What's in a Name?
Casanova was the ladies' man.
By Charles Taylor
CASANOVA: THE MAN WHO REALLY LOVED WOMEN, By Lydia Flem. Translated by Catherine Temerson. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 256 pages, $24.
DECEMBER 15, 1997: "Casanovas Who Kill." That headline, from a recent article about Nushawn Williams, the AIDS-infected man who traded drugs for sex with teenagers in upstate New York, is as good an example of any of what the name of Casanova has come to stand for. Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the Chevalier de Seingalt (1725-'98), has become synonymous with men who reduce women to conquests, who seduce coldly and with calculation, without regard to the consequences, without really ever seeing the objects of their seduction. In her new Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, the French writer Lydia Flem is out to change all that.
One of the hardest things a writer can do is to insist on the facts about a subject who has developed a reputation to the contrary. Using the 12 volumes of Casanova's Histoire de ma vie as her evidence, Flem makes a case that the name of Casanova should stand for pleasure pursued with reckless generosity, the determination to give as much as has been received whether the giver can afford it or not. As the book opens, the aged Casanova is living in exile in a Bohemian castle whose young master, the Count Waldstein, has shown him the kindness of retaining him as librarian. In the count's frequent absence, Casanova is mocked and tormented by the servants. "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." Alone, with no audience to impress or amuse, Casanova undertakes the writing of his memoirs, which will eventually run to more than 3000 pages. (The Willard Stark translation of the only unexpurgated edition has just been republished in six handsome paperback volumes by the Johns Hopkins University Press.)
There's nothing new in Flem's contention that Casanova's memoirs were the chevalier's way of reliving the life he was no longer physically able to lead. Edmund Wilson said as much in his essay "Uncomfortable Casanova." What's new is Flem's approach, an imaginative combination of biography and literary criticism. If Casanova set out to reimagine his life, Flem has set out to reimagine the composition of the memoirs as a defiance of time. The best criticism is an act of reimagination, and though Flem makes liberal use of quotes from the Histoire, this is not an academic work (the idea of an academic approach to the world's most famous sensualist is a bad joke). The prose in Catherine Temerson's translation is rich, atmospheric. Flem is much more interested in conjuring up the scenes of Casanova's life with their air of adventure intact than in dissecting and attributing to buttress her arguments.
And it is a remarkable life. Wilson said there was more of the eighteenth century in Casanova's memoirs than in any other book. Casanova traveled incessantly throughout Europe; he knew Mozart, Voltaire, and Catherine the Great, among others. He adopted a variety of guises and professions, being involved at one time or another with the law, medicine, the church, the theater, and other more dubious pursuits. And on a purely narrative level, his story is thrilling. Among the death-defying escapes is one from the Leads (Venice's most escape-proof prison) at the age of 31 and, perhaps more remarkably, from the childhood illness that plagued him until his grandmother took him to a witch at the age of nine.
What can Flem add to a life already so meticulously documented? The unlikely answer has to do with her being a psychoanalyst. If you've encountered enough books and movies where Freudianism is presented as a magic key that explains everything about a person's character, you may be tempted to avoid this volume. But Flem doesn't pretend Freudianism is science -- instead she uses it as a tool with which to discern threads and coherence in her subject's life. It's Casanova's relations with women that inspire her most crucial and original insight.
She doesn't claim that it was an equal relationship. She understands that the
women were much more powerful -- not in terms of the laws and mores of the day,
but in the sway they held over Casanova. Sex was a mental as well as a physical
engagement for Casanova. His affairs produced, in many cases, lifelong
relationships that survived their sexual duration; one of the most passionate
was largely epistolary and was never consummated. Determined to treat his
lovers as equal partners in a quest for pleasure, he nonetheless exposed
himself to the disappointments of romance with a reckless openness. If
Casanova's life was a sad one, Flem realizes that sadness is not the same thing
as defeat. She knows that everyone truly worthy of being called a Casanova has
been willing to wreck his life for the love of women. She's given us a man who
really loved women, not wisely but too well.
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