Reflections on Venus in Furs

Reflections on Venus in Furs


Howard Adelman



I am cursed. I was determined to take off today and write nothing. But I saw Venus in Fur by David Ives playing at the Berkeley Theatre. The show has been around for awhile and previously played at the Bluma Appel Theatre. I am delighted that I saw it at the Berkeley Theatre which seems so much better suited to the play. It is a fantastic production and a phenomenal play. If it is not playing in your city now, it will be very soon. It is bound to play all over the world and soon be on many high school curricula if it is not already.  There will be many amateur productions but they will be a real challenge.

I will not tell you very much about the play and what I will write I will save for tomorrow. In any case, I simply cannot. I usually replay a drama or a movie for the next day or two in my mind. Then I can barely remember it afterwards. In the case of this play by David Ives, it was impossible. There are just too many twists and turns, inversions and conversions. So instead of serving as a Dionysian critic entranced by the passion in the play, I will serve as an Apollonian commentator.

I had read a review of the play in The New Yorker by Robert Risk but that only came back to me this morning when I woke up at 5:30 writing this commentary in my mind. I went looking for The New Yorker but could not find it. So I only remembered that he, as well, loved the production he saw. And that was the only expectation I had when I walked into the play and read the credit notes which were about appearance and reality (recall my discussion of Plato’s allegory of the cave). But I had two advantages. I had written and published a great deal of commentary on the Adam and Eve story and always wanted to write a play about Adam’s seduction of Eve and how that story got turned into Eve’s seduction of Adam.

Secondly, when I was an undergraduate almost sixty years ago, my friend, Milton Zysman, introduced me to an author, Sacher-Masoch who was the source for Von Krafft-Ebing’s analysis of masochism of which I learned by first reading Arthur Koestler’s Encyclopedia of Sexual Knowledge. Koestler wrote that book under a pseudonym. The volume was a fat seemingly learned tome that was really a mixture of sexual experience and some knowledge dressed up in pseudo-scientific language that was actually taken to be an authoritative document on the study of sex. I was surprised to learn at the time that the book continued to be regarded as such almost twenty years later when I was an undergraduate. I delighted in exposing its fraudulent roots when I was a student twenty years later and I found that readers still took it as a serious contribution to science and thought I made the story up that Koestler had written the book to make a quick buck in Paris. So does fiction continue to trump reality.

I had read Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, a book that had a strong and everlasting influence on me, particularly on my strong negative attitude towards communism. Reading Darkness at Noon led me to his other writings, including this so-called scholarly study of sexology and other books on the subject. However, I could not recall ever reading Venus in Furs,. So that is the first thing I did this morning and is the topic of this blog rather than the play.

Venus in Furs

The 1870 sado-masochistic novella version that I read by Leopold Von Sacher-Masoch, a Galicianer like my mother, but a German rather than a Jewish one, was translated from German into English by Fernanda Savage. Sacher-Masoch had been born a century before me. His wife wrote under the pseudonym Wanda von Dunajew (yes, literally dunn-a Jew). Wanda happens to be the name of the heroine in Sacher-Masoch’s 1870 novel as well as the heroine of the book which the writer in Ives’ play has adapted for the stage. In fact, Sacher-Masoch’s wife, Aurora Rűmelin, introduced herself to her future husband because she had read his 1870 book and wrote a letter to him telling him that she was the perfect person to fulfill his desires; she would (and did) perform the role of a dominatrix. Evidently, if her 1906 sensational Confessions are to be believed, role reversals were endemic to their tumultuous relationship as they are in the novella and the play.

In Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Severin von Kusiemski, though not rich at the time until he later inherits his father’s property, is a nobleman from Galicia with enough income to lead a life of quiet sedentary leisure. Wanda Tartakovska is a very wealthy young and beautiful widow and only 24 years old. The two meet at a very small holiday home in the Carpathian mountains. Severin has the ground floor and Wanda the suite on the first floor above. 

Severin is an inexperienced aesthete, in love with the goddess Venus, love that is consummated in some sense when he views the portrait of “Venus in her Mirror” by Titian discussed in Ives’ play. In the portrait, Venus is nude except she is draped in a fur and it is cupid who holds the mirror up for her.

In the novella, Wanda dresses herself in furs as the Venus of Severin’s imagination and Severin falls in love with her.  She, the seductress, beguiles this inexperienced dreamer and, in turn, falls in love with his passion. She begins, however, as a natural force whose pagan philosophy is articulated by Venus in what turns out to be a dream. Venus articulates a philosophy of life based on “passion and of natural love, which is woman’s nature and makes her give herself where she loves, and makes her love everything, that pleases her.” She rejects the idea that love must bring with it pain. “We are faithful as long as we love, but you demand faithfulness of a woman without love, and the giving of herself without enjoyment. Who is cruel there—woman or man? You of the North in general take love too soberly and seriously. You talk of duties where there should be only a question of pleasure.” “Love, which is the highest joy, which is divine simplicity itself, is not for you moderns, you children of reflection. It works only evil in you. As soon as you wish to be natural, you become common. To you nature seems something hostile; you have made devils out of the smiling gods of Greece, and out of me a demon.”

And then come the thesis: “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through his passion nature has given man into woman’s hands, and the woman who does not know how to make him her subject, her slave, her toy, and how to betray him with a smile in the end is not wise.” And she continues. “The more devoted a woman shows herself, the sooner the man sobers down and becomes domineering. The more cruelly she treats him and the more faithless she is, the worse she uses him, the more wantonly she plays with him, the less pity she shows him, by so much the more will she increase his desire, be loved, worshipped by him. So it has always been, since the time of Helen and Delilah, down to Catherine the Second and Lola Montez.”

