Who Was Casanova? The personal memoir of history’s most famous lover reveals a misunderstood intellectual who befriended the likes of Ben Franklin
March 26, 2012
Purchased in 2010 for $9.6 million, a new record for a manuscript sale, the original version of Casanova’s erotic memoir has achieved the status of a French sacred relic. At least, gaining access to its famously risqué pages is now a solemn process, heavy with Old World pomp. After a lengthy correspondence to prove my credentials, I made my way on a drizzly afternoon to the oldest wing of the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, a grandiose Baroque edifice on rue de Richelieu near the Louvre. Within those hallowed halls, built around a pair of ancien régime aristocratic mansions, I waited by marble statues of the greats of French literature, Rousseau, Molière and Voltaire, before being led through a domed reading room filled with scholars into the private sanctum of the library offices. After traipsing up and down endless stairwells and half-lit corridors, I was eventually seated in a special reading room overlooking a stone courtyard. Here, Marie-Laure Prévost, the head curator of the manuscript department, ceremoniously presented two black archival boxes on the wooden desk before me.
As I eagerly scanned the elegant, precise script in dark brown ink, however, the air of formality quickly vanished. Madame Prévost, a lively woman in a gray turtleneck and burgundy jacket, could not resist recounting how the head of the library, Bruno Racine, had traveled to a secret meeting in a Zurich airport transit lounge in 2007 to first glimpse the document, which ran to some 3,700 pages and had been hidden away in private hands since Casanova died in 1798. The French government promptly declared its intention to obtain the legendary pages, although it took some two and a half years before an anonymous benefactor stepped forward to purchase them for la patrie. “The manuscript was in wonderful condition when it arrived here,” said Prévost. “The quality of the paper and the ink is excellent. It could have been written yesterday.
“Look!” She held up one of the pages to the window light, revealing a distinctive watermark—two hearts touching. “We don’t know if Casanova deliberately chose this or it was a happy accident.”
This reverential treatment of the manuscript would have gratified Casanova enormously. When he died, he had no idea whether his magnum opus would even be published. When it finally emerged in 1821 even in a heavily censored version, it was denounced from the pulpit and placed on the Vatican’s Index of Prohibited Books. By the late 19th century, within this same bastion of French culture, the National Library, several luridly illustrated editions were kept in a special cupboard for illicit books, called L’Enfer, or the Hell. But today, it seems, Casanova has finally become respectable. In 2011, several of the manuscript’s pages—by turns hilarious, ribald, provocative, boastful, self-mocking, philosophical, tender and occasionally still shocking—were displayed to the public for the first time in Paris, with plans for the exhibition to travel to Venice this year. In another literary first, the library is posting all 3,700 pages online, while a lavish new 12-volume edition is being prepared with Casanova’s corrections included. A French government commission has anointed the memoir a “national treasure,” even though Casanova was born in Venice. “French was the language of intellectuals in the 18th century and he wanted as wide readership as possible,” said curator Corinne Le Bitouzé. “He lived much of his life in Paris, and loved the French spirit and French literature. There are ‘Italianisms’ in his style, yes, but his use of the French language was magnificent and revolutionary. It was not academic but alive.”
It’s quite an accolade for a man who has often been dismissed as a frivolous sexual adventurer, a cad and a wastrel. The flurry of attention surrounding Casanova—and the astonishing price tag for his work—provide an opportunity to reassess one of Europe’s most fascinating and misunderstood figures. Casanova himself would have felt this long overdue. “He would have been surprised to discover that he is remembered first as a great lover,” says Tom Vitelli, a leading American Casanovist, who contributes regularly to the international scholarly journal devoted to the writer,L’Intermédiaire des Casanovistes. “Sex was part of his story, but it was incidental to his real literary aims. He only presented his love life because it gave a window onto human nature.”
