Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig

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


Filed under Non Fiction, Zweig Stefan

24 responses to “Casanova: A Study in Self-Portraiture by Stefan Zweig

  1. Go the dilettante I say! Lovely review Guy … and I love your final quote. Having seen and read a little – but nothing in great depth – about Casanova I found him to be a rather mystifying “thing”. Your review of Zweig has helped clarify a lot – though I don wonder how Zweig KNOWS that the NONE of the women’s “internal equlibrium” has been “disturbed?

    • Gummie: Zweig died in 1942 so attitudes towards women have changed a great deal. I think Zweig makes some excellent points re: the differences between Don Juan and Casanova and Byron, Goethe and Casanova, but the idea that Casanova gifted himself to women lucky enough to sleep with him just doesn’t quite gel for me. As I said, seducers do deceive and while part of the idea of seduction is getting the target to buy into that particular set-up, I fully expect to read the memoirs and debunk the ‘unharmed women’ theory. Sheer numbers alone…come on….

      One of the reasons I wanted to read Zweig’s take on Casanova was to do a sort of pre-read, post-read thing.

  2. Though I know Casanova by name, reading about him or reading his memoirs never occurred to me. According to the comments on your previous post on this book, the subject seems more familiar to Anglophone readers than to me. I don’t recall seeing Casanova’s memoirs in a bookstore or meeting someone who has read them. I wondered if it was just me or if, as I felt, these memoirs are less famous in France. So I did a little research on the francophone blogosphere, looking for posts about this. I didn’t find any post in French on Casanova’s Memoirs. So it’s not just me.

    Thanks for this, it’s fascinating and it makes me think and I’ll just throw here the scattered thoughts it raised.

    On Zweig’s admiration: Don’t all men secretly envy men who seem to have found the perfect recipe to succeed in seducing any woman? And, I agree with Whisperinggums, Zweig can only assume that no harm was done.

    On the comparison between Casanova (a libertine) and Goethe or Byron (Romantic Movement). That’s interesting. I wonder if it has something to do with the cultural difference between Northern (Anglo-Saxon) Europe and (Latin) Southern Europe. Maybe that’s what fascinates Anglophone readers in these memoirs, the truly casual way Casanova considers sex?

    On the paradox between adventurers and writers: the latter have the words the former need to tell their experiences. It reminds me of Rilke’s description of literary work, how solitude is required. More than the skills, don’t they lack the time to think and extract from their adventures the universal substance of what they have lived? Would Proust have written In Search of Lost Time if he hadn’t been grounded by illness? I’ll be curious to read your thoughts on the actual memoirs and to see if Casanova went further than relating events, well-written or not. (Aren’t ghost writers there to arrange the ‘well-written’ side of adventurers’ memoirs?)

    On Casanova being “almost everything”. Why does Zweig consider this as a weakness? Wasn’t that his best asset, the key of his success? He wasn’t persevering in his studies but would he have lived a better life if he had been? He reached a better immortality than Emilie du Chatteley who studied really hard to translate Newton’s theories in French. In the end, she’s mostly known for her affair with Voltaire. Isn’t it a constant trait of human nature that we love flamboyant dilettante and despise or neglect hard workers? (Think of high school)

    It’s a long comment, but ideas popped up as I was reading your post.
    By the way, the title of the French edition is interesting: “Three poets of their lives: Stendhal, Casanova, Tolstoy.” I think it matches with your last quote.

    • Is the Marquis de Sade better known, would you say, than Casanova?

      As Zweig writes about Casanova, a sort of envy seeps through, and part of that does seem to be about Casanova’s skill with women. I think Zweig’s sweeping statements about Casanova’s women encompass that envy; I seriously doubt that Casanova caused zero harm in his sexual odyssey. Just the numbers alone cause me to question Zweig’s statement. That said, I haven’t read the memoirs, and I have no idea whether or not he deflowered virgins. Zweig does make the point that Casanova wasn’t picky and that he was ready to runt the poxy prostitute in the raunchiest, smelliest brothels.

      Max made a comment earlier about one instance in the memoirs when Casanova bilked some older woman of her fortune, so it wasn’t all caresses and orgasms by any means.

      There’s a sense that Zweig (and I may be reading this into the text) and Casanova are completely different types of human beings, and perhaps that’s what nudges Zweig’s grudging admiration. Zweig kept moving ahead of the Nazis and then committed suicide. He doesn’t sound the happy-go-lucky type.

      On the ‘almost everything’ (re: talent) that reminds me of Maupassant’s Alien Hearts. The main male character André was talented but not gifted. He had money, however, and he wasn’t exactly a dilettante, but he’d mastered skills just to the point of being fawned over when he really wasn’t ‘that’ good. And yes I agree with you, I think in Casanova’s case, this is evidence of his talent rather than a weakness, and then again he was a sort of social climber from the sounds of it. Talents are mandatory for the social climber–I’m thinking here of Woody Allen’s Match Point.

      On the idea of confinement and writing as a result (through illness) I have a copy of Voyage Around My Room (unread so far) by Xavier de Maistre and written in 1790 when he was confined to house arrest for dueling.

