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Home Uncategorized An Idea Madder than Usual

An Idea Madder than Usual

Martin Greene

Ulysses, by James Joyce, Vintage Classics, 672 pp, £10.99, ISBN: 978-0099511199

Venus in Furs, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Penguin Classics, 126 pp, ISBN: 978-0140447811
Venus in Furs and Selected Letters, by Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Blast Books, 210 pp, £30.00

It is well-known that Joyce drew on Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs when writing the sadomasochistic scenes in Ulysses. By the time readers reach this point in the text, in the Circe episode, they will have encountered evidence suggesting that Bloom has masochistic tendencies; examples include the alacrity with which his thoughts turn to fantasy at the sight or thought of an imperious-looking woman and, more consequentially, his acquiescence (or complicity – the details are not clear) in his wife, Molly’s, affair with Hugh “Blazes” Boylan. They may therefore be tempted to see the Circe passages, in which he takes the subservient role in a sadomasochistic encounter with the brothel-keeper Bella as confirming this impression. But they may reserve final judgment on the point at this stage because of the particular character of the Circe episode: the commentator Hugh Kenner described it as being based, in part, on the “hallucinations” or “fantasies” of some of the characters and as featuring “mutations and transformations” of the events of the earlier episodes. Readers will therefore understand that the Bloom of Circe relates somehow – but not in any straightforward way – to the “real” Bloom.

Readers of Ulysses who are also familiar with Masoch’s work will have the advantage of knowing Joyce’s principal source for his account of sadomasochism. But there will be few in this category, since Masoch is known today mainly for the incorporation of his name in the term “masochism”. A character in David Ives’s play Venus in Fur probably reflects a general view when she dismisses Venus in Furs as “S&M porn”. But all the indications, including those provided by Ives’s play, suggest that there’s more to Venus in Furs than that, while selections of Masoch’s work published in English translation by Ariadne Press in recent years show that there’s more to Masoch than Venus in Furs.

As will be shown below, a close comparison of the two texts confirms that Joyce drew on Masoch’s novel in great detail when writing the Circe passages. When his play Exiles is also taken into account, it becomes clear that he saw the dynamics of sadomasochism as being relevant to human psychology generally, not just to overtly sadomasochistic relationships. There are also striking connections among Joyce’s interest in sadomasochism, his writing and events in his life. That is not to say that masochism played a significant part in his life: the evidence supports the view that ideas derived from masochism added an extra dimension to his relationship with Nora and contributed to his writing by stimulating his thinking about human psychology. All this suggests that readers are on the right track when they see Bloom as probably having masochistic tendencies – but they must of course base their final assessment on the evidence of Ulysses as a whole, not just the Circe passages which are the focus of this essay.

Masoch was born in 1836 in Lemberg, then the capital of the Habsburg province of Galicia. This region had come under Habsburg control as a result of the carve-up of Poland by the great powers in 1772. The 1867 reconfiguration of the Habsburg state as the Austro-Hungarian empire – it was previously the Austrian empire – had no implications for Galicia: it continued under Austrian rather than Hungarian control  even though it was geographically closer to Hungary than to Austria. The Galicia of Masoch’s youth was multinational and multilingual: the population included Slavonic-speaking Ukrainian (Ruthenian and “Little Russian”) peasants, Polish landlords, a Jewish business community whose languages were Yiddish and German, and imperial officials whose working language was German. In Vienna, Galicia was a byword for backwardness: a character in Robert Musil’s The Man Without Qualities likens a disagreeable prospect to “travelling second class in Galicia and picking up crab lice”. Today, the territories of Habsburg Galicia are divided between Ukraine and Poland; and Lemberg is the Ukrainian city of Lviv.

Sacher and Masoch were the family names of Leopold’s father and mother respectively. His father adopted a combination of the two so that the Masoch name would live on, even though his wife, a Ruthenian noblewoman, was the last of her line. The Sacher family is said to have been established in Central Europe in the sixteenth century when the Emperor Charles V, whose territories included Spain and its possessions as well as the traditional Habsburg lands, granted an estate and title in Bohemia to a Spanish officer of that name who had served in his armies. The tradition of imperial service continued in the generations immediately preceding Leopold’s. Both his father and his grandfather served a part of their careers in imperial service in Galicia, his father as commissioner of police. His grandfather, director of medical services for the province, is said to have concerned himself with the welfare of its disadvantaged groups to the extent of personally attending to the medical needs of the inhabitants of Lemberg’s Jewish ghetto. Although Leopold lived in Galicia only until he was twelve, when his father was transferred to another post in the imperial service, he seems to have been strongly influenced by this early experience as his writing demonstrates a lasting commitment to the province, and particularly to its disadvantaged groups.

