From Sacher-Masoch’s Motives1
Translated from Ukrainian by Camilla Khromova
No one has ever been so far
with so little offence to decency.
G.Deleuze. Coldness and Cruelty
Like this double name, the relevant phenomenon also looks, if any, dual and double. At first it is the writer to be remembered, then instantly comes something else – a well-known state of mind, which got its name from a part of the writer’s one: ‘masochism’.
There is obviously no need to remind that it concerns a peculiar pleasure caused by pain and humiliation. But there also appears an indefinite duality, because it is about some sexual deviation. However it is only one side of the matter, since the very notion ‘masochism’ can be used in the situations virtually unrelated to sexuality. By the way, there instantly arises some doubt: is the phenomenon actually and exclusively sexual?
Even when it comes to ‘deviation’, the familiar duality comes at once ether. Let us remember ‘S&M’, if we choose slang, or ‘sado-masochistic complex’, if we are more comfortable with an ‘academic’ style. By the way, no end of researches have already been devoted to Sacher-Masoch (and this very phenomenon as well). However what is immediately sensed there is not the mentioned duality, but rather an unconcealed subjectivity and arbitrary understanding. There appears something similar to ‘dissemination’ of Jacques Derrida (1981). That is why every such interpretation seems to remind us how little we understand ‘masochism’.
The main shortcomings of such interpretations are that they try to explain this actually complicated phenomenon from their own points of view. Something entirely strange and non-standard is, as a rule, treated in terms of a common and restricted experience (here is duality again, and that does not seem helpful in solving this problem). So let us leave this world of perceptions alone and look for something more objective. For example some circumstances, better not of a ‘boudoir’ character, which any research of Sacher-Masoch has in abundance.
1 Published in Ukraine (Vsesvit 11-12, 2012)
Let us start with a fact quite remarkable for us, Ukrainians. Sacher-Masoch was born and brought up in Lviv, actually in Lemberg (as the town was called at the time). A double name again. Moreover, Sacher-Masoch was known to identify himself as ‘Rusyn’ (in German spelling Ruthenen). This is how the nationality was referred to in Austria-Hungary. That is, Ukrainian...
In their works these keen researches proved the absence of any valid documental evidence for Sacher-Masoch’s Ukrainian origin. More than that, he himself seemed to mitigate his own statement, remembering with warmth and love his ‘nurse’ who was really a Ukrainian. It can be understood this way: if not by blood, but from the first life experience I can feel myself a man with Ukrainian roots. Besides, the so called ‘success in literature’ is often remembered. The writer had to find his own theme, his own peculiarity among the men-of-letters.
Be this as it may, but Sacher-Masoch’s ‘ukrainanship’ has not been found noteworthy. As a matter of fact, we also feel that there is really not so much of a ‘Ukrainian touch’ in his works. It is indeed so. Yet, the single argument in this case overweighs everything: the above mentioned self-identification.
It can remind us of Nietzsche viewing himself as a Polish nobility decedent. Similarly, even the inquisitive scholars cannot find any evidence or records to support this version. But what is there to prove when it comes to Neitzsche? The person with the deepest insight of the aristocracy’s very sense?
What is important in case of Sacher-Masoch is not a genealogy but the account for the reasons that made him consider himself a ‘Rusyn’. First of all it is the country of his life and works to be remembered. Officially it bore the name of ‘Austria-Hungary Monarchy’. Meanwhile the other prominent Austrian writer, Robert Musil, in the peculiar ironical style of his, named it ‘Kakanien’ (from the widely used abbreviation ‘K-K’, which means ‘kaiserlich-koninglish’, that is ‘Imperial Kingdom’). Here is the double name again which reveals the very essence of this state. It was rather mixed and unstable unity of different nations. Not surprisingly, the contradictions of the kind were especially widespread there. The most acute confrontation, however, was not merely between certain nations but rather between different civilizations and worlds.
The fact is, what constituted the state were the nations from both the West and the East, exactly from Western and Eastern Europe. The ‘Western side’ was virtually German, while the ‘Eastern’ one was mostly ‘Slavic’. But what is actually inherent to the ‘German view’? In attempt to define, at least one, its pivotal feature, we can remember that from Kant to Nietzsche (for all the great difference between them) the German thinking departed from the subject’s active role. This immediately defines the role for the other, Slavic side. Not without reason, it was for the German side to be dominant in Austria-Hungarian Empire history (the word ‘dominant’ cannot but catch sight of everybody quite aware of the masochistic motives).What is new here is the other side’s presence enabled to view the situation just from it. ‘In such a relation’, Masoch writes, ‘only one can be hammer and the other anvil. I wish to be the anvil’ (2003). It is from there on that his imagined or exaggerated ‘ukrainanship’ stems.