Today, Casanova is so surrounded by myth that many people almost believe he was a fictional character. (Perhaps it’s hard to take seriously a man who has been portrayed by Tony Curtis, Donald Sutherland, Heath Ledger and even Vincent Price, in a Bob Hope comedy, Casanova’s Big Night.) In fact, Giacomo Girolamo Casanova lived from 1725 to 1798, and was a far more intellectual figure than the gadabout playboy portrayed on film. He was a true Enlightenment polymath, whose many achievements would put the likes of Hugh Hefner to shame. He hobnobbed with Voltaire, Catherine the Great, Benjamin Franklin and probably Mozart; survived as a gambler, an astrologer and spy; translated The Iliad into his Venetian dialect; and wrote a science fiction novel, a proto-feminist pamphlet and a range of mathematical treatises. He was also one of history’s great travelers, crisscrossing Europe from Madrid to Moscow. And yet he wrote his legendary memoir, the innocuously named Story of My Life, in his penniless old age, while working as a librarian (of all things!) at the obscure Castle Dux, in the mountains of Bohemia in the modern-day Czech Republic.
No less improbable than the man’s life is the miraculous survival of the manuscript itself. Casanova bequeathed it on his deathbed to his nephew, whose descendants sold it 22 years later to a German publisher, Friedrich Arnold Brockhaus of Leipzig. For nearly 140 years, the Brockhaus family kept the original under lock and key, while publishing only bowdlerized editions of the memoir, which were then pirated, mangled and mistranslated. The Brockhaus firm limited scholars’ access to the original document, granting some requests but turning down others, including one from the respected Austrian novelist Stefan Zweig.
The manuscript escaped destruction in World War II in a saga worthy of John le Carré. In 1943, a direct hit by an Allied bomb on the Brockhaus offices left it unscathed, so a family member pedaled it on a bicycle across Leipzig to a bank security vault. When the U.S. Army occupied the city in 1945, even Winston Churchill inquired after its fate. Unearthed intact, the manuscript was transferred by American truck to Wiesbaden to be reunited with the German owners. Only in 1960 was the first uncensored edition published, in French. The English edition arrived in 1966, just in time for the sexual revolution—and interest in Casanova has only grown since.
“It’s such an engaging text on so many levels!” says Vitelli. “It’s a wonderful point of entry into the study of the 18th century. Here we have a Venetian, writing in Italian and French, whose family lives in Dresden and who ends up in Dux, in German-speaking Bohemia. He offers access to a sense of a broad European culture.” The memoir teems with fantastic characters and incidents, most of which historians have been able to verify. Apart from the more than 120 notorious love affairs with countesses, milkmaids and nuns, which take up about a third of the book, the memoir includes escapes, duels, swindles, stagecoach journeys, arrests and meetings with royals, gamblers and mountebanks. “It’s the West’s Thousand and One Nights,” declared Madame Prévost.
Even today, some episodes still have the power to raise eyebrows, especially the pursuit of very young girls and an interlude of incest. But Casanova has been forgiven, particularly among the French, who point out that attitudes condemned today were tolerated in the 18th century. “The moral judgment never came up,” Racine told a press conference last year. “We neither approve nor condemn his behavior.” Curator Le Bitouzé feels his scurrilous reputation is undeserved, or at least one-dimensional. “Yes, he quite often behaved badly with women, but at other times he showed real consideration,” she said. “He tried to find husbands for his former lovers, to provide them with income and protection. He was an inveterate seducer, and his interest was never purely sexual. He didn’t enjoy being with English prostitutes, for example, because with no common language, he couldn’t talk to them!” Scholars, meanwhile, now accept him as a man of his time. “The modern view of The Story of My Life is to regard it as a work of literature,” says Vitelli. “It’s probably the greatest autobiography ever written. In its scope, its size, the quality of its prose, it’s as fresh today as when it first appeared.”
