When re-reading Venus in Furs, it became abundantly clear how early this novel came in the understanding of human sexuality. The protagonist is forced to make up his own term for his masochistic tendencies and there is a lack of understanding on his, and his partner’s, part about his desires. The Victorian period was a time of increasing awareness about differing expression of sexuality – though they tended to thoughtfully refer to them as ‘deviant’ sexualities. Venus in Furs is symptomatic (excuse the language of disease) of this growing awareness.
Below is an edited version of an essay I wrote about sexual ‘abnormality’ and masculinity in the late Victorian period. This concentrated on Venus in Furs and discusses some of the key aspects of the novel.
“The fin-de-siècle period was one in which the concept of a singular masculinity came under increasing threat. The emergence of the New Woman and the work of sexologists, in particular Havelock Ellis in his work Sexual Inversion (1897), started to complicate the definition of male and female as binary opposites, and defined the identity of abnormal sexualities such as homosexuality. The fear of the invert led to a need to define and re-define what it was that constituted unhealthy sexuality; the ‘taxonomy of sexual deviance at the fin-de-siècle might bear the motto “Know Your Enemy,”’. Or in the words of John Tosh it became important to define ‘the dominant masculinity … in opposition to a number of subordinate masculinities whose crime is that they undermine patriarchy’. Thus the idea that one should continually ‘cultivate’ oneself in order to create a sense of masculine integrity was tantamount to the production of a healthy masculine individual; indeed one of the complaints against homosexuals at the time was that he was ‘one whose inner self (feelings, drives, desires) is not in harmony with his outer self (his biological sex)’. It was not simply enough to appear to be man; the body and mind had to be purified from any unhealthy effeminacy or behaviours.
Severin, the protagonist of Venus in Furs, is a self-proclaimed masochist whose actions show him to be representative of unhealthy masculinity. Severin’s masculinity is attacked on a variety of levels by Wanda. She tells him: ‘You are not a man’; admonishes his crying with the phrase: ‘What a child you are!’ (p. 203); and takes delight in reminding him that he has no money instead he will ‘be completely dependent on me [Wanda]’ (p. 205). In contrast Wanda is financially independent and wields the power within their relationship. She finally leaves him for Alexis Papadopolis, a Greek, who causes Wanda to become breathless and exclaim: ‘Oh, what a man!’ (p. 247). Wanda desires the promise of this young man’s virility. Although Alexis has been ‘seen in Paris dressed as a woman’ (p. 250) and ‘[l]ike a woman, he knows he is beautiful and behaves accordingly’ (p. 250), he maintains his active masculinity ‘distinguished … no less by his race-hatred and cruelty than by his bravery’ (p. 248). He is the mirror image of Wanda in his beauty and power; whereas Severin only compliments her tyrannical tendencies as the victim of her sadistic behaviour. Severin’s subordinate masculinity, in both senses of the term, must be punished by the active masculinity even if the wielder of this is a woman.
Severin tells Wanda in the manner of psychologist, that he is ‘a suprasensualist’ (p. 173). This sensuality is often express in regards to an appreciation for art. He sees himself both in a work of art and in the mirror. If Wanda enacts the active masculinity which he himself should embody then she is the double, the other half to his femininized, passive masochism. His first adoration of Wanda is through a statue, a work of art, so that we are not always clear whether Severin created Wanda through his imagination or whether she truly exists, and his final relationship with Wanda is again focalised through a portrait which he owns and views after their relationship has ended. When Severin asks Wanda to take part in his role-playing lifestyle he tells Wanda that he believes ‘that everything I [he] has already imagined is already present in your nature’ (p. 181) to which Wanda replies: ‘You are under an illusion’ (p. 181). This exchange suggests that Wanda is simply playing a role that Severin has projected onto her so that he can take pleasure in being punished for his unhealthy desires. Whilst drying her and wrapping her in her furs, he happens to see himself with her in a mirror and is entranced by their ‘reflections in its golden frame [which] were like a picture of extraordinary beauty’ (p. 240). It is after this episode that Severin desires to have her portrait painted so that he can immortalise his double. By the end of the novel the portrait has become a reminder of the lesson learned: ‘that woman, as Nature created her and as man up to now has found her attractive, is man’s enemy; she can be his slave or his mistress but never his companion’ (p. 271). Through Wanda’s masculine power Severin becomes the master and not the slave.
