Archive for literature

Book Review: Venus in Furs

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , , , on September 20, 2011 by vprime

 

I’ve been sorely disappointed with modern authors lately. Long have I taken a secret nerd pride in finishing a book even when I think the thing is horrible, but for quite some time I’ve been unable to do this. A lot of this may be my disinterest in the self-congratulatory twee language-prancing that goes on in a lot of current literary novels. I decided to take a break from postmodernity and read something from the 19th century. Venus in Furs ranks with the works of the Marquis de Sade in the pantheon of influential, taboo titles. Having found the Marquis tediously mechanical and long-winded in excess, I approached this book with some reservation. Shocking subject matter is no guarantee of compelling style. I did, however, look forward to reading something about women in power, as even now there are few works of fiction that contain truly autonomous female characters that aren’t punished for having a will of their own. A book about a dominant female character intrigued me. I wondered if this book might express some ideas about gender that go beyond essentialism, but I see now that I was expecting something far too modern.

Summary

The book opens with a man who wakes from a nightmare going to visit his friend, Severin. The nightmare involves the man having a philosophical conversation with the goddess Venus about how women should behave in romantic relationships. The goddess explains that since men are likely to take advantage of a woman’s natural kindness and softness, it is imperative for women to be distant and cruel to protect themselves from men. Sacher-Masoch actually has Venus say “man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired.” Severin explains that unless a man is domineering, the woman will control and destroy the man. His method of demonstrating this is to scream at a maid about his poached egg, then threaten her with a whip. Needless to say, there isn’t much danger of finding radical revisions of gender ideals here, even though the novel centers around a dominant female. Severin hands his friend a memoir he’s written which constitutes the remainder of the book.

This memoir contains a record of Severin’s relationship with a young widow named Wanda. Severin is by his own admission a dilettante, with no real calling. He roams around, pining after marble statues of goddesses. Wanda is an independent woman who warns Severin that she has grown accustomed to making her own choices. Severin sees Wanda as the embodiment of the marble statues he adores and pretty quickly decides that he would like to marry her. Their relationship evolves through several long conversations in which they discuss their romantic philosophies. Severin spends much of this time describing himself as “supersensual,” which I believed at the time referred to his desire for physical pain. But the book doesn’t lavish attention on the sensory details of the pain Severin feels, and I suspect that by “supersensual,” Sacher-Masoch means that Severin receives his pleasure in a psychic or extra-sensory fashion simply by submitting himself to the will of what he calls an “imperious woman.” Severin spends a lot of time at the beginning of the book describing works of art that inspire his supersensuality, including the Titian painting above. He and Wanda speculate that in ancient times, the supersensual received their pleasure through devotion to goddesses, and that this form of belief resulted in happy female-led relationships in which the woman was free to choose her lovers in both kind and quantity.  Over and over Wanda describes herself as “pagan,” a term which I took to mean more interested in sex than fidelity. She warms up to Severin because he appears sensitive and solicitous. They begin to play at fulfilling Severin’s desire to be dominated by a woman in furs. As Severin pushes for crueler treatment, Wanda warns him that the more he allows her to have her way, the likelier it is that her desires will outstrip his willingness to submit. Severin seems to consent to Wanda’s control and they make a bizarre pact that Severin will serve as Wanda’s slave for a set period of time after which they will be married and Severin will take on a more patriarchal role. This is because Wanda explains that she cannot be married to a man who subjugates himself to her, but would only ever respect a more domineering man.

This segment of the book suggests that both Wanda and Severin are too disturbed by their departure from the expected gender roles to seriously consider a female-dominant relationship as a possibility. Wanda even suggests that such a relationship would be so deviant it might make them both lose their sanity. Wanda’s insistence on finding a domineering man struck me as inexplicably strange. She enjoys the freedom of being a widow, tells Severin that she won’t be restricted from loving whomever she wishes, warns him that her appetite for dominance may be much stronger than his need to be submissive, yet she is somehow missing a bossy husband? She vacillates between being coldly cruel and falling all over Severin, needily asking whether he still loves her. A few times, she expresses her desire to give up their arrangement.

