Love Hurts

The publication of Richard Krafft-Ebbing's masterwork Psychopathia Sexualis in 1886 represented a landmark in thinking about human sexuality and the bizarre forms that it can take. In addition to describing different types of sexual expression that the author regarded as "perverse" (usually any form of sex that didn't lead to procreation), it quickly became one of the most influential books on human sexuality ever written and introduced numerous new terms into common usage. One of these terms, "masochism" which Krafft-Ebbing defined as "the opposite of sadism (which he also coined). While the later is the desire to cause pain and use force, the former is the wish to suffer pain and be subjected to force".    For all that he had given a name to a shadowy sexual practice that had never before been described in the scientific literature, one person in particular who was less than pleased with the new term was the Austrian author, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch. K rafft-Ebbing justified naming this new sexual anomaly after the prominent author whom he described as "the poet of Masochism" due to his erotic writings and because of his own eccentric personal life (to which we now turn).

Born in 1836 in what is now the Ukraine (but then part of the Austrian empire), Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was part of a fairly upper-middle class family (his father was a police director).  He studied law, history and mathematics at Graz University and then returned to his home town to begin a quiet academic life.  Sacher-Masoch wrote fiction and non-fiction alike although it was his fiction, often concerning historical themes, that Leopold_von_sachermasoch quickly won out. He gave up lecturing to become a full-time author and "man of letters".  While his short stories marked him as a brilliant author known for his humanist and utopian ideas, he largely supported himself as a journalist.

Although Sacher-Masoch was well-regarded in literary circles, it was the sexual themes that came out of his later works that have made him so well-known. His plan for a grandiose short story cycle that he called The Legacy of Cain was never completed but the short stories and novels that he did finish revealed his fascination for being physically dominated and abused by women (especially ones that wore fur).   The short novel for which he is best known, Venus in Furs was published in 1870, and has become an erotic classic in its own right. In this book, the hero Severin asks to be treated as a slave and to be abused by Wanda (the "Venus in furs" of the story). The fact that Sacher-Masoch often acted out these fantasies in real-life with his wives and mistresses was not well-known since he preferred to keep his private life as private as he could.

Sacher-Masoch was, to put it mildly, displeased when Krafft-Ebbing made him an apostle of sexual perversion. He had gone to great lengths to maintain his public persona as a man of letters and he found this new fame humiliating. Doubly galling was the fact that the word "masochism" took on a life of its own and quickly became an established medical term. It may be a coincidence that his health went into a decline shortly after Psychopathia Sexualis came out but by March of 1895, he was delusional and violent.  After attempting to kill his then-wife Hulda, she arranged for him to be discreetly moved to an asylum in Lindheim, Hesse. Although his official obituary states that he died that year, there are claims that Sacher-Masoch lived on as an anonymous asylum inmate and actually died years later.

Despite his name being a byword for kinky sexuality, the full-extent of Sacher-Masoch's private life only became known in 1906 when his first wife, Aurora, published her memoirs (under the pseudonym of Wanda von Sacher-Masoch). The lurid details generated tremendous controversy and kept his books in the public eye. Despite moral outrage and attempts at censorship over the years, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch has attained a not-so-quiet immortality (but perhaps not the kind that he would have wanted).


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