Not every man is a legend in his own time but Giacomo Casanova (1724-1798) achieved legendary status well before his death, living long enough to be a “consultant’ on the first production of Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Soldier, scholar, lawyer, physician, occultist, alchemist, professional violinist, poet, raconteur, classical scholar, political scientist, philosopher, adventurer, and secret agent -Casanova led a life far stranger than fiction – except that most of his adventures appear to be true! One is astonished, reading the story of his amazingly varied career, that he had time for his most famous hobby.
To some degree, the continuing fascination with Giacomo Casanova masks a contemporary yearning dressed up in the clothes of historical fiction.It’s not hard to see that Casanova is more than the man we would be if we could. He is the person most of us incarnate to a greater degree than we are willing to admit: sleazy, violent, desperate to please, generous, loving, voyeuristic, but mostly just plain horny.
He was a multi-dimensional figure, a renaissance man, and his ”Memoirs” , ” History of My Life” is brilliantly written and deserving of praise as one of the great works of Western literature. Casanova the writer is successful for the same reasons that Casanova the lover was: he keeps his motives simple. He writes to a friend, “I cannot entitle my memoirs Confessions, for I am repentant about nothing, and without repentance, as you know, absolution is impossible.” His real reason for writing? “You would not believe how much it amuses me.”Perhaps we are famished for sensual enjoyment in an overly disciplined and regulated culture, partially imprisoned by political correctedness the weight of conformity and inauthenticity. In any event, Casanova was a master of erotic writing and a classical author in world literature in the tradition of Ovid;It’s Casanova’s zeal for describing , or perhaps inventing, bizarre and zany situations, especially those that run afoul of cherished social taboos, that make his memoirs amusing to read.
One of the most striking peculiarities and paradoxes of these ”confessions” is that Casanova also remembers with the greatest precision the circumstances of his forgetting. He remembers without difficulty all the countless women he had loved, without bragging about his conquests. Casanova was always in search of sensual pleasures but what excited him was not what was always the same, but rather what in each case satisfied his ”curiosity” in a different way. Casanova also loved books, and he tried to read each woman like a book; and, like a reader, in order to open one book he had to close another one. Thus, there was a break between two loves and two readings, and in the erotic language of Casanova’s time this break was called forgetting. And in fact, in the sensual tumult of the next encounter forgetting means only this and does not later exclude remembering.
However, the image of him as a notorious eighteenth-century slut romping through Europe simplifies the issue greatly, through a perhaps misplaced value judgement on promiscuity. He was extremely vulnerable, which can be traced to the semi-tragic relationship Casanova had with his independent mother, the gifted Commedia del Arte star Zanetta Casanova. Psychoanalyst author Lydia Flem’s offered a thesis asserting that Casanova’s consistent over-achieving was due to his early craving for his beautiful but distant mother’s affection and approval and to his essential insecurity about his working class background and his constant fear of being “found out” as he moved through his many careers – from academia to the theatre from the Courts of Europe to dungeons of the Inquisition – from the courtesans of Venice to the music room of Mozart. She essentially abandoned him at a very young age.
A skeptical non-Freudian might point out that this very insecurity developed a set of good survival skills for a self-made in the 18th century; as Casanova himself discovered, for example, when his adoptive father, a wealthy and powerful Senator whose life he had saved apparently by methods inspired by the Kaballah, was unable to save him from arrest by the Inquisition. For the most part, Casanova had a genuine love and respect for women,and could control his ability to fall in love with them, which in itself may have been a form of escapism. He had a desire for partners who were his intellectual equals as well as his equals in passion, and almost always gave considerate treatment of his “ex’s.” If his Memoirs are accurate, the ladies had good reason to like Casanova, for whom stimulating intellectual conversation with lovers was essential. Without it, he calculated, sexual pleasure was diminished by “two thirds.” Many of his lovers were smart and accomplished; at one point, listening to a lady friend play the cello, he almost faints, suffering, “such violent heart palpitations that he thinks he will die of emotion.” The fact that he had a lot of lovers hardly made them interchangeable; when he loved a woman, he was completely obsessed with her, and after they parted, he often fell physically ill. And if we believe him, he was unselfish in the sack — “the visible pleasure I was giving always made up four-fifths of mine.”