Early in his writing career, Masoch planned to write a cycle of works under the overall title of “The Legacy of Cain”. This was to take the form of thirty-six novellas, in six groups, on the themes of love, property, the state, war, work and death. His aim was to portray “all of mankind’s great problems”. Masoch was an admirer of Goethe, Pushkin and Lermontov. But, after the first two of the planned groups had been published, he abandoned the Legacy of Cain scheme in favour of a more flexible approach. In the event, there are four main parts to his oeuvre: Jewish stories set in Galicia, works concerned with the relations between men and women, Jewish stories set in various European countries and “erotic tales”. Selections of these in English translation are available in, respectively, A Light for Others and Other Jewish Tales from Galicia (1994), Love: The Legacy of Cain (2003), Jewish Life (2002) and The Master Masochist (1996). The first three are published by Ariadne Press and the fourth by Senate Books/Random House.

The Galician stories are probably Masoch’s best work. His facility with language and his flair for story-telling and characterisation are amply demonstrated; characters are portrayed sympathetically but without sentimentality. The stories demonstrate truly prodigious research into the world of the Galician Jewish communities – a remarkable achievement, as Masoch was not Jewish – but this is deployed with such a deft touch that it does not get in the way of the fiction. The stories about relations between men and women (leaving Venus aside for the moment) are comparable in terms of quality but their seriousness of purpose and their schematic character (following the original Legacy of Cain plan) weigh down the text to some extent. The Jewish stories set in various countries are not up to the same standard. They have a formulaic character and their message – tolerance and peaceful coexistence among different groups – gets in the way of the fiction. The “erotic tales” are said to have been written for the popular market at times when Masoch was under pressure to increase his income, and this is evident in their inferior standard.

Venus was published in 1870 as one of the “Legacy of Cain Part 1” series but it differs in a number of ways from the other works in this group. The central characters, Severin and Wanda, are upper class. The empire’s peripheral regions feature only as the location of a spa resort used by the upper classes. It’s the only one of his works (apart from some of the erotic tales, such as the story-sequence known as “The Female Hyena of the Hungarian Plain”) in which sadomasochism plays a central part – elsewhere it makes just fleeting appearances. Modern readers may see it as a stylishly executed fantasy story: the characters are driven by their sexual fantasies, objects such as statues and picture have unusual importance and a relaxed approach is taken to the conventions of literary realism. They will almost certainly not find it to be in any way sordid: its descriptions of sadomasochistic practices are mild by modern standards. They will probably accept the implausibility of some elements of the storyline – for example, savage beatings with apparently no resulting injuries – as being in the spirit of the work. But they may be bemused, given the work’s notoriety, that the sex occurring in the sadomasochistic scenes is implied but not directly mentioned, much less described; and they may find the happy ending – Severin is “cured” of his masochism – to be unconvincing.

David Ives’s play Venus in Fur, mentioned above, poses a question that would be likely to occur to modern readers of Venus in Furs. Set in present-day New York, it features a casting audition for a proposed stage version of Masoch’s novel. Vanda, a candidate for the female lead, sabotages the proceedings. Her motive for doing so seems to be that, in her view, the planned production claims to challenge ideas of male supremacy but actually reinforces them. In this perspective, the female character, though ostensibly dominating the subservient man, is really acting out a role that he designed for her and that is calculated to serve his needs. Thus the question raised concerns the direction of manipulation: is Wanda manipulating Severin (as Masoch’s text suggests) or is it (as Vanda argues) the other way around?

