Prophet of pain

Olive: Why do you have to be so masso… masso…

David Shayne: Masochistic.

Olive: Masochistic? What the hell does that mean?

David Shayne: It means someone who enjoys pain.

Olive: Enjoys pain? What is she, *retarded*?

Bullets Over Broadway

OK I realise that’s this month’s second reference to Woody Allen’s 1994 film. What can I say, I watched it again recently. OK, I watched it twice recently. It’s cold outside.

It’s generally known that the term ‘masochism’ derives from the name Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, but the man so closely associated with the sexualised enjoyment of pain remains in shadow. He was born on this day in 1836 in the city of Lviv, now in the Ukraine but at the time in the Austro-Hungarian province of Galicia, an area that provided inspiration for much of his writing. Like Kafka, who was born in Prague, Sacher-Masoch grew up in an outpost of the sprawling Habsburg domains but came to literary fame writing in the imperial mother tongue, German.

In his lifetime Sacher-Masoch enjoyed considerable success as a writer but posterity has raised one of his books above all others in his oeuvre: Venus in Furs. Its lasting power derives from the lived experience it reflects, specifically Sacher-Masoch’s life-long desire to be utterly enslaved to the whims of a cruel woman, preferably swathed in furs and brandishing a whip. “Woman’s power lies in man’s passion,” claimes one of its characters, “and she knows how to use it, if man doesn’t understand himself. He has only one choice: to be the tyrant over or the slave of woman.”

The term ‘sado-masochism’ manacles Sacher-Masoch to the Marquis de Sade for eternity, and in truth there are similarities between the two. Both were born of the nobility, both lived through violent upheaval (Sade during the French Revolution, Sacher-Masoch during the 1848 uprisings), both spent spells in mental institutions, and both had not just a literary but a prurient interest in their more outré subject matter.

But the two differ sharply in their social roles, much more than over the relatively minor question of whether they enjoyed receiving or inflicting pain. Where Sade was a transgressor, Sacher-Masoch was a reformer. Baldly stated, Sade essentially wanted laws and mores to remain in place so he could have the pleasure of breaking them; Sacher-Masoch was radicalised by the progressive movement of his time and saw a chance for social improvement.

So it may come as a surprise to find the same pen swooning under the blows of a mistress also fighting for greater female suffrage. Sacher-Masoch was furthermore an outspoken opponent of the anti-Semitism then spreading like a cancer throughout the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and led programmes to enlighten the rural working class.

Unlike Sade, Sacher-Masoch lived to see his name attached to a pathology (as it was then regarded) by Richard von Krafft-Ebbing, in 1886. By that time he had settled in Germany with his mistress, whom he subsequently married; unlike his first wife, she was handy with a whip and could deliver pain in the dosage Sacher-Masoch required.

His place in the annals of sexual practice assured, Sacher-Masoch died in 1895.

Update: a fellow masochist posthumously outed

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