Books: Even As We Speak — Casanova Comes Again |
[Invisible line of text as temporary way to expand content column justified text width to hit margins on most viewports, simply for improved display stability in the interval between column creation and loading]

Casanova Comes Again

Casanova, outed long ago as a flagrant heterosexual, is out again. This time he’s out in paperback — the whole of his memoirs, in six hefty double volumes (Johns Hopkins). What a pity he couldn’t be here for a launch party at, say, the Algonquin. He always said that his literary career was the one that really mattered. In his small talk for the assembled prominenti he would have said it again, even as he put the moves on the younger and more personable females at the thrash: the editors, the journalists, the PR hacks, the bimboid wannabes toting the canapés. Feeling his age but galvanized by the attention, he would have taken on the biggest challenge in the room: the drenchingly beautiful, impeccably refined junior editor on the point of marrying the tortoise-necked publishing tycoon jealously quavering in the background. As the lights dim for a screened montage of his big moments on film, Casanova talks his target out the double doors, down the stairs and into a cab. Most weekends, like the modest, well-brought-up girl she is, she takes the jitney home to East Hampton, but when Cas explains that he gambled away the last of his per diem stash the previous night she immediately offers to cover the cab fare with her spare change. Step on it! The publisher’s heavies are already on the sidewalk and scoping the street through their dark glasses. Back upstairs, the indignant publisher has personally lifted the phone to consign the entire print run of Casanova’s great book to a garbage scow, but our hero’s authorial ambitions never did stand a chance against his primal urge.

Lesser writings aside, History of My Life is Casanova’s main claim to the literary importance that he always dreamed of in the intervals — sometimes lasting for days on end — between chasing skirt. The claim has to be called successful, if with some reluctance. When the first instalment of the hardback edition came out, in 1966, bigwigs of the literary world united to rain hosannas on its editor and translator, Willard R. Trask, for restoring a masterpiece to just pre-eminence after its long history of being bowdlerized, rewritten by interfering hacks, truncated, mistranslated, and attacked from the air. (A Second World War bomb through the roof of the Brockhaus office, in Leipzig, almost did to the manuscript what the bomb through the roof of the Eremitani church in Padua did to Mantegna’s frescoes.)  Since then, there has been time to think, and wonder whether many of the mandarins who heaped Casanova’s capolavoro with praise ever read it again, or even read in it. For one thing, it isn’t a book for a literal-minded age in which the authenticity of a quotation has to be guaranteed by marking supplied words with square brackets. What about all that dialogue, remembered in detail over the stretch of decades? Did he carry a tape recorder? A limiting judgement would have plenty to go on.

But that’s just it: plenty is what the book has — plenty of everything, even without the sex. There are swindles and scandals, pretensions and inventions, clerics, lyrics and bubbling alembics, sword fights at midnight and complots at the palace, bugs in the bed and bedlam in the tavern, masked balls, balls-ups and shinnying up drainpipes, flummery, mummery and summary executions. All that, as the journalists say, plus a pullulating plankton field of biddable, beddable broads, through which Casanova moves with the single-minded hunger of a straining whale, yet somehow brings the whole populated ocean of eighteenth-century society to phosphorescent life. The book teems. It flows. It does everything but end. Written in his old age, the memoirs, recounting his picaresque manoeuvres almost day by day, could get only so far before he croaked, leaving uncovered his most fascinating and possibly most edifying years — the declining years, when the old magic had finally and forever ceased to work. But the memoirs got far enough to establish a pattern that becomes as predictable to the reader as a flimflam man’s tent show on tour. Casanova checks into the inn, checks out the upmarket talent, screws the pick of the bunch, screws up a business deal, and moves on. Roaming the whole of Europe, he penetrates the local high society in each new place, penetrates all the attractive females up to and including the nobility, works some scam to raise funds, blows it, and blows town. (The two previous sentences say the same thing with the words changed. Casanova’s prose works the same effect for thousands of pages, the miracle being that it isn’t worked to death.)

