“I cannot deny,” I said, “that nothing will attract a man more than the picture of a beautiful, passionate, cruel, and despotic woman who wantonly changes her favorites without scruple in accordance with her whim—”
“And in addition wears furs,” exclaimed the divinity.
“What do you mean by that?”
“I know your predilection.”
“Do you know,” I interrupted, “that, since we last saw each other, you have grown very coquettish.”
“In what way, may I ask?”
“In that there is no way of accentuating your white body to greater advantage than by these dark furs, and that—”
The divinity laughed.
“You are dreaming,” she cried, “wake up!” and she clasped my arm with her marble-white hand. “Do wake up,” she repeated raucously with the low register of her voice. I opened my eyes with difficulty.
I saw the hand which shook me, and suddenly it was brown as bronze; the voice was the thick alcoholic voice of my cossack servant who stood before me at his full height of nearly six feet.
“Do get up,” continued the good fellow, “it is really disgraceful.”
“What is disgraceful?”
“To fall asleep in your clothes and with a book besides.” He snuffed the candles which had burned down, and picked up the volume which had fallen from my hand, “with a book by”—he looked at the title page— “by Hegel. Besides it is high time you were starting for Mr. Severin’s who is expecting us for tea.”
“A curious dream,” said Severin when I had finished. He supported his arms on his knees, resting his face in his delicate, finely veined hands, and fell to pondering.
I knew that he wouldn’t move for a long time, hardly even breathe. This actually happened, but I didn’t consider his behavior as in any way remarkable. I had been on terms of close friendship with him for nearly three years, and gotten used to his peculiarities. For it cannot be denied that he was peculiar, although he wasn’t quite the dangerous madman that the neighborhood, or indeed the entire district of Kolomea, considered him to be. I found his personality not only interesting—and that is why many also regarded me a bit mad—but to a degree sympathetic. For a Galician nobleman and land-owner, and considering his age—he was hardly over thirty—he displayed surprising sobriety, a certain seriousness, even pedantry. He lived according to a minutely elaborated, half-philosophical, half- practical system, like clock-work; not this alone, but also by the thermometer, barometer, aerometer, hydrometer, Hippocrates, Hufeland, Plato, Kant, Knigge, and Lord Chesterfield. But at times he had violent attacks of sudden passion, and gave the impression of being about to run with his head right through a wall. At such times every one preferred to get out of his way.
While he remained silent, the fire sang in the chimney and the large venerable samovar sang; and the ancient chair in which I sat rocking to and fro smoking my cigar, and the cricket in the old walls sang too. I let my eyes glide over the curious apparatus, skeletons of animals, stuffed birds, globes, plaster-casts, with which his room was heaped full, until by chance my glance remained fixed on a picture which I had seen often enough before. But to-day, under the reflected red glow of the fire, it made an indescribable impression on me.
It was a large oil painting, done in the robust full-bodied manner of the Belgian school. Its subject was strange enough.
A beautiful woman with a radiant smile upon her face, with abundant hair tied into a classical knot, on which white powder lay like a soft hoarfrost, was resting on an ottoman, supported on her left arm. She was nude in her dark furs. Her right hand played with a lash, while her bare foot rested carelessly on a man, lying before her like a slave, like a dog. In the sharply outlined, but well-formed linaments of this man lay brooding melancholy and passionate devotion; he looked up to her with the ecstatic burning eye of a martyr. This man, the footstool for her feet, was Severin, but beardless, and, it seemed, some ten years younger.
“Venus in Furs,” I cried, pointing to the picture. “That is the way I saw her in my dream.”
“I, too,” said Severin, “only I dreamed my dream with open eyes.”
“It is a tiresome story.”
“Your picture apparently suggested my dream,” I continued. “But do tell me what it means. I can imagine that it played a role in your life, and perhaps a very decisive one. But the details I can only get from you.”
“Look at its counterpart,” replied my strange friend, without heeding my question.
The counterpart was an excellent copy of Titian’s well-known “Venus with the Mirror” in the Dresden Gallery.
“And what is the significance?”
Severin rose and pointed with his finger at the fur with which Titian garbed his goddess of love.
“It, too, is a ‘Venus in Furs,'” he said with a slight smile. “I don’t believe that the old Venetian had any secondary intention. He simply painted the portrait of some aristocratic Mesalina, and was tactful enough to let Cupid hold the mirror in which she tests her majestic allure with cold satisfaction. He looks as though his task were becoming burdensome enough. The picture is painted flattery. Later an ‘expert’ in the Rococo period baptized the lady with the name of Venus. The furs of the despot in which Titian’s fair model wrapped herself, probably more for fear of a cold than out of modesty, have become a symbol of the tyranny and cruelty that constitute woman’s essence and her beauty.
“But enough of that. The picture, as it now exists, is a bitter satire on our love. Venus in this abstract North, in this icy Christian world, has to creep into huge black furs so as not to catch cold—”
Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, 1836-1895. Venus im Pelz, 1870 (Venus in Furs)
image: Titian. Venus with a Mirror, c.1555. National Gallery of Art,Washington D.C. Andrew W. Mellon collection.