There is a tension between narcissism and masochism in this text. What intertwines these terms is that Severin’s concern regarding the presentation of his self challenges the conceptualisation of self as subject. The key tenant of narcissism, in its purest form as the Greek myth, is the confusion between the subject being at once the object desired and the subject desiring the object. This desire to be both object and subject can also be seen in masochism where the individual desires to be objectified and receives pleasure from being that object, or ‘my thing’ as Wanda refers to Severin (p. 196). Yet paradoxically, to desire is to be active and therefore a subject. Max Nordau’s suggested that ‘ego-mania’ had become a serious problem within fin-de-siècle society. He refers to ‘the formation of an ‘I’, of an individuality clearly conscious of its separate existence, is the highest achievement of living matter’; though he misses the subtle irony that the occurrence of individuality must be subconscious, as in Kristeva’s conception of abjection, since to be actively conscious of creating oneself is once again causes the individual to turn back on them self in a narcissistic manner. As Freud suggested ‘the ego is in its very essence a subject … The ego can take itself as an object, treat itself like other objects, can observe itself, criticize itself’. These novels can be read as enactment of the splitting of this ego.
The abnormal masculinity of Severin is also presented in the mirroring of his character with Wanda and his production of self as a ‘suprasensualist’. Martha Vicinus argues that for homosexual writers at the time ‘the natural reproductive cycle was thwarted, sidestepped, or intentionally avoided’ often in preference to ‘metaphysical and artistic generation’. In many ways a similar relationship can be said to exist between Wanda and Severin. There are moments when it appears that Wanda is little more than the projection of Severin’s active masculinity onto the shape of a woman. It is also important to note that their relationship despite being heterosexual is not consummated and there is no talk of having children, which would the Victorian ideal of a relationship between a man and a woman. The only suggestion of reproduction is that Severin reproduces himself in the image of the aggressor, like Wanda, at the end of the novel. Rita Felski further complicates the unhealthy relationship between biological reproduction and the fin-de-siècle sensibility when she suggests that the difficulties of constructing one’s self within specified gender roles were ‘part of a larger destabilization of conceptions of authenticity within a society whose cultural expressions are increasingly shaped by commodity aesthetics and the logic of technological reproduction’. The Industrial Revolution allowed for the formation of mass production: a method of technological reproduction which often led to increasingly inferior products. In many ways this echoed the fears of degeneration scientists who felt that in the same way the womb had become a sight of production for increasingly inferior examples of humanity until the genetic line of mankind became so deformed that sterility and death were the end result. In such a case the beauty of individual and original pieces of art could seem an attractive alternative.
However, non-biological, artistic or scientific reproduction is not a viable alternative either. The narcissistic masochism in these novels is as sterile as the mass reproduction of the Industrial Revolution. The doubles created in these novels are not stable and the relationship between the original identity and the constructed ‘other’ cannot exist peaceably. In Sacher-Masoch’s novel Wanda ends her relationship with Severin in order that she can pursue another man who she finds to be more palatable to her tastes. The reoccurring imagery of the mirror and reflection comes to mean that ‘Narcissus is the figure for this artistic [and scientific] impotence’. The continuous doubling of self and interiorizing gaze embodied in the symbol of Narcissus ultimately leads to self-destruction and does not provide an alternative means of production to procreation.
Yet the powerful representation of fin-de-siècle masculinity, narcissism and masochism is not limited to the storyline itself. To further complicate the system in which these novels function is that fact that the text itself is narcissistic. This narcissistic element of the text is the manner in which the text imposes on the reader so that on the one hand they are ‘forced to acknowledge the artifice, the “art”, of what he is reading; on the other, explicit demands are made upon him, as a co-creator, for the intellectual and affective responses comparable in scope and intensity to those of his life experience’. The motifs of doubling, narcissism, identity and masochism call into question the fin-de-siècle ideas of selfhood both for the characters and the reader. The contemporary readership of these novels, already in the midst of a crisis of masculinity, must navigate the complex representations of healthy and abnormal masculinities presented in these texts in order to come to a conclusion about how these texts mirror their society but also themselves. Sacher-Masoch employs a framing technique within the narrative in order to create this effect. Sacher-Masoch’s tale is narrated to an unnamed listener; the character of Venus in Furs has already been introduced to the reader in a dream sequence which is the opening of the novel. The Venus in Furs is then mirrored in a portrait owned by Severin; a statue in a park with which Severin falls in love, and finally in the character of Wanda. The re-imagining of Venus in Furs in her several guises draws attention to the artifice of her character and the fact that she embodies both Severin’s fantasy as the well as the reality of his experience. Though such framing techniques have been used before, within this novel it creates a heightened effect that reverberates both within and without the fictional world of the characters. The framing surrounding this personal testimony at once highlights the artistic construction of the novels and the narrative related which leads to an objectifying of the subject matter. So that the tales become a medical curiosity, such as a case study published in the works of Freud, and the physical presence of the book in the readers hand can be dissected and understood in the wider context of the subject of masculinities. Emily Apter refers to this style of novel as ‘cabinet fiction’ to mean that the novel became, like the cabinet of curiosities much in vogue at the time, a way of displaying the interior as an artefact that could be collected and enjoyed privately.It seems relevant to remind ourselves that Sacher-Masoch was used as case studies in abnormal sexualities and masculinities. His case were published, analysed and became a part of curiosity box of medical wonders at the time that helped to deconstruct the idea of a unified masculinity.