Other Choices

All this is revealed in a dream before Severin even gets to know his Wanda. Severin is woken up by his tall Cossack servant and he realizes he has fallen asleep with his clothes on in a chair with a book by the German philosopher Hegel open at a page. The book must have been the Phenomenology of Spirit with the page opened at the beginning of the section on “Self-consciousness” and its introductory discussion of desire and life. And then there is the description of the painting in that room somewhat different than the one above.

“A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.”

Soon, Venus, a real fictional woman (Wanda) dressed as Venus, will be sighted in the garden. Like the painting, her skin is marble-like and she is trembling like a cat though wearing the red velvet fur trimmed wrap. Unlike the painting in which Venus looks at herself with sparkling beautiful and admiring eyes, the eyes of the Venus in the opening of the novella are dead and stony. Further, in the novella she is trembling and sneezes twice in succession.

Severin and his friend discuss love, mastery and cruelty in the context of another book, Confessions of a Supersensual Man. Severin styles himself as a supersensual man. There is also the discussion of the Book of Judith from the Apocrypha. “‘The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman.’ How ungallant these Jews are, I thought. And their God might choose more becoming expressions when he speaks of the fair sex.” 

There are thus alternative choices for desire – desire as voluntary self-sacrifice in the service of the female – masochistic love. Desire as pagan love and giving oneself to the temptations and desires of the moment without any future commitment. And then there is the divine biblical love of the bible in which one gives oneself in service to God, to a love of an abstraction rather than a sensuous presence, and in service, not to one’s own sensibilities but in the aspiration to be one with the divine. The book is dedicated to the exploration and advocacy on behalf of the first kind of love.

Stages of Seduction in an Erotic Masochistic Relationship

Severin delivers himself into the hands of a woman by seducing her with his sensuous talk of masochistic love whereas she starts by wanting a man who will dominate her. “”I can easily imagine belonging to one man for my entire life, but he would have to be a whole man, a man who would dominate me, who would subjugate me by his innate (my italics and corrected spelling) strength, do you understand? And every man—I know this very well—as soon as he falls in love becomes weak, pliable, ridiculous. He puts himself into the woman’s hands, kneels down before her. The only man whom I could love permanently would be he before whom I should have to kneel.”

The conversation is very prophetic..Stage by stage the novella turns the roles around. Severin seduces his Venus into becoming the cruel one and accepting, indeed demanding he be her slave. He, in turn, is whipped into submission, forced to degrade himself and eventually to be subjected to a whipping by a handsome Greek she accepts as a lover. In the process, Severin’s infatuation with fur and with masochistic love is given a psychological root by Severin telling a childhood story of his experience with his aunt. “One day my parents drove to the capital of the district. My aunt determined to take advantage of their absence, and to exercise judgment over me. She entered unexpectedly in her fur-lined kazabaika,[2] followed by the cook, kitchen-maid, and the cat of a chamber-maid whom I had scorned. Without asking any questions, they seized me and bound me hand and foot, in spite of my violent resistance. Then my aunt, with an evil smile, rolled up her sleeve and began to whip me with a stout switch. She whipped so hard that the blood flowed, and that, at last, notwithstanding my heroic spirit, I cried and wept and begged for mercy. She then had me untied, but I had to get down on my knees and thank her for the punishment and kiss her hand.”

Greasy-haired Jews, the epitome of commerce and modern man  appear throughout the novel, as providers of art and needed artifacts, but also as the person who seduced the respectable woman with whom Severin once fell in love. Jews are regarded as very far from the supersensuous love for they are too in love with commerce and ambition. But they are minor sideshows, intermediaries and distractions. WOMAN is the main other protagonist. “No woman is so good or so bad, but that at any moment she is capable of the most diabolical as well as of the most divine, of the filthiest as well as of the purest, thoughts, emotions, and actions. In spite of all the advances of civilization, woman has remained as she came out of the hand of nature. She has the nature of a savage, who is faithful or faithless, magnanimous or cruel, according to the impulse that dominates at the moment. Throughout history it has always been a serious deep culture which has produced moral character. Man even when he is selfish or evil always follows principles, woman never follows anything but impulses. Don’t ever forget that, and never feel secure with the woman you love.”

Nevertheless, in spite of warnings, Severin signs the contract to be Wanda’s slave, a scene repeated in the play. Severin dedicates himself to serving as her slave as she diddles with him. The novel is very fast paced for a nineteenth century story, though, if I recall correctly, it was referred to in Ives’ play as turgid. Further, and surprisingly, it is full of sly humour as well as many twists and turns like Ives’ play. In the novella, Severin professes his love as a mixture of hate and fear in which the relationship of the sexes is presented as a battleground in which one partner must of necessity play the hammer while the other is its complement, the anvil. Severin can only worship a woman who treats him cruelly.

The novella reaches its culmination when Alexis Papadopolis appears on the scene and not only woos Wanda, but is the kind of man of whom Wanda always dreamed. “a magnificent specimen of man, No, rather, he is a man whose like I have never yet seen among the living. He is in the Belvedere, graven in marble, with the same slender, yet steely musculature, with the same face and the same waving curls. What makes him particularly beautiful is that he is beardless. If his hips were less narrow, one might take him for a woman in disguise. The curious expression about the mouth, the lion’s lip which slightly discloses the teeth beneath, lends a flashing tinge of cruelty to the beautiful face—” And in the worst of horrors, Alexis lashes Severin under Wanda’s orders.

“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.” Such is the cruelty of love which must by its very nature be cruel because men and women are unequal and one must dominate and the other be dominated: “whoever allows himself to be whipped, deserves to be whipped.”

That is the philosophy of masochism. That is NOT the thesis put forth in Ives’ play, Venus in Fur.