I’ve been thinking a lot about Venus in Furs by Sacher-Masoch. Masoch is of course, most famously known for the origins of the word masochism, and the book is about a man who is so entranced by this woman Wanda that he gives up everything for her. At one point he signs a contract where he says he will even die for her.
I was listening to an episode of Smart Podcast, Trashy Books, featuring an interview with Emily Nagoski, the writer of Come as You Are (a book I just purchased and will be writing about soon because I am so excited to read it!). Nagoski mentioned how Sacher-Masoch and Andrea Dworkin came to the same conclusion—until women have the same rights and equality as men, they can only be slaves to men or men slaves to them.
I was listening to this podcast last week and it got me thinking. I’m a big fan of Andrea Dworkin too. I read her books in college, and think she is super smart. But she came up with the same observation in the 80s or 90s that Sacher-Masoch came up with in the 19th century. For a book about a man submitting to a woman, whipped with a variety of instruments, and treated like a piece of dust at times, Venus in Furs has made quite the pop culture impression.
Why is it referred to again and again when similar books are often ignored?
I recently re-read Venus in Furs this past year since it’s featured on the plot syllabus in my upcoming novel, An Education. It’s pretty untamed for a book from the 19th century. Especially one that leaves the poor main character lifeless and bloody, willing to do anything for his love. I like to think of Wanda as an accidental sadist. She didn’t seek out to cause him misery, Severin pretty much brings it upon himself. There is a scene in which three women whip the main character, Severin, until he bleeds and the love of his life, Wanda just leaves him. Even this scene had me wincing a bit. But hey, he asked for it. He could have said no.
If you look at other libertine novels from the 18th and 19th centuries, like Sade’s, for example, the actions are not for love. Lust or a base desire maybe, but not love, as with Severin.
Maybe it is this overall theme of love within the book that make it stand apart. Rather than the details of bloody whippings and the blatant ignorance of Wanda, helpless love has caught the eye of artists everywhere. There is the song by the Velvet Underground which I found exotic and hypnotizing even when I was in high school and had no idea what it was about. There is a play and then a movie based on the play called Venus in Furs which is based on a stage production, not so much the novel itself. The only artistic rendering to try and give meaning to any other libertine writers that I know of are Quills and The Libertine. Both of these movies highlight the demise of the writers (Sade and Wilmot) and the viewer definitely doesn’t take away the thought, “What would I do for love?”
Venus in Furs is definitely worth a read. It’s a classic, sensual, not too long and unlike a lot of libertine books which are coated in symbolism and the language of the 18th century, the plot isn’t lost in the language and begs you to read it in one sitting.