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The cultural legacy of Sacher-Masoch


Nataliya Kosmolinska and Yury Okhrimenko take a look at the author who
was born in the Ukrainian city of Lviv, who wrote historical, and erotic novels
and whose name was used for coining the word “masochism.”


“Leopold’s mind instinctively rejected both the indifferent
and the scornful attitude to life. He remained all his days
an enthusiast, a builder of utopias.”

James Cleugh, Sacher-Masoch’s biographer


If you ask men and women in the streets of Lviv to name a couple of people who were born in Lviv, resided in Lviv for some time and later became world famous, almost invariably two names would be given: Leopold von Sacher-Masoch and Stanislaw Lem. Both were writers, one of the second half of the nineteenth century, and the other one of the second half of the twentieth century. The term “masochism” derives from the name of Sacher-Masoch, who wrote extensively about the satisfaction he gained by being beaten and subjugated. There is no term “Lemism” but the Polish writer Stanislaw Lem gave Science Fiction a totally new dimension.


Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was born in Lviv, Western Ukraine, in 1836. His father, Leopold Sacher, was an Austrian of Spanish descent, director of police in Lviv. His mother was Charlotte von Masoch, a Ukrainian lady of noble birth, daughter of the president of the Lviv University. The novelist, the eldest son of this union, was not born until after nine years of marriage, and in infancy was so delicate that he was not expected to survive. He began to improve, however, when his mother gave him to be suckled to a robust Ukrainian peasant woman, Handzya from the village of Vynnyky, from whom, he said later, he gained not only health, but “his soul”; it was from her that he “learned all the strange and melancholy legends of her people and a love of the Ukrainians” which never left him. Leopold actually lived in the village for some time, and the impressions of the rural life in the Land of Halychyna, the songs, the lullabies, the fairy tales stayed in his memory and were a continuous source of inspiration for his writings in his later life. “Music and singing have a magic effect on us, Ukrainians; in our folk songs we hear the voices of our ancestors who lie buried in the tall barrows; the spirits of the forest, the air and the water talk to us in these folk songs and folk tales,” wrote Sacher-Masoch in one of his short stories. As a short-story writer, he was compared by the nineteenth-century literary critics to such masters as Maupassant and Turgenev.

Leopold von Sacher-Masoch wrote a great many novels, short stories and plays as well as works on history. Venus in Furs is perhaps his best known work. But at this point we are more interested in his Ukrainian connections. In 1886 he published a novel in Berlin, Die Bluthochzeit in Kiew, or The Bloody Wedding in Kyiv, whose central character was Grand Duchess Olga, a tenth-century ruler of Kyiv.

The historical Olga was the wife of Prince Igor, who was assassinated by his subjects in a revolt against excessive taxation. Olga took a cruel revenge on her husband’s assassins, but later ruled wisely and justly. She acted as regent while her son Svyatoslav was too young to rule. Olga was converted to Christianity in 955 during her visit to Constantinople. When she died in 969, there “was much grief in the land,” claims the chronicler Nestor who lived almost two hundred years later. He goes on to call Olga “the redeeming luminary” and “wise”; the Church, he says, sainted her, and “the people called her ‘cunning.’ ”

For the writer Sacher-Masoch who was rather liberal with the historical facts, Olga was a very attractive personage. He interpreted her in his own special way. “Now you understand, the suprasensual fool! Under the lash of a beautiful woman my senses first realized the meaning of woman. In her fur jacket she seemed to me like a wrathful queen, and from then on [she] became the most desirable woman on God’s earth… Nothing can intensify my passion more than tyranny, cruelty, and especially the faithlessness of a beautiful woman” (italics are ours — N.K and Yu. O.). This quotation from Venus in Furs may help elucidate Sacher-Masoch’s fascination with the tenth-century Slavonic ruler.

“She ordered to have some of them [the Derevlyany people who killed Olga’s husband] quartered and then beheaded. Others were sandwiched between two wooden boards on top of which heavy women were placed, and those under the boards were slowly smothered to death. Still others were bound hand and foot and placed face down on the sharpened pales which were sunk into the ground. The Grand Duchess, the living image of a goddess of vengeance, mounted a milky-white stallion, the horse of her murdered husband, and, accompanied by young supercilious boyars, rode gracefully and defiantly over the prostrate bodies trampling them under the horses’ hooves. The riders left only when the very last of the victims expired. Some of the poor Derevlyany people were burned at stake, the fires burning bright. As the flames consumed them, they cried and wildly screamed, like savage beasts, from the unbearable pain. Big holes in the ground were dug in the garden and in each hole ten people were buried alive. On each side of the gate a pyramid of chopped-off heads of the rank-and-file Derevlyany people was piled high… The cruel woman ordered to punish the ruler of the Derevlyany people by cutting off his arms and legs. He survived but spent the rest of his life under the Duchess’ table, picking up bread crumbs from the floor with his tongue.”

