Hermetic Library fellow T Polyphilus reviews Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty & Venus in Furs by Gilles Deleuze and Leopold von Sacher-Masoch:
This volume reprints the masochistic literary paradigm Venus in Furs, but prefaced to Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novel is a theoretical essay by Gilles Deleuze, Coldness and Cruelty, of about the same length as the Masoch text. I read the volume cover-to-cover following the page numbers, but I think I would advise other readers to take on the Masoch first, and then the Deleuze.
The unnamed narrator of Venus in Furs (Masoch himself?) begins by relating a dream to his friend Severin, who responds by presenting him with an autobiographical manuscript, so that the story of Severin’s amorous enslavement forms the body of the novel. The novel is vivid and fast-moving, and I would count it a pleasure to read regardless of one’s sympathy or antipathy for the characters and their behavior. To the extent that there is sex, it is not at all explicit. What is described is the intimate context of the relationship, along with the participants’ emotional reactions. Those should fire the reader’s imagination to the extent that one takes away the impression of a highly salacious account. At the end, Severin, now an abusive tyrant over his wife, claims to have been “cured” of his desire for subjugation, but the narrator expresses some ambivalence on the judgment.
As for Masoch’s own views, these are somewhat clarified and confirmed by a set of appendices: an autobiographical essay on a formative childhood experience that parallels one described by Severin in the novel, a pair of contracts in which Masoch subjugated himself to his partners, and a fragment of memoir by his wife that details their curious encounters with someone who may have been Ludwig II.
The Deleuze text is decidedly less entertaining, but certainly has some value. He is at pains to criticize what he calls the “sadomasochistic entity,” i.e. he disputes the functional overlap and identity of sadism with masochism, insisting instead that the two phenomena transpire on different planes and concern themselves with different objects. As I digest his thesis, masochism is the carnal application of dialectical imagination, while sadism is that of critical inquiry. “In trying to fill in the gaps between masochism and sadism, we are liable to fall into all kinds of misapprehensions, both theoretical and practical or therapeutic” (109). Deleuze discusses and argues with the relevant theories of Freud, Reik, and Lacan. I am reasonably persuaded by the essay, although I think it may overstate its case with a measure of polemical absoluteness. [via]
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