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Venus in Furs and Freud's Theory of Masochism

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Within Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Venus in Furs, it is possible to see several aspects of Freud’s proposals about the male and female masochistic fantasies, as well as some congruities with masochistic theories from more modern psychologists. The protagonist of the story masculinizes his aggressor, Wanda, throughout the entire novel and his tale includes many instances where it is possible to see the Oedipus complex at work, but the most noteworthy connection between Freud’s proposals in “A Child is Being Beaten” and Venus in Furs lies in the feminization of Severin.

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One of the main proponents of Freud’s theory of masochism lies in the gender reversal of the person in question. Severin’s feminization occurs not only in his own acquisition on feminine traits, but also through the masculinization of his love interest. Right from the beginning of their relationship, Severin seems to idolize Wanda and does not take on the typical masculine role in their relationship. Upon meeting her for the first time, Severin takes in her appearance and describes her in an ethereal sense. “The Goddess asked me for my name and told me hers: she was Wanda von Dunajew. And she was really my Venus.” (Von Sacher-Masoch, 17) Right from the start, we see that he compares Wanda to Venus. As Venus is a God and Severin is a mere mortal, he immediately places himself in an inferior position. In treating Wanda like a God, Severin rejects the masculine role that would have been acceptable to Freud. Rather than becoming her protector and obtaining the dominant position, Severin submits to Wanda and begs her to take the reins by allowing him to be like a slave to her.

Once Wanda agrees to Severin’s request for slavery, she takes on a new personality every time she partakes in his masochistic fantasy. In the beginning, Wanda is soft, loving, and extremely kind. These qualities are particularly feminine, and, paired with her wish to submit to a man, Freud would not have any qualms with her approach to love. However, when she helps Severin to enact his beating fantasy, Wanda takes on a much more cold and cruel personality to go with her domineering actions; she even goes so far as to create a contract which puts her in total control of all of Severin’s actions. According to Stanley J. Coen, a modern psychoanalytic theorist, this is typical for one who wishes to induce sadomasochistic excitement. “The other person is to be controlled within one’s own subjective world, denied his separateness and autonomy.” (57) Though it is not to say that all men are cold and cruel, it is clear that, when she becomes an object of Severin’s fantasy, she takes on characteristics that are completely un-feminine, thus making her seem much more like a male figure.

In addition to these personality traits, Wanda is also more financially secure than Severin, who is dependent on his father for funds. When he tells her that he cannot afford to accompany her to Italy in order to become her slave, Wanda is delighted at the position that this puts her in. “‘In other words, you have no money, Gregor,’ Wanda remarked in delight. ‘So much the better. Then you will be completely dependent on me and be truly my slave.’” (Von Sacher-Masoch, 59-60) In the traditional male-female relationship, it is the man who is the breadwinner and the woman who is dependent on him for monetary needs. By presenting us with a man who does not have any money of his own and placing him in a relationship with a woman who is very rich, Von Sacher-Masoch presents us with a characters whose gender roles are reversed.

While Severin’s treatment of Wanda makes her seem much more masculine than feminine, Wanda also contributes to this view near the end of the novel. In Freud’s description of the female beating fantasy, he tells us that the final phase of this female fantasy involves the female’s self-masculinization which is induced when she substitutes her own image for that of a boy who is being beaten. When she observes the Greek as he whips Severin, this phase of the female fantasy is enacted in real life, while Wanda looks on from a couch in the same room. Ultimately, this would suggest that Wanda herself is a masochist, rather than a sadist. As she does not want to play the sadistic role when Severin first requests this of her, Wanda is actually hurting herself by complying with his demands because she is performing an action that she does not want to take part in. After the first time that Wanda beats Severin, she states that he has awoken something inside of her and that she is beginning to enjoy the experience. However, this does not point to her being a sadist so much as it says that he has brought out the masculine side of her that has been waiting to emerge. Therefore, Wanda ultimately conforms to Freud’s masochistic theory, a main component of which is her own masculinization, which, in turn, feminizes Severin because of his attachment to her.

Another important part of Freud’s theory involves the relationship between the Oedipus complex and the masochistic personality. Severin idolizes several female figures, including Wanda, and each of these women can be viewed as a mother figure who has the ability to discipline the main character. The figure of Venus, the Goddess of love, is one of the first women who Severin worships.

