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Venus in Furs

Venus in Furs - 2

Erotic novel (1921)


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Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, (Translated from the German by Fernanda Savage), Privately Printed, New York, 1921, 208 pp.


Gogol, the Russian Moliere, says—where? well, somewhere—"the real comic muse is the one under whose laughing mask tears roll down."

A wonderful saying.

So I have a very curious feeling as I am writing all this down. The atmosphere seems filled with a stimulating fragrance of flowers, which overcomes me and gives me a headache. The smoke of the fireplace curls and condenses into figures, small gray-bearded kokolds that mockingly point their finger at me. Chubby-cheeked cupids ride on the arms of my chair and on my knees. I have to smile involuntarily, even laugh aloud, as I am writing down my adventures. Yet I am not writing with ordinary ink, but with red blood that drips from my heart. All its wounds long scarred over have opened and it throbs and hurts, and now and then a tear falls on the paper.

*
* *

The days creep along sluggishly in the little Carpathian health- resort. You see no one, and no one sees you. It is boring enough to write idyls. I would have leisure here to supply a whole gallery of paintings, furnish a theater with new pieces for an entire season, a dozen virtuosos with concertos, trios, and duos, but—what am I saying—the upshot of it all is that I don’t do much more than to stretch the canvas, smooth the bow, line the scores. For I am—no false modesty, Friend Severin; you can lie to others, but you don’t quite succeed any longer in lying to yourself—I am nothing but a dilettante, a dilettante in painting, in poetry, in music, and several other of the so-called unprofitable arts, which, however, at present secure for their masters the income of a cabinet minister, or even that of a minor potentate. Above all else I am a dilettante in life.

Up to the present I have lived as I have painted and written poetry. I never got far beyond the preparation, the plan, the first act, the first stanza. There are people like that who begin everything, and never finish anything. I am such a one.

But what am I saying?

To the business in hand.

I lie in my window, and the miserable little town, which fills me with despondency, really seems infinitely full of poetry. How wonderful the outlook upon the blue wall of high mountains interwoven with golden sunlight; mountain-torrents weave through them like ribbons of silver! How clear and blue the heavens into which snowcapped crags project; how green and fresh the forested slopes; the meadows on which small herds graze, down to the yellow billows of grain where reapers stand and bend over and rise up again.

The house in which I live stands in a sort of park, or forest, or wilderness, whatever one wants to call it, and is very solitary.

Its sole inhabitants are myself, a widow from Lemberg, and Madame Tartakovska, who runs the house, a little old woman, who grows older and smaller each day. There are also an old dog that limps on one leg, and a young cat that continually plays with a ball of yarn. This ball of yarn, I believe, belongs to the widow.

She is said to be really beautiful, this widow, still very young, twenty-four at the most, and very rich. She dwells in the first story, and I on the ground floor. She always keeps the green blinds drawn, and has a balcony entirely overgrown with green climbing- plants. I for my part down below have a comfortable, intimate arbor of honeysuckle, in which I read and write and paint and sing like a bird among the twigs. I can look up on the balcony. Sometimes I actually do so, and then from time to time a white gown gleams between the dense green network.

Really the beautiful woman up there doesn’t interest me very much, for I am in love with someone else, and terribly unhappy at that; far more unhappy than the Knight of Toggenburg or the Chevalier in Manon l’Escault, because the object of my adoration is of stone.

In the garden, in the tiny wilderness, there is a graceful little meadow on which a couple of deer graze peacefully. On this meadow is a stone statue of Venus, the original of which, I believe, is in Florence. This Venus is the most beautiful woman I have ever seen in all my life.

That, however, does not signify much, for I have seen few beautiful women, or rather few women at all. In love too, I am a dilettante who never got beyond the preparation, the first act.

But why talk in superlatives, as if something that is beautiful could be surpassed?

It is sufficient to say that this Venus is beautiful. I love her passionately with a morbid intensity; madly as one can only love a woman who never responds to our love with anything but an eternally uniform, eternally calm, stony smile. I literally adore her.

I often lie reading under the leafy covering of a young birch when the sun broods over the forest. Often I visit that cold, cruel mistress of mine by night and lie on my knees before her, with the face pressed against the cold pedestal on which her feet rest, and my prayers go up to her.

The rising moon, which just now is waning, produces an indescribable effect. It seems to hover among the trees and submerges the meadow in its gleam of silver. The goddess stands as if transfigured, and seems to bathe in the soft moonlight.

Once when I was returning from my devotions by one of the walks leading to the house, I suddenly saw a woman’s figure, white as stone, under the illumination of the moon and separated from me merely by a screen of trees. It seemed as if the beautiful woman of marble had taken pity on me, become alive, and followed me. I was seized by a nameless fear, my heart threatened to burst, and instead—

Well, I am a dilettante. As always, I broke down at the second stanza; rather, on the contrary, I did not break down, but ran away as fast as my legs would carry me.

