his obsession made him immortal

In his novels, the Galician writer described the sexual obsession that was named after him during his lifetime.

Without his obsessions, he would hardly have remained in literary and cultural memory: the writer Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (1836–1895) in a photograph from 1885.


Leopold von Sacher-Masoch owes his current fame – fame would probably be an exaggeration – solely to his name. More precisely, the term derived from the second part of his double name. For without the later successful concept of masochism, Sacher-Masoch would hardly have survived in world literature and contemporary culture. The artistic value alone would not have saved him to immortality without the secret and actual core of his work, that is, without masochism.

Whether at the end of the 19th century, whether later through Freudian psychoanalysis, then through the reinterpretations of Jacques Lacan or rediscovery by the French philosopher Gilles Deleuze, most recently through «Fifty Shades of Grey»: It was always the concept of masochism that encouraged again and again to deal with the author SM.

That alone shows very clearly what an important position this idea has for our modern age, how urgently its conceptualization was necessary for the contemporaries at the time, how timely it was and how persistently it has persisted. Masochism constantly demands new approaches and modes of interpretation from us.

After he had already formulated the concept of sadism twenty years earlier, the Viennese professor of psychiatry Richard von Krafft-Ebing also coined the term masochism in his main work “Psychopathia Sexualis” in 1886. The forensic pathologist and pioneer of modern sexology observed some of the ancient human phenomenon in his practice, described it in his work and finally gave it a name. Before that, however, Krafft-Ebing had already read the open and obviously secret center of this work from the works of his contemporary Sacher-Masoch.

The misused name

At the time, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch was one of the most widely read and highly acclaimed authors in Europe and especially in France, for example alongside Ivan Turgenev, in whose successor he saw himself and with whom he measured himself literary, or Balzac, who for him was the literary standard par excellence . Sacher-Masoch and his followers and admirers were appalled and outraged. If necessary, SM wanted to prevent the misuse of his name in court – all in vain.

Krafft-Ebing did not give in, and masochism has forever entered modern usage far beyond the scientific. In the end it also served Sacher-Masoch, because without this term we would probably not know anything about the author. The misuse of the name has become a guarantee of his immortality.

First Sacher-Masoch created a work under his name, and then the term derived from his name established the memory of the author. Without Sacher-Masoch, masochism would have existed. Without masochism, however, nothing would have remained of Sacher-Masoch.

Most people today are not aware that SM owes a lot to his and my small homeland of Galicia and especially to his hometown and my adopted home, the then state capital Lemberg and today’s Ukrainian Lviv. He was the son of the local police director of the same name, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch senior, who uncovered and prosecuted the Polish democratic conspiracies in revolutionary-minded Galicia and also liked to put pen to paper himself, for example in his “Polish Revolutions”. No wonder with such a father that the son is not only called Masoch, but becomes a masochist, psychodynamically speaking at least it is a plausible development.

Furs of young ladies

His family of origin provided an almost paradigmatic example of the old monarchy: extremely mixed ethnically, with Germanic, Slavic, Spanish touches, the mother came from an old Ruthenian-Slovenian family, her father was still rector of the University of Lemberg. They were transnational, loyal subjects of the emperor, deployable anywhere in the empire, always at your service.

Although the junior had to leave the crown land at the age of twelve because his father was transferred to Prague, this country with its mosaic of peoples, its complex and exciting circumstances had left a deep impression on him.

Poets from Galicia and Bukovina

rbl. · With this text about Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, we are continuing our series of portraits of German-speaking authors from Galicia and Bukovina. These are the two easternmost crown lands of the Habsburg monarchy – today large parts of this area belong to the Ukraine, including the former state capitals of Czernowitz (Tschernivzi) and Lemberg (Lviv). Around the turn of the century, world literature arose on the periphery of the Austro-Hungarian empire. The carriers of German-speaking culture were mainly Jews. And although many authors also knew Ukrainian, Polish or Yiddish, some decided to write in German. Their biographies are almost always stories of flight and expulsion. The Nazis wiped out this unique cultural life. Here we present well-known as well as somewhat forgotten authors.

