Dec 272007

Finke, Michael C. and Carl Niekirk. One Hundred Years of Masochism: Literary Texts, Social and Cultural Contexts Rodopi, 2000

Noyes, John K. The Mastery of Submission: Inventions of Masochism Cornell University Press, 1997

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch needs better literary representation, even though he’s been dead for more than 100 years.

I still have yet to find any of his books that have been translated into English, other than Venus in Furs. There’s a whole shelf of books on Sade, both biographical and critical, but comparatively little on Sacher-Masoch. (Granted, Sade’s life was very well documented and also tied intimately to the history of the French revolution.) Here’s a guy who, in his life, was the next big thing in German literature, the successor to Goethe (who had his own penchant for self-orchestrated suffering, incidentally.)

And then Richard von Krafft-Ebing was rude enough to coin the term masochism, while Sacher-Masoch was still alive. Romanticism collided with science; science won. Whatever Sacher-Masoch’s literary accomplishments, all were forgotten, and he would be known to future generations as merely a lunatic and a sexual deviant. His ex-wife published her memoirs in 1907, further stamping him as a wife abuser.

Literary history is full of writers whose personal lives are less than exemplary, but that usually doesn’t stop their works from being known. However, Sacher-Masoch is the victim of a highly effective character assassination, transforming a writer, a journalist, a humanitarian, into pathology. Even the term named after him, masochism, is used so imprecisely that it approaches meaninglessness.

Still, I’ve gleaned a few bits of data on Sacher-Masoch that show him to be more than just a lunatic. He was writing in the tradition of German and Russian romantics like Goethe and Turgenev, both of whom wrote about self-inflicted suffering.

Sacher-Masoch also spent his formative years at the intersection of several cultures: Russians, Jews, Germans and Poles.

When they travel to Italy, Severin transforms into Wanda’s manservant, with the generic male servant’s name of Gregor. (This is an inversion of when Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick travelled in France, with her transforming from his maid to his wife.)

“You forget that is no longer a question as to whether you satisfy me as a man; as a _slave_ you will doubtless do well enough.”

“Madame!” I exclaimed, aghast.

“That is what you will call me in the future,” replied Wanda, throwing back her head with a movement of unutterable contempt. “Put your affairs in order within the next twenty-four hours. The day after to-morrow I shall start for Italy, and you will accompany me as my servant.”


“I forbid any sort of familiarity,” she said, cutting my words short, “likewise you are not to come in unless I call or ring for you, and you are not to speak to me until you are spoken to. From now on your name is no longer Severin, but _Gregor_.”

I trembled with rage, and yet, unfortunately, I cannot deny it, I also felt a strange pleasure and stimulation.

“But, madame, you know my circumstances,” I began in my confusion. “I am dependent on my father, and I doubt whether he will give me the large sum of money needed for this journey–”

“That means you have no money, Gregor,” said Wanda, delightedly, “so much the better, you are then entirely dependent on me, and in fact my slave.”

The narrative puts a lot of detail into the material differences between them now: Severin, as Gregor, wears different clothes, eats poorly, sleeps in unheated rooms and is run ragged by Wanda’s orders.

Immediately after Severin signs the slave contract with Wanda and hands over his passport and money to her, Wanda summons “three young, slender negresses enter; they are as if carved of ebony, and are dressed from head to foot in red satin; each one has a rope in her hand.” Thus, Severin is even further down the hierarchies of race/gender/class.

Note also the ritual, the use of questions asked and answered, the trinity of women who attend Wanda. In another Sacher-Masoch novel, The Mother of God, the male protagonist restages the crucifixion, but with a female God and Judas. While the ritual has the aim of transforming the initiate (i.e. the author) the transformation is not complete. The main story of Venus in Furs can be seen as a therapeutic project, Wanda’s plan to cure Severin of his need, but its apparent success is belied by the fact that Severin, as we see him in the framing story after the fact, is slightly mad. And we all know that Sacher-Masoch’s obsessions only grew stronger over his life.

Robert Tobin, in his essay “Masochism and Identity”, brings up what he calls the “X-women”, the handful of female masochists in Psychopathia Sexualis (instead of being diagnosed as being in “sexual bondage”), and in particular the ones whose fantasies have a medical theme. In Case 86, the woman arranges to be “forced” into having gynecological exams, becoming aroused in the process. In Case 84, Miss X dreams of having herself committed to an asylum where she is beaten and dominated. The process (the ritual, one might say) of medicine is used by the patient to gain pleasure, instead of being cured (transformed.) Liminal ritual becomes liminoid. The masochist is invested in the process, not the product, and subverts the entire disciplinary process. This is the literary problem of masochism, as masochists don’t want the fantasy to end with narrative resolution.

Roland Dollinger’s essay “Goethe’s Suffering Werther”, shows the link between Sacher-Masoch and Goethe’s highly popular The Sorrows of Young Werther, and that both men referred back to the Abbe Prevost’s Manon Lescaut. Both referred to the idea that the happiness of virtue is entangled with suffering, though Goethe promises reward in the afterlife.

Michael C. Finke’s “Sacher-Masoch, Turgenev and other Russians” reveals that Theodore Reik said that “Russian lessons” was a code phrase used in newspapers to advertise masochistic services. (“The Russian Vice”?) To the Europeans who created psychiatry, Russians were stereotyped as masochists, such as the apocryphal example of the Russian peasant woman who didn’t feel loved by her husband unless he beat her. This goes back at least as far as the 17th century. Sacher-Masoch grew up on the frontier between Germany and Russia, and was fascinated by Catherine the Great, another German-Russian hybrid. Sacher-Masoch was seen as Russian by Parisians, and both absorbed and transmitted this image of the masochistic Russian character.

Sacher-Masoch was influenced by Turgenev, especially his story “First Love“, though Turgenev greatly disliked Sacher-Masoch.

Barbara Hyams’ “Causal connections: The Case of Sacher-Masoch” points out that while Sacher-Masoch dreamed of harmony between races, religions and genders, he could see no way out of a world of inequality, where one must be either hammer or anvil. He was a philosemite and a target of anti-semites, and accused of having Jewish traits. Jewish men were depicted in feminized terms, and the emancipated woman and the emancipated Jew were seen as sources of corruption in German society. Sacher-Masoch was highly involved in these struggles.

However, I’m still frustrated by how little I know about the life and times of Sacher-Masoch. Instead of seeing him as a product and interpreter of his environment, we instead view him as an ahistorical representative of a mental illness, presumed to be a universal anomaly. The picture may not be so bleak in other languages. Both the “One Hundred Years of Masochism Anthology” and Noyes’ “The Master of Submission” have numerous references, but they seem to be mainly in languages other than English.

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