As masochism plays a central part only in Venus and some of the erotic tales, it might be assumed that it was a purely literary matter for Masoch. On the contrary, however, his life was dominated by his masochism. It was central to his relationships with his wives and mistresses and almost everything in Venus corresponds to events in his life. In Richard von Krafft-Ebing’s Psychopathia Sexualis (1890), in which he appropriated Masoch’s name to coin the term “masochism”, the author wrote that he felt “justified” in doing so because Masoch “frequently made this perversion, which up to his time was quite unknown to the scientific world as such, the substratum of his writings”. In the twelfth edition of the book (1895), Krafft-Ebing added that “during recent years facts have been advanced which prove that Sacher-Masoch was not only the poet of Masochism, but that he himself was afflicted with this anomaly”.

But, despite the whiff of notoriety around his private life, neither the critical nor the public response to Masoch was dominated by either Venus in Furs or masochism. He was seen as an important writer who also wrote works for the popular market. Ferdinand Kürnberger, a leading writer and critic of the day, compared him to Turgenev. In 1883, when an event was held to commemorate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the publication of his first book, congratulations were received from literary figures including Zola, the younger Dumas, Victor Hugo and Ibsen. For much of the twentieth century, his work was not so much negatively assessed as neglected. But the publication of Gilles Deleuze’s essay “Le Froid et le Cruel” (in Présentation de Sacher-Masoch, 1967), published in English-language translation as Masochism: Coldness and Cruelty (1971), Bernard Michel’s French-language biography, Sacher-Masoch (1989), the Ariadne Press volumes and the Penguin and Blast Books editions of Venus (with good supporting material in both cases) has marked a gradual recuperation of his reputation. He can now reasonably be seen as a literary predecessor of writers such as Joseph Roth, the great chronicler of the dying days of the Habsburg empire and of European Jewry before the Holocaust.

It has long been known that the echoes of Venus in Furs in Ulysses are many and various – a good number of them had already been noted in Richard Ellmann’s Joyce biography (1959). In both works, there’s an early indication that sadomasochism is to play a part. In Venus, immediately before Severin’s first meeting with Wanda, he is reading Homer’s Odyssey – specifically “the part about the attractive sorceress who turned her worshippers into beasts”. Similarly, in the Wandering Rocks episode of Ulysses, there’s an early indication of what is to follow in Circe, when Bloom, rummaging in a bookstall, happens upon “Tales of the Ghetto by Leopold von Sacher Masoch” and thinks: “That I had”.

In both cases the sadomasochistic scenes feature a dominant woman and a subservient man – there’s nothing inevitable about this as other configurations could have been selected with equal plausibility. Another common feature is that each of the dominatrices is assisted by a trio of female helpers. In Venus, Severin was introduced to sadomasochism by his aunt who was assisted by her cook, her kitchen maid and her chambermaid. This group overpowered him and held him down while she beat him with a birch rod. His later dominatrix, Wanda, has the assistance of “three young, slender African women” who provide similar services. Bloom, prior to his encounter with Bella, is softened up by the three “Queens of Dublin society”, who assail him with accusations and threats. In passages which seem to foreshadow present-day controversies in the film industry, Mrs Mervyn Talboys accuses him of having, in effect, subjected her to a campaign of sexual harassment. Then, Mrs Bellingham and Mrs Yelverton Barry, in turn, assert: “Me too.”

In Venus, Severin seems to take the initiative. Wanda, apparently indifferent to the possibility of establishing the relationship, warns him to be careful what he wishes for. But she does this in such a way as to suggest that she is really egging him on. In an early exchange, Severin puts it to her that she wants to embark on the relationship as much as he does. “No, no,” she “briskly” responds. But the next moment she “ponders”: “or maybe so”. Then she adds: “I don’t understand myself anymore … You’ve corrupted my imagination, inflamed my blood … Your enthusiasm … is entrancing.” Thus there’s a sense that she is manipulating him. Yet Severin enters into the relationship in the full knowledge of what it entails and stays in it for a considerable period of time. He recants his masochism only after Wanda has ended the relationship.

In Ulysses, there’s nothing to suggest that Bloom took the initiative in establishing his relationship with Bella. It seems that he was overpowered by Bella and her helpers and that the relationship was not extended over any significant period of time. Thus he could plausibly plead “coactus volui” (“under duress, I agreed”), to borrow the term used elsewhere in Circe by his Hungarian grandfather Virag. Yet, he doesn’t put up much resistance to domination by Bella and there’s a hint of positively wishing to submit to his fate when he responds to Bella’s helpers’ threats “expectantly”, saying “I love the danger”, and when he says “I meant only the spanking idea. A warm tingling glow without effusion. Refined birching to stimulate the circulation.”