Severin, for his part, comes off as incredibly whiny. The main portion of their relationship takes place in Florence, where Severin pretends to be Wanda’s footman. In one scene, Wanda sees a handsome man riding his horse and orders Severin to take him an invitation to tea. Severin falls down crying and begging to know whether Wanda still loves him and will still marry him. Wanda says she can’t marry a weakling like him, then later in the night goes to find Severin and assure him that she loves him so! much! and begs him to still marry her. In other words, they’re both nuts. They fall into a totally codependent relationship that results in Wanda threatening to give Severin away and Severin vowing to kill Wanda. The great subtext of their increasingly drama-laden conversations become “look what you made me do!” I cannot overemphasize how whiny Severin is; constantly flinging himself down at Wanda’s feet in despair that she might take a lover who isn’t pretending to be a footman. Wanda is either a master manipulator or similarly desperate. She goes to great lengths to assure Severin that she’s faithful to him, even after her grand “pagan” pronouncements that no man is going to restrict her “gift of love” again.

Wanda eventually falls for some Greek war hero who seems to have marched out of the Big Book of Byronic Beefcake. He’s all flashing dark eyes and riding boots and arrogance. Severin becomes a non-stop bag of tears at this point. Wanda gets genuinely annoyed, reminding Severin that she was always looking for some jerk to boss her around and that she warned him she could become crueler than he ever intended. Severin pulls out every trick ever used by the manipulative guys you’ve tried to dump. This new guy couldn’t possibly ever love Wanda as much as Severin does. Wanda’s making herself a cheap whore for this guy. He’ll kill himself. He’ll kill her and this new guy, too. Wanda invites her new boyfriend over and together they give Severin a good flogging for being such a whiner. This is the final indignity that makes Severin pack up his toys and go home.

Now Severin is embittered and so determined to never again be hurt by a woman that he threatens his female employees with violence. Nice guy. Years later he gets a letter from Wanda. She did indeed get married to the Byronic Beefcake, but he was killed in a duel pretty soon after they married. She tells Severin that everything she did was to cure him of his supersensuality. The book literally has a moral: “The moral of the tale is this: whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.” Uh, what? Shouldn’t that be more like “Whoever begs and whines to be whipped shouldn’t be too shocked to be whipped”?

Analysis

I suspected I wouldn’t find a lot of feminist ideas here, despite the book’s lofty praise of remote goddesses and powerful women. I spent a lot of time puzzling over Wanda’s search for a more domineering man. The book suggests this is a woman’s natural desire, which seems so backward. But the more I thought about Severin, and by extension, Sacher-Masoch, the more I started to understand. Severin controls Wanda just as much as any Bryonic Beefcake might, only he does it through emotional manipulation and by maintaining his martyr façade. Wanda believes Severin is sensitive and wonderfully different. She’s impressed by his knowledge of art—but it turns out the only art he ever discusses is that which serves as his personal porn trove. He has the temperament of a poet, but he’s only interested in one subject—his own supersensual needs. He’s great at conversation until he becomes Wanda’s slave—then all he ever wants to talk about is whether or not she still loves him. His time with Wanda is all about his fantasy. I was disappointed, but not terribly surprised, to see that in Wanda, Sacher-Masoch had created yet another empty feminine vessel with no desires of her own. She consents to Severin’s desires even though her true wish is for a different type of relationship.

Even in fiction, Sacher-Masoch couldn’t conceive of a woman’s desire to be dominant except as a means of pleasing her mate. Why wasn’t his Venus already endowed with the will to rule? Why does Severin have to talk her into it? There are two possibilities I considered: First, that the very “unnatural” quality of female power is what makes it appealing. If all women are by nature pliant and submissive, then the inversion of the expected order by itself makes the dominant woman attractive. If women ruled the world, then a dominant woman would be expected, not wonderfully taboo. Second, that a woman who is persuaded into ruling is still being controlled by the persuader. In this arrangement, the male may get the illusion of female dominance while staying secure in the knowledge that he still controls the relationship. Despite his talk of Venus and goddesses, it’s outside Severin’s consideration that women are superior or even equal to him. He turns into a misogynist so readily; it’s hard to believe he ever saw women as fully human. His manipulative behavior shows that he sees Wanda as a tool for his own pleasure, not an autonomous being. Wanda could never fulfill Severin’s desires. No one can, because he has an idealized and literally inhuman image of the cruel goddess in his mind that he’s exclusively devoted to. It’s this second possibility that strikes me as the most likely, knowing that Sacher-Mascoch did this to his wives, leading one of them to die from syphilis contracted from an extra-marital affair he insisted she undertake.

