GUILTLESS PLEASURE: IMMORTALIZED FOR THE NAUGHTY BITS

Casanova: “I had women, I played, I joined in the fun, I bawled, I scorned and was never slave to my passions, but they gave me pleasure. Of not hiding myself, I made my profession…”The same principle which forbids me to lie does not allow me to tell the truth.” Far from a smug Lothario, he was a man doomed to be dissatisfied by life, even as he tried to explore every corner of it. In Histoire de Ma Vie, he wrote, “I saw that everything in the world that is famous and beautiful, if we rely on the descriptions and drawings of writers and artists, always loses when we go to see it and examine it up close”.

Frank Finlay. Casanova. 1971

Frank Finlay. Casanova. 1971

Those were the days. The golden age of charlatanry. A time when charlatanry held sway because the ‘fringe of the inexplicable’ became especially large, and the gap between those in the know and the rest of the population particularly wide. The mid-eighteenth century was the golden age of European charlatanry. Members of the pan-European guild of the itinerant charlatans drifted from court to court, rotated from salon to salon, exchanging experiences, swapping mistresses, and underwriting each other’s false bills of exchange. The most important representatives of this type were contemporaries and often knew each other.

”The tightly handwritten papers are justifiably famous for their gripping tales of seduction and skulduggery. … Due to the nature of the content, which details conquests of over 100 women, possibly several men and at least one nun, the originals fell victim to a series of alterations by over-zealous editors and it was not until 1960 that a full version was printed in French….”One morning she came to my bed bringing me a pair of white stockings she had knitted herself; after dressing my hair, she told me that she had to try them on me to see if she had made any mistakes … The Doctor had gone to say his mass. Putting on the stockings, she said that my thighs were dirty and at once began washing them without asking my leave … Bettina carried her zeal for cleanliness too far, and her curiosity aroused a voluptuous feeling in me which did not cease until it could become greater. Thus calmed, it occurred to me that I had committed a crime and that I should ask her forgiveness …” ( Lizzy Davies, Guardian )

Casanova ( 1725-1798 ) by Anton Raphael Mengs

Casanova ( 1725-1798 ) by Anton Raphael Mengs

Early in the summer of 1763 Jacques or Giacomo, Casanova, who sometimes, quite unwarrantably, styled himself the Chevalier de Seingalt, a native of Venice but also a citizen of Europe, well known to the secret police of half a dozen different countries, decided he would visit England. Perhaps , after his recent successful exploitation of an elderly crackbrained French noblewoman, the Marquise d’Urfe, which may have brought him as much as a million francs, he preferred temporarily to leave Paris, in addition to being pursued by grandees, jealous of his quicksilver wit and debonair way with the laydeez.

Otherwise, his motives were honest enough; he intended to promote in England, with the collaboration of the British government, an officially recognized public lottery of the kind that he had already run in France. And then, there was his natural restlessness. Like Ulysses, he felt it was his destiny to explore ”the cities and the minds of men”, while simultaneously he pursued his researches into the passions and the hearts of women.casanova3

At the time he was thirty eight years old, a tall, swart, strongly built personage with bright dark eyes and an impressive beaked nose. During his youth, that collector of handsome men, Frederick the Great had commented warmly on his fine appearance; and he was still full of energy, wit and charm, or so it seemed until he reached England. Then a sudden and disturbing change took place. But before we follow him across the channel, something must be said about his character, more particularly about his true character in contrast to his notorious legend as he was much more than a lovable rapscallion.

“The company of this angel made me suffer the pains of hell. Though constantly tempted to deluge her face with kisses … I scrupulously avoided taking her hands; for me to have given her a single kiss would have blown my edifice sky-high, for I felt that I had become as inflammable as straw. When she left I was astonished that I had won the victory; but, my appetite for laurels being insatiable, I could scarcely wait for the next morning to come so that I might renew the sweet and perilous battle. It is shallow desires which make a young man bold; strong desires confound him.”

A lot on his mind ... Ivan Mosjoukine as Casanova in Alexandre Volkoff's 1927 film. Photograph: Kobal

A lot on his mind ... Ivan Mosjoukine as Casanova in Alexandre Volkoff's 1927 film. Photograph: Kobal

”Casanova” is one of the runaway names that have become dissociated from their individual owner and indissolubly attached to a certain type of human conduct. There can be no doubt that Casanova earned his reputation as the indefatigable seducer of women, but his interests were far less specialized, and in some aspects far more altruistic, than those of the ordinary professional rake. He was devoted to learning, versed in literature, and an amateur mathematician and scientist; between 1752 and 1798 he published more than a score of lit

y works, including a number of unsigned articles, very often on highly recondite topics.

While in Bohemia, in hopes of winning fame as a writer and gaining back his fortune, Casanova wrote what is considered to be the first-ever science fiction novel, he also translated Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey into Italian, and wrote a mathematical treatise on squaring the cube.He also helped Mozart’s librettist, Lorenzo Da Ponte finish the opera Don Giovanni; of those two it is possible that Da Ponte,equally brilliant  and twisted,  could even have even rounded out Casanova’s knowledge of wine, women and more women.  Still, the raging libido ensured Casanova would be immortalized for the naughty bits and not his literary wits.

Casanova. Fellini. 1974

Casanova. Fellini. 1974

”During his 73 years on this earth, Giacomo Casanova studied for the priesthood, became a Free Mason, an alchemist, a doctor of law, and, most probably a spy for the same Venetian Inquisitors who exiled him from the tiny nation state of his birth.  Apparently, Casanova was also well-versed in the Kabbalah, the mystic interpretation of Jewish law. The  libertine dabbled in the occult and was believed by many of his contemporaries – to say nothing of his countless lovers – to possess magical powers. He had contact with Jacob Frank, who claimed he was the reincarnation of the messianic leader Sabbatai Zvi and promoted the popular theory, at least among the nascent Jewish middle classes, of ”purification through transgression” which was laced with different aspects of Rosicrucianism and a radical laxism and licentious regard toward the norms of Jewish religious practice.

