Alright, so technically Valentine’s day was quite a while ago, and I hope you had a very good time with your loved ones, etc. Indulge me here. Let this post be my Valentine’s card to iconic author and fur aficionado, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch.
If you’re unfamiliar with Leopold’s work (this is a Valentine’s card, it wouldn’t do to be formal), I really do not recommend that you jump right in. First off, he’s an Austrian who wrote in the mid to late 1800s, his best known work coming out in 1870, so it’s not extremely accessible and is frequently offensive. Aside from that, the topic matter is… not for everyone. What is his best known work, you might ask, being unaware of what modern word is directly derived from his name? Calm down, I’m getting to that.
Ninety-seven years after 1870, The Velvet Underground released their self-titled debut album which featured the track “Venus in Furs,” which, you guessed it, is the translated title of Leopold’s novella Venus im Pelz. The track was a hit, and eventually made it into a bizarre tire commercial. I know I’m already juggling a lot of elements here, but let me introduce one more: in 2017, indie band Kid Scientist released their track “The Ballad of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch” from their album A Report from the Future, which was later followed by a music video just in time for Valentine’s day.
Listing of elements done. Now for my Valentine’s goal: I’ll be comparing the songs “Venus in Furs” and “The Ballad of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch” both to each other and, briefly, the source material. This post is lengthy already, but stick with me here, this’ll be fun! (I think so anyway.)
Venus im Pelz
If we’re going to be discussing adaptations, best to start with a quick summary. Venus im Pelz is the story of Severin von Kusiemski, an intellectual with a penchant for fur, finding a partner in Wanda von Dunajew, who is kindred spirits with the ancient Greeks and, particularly, the goddess Venus, AKA Aphrodite (she is also, notably, named after Leopold’s wife’s pen name). Their relationship has its ups and downs, with trouble particularly brewing due to Severin agreeing to non-monogamy (for Wanda, that is), when he has deeply mixed feelings about it. This novella left such an impact on certain spheres, that the name Sacher-Masoch developed into the word masochist.
Listening to this track is… well, about what you’d expect from The Velvet Underground, but a newcomer might describe it as odd, and an ungenerous newcomer might describe it as unpleasant to listen to. I’d call it droning, but I’d call it that lovingly. It has a surreal feel to it, and appropriately retells Leopold’s story in moments rather than plot. It alternates perspectives with lines like “your servant, don’t forsake him,” which addresses Wanda, and “Severin, speak so slightly,” which (clearly) addresses Severin. None of the lyrics reflect specific scenes from the novella. The most concrete references are “Strike, dear mistress, and cure his heart,” which takes the concept of a “cure” from Wanda’s final letter to Severin, and “Ermine furs adorned, imperious,” which describes one of Wanda’s favorite jackets as well as what Severin finds so appealing about it.
As for differences from the novella, seeing as a lot of things had changed between 1870 and 1967, there are a few loaded references to leather that are absent from the book. Well, to be totally accurate, Leopold mentions leather twice: once describing leather-bound books, and the other describing the outfit of a German painter (who, to be fair, Severin is more than a little enamored with, going so far as to praise Socrates if he managed to resist an Alcibiades such as this). There is also the matter of the song’s bridge, which is removed from the novella in everything but tone. It certainly captures Severin’s near-constant malaise (despite being given everything he ever asks for… No one ever said Severin is likable).
The title of this song has a nice rhythm to it, but it’s a little lengthy, so I’ll just be calling it “The Ballad.” Removed from the context of the novella, you would never know “Venus in Furs” and “The Ballad” are on the same subject. Where the former portrays Severin’s discontentment, the latter focuses on his frustration, which goes hand in hand with his all-consuming joy. Kid Scientist as a band is about as different from The Velvet Underground as could be. The lead writer, Joe Taylor, is (I mean this as respectfully as I’m able) a theater kid. And you can tell. From the expertly directed and lovingly acted music video, first of all, but also from the tango/cabaret vibes of the song itself (more tango for this one, but more cabaret in their other songs and somewhat present here (and speaking of tangos, what would this post be without a quick link to Tom Lehrer’s 1959 classic “The Masochism Tango”)). “The Ballad,” like “Venus in Furs,” isn’t so much concerned with telling the same story as Leopold than with getting across a certain feeling from Leopold’s story. However, rather than capturing that feeling through disparate lyrics and a deliberately disorienting sound, “The Ballad” chooses to just tell a much smaller story.
Remember how I mentioned that Severin, though conflicted, agrees to Wanda having partners aside from him? That is the aspect that “The Ballad” focuses on. It starts off strong with the lines “Let me see you struggle / I want a little fight / I want to be the last to know / if you’ll be coming home tonight.” Admirably, Kid Scientist isn’t too concerned about clearly delineated roles here. Aside from the commanding tone of the first line, the narrator (who clearly isn’t Severin, though they have their similarities) claims, “I’ve arranged to hang you from chains / and at length impart to you / the nature of my disease.” And right there is one big difference between “The Ballad” and “Venus in Furs” (and Venus im Pelz, for that matter): where the latter focuses on the cure and the discomfort thereof, the former’s refrain revolves around the narrator’s disease and the absolute bliss he gets from it.
Anyway, “The Ballad” tells a simple story. The narrator’s partner is having some trouble with his desires, but she eventually agrees to fulfill them. And there you have it.
Okay, okay, so taking the music video into account, there’s a little more to it. The narrator and his partner show up to a party, where his partner, who I’ll call Wanda for simplicity’s sake, immediately begins flirting with another party-goer, who I’ll call Alexis. The narrator is disturbed by this, and runs to the bathroom to indulge in some narcissism (“If God is such an artist / then in His image I came”). There is a dance in which everyone exchanges partners, and so Wanda and Alexis end up dancing. And Alexis kisses her. So the narrator gets himself into a fight, punctuated with the final line “I’m succumbing at last to this disease” and the narrator, portrayed by Joe Taylor, blithely smiling at the camera.
Alright, I’ve indulged myself here (I really like this song) but as for solid comparison and contrast: “The Ballad” features a much happier character than either “Venus in Furs” or Venus im Pelz. Sure, he’s experiencing a fair bit of agony in his day-to-day life, but what’s day-to-day life without agony? And just look at that smile! If we’re only going by the lyrics, the song ends on the narrator victoriously obtaining his partner’s consent (which does make it sound a little coerced, which, say it with me folks, is not actual consent, but I’m going to be generous and assume she, in the way of Wanda, comes to enjoy it). Besides, clearly this whole thing has gone exactly to the narrator’s plan, whereas Severin…
Nevermind. I won’t spoil it.
(There’s also a whole lot to say about the relationship between this song, the novella, and Christianity, but I think that’s for someone else to discuss.)
Dear Mr. von Sacher-Masoch:
Hi. I’m Drew, qualified fan (as in a qualified success. I do not have a certificate in Sacher-Masoch Studies, which do not exist). I hope this post has conveyed to you my appreciation for your work and its descendants, and that this makes it a decent Valentine’s present.
Your DJ/Dinner Companion,
(P.S., I think I got a little too invested in the character here, so just to say, I’m actually not a big fan of Sacher-Masoch’s. Venus im Pelz is steeped in sexism and throws in a whole lot of racism of various flavors. It’s a foundational book, but not a great one. I would recommend these songs way more than their source material. Also note that I linked to the songs, but not the book, as I wouldn’t want someone to click on it blindly and discover a lot more than they signed up for. Thank you, dinner companion who is not the long dead Sacher-Masoch, for indulging this post concept.)