Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius by Laurence Bergreen - Simon & Schuster (2016)
How many times does the average person fall in love? Idealists and adherents of fate would argue that each person is allotted a single ‘true’ romantic experience, characterized by some kind of quasi-mystical fusion of complementary souls. The vast majority—those who roam the earth with their feet on the ground and their heads beneath the stratosphere—might logically suggest that the Average Joe will experience two or three relationships of significance over the course of his lifetime. When a person claims to have fallen in love five, six, or even ten times, the general consensus is that the quality of their affections is somehow diluted, and their amorous intentions attain a sinister and self-serving gloss.
So what do we make of a man like Giacomo Casanova? Why do we tolerate—and sometimes endorse—a self-professed womanizer who bedded over one hundred women and contracted syphilis no less than eight times? Can we feel anything but disgust for a man who routinely seduced young girls, allowed his own illegitimate daughter to observe his carnal acts, and resorted to rape whenever his targets refused to satisfy his unquenchable lust? The answer, of course, is no. And one of the reasons I enjoyed reading Laurence Bergreen’s substantial biography, Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius, is because Bergreen never tries to soften or romanticize Casanova’s dubious aims or methods. The resulting figure is not one with whom we sympathize or identify—he is a fleshy parasite, so preoccupied with delusions of grandeur that he fails to acknowledge his own reputation as a lecherous swindler who uses sex and aggression to distract himself from the paucity of his own intelligence. During the seething heyday of the Enlightenment, while philosophers and writers like Rousseau and Voltaire were busy ascending the peaks of international celebrity, Casanova struggled to attain his own literary ambitions. His essays and pamphlets failed to bring him the adoration he desired. He was forced to admit that he might not be capable of the kind of dense existential reasoning that elevated the likes of Immanuel Kant, David Hume, and John Locke. Casanova simply wasn’t smart enough—but he could certainly seduce.
Perhaps this is why Bergreen’s biography reads something like an extended psychoanalytical study of a disturbed and displaced personality. Casanova’s failed attempts to make a name for himself—as a writer, politician and ambassador—are laid alongside an unembellished account of his sexual exploits. In fact, they seem to leapfrog over one another in what turns out to be a predictable pattern of disappointment and indulgence. Bergreen’s biography is fascinating because it is largely prophetic. We know, as we read, that Casanova will continue to seek love and fame throughout his life, the episodes and embarrassments becoming increasingly grotesque as he ages. We know that we are watching a slow and excruciating downfall, one that spans the entire European continent (and Great Britain) as Casanova is unceremoniously booted from country after country. We read Bergreen’s book with twisted delight, our faces plastered with the hellish grins of those who are witness to the extended torture of a despicable creature. Casanova’s story has all the hallmarks of an epic, tactile decline: Venetian decadence and decay; masks and disguises; diseased flesh and secret pregnancies; lies and staged deceptions; massive fortunes won and lost; elaborate escapes from prison; Freemasons and astrological mysticism; the seduction of virgins, nuns, duchesses, and castrated males; cloaks and daggers and poisons and gondolas. Bergreen understands the anxieties at the heart of such urgent melodrama—the palpitating physicality of sex and escape and reinvention.
Unlike most of the other authors I’ve profiled, Laurence Bergreen does not focus on a single historical period or geographical region. He is not an expert on English history, or Chinese philosophy, or the American Revolution. He is, rather, an expert on individuals. He is a true biographer who does not abide by the arbitrary restraints of time and space. Perusing his catalogue of published works, it seems to me like Bergreen lights upon a figure who interests him, and then does all the necessary research to orient his subject within social and political contexts. This approach has led to an impressively diverse range of subjects—from Al Capone, to Irving Berlin, to Louis Armstrong, to Ferdinand Magellan—and also allows him to get to know his subjects on a personal level before locating them within the larger tapestry of world events. Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius is chronological and rarely deviates from the life of Giacomo Casanova. Bergreen does not allow himself to follow intriguing tangents. The end result is that while readers might want to know more about 18th-century Venice, they could not possibly want to know more about Casanova. Nearly every day of his life can be accounted for and there are few, if any, gaps in the historical record. This painstaking attention to detail is indicative of an author whose priorities lie with the individual, not the historical moment to which he belongs. The victories, the defeats, the long stretches of boredom and routine—all are purposely included in order to depict a life in full. One can only assume that this same compulsion is reflected in Bergreen’s frequent contributions to The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Newsweek, and Esquire. One can further deduce that Bergreen’s determination to leave no detail behind is what lead him to become a sought-after university lecturer, a judge for the National Book Awards (1995) and a judge for the PEN Nonfiction Award (1991). I can’t say for certain whether Bergreen’s method of research inspired NASA to recruit him as the keynote speaker for the administration’s fiftieth-anniversary event, but it probably didn’t hurt.
