- The Theatricalization of Love
Readers of leopold von Sacher-Masoch's Venus in Furs (1870) have repeatedly noted the theatrical quality of masochism. The objective of the following reading of the novel is to take seriously and literally the histrionic nomenclature that permeates masochistic role-playing in the novel and—since the novel's eroticism is in part an autobiographical disclosure on Masoch's part—in masochistic sexuality as such. Masochism uniquely informs playacting. Acting illuminates masochism. That a practice associated with the performing arts and aesthetics is deeply linked with an erotic one is surprising. But it is also initially plausible, given some of the familiar explanations for both. Acting and the need to act have been repeatedly theorized as a craving to withdraw from identity, to express alien desires under disguise. The underpinnings of dramatic acting thus bear a close resemblance to some widespread accounts of masochism. A "primary masochism" is often regarded as responsible for the desire to forego one's identity. Such a drive accounts for the pleasures inherent in self-shattering and, when sexually inflected, the pleasure derived from humiliation games. The overlapping between explanations for masochism and accounts of the psychological appeal of playacting suggest that the masochist's resort to drama is more than an accidental feature.
Masochism is theatricalized love. Its loving aspect (and in Masoch, it is love) is one of the features that distances it from sadism (I follow Gilles Deleuze in his view of masochism and sadism as noncomplementary1), as does its theatricality. Masochism is an attempt to orchestrate an erotic relationship into well-defined roles. In Masoch's novel these are not merely sexual encounters but potentially indefinitely prolonged enactments of roles. Intimacy is thus organized according to a predetermined script. Masochism involves a complex play on identity. It destabilizes certainties regarding the pretended and the genuine. Like acting, it calls into question our entrenchment in subjectivity, intimating that self-unmaking and self-objectification can be willed, embraced, and chosen as that aspect of selfhood which one opts to disclose and offer as part of erotic intimacy. [End Page 129]
Venus in Furs unfolds the evolution of a relationship between Severin von Kusiemski, a self-proclaimed dilettante listlessly flirting with the fine arts, and Wanda von Dunajew, a rich, young widow. The couple meet in a Carpathian health resort. Severin introduces Wanda to his fantasies of subordination to women in general and to her in particular. A large part of the novel is a progressive enactment of these gradually intensifying scenarios of humiliation. The literary merits of the novel are easy to overlook if one seeks them in imagery, plot, descriptive insight, or quality of dialogue. The novel's import resides in its constituting an outstanding psycho-literary exploration into a usually hidden sphere of thought, feeling, love, and sexuality. Masoch is not interested in explaining his characters. His focus is rather on what they do or say, leaving his readers to make sense of the unfolded narration. Given the explicit nature of the events and the obvious way in which they draw on autobiographical material, Masoch's disinterest in shaping or controlling meaning making is remarkable.
The character of Severin concerns us on two levels. Firstly, he willingly recedes from his subjectivity into the position of a living tool. Secondly, he proposes a total theatricalization of life and love. Such movements only partially overlap with dramatic acting, yet they can still inform and be importantly informed by it. Being possessed by a character as an actor, allowing a fictional construct of words to enter and overtake one's actions and experience, the overwhelming attraction of this entrance into possession, are on the one hand broader than Severin's role-playing: actors allow themselves to be populated by more characters than Severin's rather limited choice. Moreover, few actors would welcome the wholesale transformation of life into theater that Severin and Wanda are seeking to implement—the exclusiveness and devotedness which they exhibit in turning their lives into roles. On the other hand, such an exclusiveness itself creates a qualitatively rich and intense dramatic experience: an erotics governed by a perpetual role-playing.