The Titian painting "Venus with a Mirror",
from which Severin gets the idea of "Venus in Furs".
In the last edition of Kaelah's Corner I wrote about Sacher-Masoch's “Venus in Furs” and how much energy it cost me to read the novella because it made me feel very uncomfortable. Today I would like to add a few thoughts about the kinky relationship between Severin and Wanda, the two main characters of the book, and why I think that the form of kink described in the novella isn't healthy. To give you an overview of the storyline here is a short plot description from Wikipedia:
The framing story concerns a man who dreams of speaking to Venus about love while she wears furs. The unnamed narrator tells his dreams to a friend, Severin, who tells him how to break him of his fascination with cruel women by reading a manuscript, Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.
This manuscript tells of a man, Severin von Kusiemski, so infatuated with a woman, Wanda von Dunajew, that he requests to be treated as her slave, and encourages her to treat him in progressively more degrading ways. At first Wanda does not understand or relate to the request, but after humouring Severin a bit she finds the advantages of the method to be interesting and enthusiastically embraces the idea; though at the same time, she disdains Severin for allowing her to do so.
Severin describes his feelings during these experiences as suprasensuality. Severin and Wanda travel to Florence. Along the way, Severin takes the generic Russian servant's name of "Gregor" and the role of Wanda's servant. In Florence, Wanda treats him brutally as a servant, and recruits a trio of African women to dominate him.
The relationship arrives at a crisis point when Wanda herself meets a man to whom she would like to submit, a Byronic hero known as Alexis Papadopolis. At the end of the book, Severin, humiliated by Wanda's new lover, loses the desire to submit. He says of Wanda:
"That woman, as nature has created her, and man at present is educating her, is man's enemy. She can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion. This she can become only when she has the same rights as he and is his equal in education and work."
So the relationship between Severin and Wanda clearly ends in a disaster. Letting one of her lovers humiliate him and leaving him were the two things Severin asked Wanda never to do. And that's exactly what she finally does. And at first sight, Severin's conclusion sounds rather dark and disenchanted, too: There is no such thing as an equal partnership between men and women in his society, one can either be hammer or anvil. But this goes only for the social environment Severin and Wanda live in. Sacher-Masoch's moral, though, is a rather progressive and feminist one. Men and women can only become equal mates when the society they live in provides them with the same rights, as well as equal educational and working possibilities.
I agree with Sacher-Masoch that living in a society that values gender equality makes it easier for men and women to establish relationships as equal partners. But, first of all, I think this is also possible in a social environment which doesn't provide the ideal preconditions. Because to my mind, the concept of an equal relationship depends more on the values of the partners involved than on the legal system. And secondly, I wonder whether the legal system, education and occupation are really the main reasons for the failure of Severin's and Wanda's relationship. Quite frankly, I don't think so. Both Wanda and Severin seem to be of a high education and both seem to be free in their decision of where to live, with whom and how. To my mind their partnership is unhealthy because of two aspects lying within their relationship.
The first one is that Severin tries to push Wanda into a role she isn't comfortable with. To my mind it is never good for a relationship if one partner tries to form the other into an ideal he or she has on his/her mind. Of course between partners there are always compromises and from time to time one will do something just in order to make the other happy. Living in a partnership might also change people because their mate provides them with new ideas and experiences. But, to my mind, trying to manipulate a partner in order to make him or her fit to some ideal picture is disrespectful and egoistic. And in the long run it won't work out, anyway. At least that's my point of view and my experience from the observations I've made so far.
The second destructive aspect is that Severin is so afraid of losing Wanda that he is literally willing to endure anything, just to make her stay. He gives up all his self-respect and pride. To my mind this is what finally leads to Wanda losing her respect for Severin as well. Living in an equal relationship is hard work. In order to live as equal mates, both partners must be willing to invest a lot into their relationship, but at the same time they must both make sure not to give up their identity as individuals, either. I assume that living in a partnership with a clear power dynamics is a bit easier in this respect. At least both partners know their role. In an equal relationship the roles are changing permanently and they don't always fit together.
I think that Severin tries to take the easy and supposedly safe path: If I give up my personality (as he literally does when becoming “Gregor”), don't expect anything from Wanda (except from wearing furs) and let her do everything to me that pleases her, she won't ever have any reason to leave me and I can't lose her. Well, he is wrong because she wants an equal partner and not a puppet on a string. The sad thing is that Severin is convinced that men and women can't be equal mates, despite of never having tried to live in an equal relationship. At first he makes Wanda his “Venus in Furs” and later he treats women with disrespect and cruelty in order to make sure that he is hammer and not anvil...
The part that is missing in the English plot summary on Wikipedia is that Wanda writes a letter to Severin some years later and sends it to him together with a picture showing her as “Venus in Furs” which had been drawn during their time in Florence. She tells him that her relationship with Alexis Papadopolis is over. And she expresses her hope that Severin is fine and that her brutal way of ending their relationship cured him from his unhealthy desires. So, it seems like she somehow cared about him after all which makes it even more sad that Severin never gave them a chance to live in a healthy partnership.
And a healthy partnership to my mind can of course involve BDSM! Because with two sane, equal and consenting partners dreaming of a cruel woman or man (in BDSM play) isn't an unhealthy desire. The fact that one doesn't find this form of kinky relationship and play in the novella is what made me uncomfortable when reading the book. I couldn't enjoy the first action scenes because it is obvious that Wanda doesn't really like what she is doing. And I couldn't enjoy the later action scenes, not even the M/M scene at the end of the book, because they show a sadism that is much closer to the detached pathological form of sadism than to the addictive erotic form of sadism. It's not a form of play, but a form of degrading and hurting someone without any respect and underlying feelings for that person. Both kinds of scenarios are something which I never want to experience in my spanking play and in my love relationship with Ludwig. And I'm very happy to know that our partnership doesn't resemble that between Wanda and Severin.
So, no parallels at all? Well, there might be one little thing. While Ludwig never had to push me into topping the thought of a higher grade of severity still scared me a while ago. But living with a man who calls himself a “severity freak” obviously corrupted me. Having done more severe scenes as a bottom and knowing that Ludwig usually prefers a harder thrashing on the rare occasions when he switches has changed my fantasies. Like I told Ludwig a while ago: If you dish it out you should better be able to take what comes back.
Then Ludwig did the big mistake of challenging me. When he thought about maybe doing one very severe scene on camera one day, it was clear that I wanted him to do that scene with me. “Well, but since you don't know whether you're okay with that level of severity, it's maybe not a good idea to so that scene with you”, he said. “I could either find someone else or don't do that scene at all, in case you don't like the idea of me being topped by another woman.” Doing such a special scene with another woman or not doing it at all because I'm afraid of and don't have the technique to hit him hard enough??? As you can imagine, I had to find out whether I really had a personal limit here.
And I did, when I first topped Ludwig together with Leia-Ann Woods. It seems that I have much less qualms than I thought! On that day I tasted blood (no pun intended) and since then I'm determined to improve my caning technique. My training has been quite successful so far, and Ludwig, who watched me some weeks ago became a bit nervous. Especially because he has agreed to a rather severe scene between the two of us, featuring 25 strokes with the cane and 25 strokes with the flogger. I already have very delicious pictures of that scene on my mind and I have to admit that the idea of raising some vivid welts and eliciting some restrained but still stronger reactions from my mate holds a hell lot of appeal now! So, I'm not sure whether Ludwig might end up a bit like Severin in that aspect, finally getting more than he wished for. Well, at least Ludwig doesn't have to be afraid of one thing: I definitely won't wear furs...
Kaelah, not in furs