The Great Lover
The case of Giacomo Casanova, the libertine-librarian.
Mar 3, 2008, Vol. 13, No. 24 • By ALGIS VALIUNAS
History of My Life
Everyone knows what the word Casanova means--according to taste, and often depending on one's sex, either an enviable ladies' man or a snake-bellied creep--but few are familiar with Giacomo Casanova himself (1725-1798). Casanova's memoir, Histoire de ma vie, or History of My Life, was not published in its original form until the 1960s, and although the English translation by Willard R. Trask, which was completed in 1971, is generally acknowledged as masterly, the daunting length and considerable cost (six volumes, well over 2,000 pages) surely put off a good many readers.
A new abridgement in this single Everyman's Library volume, which has deftly pared away over half the original, makes Casanova more accessible. And Judith Summers's Casanova's Women, which recapitulates several of the more significant entanglements, and provides salient facts where the memoir is sketchy, provides an excellent summary and commentary. So the way is clear for the general reader who wishes to trace this morally slippery term to its source in a particular man's legendary sexual career.
But first, context must be taken into account, for the culture wars over sexual mores were underway long before the 1960s. The 18th century was a veritable erotic battleground, where the forces of virtue conducted a brave rearguard action against a legion of free-thinking rakehells and auxiliary squadrons of respectable gentlemen out for a good time.
Whoredom, Judith Summers tells us, was a thriving industry. In London and Paris, publications such as the Whoremonger's Guide and the Almanack des Adresses des Demoiselles informed the consumer where to find prostitutes, what they will do for you, and how much they charge. In England, Summers goes on, the Hellfire Club indulged the diabolical sportiveness of bold aristocrats with no fear of damnation; its motto, taken from Rabelais--Fay ce que voudres, Do what you please--was carved on the walls of Medmenham Abbey, a Gothic monastery where club members dressed as monks and threw the lewdest orgies in the civilized world.
And there is much that Summers doesn't tell. Lord Chesterfield (1694-1773), in his famous letters advising his illegitimate son on the behavior proper to a gentleman, makes the nice distinction between a rake and "a man of pleasure, [who,] though not always so scrupulous as he should be, and as one day he will wish he had been, refines at least his pleasures by taste, accompanies them with decency, and enjoys them with dignity." In the name of taste, decency, and dignity, Chesterfield suggests the young man, who happened to be courting his future wife at the time, contract sexual liaisons with two Parisian beauties at once, the first for "an attachment," the other for "mere gallantry."
In the epistolary novel Julie, or the New Heloise (1761), Jean-Jacques Rousseau teaches aristocrats and bourgeois alike how they ought to live and love. Rousseau's head-over-heels young lovers, Saint Preux and Julie d'Etange, sorrowfully renounce each other when her father, a baron, finds the suitor, who possesses all the virtues but noble blood, altogether unfitting. Under the sage tutelage of the middle-aged friend of her father's whom Julie marries (Monsieur de Wolmar), the impetuous hearts get over their lacerating youthful passion, recover their purity, and learn the true ends of an estimable marriage: Lessons in home economics, child-rearing, and the prudent rationing of pleasure furnish sterling moral exemplars for the preservation and perpetuation of what is best in the social order.
The novel sometimes reads like the work of a member of the Committee for the Propagation of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice, who happens to have overdeveloped tear ducts, but it is nevertheless an eloquent testimonial to natural sentiment refined by civilized earnestness.
Choderlos de Laclos takes the epigraph for his own epistolary novel, Les Liaisons Dangereuses (1782), from Rousseau's preface to The New Heloise: "I have observed the manners of my times, and I have published these letters." There is no edifying behavior in Laclos's world, a sexual mire in which the vicious gambol and drown the innocent. The blackguard Vicomte de Valmont is a man who lives in accordance with his nefarious principles, which derive from Machiavelli and underwrite a career of sexual pillage. As one disabused woman writes, "He can calculate to a nicety how many atrocities a man may allow himself to commit, without compromising himself; and, in order to be cruel and mischievous with impunity, he has selected women to be his victims. I will not stop to count all those whom he has seduced: but how many has he not ruined utterly?"