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Fierce Language

A Column
by Jason DeBoer

Jason DeBoer currently resides in Chicago, Illinois, where he is attempting to finance a new literary and philosophical publishing house called Trembling Sun Press. He is the Managing Editor of Eighteenth - Century Studies, an academic journal based at Northwestern University. His short fiction is starting to appear around the world, most recently in the Barcelona Review and Exquisite Corpse; and soon to be seen in Libido. At the moment he is working on Stupor, his debut novel.

E-mail: tremblingsun@yahoo.com

 

Previous columns:

Bataille 
versus Theory

Introduction

 

Fierce Language
Masochism and Regicide

The term “masochism” was first coined by nineteenth-century neuropsychiatrist Richard von Krafft-Ebing in reference to the popular Austrian writer of the day, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, who filled his novels and stories with cruel, despotic women and men who lived for the whip. Krafft-Ebing described it thus: “By masochism I understand a peculiar perversion of the psychical sexual life in which the individual affected, in sexual feeling and thought, is controlled by the idea of being completely and unconditionally subject to the will of a person of the opposite sex; of being treated by this person as by a master, humiliated and abused. This idea is colored by lustful feeling; the masochist lives in fantasies, in which he creates situations of this kind and often attempts to realize them.”(1.) In many ways the fiction of Sacher-Masoch is these fantasies brought to life through art. 

One of Sacher-Masoch’s most interesting stories, The Black Czarina (2.), begins with Czar Vladimir of Russia “couched at the feet of his slave” Narda. They are sharing intimacies and reminiscing about how they met in her ravaged village just after her husband had been slain by nobles (or boyards). Their dialogue reveals that there was a shift in power from the very beginning of the relationship: she ignored him and was unimpressed by his station, which piqued his curiosity; she rebuffed his advances, which drove him wild with desire until no other woman would do. The Czar remarks: “ ‘So we changed parts: you became sovereign, and I, slave.’ ” Narda teases him and decides to test his adoration by asking an unimaginable favor… for him to allow her to occupy the throne for one day. The Czar balks, but soon gives in to her request: “Exaltation, the majesty of superior soul transfigured her. ‘I give you my empire, my people, myself, from sunrise to sunset.’ ”

Sacher-Masoch based this strange usurping of sovereign power on historical fact. During times of feast or festival, many cultures allowed for a slave to become a temporary ruler. There were several reasons for such odd social reversals during festivals, which coincided with other transgressive behaviors like drunkenness, debauchery, and the cessation of all labor. French ethnologist Roger Caillois believed that forbidden or excessive acts were not enough to delineate the time of festival from time of order, so there were “additional upside-down acts. Every effort is made to behave in a manner that is exactly the opposite of normal behavior. The inversion of all relationships seems clear proof of a return to chaos, of an epoch of fluidity and confusion. Festivals in which one is committed to reviving the infancy of the world, the Greek Kronia or Roman Saturnalia (whose names are significant), involve the reversal of social order. Slaves eat at the masters’ table, order them around and mock them, while the masters serve the slaves, obey them and put up with affronts and reprimands . . . The high functions, the roles of priests and consuls, are given to the slaves who then exercise an ephemeral parody of power.”(3.)  

In the story, it is in this spirit of festival that Czar Vladimir allows Narda to hold the throne for the following day. However, she does not take long to become tyrannical, as she awakens and puts the Czar in his place: “ ‘The sun greets the sovereign in me. Vladimir, my slave, on your knees.’ The Czar obeyed. ‘Kiss my foot.’ ” A strange calm takes over Narda as if she were born to be a Czarina, and when she dresses in the royal garments and bears the crown she becomes an intimidating figure, to the delight of Vladimir: “ ‘I am afraid of you and of your imposing majesty. The passion, the delirium that you kindle in me, I feel almost as a cruelty. But what exquisite pleasure in the violence you do me! Joy turns into torment, torment into joy. From you, I would suffer in silence the very worst ill-treatment. Death itself would be ecstasy from you.’ ” His submission only drives Narda to disdain: “ ‘Suppose I wanted to test how far your love goes? Suppose I had you scourged like a slave, tortured you, killed you? Would you acclaim me in dying, like a martyr his god?’ ” All the foreshadowing is set by Sacher-Masoch that this experiment in power will end in a horrible and violent way.

