Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Chevalier de Seingalt

Today is the two-hundred and eighty-eighth anniversary of the birth of Casanova. You want to read part or all of his memoirs at some point in your life. Ideally, you want to read all once and revisit bits every few years so as the impulse strikes you. You want to read it all once not because every page is wonderful, there are boring bits, but because you want to get the real thing and that is a very difficult thing to find in the various excerpts that get published from time to time.

The thing you are most likely to miss in most of the excerpts is Casanova's very real and very serious religious beliefs. It is no surprise to find that Casanova was censored right from the beginning. It might surprise you to find that he was censored for his religious and political views before anything else. And that remains true to this day. Publishers of modern editions probably don't think of themselves as censors but they are. They "bravely" publish the sex stuff and leave the religious views of Casanova out.

I'll come back to that.


Although Casanova is famous for talking women into opening their thighs for him, his skill in convincing men to open their wallets for him was considerably more important to his success. His favourite targets were Enlightenment figures who thought of themselves as being very good at seeing through superstition and pretense. Then, as now, the guy who thinks he is is the smartest guy in the room is the easiest mark.

He particularly liked to pick on Freemasons. They thought of themselves as heroic freethinkers (and there are even some today who continue this myth) Casanova immediately grasped that Freemasons were a bunch of gullible rubes and his first move on arriving in any new city was to do a little social networking in Freemason circles to find a likely mark.

An interesting aspect of Casanova's success as a con artist, and also relevant to his success seducing women, is that his reputation preceded him. His marks knew what sort of guy he was. This seems to have made him more, rather than less, attractive to both his various male victims and his various female lovers.

Casanova's techniques

The women were less likely to be victims. Or, to put it another way, they were already victims of other men when Casanova met them. This because the context that his sexual affairs took place in was completely different from our own time. At that time, indeed, for most of history, almost the only way a woman could find economic and social security was if some man granted it to her. Women either entered into marriages for protection or status or they became dependent on male protectors to whom they acted as mistresses. If not married, the protection offered could be very short term, perhaps only a day or for a few hours.

Casanova's primary technique then was to offer these women an escape from either drudgery to the securely married or to offer an escape from fear to the unattached woman being exploited by another man.

One of the more important things to grasp is that Casanova wasn't an unusual type for his times. If he stands out, it is a matter of degree rather than of kind. There was lots of seduction of the type he did going on and it was subject to considerably less censure than a man who set about seducing other mens' wives and girlfriends would be be subjected to today. Casanova differed from the common seducer in two respects, he did it much more often than others and he wrote, and wrote well, about what he had done.

Where Casanova did get into trouble it was not for doing what he did but doing it so often and so shamelessly. By analogy, you might think of speeding today. Everyone speeds today and does so with little risk of criticism provided they keep it within certain limits. So too, just about any man of Casanova's era, including a few members of the clergy, could set about sexual adventures with women who were married or other wise attached without risk so long as they didn't cause scandal or do it so unrestrained a fashion that others were forced to notice.

It was also the case that shame attached to being a cuckold at that time (an aspect that still remains true today). A man was supposed to keep his wife under control and while the moral standards of the time allowed that he could deal with her harshly if he caught her, he still would be an object of mockery. Once a man was sure he had an heir, he hand considerable incentive to not notice  what his wife was up to provided (again) she and her lover had the decency to be secretive enough about it that she didn't shame her husband.

Casanova was pretty good at avoiding scandal, he wasn't so good at being restrained. You can work out his second technique from that, however, and that was that he was always on the make. Generally, successful seduction artists don't talk about this aspect of what they do much and they don't talk about it for reasons of pride. It's far more flattering to make it sound like sex just drops into your lap rather than acknowledge that you are constantly snuffling it out. It is also more self-flattering to leave out the many women who turn you down for every one that accepts.

Casanova's third technique wasn't really a technique so much as a disposition. He tended to fall in love with women very easily. As some Catholic moralists like to say, if physical chastity is a challenge for men, emotional chastity is a struggle for women. The feeling that she has power over a man is an intoxicating one for a lot of women and the ease with which Casanova fell in love gave women this power. Once they knew they had it, they used it recklessly, thereby ceding a lot of their self control.

The second-to-last technique was one I've already broached in writing about his success as a con man. Casanova never pretended to be a nice guy. All the women he pursued knew they were being pursued by a seduction artist. They knew he was a rogue and they knew he wasn't the sort they wanted to have a permanent relationship with. Not incidentally, they also knew he wasn't going to cling to them.

His final technique was a little contradictory. Although he let women think of them as a seducer and a rogue, he was as kind and generous as he could be with them.  He offered them love and tenderness that was missing from their lives.

And it worked.


The final lesson from Casanova is about Catholic sexual morality. What he did was then, as it is now, condemned as serious mortal sin by the church. Neither the moral law nor its interpretation were much different from what they are today. But the application was different. It was understood that men were just like that. They weren't as much like that as Casanova but they were the same thing to a lesser degree.

There is a much-quoted ditty from Hilaire Belloc that runs as follows:
“Wherever the Catholic sun doth shine,
There’s always laughter and good red wine.
At least I’ve always found it so.
Benedicamus Domino!” 
He doesn't mention sex but it also tended to be quite freely available where the Catholic sun did shine.  That was beginning to change during Casanova's time with a new moral rigorism that began with the Jansenists but was far from unique to them. This is not to say that what Casanova did is morally justified. Reading his memoirs, I think it highly unlikely that even he would deny that he was a sinner. But he lived in an era that, unlike ours, expected most people to sin sexually and then repent.

I would add that it is pretty clear that Casanova didn't get as much pleasure or sense of satisfaction from his sex life as he ought to have done. He would have been much happier had he lived a much more restrained life. That said, he was too much of a restless risk taker to ever have done so. He had, again in Catholic moral terms, seriously disordered desires. But Jesus loves such people and we should pray for his salvation.

Happy Birthday Jacques!

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