Tracing Casanova’s real-life story is not a straightforward quest. He obsessively avoided entanglements, never married, kept no permanent home and had no legally acknowledged children. But there remain fascinating vestiges of his physical presence in the two locations that mark the bookends of his life— Venice, where he was born, and the Castle Dux, now called Duchcov, in the remote Czech countryside where he died…
March 26, 2012
“A specter is haunting Eastern Europe,” the Czech playwright Václav Havel wrote in 1978, “the specter of what in the West is called ‘dissent.’” In echoing the opening salvo of the Communist Manifesto, Havel was thumbing his nose at the regime he lived under, but his words had an earnest intent as well as a satirical one. Like Marx and Engels, he was trying to call an intellectual force to arms. He hoped to convoke a new kind of human organization, ad hoc and by design temporary, accruing no power in itself, and led not by designated authorities but by individuals who happened to have charisma.
Timely writing often grows stale, especially if it’s about politics. Havel knew this. Many politicians “play a key role at a particular moment,” he wrote in his memoir To the Castle and Back (2007); “a long, dull life can sometimes erase the memory.” Yet Havel’s judgment has been contradicted by his early protest writings, which have gained new relevance as the specter of dissent has returned to haunt much of the planet, from the Chinese town of Wukan to Wall Street, Cairo and Moscow. In addition to being a playwright and a politician, Havel, who died in December, was a philosopher, and his insight into how humans in groups understand themselves still speaks to the way we live in the world.
Havel was born in 1936 into one of the grandest bourgeois families in Czechoslovakia. One of his grandfathers built a movie theater that was to become the first in the country to screen talkies; his other grandfather was ambassador to Austria and Hungary. His father was a Prague real estate magnate, and a gay uncle was a pioneer in the nation’s film industry. The family owned a six-story mansion in downtown Prague on the bank of the Vltava River, as well as a country estate. After World War II, Václav attended prep school, where his dorm’s resident adviser was the future director Milos Forman. After Communists came to power, in 1948, the government appropriated the Havel family’s country estate, cinema, film studio and all but two rooms on the top floor of the urban mansion. Václav was expelled from school because of his class background. Eventually even the family china was nationalized.
At a writers’ conference in 1956, Havel, at the time a floundering economics student and a literary unknown, caused a small stir by accusing establishment writers of failing to read poets outside the Stalinist-era canon. Over the next couple of years, during his military service, he entertained himself and friends by writing plays, and after leaving the army he took jobs as a stagehand and eventually as a playwright in small Prague theaters that were experimenting with literary absurdism. His break came in 1963, when Communist censors were so demoralized by the Cuban missile crisis that they permitted a production ofThe Garden Party, his first full-length play, which satirized bureaucracy. In 1965 he again set a writers’ conference on edge, this time with a bold defense of a literary magazine he was editing, which had sidestepped state ideology and dodged the literary establishment’s control. The political thaw known as the Prague Spring was under way. In April 1968 an essay of Havel’s appealed for the creation of an opposition party, and Moscow put his name on a blacklist. Soviet tanks rolled into the country in August, and in March 1969 Havel found in his home a bug planted by State Security (StB), Czechoslovakia’s Communist-era secret police. His long internal exile had begun.
A few years later, Havel and other banned Czech writers felt they had little to lose. They took culture into their own hands, publishing books by typing up carbon copies and smuggling manuscripts to West German printers, and staging plays in living rooms and pubs. In April 1975 Havel addressed an open letter of protest to Gustav Husák, then the general secretary of the Czechoslovak Communist Party, decrying the national climate of existential fear and “basically fraudulent social consciousness.” In January 1976 he met Ivan Martin Jirous, manager of the loud, foul-mouthed, hard-partying, long-haired rock musicians known as the Plastic People of the Universe. When the Plastics were arrested several weeks later, Havel recognized that the arrests were, as he later put it, “an attack on the spiritual and intellectual freedom of man, camouflaged as an attack on criminality.” The solidarity he forged between the dissident intellectuals in his circle and the outsider rock musicians in Jirous’s became the basis of Charter 77, a leaderless group organized around a text that called on the Czechoslovak government to live up to a recent pledge to honor human rights, including the right to free public expression. On January 5, 1977, the police chased down Havel and a friend as they tried to mail copies of the charter to its 243 signatories. Havel, a Charter 77 spokesman, was soon arrested. When he was released in May, the Communists scored a propaganda victory by publishing a letter in which he had asked to be freed, having signaled to the authorities that he intended to resign from Charter 77. Havel regretted the letter bitterly. “I had undeniably written something that ‘met them halfway,’” he later admitted, and as if in atonement, he threw himself into dissident activity even more fervidly.
