Salient: Victoria University Students' Paper. Vol. 30, No. 11. 1967.
The First Masochist—A life of Count Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. Published by Antony Blond Ltd. New Zealand Distributers Whitcombe & Tombs Ltd. Price, $4.30.
To correct a possible first impression, this is a biography, not a textbook. Sorry about that, chaps.
The name is, of course, a bit of a misnomer—Count Leopold von 8acher-Masoch was the "first" masochist only in the sense that his name was coined by Krnfft-Ebing as an alternative to the more scientific term algolagnia. After all. to quote Lecky, it was a few hundred years AD that the "highest model of a Christian saint"—St. Simeon—stood for a year on one leg, the other being covered with hideous ulcers, while his biographer was commissioned to stand by his side, to pick up the worms that fell from his body and to replace them in the sores, the saint saying to the worm: "Eat what God has given you." The Count Is, by comparison, rather mild.
James Cleugh weaves together the two main facets of Masoch's life—his considerable literary output varying from trash novels to academic works (and including the editorship of an intellectual review); and his relationships with his women.
Count Leopold was known by his contemporaries mainly as a litterateur, with his unusual erotic tastes adding spice or causing deprecation as the case may be. His first book, written while he was Lecturer in History at the Karl Franz University of Graz (a position to which he was appointed at 20), was a substantial work on "The Rebellion in Ghent under the Emperor Charles V." But he was young, he was challenging current ideas about the rebellion and his style was brighter than his academic colleagues expected in a German work of scholarship.
He therefore turned from scholarly writing to that of the imagination, and continued for the rest of his career to write of persons and characters rather than of ideas. His "Hungary's Decline and Maria of Austria" was an historical study, being largely an account of the life of Ludwig II and his wife Maria; and "The Last Days of Peter the Great" was an historical romance of a similar type.
At the same time he was a prolific writer of shorter sketches-"Imitation Ermine," for example, the title of a collection of 25 short stories of theatrical life, was still being reprinted 10 years after it first appeared.
But of his more than 80 published titles it is probably "Venus In Furs." by which he is best known today. It is in this book that the deviation he gave his name was made most explicit—his ideal woman is a dominating individual who delights in making her lover an abject slave; who delights in flagellating him physically with a whip or emotionally with another man. And—here is the significance of the title—she wears furs, preferably over nothing. A thought. unlike some of his other tastes, I find rather attractive.
But his ideal woman came to light only in his fiction, in spite of his attempts to find her in the flesh. Certainly there was no shortage of candidates; no shortage, indeed, of fans writing to him to suggest their essential soul-matiness. The age was one in which a "handsome, rich, energetic young man" could advertise in the daily paper that he would like to meet a "pretty. elegant young woman, admirer of the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch preferred," and in which a woman could write to the Count saying how she had been "moved in a peculiarly intimate manner by the general trend of the works of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch: and would like them further explained to her.
It was thus, in fact, that he met his first wife. The 12-year liaison, his longest, began with "a dream of composing a wild and poignant poetry." and died under the strain of Sacher-Masochs demands to be tormented by a woman who found little pleasure in doing so. In particular did he want his wife to take a lover, that he might feel the exquisite agonies of the cuckold. She, on the other hand, while not completely averse to the scheme, was not impressed by the quality of the majority of the men offering, and did not feel secure enough to give the Count grounds for divorce. An interesting case for a marriage counsellor, one suspects.
And there were other women. But the book is not a succession of scurrilous tales —it is a serious biography of an interesting and apparently brilliant man, whose aberrations made his life, and that of his Intimates, difficult. They also made it interesting—my ideal woman is not that of the Count, but I can feel a sympathy for him which is more difficult to feel for his converse, the Marquis de Sade.
James Cleugh has a workmanlike and readable style, and if in passages a little stolid nevertheless he led me through the book without difficulty. Because of the large amount of material to draw on the narrative Is not one of straight reportage, and the author makes much use of Leopold's own writings and letters. He also quotes conversations, although without sources one doesn't know whether these are genuine or made up by the author to aid the immediacy. It hardly matters, the effect is to give the book the feeling of a novel rather than a textbook.
For the psychologist, or the just curious, there Is included a bibliography both of Leopold's works and works on himself and on masochism, and an index.