NAKED BRUNCH
SEX BIO

By Kathryn A. Kopple

Victim of Love
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836-1895)

In her excellent biography of the Marquis de Sade, Francine du Plessix Gray tells us that the notorious nobleman is one of the few men in western history "whose names have spawned adjectives." But Sade is not the only aristocrat whose name has enriched the clinical and popular sexual nomenclature: there is also Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, the author of Venus in Furs and the man who gave us the term masochism.

Although Sade and Masoch are often regarded as two perverse sides of the same coin, in matters of education, sex, writing, and politics they are actually quite different. Masoch (1836-1895) was born in the province of Galicia, on the borders of Poland and Russia. His mother and father came from titled nobility, and they were loving, attentive parents. Despite his privileged background, Masoch grew up during times of devastating economic and ethnic turmoil. As the son of the Lemberg Chief of Police, he heard constant reports of the fighting between the Polish peasants and landowners, which included such atrocities as nailing victims to barn doors, flinging them into anthills, or decapitating them with scythes. The impact these tortures had on Masoch's sexual imagination is unmistakable. Years later, he would infuse scenes of cruelty with the intense eroticism that earned him his reputation as "the New Plato."

Masoch's first romantic attachment was to his aunt, Countess Zenobia. As he tells the story, he was alone with this beautiful woman one afternoon when she asked him to help her take off her furs. She led the boy into her bedroom, and during the undressing he began kissing her feet. She returned this show of affection by kicking him away with a cruel laugh. Later in the day, during a game of hide and seek, he was hiding in her clothes rack when the countess and her lover entered the room; they were soon followed by her husband. Before the count had time to speak, his wife punched him in the nose. She then picked up a whip and ordered both men to leave the room. At that moment, the clothes rack toppled over and Masoch was discovered. His aunt grabbed him by the hair, threw him to the carpet, and administered a vigorous whipping, which to his surprise produced feelings of excitement and lust.

All the elements of Masoch's art are present in this highly improbable narrative: the beautiful and despotic fur-clad woman who brandishes a whip and treats men as her slaves. In his search for this ideal female torturer, Masoch corresponded with strangers, placed ads in newspapers, and drew up "love contracts" (Masoch had a law degree) in which the conditions of his bondage were laid out in explicit and often hilarious detail: "the mistress may punish her slave in whatever manner she pleases. In short, the subject shall obey his sovereign with complete servility... On her behalf, [she] undertakes to wear furs as often as possible, especially when she is behaving cruelly." Masoch's love of fur, which he associated with feminine sexual potency, made it impossible for him to become aroused without it; not surprisingly, he owned numerous cats and kept them by his side while he wrote. He also owned an impressive collection of whips and chains, including a set of fetters, and reportedly enjoyed having boiling poltices applied to his bare flesh or being cut with razors and having salt rubbed into his wounds.

Masoch was continually disappointed and frustrated that the women in his life, particularly his wife Wanda, were incapable of satisfying his sexual needs. His feminine ideal existed primarily in Greek myths, Eastern European folktales, and in his own volatile imagination. He begged his wife to take a lover and when she refused he threatened to leave her. In a particularly desperate moment, he feigned a toothache, called the dentist, and had it extracted without anesthesia so that she would be forced to spend the night in the company of another man without him. Wanda may have found her husband's requests distasteful, but she mainly feared that he would divorce her, take her children, or cut her off financially if she gave into his demands to betray and humiliate him.

Few writers have depicted the "war between the sexes" with more originality, intelligence, or humor than Masoch; and even fewer writers have been as successful as Masoch in identifying the many subtle ways in which sex is used as a weapon in the battle for gender equality. But it was his sympathy for the marginalized and the powerless that distinguishes Masoch from his predecessor Sade. For all of his brilliance and irony, we make a laughable mistake when we identify Sade, with his reverence for feudalism, as a revolutionary. Sade was a product of, and a believer in, the old order. He saw the rise of democratic liberalism as the beginning of a long decline that eventually laid his world to waste. In contrast, Masoch immersed himself in the revolutionary fervor of his times and, in the words of Gilles Deleuze, used this fervor to "rewrite the entire history of love."

REFERENCE
Order Leopold von Sacher-Masoch's classic edition Venus in Furs from Amazon.com.