It was during this agonizing interlude, while waiting for what he was to call “my ‘definitive’ imprisonment,” that he wrote his greatest political essay, “The Power of the Powerless.” Definitive imprisonment came at last in 1979, when he was charged with subversion of the republic for his participation in an advocacy group for people prosecuted or jailed for their dissident beliefs. Over the next few years, in unromantic letters written from prison to his first wife, Olga, Havel elaborated his ideas about freedom, responsibility and the ways meaning attaches itself to life. Havel was by this time famous worldwide for his dissident activity as well as his plays, and in February 1983, when a lung infection threatened to kill him, the authorities thought it prudent to release him. At liberty, he continued to write plays and irritate the regime, and by the end of the decade he was yo-yoing in and out of prison. When the Czechoslovak Communist government collapsed, in November 1989, he emerged as the natural leader of Civic Forum, a citizens’ group that convened in a few of Prague’s theaters as it handled the bloodless transition of power that became known as the Velvet Revolution—named after either the rock band The Velvet Underground or the ad slogan of an underwear manufacturer, depending on whom you ask. After Communist leaders abdicated, Czechoslovakia’s Parliament elected Havel president on December 29, 1989, a position in which he served for thirteen of the next eighteen years—first of Czechoslovakia and then, after the country split at the end of 1992, of the Czech Republic alone.
“I approach philosophy somewhat the way we approach art,” Havel once confessed. Despite his lack of method, he took a reading of Heidegger and a handful of homegrown metaphors and set forth in his writing powerful ideas about politics, truth and human nature. Havel believed that under communism and capitalism, people are threatened by what he described in his 1984 essay “Politics and Conscience” as “the irrational momentum of anonymous, impersonal, and inhuman power—the power of ideologies, systems, apparat, bureaucracy, artificial languages, and political slogans.” He coined a word for this power, samopohyb, which his graceful and sensitive longtime translator, Paul Wilson, believes is derived from samopohybný (“self-propelled”). Wilson has rendered the word variously as “self-momentum” and “automatism.” In the plays, which continue Havel’s philosophy by other means, automatism appears on stage through the dramatic technique of having characters repeat one another’s lines. “I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all sterile cant,” the office worker Maxy Falk declares in The Garden Party, in which managers engage in small talk while trying to destroy one another’s careers. “But of course I hate phrase-mongering and I resolutely reject all cant,” the anti-hero Hugo Pludek in turn tells Falk, a bit later in the same scene. No one breaks the mood of fake bureaucratic chumminess by noticing the repetition. Everyone is long past the point of taking questions of originality and authenticity seriously.
The absurdity of Havel’s early plays speaks as much to the managerial nonsense and social blackmailing of capitalism as to those of late socialism. The obvious thing to say about Ptydepe, the artificial language that ruins life for the office workers of Havel’s play The Memorandum (1965), is that it’s a satire of Marxist-Leninist dogma. But it would be equally effective as a satire of American businessmen who inflict upon their subordinates Who Moved My Cheese? or any other manual of obedience packaged as managerial analysis. When, in The Garden Party, Falk proudly announces, “Main thing, I’ve managed to establish this friendly, informal atmosphere among you. That’s the way I am. Wherever I come there’s lots of fun,” it is hard not to think of the character played by Ricky Gervais in the BBC series The Office. One wonders if in early years the existence of the Iron Curtain enabled audiences in Western Europe and the United States to set a false and comforting limit to the pertinence of Havel’s plays…
Unless the pursuit of dreadfulness results in a tie, each year will possess its own worst book. But identifying the winner in this dubious competition poses difficulties. Surely even a well-read literary editor of The New Republic must wonder whether among all those inevitably unturned pages lurks something even more atrocious than his favorite candidate. How then could Leon Wieseltier select THE ATHEIST’S GUIDE TO REALITY: Enjoying Life Without Illusions, by Alex Rosenberg, as the “worst book” of 2011?