Bergreen sums up our cultural attraction to Casanova in the introduction to his book. The Venetian’s scandalous memoirs serve as both a confession of his various sins, and a searing indictment of the archaic social order dismantling Italy. Writes Bergreen,
He slept with one hundred and twenty-two women, by his count, and perhaps with a few men…Seeking revenge for his lack of status at birth, he embarked on a lifelong quest to right this wrong by putting himself out to stud. He would use sex as a weapon of class destruction, siring eight children out of wedlock, each with a different woman whom he refused to marry. At times he behaved like a cad, at other times like a genius, He was the archetypal bad boyfriend: irresistible, dangerous, amoral. Casanova wasn’t the only dedicated hedonist of his day nor the most brilliant literary figure, and certainly not the only rogue, but he was unique in playing all three roles to the hilt.
Bergreen also attempts to flesh out Casanova’s reputation as a calculating sex mercenary by suggesting that the libertine was actually overwhelmed by his own romantic inclinations. Casanova wasn’t just an imaginative guy with an extraordinary libido; he was actually catapulted into deep, blinding love with more than half of his conquests. It is rather perplexing for a modern reader with a cynical disposition to calculate how many times Casanova claimed to have found ‘the one’. He seems to have been gifted (or burdened) with an overactive imagination which caused him to turn a friendly smile or a waft of perfume into the beginning of an epic romance. Writes Bergreen,
…as a libertine, Freemason, epicurean, and devotee of the Kabbalah, he was always trying to burst the bounds of Venetian institutions to exalt the self—and one’s sexuality. He believed in everything that came his way: religion, philosophy, magic, science, and especially love. He spiked the Age of Enlightenment with sex, and more sex. He exploited women shamelessly. At the same time, he gave himself to the women he possessed. “I don’t conquer, I submit,” he explained. He exalted women beyond reason. Each love affair was, for him, a meeting of the mind and spirit, a glimpse of eternity and ecstasy.
Without excusing Casanova’s revolting behavior, Bergreen implies that the Venetian’s aims were strikingly aligned with those of the broader Enlightenment movement. Casanova approached each new sexual experience without prejudice, and ignored the constraints imposed by irrational laws of religion and custom. He refused to draw conclusions until he could explore each possibility with his own five senses. He made himself as receptive and open-minded as possible, because that—according to Enlightenment philosophy—was the only method by which to obtain new knowledge. Bergreen even writes about Casanova’s experiments using the same vocabulary one might use to describe the great heroes of the Enlightenment in pursuit of their various disciplines,
So began his education in love and women. They were his shadow self, his “ruling passion.” He would dedicate his life to trying to understand everything about women. He would become a libertine. He would give free rein to his senses, suspend moral judgement, and indulge his appetites. To be a libertine was to stand apart from society, to refuse to accept definitions and restrictions. The child of two actors, two outcasts, he would spend his life as a performer on the world’s stage, trying on an endlessly changing array of roles and costumes, playing all the parts, villain and hero. His imagination would attempt to vanquish them all.
At the end of the day, Giacomo Casanova was as hungry for knowledge as his sometime-nemesis Voltaire. His interests and experiments have been ignored partly because to discuss them would require an uncomfortable journey to the land of the Taboo. It is easier to diminish Casanova than to admit to an understanding of his passions and desires. It is a natural impulse to censor his frank declarations and scorn his amorous pursuits. Casanova took advantage of people, he manipulated and injured many vulnerable women. He deserves our ridicule—but not our dismissal. As Laurence Bergreen proves in his extraordinary biography Casanova: The World of a Seductive Genius, there is still much to extract from an imperfect life. There is the restless energy of a man whose belief in personal liberty was repeatedly thwarted by an oppressive, blood-based regime. There is the lashing out of a frustrated and unappreciated intellect. There is the incredible capacity of the human being to rise, and fall, and rise again transformed. And there is the possibility of falling in love over, and over, and over again. These insights, captured within the pages of a scandalous memoir, deserve our attention—even if the confessor’s exploits do not.