Praz, Mario. The Romantic Agony Meridian, 1956. First published 1933. Google Books
I think people tend to use the terms Romantic and Gothic interchangeably. I tend to use the Gothic as the underside of the Romantic, the cynicism to the humanism. BDSM comes from the Gothic, the parody/critique of the Romantic. This requires delving into the history of the Romantic, which like Praz’ book, is big, sprawling, disorderly and largely written in French and Italian.
I have to admit that I can only read English, and large portions of The Romantic Agony are untranslated passages in French, Italian and German. I just skipped over them, rather than try to puzzle out even a short passage in my French, which barely got me to my BA (History)’s language requirement, after three tries.
One thing you have to understand is that the Romantics were weird guys. (Praz has nothing to say about women writers, except for Anne Radcliffe and Rachilde, and even then very little.) See Petrus Borel, who attempted to commit suicide via sunstroke. A lot of them seemed to be consciously cultivating an image as an eccentric, very aware of their public identity. In this company, Leopold von Sacher-Masoch seems less like an anomalous individual and more like a distillation of themes concerned with by other people. He was hardly the only person to write about weak men and domineering women; see Swinburne and Dostoievsky, for a start.
Romantics thought there could be new kinds of beauty, derived from things usually thought to be ugly and unclean. Italian poets wrote about beautiful female beggars and epileptics, or on the theme of the Whipped Courtesan, notably AG Brignole-Sale who wrote four sonnets on the subject, followed by:
Carlo won praise as a courteous scourger, since those lines were such exquisite lashes; and ever one professed eagerness to be so whipped, for the strokes seemed to impart more beauty than pain.
Romantics wrote a lot about the Byronic (anti) hero, which Praz sees as a descendant of Milton’s Satan in Paradise Lost. Richardson’s Lovelace is also in that family tree. Diderot’s La Religieuse is a derivative of Clarissa. (Pg.97)
Thought it would be absurd to make any comparison, from an aesthetic standpoint, between a psychological novel such as Richardson’s Clarissa and a coarse piece of pornographic fiction such as the Therese Philosophe… (which appeared in 1748, the year after the publication of Clarissa), it is not unsuitable to speak of them together with regard to their social setting and customs. And we know that the two books might easily have been found, in France at any rate, in the library of the same lady– except that the binding of one of them would have been blank.
This was also the time at which people began deciding that Clarissa and Therese Philosophe did not belong on the same shelf. Imitators lost the psychological acuity of Richardson or Radcliffe and went straight for the shocks.
In 1797 it was possible for the critic of the Magasin encyclopedique to praise Mrs. Radcliffe for having set out to show that vice, if sometimes able to oppress virtue, rejoices only in a passing triumph and meets with certain punishment, while virtue comes for victorious from all its misfortunes; as, however, subjects of cruelty and terror gradually gained ground in France, the moral purpose was lost sight of and interest was almost entirely concentrated on the description of ghastly and horrifying scenes. But more and worse was to come. Since the Romantic theory asserted that the best means of expression passions was to begin to feel them, people sought, instead of translating spontaneous acts of life into the realm of art, to experience in actual life the monstrous suggestions of imaginations fed upon literary horrors.
Sade was the inspiration for a lot of these Romantics, Gothics and Decadents, sometimes indirectly. One French Gothic novel has a villain using a copy of Sade’s Justine as an implement of torture in itself, believing that reading it would drive his female victim mad. (Pg.128)
The Romantics also gave us the prototype of the Domantrix/Femme Fatale, which Praz sees as Matilda in Matthew Lewis’ The Monk:
She was now cloathed in a long sable [black] Robe, on which was traced in gold embroidery a variety of unknown characters: It was fastened by a girdle of precious stones, in which was fixed a poignard [dagger]. Her neck and arms were uncovered. In her hand She bore a golden wand. Her hair was loose and flowed wildly upon her shoulders; Her eyes sparkled with terrific expression; and her whole Demeanour was calculated to inspire the beholder with awe and admiration.
Swinburne really ran with this kind of character image, as did Gautier with Cleopatra. There are some lovely, poetic passages by Pater on the image of an immortal femme fatale/(anti) heroine (pg.243)
A lot of this comes from Elizabethan drama. Shakespeare wasn’t afraid to bring out the ghosts, blood and gore, and John Ford’s ‘Tis Pity She’s a Whore has a sympathetic portrayal of brother-sister incest. Also, according to Praz, the “Nicky Nacky” humiliation play scenes in Thomas Otway’s Venice Preserved were suggested by the King himself as a satire on the Earl of Shaftesbury.
Praz also cites an Italian writer as tracing a family tree that starts with Diderot, flows through Richardson’s Clarissa and de Laclos’s Les Liaisons dangereuses, flowering in the bloody mess of the French Revolution and culminating in Sade. Pg 442
So, inconclusion, Romantics valued psychological experiences of the exotic and rarefied type, and saw beauty in suffering (sometimes their own, sometimes in others). The Gothics and Decadents pursued everything that the Romantics tried to put away. Modern day BDSM fantasies are descendants of that: Byronic heroes, persecuted maidens, femmes fatales, suffering men.