To call Casanova’s chef d’oeuvre repetitive is like calling Saint-Simon snobbish or de Sade sadistic. Repetition is what he lived for, especially with beautiful women. Variety had to be serial, or it wasn’t variety. After he had done all the different things with the same woman, he wanted to do all the same things with different women. He could never get enough of them, and there were more of them than even he could envision. Think of it: there was one born every minute! Every second! But the eternal problem with which he faces us is that he didn’t feel like that at the time. He dealt wholesale but he thought retail. Each love affair was the only one that counted for as long as it lasted. Sometimes it lasted only a matter of minutes, but the liaison got the whole of his attention, even if the Inquisition was waiting for him down on the street. He never had one eye on the clock. He had both eyes on his beloved’s face, utterly caught up in the moment when her cries of ecstasy made her soul his. Anxiety that such a revelation might never come again, as it were, conferred the precious gift of delay. He writes, ‘I have all my life been dominated by the fear that my steed would flinch from beginning another race; and I never found this restraint painful, for the visible pleasure which I gave always made up four fifths of mine.’ Four-fifths is eighty per cent whichever way you slice it: a lot to give away. But then it was by giving that he took. Even in — especially in — bed, he could convince them that it wasn’t about him, it was about them. That was, and remains, a winning formula.

There were serving maids whom he routinely leaped on just because he bumped into them on the stairs, and there was the occasional faded grande dame he more or less had to satisfy because it was easier than talking his way out of it, but on the whole he never got it on with a woman who he didn’t think, while she lay in his arms, was the woman of his dreams, the one designed to appeal to his imagination by the qualities of her mind and soul as well as the beauty of her body. Women knew that about him just by the way he looked at them. He was a great lover because they knew in advance that he would love them greatly — that he cherished each one’s unique individuality even though he adored them holus-bolus, as a sex, as a race, as an angelic species. The question remains whether Casanova’s infinitely replicated experience of once-in-a-lifetime love has anything to do with love at all. If you believe it hasn’t, he and his book are easily dismissed: they have the same significance as JFK jumping a secretary in the White House elevator and telling a crony a few minutes afterwards that he got into the blonde. If you believe it has, then Casanova is still here, now more than ever haunting the civilized world’s collective consciousness, and the book of his life, for all its mephitic undertow, has the reverberating ring of an awkward truth: this man is the man you would be if you were free to act.

One of the things you would have to be free from, of course, is sexual morality. But to call Casanova free from sexual morality invites a rejoinder: sexual morality was the only kind of morality he had. About sex, he had at least a few principles, which are best examined after one notes the thoroughness with which he lacked them in all other departments. Living always beyond his means and forever running to escape the consequences, in his life as an adventurer, even more than in his loves, he was ready for anything. He made it up as he went along, and it all came true. Even his name was a fabrication: he really was Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, but his title, Chevalier de Seingalt, was one he gave himself. He was born in 1725, into a theatrical family in Venice, and on the social scale of the time show folk ranked not far above gravediggers. Casanova’s self-election to noble status was in itself a theatrical coup, and his career is best regarded as a succession of vaudeville numbers with nothing to link them except a rapidly falling and rising curtain.

As a boy, he bled easily and was thought mentally backward, but his father was astute enough to secure the patronage of the Grimani family, who staked Casanova to a course at the University of Padua, the idea being that he would have a career in the Church. Casanova graduated — one of the few examples of his properly finishing anything he began — but his entry into Holy Orders was occluded by his entry into the sister of the priest who was giving him instruction. Back in Venice and into bed with two sisters, he started attracting patrons on his own account — a talent that remained with him until the end, although the even more useful talent of keeping his patrons sweet was one he sadly lacked. Offered an ecclesiastical post in the Calabrian province of Martorano, Casanova took one look at the place and called off the deal. He knew he was meant for higher things. In Rome, he met the Pope — big game. Unfortunately, there was some fuss over a woman, and he had to skip town. After a spell in Constantinople brought him nothing but more women, he moved on to Corfu and there added to his handicaps by acquiring a taste for gambling unmatched by any concomitant ability: as a general rule, applicable to his entire lifetime, he could quit gambling only when he was in debt, and dealt with the debt by blowing the scene.

In Venice once more, he scraped a living with a violin, mastered at high speed so that he could join a theatre orchestra. A new patron was so impressed by Casanova’s knowledge of the occult sciences that he considered legally adopting the prodigy into his noble family. Since Casanova’s knowledge of the occult sciences was largely imaginary, there was no reason he could not have gone on expanding it until the deal was clinched, but once again scandal intervened. The tribunal in charge of religion and morals wanted to question him about possible offences in both fields. Even worse, Casanova had reason to believe that the Inquisition wanted to hear about those occult sciences. Time to take a powder.

