Dec 262007


I’m zeroing in on the nexus of slavery, sensibility and the nascent sadomasochistic subculture, sometime around 1800. I think this is when the master-slave terminology and imagery entered the culture. There was flagellation and the like prior to that, but I don’t think the master-slave jargon was a part of it.

I think you need a certain historical and/or geographical distance to enable the fantasy of something like slavery. Munby and Cullwick, I theorize, absorbed slavery images and literature in their childhood and youth, through books, stage plays, minstrel street performances and other media. However, in early 19th century England and other European nations, real slavery was “back then” (i.e. something in the barbaric past, practiced by “primitive” nations) and “over there” (i.e. the tropics, Africa and North America) not in the here and now. Even contemporary texts, like Uncle Tom’s Cabin (1850), were comfortably “over there” for Europeans.

For Sacher-Masoch, slavery is also something “over there.” In Venus in Furs, Severin and Wanda talk about slavery, and contemplate travelling to Turkey where slavery is supposedly still practiced.

“But what does all this mean,” said Wanda, resting her head in both hands with her gaze lost in the distance, “a golden fancy which never can become true.” An uncanny brooding melancholy seemed shed over her entire being; I have never seen her like that.

“Why unachievable?” I began.

“Because slavery doesn’t exist any longer.”

“Then we will go to a country where it still exists, to the Orient, to Turkey,” I said eagerly.

“You would–Severin–in all seriousness,” Wanda replied. Her eyes burned.

“Yes, in all seriousness, I want to be your slave,” I continued. “I want your power over me to be sanctified by law; I want my life to be in your hands, I want nothing that could protect or save me from you. Oh, what a voluptuous joy when once I feel myself entirely dependent upon your absolute will, your whim, at your beck and call. And then what happiness, when at some time you deign to be gracious, and the slave may kiss the lips which mean life and death to him.” I knelt down, and leaned my burning forehead against her knee.


“Shall I sign the contract?” I asked.

“Not yet,” said Wanda. “I shall first add your conditions, and the actual signing won’t occur until the proper time and place.”

“In Constantinople?”

“No. I have thought things over. What special value would there be in owning a slave where everyone owns slaves. What I want is to _have a slave, I alone,_ here in our civilized sober, Philistine world, and a slave who submits helplessly to my power solely on account of my beauty and personality, not because of law, of property rights, or compulsions. This attracts me. But at any rate we will go to a country where we are not known and where you can appear before the world as my servant without embarrassment. Perhaps to Italy, to Rome or Naples.”

Severin views real slavery as the ultimate extension of his fantasy, while Wanda suggests that the distance from reality is necessary to the fantasy game they are playing. Having a slave in Italy is special, having a slave in Turkey is humdrum.

Wanda and Severin do travel to Florence, which is depicted as a warmer, more sensual land than the cold clime described in the novel’s introduction. Along the way, Severin transforms into Wanda’s manservant, with the generic male servant’s name of Gregor; Sacher-Masoch supposedly did this in real life with his lover Fanny Pistor. Compare this to Arthur Munby and Hannah Cullwick traveling in France, with her transforming en route from his maid to his wife. The most mundane (or horrific) activity becomes magical with a shift in location.

This distance allowed the imagery of slavery to be grafted onto standard melodramatic tropes. Thus, Inkle and Yarico could be read as a standard “virtue in distress” story about female faithfulness and male perfidy, just with Caribbean props, sets and costumes, instead of an indictment of an entire political/economic system. Yarico is a Gothic heroine in blackface or brownface.

The laste 1780s and early 1790s saw a spate of novels, plays and poetry that dealt with the slavery issue…. Some of these works were written specifically as propaganda to further the abolitionist casue, while others were designed – with, one may conjecture, varying degrees of cynicism – to appeal to or exploit a popular interest.

The most striking instance of the latter… was the opera Inkle and Yarico… described as one of the first anti-slavery works for the theatre. In fact, though the libretto makes one or two bland passing gestures to anti-slavery sentiment, its primary purpose is to provide popular entertainment that mixes comedy and melodrama in an exotic setting….

Colman’s Inkle and Yarico is significant not as anti-slavery propaganda, but as a piece of popular entertainment that takes as a vehicle a theme of which its audience is assumed to have some knowledge….

The late eighteenth century may have seen an increase in the number of imaginative works dealing with slavery, in response to an increasing political concern with the issue, but the basic approach remained the same as it had been a hundred years earlier. As the historian David Brion Davis has written, ‘Europeans could conceptualize the meaning of enslavement only in the familiar terms that increasingly aroused a sensitive response from the middle class: the separation of young lovers; the heartless betrayal of an innocent girl; the unjust punishment of a faithful servant.’

The subject matter of Inkle and Yarico and Oroonoko – innocence betrayed and star-crossed lovers – was also that of the slavery literature of the late eighteenth century. The enormous actual gulf between European and enslaved African was bridged in the imagination by projecting on to slavery conventional melodramatic scenarios. To the extend that the imaginative treatment of slaves and slavery changed, it was not because of any fresh observation of slavery (most of the authors concerned were entirely ignorant of, and uninterested in, actual, living slaves) but because the nature of the projections – the prevailing aesthetic attitudes and the feelings of guilt, hope and fear concerning the institution of slavery itself – had changed. To that extend, the European literature of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries – even the most fervently Negrophile and abolitionist – failed to bridge the gulf. The anti-slavery aesthetic spoke more of the reader and of his (or, very often, her) existence than it did of that of the slave, its ostensible subject. Herein, ultimately, lay the limits of sentiment.

Lively, Adam. Masks: Blackness, Race & the Imagination Oxford University Press, 2000. Pg. 58-61

Thus, it isn’t a matter of sadomasochistic fantasy being based on real life slavery. The underlying themes and ideas of sadomasochistic fantasy predate abolitionism, and Atlantic slavery itself, going back to older Christian ideas. The literature of slavery provided set dressing for fantasies of suffering, deprivation, virtue, vice, and so on, and we’re still living with such imagery and terminology today, centuries later.

It’s important to restate that this is not the fault of Harriet Beecher-Stowe or William Blake or any other abolitionist artists. The fetishistic reading of Uncle Tom’s Cabin is one of many readings, which are inevitable when a given text or medium becomes highly popular. The text of the novel was surrounded by many different illustrations (many of them unauthorized), some of which departed from the text significantly. Just as Tom is often depicted as a frail, white-haired elderly man, instead of the hearty man in the prime of life in the text, Prue is depicted as a young, shapely, half-naked woman being whipped, instead of the decrepit wretch in the text. (See Marcus Wood’s Blind Memory.)

I know from Psychopathia Sexualis and Munby-Cullwick that there were mid-19th century kinky people with master-slave fetishes, but I’d like some earlier data points.

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