Histoire de ma vie (History of my life) is Casanova’s wonderful autobiography. Running to almost one and a quarter million words, and written in French (the language of the educated European classes) it is twice the length of Tolstoy’s War and Peace and covers his life to the year 1774, when it stops abruptly. He began writing his autobiography sometime around 1789 when he was in his mid-sixties, apparently to cheer himself up during a period of illness, and was still writing it when he died. It is a record not just of his love life but of what he ate, what he read, how he dressed, how he travelled, of his gambling, his business and financial dealings, of medical treatments, of the theatre, of the Church, the political, religious, intellectual and cultural preoccupations of the time, and of moral attitudes and codes of behaviour. Altogether it gives the reader an unparalleled insight into the life of eighteenth-century Europe. Casanova was also an accomplished writer and a tremendous storyteller who loved to entertain his audience. Histoire de ma vie, even in translation, is a joy to read.
He wrote this monumental work during his time as a librarian in Dux castle, in Bohemia, where he lived from 1787 until his death in 1798. Effectively in exile from Venice for a second time, aging, homeless, unemployed, not in the best of health and resentful at the failure of the literary world to take this overreaching son of an actress seriously, Casanova was offered the position of librarian by Count Joseph Charles de Waldstein. Despite getting him out of a hole, Dux was generally an unhappy final resting place for this great adventurer, his pleasure-seeking days behind him. He wasn’t particularly respected by those he worked and lived alongside and his cantankerous disposition didn’t help. It was because of this, as well as his determination to achieve recognition as a serious man of letters, that he threw himself into writing. Arthur Symons notes:
Casanova tells us in his Memoirs that, during his later years at Dux, he had only been able to ‘hinder black melancholy from devouring his poor existence, or sending him out of his mind,’ by writing ten or twelve hours a day.
(‘Casanova at Dux: An Unpublished Chapter of History)
And the Venetian’s output was prodigious:
In his declining years, his writing alarmed not just the illiterate servants at Dux but his friends. He left, at his death in 1798, 1,703 letters, fifty drafts of dialogues, 150 memos, sixty-seven printed items, 390 poems as well as nearly five hundred pages of uncategorised writings; more than three thousand manuscript pages of various works in progress, in addition to his memoirs that ran to nearly four thousand folio pages, and existed, once, in multiple hand-copied versions.
(Ian Kelly, ‘Casanova: Actor, Spy, Lover, Priest’)
Casanova died 4th June, 1798, his autobiography beside him. Carlo Angiolini, Casanova’s nephew-in-law, organised his burial and it was he who now inherited the many volumes of loose manuscript that comprised Histoire de ma vie. More than 20 years later, in January 1821, they were bought by the German publisher F A Brockhaus and now this forgotten Venetian adventurer began to fall under the gaze of a wide European public. It was, of course, the womaniser, not the serious man of letters, that caught the attention. Over the next several generations numerous abridged, censored, ‘improved’, pirated, and poorly translated versions came on to the market. Some were little more than approximations of the original. The Busoni pirate edition (1833-1837) included completely fictitious additional material. The successful Laforgue version (1826-1838), based upon the original manuscript, was heavily censored and rewritten by Jean Laforgue, a French teacher employed by Brockhaus to edit the text prior to publishing:
If any one person was responsible for defaming Casanova, it was Laforgue, a revolutionary sympathizer, atheist and fundamentalist bigot. He didn’t just correct Casanova’s French but removed passages he disapproved of, softened Casanova’s conservative political stance and toned down what he regarded as obscenity while spicing up passages that he thought dull.
(David Coward, ‘Man of the World’, Times Literary Supplement)
All editions produced after 1838, until 1960, were based upon these unreliable versions rather than the original manuscripts which were kept hidden by Brockhaus to prevent further pirating. This included the 1894 Arthur Machen translation which for a long time remained the standard English version (although later re-edited and revised, notably by Arthur Symons, who recognised the problematic nature of the Laforgue edition upon which the Machen translation was based). In the second world war, the originals very narrowly escaped being destroyed by the allied bombing of Leipzig, where Brockhaus was based. Between 1960 and 1962, an unabridged version that was faithful to the original was finally released, and this became the basis for the main translations that followed, including William Trask’s English version which was completed in 1971. In 2010, the manuscripts were bought by the Bibliothèque nationale de France and made available online.
The errors contained in these various editions, compounded by deliberate falsification, predictably undermined faith in the veracity of Casanova’s memoirs and the reputation of the man himself. Inevitably, those who found his attitudes and behaviour morally reprehensible would be more likely to view these inconsistencies as evidence of his fundamental unreliability and draw the conclusion that he was a fantasist or a self-serving propagandist (or both). Nor did the fact that his autobiography sold well mean that people took his adventures too seriously. In every age, there has been a market for scandal and a rollicking good story, true or false. Indeed, the boundaries between fact and fiction in the public arena can become notoriously ill-defined. Take the example of Sherlock Holmes. A 2011 poll with a sample size of 1,000 uncovered that 21% of people believed he was a real, historical figure. By a similar process, but in reverse, Casanova has become fictionalised, an archetype of the amoral playboy, and has been represented as such on film throughout the twentieth and twenty-first centuries.
