Feb 282008

At long last, I finally found another translated work by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. “The Black Czarina” was a short story printed in the back of the 1965 Senate edition of Venus in Furs, translated by H.J. Henning. What Fernanda Savage translated as “Confessions of a Supersensual Man”, Henning calls “Confessions of an Ulta-Sentimentalist”, both of which suggest a connection to 18th century ideas of sensibility.

Unfortunately, the book says nothing about where or when “The Black Czarina” was published.

Unsurprisingly, the story reflects Sacher-Masoch’s preoccupation with cruel women (and fur), but it ties in his many other interests in a somewhat ungainly package. It starts off with a picturesque sketch of decaying Galician castles, but that doesn’t last long until: “The great Czar Vladimir is couched at the feet of his slave…. Bearskins are strewn profusely on the ground.”

Vladimir is obsessed with Narda, his slave, who was widowed after the war against Kiev, and delighted in seeing boyards fight to the death over her. The czar, passing by, claims her. However, he grows to love (?) her precisely because of her indomitableness. She says, “Kill me if you like, but you cannot force me. I mock you. You are as impotent as a child.”

To prove his love, Vladimir swaps places with Narda, sovereign and slave, then gives her absolute power for one day, sunrise to sunset.

Unlike Wanda von Dunajew, Narda requires no coaxing to take control on her special day. She wakes to have Vladimir kiss her foot, then dresses in ermine. Her first proclamation: “May my reign be a reign of peace an happiness. As long as it lasts, as far as my sceptre reacher, no man is to bear arms. In token of peace and gentleness, women will form my guard.” She orders treasury gold to be given to the people. She liberates the female slaves from the palace, who serve as her bodyguard.

Sacher-Masoch wasn’t exactly racially progressive, to wit:

“Where is the negress?” enquired Narda.

“In the dungeon.”

“Tigris? And why?”

“She killed her gaoler.”

Narda gave a sign and Tigris was brought to her. She was a superb woman who seemed carved out of ebony. A woman disquieting by the nocturnal splendour of her body of bacchante, by the cruel laugh of her feline face and the bloodthirsty sparkle of her voluptuous eyes.

“You killed a man?” said Narda in a severe tone.

The negress nodded.

“And why?”

“For the pleasure of it,” replied Tigris, grinding her teeth.

“For one day I have the power of life and death,” said the Czarina. “What shall I do with you?”

“Let me die. I cannot live here if I may not kill anybody. My heart thirsts for blood, as yours for kisses.”

“Good. Your thirst will be quenched,” said the Czarina with a shudder. “No man is allowed to bear arms in my domain. I pardon you Tigris. You will be my executioner.”

The negress let fly a savage yelp, the cry of a wild beast.

Narda is also described in animalistic terms.

The czarina and her female guards go on a morning bear hunt, and Narda calmly dispatches a bear. Then things take a turn for the odd. Narda comes across Iegor, the pragmatic and independent-minded peasant man, who is unimpressed by her.

“I hate all those who wear purple and fine linen, and harness men to their carts like beasts. We lived free…. We had no wars, and if anyone disturbed the peace of the commune, the people judged him.”

This is the kind of resourceful, independent peasant man Sacher-Masoch valorized in other writings, at least according to James Cleugh’s biography. Narda wins his loyalty until the end of the day.

When holding court, Narda hears the complaints of the people against the boyard nobles. In this case, loyalty to the czar is seen as a belief in justice and personal autonomy, compared to the corrupt and brutal boyards. Narda orders a boyard executed and quartered, with a portion given to each of four accusers. The others begged for mercy, but they are slaughtered by women archers. The dying men gaze adoringly at their executioners.

When Narda puts Iegor in charge of the army on the frontier, the czar says, “You have done what no sovereign dared to, broken the power of an arrogant nobility. For this, we thank you. But do not interfere with the rights of the Crown.” Narda pays no heed.

She holds an extravagant party at the end of the day. The boyards (presumably the ones who weren’t slaughtered) toast her. While there’s still an hour before sundown, she whips Vladimir.

Vladimir tries to cut this off, but Narda turns a temporary play into a coup. Vladimir and the boyards fall to their knees and surrender. Narda has Tigris execute Vladimir. “Blood spurted over the ermine.” It ends with a decapitation scene straight out of Salome and Judith and other stories of women destroying men, as described as Dijkstra’s Idols of Perversity. Narda becomes Galicia’s benevolent dictator.

While Wanda is an agent (unwitting?) of Severin’s personal transformation (however incomplete and tentative), Narda is an agent of Galicia’s social transformation. She liberates the peasantry from the corrupt and vicious nobility and puts women, slaves and peasants in positions of authority, a classic “world upside down” scenario. Initially, this social upheaval is a liminoid ritual, a temporary period bounded by sunrise and sunset, but Narda takes the opportunity to make the ritual liminal, and permanent. Slave becomes sovereign, and sovereign becomes a corpse. Perhaps this suggests that the play of power in sexual desire, in which women have advantage, according to Sacher-Masoch, could result in real social revolution. We know that Sacher-Masoch grew up in a region wracked with recent peasant uprisings and massacres. For him, that was a very real possibility for the future, and he had a very ambivalent view of it. Perhaps his fascination with personal and social violence was a response to his wish for revolution, combined with his realization that, as an aristocrat and an intellectual, he’d probably be one of the first up against the wall. (Lord Byron had a similar conflict.)

Not a good story, as the dialogue is stilted and the characters are stereotypes, but at least I can speak with a little more authority on the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.

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