Sacher-Masoch’s childhood was rather serene until the year 1848, when Europe experienced a revolutionary convulsion. His father, totally in contrast with today’s stereotype of a police officer, was a highly cultured person, and in addition to being director of police, he was director of the Halytsky Music Society. Unfortunately, the turbulent events of 1848, required his direct involvement as a police chief in dealing with the unrest, and the measures he took made him an exceedingly unpopular figure in Lviv. The newly-appointed governor of Galicia (Halychyna, which, at that time, was under Austrian domination) Count Holukhovsky made the director of police a scapegoat for the violent suppression of the insurrectionists, and dismissed him from his post; in order to appease the indignant residents of Lviv, the Count even disbanded the police board. The Sacher-Masochs left Lviv and moved to Prague where Leopold was educated, first at a gymnasium and then at the local university. He continued his studies at the University of Graz; “he studied with such zeal that when only 19 he took his doctor’s degree in law and shortly afterward became a privatdocent for German history at Graz” writes his biographer.

There was, however, a short interruption in his studies; “…in the revolution of 1848, young Sacher-Masoch received his baptism of fire; carried away by the popular movement, he helped defend the barricades together with a young lady, a relative of his family, an Amazon with a pistol in her girdle, such as later he loved to depict.” After this brief interruption of his education from which he emerged unscathed, he pursued his studies with brilliance, and his father’s esthetic tastes played an important role in his education. “Amateur theatricals were in special favour at his home, and here even the serious plays of Goethe and Gogol were performed.” The sudden death of his favorite sister was a tragic event which, at the age of 16, changed him considerably. Young Sacher-Masoch became serious and quiet, and always regarded this grief as the turning point in his life.

Some time after his teaching career began, he abandoned it for literature which he pursued, almost uninterrupted to the end of his life (as an Austrian citizen, he took part in the war of 1866 in Italy, and after the battle of Solferino he was decorated on the field for bravery in action by the Austrian field-marshal). Gradually, he acquired a European reputation by his novels and stories.

The memory of Ukraine stayed with Sacher-Masoch throughout his life and Ukrainian themes were a constant feature in writings. His historical novels opened to the European readers the exotic world of early Ukrainian history, of the Carpathian opryshky (Hutsul “noble outlaws” and freedom-fighters of the late sixteenth-early nineteenth centuries) and their valiant leader Oleksa Dovbush who was betrayed to the enemy by the beautiful but treacherous Dzvinka. Sacher-Masoch’s romantic interest in Ukraine’s colourful past was intensified by the writings of a number of Polish authors of the Period of Romanticism. It is known that Sacher-Masoch, when still a boy, read poems of Seweryn Goszczynski, the Polish poet who brought the Ukrainian themes into the Polish poetry. Incidentally, Goszczynski was an active participant of insurrections against the Austrian rule in Lviv and as the head of Lviv police, Sacher-Masoch Senior tried hard but without success to find and arrest the poet.

The germinal elements of Sacher-Masoch’s psycho-sexual peculiarities can probably be traced to certain events in his childhood which strongly affected his imagination on the sexual side. As a child, he was greatly attracted by representations of cruelty; he liked to look at pictures of executions: the stories about martyrs were his favorite reading. He may have read or heard that “the women of Galicia either rule their husbands entirely or make them their slaves.” At the age of ten, Leopold witnessed a scene in which a countess and a relative of his own on the paternal side, struck her lover, then whipped her husband and then beat the boy for being an inadvertent witness. The pain was great, and yet he was conscious of a strange pleasure. As his biographer remarks, woman became to him, during a considerable part of his life, a creature at once to be loved and hated, a being whose beauty and brutality enabled her to set foot at will on the necks of men. The whip and the fur garments, Sacher-Masoch’s favourite emotional symbols, find their explanation in this early episode. He was accustomed to say of an attractive woman: “I should like to see her in furs.”

In many of Sacher-Masoch’s works we find cruel, willful women with sadistic inclinations who torture their lovers, and men who love their beautiful torturers. Sacher-Masoch’s novel Venus in Furs is part of an epic series of stories that he envisioned and planned to call “The Heritage of Cain,” which was to have six parts, each containing a number of stories: Love, Property, The State, War, Work, and Death. Venus in Furs was part of Love, which contained five additional stories and was first published in 1870. The whole series was to be his variations on the most important stages in the history of humankind. Sacher-Masoch was of the opinion that all the people on the planet were descendants of Cain, and as such were potentially aggressive and violent. “Men and women are by their very nature enemies of each other; love can unite man and woman into one creature but just for a brief moment… only to break them apart and make them even more alien… Goethe’s dictum, ‘You have to be either the hammer or the anvil’ applies particularly well to the relations between man and woman.” Characteristically enough, Sacher-Masoch never described sexual acts or acts of sexual perversion in such graphic and naturalistic details as Marquis de Sade did in his writings. A French philosopher’s remark describes well Sacher-Masoch’s attitudes: “Paradoxically, he ‘desexualized’ love and sexualized the history of mankind.”