It was 1749, Casanova was twenty-four, and he was on his way, which is to say on the run, seemingly forever. In Lyons, he was a Freemason; in Paris, he wrote plays; in Vienna, he met intolerance of his amatory success. Back to Venice yet again, where he was charged with sorcery and imprisoned in the notorious Leads. His daring escape was the basis of a subsequent book, which earned him some measure of the authorial prestige he always craved. Returning to Paris, he founded a lottery, the proceeds of which he neglected to abscond with — a rare lapse. He later established a silk manufactory there with hopes of success, which his success at getting a titled mistress pregnant soon translated into failure. In Geneva, he met Voltaire. In London, he was presented at court, presented a false bill of exchange, got busted, and left with little to show for his stay except a fourth dose of the clap. In Berlin, Frederick the Great thought highly of him, and offered him a post as tutor to the Pomeranian Cadet Corps, but, typically, he aimed higher still, and headed for St Petersburg and fortune. Catherine the Great offered him nothing.

In Warsaw, he fought a duel. An accusation — it was false, but it jibed with his billing — that he had embezzled the Paris lottery funds caught up with him there. Banished from Poland, he moved on to be expelled from Vienna, mainly because Maria Theresa had heard that he had been expelled from Poland. So on to Paris, in order to be expelled from France. It was as if his mug shot had been put out by Interpol. During a stretch in a Spanish slammer, he wrote a three-volume opus about Venice, probably designed as a sop to the Venetian State Inquisition. If that was his idea, it worked: in 1774, at the age of forty-nine, he got a pardon. The Inquisition got him all the same — not as a victim but as a fink. In this role, as a paid informer, he had regular employment at last. How could he screw it up? He wrote a satire that satirized the wrong patrician, and was banished all over again.

In Vienna, he finally got lucky by ingratiating himself with Count Waldstein, who, in 1785, appointed him librarian of his castle in Bohemia. There, growing old and bored, Casanova began writing his memoirs in 1789, the year of the French Revolution — an event whose significance almost entirely escaped him. He had never been that kind of revolutionary, and by now he wasn’t even a rebel: he had gone legit at long last. But even while he lived out his days in provincial isolation he always dreamed of Venice, where, had he ever returned, he would undoubtedly have accomplished his own ruin all over again. In his last summer alive, two years before the century ended, the Inquisition pardoned him, but it was too late.

It was always too late, or too early, or too something. In a life of opportunism, he took every opportunity to make a shambles of anything he had managed to achieve. Confusion was a compulsion, as if everything had to be tested to the point of destruction, to prove that it wasn’t real. And, in fact, nothing was real, except women. Women were something he could grasp, however briefly, and if you seek the rhythm of Casanova’s mind working — instead of just his feet running away from trouble — it is to what he says about women that you must turn. And one of the first things he says, in the preface to his magnum opus, is proved by the rest of it to be true: ‘Feeling that I was born for the sex opposite to mine, I have always loved it and done all that I could to make myself loved by it.’ Feminists should not seize too quickly on the generalized term ‘the sex opposite to mine’. The operative words are ‘to make myself loved’. That’s what he really wanted to do, and that’s what he really did. Women really existed for him. Everything else was a fantasy, even his literary ambitions — except in the case of this one great book, whose greatness, for all the sordid detail of unwashed linen and down-at-heel shoes, depends on making reality fantastic, a dream world like The Thousand and One Nights.

In the last act of Don Giovanni, Mozart consigns the great lover to Hell. Even today — in fact, today more than ever — this is a conclusion morally satisfactory for the audience, even though some of its members will be committing adultery that very night, and a few of them may have committed it during the intermission. But all of them respect the conventions. The rat had it coming to him. That’s the way we are supposed to feel about the Don and all his confrères in libertinage, with Casanova as the arch exemplar: for their crime of callously pillaging the emotional life of their helpless victims they deserve punishment, and might even have been visited with it ahead of time, through their never having properly lived. But Lorenzo Da Ponte was not the sole author of the opera’s libretto. His collaborator-cum-technical advisor was Casanova himself, who knew better — or, at any rate, knew that that’s not all we feel. We also feel envy. When Woody Allen said that he wanted to be reincarnated as Warren Beatty’s fingertips, he was articulating a longing widely felt among men. The moral consensus of today would like to pretend that a Lothario’s deadly charm is no less reprehensible than a paedophile’s sack of candy. But nobody except a pervert envies a pervert. There are few men, no matter how virtuous, who do not envy the seducer.