Meanwhile, Narda begins her reign by immediately overturning other social conventions. She greets the stunned populace and declares that no man will bear arms in her presence; only women will comprise her royal guard. Narda chooses these women from the ranks of female slaves and concubines of the palace, all of whom swear allegiance to her when she offers them freedom at the end of the day. The new Czarina tries to win over her subjects by dispensing gold coins to the poor, arranging for an open court to hear all grievances, and lastly she invites all citizens to a feast at the palace that evening. In spite of these giddy proclamations which coincide with the time of festival, Narda determines to maintain a strict enforcement of her new law. She states: “ ‘I demand complete and unquestioning obedience and submission…. Let no one forget that his head is a useless object in my house and that I can cut it off if such be my pleasure.’ ” Of course, the Czar swoons with erotic anticipation over such threatening words.

Sacher-Masoch has created his own reasons for why a slave could rise to sovereignty, which in the story hinge on the Czar’s desire to be dominated by a strong woman. Indeed, the writer even foists this masochism onto the populace at large, which clamors for the rule of the tyrannical slave girl even though Sacher-Masoch provides little evidence that Czar Vladimir is in any way a malicious or inept ruler. In fact, it may be Vladimir’s apparent lack of tyranny which the author seems to deem a flaw, in order to make him seem weak and worthy of domination by a cruel woman. It is as if the Czar realizes his inadequacy and so willingly gives up his throne. This subjugation to his slave is in a sense an abdication of his power. As a masochist, Vladimir is willing to wager the value of his royal station against the anticipated sexual reward he hopes to gain by delighting in Narda’s cruel despotism.

The mock reign of a slave historically has ended badly for the false ruler in most societies, because the transgression of mocking royal power is punished. Caillois wrote: “Certain facts lead one to think that the false king in ancient times met with a tragic fate: He was permitted every debauchery and every excess, but he was put to death on the altar of the god-king Saturn, whom he had personified for thirty days. With the king of chaos dead everything returned to order, and the legitimate government was once again in charge of an organized universe, the cosmos . . .   At the Babylonian Sacaea a slave who, throughout the festival had filled the role of king of the city, using the king’s concubines and giving orders in his place, providing the people with an example of orgy and lust, was hung or crucified. There is no doubt that these false kings . . . were fated to die after having shown, during the annual retirement of legitimate power, that they are excessive, extreme, and dissolute tyrants” 

By parodying the power of the king, the false sovereign legitimizes the king’s real power by showing him to be more benign and rational. This is certainly the case in The Black Czarina, as you will see, but Sacher-Masoch again adapts history to suit the particular needs of masochism.   It becomes clear that Narda’s reign is beyond the control of the Czar when during the open court she orders the execution of Gedmyn, a despicable noble who is accused of various crimes by the peasants. It is at this point that the other nobles expect prohibitions to prevent her mock reign from doing real damage, but the presumed power of social prohibitions and traditions has no effect on the physical power exerted by the spears of Narda’s guards. More importantly, the real sovereignty of the Czar is capitulated without a fight: “ ‘The joke is going too far,’ said a voice among the ranks of the boyards. ‘Czar Vladimir, remember your duty.’ The Czar approached Narda. ‘Remember your word!’ she said severely. The Czar hesitated a moment, then bowed his head.” 

