God’s Anarchist: Part 3

‘God’s Anarchist: Part 1’ tracked the evolution of the word ‘libertine’ up to the eighteenth century, with the various meanings and associations that attached themselves to it along the way, while ‘God’s Anarchist: Part 2’ aimed to give a brief, and inevitably very limited, overview of the values, attitudes and moral landscape of Europe and America at the time.  The idea now is to try to use the idea of the ‘libertine’ as understood by Casanova and his contemporaries to give the modern reader an insight into the man himself and something of an understanding of the nature of his relationship with the society in which he moved, at least as far as our Paris Casanova is concerned (1759 to 1762).

Following upon his great slice of good fortune when, at the age of 21, he acquired the patronage of Senator Bragadin and two of his similarly influential friends, Casanova wrote:

My ardent nature, my irresistible love of pleasure, my unconquerable independence, would not allow me to submit to the reserve which my new position in life demanded from me. I began to lead a life of complete freedom, caring for nothing but what ministered to my tastes, and I thought that, as long as I respected the laws, I could trample all prejudices under my feet.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, Venetian Years, Chapter XVIII)

By ‘prejudices’, he essentially meant any attitude or behaviour based upon the prevailing beliefs, taboos, customs and practices of society at large.  As you can see, Casanova’s observation of himself matches up pretty well with at least a couple of aspects of what the word ‘libertine’ signified to his contemporaries: someone who prioritised the temporal pleasures of the here and now above those of the sacred and the hereafter; and a freethinker who was open to new ideas and experiences.

Although Casanova’s self-conscious rejection of many of the social mores of his time was not simply about sex, sex was important so we’ll kick on from there.

In terms of sexual partners, Casanova was not that exceptional amongst men of his social status, especially an unmarried man who was an inveterate traveller.  In his biography ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover Priest’ Ian Kelly calculates that over the period covered by his memoirs Casanova averaged around four partners a year:

…some of Casanova’s contemporary memoirists and diarists, from James Boswell to William Hickey and John Wilkes appear to record or refer to more sexual encounters than the man whose name is practically synonymous with serial womanising, and Lord Byron alludes to more conquests in a couple of years in the Palazzo Mocenigo in Venice than Casanova did in an entire lifetime…he paid for sex from time to time throughout his life but did so considerably less than seems to have been the norm…

The fact is that although Casanova was fascinated by sex he was not a sex addict and for most of his relationships the sex itself was only part of the attraction for him.  Rather, Casanova was a romantic who enjoyed the exquisite pleasures of seduction and of being in love (or, at least, convincing himself he was in love).  Casanova’s fame has arisen not so much because of the singularity of his sexual appetites but because he was unique in the way and to the degree he wrote about them.   Here’s an extended extract from his memoirs:

My business over, I hastened to rejoin the company, and found them engaged in piquet. Mdlle. de la Meure, who knew nothing about it, was tired of looking on. I came up to her, and having something to say we went to the other end of the room.

“Your letter, dearest, has made me the happiest of men. You have displayed in it such intelligence and such admirable characteristics as would win you the fervent adoration of every man of good sense.”
“I only want one man’s love. I will be content with the esteem of the rest.”
“My angel, I will make you my wife, and I shall bless till my latest breath the lucky audacity to which I owe my being chosen before other men who would not have refused your hand, even without the fifty thousand crowns, which are nothing in comparison with your beauty and your wit.”
“I am very glad you like me so much.”
“Could I do otherwise? And now that you know my heart, do nothing hastily, but trust in me.”
“You will not forget how I am placed.”
“I will bear it in mind. Let me have time to take a house, to furnish it and to put myself in a position in which I shall be worthy of your hand. You must remember that I am only in furnished apartments; that you are well connected, and that I should not like to be regarded as a fortune-hunter.”
“You know that my intended husband will soon arrive?”
“Yes, I will take care of that.”
“When he does come, you know, matters will be pushed on rapidly.”
“Not too rapidly for me to be able to set you free in twenty-four hours, and without letting your aunt know that the blow comes from me. You may rest assured, dearest, that the minister for foreign affairs, on being assured that you wish to marry me, and me only, will get you an inviolable asylum in the best convent in Paris. He will also retain counsel on your behalf, and if your mother’s will is properly drawn out your aunt will soon be obliged to hand over your dowry, and to give security for the rest of the property. Do not trouble yourself about the matter, but let the Dunkirk merchant come when he likes. At all hazards, you may reckon upon me, and you may be sure you will not be in your aunt’s house on the day fixed for the wedding.”
“I confide in you entirely, but for goodness’ sake say no more on a circumstance which wounds my sense of modesty. You said that I offered you marriage because you took liberties with me?”
“Was I wrong?”
“Yes, partly, at all events; and you ought to know that if I had not good reasons I should have done a very foolish thing in offering to marry you, but I may as well tell you that, liberties or no liberties, I should always have liked you better than anyone.”

I was beside myself with joy, and seizing her hand I covered it with tender and respectful kisses; and I feel certain that if a notary and priest had been then and there available, I should have married her without the smallest hesitation.