If the seducer really were a rapist in disguise, he would be easier to condemn. But all too obviously his success depends at least as much on co-operation as on coercion. The virtuous man’s envy is made worse by the consideration that if the virtuous woman takes a holiday from the straight and narrow the seducer is the very man she is likely to choose as an accomplice, just because he is irresponsible, passing through, and won’t be coming back. Among the recently bereaved, the faithful but bored, and the businesswomen whose poetry has been insufficiently appreciated, the seducer cruises for his easiest prey: the woman of substance who wants an amorous encounter that doesn’t mean anything. Later on, she can tell us that it didn’t mean anything. But we know very well that at the time it meant everything. The louse got the best of her; he gets the best of all of them.

By the standards of the great lovers in our own century, Casanova didn’t run up all that big a total. (Richard Burton scored at the rate of a Luftwaffe fighter pilot on the Russian front.) But today’s dedicated stick man has the advantage of modern communications. For Casanova, the hunting grounds were days apart by slow coach. Factor that in and you have to marvel at what he achieved. A statistical check of the complete book turns up a figure of a hundred and thirty-two full-scale conquests. The breakdown by nationality reveals him as sowing the seed of a united Europe. Forty-seven Italian women said si. Nineteen French women said oui. Ten Swiss women said si, oui, or ja. There were eight German, five English, and ten women from sundry other countries. The total has to be reduced somewhat if you count the twelve sets of doubles as single victories, but doubtless it could be restored and even extended by the tussles that he thought weren’t worth a mention, having taken place too low on the social scale. Nevertheless, twenty-four servant girls are registered as having succumbed, along with, at the top of the range, eighteen gentlewomen and fifteen members of royalty. There were only two nuns, which must have meant that the convents were hard to crack, because nothing inflamed him like spiritual refinement. Nor was he put off by brains (‘The older I grew,‘ he writes in Volume XI, ‘the more what attached me to women was intelligence’), although he endorsed the assumption, standard in his time, that men were naturally smarter than women and therefore he would never have to face the difficulty of dealing with a woman who mentally outstripped him. Even the divine Henriette, the greatest love of his life, he admired for her accomplishments without ever considering that they might shame him into inferiority. Though disarmingly ready to admit his occasional foolishness, he was confident about his superior mind. In that respect, his mind was commonplace, a point seized on by Arthur Schnitzler in the most interesting work ever inspired by Casanova, the novella Casanovas Heimfahrt (Casanova’s Homecoming).

In Schnitzler’s novella, Casanova, over the hill and under the weather, is heading home to Venice for one last crack at straightening out his business affairs, getting himself off the hook with the authorities, etc. — the usual unfounded hopes exacerbating the same old permanent imbroglio, but by now the energy that made it all into an adventure is almost gone. Nevertheless, this time he is determined that nothing can halt him on his homeward path — except, of course, one thing. An old friend, now enviably well set up in life, tells him about his house guest, a girl of unusual intelligence and grace. Casanova, stopping off just to clap eyes on this paragon, resolves to stay and win her. So far, so blah: but Schnitzler gives the story a twist that makes it unlike anything in Casanova’s memoirs. This time, the girl really is Casanova’s mental superior. She has a gift for mathematics that shows up his vaunted capacity in that field as a cabalistic mishmash. To top off that humiliation, she is, miarabile dictu, not attracted to him physically. He is too old for her, and she has a young lover. To nail her, Casanova must resort to a trick. The brilliance of Schnitzler’s story lies in what kind of trick it is. Casanova has to pretend to be the young lover. In the darkness, she doesn’t realize that the man making great love to her is the great lover himself. Casanova’s identity counts for nothing. For treating her as a object whose emotions do not count, he is treated as an object in his turn: the rapist is raped.

As a hanging judge, Schnitzler was sitting behind a shaky bench. He himself pursued brilliant young females more ardently the older he became, and his series of wonderful, untranslatable plays concerning that very subject of intergenerational affections was based on a private life that would get him pilloried today. But before saying that Schnitzler was unwarrantedly tough on Casanova, one must admit that there is plenty to be tough about. Casanova did indeed rape at least one servant girl. (‘I resolved to have her by using a little violence.’) And he was indeed a cradle snatcher, on a career basis: Roman Polanski was threatened with a stretch in Chino for a lot less. Of Casanova’s registered victories, twenty-two were between eleven and fifteen years of age, twenty-nine between sixteen and twenty, only five were over thirty, and only one was over fifty. That he loved women for their individuality should not be doubted — his sketchy prose condenses into lyricism when evoking a woman’s character — but the point needs to be qualified by the consideration that he preferred their individuality to be in its formative stage, so that he could, as it were, get in on it. He had an automatic, full-throttle response to anything, seen from any angle, that might conceivably turn out to be a beautiful young woman — a shadow in the alley, a light footstep on the stairs. His incandescent love affair with Henriette began when he had seen nothing of her except a bump under the coverlet. But, with all that admitted, when we read what he has to say about his love for, and with, Henriette it is hard to remain suitably censorious. When, to cap the effect on him of her beauty and her gift for philosophy, she unexpectedly reveals her prowess on the violin, he is not just further delighted with her, he is delighted for her — a crucial plus.