*
* *

What an accident! Through a Jew, dealing in photographs I secured a picture of my ideal. It is a small reproduction of Titian’s "Venus with the Mirror." What a woman! I want to write a poem, but instead, I take the reproduction, and write on it: Venus in Furs.

You are cold, while you yourself fan flames. By all means wrap yourself in your despotic furs, there is no one to whom they are more appropriate, cruel goddess of love and of beauty!—After a while I add a few verses from Goethe, which I recently found in his paralipomena to Faust.

TO AMOR
 
"The pair of wings a fiction are,
The arrows, they are naught but claws,
The wreath conceals the little horns,
For without any doubt he is
Like all the gods of ancient Greece
Only a devil in disguise."

Then I put the picture before me on my table, supporting it with a book, and looked at it.

I was enraptured and at the same time filled with a strange fear by the cold coquetry with which this magnificent woman draped her charms in her furs of dark sable; by the severity and hardness which lay in this cold marble-like face. Again I took my pen in hand, and wrote the following words:

"To love, to be loved, what happiness! And yet how the glamour of this pales in comparison with the tormenting bliss of worshipping a woman who makes a plaything out of us, of being the slave of a beautiful tyrant who treads us pitilessly underfoot. Even Samson, the hero, the giant, again put himself into the hands of Delilah, even after she had betrayed him, and again she betrayed him, and the Philistines bound him and put out his eyes which until the very end he kept fixed, drunken with rage and love, upon the beautiful betrayer."

*
* *

I was breakfasting in my honey-suckle arbor, and reading in 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.

"The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman."

This sentence strangely impressed me.

How ungallant these Jews are, I thought. And their God might choose more becoming expressions when he speaks of the fair sex.

"The almighty Lord hath struck him, and hath delivered him into the hands of a woman," I repeated to myself. What shall I do, so that He may punish me?

Heaven preserve us! Here comes the housekeeper, who has again diminished somewhat in size overnight. And up there among the green twinings and garlandings the white gown gleams again. Is it Venus, or the widow?

This time it happens to be the widow, for Madame Tartakovska makes a courtesy, and asks me in her name for something to read. I run to my room, and gather together a couple of volumes.

Later I remember that my picture of Venus is in one of them, and now it and my effusions are in the hands of the white woman up there together. What will she say?

I hear her laugh.

Is she laughing at me?

*
* *

It is full moon. It is already peering over the tops of the low hemlocks that fringe the park. A silvery exhalation fills the terrace, the groups of trees, all the landscape, as far as the eye can reach; in the distance it gradually fades away, like trembling waters.

I cannot resist. I feel a strange urge and call within me. I put on my clothes again and go out into the garden.

Some power draws me toward the meadow, toward her, who is my divinity and my beloved.

The night is cool. I feel a slight chill. The atmosphere is heavy with the odor of flowers and of the forest. It intoxicates.

What solemnity! What music round about! A nightingale sobs. The stars quiver very faintly in the pale-blue glamour. The meadow seems smooth, like a mirror, like a covering of ice on a pond.

The statue of Venus stands out august and luminous.

But—what has happened? From the marble shoulders of the goddess a large dark fur flows down to her heels. I stand dumbfounded and stare at her in amazement; again an indescribable fear seizes hold of me and I take flight.

I hasten my steps, and notice that I have missed the main path. As I am about to turn aside into one of the green walks I see Venus sitting before me on a stone bench, not the beautiful woman of marble, but the goddess of love herself with warm blood and throbbing pulses. She has actually come to life for me, like the statue that began to breathe for her creator. Indeed, the miracle is only half completed. Her white hair seems still to be of stone, and her white gown shimmers like moonlight, or is it satin? From her shoulders the dark fur flows. But her lips are already reddening and her cheeks begin to take color. Two diabolical green rays out of her eyes fall upon me, and now she laughs.

Her laughter is very mysterious, very—I don’t know. It cannot be described, it takes my breath away. I flee further, and after every few steps I have to pause to take breath. The mocking laughter pursues me through the dark leafy paths, across light open spaces, through the thicket where only single moonbeams can pierce. I can no longer find my way, I wander about utterly confused, with cold drops of perspiration on the forehead.

Finally I stand still, and engage in a short monologue.

It runs—well—one is either very polite to one’s self or very rude.

I say to myself:

"Donkey!"

This word exercises a remarkable effect, like a magic formula, which sets me free and makes me master of myself.

I am perfectly quiet in a moment.

With considerable pleasure I repeat: "Donkey!"

Now everything is perfectly clear and distinct before my eyes again. There is the fountain, there the alley of box-wood, there the house which I am slowly approaching.

