Have you ever listened to a conversation in a foreign language? That’s what sexual fetishes are like. They’re exciting if you speak the language. If you don’t, you’re left watching two people make noises with your mouth, your brain struggling to pattern-match their syllables against some meaning until eventually you give up.
I don’t find BDSM interesting, so much of Venus in Furs is a conversation in Putonghua or Sundanese. After I gave up trying to follow the conversation, I looked for a story, and there wasn’t much of one.
It’s a book within a book. A man reads a text about a “supersensual” man, Severin von Kusiemski, who falls under the spell of a woman with the South Park-sounding name Wanda von Dunajew. She wears furs. She captivates him – literally. He wants to be her slave. They go away on adventures together. The tone of the book feels like cordial that’s on the verge of fermenting into poison: a fantasy pushed as far as it can go.
Venus in Furs contains frank descriptions of a lot of things that would not have names for decades to come. It’s also unfocused, and suffers from the curious comorbidity of too much and not enough. The plot’s repetitive, with events looping around like a 12 inch record caught in a groove. But von Sacher-Masoch keeps adding in all these asides about metaphysics and gender roles and paganism, throwing the novel’s forward momentum into a talespin.
Sacher-Masoch likes to set up bowling pins and then forget to knock them down. Partway through the story, a few black female slaves assist Wanda in humiliating Severin. Could that have led to a reflection on real bondage? And the shallowness of what he experiences with Wanda? After all, Severin can reclaim his freedom and dignity whenever he wants, whereas some people can’t. BDSM’s just a fantasy, which is good in real life, but in a fictional book, why couldn’t he have gone beyond fantasy? Why not talk about real bondage? Venus in Furs dwells obsessively on saccharine instead of real sugar.
Apparently in BDSM there is a concept called “topping from the bottom”, where the submissive person uses the fact of their submission as collateral to manipulate or control the dominant. “I gave up my freedom for you. You really owe me, so let’s run this relationship on my terms.”
I’m the furthest thing from an expert, but Severin seemed like he was topping from the bottom a lot. One of his first acts is to make Wanda sign a contract of his servitude, stating among other things that she must always wear her furs. This adds a false, insincere dynamic to their relationship: like putting someone in chains and giving them the key. It’s like von Sacher-Masoch was topping me from the bottom. The book lures you in with the promise of revelation, intimacy, and one man exposing his secret heart. He immediately starts offloading mountains of ruminations on gender roles and metaphysics and paganism. This book could be subtitled “Dear Diary.”
The fetish-as-language metaphor breaks down. When you hear an unfamiliar language, the problem is that you don’t understand it. With a sexual fetish, you understand it perfectly well, it just has no meaning. After it’s possible to learn a new language, but I don’t know that it’s possible to learn a new fetish. If you can, Venus in Furs is no Berlitz Easy Language course.