Although the award is almost certainly misplaced, what inspired it is readily understood. The book expands the campaign of militant modern atheism, the offensive launched against religion by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens. Rosenberg’s broadsides attack a wider horizon. Since atheism is thought to be territory already secured, the targets now in view are the Big Questions, questions about morality, purpose and consciousness that puzzle softheaded people who muddle over them. Science brings good news. The answers are now all in. This conviction that science can resolve all questions is known as “scientism” — a label typically used pejoratively (as by Wieseltier), but one Rosenberg seizes as a badge of honor.
The evangelical scientism of “The Atheist’s Guide” rests on three principal ideas. The facts of microphysics determine everything under the sun (beyond it, too); Darwinian natural selection explains human behavior; and brilliant work in the still-young brain sciences shows us as we really are. Physics, in other words, is “the whole truth about reality”; we should achieve “a thoroughly Darwinian understanding of humans”; and neuroscience makes the abandonment of illusions “inescapable.” Morality, purpose and the quaint conceit of an enduring self all have to go.
The conclusions are premature. Although microphysics can help illuminate the chemical bond and the periodic table, very little physics and chemistry can actually be done with its fundamental concepts and methods, and using it to explain life, human behavior or human society is a greater challenge still. Many informed scholars doubt the possibility, even in principle, of understanding, say, economic transactions as complex interactions of subatomic particles. Rosenberg’s cheerful Darwinizing is no more convincing than his imperialist physics, and his tales about the evolutionary origins of everything from our penchant for narratives to our supposed dispositions to be nice to one another are throwbacks to the sociobiology of an earlier era, unfettered by methodological cautions that students of human evolution have learned: much of Rosenberg’s book is evolutionary psychology on stilts. Similarly, the neuroscientific discussions serenely extrapolate from what has been carefully demonstrated for the sea slug to conclusions about Homo sapiens.
For all its flaws, though, “The Atheist’s Guide” is the work of a well-informed and imaginative philosopher. Rosenberg’s repeated claim that Science has answered the Big Questions devalues his own original work. The answers are his, not science’s, and they rely on interpretations and synthetic arguments, the more persuasive when he aims at less sweeping conclusions.
To suppose that the sciences, as they have developed so far, answer all the Big Questions is to commit an extreme scientism. Others hold the equally staunch position that some questions are so profound that they must forever lie beyond the scope of natural science. Faith in God, or a conviction that free will exists, or that life has meaning are not subject to revision in the light of empirical evidence. But this is not the only option for those dissatisfied with the book.
It is possible to abandon scientism without confining science. The natural sciences command admiration through the striking successes of the interventions into nature they enable: satellites are sent into space, new tools forged to combat disease. Those achievements rest on the ability to develop rigorous chains of inferences that take us from readily detectable aspects of the world to reliable conclusions about more remote matters. As the conclusions become established, they often yield new methods of detection: a novel theory inspires instruments like microscopes and spectrometers that expand the range of the senses. Recognizing what the last few centuries have achieved, you can reasonably expect that science will go much further. . . .
. . . Or that human inquiry, in all its forms, will go much further. After all, the natural sciences have no monopoly on inferential rigor. Linguists and religious scholars make connections among languages and among sacred texts, employing the same methods of inference evolutionary biologists use to reconstruct life’s history. Attending to achievements like these offers many alternatives to scientism. Instead of forcing the present-day natural sciences to supply All the Answers, you might value other forms of investigation — at least until physics, biology and neuroscience have advanced. Or you might be agnostic, wondering whether a future scientific treatment of, say, ethical behavior is possible even in principle. Or you might think the social sciences and humanities can be aided, although never superseded, by insights from natural science. Storytelling might be seen as a cultural universal with biological roots, without indulging Darwinian speculations about a human yearning for tidy plots. Respect for science, and an enthusiasm for learning from it, are fully compatible with rejecting scientism…