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Casanova was a man of many guises -- author, actor, priest, soldier, spy, banker, physician and translator. In Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, Lydia Flem, a Belgian psychoanalyst and critic, wants to add the word 'feminist' to this list. The author of two previous books on Freud, Flem glowingly outlines Casanova's life in 18th century Venice in an effort to prove that he is not only one of history's most valiant and colorful characters but also one of its most misunderstood.
The facts of Casanova's life are fairly straightforward. When he was barely a year old, his actress mother abandoned him to the care of his grandmother while she traveled to London to perform. He saw his father die when he was 8. Surely, as Flem reveals, one answer to his nomadic, pleasure-seeking life was that he was forever searching for the parental comfort that was taken from him at a young age. Casanova's search for an identity of his own was a preoccupation, and admitting he was the son of a pair of actors never got him far. He invented a noble lineage for himself and later went by the self-styled name of Chevalier de Seingalt.
Casanova experienced his first sexual encounter at age 11, when he was sent to a seminary to study for the priesthood. (His seducer was a priest's sister, Bettina.) Later, when he returned home to Venice, still in his priestly garb, he fell into bed with two sisters at the same time. Learning the ropes at a young age clearly prepared him for his bizarre, often comical, escapades later in life. His greatest love, Henriette, was a cross-dresser who passed herself off as a castrato. And at one point, he makes love to and nearly marries the daughter of one of his exes -- who turns out to be his own daughter. But for all his adventurousness, as Flem notes, don't expect vivid descriptions and steamy details from reading Casanova's memoirs. Draped in proper 18th century euphemism, often with an ecumenical touch, he prefers to reveal how he 'conquered the ebony fleece,' 'got close to the altar frieze' and 'performed the gentle sacrifice.'
Rather than viewing Casanova traditionally, as a characteristic womanizer, Flem sees him as a sentimental, noble gentleman; a lover of life who wants to share his happiness and indulge his intellectual and literary tastes with women. This may well be true, but Flem stretches it a bit far in likening him to a proto-feminist. 'There is not a trace of misogyny in Casanova,' she claims. 'Women are his masters. The feminine so fascinates him that he would like to merge with it.' That's hard to imagine in a man who called the independence of women a 'source of great evil' and said he'd rather die than give up his manhood.
Casanova wasn't merely a macho seducer, though. In his struggle with time and the specter of old age, he eventually resigns himself to spending the final years of his life working as a librarian in a Bohemian castle, where he devotes 13 hours a day crafting his memoirs. It is in writing -- and thinking, imagining and remembering -- that he now finds the deepest pleasure; always with the thought that the words that make up his life will secure him both happiness and long-lived fame. Upon reading an excerpt of Casanova's manuscript, a contemporary urged him to publish it before his death (which he steadfastly refused to do), raving, 'One-third ... made me laugh, one-third gave me an erection, one-third gave me food for thought.' In an odd way, it seems a fittingly quantified response to a man who led a life that was, by any record, immeasurably full. -- SALON, November 26, 1997
The Last Castle
THE PRESENT MOMENT AND MEMORY
In a castle in Bohemia, an exiled old man spends thirteen hours a day writing the history of his life. He has no possessions; he has thrown away or squandered everything he once owned. He has no woman, no fortune, no house, no homeland. He gave and received freely, without calculation. He has enjoyed life as few men--and even fewer women--have dared enjoy it. He threw himself into life and required nothing in return except that most insolent, most scandalous of rewards: pleasure.
Unreservedly he surrenders to the present moment, heedless of the past or future. It is the perfect moment--pure present, pure loss. Suspended between yesterday and tomorrow, he gives of himself generously and devotes himself to today. Since he has no fear of displeasure, his daring knows no bounds. Since he has nothing to lose, everything is his. His spectacular escape decades ago from the prison in Venice is the emblem of his life, and he could never imagine telling the story of it in less than two hours, a narrative in which he is both hero and bard; it is his best letter of introduction into society. He speaks, and doors open.