This very position made him look for entirely other perception, opposite to the ‘western’ one. No doubt the western thought was also ready to criticize its own grounds (just remember Kant and Nietzsche). But it was about criticizing from ‘inside’. For no critic encroached on its determinant feature – on the self-concerned, self-sufficient and self-assured subject. By the way, it was the subject’s presence that premised that critics. What made Sacher-Masoch’s position different was his proceeding from the otherwise – from the subordinate, dependent and debased subject. Strange as it may seem, but this point of view, in spite of its seeming weakness, suggested that any substantial critics of the West could be done from ‘outside’, for it could touch upon the basic issue: the subject himself.
It must be noted that the famous ‘Venus in Furs’ was a part of the series named the Heritage of Cain, which was intended to depict the whole present day civilization. Remarkably, it came to the writer as the image of this first brother murderer. But once Cain is recalled, immediately Abel is recalled as well. Again the familiar configuration consisting of the active and passive parties.
But Masoch goes further on. Taking the passive role, he gives the active one to woman. It is from here on that masochism originates.
Most important, such relations should not be put on a private, personal level. It must be stressed again that it is the Western civilization to be primary concerned here. It was the time of the Western world view profoundly breaking up. What made one of its new peculiarities was the sex issue. On the world view level it manifested itself as the idea of the West having essentially ‘masculine’ nature. With good reason, the basic western thought sources (biblical as well as mythological) give preference primarily to man. Viewed in this way, the active subject appears to have, if any, concealed masculine features.
It must be said that the West is characterized by the efforts to get rid of any domination. It can well be related to ‘manhood’, properly to ‘fatherhood’ – Oedipus is to be recalled here. Actually, however, this is all about struggle and fight, so it is one more manifestation of man’s activity.
Then suddenly, in the remote area of this Western world emerges
an unexpected person capable to say something entirely new. How about passing this essentially masculine role together with all the powers to woman? More than that, why not do it with the full awareness of her acquiring some features that are mostly not inherent to her – of her getting severe, imperative and cruel? Accordingly, the man is to be granted just the opposite role. In his new position he proves to be dependent, even enslaved and humiliated.
Certainly, from strictly western viewpoint it all seems nothing but nonsense. To remember, it is just a counterpoise to the western thinking that Sacher-Masoch looks for. To accept, the latter’s highest values are freedom and independent self-sufficiency. Moreover, it is the intelligence and realized good order, which is inherent to the West. Yet Sacher-Masoch not only gives up all these basic ideas, but brings forward the opposite and incompatible ones. What he sets off against the intelligence is a keen sensuality. Thus a good excuse for all these slavery humiliation is found. – That is pleasure.
The above mentioned duality reaches here its climax, for, let us repeat, the writer so firmly and decisively contra poses his view to the widely accepted one that these two attitudes appear to exclude each other. Perhaps the first, therefore, essential conclusion can be drawn here. That is: no understanding of Masoch is possible if one views him from a common widespread perspective.
Moreover, Masoch himself seems to prompt us where we are to find the answer. The very title of his famous work is certainly not accidental. The reader might think that Venus in furs is the woman the story tells about, but the writer asserts that actually she is a goddess, the goddess of love, not in any romantic transferred meaning, but in literal and direct sense. It is not without purpose that she first appears as a statue. ‘The object of my adoration is of stone’.
Quite evidently, the imperative womanhood that seemed to take possession of Sacher-Masoch is not merely a real, particular woman, but rather an ancient mighty power. Then the role of any real, so to say, particular woman is easy to understand. For, it is nothing but the role that a real woman plays. Actually she is to embody and perform that mighty power. This makes us immediately remember the obviously and evidently theatrical air of ‘Venus in Furs’. If anything, it accounts for all these ‘whips’ and ‘lashes’ and primarily for these ‘furs’ which appear somewhat assistant and supportive. Performing a Goddess, we must admit, is not an easy job. It needs certain special devices to make the effect stronger, though actually they are but common theatrical properties.
