Have you ever picked up a draft of something you’ve set aside for a few weeks or months, all pumped and motivated to sink your teeth into it, only to find yourself thinking, “Who the hell wrote this crap?”
Yeah, it’s been one of those days.
Now that the coffee romance anthology deadline has been pushed back to December, I can commence editing the next chapter of my WIP— aka, the aforementioned WTF draft.
It’s fine. I’m fine. We’re fine!
In the meantime, I’ve wanted to write a post about the transcendence of sexual fantasy into reality ever since I finished Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s scandalous book, Venus in Furs a few weeks back.
Published in 1870, Venus in Furs is inspired by Sacher-Mashoch’s own experiences as a sexually submissive man, from which the term “masochism” was derived.
I’m not going to get into the controversy surrounding the term “masochism” and its place in psychiatry. I’m also not aiming to discuss what that psychological designation implies about masochism as a sexual practice within the BDSM community. Instead, I want to focus on the realization of sexual fantasy within the context of this classic narrative. (Next week, I’ll be posting about tentacle dildos because I’m bad at branding and have taken an “anything sex- or erotica-related goes” approach to my blog. So, if you’re hungry for c-words and this article doesn’t tickle your fancy, stay tuned.)
Venus in Furs opens within the dream of an unnamed narrator in which he and the goddess, Venus—who is dressed in furs—are conversing about love. After waking, he relays the events of the dream to his friend Severin, who presents him with a manuscript titled, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man, in an effort to cure the narrator of his submissive tendencies.
The nested narrative (the manuscript) tells the story of Severin’s sexual exploits with the young widow, Wanda von Donajew (purportedly modeled after Sacher-Mashoch’s own lover, Fanny Pistor).
Severin makes numerous attempts to convince Wanda to accept her role as his “Mistress”:
“If I am not permitted to enjoy the happiness of love, fully and wholly, I want to taste its pains and torments to the very dregs; I want to be maltreated and betrayed by the woman I love, and the more cruelly the better. This too is a luxury.”
“In such a revelation only one can be the hammer and the other anvil. I wish to be the anvil. I cannot be happy when I look down upon the woman I love. I want to adore a woman, and this I can only do when she is cruel towards me.”
This is Severin’s fantasy: to be completely and utterly subservient to a dominant woman.
In their initial conversations, Wanda presents the possibility that she might one day, in the event that her feelings for Severin change, take another lover:
“A shudder ran through me. I looked at her. She stood firmly and confident before me, and her eyes disclosed a cold gleam.
‘You see,’ she continued, ‘the very thought frightens you.’ A beautiful smile suddenly illuminated her face.
‘…If I cannot obtain the one that is noble and simple, the woman who will faithfully and truly share my life, then I don’t want anything half-way or lukewarm. Then I would rather be subject to a woman without virtue, fidelity, or pity. Such a woman in her magnificent selfishness would be likewise an ideal.'”
Eventually, Wanda agrees to allow Severin to be her slave. Through floggings, insults, periods of deliberate neglect, being christened with the slave name, Gregor, and finally, being tied to a pillar and whipped by Wanda’s new Byronic lover, Severin comes face to face with the reality of his imaginings and becomes disenchanted:
“The sensation of being whipped by a successful rival before the eyes of an adored woman cannot be described. I almost went mad with shame and despair.
“What was most humiliating was at first I felt a certain wild, supersensual stimulation under Apollo’s [Wanda’s lover] whip and the cruel laughter of my Venus, no matter how horrible my position was. But Apollo whipped on and on, blow after blow, until I forgot all about poetry, and finally gritted my teeth in impotent rage, and cursed my wild dreams, woman, and love.”
Fantasy occupies a significant portion of our psyches and our lives. It’s the story we tell ourselves while standing in line at the grocery store or in bed before we go to sleep. It’s the images that play across our mind’s eye when we should be studying for tomorrow’s exam.
While some of us, like Severin, take the extra step of trying to turn fantasy into reality, many of us prefer to keep them right where they are, either out of practicality or personal responsibility, or perhaps even guilt or shame.
For those who do decide to bridge the gap, questions arise: how does the fantasy translate when moved into the realm of reality? Like Severin, are we doomed to disillusionment? Or perhaps, through playing out our fantasies, are we then cured of them?
Three years after the termination of their affair, Severin receives a letter from Wanda:
“I suppose, I may confess to you that I loved you deeply. You yourself, however, stifled my love by your fanatic devotion and your insane passion. From the moment that you became my slave, I knew it would be impossible for you ever to become my husband. However, I found it interesting to have you realize your ideal in my own person, and, while I gloriously amused myself, perhaps, to cure you.
…I hope you have been cured under my whip; the cure was cruel, but radical.”
By the end of the book, Severin is no longer sexually submissive. Rather, he has become a tyrant in his own right, threatening to beat his female servant at the most innocuous offense. His final words to the narrator are quite telling:
“At present we have only the choice of being the hammer or anvil, and I was the kind of donkey who let a woman make a slave of him, do you understand?”
Severin may have been “cured” of his penchant for submission, but only insofar as he has become a sadist, for one can be either Dominant or submissive, and if he is no longer submissive, then he must be Dominant.
Of course, many of us are lucky enough to be able to play out our sexual fantasies within the safety of a consensual sexual relationship featuring safe words, hard limits, negotiations, open dialogue, and respected boundaries. Severin and Wanda do discuss their arrangement at length towards the beginning of the book, but only so far as to establish that what Severin wants is to be completely and utterly devoted to her every whim (until he’s in the thick of it and her whims no longer mirror his fantasy).
Like all erotica and romance writers, I am a purveyor of sexual fantasy.
According to an article at The Richest, published in January of this year, Erotica and Romance generated the highest earnings of all genre fiction—a whopping $1.4 billion USD in 2013.
This doesn’t surprise me.
The nature of these genres is, by definition, intimate, pulling at heartstrings and touching readers in all the most tender places (ahem). In doing so, it manages to tap into something so incredibly personal: fantasies and desires that many of us will never have and/or take the opportunity to explore in our daily lives. But with the help of talented authors and steamy, engaging fiction, we can get a taste of that which we crave most, no matter how scandalous.
We need not go the way of Severin and his violent disillusionment (though we can certainly try).
Venus in Furs encompasses a multitude of themes, including some really interesting commentary on gender equality. It’s a quick read and written in surprisingly comprehensible language, given its publication date, and I would encourage anyone interested in sadomasochism to check it out (it’s free to download on Amazon). I will note that if you’re looking for graphic depictions of sex, you won’t find them; this is a very subtle text with regard to the sexual acts themselves, focusing much more on the social relations and psychological aspects of masochism.