The evidence does seem to corroborate the view that Casanova was unloved by his mother and spent his adult life seeking approval from women to make up for it. But, as a rejoinder, ….So what! He enjoyed himself, experienced no guilt, and apparently made a whole lot of women very happy, which means there was considerable female lust that made his escapades possible.To assume that the male slut is always taking advantage of women assumes that women never want sex. Casanova knew better. He even wonders if women enjoy sex more than men do, admitting, “the pleasure I have felt when the woman I loved made me happy was certainly great, but I knew I would not have wanted it if, to obtain it, I had had to incur the risk of pregnancy. Women take the risk even after experiencing pregnancy several times; therefore, they must feel that the pleasure is worth the pain.” Not wishing to take his good fortune for granted, he wore “a little garment of very fine transparent skin . . . closedone end, but resembling a purse and having at its open end a narrow pink ribbon.”
Still, Casanova does not really qualify to be the First Feminist Man and a patron saint of women’s rights. He nearly shocked himself when he almost became engaged to a young girl who turns out to be his daughter. He then has sex with the mother in front of the daughter, who is fascinated to see how she was conceived. The most ambitious modern day porn producers could not keep up with Casanova’s ability to reinvent himself.
“I have never been able to conceive how a father could tenderly love his charming daughter without having slept with her at least once,” he wrote, shocking his readers perhaps even more now than in his own day. Although Donna Lucrezia did her best to keep them apart, Casanova and Leonilda eventually consummated their relationship, a liaison that almost certainly resulted in the adventurer fathering his own grandson….“Love is a great poet, its subject matter is inexhaustible; but if the end at which it aims never arrives, it collapses like dough at the baker’s,” Casanova wrote, and when Manon refused to surrender her virginity he soon lost interest in her. Nevertheless, out of cowardice he strung her along for years while he cavorted with a host of other Parisian beauties…. Incest, and prepubescent girls, were always particular temptations to him, ones he indulged whenever the opportunity arose. In modern times he would certainly be branded a paedophile….( Judith Summers )
”Sixteen years later, Casanova once again found himself in a communal bedroom situation with Donna Lucrezia, although this time the extra bedmate was Leonilda, the illegitimate teenage daughter from their first affair. “For Casanova, who with good reason counted himself ‘the happiest of mortals’ to have both beauties in bed with him, the moment was so exciting that he lost his usual exceptional self-control. Forced to withdraw before he ejaculated, he left Lucrezia unsatisfied. ‘Moved to pity, Leonilda helped her mother’s soul on its flight with one hand, and with the other she puts a white handkerchief under her gushing father,’ [Casanova] later wrote … Leonilda then demanded that Casanova look at her while he kissed her mother. This three-sided doubly incestuous combat continued until late in the night and resumed at dawn.” ( Stephen Amidon, Salon.com )
Obviously, Casanova’s appeal is multilayered, and promiscuity is a big word that begs narrow interpretations that may not always be valid. It may just be impossible for a full fledged version of Casanova to exist today. Historians and theorists like Michel Foucault have argued that societies such as ours are run by “moral regulation”, a term for social mechanisms like education and the law that keep each individual controlled within a hierarchical grid. Although Foucault rejects the ”repression hypothesis”, there is instead a form of social control based on changing the identity of the regulated. Its object is what Weber calls ”Lebensführung”, which refers to both the ethos and the action constituting a way of life. The means of moral regulation are persuasion, education, and enlightenment, which distinguishes it from other forms of social control. Analyzing the social relations of moral regulation provides a useful perspective on this form of social action. Casanova, the master of self-invention, didn’t play by Foucaultian laws; he enjoyed performing whatever role the situation required and he had little interest in acquiring power or wealth. Nor did he make moral judgments about himself and his peers. Eloquent, self-confident and fashion-conscious, he spent most of his life outwitting social controls of any sort.
In the end, Casanova is a Dionysian figure who tells our Appollonian age that there is more to life than restraint and self-discipline. Never apologetic or self-serving, he affirms that pleasure and adventure are as worthy of our time as money and fame and the story of his life suggests that happiness may be the greatest aphrodisiac.