Thus there’s ambivalence in both cases but both men accept their subservient roles. Moreover, the terms in which they submit are similar. Severin agrees to be Wanda’s “slave” and to “obey each of her orders”. Bloom promises “never to disobey” Bella and says that he is “awaiting [her] further orders”. Severin tells Wanda that he wants her to be his “despot” and to “subjugate” him. Bloom says to Bella: “ Enormously I desiderate your domination.” Severin, “half quaking, half delighted”, anticipates the physical violence that is to follow. Bloom “quails expectantly” and, “cringing”, says “I love the danger”. Wanda tells Severin that he will regret what he has sought when he finds out what she is capable of: “now play has come to an end … You shall know me.” Bella tells Bloom “You little know what’s in store for you” and: “You’ll know me the next time.” Both men are told that they are the authors of their own misfortune by bringing out previously inactive tendencies within their dominatrices. Wanda tells Severin that “dangerous tendencies lay dormant in me, and you were the first to bring them out.” Mrs Bellingham tells Bloom: “You have lashed the dormant tigress in my nature into fury.”

Both relationships operate on a strangely formal basis. Severin’s agreement with Wanda is set out in a contract; and written correspondence plays a part in the practical arrangements. In Ulysses, the accusations laid upon Bloom include sending “an anonymous letter … signed James Lovebirch” to Mrs Yelverton Barry, sending an obscene photograph “in double envelopes” to Mrs Mervyn Talboys, making the link to Masoch’s book explicit, addressing Mrs Bellingham “in several writings … as a Venus in furs”. And fur duly plays a part in both works. In Venus, it functions as a fetish; and Wanda, as specified in her contract, wears garments made of fur during the sadomasochistic scenes. In Ulysses, Mrs Yelverton Barry wears “a sabletrimmed brickquilted dolman” and Mrs Bellingham a “seal coney mantle” and an “opossum muff”. Even Bloom joins in, wearing “Svengali’s fur overcoat”.

Rituals of subservience are important in both cases. Severin agrees to be called “Gregor” (a typical servant’s name) and he addresses Wanda as “Mistress” or “Madam”. Bloom addresses Bella as “Mistress” among more imaginative terms such as “Mantamer” and “Exuberant female”. Both men perform menial services for their dominatrices. Severin tells Wanda that he would like to “put your shoes on your feet and take them off”. In Ulysses, Bloom “bends over [Bella’s] hoof and with gentle fingers draws out and in her laces”. Uniforms also play a part in establishing servile status. Severin is compelled to wear Wanda’s “livery”, a “costume in her colours … with silver buttons bearing her coat of arms”. Bloom is said to have envied Mrs Bellingham’s coachman who had the opportunity of “wearing [her] livery and the armorial bearings of the Bellingham escutcheon garnished sable”.

Picking up on the Circe theme, both Severin and Bloom endure treatment which undermines their status as human beings by implying that they are animals. “Now watch me break him in” is the comment of one of Wanda’a lovers when she gives him permission to flog Severin. Bella, in Ulysses, tells Bloom “I’m the Tartar to … break you in.” In Venus, Wanda’s assistants “put a yoke around [Severin’s] neck” and harness [him] to a plow”. Bella, in Ulysses, tells Bloom that he is “a thing under the yoke”. Mrs Mervyn Talboys claims that Bloom “implored” her to “bestride and ride him [and] to give him a most vicious horsewhipping”. She proposes to “dig [her] spurs in him up to the rowel”. Later, Bella “throws a leg astride” Bloom and “horserides” him, “leaping in the saddle”.

The image of a woman with her foot on the neck of a supine man serves as a motif of dominance and submission in both works. In the dream sequence with which Venus begins, the male narrator and the goddess Venus discuss relationships between men and women. He comments that “the person who doesn’t know how to subjugate will all too quickly feel the other’s foot on the nape of his neck”. She responds: “as a rule it is the man who feels the woman’s foot”. Later, Wanda, prompted by a postcard reproduction of Titian’s Venus with Mirror, commissions a painting of herself and Severin in this position. The motif recurs throughout the text, as when Severin “picked up [Wanda’s] foot and placed it on [his] neck”. In Ulysses, Bella (now called Bello and referred to as “he”) and Bloom (referred to as “she”) enact a similar scene: Bello “places his heel on her neck and grinds it in”.