Yet—suddenly the appearance is here again. Behind the green screen through which the moonlight gleams so that it seems embroidered with silver, I again see the white figure, the woman of stone whom I adore, whom I fear and flee.

With a couple of leaps I am within the house and catch my breath and reflect.

What am I really, a little dilettante or a great big donkey?

*
* *

A sultry morning, the atmosphere is dead, heavily laden with odors, yet stimulating. Again I am sitting in my honey-suckle arbor, reading in the Odyssey about the beautiful witch who transformed her admirers into beasts. A wonderful picture of antique love.

There is a soft rustling in the twigs and blades and the pages of my book rustle and on the terrace likewise there is a rustling.

A woman’s dress—

She is there—Venus—but without furs—No, this time it is merely the widow—and yet—Venus-oh, what a woman!

As she stands there in her light white morning gown, looking at me, her slight figure seems full of poetry and grace. She is neither large, nor small; her head is alluring, piquant—in the sense of the period of the French marquises—rather than formally beautiful. What enchantment and softness, what roguish charm play about her none too small mouth! Her skin is so infinitely delicate, that the blue veins show through everywhere; even through the muslin covering her arms and bosom. How abundant her red hair-it is red, not blonde or golden- yellow—how diabolically and yet tenderly it plays around her neck! Now her eyes meet mine like green lightnings—they are green, these eyes of hers, whose power is so indescribable—green, but as are precious stones, or deep unfathomable mountain lakes.

She observes my confusion, which has even made me discourteous, for I have remained seated and still have my cap on my head.

She smiles roguishly.

Finally I rise and bow to her. She comes closer, and bursts out into a loud, almost childlike laughter. I stammer, as only a little dilettante or great big donkey can do on such an occasion.

Thus our acquaintance began.

The divinity asks for my name, and mentions her own.

Her name is Wanda von Dunajew.

And she is actually my Venus.

"But madame, what put the idea into your head?"

"The little picture in one of your books—"

"I had forgotten about it."

"The curious notes on its back—"

"Why curious?"

She looked at me.

"I have always wanted to know a real dreamer some time—for the sake of the change—and you seem one of the maddest of the tribe."

"Dear lady—in fact—" Again I fell victim to an odious, asinine stammering, and in addition blushed in a way that might have been appropriate for a youngster of sixteen, but not for me, who was almost a full ten years older—

"You were afraid of me last night."

"Really—of course—but won’t you sit down?"

She sat down, and enjoyed my embarrassment—for actually I was even more afraid of her now in the full light of day. A delightful expression of contempt hovered about her upper lip.

"You look at love, and especially woman," she began, "as something hostile, something against which you put up a defense, even if unsuccessfully. You feel that their power over you gives you a sensation of pleasurable torture, of pungent cruelty. This is a genuinely modern point of view."

"You don’t share it?"

"I do not share it," she said quickly and decisively, shaking her head, so that her curls flew up like red flames.

"The ideal which I strive to realize in my life is the serene sensuousness of the Greeks—pleasure without pain. I do not believe in the kind of love which is preached by Christianity, by the moderns, by the knights of the spirit. Yes, look at me, I am worse than a heretic, I am a pagan.

’Doest thou imagine long the goddess of love took counsel — When in Ida’s grove she was pleased with the hero Achilles?’

"These lines from Goethe’s Roman Elegy have always delighted me.

"In nature there is only the love of the heroic age, ’when gods and goddesses loved.’ At that time ’desire followed the glance, enjoyment desire.’ All else is factitious, affected, a lie. Christianity, whose cruel emblem, the cross, has always had for me an element of the monstrous, brought something alien and hostile into nature and its innocent instincts.

"The battle of the spirit with the senses is the gospel of modern man. I do not care to have a share in it."

"Yes, Mount Olympus would be the place for you, madame," I replied, "but we moderns can no longer support the antique serenity, least of all in love. The idea of sharing a woman, even if it were an Aspasia, with another revolts us. We are jealous as is our God. For example, we have made a term abuse out of the name of the glorious Phryne.

"We prefer one of Holbein’s meagre, pallid virgins, which is wholly ours to an antique Venus, no matter how divinely beautiful she is, but who loves Anchises to-day, Paris to-morrow, Adonis the day after. And if nature triumphs in us so that we give our whole glowing, passionate devotion to such a woman, her serene joy of life appears to us as something demonic and cruel, and we read into our happiness a sin which we must expiate."

"So you too are one of those who rave about modern women, those miserable hysterical feminine creatures who don’t appreciate a real man in their somnambulistic search for some dream-man and masculine ideal. Amid tears and convulsions they daily outrage their Christian duties; they cheat and are cheated; they always seek again and choose and reject; they are never happy, and never give happiness. They accuse fate instead of calmly confessing that they want to love and live as Helen and Aspasia lived. Nature admits of no permanence in the relation between man and woman."