  3. Yes, Sade is a lot more read than Casanova. I don’t even think Casanova is associated to the word “writer”. He wasn’t in my mind before reading your blog. About Sade, I have read — with disgust, I have to say — La Philosophie dans le boudoir. Some friends have read Justine ou les malheurs de la vertu. (you make me think I should move this from the shelf in my library as the children could browse through it). It’s a teenage thing, as it is known to be filthy. I haven’t read Casanova but from your post I would rather associate him to Choderlos de Laclos than to Sade.
    I agree with you on Zweig being interested in Casanova as a totally different person from who he was. I guess Casanova was the kind of energetic person who never gave up. Suicide is a way to give up.
    I also agree with you about the talent as useful for the social climber, like for Nick in Hollinghurst’s Line of Beauty. Without it, the social climber feels ill at ease, like Alexander Portnoy. It’s a real career booster as it provides networks.
    I think I’m going to buy the French edition, since I’m interested in the piece on Stendhal too.

  4. De Laclos is a great connection on the subject of Casanova and the Art of Seduction. This underscores the role of deception in seduction.

    And what of Rochester–the English libertine? His name should be added to the list, I suppose.

    Was Zweig a depressive? Casanova, according to Zweig took everything so lightly (The Philosophy of Superficiality). Does this book tell us a bit about Zweig through his attitude to Casanova?

    • I don’t agree with the systematic link you make between seduction and deception. A woman can let herself be seduced. Someone can be seductive without being deceitful. Does the word “seduce” have an underlying negative meaning in English ? In French, “séduire” is neutral or positive.

      I had never heard of Rochester, but after reading Wikipedia, I think you’re right.

      Unless he was ordered these biographies/essays, Zweig’s choice certainly means something about who his heroes were. If it was free will, he probably chose people he admired, either for their life or for their work.

  5. Well seduction can involve a bottle of cheap wine and some cheesy love songs, but then again it can also be quite complicated. Some women who are ‘seduced’ want to be while others, I think, are embroiled in rather sophisticated, complicated scenarios with deception on some level.

  6. I suppose an easier way of putting it is to say that I think seduction may or may not include deceit.

  7. leroyhunter

    What a great review and discussion.
    Reading your take on Zweig’s take, I also kept remembering Max’s comment about the incident with the older woman, which somewhat undercuts the rose-tinted view here.

    Maybe (in spite of himself) Zweig really admires (would it be too strong to say – loves?) Casanova, and the long lists of his supposed failings you quote are in fact Zweig arguing with himself, trying to talk himself out of an attitude another part of his personality knows he shouldn’t subscribe to. Or is that stretching it too far?

  8. leroyhunter

    Doesn’t seduction proceed from the assumption that the man and the woman involved want different things? – or, one wants something the other is reluctant to give?

    If that’s the case the it would seem that deception, on whatever scale, is a pre-requisite for seduction – for both parties.

    • Nick

      Or that the two people want the same thing but because they like to play, or because they just do not want to admit that they are after the same thing (a relationship or sex), or there must be a prerequisite seduction
      It is also highly probable that they do not really know what the other one wants.

  9. Nick

    Seduction: deception?!

    I’d rather believe it consists in presenting our true self in the best possible light.

    • Nick, you’re French too, aren’t you? Is there a language barrier somewhere here?

      • Nick

        Indeed I am.
        After checking in a French and an American dictionary it seems the definition is the same.
        But the French perception of seduction is probably more Mediterranean. It is probably a question of difference of mores between French and Anglo-Saxon due to different social or religious values. It could also be a generational question.

        Of course seduction can include deception.

  10. I think someone can be seductive without intending to be. So where is the deception there? Sometimes you just act nicely or wear something you like without a special intention and it is perceived as charming.
    Seduction must not convey the same image in French and in English.

  11. Thanks Nick. You confirm what I was thinking.
    That’s what I meant above when talking about Latin vs Anglo-Saxon view on love, seduction and sex. It is also part of Zweig’s fascination for Casanova.

  12. While I ‘get’ the good connotations of seduction, my perception of seduction is cynical. I won’t deny it, and it’s largely garnered from the experiences of watching it in action. Perhaps I’ve just seen too much of the dark side of seduction or perhaps I just watch too much noir.

  13. Guy, I think this is mostly a cultural difference, the word “seduction” covers a wider scope of realities for me that it does for you. For example, choosing to wear a sexy dress to go out with my husband is seduction for me whereas you would probably call it differently.

  14. I would tend to think that leans towards romance, but there again, I don’t have a romantic bone in my body.

  15. I’m going to have to sidestep this fascinating seduction discussion because I’ve never been good at any definition of it, ha ha, but your review has convinced me that I need to read both Casanova’s memoirs and Zweig on Casanova. Very interesting stuff. Which edition of Casanova’s Life do you have, though, Guy? Johns Hopkins University Press in the U.S. put out a 12-14 volume edition of the autobiography about 10 years ago or so, but I never picked any volumes up because of the reading time that would require. I see stray volumes, perhaps by other publishers, in U.S. bookstores from time to time, but I’ve never taken the bite. Maybe I missed out. Hmm.

  16. Richard: I have the John Hopkins version.

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