The reversal of the personal pronouns here highlights the potential of Masoch’s brand of masochism to emasculate the subservient man. Severin, pleading with Wanda to show him some respect despite his initially contemptible behaviour, says: “You can see that I’m a man again.” Wanda replies that it’s “unmanly” of him to complain about a situation that he had knowingly sought. In Ulysses, Bella tells Bloom: “You are unmanned and mine in earnest” and orders him to “shed his male garments” and put on his “punishment frock”. Earlier, Mrs Bellingham had urged Mrs Mervyn Talboys to “geld” him. Bella jeers at him by calling him “an impotent thing” and asks where his “curly tea pot” has gone or who “docked it” on him.

In both works, the subservient man is required to attend on his dominatrix when she is entertaining guests, including by providing intimate services to either her (Severin) or her guests (Bloom); and, whilst doing so, he suffers sexual jealousy and humiliation through having to witness either his dominatrix (Severin) or his wife (Bloom) engage in a sexual encounter with another man. Severin serves dinner to Wanda and one of her lovers and, when his service is not up to scratch, she slaps his face. He also attends on her when she is bathing, carrying her to her bath and afterwards wrapping her “in linen cloths” and serving as her “footstool” while she dresses herself. In Ulysses, Bella refers to Bloom as her “footstool” and subjects him to the indignity of face-slapping. Later, when Molly and her lover, Boylan, arrive separately at Bella’s brothel, Bloom attends on them wearing a “flunkey’s prune plush coat and kneebritches”. When Boylan arrives, Bloom tells him that “Madam Tweedy [Molly] is in her bath”. Molly calls out to Boylan: “come and dry me. I’m in my pelt” – another allusion to Masoch’s book which, in the original German, is called Venus im Pelz. Bloom offers to provide Boylan with anything he and Molly may need: “Vaseline, sir? Orangeflower …? “Lukewarm water …?”

Evidence from the compositional history (for Exiles as well as Ulysses) shows that Joyce saw the dynamics of sadomasochism as being relevant to human psychology generally, not only to overtly sadomasochistic relationships. In his drafting notes for Exiles, which are included in the edition of the play published by Nick Hern Books in 2006, he describes the work as “a rough and tumble between the Marquis de Sade and Freiherr v. Sacher Masoch”. In the play, Richard Rowan tacitly encourages his wife Bertha to accept the attentions paid to her by their mutual friend Robert Hand. In the notes, Joyce points to “Masochism” as the character trait underpinning Richard’s behaviour. Thus, the Richard-Bertha-Robert triangle bears some resemblance to relationships in Venus (Severin-Wanda-her lovers) and Circe (Bloom-Molly-Boylan). But whereas the settings and events of Venus and the Circe passages are altogether outlandish, Exiles is set in a comfortable Dublin suburb, its characters are from the middle classes and the conventions of literary realism seemingly apply. Thus, Joyce evidently saw the dynamics of sadomasochism as being relevant to human psychology generally, and therefore as potentially applicable to all of Ulysses, not just to the overtly sadomasochistic scenes.

In Ulysses, when the reader first meets Bloom in the opening scene of the Calypso episode, he is preparing to give Molly her breakfast in bed – a service that Severin, in Venus, provides to Wanda. There are already hints that he has masochistic tendencies. However, they would be easy to miss except that Joyce returned to the episode at the proof stage, over three years after completing the earliest manuscript for the episode, and at the same time as he was revising the Circe scenes, to add a passage which prompts the reader to look out for sadomasochistic dynamics: Bloom reflects that it is in his cat’s “nature” to be “cruel”, whereas the mice she hunts “seem to like it” because they “never squeal”. In his notes for Exiles, Joyce describes his play as a series of “cat and mouse acts”. Masoch deploys the same image in Venus when he describes Severin as feeling “like a small, trapped mouse with which a beautiful cat is daintily playing, ready at any moment to tear it to shreds”.

