December 1, 2011

Casanova: The serial seducing feminist


Portrait of Casanova by his brother Francesco Casanova.

For the first time ever, the original manuscript of Jacques Casanova’s legendary memoirs has been put on display. The show, titled Casanova—The Passion for Freedom, is being held at the National Library in Paris and runs through February 19th, 2012.

The manuscript set a record recently when it was auctioned off for £6.7 after undergoing a great deal of peregrination. Accordint to a fascinating article in the Telegraph about the once elusive manuscript’s long journey to the exhibit:

The memoir, totalling nearly 4,000 pages, were completed shortly before his death at 73 in Bohemia in 1798. He bequeathed the work to his nephew and they were later acquired by a German publisher. It was believed the documents had been destroyed in the bombing of Dresden during the Second World War but they were kept safe by U.S. military. Only a few scholars had ever seen the memoirs, which were published for the first time in 1960.

In 2007, they were offered for sale to the French ambassador in Berlin – by an unknown seller – and bought by Bruno Racine, director of the National Library. Racine said: “I was completely ignorant of the existence of this manuscript. It had never been put on display. But there was no doubt it was authentic. It was an unforgettable moment. It was almost as if we were in front of a religious relic.”

One of the more comical discussions emerging from the exhibit is a certain amount of hair-splitting over the nature of Casanova’s infamous womanizing. While no one is denying that he took many lovers there is difference over the portrayal of his attitude toward these lovers. Taken from the Illuminations portion of our new HybridBook edition of The Duel by Casanova is this wonderful selection from psychologist Havelock Ellis’ The Psychology of Sex:

In the same century Casanova wrote still more emphatically concerning the same point; in the preface to his Memoires he states: “I have always found sweet the odor of the women I have loved”; and elsewhere: “There is something in the air of the bedroom of the woman one loves, something so intimate, so balsamic, such voluptuous emanations, that if a lover had to choose between Heaven and this place of delight his hesitation would not last for a moment.”

Thalia, Muse of Comedy by Jean-Marc Nattier (one of the many illustrations from the hybrid edition of The Duel by Casanova.)

Casanova was many things to many people. Among his diverse careers you’ll find such noble trades as fortune teller, gambler, alchemist and banker. His famous duel with Count Branicki is immortalized in both his memoirs and the novella he wrote about the encounter (which we published earlier this year as part of our The Duel x5). He was, in short, a hustler of the finest make. Yet still Casanova as a name has left a permanent mark on the English language. Truly, its an achievement on par with those those of Leopold von Sacher-Masoch (masochism) and the good Marquis de Sade (sadism).

So, all things considered, the question of whether the great lover was a pig or a prince is slightly more important than it might superficially appear. The director of Paris’ National Library and curator of the Casanova exhibit claims he was the latter. Again, quoting the National Library’s director Bruno Racine from the Telegraph article on the exhibit:

Racine, possibly stretching matters a little far, said. “Casanova was not a predator who exploited women. He was always tender, never cruel. A feminist.”

And in turn, once again dipping into the HybridBook content for The Duel by Casanova we have this from Ellis:

Casanova, more than a century ago, quoted the remark of a friend of his, that the easiest way to overcome the modesty of a woman is to suppose it non-existent; and he adds a saying, which he attributes to Clement of Alexandria, that modesty, which seems so deeply rooted in women, only resides in the linen that covers them, and vanishes when it vanishes.

And the debate rages on.

Paul Oliver is the marketing manager of Melville House. Previously he was co-owner of Wolfgang Books in Philadelphia.