The ending of Venus in Furs is not the death of the protagonist. Though Severin is finally rejected by Wanda, his double, he becomes the aggressive male to the subordinate female,and maintains his sado-masochistic lifestyle. The reason for this appears to be that Severin does not attempt to reject his subordinate masculinity. Rather he projects his fantasies onto Wanda and maintains a performative relationship with her within the confines of role-playing. Much Like Judith Butler’s critique of cross-dressing, Wanda and Severin’s behaviour is ‘gender parody’, which acknowledges that ‘the original identity after which gender fashions itself is an imitation without an origin’. Both Wanda and Severin take on new names so that they can fully take on the role and, despite the intensity of emotion portrayed through the novel, either character can step in and out of their new identities acknowledging the constructed, unreal nature of the unified ideas of gender. They express the alternative sides to their sexuality and gender. At the end of the novel Severin is able to continue with his life knowing that he can slip between gender identities without damaging himself.
The irony of fin-de-siècle attempt to label and define abnormal masculinity was that it drew attention to the constructed nature of the concept of ‘male’. What had been naturalized by society as a constant category was now being deconstructed to include various alternative forms; to define the abnormal male was to give him power within the society and make him reality, as well as allowing men to recognises the differences that were inherent within their own masculinity. Sacher-Masoch’s novel suggests the freedom in exploring these abnormal desires. He subverts the fin-de-siècle fears in order to portray the alternate dangers of becoming entirely focused on alienating or destroying the sexual abnormalities within us all. Continually analysing oneself under a microscope leads to a destructive narcissism in which the physical, male body is broken. The reader is placed in the position of analyst and must view the external and internal of the male protagonists in order to realise the self-defeating nature of the ideal, perfected, masculine subject.
 Laurence Senelick, ‘The Homosexual as Villain and Victim in Fin-se-Siècle Drama’, in Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 4, No. 2, Special Issue, Part 1: Lesbian and Gay Histories (Oct., 1993), pp. 201-229 (pp. 201-202)
 John Tosh, ‘What Should Historians Do with Masculinity? Reflections on Nineteenth Century Britain’, in History Workshop, No. 38 (1994), pp. 179-202 (p. 191)
 Yvonne Ivory, ‘The Urning and His Own: Individualism and the Fin-de-Siècle Invert’, in German Studies Review, Vol. 26, No. 2 (May, 2003), pp. 333-352 (pp. 333-334)
 Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, in Masochism, ed. by Giles Deleuze (New York: Zone Books, 1991), p. 202. All other quotations will be from the same edition and the page number will be cited in the main body of the essay.
 Max Nordau, Degeneration, (New York: D. Appleton and Company, 1895), p. 252
 Sigmund Freud, ‘The Dissection of the Psychical Personality (1933)’, in The Essentials of Psychoanalysis: The Definitive Collection of Sigmund Freud’s Writing, selected, with an introduction and commentaries, by Anna Freud (London: Penguin Books, 1991), pp. 484-504 (p. 485)
 Martha Vicinus, ‘The Adolescent Boy: Fin-de-Siècle Femme Fatale?’, in Journal of the History of Sexuality, Vol. 5, No. 1 (Jul., 1994), pp. 90-114 (p. 94)
 Rita Felski, ‘The Counter Discourse of the Feminine’, in PMLA, Vol. 106, No. 5 (Oct., 1991), pp. 1094-1105 (p. 1097)
 Steven Bruhm, Reflecting Narcissus: A Queer Aesthetic (London and Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2001), p. 60
 Linda Hutcheon, Narcissistic Narrative: The Metafictional Paradox (London: Metheun & Co., 1984), p. 5
 Emily Apter, ‘Cabinet Secret: Fetishism, Prostitution, and the Fin de Siècle Interior’, in Assemblage, No. 9 (Jun., 1989), pp. 6-19 (p. 7)
 Bruhm, Reflecting Narcissus, p. 56
 Judith Butler, Gender Trouble: Feminism and the Subversion of Identity (New York and London: Routledge, 1999), p. 175″.