Thus, we are to distinguish between two rather different dimensions. On the one hand, there is a real, but in fact exclusively ‘scenic’ dimension; on the other hand, there is a mythological but virtually determinant one. The text of ‘Venus in Furs’ provides us with many references to the well-known motives from literature and mythology. Moreover, the references at hand seem to excuse and even, if anything, inspire, all this sensuality of Masoch’s. ‘I was reading… the Book of Judith. I envied the hero Holofernes because of the regal woman who cut off his head with a sword, and because of his beautiful sanguinary end’. < ... > ‘I envied King Gunther whom the mighty Brunhilde fettered on the bridal night’.
Here Masoch as though asserts: this is not anything individual and pathological. This is the echo of a very old, forgotten world vision, now almost incomprehensible to the modern man…
In order to conceive anything similar, we certainly have to turn to some wholly concrete researches, first of all, to the wonderful book by Canadian scholar of Indian studies David Kinsley (1997). The book tells us that in India, in the tantric trend of Hinduism the goddesses were long known, greatly surprising and weird. They were called ‘Mahavidyas’. The most surprising thing about them was that they contradicted not only the common idea of goddesses, but also the very idea of womanhood. Nevertheless, this contradiction could not on the least prevent these goddesses from being worshipped. Such ‘relations’ are obviously worth close examination.
What catches sight is that Mahavidyas dominate over the men rather brutally. Not only over mortal humans; that is quite natural, for Goddesses they are, but also over the greatest male gods of Hinduism. Thus the first of Mahavidyas, namely Kali, is portrayed standing on lying Shiva and holding a cut off head in one hand and blood covered axe in the other. All her outfit is only a belt and beads – exactly the belt of chopped hands and the beads of cut off heads. What is meant here is evidently the death, for Mahavidyas tend to live in the special places of corpses cremation.
What else the weird goddesses distinguish themselves by is their sexuality. In this area they also dominate over the males, being constantly depicted in the upper position. Moreover they are especially worshipped and this certainly brings to mind ‘masochism’. However, given such an ancient origin of the tradition, this cannot be attributed to any pathology, but, on the contrary, definitely needs clearing up.
The total number of Mahavidyas was ten, so the described qualities seem to let them be united in a group. This fact cannot rule out any special characteristic features. For example, the famous goddess Lakshmy was also included in the group, though unlike the other goddesses, she was attractive and good-natured. The number and differences of Mahavidyas as though remind the very nature of a female – unsteady, changeable and variable. On the other hand, it was considered as the manifestation of a great origin belonging to the beyond world. ‘The ten Mahavidyas are different forms of an overarching, transcendent female reality, who is usually referred to simply as the Mahadevi (great goddess)’ (1997: 18-20).
Certainly, her power seemed incredible and exquisite. Needless to say once more, how imperative and cruel the Mahavidyas appeared. It is this power enhanced with womanhood that caused worshipping. The entire tantric world vision, by the way, was aimed not at that common to us speculations, but, first of all, at the ritual, at the actual and meticulously regulated servicing. This again reminds of masochism. If so, all its ‘theatrical’ features were not a mere acting and performing, but a kind of ‘liturgy’, or a ‘mass’ to be served with diligence and self-sacrifice. That precise regulation (in a written form with accordance to European tradition) can account for Sacher-Masoch’s ‘contracts’.
All these, however, is only the circumstances. The main question actually is why this female origin became so important in the ancient world view? To answer it, let us first underline that any mythology concerned the theme of appearing. The most principal and pivotal was the question where anything had come from, and, more than that, where everything had come from. The ancient prehistoric person must have had only one instance to comprehend that appearance: birth giving. For this reason it was the female element that proved to be the most powerful and thus adored and divinized. Notably, Sacher-Masoch was quite aware of this motif and explained it in his book, ‘because the most important function of existence – the continuation of the species – is her vocation’.
This idea is important because it turns our research to the area of philosophy. Certainly, it is not only because such a characteristic word ‘being’ is used, but because some different and so really philosophical implication appears.
Acceptably, this feminine origin, when taken from the side of its fertility, is primarily ‘the being’. For it is actually intended to create ‘a being’. Thus the woman as though embodies the being and proves, so to say, more ‘ontological’ than the man. When near her, you surely sense her presence more acutely than your own one.
