Pete's Blog

New Casanova Bio

Barry Peterson alerted me to a piece in today's Times Book Review about a new biography of Casanova, adding the gracious comment that it should be of interest to me because Casanova is the subject of my "best song." Here is my reply. It figures that Bentley would lead with the daughter story. It's the most garish in the memoirs and does the most to diminish Casanova's character in the eyes of a present-day reader. Picaresque male heros do not fare well in the organs of the Liberal State. What the reviewer and, I expect, the author both leave out in their consideration of the Memoirs (pretty much the only - certainly the most complete - source material available) is the extent to which it is an account of a genuinely decadent age. Not decadence in the sense of young men wearing Cuban heels and joining rock bands, decadent in the sense that an entire society is becoming obsolete, its social and political leadership classes the most obsolete of all. Casanova describes low behaviour in others of his circle that he obviously finds beneath contempt. And he takes great pleasure in hoodwinking aristocrats whose superstitions are equalled in breadth and depth only by their money and power. He sees himself as a first-generation modern man, a disciple of Voltaire, and these giddy toffs as his lawful prey - and who's to say he's not right? The portrait he paints of 18th-Century Europe is profoundly unflattering. Which brings us back to the daughter story. Casanova makes it plain that this is something he does only to protect the girl's future happiness, that in fact if he were capable of moral qualms (Casanova always knows who he is) he would feel them at this moment. But throughout the Memoirs he is loyal to his mistresses, often finding them aristocratic marriages after the affaire. It also figures that the author would cite and the reviewer repeat the final bottom-line figure. One hundred twenty seems about right, and typical of the Seigneur's total honesty even at some cost to his own reputation. Are we that obsessed with keeping score? Casanova wasn't. He was much more interested in the personalities of his amores than in their number or proclivities. I am happy, however, that Casanova is made distinct here from the fictional character Don Juan, although it is a lovely irony that Casanova should have written the libretto to Mozart's "Don Giovanni," which credits the Don with over 2,000 conquests. The fact is, Don Juan does not like women very much and seduces them to express his contempt. Casanova loves women and wants to be with them. He's a mensch.

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