Whether or not Giacomo Casanova had  genuine magical powers,is a point of conjecture, but one not to be dismissed. ”Around his 21st birthday, when he could find employment only in playing the violin in a Venice theatre, something strange happened. A cloak of mysticism and secrecy settled around the well-travelled, seen-it-all youth. In April he met a Venetian grandee called Matteo Bragadin whose entourage of friends had a counter-Enlightenment fascination for the occult. When Casanova treated Bragadin after he had a stroke, using the rudimentary shreds of learning he had picked up in his teens, the friends concluded he must have mystical powers. He became Bragadin’s unofficial adopted son and plunged into a life of unbridled hedonism. However,  one thing is for certain: Casanova died at Chateau Duchcov lamenting his impotence, both literally, in terms of the loss of his sexual prowess, and figuratively, for his inability to improve his station in life.

Casanova. Donald Sutherland

Casanova. Donald Sutherland

Among  Casanova’s chief English friends was Dr. Maty, a librarian in the British Museum, and Maty introduced him to Samuel Johnson, with whom Casanova claimed to have discussed some absorbing etymological problems. His thirst for information was always unbounded, and it remained equally keen throughout his whole existence; whether he was studying the opposite sex, hobnobbing with famous literary men, or observing the habits and customs of an unfamiliar capital.

”A man who once dreamed of becoming a priest, Casanova came to delight in seducing the wives and daughters of his benefactors, and had little time for guilt. Casanova: “Happy are those who–without harming anyone–pursue pleasure, while mindless are the others to imagine that the Supreme Being will be cheered by their suffering and pain and the abstinence they offer up in sacrifice.”

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) having fun with condoms in front of ladies.   Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798) having fun with condoms in front of ladies. Photo source: Wikimedia Commons

What is also fascinating about Casanova was his mastery of five languages. This ability came to be termed ”additive bilingualism”,  an
experience in which a person feels that his horizons are widened by the new cultural acquisition, or acculturation. An extreme case of the latter type is what has also been termed ” Linguistic Casanova,” a way of coping with an identity trauma at an early stage of life, and a possible or partial explanation of much of the phenomenon of Casanova at a root point of departure.

” Society condemns the man who falls in love with many women. He is called a Casanova, a name that possesses negative connotations. On the other hand, if he happens to fall in love with many languages, this is quite a different matter! People will admire him deeply. Multilingual persons are considered well educated, extremely intelligent and socially attractive. … that in the strikingly extreme case … falling in love with many languages or with many women can represent two different expressions of the same
psychological process. Mead (1934) claimed that the acquisition of a second language system has consequences for the self. One of the reasons for this is the fact that a language can be hardly separated from its cultural associations. In fact, as Lambert and Gardner
(1972) claimed, to acquire a second language is to turn into an acculturated member of another ethno-linguistic group.”

The dynamic is that the  new language threatens the mother tongue, or at least its centrality in the immigrant’s conception of himself.  The prestige of multilingualism can sometimes hide the lack of a central identity. As in the case of Casanova, the Linguistic Casanova falls in love again and again, truly thinking that “this is the real one”. After a while, all this enthusiasm is transferred onto the next language.  ”Rank (1922) claimed that the many women, whom he (Don Juan) must always replace anew, represent for him the one irreplaceable mother. In the same fashion, the Linguistic Casanova must replace anew many languages, which represent the only and irreplaceable mother ( Graciela Spector-Bitan )

Casanova. David Tennant.

Casanova. David Tennant.

”For centuries they exerted the same knee-trembling pull on collectors and curators as their rakishly charming author had on the women of 18th-century Europe. But the international battle to pull off the ultimate literary conquest ended in Paris today as the French national library announced it had acquired the original manuscripts of Giacomo Casanova’s memoirs.

In what is believed to be the most expensive manuscript sale ever, a mystery donor purchased the 3,700 yellowing pages on behalf of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France (BNF) for a price which has not been made been public but is believed to be in excess of €5m (£4.4m). The papers, transferred to the BNF on Monday in 13 protective boxes, are the uncensored, uncorrected basis of what went on to become the Venetian lothario’s legendary Histoire de Ma Vie (Story of My Life).

The manuscripts, over which Casanova slaved in the years before his death in 1798, have been seen by a mere handful of experts, having been kept under lock and key for most of the past two centuries and considerably altered to form the versions widely available in print.”

Is there some mystery about the grave itself?
“No… but about the grave there is some story: The Count of Waldstein made a cross on the grave of Casanova – a very big cross – and because, after the death of Count Waldstein nobody [here] remembered who Casanova was, the grave was very much destroyed after one hundred, two hundred years, and at the beginning of the 20th century it was in a very bad state. And when women went to mass, to church on Sunday, they sometimes damaged their clothes on this very big cross. And so they say that Casanova doesn’t leave the women [alone] even after his death.”

The figure that emerges from his own memoirs is an interesting blend of sophisticated homme d’affaires and romantic dupe. “Above all, he wishes to be seen as a gentleman,” says Jonathan Gathorne-Hardy, his biographer, “after being born to two actors, which was not a respectable occupation. He is absolutely determined to have money. And while he’s clearly not awfully nice, in fact he’s quite ruthless, he’s keen to stress his kindness … The book is a marvellous picture of 18th century life in Europe. He visits England and is appalled to see that English people pee in the streets and shit in the public parks.” ( John Walsh )

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