Deathless: Ivans the Terrible
Cal: Ivy and I both just read Cathynne M. Valente’s new book, Deathless, which was just released yesterday. It’s a Soviet Russian BDSM fairy tale love story, so gosh were we sure the target audience!
In some versions of the old fairy tale, Koschei the Deathless is chained in Marya Morevna’s basement, which raised the question that this book answers – how did he end up chained in her basement in the first place? Valente twines that tale with fragments of other versions, where Ivan the hero meets Marya Morevna on the battlefield and they escape together from mean old Koschei.
There are a couple of threads that came up in our discussion of the book that we’d like to explore here, the first of which explores the difficulty of rejection by one’s partners. There’s a later thread of service and secrets that we’ll discuss in another post. And, fair warning: these posts are spoilerrific.
“This is stupid, Marya. I am hungry. Let a man eat in peace.”
Cal: Ivan says this to Marya Morevna after she tells him to be silent and do as she says, starts to feed him in a particular order and speak to him in a particular way, feels power welling up within her huger than she expected – and no, he rejects that game. Earlier in the book, Koschei seduced Marya by feeding her in that same particular way, and entwined it with his dominance. Marya is explicitly trying to explore her own dominance by echoing how Koschei drew her in, but to take his place she must find her own Marya, and Ivan refuses to play her role. It’s a rejection not only of her power but of her submission – both are uninteresting to him.
This one small moment caught at my heart with the memory of every lover who ever laughed when I forced myself to open up about the secret dark frightening things I wanted, every time my desires were rejected as stupid or weird or just more effort than they were worth. And maybe most readers won’t see it, but I bet there’s a lot of us who’ve had that fear come true before. Maybe someone finds it easy to find good matches for unusual desires from the start, but not anyone I know.
But I also read it and feel lucky, now. The laughter gets rarer and rarer as you’re more open, as you choose people more wisely, as time goes on. And when it happens, it’s easier to bear once you’ve known people who moaned instead. And if you’re very lucky indeed, you have Koschei chained in your basement and sighing for your touch, and he never laughs at you at all.
Ivy: I have taken to calling this scenario “Ivans the Terrible” in my head since you and I had this discussion, Cal. (Plural Ivans, because I’ve dated someone like that more than once.) Because, truly, it is terrible to open yourself up to that kind of vulnerability, the admission of desire to someone that you love, and to have them not only reject you but not understand such an essential part of your sexuality at all. Of course not everyone that one loves is going to automatically want exactly what we want, but it is still a difficult and crushing realization to swallow that sort of rejection. At times, it’s made worse by the loved one not realizing at all what a blow they’ve dealt you. And there’s this mythology that the top can shrug off anything because we’re all-powerful and invulnerable and mighty, but that’s not actually how that works at all. There was a period of four years where I gave up topping entirely after I’d had a six person streak of rejection from my partners… I was convinced that this part of my sexuality was unacceptable to anyone that I cared about, and that I should stop trying lest I hurt people I loved (in a bad way). Naturally, that didn’t make my orientation or desires go away.
Cal: It can be incredibly difficult. I’ve been laughed at by lovers when opening up about things I wanted or fantasized about, and it shut me down and dealt death blows to those dynamics pretty quickly. And I was talking to another friend about this recently, and she said: “I remember a girl I was in the process of the talking-for-hours that precedes hookups with, and I remember some kind of “whips and chains” comment came up, and she laughed and reassured me that she wasn’t into that kind of thing.” I’ve been there, too, and always want to laugh and say – well, I am!
I feel like there’s so much in Deathless that relates to this, the wanting and the rejection – you see it a bit when she asks Koschei about his death, too. His first response isn’t to answer. It’s to say, “Hush, you Delilah!”
Ivy: Yeah. But that’s some people’s kink… they want to be charmed out of the knowledge of their deepest selves, persuaded, seduced. I’m happy to do that to/for my partners, but I find the idea of having that turned on me deeply frightening in an unsexy way. I may decide to share, but I don’t want anyone trying to make me; that’s probably orientation speaking there.
Cal: I rather enjoy it myself, sometimes. Actually, it reminds me of Midori‘s interrogation class. She said that she basically classifies bottoms for that kind of thing into two sorts – breakers and endurers. And you better know which your partner is, or you’ll miss the point entirely. Koschei was a breaker, Ivan was.. well, not even an endurer. He was that jerk who laughs, the child who doesn’t even understand how to ask a question, he won’t play along at all.
Ivy: Ivan was sort of that vanilla guy who ends up thinking that he’s outré for sort of being okay with swinging as long as he wins mostly, for bizarro-world definitions of win.
Cal: The one who thinks you’re so hot and interesting that he’s up for trying for your sake, but then criticizes you for wanting to take things too far.
Ivy: Yep. Because, you know, you couldn’t actually MEAN that. “I want a strong-minded independent woman who is my equal, now make me a pie.”
Cal: And it’s cool if you’re a little edgy, but if this is seriously what you’re into? That can’t be healthy!
Ivy: Hahaha, yeah, I think we’ve both rejected that guy before.
Cal: Oh man. And felt so judged by him! The jerk.
Ivy: One of the benefits of age and experience: I’m faster to recognize it and decide I don’t want to go anywhere near there with him now. I still sometimes slip. But, I’m nowhere near as terrible as I was when I was younger about pining for ages over him. Ugh.
Cal: I wonder whether the author dated that jerk, too, or someone along those lines. The book is so full of this theme! And yet she brings him back here as Ivan, who Marya loves.
Ivy: Do you stop loving people just because they’re awful for you? I don’t.