregs; then I want the woman I love to mistreat me, betray me, and the more cruelly the better. That too is a pleasure.”

Once you put the book down, having read the author’s acute observations on 19th century society and the place of women in it, you feel perplexed. It certainly is not the book you expected it to be. Even the sex scenes were amusing, rather than arousing. And yet, somehow it was far more revelatory on the subject than it would have been if it had simply described its bedroom aspects. Could it be that this piece of writing, often dismissed as the obscene pornographic drivel of a sick man – book which was banned across Europe and beyond, and printed only in small numbers by dubious publishers – could it be that it actually is… literature?

Cover Photo: Titian (copyright free)

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