A major difference between modern, particularly western, psychology and that of the eighteenth century are attitudes to individuality. As recently as the mid-twentieth century, individual wants or needs were subordinate to the needs of the group or of a particular role. People were expected to conform to the rules and expectations that defined them as a good citizen, wife, husband, son, daughter, worshipper and so on. These expectations were often internalised and unspoken. They were simply what was right. As the twentieth century developed such norms broke down. Individual wants and needs became increasingly prioritised over the needs of the community as a whole. But this elevation of the individual has not been without a cost. As people are given the freedom to pursue their own interests they find themselves moving outside society and the ready-made slots and categories which previously they could use to define and measure who they were. And this, of course, raises the whole question of worth. What is a person’s value? If everyone is unique, if there is no social standard, if there is no common currency of exchange because everyone is minting their own, against what do you measure yourself? Instead of those concrete, hard-edged formulae of past generations that laid down what it was to be a good wife, husband, citizen etc we have vague, feel good platitudes that masquerade as positive and enabling but which, in reality, are empty: be the best that you can be, be whatever you want to be and so forth. There is a hidden assumption here, of course, that ‘being the best you can be’ is a good thing, so removed, like dropping the agent from of a passive sentence, has the individual become from the society of which they are a part. This phenomenon, of course, has become labelled ‘self-actualisation’ and is to be found at the very pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
This issue of individuality is played out in different ways in ‘Casanova in Paris’ but most clearly through the characters of Gabrielle and the Southerner. Gabrielle fits more comfortably with modern moral sensibilities as a woman whose wants and needs are constrained by the rigid demands of society. In Gabrielle’s case she rebels by taking on a lover and refuses to play the roles that society expects. Cheers all round. The case of the Southerner is trickier, however. He, too, aspires to be true to himself, to be the best that he can be and he too rebels against social constraints. In his case, however, self-actualisation is obtained through murder. Both characters possess the same modern sensibility but the implications are starkly different.
‘Casanova in Paris: The Shadows of the King’ is freely available here.
27 long form articles on Casanova’s life and times are freely available here.
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