The book is undoubtedly endowed with a wonderful atmosphere of suspense. I read it all in one night because the feeling of dread and anticipation is so well realized through Severin here. There is a wealth of detail devoted to descriptions of Wanda, but the world outside her is just quickly sketched. Overall, the novel had a restricted or claustrophobic mood because Severin’s world doesn’t contain much beyond the fantasies he projects onto Wanda. Also, I might mention that for a book that has a reputation for being kinky, this book is quite chaste. There is no sex or nudity. The sensuality is oddly disembodied—it’s a sensuality of the eye and not the skin. There are images and emotions, but not many physical sensations. Even when Severin is being beaten, the focus is on the humiliation he feels, not the physical blows.

If you are interested in further analysis of this book, I recommend Gilles Deleuze’s “Coldness and Cruelty.”

Have you read this book? What do you think?

 

 

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Review: A Rebours

Posted in Books, Culture with tags , , , , on May 12, 2011 by vprime

A Rebours is a book about nothing. Well, not nothing exactly. It is mainly a catalogue of things the central character, Des Esseintes, owns. The plot, as such is this: Des Esseintes has some digestive trouble. He moves away from the city in the hope that more aesthetically pleasing surroundings will cure him. It doesn’t. In between, there are long chapters devoted to detailing all things that do or don’t appeal to Des Esseintes’ taste. For example, he redecorates his rooms repeatedly, with extra attention paid to which fabrics he uses, which colors suit his mood, which books he chooses to display. He has a dining room made with fish tanks in place of the windows so that he can pretend he’s underwater. He makes his servants wear fake headdresses so he can pretend they are nuns when he sees them walking past his window. There are chapters listing which Latin books Des Esseintes approves of and which ones he finds vulgar. He makes some perfume, has a turtle covered in jewels and collects a lot of plants that are intended to look fake. Much of the book is taken up with descriptions of paintings and interiors, but there is little to define the character of Des Esseintes other than his possessions.

I found much of the book tedious and skipped many of the exhaustive lists of Latin books in Des Esseintes’ library. There were two incidents that nearly began some character development, both of which suffered for having been mere memories. In the first, Des Esseintes decides he will make a murderer of a young man by taking him to expensive brothels and then withdrawing his financial support. Why does he want to do this? He seems to come close here to acknowledging his own irrelevance. As though by believing he could wield such influence he hopes to prove to himself that something he does has external consequence. But this matter is dropped because Des Esseintes becomes bored with the game before he sees the outcome. I suspect the real matter here is that Des Esseintes, in living a life slavishly devoted to solipsism, may even doubt his own objective existence, and the failure of this experiment would prove that. Therefore, he abandons the project lest he find out the unpleasant truth—that he really doesn’t matter to anyone.

The second incident that raised my expectations was the fling Des Esseintes has with an Amazonian circus performer named Miss Urania. (Hint. Hint. Hint.) Initially, Des Esseintes is charmed by the daring feats and impressive stature of Miss Urania. Eventually, he becomes disgusted that she doesn’t use her superior physical strength to toss him about like a ragdoll. Also, she inconveniently has emotions and preferences of her own which are far too vulgar for Des Esseintes to tolerate. This memory led me to expect that we would learn after all that all of Des Esseintes deathly boredom was due to perverse appetites the sort of which led to imprisonment in those days. No. From there the book laments that the Church isn’t as brutally strict as it used to be and spends several pages describing a specially made volume of Les Fleurs Du Mal which I would very much like to have. On the way to the end, Des Esseintes is physically sickened by the ugly faces of commoners, stops eating and is told by his doctor that if he doesn’t go back to the city he’ll die. The end.

At first I was surprised at Des Esseintes’ religiosity. After I thought it over, it made perfect sense. What’s the joy in devoting yourself to decadent sensation unless it breaks someone else’s rules? Without the Church, there’s not one to define what’s wrong and therefore pleasurable. What Des Esseintes laments when he rails against the marginalization of the Church is the leaching away of transgressive pleasure from life.