“I would secretly steal over … to a plaster Venus that stood in my father’s small library … I was seized with an uncontrollable yearning. I rose and embraced the beautiful cold body and kissed the cold lips. Now I was overcome by a profound terror and fled. And in my dreams the Goddess stood in front of my bed and threatened me with her raised arm.” (Von Sacher-Masoch, 31)

The ‘uncontrollable yearning’ that Severin refers to points to a hidden desire for this female figure. Freud would argue that a boy’s yearning for his mother is uncontrollable and unconscious, and Severin seems to tap into this unconscious lust and direct it towards the image of Venus. The terror that Severin feels after giving into his inappropriate sexual impulses by kissing the statue suggests that he feels he will be punished for his actions and inspires a sense of guilt that emerges as the Goddess plagues his dreams. In these dreams, the raised arm of the beautiful woman could easily be replaced with the image of a mother scolding her child. According to psychologist Otto F. Kernberg, this infatuation with the statue of Venus is said to be highly characteristic of the masochistic personality.

“The difference between normal falling in love and a masochistic pattern of falling in love is precisely that masochistic personalities may be irresistibly attracted to an object who does not respond their love. In fact, the unconscious selection of an object who is clearly unable or unwilling to respond to love characterizes masochistic infatuations and constitutes a ‘high level’ of this kind of pathology.” (68)

The next mother-like figures that Severin becomes attached to are his disciplinary Aunt and the maid who worked in his childhood home. Severin states that the young maid was hired by his mother, which immediately signifies a connection of some sort between the two women. Severin as a short intimate experience with the maid and, although he admits that he did feel aroused by the encounter, he denied her seduction as though it was highly inappropriate. This would suggest that, because he associated the maid with his mother, he felt it wrong to give in to his urges toward her because of their Oedipal nature. Severin’s experience with his Aunt is much different than the one that he has with the maid. One night, when his parents are absent, Severin’s Aunt punishes him for his bad behavior and ignites his masochistic passions. “The switch held by the beautiful, voluptuous woman, who looked like an angry monarch in her fur jacket, first aroused my desire for women, and from then on my aunt seemed like the most attractive woman on God’s earth.” (Von Sacher-Masoch, 32) Because his parents are absent at the time of this incident, it could easily be suggested that the aunt was, at the time, a stand in for Severin’s mother. It is also interesting to note that, despite being described as a ‘voluptuous woman’, it is clear that the Aunt is a highly masculinized character. The image of her as an angry monarch would suggest that she had the look of an authoritarian ruler, who would typically be imagined as a man. This manly image reflects Freud’s unconscious stage of the male beating fantasy, where the father is the one beating the child and sexual arousal ensues. Because her masculine appearance would have had the ability to incite Severin’s unconscious desires, this explains his belief that his aunt was the most attractive woman in the world despite the fact that her physical description would suggest otherwise. In much the same sense, Severin’s view of women is severely tainted by his Oedipal urges throughout the entire novel. “… for me all that was poetic and demonic has always been concentrated in women.” (von Sacher-Masoch, 36) Freud suggests that a boy’s love for his mother is the first real object-choice that the boy makes in life accounts for Severin’s idea of women being poetic. On the other hand, he also views them as demonic because all women remind him of the Oedipal love that he feels towards his mother, which plagues him because he feels guilty for experiencing such an attraction. In addition to these early childhood urges and statements about women, Wanda makes reference to Severin’s child-like actions and ever refers to him as “my child” (von Sacher-Masoch, 46) at several instances throughout the novel. The main character never makes any objection to such statements, showing that he feels comfortable enough with this notion to continue to let Wanda refer to him this way several times.

Von Sacher-Masoch’s main character undergoes several Oedipal urges toward the mother which are characteristic of the male child, but he also undergoes an interesting experience which would suggest a certain love for the father. The story of Severin’s masochism ends at the point where the Greek takes over for Wanda and does the beating himself. In “A Child is Being Beaten”, Freud tells us that there is an unconscious phase of the male beating fantasy where the boy is being beaten by his father. This phase is said to bring on sexual arousal, which would imply an attraction to the father and remains unconscious because it is ‘too much’ for the psyche to handle. Because the enactment of this fantasy, where the Greek takes the place of Severin’s father, Severin’s hidden masochistic phase is brought out from the unconscious. Because this is too much for Severin to handle, he puts an end to the entire fantasy that he has begged Wanda to produce.

