You know how it is. You’re reading a book or watching a film and the same name keeps popping up. Is this a cosmic signal to pick up:
a) a book written by that suddenly ubiquitous name
b) a book written about that person?
Everywhere I turned, there was Casanova…and this led me to decide that I should read his memoirs. They have, after all, languished on my shelf now for far too many years. But first, I decided to read Stefan Zweig’s book Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture. My copy is one of those delightful Pushkin Press editions, and I’ll admit that this was part of the lure. Casanova was originally one section of the volume Adepts in Self-Portraiture along with sections on Tolstoy and Stendhal. Zweig placed this in part of a series called Master Builders in which he “analyse[d] the distinctive types of creative will.” According to the afterword, Master Builders included Dickens, Balzac and Dostoyevsky, and the final section The Struggle with the Daimon included Holderlin, Kleist and Nietzsche. Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture is devoted to Zweig’s long-time correspondent, Maxim Gorky.
The pint-sized volume is not a biography of the Great Lover–instead the book is composed of a series of nine essays analyzing various aspects of Casanova’s life. At the end of the book, I wondered if Zweig liked Casanova. At times, I thought not. Zweig’s essays are threaded with hints of dislike, but then as he delves into the topic at hand, it’s almost as though he begrudgingly acknowledges–almost against his will–a sort of admiration for Casanova. Here’s the opening paragraph from the first essay, The Man and the Book:
Casanova is an exceptional instance, a chance intruder in world literature, above all because this famous charlatan has as little right in the pantheon of creative geniuses as the name of Pontius Pilate has in the Creed. His rank as an imaginative writer is as questionable as his invented title of nobility, Chevalier de Seingalt: the few verses he penned hastily between bed and the gaming table in honour of one lady or another reek of musk and academic paste…. In very truth, Casanova has as little claim to enter the company of great writers as he has to a place in the Almanach de Gotha; in both he is a parasite and an unwarrantable intruder. Nevertheless, this son of a shady actor, this unfrocked priest, this un-uniformed soldier this notorious cheat (a superintendent of police in Paris describes him in his dossier as a fameux filou), is able to ruffle it for a large part of his life among emperors and kings, and dies at last in the arms of a great nobleman, the Prince de Ligne: and, though he seems a mere pretender in the world of letters, one among many, ashes to be blown about by the winds of time, his roving shade has found a place for itself among the immortals.
Beautifully put, and Zweig is right of course. Casanova is immortal; you don’t have to read the memoirs to know his name. He is one of those rare historic figures whose name enters the lexicon, and if we see indefatigable sexual behaviour we can stick Casanova’s name on it. Zweig asks: was Casanova unique or special in some way, or was is some tremendous stroke of luck that made his name live forever?
Zweig comes to some marvellous conclusions about Casanova. In the essay, Home Eroticus Zweig compares Casanova to Don Juan and explores the differences. Zweig argues that Casanova loved women whereas Don Juan’s women are “victims.” “Never,” Zweig writes “like Don Juan, does he [Casanova] desire crude possession; he must have a willing surrender.” Zweig argues that Don Juan enjoyed “debasing” his victims while Casanova’s women join him in an act of liberation of the senses, “inhibitions and scruples.” Also in this chapter, Zweig discusses the lack of ‘harm’ caused by Casanova, and he states that the women who “passed the night with Casanova do not feel they have been cheated of platonic explanations.” According to Zweig, Casanova’s peccadilloes were fairly straightforward sexual transactions with no deception; Casanova was there to give and receive pleasure. I’m not sure I agree with that, especially since Zweig also argues that the game to Casanova was the elaborate art of seduction. Surely, in some instances at least, seduction does involve deception? I have to read the memoirs to be able to form anything other than a superficial judgement on that. But here’s a great sentence I have to include:
The path of a Goethe or a Byron is strewn with feminine wreckage.
In contrast to Goethe, Byron (and Don Juan), Zweig argues, Casanova left his lovers in a glowing, happy, and grateful post-coital state:
Casanova’s flash of earthly passion … does very little harm to their souls. He is not responsible for any shipwrecks, for any outbreaks of despair. He has made a great many women happy, but has made no woman hysterical. From the episode of sensual adventure, they return undamaged to everyday life, to their husbands, or to their lovers, as the case may be. Not one of them commits suicide or falls into a decline. Their internal equilibrium has never been disturbed, for Casanova’s unambiguous and radically healthy passion has never touched the mainspring of their destiny.
That’s a sweeping statement there. Zweig’s argument is that Byron and Goethe misled women with words of eternal love & devotion. To Zweig, they are the destroyers and the deceivers–not Casanova–a man for whom it was all about mutual, albeit, fleeting pleasure.
One of the points Zweig makes is that Casanova was an anomaly. Zweig argues that most creative people are busy creating (often in solitude) and not off out living a life of adventure, and that those devoted to adventure do not possess the skill to describe their experiences. According to Zweig, this is a paradox:
“Men of action and men of pleasure have more experience to report than any creative artist, but they cannot tell their story; the poietes, on the other hand, must fable, for they have seldom had experiences worth reporting. Imaginative writers rarely have a biography, and men who have biographies are only in exceptional instances able to write them.”
Zweig’s paradox is solved in Casanova–a talented, amoral man who “changes countries, towns, estates, occupations, worlds, and women, as easily as he changes his shirt.” Actually I disagree with Zweig; there are examples that defy that paradox. I’d argue that Lermontov lived the short, spectacular life of an adventurer while wearing the uniform of the Tsar.
Zweig concludes that Casanova was a tremendously talented individual, but a dilettante at heart. Most of Casanova’s talents were the sort of things that got him to the homes of the wealthy set and into the knickers of the women. Zweig states Casanova was:
Almost a savant, almost a poet, almost a philosopher, almost a gentleman. But this ‘almost’ was for Casanova the heel of Achilles. He was almost everything: a poet and yet not wholly one, a thief and yet not a professional one. He strove hard to qualify for the galleys; yet he never succeeded in attaining perfection. As universal dilettante, indeed, he was perfect, knowing an incredible amount of all the arts and the sciences; but he lacked one thing, and this lack made it impossible for him to become truly productive. He lacked will, resolution, patience.
Zweig does get a bit carried away at times. He embellishes so much that his elegance almost escapes the recognition of repetition, but it’s all so beautifully written, I didn’t mind a bit. My favourite essay is The Philosophy of Superficiality, and the title alone gives more than a hint of its subject matter. There’s so much to quote here–so much to chew over, but finally here’s one final quote to spur me on until I begin the memoirs:
What makes Casanova a genius is not the way in which he tells the story of his life, but the way in which he has lived it.
Translated by Eden and Cedar Paul