Feb 212006

I finally got a hold of James Cleugh’s The First Masochist, a biography of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch, author of Venus in Furs and the inspiration of the term “masochism”. For some reason, there’s plenty of biographical material on the Marquis de Sade, but much less material on von Sacher-Masoch.

However, I’m dubious about using it. Cleugh’s book doesn’t provide sources for its information, and his writing is novelistic at times, which would be acceptable if he was pulling it out of von Sacher-Masoch’s diaries or memoirs. Cleugh is also biased in favor of his subject, and against Aurora von Rumelin, the first wife. I think the details are more or less accurate, but I don’t trust Cleugh’s interpretation of von Sacher-Masoch’s character or the other figures in his life. Frankly, my sympathies are with the women in von Sacher-Masoch’s life, rather than him. He fits the archetype of the demanding, highly strung, controlling artist who wants total attention fro the women in his life, until the moment he didn’t want it.

At the moment, though, it’s the most comprehensive biography I can find, and von Sacher-Masoch is a first tier figure in the history of BDSM. Not just for his literay works, but for living a BDSM lifestyle. He may have originated the idea of contracts. He had shadowy, anonymous encounters with people he only knew through the mail. He also psychologically abused his wife into dominating him, against her wishes. If you ever wonder how a submissive can be abusive to their partner, study this man’s life.

What the Internet was to people in the 1990s, the postal system was to people in the second half of the 19th century: a way to meet people anonymously without regard to geography.

The more I read about people like von Sacher-Masoch, the more ambivalent I feel about them. He, Algernon Swinburbe and T.E. Lawrence weren’t cheerfully perverse kinksters. They were deeply troubled men who had a lot of problems in their lives, brought suffering upon the people around them and could have done with some counselling. (Alas, all that was available to them was 19th century proto-psychiatry.) “Walter”, of “My Secret Life”, was simply a bastard. Munby and Cullwick were the happiest and most stable of the bunch, and even they had a lot of stress and aggravation from their kinks.

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