She did not thank the company for having applauded her; but turning to the professor she told him, with an air of gracious and noble courtesy, that she had never played a better instrument. After thus complimenting him, she smilingly told the audience that they must forgive the vanity which had induced her to increase the length of the concert by half an hour.
This compliment having put the finishing touch to my astonishment, I vanished to go and weep in the garden, where no one could see me. Who can this Henriette be? What is this treasure whose master I have become? I thought it impossible that I should be the fortunate mortal who possessed her.

In moments like this — and his enormous book is abundantly peppered with them — Casanova’s prose is energized by the sort of spiritual generosity made possible to a man only through the recognition that the woman he adores has a life separate from his, and can be ‘possessed’ only in the metaphorical sense. Casanova, cuckolding honest husbands right and left, never more than one step ahead of the law and continually dogged by inopportune doses of the clap, might seem an unlikely candidate to be a moralist. But, given the times, he was. He had scruples about passing the clap on, and not just because it would have got him into trouble. For reasons too complicated to repeat here but fully recorded in convincing detail, he nobly refrained from seducing a desperate young beauty who had escaped from her troubles by flinging herself into his practised arms:

To restore her courage and to give her blood a chance to flow freely, I persuaded her to undress and get under the covers. Since she had not the strength, I had to undress her and carry her to the bed myself. In so doing, I performed a new experiment on myself. It was a discovery. I resisted the sight of all her charms without any difficulty. She went to sleep, and so did I, lying beside her, but fully dressed. A quarter of an hour before dawn I woke her and, finding her strength restored, she did not need me to help her dress.

He also admitted, in cold print, if with a hot flush, to sixteen separate instances of having his attentions rejected. Since no mere rake ever admits to anything except progress, this statistic alone should be enough to prove that Casanova was something other and better than a heartless monster. For the rake, the woman is not really alive. For Casanova, nothing could be more alive: that was his problem, and it lies at the heart of the problem he presents us with today. His success as a philanderer was dependent in part on his acuity as a psychologist. Conventional behaviour, without which civilization cannot exist, closes out possibilities. The faithful, while no doubt attaining satisfactions that the faithless can never know, must doom themselves to realizing some of our most haunting dreams only as fantasies. Casanova, by living those fantasies, knew their force.

What are these dreams of unbridled bliss doing in our poor minds? Casanova didn’t know, either, but he did know that they are as intense for women as for men. In that regard, he was a kind of genius, and his book remains a ground-breaking work of modern psychology. Freud was a back number beside him. Freud thought that the fine women of Vienna who didn’t want to sleep with their husbands were mentally disturbed. Casanova would have solved their problems in an hour on the couch.

Casanova’s pretensions to morality are absurd not because his moral sense doesn’t exist but because it is based on his desires. As if life were art, he deduced his rules of conduct from the pursuit of beauty. What made him irresistible, apart from his looks and his charm, was the poetic power of his visione amorosa; his women thought, correctly, that they were his inspiration. What made him reprehensible was his conviction that love could justify any and all conduct. But no less reprehensible is it for us, today, to deny that desire, with an awkward frequency, can be felt with all the force of love, and with enough of love’s poetry to convince the person feeling it that he is in a state of grace — which is always a flying start towards convincing the person at whom he directs it that she might as well join him. Giving in to desire is not the only, or even the best, method of dealing with it, but failing to admit its power and all-pervasiveness is a sure formula for being swept away by it when it floods its banks, as sooner or later it always does. Casanova, by contriving, against all the odds posed by his chaotic personality to transfer his awareness of that perennial conundrum from life to print, attained his literary ambitions after all, and lives on in his magnificently ridiculous book as some kind of great man — the most awkward kind, the man we call a force of nature because he reminds us of nature’s force.

(New Yorker, 25 August and 1 September, 1997)