Furs and Female Domination in Sacher-Masoch’s Writing
On the 9th of March 1895, the Austrian writer and journalist Leopold Ritter von Sacher-Masoch (the term ‘masochism’ is derived from his name) died in Lindheim, the German Empire; although, there is some discrepant information about him having died in an insane asylum in Mannheim in 1906. Leading his life on the verge of reality and fiction, his stories depict the world of sexual fantasies in which the central place is ascribed invariably to aristocratic, domineering women reminiscent of the Marquis de Sade’s characters. However, Sacher-Masoch’s women are always dressed in furs. “The line between fiction and reality is sufficiently blurred in both de Sade and Sacher-Masoch for it to be unclear whether their fiction was a substitute for frustrated reality or reality a theatrical extension of their fiction.” (David Biale, ‘Masochism and Philosemitism: The Strange Case of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’, Journal of Contemporary History, Vol. 17, No. 2, Apr., 1982).
An example of his deeply rooted need – either derived from his psychological problems or leading him to such – to experience his fantasies in real life, is a 1869 sex contract signed between him and his mistress, Baroness Fanny Pistor. In the contract, the Baroness agreed to wear furs as often as possible and make Sacher-Masoch her slave for a period of six months. The pair travelled together by train to Italy, playing the agreed parts all the while: Sacher-Masoch took the alias of ‘Gregor’, a name stereotypically attributed to male servants, and followed his mistress in the disguise of her personal servant. The couple’s experiences form the storyline of Venus in Furs (1870), the first volume of Sacher-Masoch’s unfinished Legacy of Cain series.
The similarities between Sacher-Masoch and de Sade provide – insufficiently, as we cannot make serious judgements based merely on a couple of examples – a certain psychological image of aristocratic men in the nineteenth century. Sacher-Masoch himself, who was allegedly an active supporter of the suffragist movement, can be seen as an advocate for the ‘demasculinization’ of men, who, similarly to their female counterparts, had been ascribed a specific social role, such as that of the macho figure, the bread winner, the patriarchal head of the family, etc. One could say that through these sexual fantasies, Sacher-Masoch was attempting an inverse ‘emancipation of men’ from their stereotypical function within society as the superior sex. Although, Venus in Furs is far from proclaiming sexual equality. Masoch believed that a man can be either a tyrant or a slave to a woman, and that the latter option is much more rewarding for a man. “Man is the one who desires, woman the one who is desired. This is woman’s entire but decisive advantage. Through man’s passions, 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.” (Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs)
A similar approach towards women is present in Sacher-Masoch’s less known philosemitic stories. Called by literary historians Ghettogeschichten (ghetto tales), they “sought to satisfy the thirst of the German-reading public for medieval romance with stories of the still-traditional Jewish communities of Eastern Europe… These stories were not really meant to portray the Jews with historical or anthropological accuracy, although some of the authors were well acquainted with the folk customs of their subjects. Rather, we have here what Henry Wasserman has called ‘Judaism as a sentiment’.” (Biale). Sacher-Masoch’s Ghettogeschichten should be noted for three major aspects. First of all, Sacher-Masoch belonged to a minority of Ghettogeschichten authors who were not Jews. His sentimental approach towards the Jewish community derived most likely from the experiences of his childhood as well as his later life spent in Galicia. Secondly, his philosemitism surpassed in many ways that of the Jewish authors. Nonetheless, despite a high dose of sentimentalism, he presented an accurate image of the Jewish community, not entirely free from his personal criticism, yet truthful in its depiction of its culture, folklore and religion. The third, and probably more personal, aspect of his ‘ghetto tales’ is his portrayal of the Jewish women. “The most cursory survey of Sacher-Masoch’s work confirms that most (although by no means all) of his Jewish stories are obsessed with Jewish women and many of them permeated with masochistic motifs such as his fetish with furs. Even his seemingly factual account of the Hasidim of Galicia resonates with his favourite themes. Thus, he lingers over a description of the rabbi’s wife and daughters who lounge about the foyer of the mansion dressed (as his women invariably are) in sumptuous furs. The fascination with Jewish women was one of the hallmarks of the Ghettogeschichten. Dark, sensuous and exotic, the women in many of these stories seem to convey an erotic message, even when well hidden behind the obligatory stereotypes of chastity.” (Biale).
According to David Biale, there is a certain psychological connection between Sacher-Masoch’s pornographic fantasies and his Ghettogeschichten. He claims that the writer’s strong identification with the Jewish community, especially in their struggle against antisemitism, provided for his masochistic needs. Also, “[g]iven the nature of his erotic fantasies, it is possible that the only way he could express his philosemitism was by portraying the Jews – through their women – not as victims, but as powerful and victorious.” (Biale)