There has always been some serious interest in Casanova, however, and this scholarship, particularly since the 1960s, has confirmed the veracity of much of what he wrote. This is not to say that inaccuracies don’t exist. Writing largely from memory, to entertain himself as well as others, it would be incredible otherwise. Moreover, although Casanova was a historian (he wrote an important work entitled ‘The history of the Polish troubles’) Histoire de ma vie was as much shaped by his literary and philosophical interests as it was an attempt to provide an historically accurate account of his life. French literary historian Marie-Francoise Luna has demonstrated that Casanova modelled his autobiography on a sixteenth-century epic poem by the Italian poet Ludovico Ariosto called ‘The Frenzy of Orlando’. It has also been convincingly argued by Casanovists such as Jean-Christophe Igalens, Ivo Cerman and Frederico di Trocchio that Histoire de ma vie is, in fact, a philosophical work.
Casanova had a particular interest in moral philosophy (how people ought to act and how they do act) and saw himself as a philosopher. He was keenly aware of the currents of thought and disputes that engaged Enlightenment thinkers and was an active participant in the debates that took place – (the broader intellectual context of the Enlightenment, and Casanova’s own beliefs in relation to it, will be the basis for several future articles). Through Histoire de ma vie, Casanova uses his own life and experience as a way of exploring philosophical ideas, notably Libertinism. This subjective empiricism approach was not uncommon. It was, for example, central to much of the experimental method of the early eighteenth-century philosopher George Berkeley. Ivo Cerman comments: ‘He [Casanova] investigated human nature in order to discover the limits of human capacities to act morally…[Histoire de ma vie] was supposed to be a true record of his own past actions, which should have shown Casanova what kind of person he really was’. Cerman goes on to suggest that Casanova may have been inspired by one of the greatest of French philosophes, Denis Diderot, who suggested that for a person to know themselves they needed to write a history of their life (‘histoire de sa vie’). In this light, Histoire de ma vie becomes a significant and original philosophical work as Casanova tests the ideologies and ethics of Libertinism with empirical evidence from lived reality. Histoire de ma vie allows the Venetian adventurer to explore whether Libertinism possessed genuine moral value. Was the search for pleasure, based as it was upon the naturalness of human emotions and needs, a legitimate moral goal? What was the relationship between virtue, pleasure and happiness? What part did marriage and religion play in these equations? Several times in Histoire de ma vie the seriousness of Casanova’s love for a woman, for example, manifests itself in his stated desire to marry her (itself an Enlightenment impulse, elevating as it did love and happiness as a basis for marriage above the more conventional grounds which were rooted in pragmatic and patriarchal family interests).
A specific example of how he uses his lived experience to explore philosophical themes can be seen on the topic of the soul. His earliest memory was from the age of eight and he takes the lack of any memory prior to that age as empirical evidence against the concept of an immortal soul. It is clear to Casanova that memory and self-awareness, essential to what it is to be a human being, are the consequence of a biological process of maturation rooted in the material and physical world, contradicting the metaphysical claims of theologians:
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, The Author’s Preface)
In Histoire de ma vie, however, Casanova’s general approach to his philosophical quarry is indirect. Paralleling Voltaire, he wrote in such a way that differently attuned readers would be receptive to a different range of issues embedded within his autobiography. The more sophisticated the reader, the more they would be sensitive to its deeper implications:
…their presence [philosophical debates] in the memoirs is discreet and their evocation indirect. Moreover, Casanova prefers an allusive style of writing, the constitution of a network of meanings by means of a play of echoes and repetitions, to abstract reasonings.
(Jean-Christophe Igalens, ‘Casanova: writing the dream between philosophy and autobiography’)
Although he titles his autobiography a history, the notion of ‘history’ in the eighteenth century and previously was different to how the term is understood today. Firstly, it’s meaning was broader. History concerned itself with things as they were, not as they ought to have been. Thus science was called ‘natural history’. Furthermore, writers about the past such as Voltaire (and even Casanova himself, when he was commissioned to write about the history of Poland) were relatively unusual with regards to the extent of their concern for factual accuracy. Even David Hume, famous in his day as an historian, was criticised for historical inaccuracies yet was preferred to other historians due to his engaging narrative style. In previous centuries, accounts of the past were as much myth as fact. The classic example, of course, is Virgil’s Aeneid which ingeniously blends myth with historical fact in his account of the origins of Rome. Neither did a text’s factual inaccuracy necessarily undermine faith in the truths it purported to convey (as in the case of the Bible). Classical and Renaissance historians would happily make things up to fill gaps in the historical record of whatever narrative they were composing. Moral and rhetorical priorities were more important than a critical interrogation of their source material. Histoire de ma vie should not, therefore, be judged according to the standards of accuracy that we would apply to a history text today. Alongside the inevitable discrepancies contained in such a huge work largely composed from memory there are also claims and assertions that Casanova knew to be false, sacrificing fact for narrative interest or existential truth. There is considerable doubt, for example, over his account of a meeting with Jean-Jacques Rousseau. Nonetheless, despite this, Histoire de ma vie can still be regarded as a remarkably truthful and honest account of one man’s life.
Now, old as I am, and although enjoying good digestive organs, I must have only one meal every day; but I find a set-off to that privation in my delightful sleep, and in the ease which I experience in writing down my thoughts without having recourse to paradox or sophism, which would be calculated to deceive myself even more than my readers, for I never could make up my mind to palm counterfeit coin upon them if I knew it to be such.
(Casanova’s Memoirs, The Author’s Preface)
(Portrait of the 71-year-old Giacomo Casanova as painted by his brother, Francesco)
Note: Quotations from Casanova’s memoirs are taken from the revised unabridged Arthur Machen English translation (Gutenberg project)
Dave Thompson (2017)
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