The literary fame of Sacher-Masoch steadily grew starting from the early 1870s; his novels were translated from German into foreign languages, the French translations being particularly important for establishing his reputation. The French government even bestowed the Order of Legion of Honour on him. The literary merits of his writings were highly praised by contemporary critics. In 1890, a German psychologist and neurologist who specialized in human sexuality, Richard von Kraft-Ebing (1840–1902; he is best known for work on forensic psychiatry and for his Psychopathia Sexualis) coined a term “masochism” to describe “psychosexual disorder in which erotic release is achieved through having pain inflicted on oneself.. the amount of pain involved can vary from ritual humiliation with little violence to severe whipping or beating … while pain may cause a certain amount of sexual excitement in many persons, for the masochist it becomes the chief end of sexual activity” (the term has come to be frequently used in a looser social context in which masochism is defined as the behaviour of one who seeks out and enjoys situations of humiliation or abuse). Sacher-Masoch does not seem to have been particularly happy with his popularity gained through his, in his opinion unjustified association with the sexual perversion. He said that the medical term and its loose application would depreciate his literary reputation and that his works could come to be grossly underestimated because of that. His fears proved to be very much justified — his literary legacy is practically forgotten, with the probable exception of Venus in Furs, and he lives on in the memory of mankind primarily as a person whose name was used for coining the term “masochism.”

Nevertheless, Sacher-Masoch’s writings do constitute an epochal shift from the literary realism and positivism of the second half of the nineteenth century towards probing into the darker sides of the human nature. It is not accidental that it was in the late nineteenth century that Sigmund Freud began his own digging onto the Subconscious. Incidentally, Freud, describing in one of his later works the Slavic character, claimed that one of its characteristic features was “moral masochism.”

Sacher-Masoch’s novel, Die Bluthochzeit in Kiew, which we mentioned at the beginning of our essay, reflects both his own “masochistic” fascination with beautiful but cruel and “sadistic” females, and the romantic view of the Ukrainian history. As a writer, he recreated the historical background of the tenth century rather well, given the state of historical knowledge of his times. He provides a wealth of details little known not only to the general readers but even to the West European historians. He mentions, for example, that the Ukrainian warriors were mostly armed with sabers rather than with straight swords typical for Western knights, and though sabers came to be predominately used in much later times in Ukraine, they were not unknown in the early medieval times. His descriptions of the funeral and wake ceremonies, of pagan gods and everyday life have almost an ethnographical precision. The author goes as far as to use the ancient Ukrainian word mohyla, spelled in Latin, for the barrow, “a large mound of earth or stones placed over a burial site.”

Even from the point of view of what we know today of the ethical background of the early medieval society, Sacher-Masoch’s reconstruction of relations among people of the tenth-century Ukraine — which differed but little from such relations elsewhere in Europe — is close to what they must have been in reality. Dynastic and vassal considerations over the moral, war as an almost everyday occurrence, vengeance and blood feuds, brutality and violence were the order of the day. Sacher-Masoch has the Derevlyany prince Mak marry Olga, the widow of Igor, the Grand Duke he had murdered, and this literary move is quite in agreement with the mores of those times.

Characteristically, Sacher-Masoch does not make use of a Romantic legend popular in his days according to which Olga was of a low birth; instead, he makes Olga a descendant of Rurik, the semi-legendary founder of the Rurik Dynasty that ruled Kyiv and Novgorod for a couple of centuries of the early Kyivan Rus-Ukraine history. In fact, many historians of today do accept a possibility of her descending from the Rurik dynasty, or even being a daughter of the Kyiv ruler Ascold.

Sacher-Masoch’s description of Paganism and Christianity co-existing at the early stages of Kyivan history tallies well with what archeological and historical research claim might well have been the case.

At the same time, the novel abounds in poetic licence; even geography is made to serve the author’s purposes or his views of historical events. But behind the historicity and invention stand Sacher-Masoch’s own passions and Romantic inclinations. A beautiful, cruel, proud, haughty, self-centered “queen,” “a being whose beauty and brutality enabled her to set foot at will on the necks of men” is the central character of his novel. Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was the first self-confessed masochist, after all.

“God has punished the man by delivering him into the hands of the woman.”


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