Also at around the same time as the Circe revision, Joyce revisited the Wandering Rocks episode at the proof stage, over two years after its fair copy manuscript had been written, to give Masoch his full name instead of just “Sacher Masoch”. The Circe scenes were present in the text in an initial form in the earliest extant manuscript for the episode. The subsequent expansion of the material involved mainly the addition of new passages rather than revisions to existing ones. This suggests that Joyce had a settled idea of how the material from Venus could be used in the sadomasochistic scenes from early in the compositional process for Circe.

But while it’s clear that Joyce drew heavily on Venus in Furs to support his writing, it might be assumed that his interest in masochism, unlike Masoch’s, was exclusively literary. But a series of letters he wrote to his wife, Nora, in 1909, which are included in the Selected Letters of James Joyce (1975), indicates that matters are not so straightforward. The correspondence arose because Nora had remained in Trieste when he visited Ireland. Soon after his arrival, he heard a rumour that she had had an affair with one of his Dublin associates, Vincent Cosgrave, at a time when she was also involved with him. This provoked a series of fraught letters in which he first castigated her and later, after he was convinced that the rumour was false, sought to repair the situation or even to profit from the resulting emotional turmoil. During the latter stage, he first wrote: “Tonight I have an idea madder than usual. I … would like to be flogged by you. I would like to see your eyes blazing with anger.” Later, he went further: “you must be severe with me … I would be delighted to feel my flesh tingling under your hand … I wish you would … flog me … Not in play … in earnest … I would love … to find you … with a cane in your hand … and to feel you flog, flog, flog me viciously on my naked quivering flesh!!” He also wrote that he was shopping for a set of sables for her (adjusted to fox fur in a later letter), including cap, stole and muff. The language here bears a striking resemblance to both Venus and the Circe passages, suggesting lively interactions among his interest in sadomasochism, his writing and his life.

There is also an incident from the Joyces’ time in Trieste which clearly has something in common with the Richard-Bertha-Robert triangle in Exiles. Richard Ellmann, in his Joyce biography, tells how Joyce tacitly encouraged Nora to accept the attentions paid to her by a family friend and newspaper editor, Roberto Prezioso. But when Nora reported to him – as Bertha had done to Richard – that her suitor was showing signs of wanting to take the relationship to the next level, he confronted Prezioso and, in Ellmann’s words, “expostulated with him in the name of friendship and broken confidence”. Thus, in this important particular, his behaviour did not match that of Richard who, though he made it known to Robert that he knew what was going on, explicitly left it to Bertha and Robert to decide how to proceed – John McCourt’s The Years of Bloom: James Joyce in Trieste, 1904-1920 (2001) provides a detailed account of these events.

But if the Joyce-Nora-Prezioso imbroglio was abruptly terminated, it nevertheless bore fruit in the form of material for Joyce’s writing. His notes for Exiles show that he drew on these real-life events when writing both Exiles and the Dubliners story “The Dead”. An entry dated November 12th, 1913 relating to “N. (B). [Nora Barnacle]” reads: “Garter: precious, Prezioso, Bodkin, music, palegreen, bracelet, cream sweets, lily of the valley, convent garden (Galway), sea” (emphasis added).

Thus the indications are that Joyce’s relationship to masochism was not on a par with Richard Rowan’s or Bloom’s, never mind Masoch’s or Severin’s. Clearly, his interest in sadomasochism supported his writing by stimulating his thinking about human psychology. But, while there is also evidence of connections between his interest in sadomasochism and events in his life, there is nothing to show that masochism (still less sadism) played a significant part in his life. It seems likelier that ideas derived from masochism gave his relationship with Nora an extra dimension. That Nora saw it in this light is suggested by a letter she sent to him in 1917 when she was on holiday in Locarno and he had remained in Zurich. According to Brenda Maddox’s Nora: A Biography of Nora Joyce (1989), she wrote that she was “very glad to get [a book he had sent her] especially as its by Masoch”.

Note on Sources
The Penguin and Blast Books editions of Venus in Furs have different translations. The connections to Ulysses can be seen most clearly when both are taken into account. The preparation of this essay benefited from conversations with Marianna Gula, Csilla Bertha and Donald Morse.


Martin Greene is a former Irish ambassador to Hungary and Brazil. He holds a PhD in economics from the University of Bradford.



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