So how did Voltaire influence Casanova? Before attempting to answer that question it’s perhaps worth inserting a caveat. There is no doubt that Voltaire did have a major impact upon Casanova (he described himself as Voltaire’s ‘pupil’) but we need to bear in mind that they were both children of the Enlightenment and subject to the influence of common trends and sources of ideas available to the educated public. Venice was a centre of the book trade and the works of a wide range of thinkers and scholars, including key Enlightenment philosophes, would have been readily accessible. Ideas that may have underpinned Casanova’s hedonistic morality were as likely to have sources in the philosophy of Epicurus and Gassendi as the works of Voltaire.
First of all, Casanova can be described as a Voltairean. By this we mean that he was preoccupied by the themes and ideas pursued by Voltaire, sometimes in agreement, sometimes in bitter opposition. For example, one of Voltaire’s central interests that engaged Casanova’s attention was the nature of the soul, morality and the existence of God. For Voltaire, without the prospect of punishment or reward after death there could be no basis for morality. Morality thus required the existence of God and an immortal soul. This was an issue that Casanova kept returning to. He did not question the existence of God (he was in agreement with Voltaire on that score) but did question the existence of an immortal soul. Ultimately, he was to reject the idea of a soul and, consequently, the idea that thought was dependent upon its existence. He held to the position, instead, that thought can arise from matter (ie the brain). In his autobiography, he draws attention to the mind’s biological underpinnings:
The history of my life must begin by the earliest circumstance which my memory can evoke; it will therefore commence when I had attained the age of eight years and four months. Before that time, if to think is to live be a true axiom, I did not live, I could only lay claim to a state of vegetation. The mind of a human being is formed only of comparisons made in order to examine analogies, and therefore cannot precede the existence of memory. The mnemonic organ was developed in my head only eight years and four months after my birth; it is then that my soul began to be susceptible of receiving impressions. How is it possible for an immaterial substance, which can neither touch nor be touched to receive impressions? It is a mystery which man cannot unravel.
(Casanova’s memoirs – Author’s Preface)
Similarly, Voltaire’s Enlightenment quest to create a secular morality is echoed in Casanova’s autobiography and works on history which are, in part, meant to be read as studies of human nature. These are accounts of human psychology, motivation and behaviour from which it is possible to draw conclusions without relying on explanations rooted in the designs of the Almighty.
The second important way in which Voltaire was a major influence upon Casanova was as a role model. Voltaire was the quintessence of a man of letters and repeatedly we see genres which Voltaire either pioneered or was strongly associated with being taken up by Casanova, most notably the philosophical tale such as Casanova’s Icosameron. This was intended to be a defining masterwork with which he hoped to establish his name as a serious scholar worthy of public recognition. We witness a similar pattern with his histories and philosophical dialogues. On occasion, however, Casanova went beyond mere emulation and would lift material directly from Voltaire’s works to use for his own (that said, Voltaire was equally free and easy with the writings of others). This was the case for much of Casanova’s philosophical dialogues. Another similarity to Voltaire can be found in Casanova’s libertine writing style. Works such as Candide (Voltaire) and Histoire de ma vie (Casanova) are both characterised by a polite, decorous tone frequently employing euphemisms, innuendo and understatement that ironically belie their erotic content and social critique. During the gruesome execution of Robert Damiens, would-be assassin of Louis XV, Casanova records the behaviour of two guests he had invited to an overlooking apartment to witness the event:
While this victim of the Jesuits was being executed, I was several times obliged to turn away my face and to stop my ears as I heard his piercing shrieks, half of his body having been torn from him, but the Lambertini and the fat aunt did not budge an inch. Was it because their hearts were hardened? They told me, and I pretended to believe them, that their horror at the wretch’s wickedness prevented them feeling that compassion which his unheard-of torments should have excited. The fact was that Tiretta kept the pious aunt curiously engaged during the whole time of the execution, and this, perhaps, was what prevented the virtuous lady from moving or even turning her head round.
(Casanova’s memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter I)
For comparison with Voltaire, here is Professor Pangloss’ account of how he contracted syphilis:
“O my dear Candide, you must remember Daisy, that pretty wench, who waited on our noble Baroness; in her arms I tasted the pleasures of Paradise, which produced these Hellish torments with which you see me devoured. She was infected with an ailment, and perhaps has since died of it; she received this present of a learned Franciscan, who troubled to derive its source and learned that he was indebted for it to an old countess, who had it of a captain of horse, who had it of a marquise, who had it of a page, the page had it of a Jesuit, who, during his novitiate, had it in a direct line from one of the fellow adventurers of Christopher Columbus; for my part I shall give it to nobody, I am a dying man.”
‘The Prologue’, and chapters 1 to 8 of ‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ are now freely available here.
6 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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