Needless to say, the two never did marry.  Shortly after the affair was consummated Casanova’s ardour waned and he became besotted with another woman.  He observed:

We complain of women who, though loving us and sure of our love, refuse us their favours; but we are wrong in doing so, for if they love they have good reason to fear lest they lose us in the moment of satisfying our desires. Naturally they should do all in their power to retain our hearts, and the best way to do so is to cherish our desire of possessing them; but desire is only kept alive by being denied: enjoyment kills it, since one cannot desire what one has got. I am, therefore, of the opinion that women are quite right to refuse us.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Eternal Quest, Chapter 1)

For Casanova, the social dance with all its ingenuity and elaborate subterfuge was as important as the sex.  It must be remembered that sex outside of marriage was an offence and that therefore any extramarital relationship carried some degree of danger and risk.  For many, of course, particularly Casanova, the risks amplified the pleasure.  To seduce then to organise and maintain a clandestine affair required a skill set which Casanova possessed in abundance: charm, wit, nerve, improvisation, intelligence, empathy.  In this social dance a woman needed to be ‘read’.  Fine judgement was required to assess the extent to which her outward piety and respectability matched her inner desire.   ‘May it not be that apparent reluctance is serving to mask her true desires? Is she capable, in private, of being unreservedly galante?’ (Peter Cryle, ‘The Libertine Ethics of Casanova and his Contemporaries’).  In the subtle and sophisticated worlds of the elite society that Casanova was so adept at navigating, excessive virtue (or ‘prejudice’ as Casanova would have it) and excessive vice were equally reprehensible.  Proper behaviour, even for a Mother Superior, lay somewhere in between.  It was in the space between the extremes of vice and virtue that the game of seduction was to be played between two (or more) knowing collaborators and this relative degree of equality makes the idea that Casanova was a selfish manipulator and exploiter of women to some extent problematic.  Undoubtedly there were occasions when this was true but there were also occasions when it was Casanova himself who was the object of exploitation (such as by the French-Swiss courtesan Marie Ann Charpillon) while there were times (as with Mademoiselle de la Meure) when he believed his own protestations of love and devotion, as fleeting and as shallow as they may have been.

Like extramarital sex, gambling would also have been regarded as a typical libertine pursuit.  To gamble was to dabble with fate, which was God’s domain.  It appealed to man’s selfish instincts. It encouraged people to aspire above their status and was thereby a threat to the established order.  Needless to say, Casanova was extremely fond of gambling, at the tables as well as in life.  It attracted him in different ways.  It was not just about the excitement of winning and losing but the opportunity it gave him to observe the psychology of the gambler and for mathematical calculation.  It was this mathematical understanding and psychological insight (hitched to the nascent consumer revolution France was undergoing at the time) that allowed him to play a major part in the founding of the Paris lottery, one of the largest and most successful lotteries that Europe had ever seen.

What, then, of some of the other characteristics and associations that would have been conveyed by the term ‘libertine’?  Well, Casanova instinctively erred on the side of religious tolerance (as a student he wrote a thesis on the rights of Jews to build synagogues) and, as we have seen, challenged established social norms.   He was a phenomenal traveller, immensely curious about the world and the people in it, actively seeking out new ideas and experiences.   He was also a man of the Enlightenment who valued reason and was interested in science (‘…a prejudiced mind cannot reason well, and the faculty of reasoning is the most important of all.’).  Strange though it may seem to us, his fascination with the occult and the cabbala can be included here, in the same way that Isaac Newton, perhaps the greatest scientist of the eighteenth century, was also a devoted alchemist.  During this period the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural were not so sharply demarcated.  Typical of Enlightenment attitudes, he deplored the savage practices and cruelties carried out under the authority of the Church and State, such as the barbaric execution of would-be regicide Robert Damiens.

Some of the other associations with the term ‘libertine’, however, are not such an easy fit. He was not a political or religious radical.  He was trained for the priesthood and studied canon law (graduating as a doctor of law from Padua in 1741 at the precociously young age of 16) but this was more due to the wishes of his family than his own personal preference.  The same year that he graduated from Padua was also the same year another very different rite of passage, as it were, took place as he was seduced by a pair of twins, setting him on a path of sexual experimentation (with men and women) and ensuing scandals that was ultimately to become incompatible with a career in the church.  However, he never disavowed his Catholicism and, later in life, was critical of Voltaire’s attacks on religion and superstition.  Likewise, although he was at times critical of the excesses of the French court, he was generally sympathetic to the monarchy as can be seen in his estimation of Louis XV:

His beauty and grace compelled love at once. As I saw him, I thought I had found the ideal majesty which I had been so surprised not to find in the king of Sardinia…
(Casanova’s Memoirs, To Paris and Prison, Chapter VII)

As eighteenth-century libertines go, Casanova was relatively restrained and he himself was highly critical of other libertines who pushed their behaviour to extremes.  We need only think of the unrepentant and callous excesses of the Marquis de Sade to realise how moderate Casanova was by comparison.  In his essay ‘The Libertine Ethics of Casanova and his Contemporaries’, Peter Cryle concludes:

Casanova sought an accommodation with virtue…  We might say, in fact, that he took care not to be a ‘grand libertin’.  His libertinage was quite ‘bridled’, and perhaps all the more exquisite, all the more typical of its time, for being so.

Note: references to Casanova’s memoirs relate to the unabridged London edition of 1894 (Gutenberg project)

Dave Thompson (2017)

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