"But, my dear lady—"

"Let me finish. It is only man’s egoism which wants to keep woman like some buried treasure. All endeavors to introduce permanence in love, the most changeable thing in this changeable human existence, have gone shipwreck in spite of religious ceremonies, vows, and legalities. Can you deny that our Christian world has given itself over to corruption?"

"But—"

"But you are about to say, the individual who rebels against the arrangements of society is ostracized, branded, stoned. So be it. I am willing to take the risk; my principles are very pagan. I will live my own life as it pleases me. I am willing to do without your hypocritical respect; I prefer to be happy. The inventors of the Christian marriage have done well, simultaneously to invent immortality. I, however, have no wish to live eternally. When with my last breath everything as far as Wanda von Dunajew is concerned comes to an end here below, what does it profit me whether my pure spirit joins the choirs of angels, or whether my dust goes into the formation of new beings? Shall I belong to one man whom I don’t love, merely because I have once loved him? No, I do not renounce; I love everyone who pleases me, and give happiness to everyone who loves me. Is that ugly? No, it is more beautiful by far, than if cruelly I enjoy the tortures, which my beauty excites, and virtuously reject the poor fellow who is pining away for me. I am young, rich, and beautiful, and I live serenely for the sake of pleasure and enjoyment."

While she was speaking her eyes sparkled roguishly, and I had taken hold of her hands without exactly knowing what to do with them, but being a genuine dilettante I hastily let go of them again.

"Your frankness," I said, "delights me, and not it alone—"

My confounded dilettantism again throttled me as though there were a rope around my neck.

"You were about to say—"

"I was about to say—I was—I am sorry—I interrupted you."

"How, so?"

A long pause. She is doubtless engaging in a monologue, which translated into my language would be comprised in the single word, "donkey."

"If I may ask," I finally began, "how did you arrive at these—these conclusions?"

"Quite simply, my father was an intelligent man. From my cradle onward I was surrounded by replicas of ancient art; at ten years of age I read Gil Blas, at twelve La Pucelle. Where others had Hop-o’-my-thumb, Bluebeard, Cinderella, as childhood friends, mine were Venus and Apollo, Hercules and Lackoon. My husband’s personality was filled with serenity and sunlight. Not even the incurable illness which fell upon him soon after our marriage could long cloud his brow. On the very night of his death he took me in his arms, and during the many months when he lay dying in his wheel chair, he often said jokingly to me: ’Well, have you already picked out a lover?’ I blushed with shame. ’Don’t deceive me,’ he added on one occasion, ’that would seem ugly to me, but pick out an attractive lover, or preferably several. You are a splendid woman, but still half a child, and you need toys.’

"I suppose, I hardly need tell you that during his life time I had no lover; but it was through him that I have become what I am, a woman of Greece."

"A goddess," I interrupted.

"Which one," she smiled.

"Venus."

She threatened me with her finger and knitted her brows. "Perhaps, even a ’Venus in Furs.’ Watch out, I have a large, very large fur, with which I could cover you up entirely, and I have a mind to catch you in it as in a net."

"Do you believe," I said quickly, for an idea which seemed good, in spite of its conventionality and triteness, flashed into my head, "do you believe that your theories could be carried into execution at the present time, that Venus would be permitted to stray with impunity among our railroads and telegraphs in all her undraped beauty and serenity?"

"Undraped, of course not, but in furs," she replied smiling, "would you care to see mine?"

"And then—"

"What then?"

"Beautiful, free, serene, and happy human beings, such as the Greeks were, are only possible when it is permitted to have slaves who will perform the prosaic tasks of every day for them and above all else labor for them."

"Of course," she replied playfully, "an Olympian divinity, such as I am, requires a whole army of slaves. Beware of me!"

"Why?"

I myself was frightened at the hardiness with which I uttered this "why"; it did not startle her in the least.

She drew back her lips a little so that her small white teeth became visible, and then said lightly, as if she were discussing some trifling matter, "Do you want to be my slave?"

"There is no equality in love," I replied solemnly. "Whenever it is a matter of choice for me of ruling or being ruled, it seems much more satisfactory to me to be the slave of a beautiful woman. But where shall I find the woman who knows how to rule, calmly, full of self-confidence, even harshly, and not seek to gain her power by means of petty nagging?"

"Oh, that might not be so difficult."

"You think—"

"I—for instance—" she laughed and leaned far back—"I have a real talent for despotism—I also have the necessary furs—but last night you were really seriously afraid of me!"

"Quite seriously."

"And now?"

"Now, I am more afraid of you than ever!"

*
* *

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