Venus in Ink

Titian: Venus With The Mirror


“Venus in furs. You are cold and yet you fire the hearts of men. Wrap yourself in your despot’s furs, for they become no one so well as you, cruel goddess of Beauty and Love” — Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, Venus in Furs, 1870.

The question I posed a few weeks ago, if getting tattooed necessarily makes one a masochist, is still haunting me. So, to begin to address it I turned not only to Gilles Deleuze, but an old favorite novel. Deleuze wrote an essay that appeared in a 90’s reprint of Sacher-Masoch’s infamous Venus in Furs, on the distinctions between the works of Sacher-Masoch and the Marquis de Sade. This essay has great philosophical value (and is one of Deleuze’s easiest pieces to understand), but it also has great literary and aesthetic value. Unlike the popular psychoanalytic theories of the 19th and 20th centuries that saw sadism and masochism as complementary or co-occurring sexual perversions, Deleuze highlights their apparent and obvious differences using the namesakes of the two (supposed) disorders. Through literary analysis, one can see the distinct dispositions, techniques, atmospheres, intentions, and ideals of the two writers. Deleuze performs a philosophical inquiry into the mistakenly singular concept ‘sadomasochism’ through a return to literature, a return to the origin of the terms themselves.

Deleuze demonstrates how the realms of sadism and masochism are distinct, and how erroneous it is to speak of a person or relationship as involving both roles: a true sadist could never enjoy a masochistic victim, nor could the true masochist enjoy a sadistic torturer. Deleuze writes, “The woman torturer of masochism cannot be sadistic precisely because she is in the masochistic situation, she is an integral part of it, a realization of the masochistic fantasy … she does indeed belong essentially to masochism, but without realizing it as a subject; she incarnates instead the element of ‘inflicting pain’ in an exclusively masochistic situation.” (pp. 41-2) In the book, Wanda is molded by Severin into a woman who is cold, maternal, and severe — what Sacher-Masoch considers to be the rare and ideal feminine nature. She becomes fantasy, the Greek Goddess statue in a dream garden, the aesthetic ideal of beauty. Deleuze explains that to escape her own masochism she assumes the active role in the relationship, “the subject in masochism needs a certain ‘essence’ of masochism embodied in the nature of a woman who renounces her own subjective masochism; he definitely has no need of another subject, i.e., the sadistic subject”. The coldness of the masochistic ideal is not the negation of feelings, but is the disavowal of sensuality, a suppression of pagan pleasures. It is a mistake to think her sadistic or pretending to be, since she doesn’t act out of aggression or hate. In the novel, Wanda loves Severin, she tells him so even as she whips him, dresses him as a servant, or treats him like a toy. Under that coldness and fur is a supersensual sentimentality, producing a very specific kind of severity and cruelty. Other essential features of masochistic experience, Deleuze writes, are waiting and suspense. Pure waiting, as experienced by the masochist, comes in two currents: that which is awaited or postponed (pleasure), and that which is expected (pain), and it is the expectation of pain that makes it possible for pleasure to fulfill the awaited. As Deleuze so eloquently puts it, “The masochist waits for pleasure as something bound to be late, expects pain as the condition that will finally ensure (both physically and morally) the advent of pleasure. He therefore postpones pleasure in expectation of pain which will make gratification possible” (p. 71) This hints to another difference between sadism and masochism: masochism necessarily involves a contract between the people involved. The contract represents the ideal form of the love relationship, a love that exists between to torturer/ess and the subject, where the subject is bound by the chains of his/her own words. Deleuze uses the work of Theodore Reik (psychoanalyst) in summing up the distinct features of masochism: (1) the special significance of fantasy (that which is dreamed about, ritualized, dramatized, etc.), (2) the suspense factor (the waiting, tensions), (3) the demonstrative feature (the way a masochist exhibits his suffering), and (4) the provocative fear (a masochist demands punishment to resolve anxiety and allow him to enjoy forbidden pleasure). Deleuze then adds (5), the contract.

So, does being tattooed necessarily involve masochism? In some ways, no it doesn’t. I don’t think my artists would be best described as cold, maternal, or severe. I also don’t think inflicting pain on a subject is the primary thought or focus in a tattoo artist’s head when practicing their craft: the art being produced on the subject is primary (but they check-in on your pain levels, mainly to make sure you won’t pass out or be sick). That being said, in some ways I want to say ‘yes’, there is a kind of masochism involved, BUT I think it is of an aesthetic kind, not necessarily a sexual or fetishistic kind. All of the features Deleuze/Reik list can be tweaked to apply to those who are tattooed: (1) preparing for a tattoo often involves some fantasy, some imagining of the tattoo on the body, and the tattooed person often has imaginings of what their body will look like finished; (2) there is waiting involved with tattooing (waiting for the apt, waiting for the tattoo to be done during the session, waiting for the tattoo to be completed if it takes multiple appointments); (3) tattooed people can be exhibitionists to varying degrees, some people show it all and some show very little, but often when asked about a visible tattoo there is a story of how long they sat or how much they endured; (4) there is a sense that getting tattooed resolves an anxiety, something like an addiction fix, an itching to have more ink or more beautiful art on one’s body, and there is also a forbidden pleasure involved in that there still remains a large portion of society that perceives tattoos as taboo or perverse (and for some people there is a sexual pleasure that accompanies the pain of getting tattooed, we cannot ignore that); and of course, (5) there is a contract, an exchange of talent and ink for money and lasting beauty. Now, I called it an ‘aesthetic masochism’ because the pain of getting a tattoo seems a small price to pay for the end result: a beautiful and personal artwork applied to one’s living body. In this way, we all get to be beautiful Venus (maybe Botticelli’s or Michelangelo’s Venus, not necessarily Sacher-Masoch’s).

I will end this with a favorite quote from Wanda, the venus in furs herself, that illustrates my point: “How handsome you are now,” she exclaimed, “with your eyes half-closed in ecstasy; you enrapture me. How beautiful your gaze would be at the moment of expiring, after you had been beaten to death. You have the eyes of a martyr.” (pp. 198-9) The torturer in the masochistic situation says this kind of stuff to their subject, but a tattoo artist does not say it to a client. Well, none of my tattoo artists have said shit like that to me, and I don’t think I want them to either. That might be slightly creepy. Slightly.

Gilles Deleuze (1925 - 1995)

Last of the Left

Above my Godlike/Zarathustra-style tattoo is a piece I had done in 1997 (finished in 1998). It’s in need of some touch up, some of the black in the flames has faded and is looking streaky, but for being nearly 14 years old and never having been touched up it has held up well.

A number of years ago


This is one of the tattoos I got because I felt like it, aka no other deep meaning besides the fact I liked all three elements that constitute it. It’s a skull with bat wings over its eyes, like a mask, surrounded by flames, and all in black/grey (colour would have been too cheesy). I drew it myself, over a lunch break from classes one snowy day during my undergrad years. Philosophically it really means nothing, existentially maybe it’s a reminder of my punky-gothy younger days (I say ‘younger days’ because I still love all the same music, I just don’t have a dyed mohawk any longer, or wear a spiky dog collar as my daily jewelry, or copious amount of dark make-up), but really it’s just there because I felt like it at that moment. A “just because” tattoo, you could say. At some point over the next year or two I will fill the rest of my upper arm in, the bare parts around the flames and onto my shoulder-blade, and at that time I will have the flames re-inked as well. Note: This tattoo is not easy to take a picture of because it moves with my shoulder and arm muscles, so at times it appears crooked or it’s expression changes slightly depending on my arm position.
And I should say thanks to Laurie @ Nighthawk for realizing my drawing into ink. 🙂

As he stands now

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