I have always believed, he reflects with a certain delight, that when a man takes it into his head to see some project through and attends to it exclusively, he will inevitably be successful, whatever the difficulties; this man will become grand vizier, he will become Pope, he will overturn a monarchy--provided he starts early.
The sentence appeals to him, he writes it down. With his notes scattered around him, pens and sheets of paper strewn across the table, the old man, brought from Venice to Bohemia by peculiar twists of fate, is gripped by the compulsion to write. In celebrating his past, he makes up for his daily life. Not a day goes by when the servants of the castle do not torment him in some odious fashion. Everything is cause for a quarrel: the coffee, the milk, the dish of macaroni which must be prepared in the Italian way. The cook spoils the polenta or serves him scalding soup out of malice. The dogs bark in the night, and the shrill, off-key sounds of a hunting horn are ear-splitting. He shuts himself in his room, sits down at his writing desk, and lets all the seasons of his life flow out from his lively pen. His last project--the most audacious, craziest, but also most joyful one, the one for which he feels a firm, unqualified determination--is to treat himself to the happiness of living his experiences a second time and reveling in them until sated.
He is surrounded by death. The French Revolution is rumbling beyond the mountains; his best friends are dying; the women he loved are departing from this life; the old world, to which he feels he still belongs, is being mocked, insulted, guillotined. The new values he holds dear--individual freedom, the power of the Enlightenment and Reason, atheism--are not yet widely accepted. The Venetian feels lonely. The young Count Waldstein who welcomed him as librarian in his castle in Dux is all too often absent. How can one live without talking, dancing, playing cards, or amusing people? How can one bear the boredom of having no audience, no intrigue to pursue, no new adventures to engage in? For the first time in his life he turns away from the present, withdraws, plunges into the days of his memories. One by one, he summons them before his eyes, and he is elated, in writing, at the thought that he may be bestowing the gift of immortality on himself. Like Voltaire, his implacable model and enemy. He dreams of literary glory. He fantasizes that the pages he is hastily covering with ink will be translated into every language. He expects that countries where people feel strongly about accepted morals will ban his writings. These two ideas amuse him. He is glad to be defying his oppressive daily life and even, possibly, death, the cold monster against which he juxtaposes the splendor and excesses of his adventures. Life, for him, is an entertainment, a joyful drama: a dramma giocoso.
He admits to being intrepid, thoughtless, avid in his pursuit of sensual or intellectual enjoyment, and ready to violate all the laws that would curb his unfettered pleasure. He sees himself as king of his own life but his self-love encompasses the pleasure of the men and women he loves. He hates suffering and is loath to inflict it or endure it. Death is cruel since it expels the attentive spectator from this great theater too soon, before the end of the play in which he is so deeply absorbed. For him, life must be a party, a ball, an endless carnival. Each person must invent a role for himself and play it with brio. Disguises and masks offer pleasure incognito, freedom in the present moment, joyful and unbridled invention with impunity. He loves being center stage. He has the volubility, cheek, daring, and liveliness of someone who seizes the day. He embroiders, composes, invents on all canvases. He immediately takes on whatever persona is expected of him according to the situation or the desire of others. He is man of impromptus. Luck is often on his side, but mostly he is brimming with self-confidence. He feels ready to embark on any adventure. Jump, Marquis! is his commandment to himself.
This is how God prepared what I needed for a flight that was to be admirable, even wondrous. I admit I am proud of it, but my pride stems not from having succeeded, for luck played a great part, but from the fact that I considered it feasible and had the courage to undertake it.
The pluck to imagine, a conquering energy, and, in precarious equilibrium--like a tightrope walker on the lead roofs of the Ducal Palace, dressed uncannily in taffeta, torn lace, and a hat with Spanish trimming and a white plume--the impudence to succeed, with a verse from Dante on his lips: "E quindi uscimmo a riveder le stelle." "And then we came forth to contemplate the stars."