Born in Lemberg in 1836, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch studied in Graz from 1854, habilitated in history and was a lecturer in Graz until 1870. After that he concentrated on his literary work. The short story Don Juan von Kolomea had already appeared in 1866, and in 1870 he published Venus in Furs. It is his most famous book to date and belongs to the cycle “The Legacy of Cain”, in which he designed a typology of the forms of love. Sacher-Masoch died in Hesse in 1895. – Next week a portrait of the poet Rose Auslander (1901–1988) will appear here.

Above all, however, he recognized in Galicia and its sub-regions, such as the Huzul country, a place and a landscape where something like masochism not only occurs occasionally, but is almost anthropological custom and everyday life. So Sacher-Masoch stylized this fringe area of ​​the monarchy into a place where extreme experiences of the psyche are central. And he liked to disguise his obsessions in folk costumes or Hutsul bearskins and the kuntush of Ruthenian petty nobles – the “Don Juans of Kolomea”. And of course also in the furs of young Polish aristocratic beauties, the naturally beautiful Venus.

But with Sacher-Masoch there is also a world outside of masochism. Although he left early, he remained deeply attached to his small homeland in terms of motifs, atmosphere and emotions. Again and again he staged the Galician situation in his writings, national, social, denominational and economic, conjured up his land and passions. Yes, this very precise observer and profound knowledge of these conditions decisively shaped the image of Galicia in the monarchy, in the entire German-speaking area and – through the numerous translations – in the whole world.

It was he who analyzed the Galician social structures: Polish landed gentry with a fervor to revitalize their political fatherland; Ruthenian-Ukrainian Uniate (i.e. Greek-Catholic) peasants fighting for personal liberty and justice; their priests, who are their authority and guide; its intellectuals working on Ukrainian national revival; German-Austrian, Bohemian officials and officers; several varieties of Judaism with their peculiarities and their dignity. Karl Emil Franzos and Joseph Roth were later able to build on him, on the image of the Galician universe he created and stabilized in Western Europe.

For Sacher-Masoch, who only spent his childhood in Galicia and then lived in the large and small cities of the vast German-speaking world, origin has always remained a solid and important reference. Without Galicia and Lemberg, Sacher-Masoch as we know it would not exist. Galicia and Lemberg, on the other hand, would definitely exist without him, but what would they miss! They would be like the phenomenon of masochism without its name.

It is not for nothing that we can jokingly – but also quite self-deprecatingly – call ourselves the only true and true homeland of masochism. Today’s Lviv draws a lot of self-confidence from the fact that the founder of masochism is a son of this city. If you consider that the poet and painter Bruno Schulz, probably the most famous Galician, also has his home here, this thesis receives a peculiar confirmation.

But Schulz would have been and become great even without his pronounced masochism. The essence of Schulz is not his masochism, despite the “Idol Book”. Schulz’ immortal eternity lies in his poetic prose.

Obsessions for eternity

Who knows whether there would be a Sacher-Masoch outside of masochism – as a precise connoisseur, attentive observer and as an aesthetic realist. Following Balzac, he had the ambition to create a prose cycle on a par with the Comédie humaine with “The Legacy of Cain”. In it, the basic virtues and cardinal vices of the present should be presented epic. It remains to be seen whether Sacher-Masoch would have survived as a supporter of equal political women’s rights, as an ardent combatant of ideological anti-Semitism, as an editor and cultural figure without his masochism.

“As an author, however, he suffered severe damage in his work and creativity because, as long as and to the extent that he did not move on the ground of his perversion, he was a very talented writer and would certainly have achieved important things if he were a person who felt sexually normal would have been,” writes Krafft-Ebing.

He was fundamentally mistaken: without his obsession, SM with all his work and work would only have remained important for researchers in Galicia.

One thing is certain: It is not his own masochism that made up the core of his personality – but its literary representation that he left behind. Today it is his legacy to us, who are and would be masochists of our common modernity even without him.

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