Over a primitive drumbeat, alternate tuned guitars, and John Cale’s screeching viola Lou Reed weaves a tale of sexually and a submissive servant named Severin. Even 40 plus years since its debut, The Velvet Underground’s “Venus in Furs” remains one of the most shocking songs from a band known for pushing musical and lyrical boundaries. It’s so explicit in its detail to sadomasochism that it’s hard not to wonder if Reed actually participated in some of these acts.
In actuality, the character of Severin was directly inspired by Austrian author Leopold von Sacher-Masoch’s novella, Venus in Furs. Published in 1870 Von Sacher-Masoch’s Venus in Furs is equally disturbing as the song. The narrator dreams of a conversation with Venus (wearing furs) about love. Looking to break his lust, the narrator seeks his friend Severin for advice. Severin, in turn reads him Memoirs of a Suprasensual Man.
In this story, Severin von Kusiemsk is in love with a woman named Wanda. When Severin requests to be her sex-slave, Wanda at first laughs at him. She eventually changes her mind. Later, Wanda beats Severin and brings in three women whose slaves he will also become. At the end of the book, Severin becomes jealous by Wanda’s new lover, Alexis Papadopolis, and becomes disenchanted with his sex-slave status. He then laments that “she can only be his slave or his despot, but never his companion.”
Venus in Furs tale of perversion proved to be a source of inspiration for novelist James Joyce in his novel, Ulysses. In the Circe Chapter, Leopold Bloom and Stephen Dedalus stumble into a Dublin brothel. During a mock trial for his perversions, one character recounts Bloom referring to her as a “Venus in furs” among other accusations. During a lengthy erotic hallucination Bloom is feminized and becomes dominated and tormented by the brothel’s madam. Bloom’s hallucinations are induced by a guilty conscience and also an erotic fulfillment.
Both Severin and Bloom realize these desires can quickly escalate into darker territory and eventually attempt to atone their sins. Severin ends up leaving Wanda while Bloom rectifies several situations including payment to the prostitutes for a lamp which Stephen had broken earlier.
For The Velvet Underground, there is no sense of remorse for these acts. The moves slowly, but quickens which only adds to its creepiness. “I am tired, I am weary, I could sleep for a thousand years.” Reed sings several times, as if he is at his breaking point. Reed’s confession and the scratching guitars that close the song confirm a person can only take so much.