Thereafter, he could do what he pleased. He could even take refuge in the house of the chief of police who had pursued him, where he finds the kindest hospitality: that of a young child playing with a top in the courtyard, a pregnant woman, an attentive grandmother who dresses his wounds, feeds him, puts him to sleep as though he were her own son--a triple image of good fortune, innocence, and unconditional love. Then he reaches Paris, the only city in the universe where, according to him, the blind goddess dispenses her favors to those who surrender to her.
The Venetian journeys from place to place but not for the sake of travel; he belongs in the place where he happens to be. He speaks vivaciously on all subjects, and very learned people credit him with enormous knowledge and reading. He squanders his gifts, touches on everything with equal elegance, equal ease, equal cheek. He scatters things to the winds and never plows or reaps anything durable. With the suggestion of a dance step he piques people's interest, then vanishes backstage with a last pirouette. He adores being talked about and has such wonderful stage presence that throughout Europe his name and reputation precede him. He amuses, astonishes, and arouses curiosity in a century that celebrates variety and entertainment above all. He also annoys, disturbs, and upsets the established order; his pride and haughtiness are inordinate, yet he always seduces through his irresistible mastery of the art of conversation. What more is required of a gentleman in the eighteenth century?
Since his earliest youth, people have liked him. Whatever the scene of action, he gains admittance among princes, archbishops, and ambassadors whose privileges and wealth he does not share. He pulls the wool over their eyes. He is welcomed; sometimes he is sent packing for a trifle or much worse. Guilty, he gets off; innocent, he is punished! Fortune is sometimes unpredictably moody. He is both an insider and an outsider. By birth, he will always be a pariah, a declasse, but in terms of talents, charm, and savoir faire, he belongs right at the center of aristocratic society.
Eager, impatient, desirous of variety, he anticipates events, new actions, and new developments. His soul is tyrannized by novelty. Sometimes fortune elevates him to great heights, sometimes knocks him way down; he climbs back up, falls, and quickly scales the wheel of fortune again. He has gone around several times. Having reached the pinnacles of success, wealth, and fame, he lets himself be dragged to ruin, even causes it. Happy days intoxicate and exhilarate him; unhappy ones he mocks, proudly avoiding their pitfalls. He insists on being his own man. He acknowledges that he himself is the main cause of the unfortunate and fortunate things that happen to him. He takes full responsibility for his errors, misdeeds, and crimes, and feels neither shame nor remorse. He neither confesses nor repents. He does not expect forgiveness. Nothing stops him, for he knows no fear and fears no suffering. To the end he has the courage to assert himself as voluptuously free and fickle.
Now he is isolated from salon mirrors and intrigues, forgotten in games of chance and love, an adventurer without adventures, a stationary traveler. He treats himself to the ultimate, most desirable enjoyment, which, he believes, accompanies and justifies all other pleasures, the enjoyment of words. By an unexpected conjuring trick, just as the seducer's stage show seems over, here, in Dux, in Count Waldstein's castle, time suddenly ceases to run out. Memory takes revenge on old age and exile, dispelling melancholy and society's persecutions. As a final insolence, thumbing his nose, for the last time, at his contemporaries, at posterity, and at public morals, the Venetian revels in his reminiscences.
Thirteen hours a day seem to go by like thirteen minutes, as he recounts his life to himself, as though he were not limited, as everyone else is, to living it only once. Such is the privilege of the artist: by the magic of his narrative, he summons the living and the dead, converses with those who are gone, and assigns meaning to impulses and scattered moments of passion from the past. As the memoirist assembles, unifies, he becomes aware of his life. He accepts situating himself in the past and within a set period, as part of the flow and continuity of time. In remembering former pleasures, he revives them and enjoys them a second time; as for the pains, they make him laugh, since he no longer feels them. But now he knows that the passage of time is inescapable. Whether worthy or unworthy, his life is his material and his material is his life. He has no other and he cherishes it. He has always seen himself as fit to be his own pupil and as having the duty to love his tutor. His great strength, his great secret, is this: he takes pleasure without shame or guilt. He has a taste for happiness, Giacomo Casanova.