The love of the father is a feminine Oedipal urge, so Severin’s experience of this love through his masochistic fantasy places him in the role that is typical of the female. The entire novel is filled with instances where Severin acts much more like a woman than he does a man. On pages nineteen through twenty, Wanda and Severin have one of their first intimate conversations. Throughout this discussion, Wanda talks at length while Severin listens in awe and asks only a few questions, always apologizing for having interrupted her lengthy speeches. Wanda speaks with authority and Severin is much more soft-spoken and allows himself to be domineered by his love interest. In another of their conversations, Severin tells Wanda that, while in school, he was different from other boys who were his age. “At a time when other boys act crude and obscene, I displayed an insuperable abhorrence for all that was vile, common, and unsightly.” (von Sacher-Masoch, 31) Instead of ‘getting dirty’ and playing with ‘creepy crawly’ things, as most people would expect of young boys, Severin has an appreciation for all things that he deems beautiful or pretty. Severin’s disapproval of the interests of his male peers indicates that he leans towards a more feminine mode of thought.

Knowing this information from Severin’s past, Wanda plays on the feminization of Severin not only by taking on the dominant male role, but also by making statements that ensure that he knows that he is not in control in their relationship. “‘Well then be my slave and feel what it means to be put in a woman’s hands.’ That same moment she kicked me.” (von Sacher-Masoch, 42) Severin truly is placed in Wanda’s hands as he fully submits to her power. Wanda even goes so far as to tell her lover that he cannot even call himself a man. “You’re not a man, you’re a dreamer, a charming admirer, and you’d certainly make an invaluable slave, but I can’t picture you as a husband.” (von Sacher-Masoch, 48) This statement adequately sums up Severin’s place throughout the entire novel. He is always living out fantasies and never seems to get caught up in the ‘real world’. This does not comply with our standard image of the man, who is ruled by rationality. Instead, we tend to associate such daydreaming with the female mind, which, once again, places Severin squarely in the female role. Wanda’s inability to see Severin as a husband stems from the fact that he has so many feminine qualities and is unable to allow a woman to submit to his power.

In another instance, Severin is feminized by his homoerotic attraction to a male figure in the novel. When both he and Wanda first see the Greek, Severin is just as enthralled and amazed with the beauty of this new character as his feminine companion is.

“My heart stood still at this half-marveling, half-delighted gase with which she devoured him; but he deserved it. He was a handsome man, by God. No, more: he was a man such as I had never seen in the flesh…Now I understood male Eros and admired Socrates for remaining virtuous with Alcibiades.” (von Sacher-Masoch, 97)

This attraction to a man is the most obvious feminization of Severin and is what ultimately leads to the downfall of his fantasies.

Severin is not only feminized by his own actions, but also by his Oedipal urges towards his father and by the masculinization of his female love-interest. Severin’s thoughts, words, and actions all conform to Freud’s theory of masochism which he lays out in his essay, “A Child is Being Beaten”. Therefore, Venus in Furs provides an excellent example of the male masochistic personality.

Works Consulted:

Coen, Stanley J. “Sadomasochistic Excitement.” In Masochism: Current Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Glick, Robert A. And Meyers, Donald I. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1988.

Freud, Sigmund. “A Child is Being Beaten: A Contribution to the Study of the Origin of Sexual Perversions” in On Psychopathology: Inhibitions, Symptoms and Anxiety and Other Works. Ed. Angela Richards, trans. James Strachey. London: Penguin Freud Library, 1993.

Kernberg, Otto F. “Clinical dimensions of Masochism.” In Masochism: Current Psychoanalytic Perspectives. Glick, Robert A. And Meyers, Donald I. Hillsdale, NJ: Analytic Press, 1988.

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Von Sacher-Masoch, Leopold. Venus in Furs. Toronto: Penguin Books, 2000.

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