Sacher-Masoch’s storyline has become ludicrously simple: the Czar gave his slave his throne, which she then refused to give back! The historical examples previously noted are ignored by the writer, since the parody of power has become real power. The social controls which existed in Babylonian and Roman societies to prevent this occurrence do not function in Sacher-Masoch’s masochistic world, which depends most on a cruel woman wielding her power.   Still, this element of deadly seriousness did exist in part in historical festivals, even within the knowledge of the parodic nature of mock sovereignty. Sir James George Frazer wrote that the Babylonian festival Sacaea “lasted for five days, during which masters and servants changed places, the servants giving orders and the masters obeying them. A prisoner condemned to death was dressed in the king’s robes, seated on the king’s throne, allowed to issue whatever commands he pleased, to eat, drink, and enjoy himself, and to lie with the king’s concubines. But at the end of the five days he was stripped of his royal robes, scourged, and hanged or impaled. . . . This custom might perhaps have been explained as merely a grim jest perpetrated in a season of jollity at the expense of the unhappy criminal. But one circumstance—the leave given to the mock king to enjoy the king’s concubines—is decisive against this interpretation. Considering the jealous seclusion of an oriental despot’s harem we may be quite certain that permission to invade it would never have been granted by the despot, least of all to a condemned criminal, except for the gravest cause. This cause could hardly be other than that the condemned man was about to die in the king’s stead, and that to make the substitution perfect it was necessary he should enjoy the full rights of royalty during his brief reign.”(4.) This passage illustrates well that there is a purpose to the festival to which even the king must abide, in order not to interfere with the release of excess social energies. It shows there are prohibitions for the sovereign as well, who must grant his parodic counterpart some measure of real sovereignty in order to give his death meaning. It is also interesting that in the story even a female ruler, Narda, has managed to plunder the royal concubines, albeit for a different purpose! As the story continues, Narda’s guards execute Gedmyn and twenty other nobles in a scene of masochistic glory, with some of the boyards begging their beautiful murderers for an end to their torment. Throughout the bloody purge, the Czar reminds the Czarina that her reign will end that evening, to which she appears to agree. 

Fittingly, the story comes to its climax at a feast attended by the entire royal court, who are disarmed as they enter the hall. Narda persuades the Czar to serve her publicly as a slave, having him set the table and pour her wine while she derogatorily teases him. When the hall becomes crowded she picks her moment to humiliate Vladimir in the most theatrical fashion. As he trembles in fear and lust at her abuse, she disrobes and berates him for being incompetent and spilling wine. “ ‘Clumsy rascal!’ she cried. ‘What you deserve is the whip.’ The Czar, laughing, dropped on his knees, and seized her hand. ‘You play the mistress as master,’ he said, ‘but that’s enough.’… ‘Voluptuous cruelty is exuding from your whole being. I am dying for your caresses.’ ” 

She offers him one final hot kiss, before shoving him away and raising a whip to him. Even the Czar hesitates before submitting to a public whipping in front of his noble subjects. She lashes him in the face, and in a rage he attacks her. The royal guard of women subdues him and when the nobles rush to his aid they are shot down by female archers. The rest submit to Narda out of fear, including a beaten Vladimir. “‘Reign,’ he said, ‘I will be your slave.’ She folded her arms and regarded him with a cruel pleasure. ‘No,’ she said with a laugh. ‘That would be dangerous. You see it is only too easy for a slave to become the master. Your head must fall if I am to reign, and I want to reign.’ ” A stupefied Vladimir cannot believe his reversal of fortune, as the masochistic game becomes truly deadly. Still, his masochism has led him to this fate and this instinct for perversion now seems stronger than death. “ ‘Kiss my foot a last time.’ She offered him her foot under her dress of scarlet silk. Vladimir pressed on it his dry and feverish lips. ‘And now, prepare to die.’ ” 

He is beheaded. This then is the ultimate moment for any masochist, where the greatest gulf between master and slave has opened up, hence the greatest amount of pleasure possible in any such decline. The Czar has fallen to slave and his slave has become Czarina, and the dizzying distance between the two extremes is what prompts Vladimir to submit even at the moment of greatest danger. He chooses submission in the face of death, and this prioritizing of masochistic pleasure even over life itself lends to his experience of extreme degradation, in which he takes final delight. The Czar has forfeited the greatest amount of sovereign power that a man can hold, both his title and his life, and this grandest of submissions makes him the grandest of masochists. The regicide serves as the ultimate contract between dominatrix and slave, and Narda’s own future as master is sealed by the deal. It is in this unique warping of historical rituals into new masochistic desires that Sacher-Masoch achieved his most important example of the vice that bears his name.

1. Psychopathia Sexualis, trans. Franklin Klaf (New York: Stein and Day, 1965), p.86.

2. Venus in Furs and The Black Czarina, trans. H.J. Stenning (New York: Tower).

3. The College of Sociology, ed. Denis Hollier, trans. Betsy Wing (Minneapolis: Univ. of Minnesota Press, 1988), p.298.

4. The Golden Bough, (New York: Collier, 1963), p.328.

 

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