Everyone has heard of Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798), but who was the man behind the myth? Drawing on seldom used materials, including the original French and Italian primary sources, and probing deeply into the psychology, self-conceptions, and self-deceptions of one of the world’s most famous con men and seducers, Leo Damrosch’s Adventurer offers a gripping, mature, and devastating account of an Enlightenment man, freed from the bounds of moral convictions.
NOTCHES: Can you briefly introduce us to Casanova?
Leo Damrosch: Giacomo Casanova, who died in 1798, was a Venetian whose massive autobiography in French, Histoire de Ma Vie, is a classic of world literature. His name is notorious as a serial seducer, but he was many other things as well – a university graduate, apprentice priest, violinist, entrepreneur, card sharp and con man, self-styled magus, Enlightenment thinker, Masonic master, and spy.
NOTCHES: Most of our information about Casanova’s life comes from his own writings. What were the particular benefits and challenges of writing about an individual who documented his life in such detail?
LD: Any autobiography is a retelling of the past from a later perspective; what is remarkable about Casanova’s is that when he was writing it in exile and illness, he recreated happier times with amazing freshness: “By recalling the pleasures I’ve had, I renew them, and, and I laugh at the pains I’ve endured but feel no longer.” As the Casanova specialist Marie-Françoise Luna eloquently puts it, “It is astonishing that the unhappiness of growing old, the farewell to the passion for living, should have brought forth the hymn to joyfulness and gratitude that is the Histoire de Ma Vie.”
But as a factual record? That’s another thing entirely. We can occasionally detect him altering reality to make a better story, and if there were more evidence outside the Histoire we would undoubtedly discover more of that. I agree with the biographer Richard Holmes’s comment about gifted storytellers: “Much of what they said was to do with what might have happened to them, what they wanted to happen rather than what actually happened. We are what we dream, in the same way that we are what we eat.”
NOTCHES: We know a lot about what Casanova did, but what did he think about sex(uality)?
LD: The first thing to emphasize is that he adored sex, wanted to spend hours on end making love, and had no interest in “conquests” of reluctant women. He was no point-scoring Don Juan, and of the more than a hundred relationships described in the Histoire, all are memorably different from each other. Women found him extraordinarily attractive (though he wasn’t conventionally handsome) because they could tell that he was fascinated by them.
However, nearly all his encounters were relatively brief. Never until late in life did he actually live with a woman, and most often they were girls still with their families or wives enjoying a temporary holiday from arranged marriages. He always moved on, and they couldn’t. The one exception was a genuine love affair with a Frenchwoman he calls Henriette, which lasted for several months and which left him deeply wounded when she was the one who broke it off.
As for sexuality, his attitude was in many ways ahead of his time. He was a philosophical libertine, which meant freedom from all arbitrary taboos and not just sexual transgressiveness; he firmly believed that women have the same desires as men and the same right to satisfy them. He also acknowledged that the customary mores of society confine women to a kind of slavery, and a number of his partners were aventureuses, “adventurers” like himself, who circulated freely throughout Europe and reinvented themselves in each new context.
NOTCHES: How was Casanova viewed by his contemporaries?
LD: He was well known to many people whom he encountered in a lifetime of traveling, ranging from Voltaire to Catherine the Great of Russia, as well as to the police – over the years he was forbidden to return to England, France, Spain, and (for many years) even his native Venice. By the end, the novelist Stefan Zweig has said, “Casanova was unwanted, as unwelcome as a louse.” But because his Histoire wasn’t published until the 1820s, and then only in a heavily expurgated edition, the larger public might not have even recognized his name.
NOTCHES: Although Casanova is best known as a seducer of women, he also had sexual encounters with men, and was intrigued by sexually ambiguous individuals. Can you tell us a bit about that aspect of his life?
LD: Temperamentally he preferred sex with women – their bodies fascinated him, though his descriptions are tactful rather than obscene – but he had no prejudice against homosexuality and occasionally had encounters with men he liked. The libertine position was that nothing is wrong that comes naturally – except for clerical celibacy, which as Denis Diderot said ran counter to the demands of nature itself. As for sexual ambiguity, that did indeed excite Casanova. Accustomed to cross-dressing in the Venetian Carnival, he was particularly interested in castrato singers who looked like women but weren’t. One memorable affair was with just such a person, made more complicated by his suspicion – which turned out to be true – that this was actually a girl disguised as a castrated boy in order to perform legally in the Papal States, where women were forbidden on stage.
NOTCHES: Casanova is best known for his sexual exploits, but why else should we be interested in him?
LD: I’ve already mentioned the extraordinary range of his interests and activities. To this question I would give two further answers. One is that we get to know him better, and in more depth, than almost anyone else who lived so long ago. For the other I’ll quote Zweig again: “It is thanks to Casanova that we know so much of the daily life of the eighteenth century – of its balls, theaters, coffee houses, festivals, inns, dining halls, brothels, hunting parties, monasteries, nunneries, and fortresses. Thanks to him we know how people traveled, fed, gamed, danced, lived, loved, amused themselves; we know their manners and customs, their ways of speech. Superadded to this abundance of facts, to this wealth of practical details, we have a tumultuous assembly of human personalities, enough to fill twenty novels and to supply ten generations of novelists.”
NOTCHES: Casanova’s reputation is such that he figures prominently in popular culture. Are there any representations that you particularly like/ dislike? Why?
LD: There have been many films, all of them grossly reductive in my opinion. That’s partly because, like a great novel, a great autobiography needs the voice and insights of the narrator and loses a lot when it’s performed by actors. And it’s also because they focus entirely on the sexual escapades, sometimes whimsically as in the David Tennant version, sometimes with disapproval as in Fellini’s movie, which makes Casanova unpleasant and even reptilian. It would be impossible to imagine how Fellini’s Casanova – played incongruously by Donald Sutherland – could ever have attracted any women at all.
NOTCHES: Many of Casanova’s activities are deeply distasteful to modern sensibilities. How did you approach the challenge of writing the biography of such a figure?
LD: Needless to say, that was a major challenge in the age of #MeToo. It was also an opportunity, since previous biographers have tended to identify vicariously with Casanova, sometimes lip-smackingly so. My goal was to tell the truth about all of his misdeeds, some of which were definitely abusive, and not only the sexual ones. Perhaps the ugliest thing in his entire career was a scam in which he convinced an extremely rich French noblewoman that through his magic arts she could literally be reborn. Over the years he extracted an enormous fortune from her, utterly without remorse.
NOTCHES: What are you working on now that this book is published?
LD: A project that has long interested me: a biography of Robert Louis Stevenson, whose wide range of accomplished writing has tended to be undervalued, and who led a romantically interesting life, ending with premature death at forty-four while living with his family in Samoa.
Leo Damrosch is the Ernest Bernbaum Professor of Literature Emeritus at Harvard University. His many books include The Club: Johnson, Boswell, and the Friends Who Shaped an Age and Jonathan Swift: His Life and His World, winner of the National Book Critics Circle award and Pulitzer finalist for biography.
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