So we are to assume that world perception rests not on ‘feeling oneself’ (it is a purely western understanding), but on feeling one’s closeness to somebody other, first and foremost, to woman. Originally it is certainly the mother, eventually come the other women. They indeed, as if grant existence, first physically then also metaphysically. To comprehend this being it is not enough to feel yourself from inside, for, first of all, you must feel it from outside, near you, you must acutely feel its presence. ‘I don’t want anything of you, except to be your slave, to be always near you!’
It is this ‘being near’ (as Masoch originally puts it: Nähe sein) to prove most essential here. For ‘to be’ properly means ‘to be near somebody’, that is to be grounded not on one’s personal self, but rather on one’s proximity, closeness to somebody other than oneself. We are to remember, here is the echo of a very old and mighty world vision. In return to ‘Mahavidyas’, let us stress, that the name of these weird goddesses means ‘The Great Knowledge’, – ‘maha-vidya’. What immediately catches the eye is the stem ‘vid’. It is from this very stem that the word ‘Vedas’ (vision) derives. Notably, our Ukrainian language preserved this stem intact: ‘s-vid-omist′’ (conscious), ‘do-vid-atysya’ (to learn), ‘zas-vid-chyty’ (to confirm), ‘spo-vid′’ (confession) and even ‘vid′-ma’ (witch).
These Mahavidyas’ very name prompts us: it is not merely an exotic feature of an ancient culture; it is the carefully concealed and the most important secret about the whole life’s essence. We already know that these goddesses were the manifestations of a great, exclusively feminine deity of world beyond. Indeed, when we try to turn from mythological to philosophical view, what appears is the being. Yet, what is this being actually like? It is rather variable, just like these ‘Mahavidias’ but immutably powerful and dominative. Sometimes it is seductive and heady, but more often cold and indifferent. It can be cruel and terrible too. What is important, it allows you no doubt, who is to determine everything.
You can easily make sure how mighty this being is. For it is regardless of all your efforts that you are granted it and start to exist. What, if any, your activity means? Thus, since time immemorial the creature capable to present you with being was accepted as the most powerful deity. Similarly, in spite of all your wishes – leave alone suicide – you do have to part with this being. Evidently, it was the reason why that vital deity was at the same time extremely cruel. That is how these properties, that seemed absolutely different, were united. Reasonably, in the well-known essay of Sigmund Freud ‘Beyond the Pleasure Principle’ we find the assumption about the existence based on the instincts or ‘prime drives’ to life and death (1955).
Given what have been said about it, masochism (if to hold to this term) can hardly to be treated as only a deviant affliction. We have seen that actually Sacher-Masoch appeared to recreate somewhat ancient world view, almost different from the present time one. By the way, its traces can be found not only in Masoch’s works. Here is one more Ukrainian philosopher: Khoma Brut. Let us not argue that he is rather a well-known character from the book (1998), than a real philosopher. Actually, a philosopher is not so much a person as a certain position or state when a man suddenly finds himself on the break of entire being. In this sense even Socrates is more a character from Plato’s dialogues than a person.
Let us remember that Khoma was to meet a witch. She jumped on his back (an upper position again) and they rushed without feeling earth under the feet. The philosopher had ‘a demonically sweet feeling’. Khoma ‘felt some piercing, some languidly terrible pleasure’. The following events make an impression of inevitability and desperation. Notably, N.Gogol himself is in a way similar to Sacher-Masoch. He is also a Ukrainian (in this case quite undoubtedly). He was also born in the empire, so he got the dominant language and even reached a success. However he constantly felt the presence of some other origin, of a world beyond element, he felt the powerful pressure of being itself.
‘Supposing that Truth is a woman – what then?’(2009: Preface)
Gogol, N. (1998) The Viy. The Collected Tales of Nicolai Gogol. Vintage
Derrida, J. (1981) Dissemination, Chicago: University of Chicago Press.
Freud, S. (1955) Beyond the Pleasure Principle, SE 18. The Standard
Edition of the Works of Sigmund Freud. London: Hogart Press.
Kinsley, D. (1997) Tantric Visions of the Divine Feminine: The Ten
Mahavidyas, Berkeley: University of California Press.
Nietzsche, F. (2009) Beyond Good and Evil. Trans. Helen Zimmern:
Sacher-Masoch, L. von, (2003) Venus in furs. Trans. Fernanda Savage: