Giovanni Jacopo Casanova (1725-1798) tacked on the spurious title “de Seingalt” to his name as a way of impressing the people he was attempting to manipulate. By all accounts, he must rank as one of the most interesting men of the eighteenth century. Born in Venice to two itinerant actors in 1725, he claimed to have received a doctorate in law at the University of Padua at the age of sixteen. Scanning through his multi-volume Memoirs, we must remind ourselves that Casanova is one of those raconteurs who, despite his irrepressible, self-effacing candor, often allows his imagination to overwhelm his mastery of the facts. With Casanova, one is never quite certain where reality ends and imagination begins. Perhaps this was one of the secrets of his longevity and–it must be said–his genius.
His first conquest, a pretty girl of thirteen named Bettina, fell ill of smallpox; Casanova claims to have nursed her and caught the disease himself. He later met her years later, poor and in ill health, and she supposedly “died lovingly in his arms”. He portrays all his amours as having loved him fiercely until their very deaths.
Poor, ambitious, and handsome, Casanova was one of those people who always seemed to be at the right place at the right time. He saved the Venetian senator Zuan Bragadino from a fall down a staircase in 1746 and thereafter enjoyed a measure of political protection for his shady activities, for which he was already acquiring a reputation. Under his tutelage, Casanova visited France, Germany, and Austria, hawking a peculiar blend of esoteric knowledge, medical cures, and occult magic.
His language skills and innate charm enabled him to float among clerics, socialites, royalty, and wealthy businessmen. Sentenced to prison for five years in Venice for teaching occult wisdom and disturbing the peace, he escaped after fifteen months (1757). He was able to attach himself to wealthy women by peddling the healing and magical arts, and added significantly to his income by cheating at cards and other games of chance.
Throughout his travels around Europe, he accumulated numerous mistresses and sired progeny here and there as opportunity would have it. His seductive self-assurance, wit, alleged “occult” knowledge, and unusual ability to win at casino games, earned him access to the highest social circles in the countries he visited, but sooner or later he always found himself either in jail or escorted to the frontier. Like all great seducers, he was possessed of a powerful intellect, which he was able to deploy on his targets when needed. And he had the daring and flair that comes from a man who has nothing to lose. He claimed even to have met and debated philosophy and religion with Voltaire, the great intellect of the age. If we are to believe his account of the debate with Voltaire (and it makes entertaining reading), Casanova even came out ahead in the exchange. He fought duels with angry rivals now and then, but according to him, of course, he always won.
After various adventures and assorted sexual conquests too numerous here to recount, he eventually discovered that his ruses, wit, and sleight-of-hand had reached the point of diminishing returns. He eventually accepted a position as a librarian at a castle in Bohemia, which was crushingly boring but at least stable and secure. There he spent the last fourteen years of his life in dreary book-lined drudgery, writing his Memoirs ten to twelve hours per day as a way of relieving the solitude of his existence. He claims absolute honesty in his narrative, and much of it actually agrees with history; but much of it also has no corroboration elsewhere.
Right up until the very end, Casanova retained a bit of his old panache. He claims to have been deeply religious, and this appears to be the case; but it is difficult to know how much of this was protective coloration in a religious age, or how much was sincere devotion.
In surveying his career, can we say there is a coherent system of philosophy here? What are we to conclude from the life of this unique character? Should he be viewed as a cautionary tale, or as a hero? The reader will have to form his own conclusions. But let us summarize a bit of the ethos by which Casanova lived his life. The following points (consciously or unconsciously) are the undercurrents of his life, and seem to have formed the basics of his code of conduct:
A detached, ironic view of life is the best refuge.
Casanova likes to pretend that the hardships he endured (poor background, lack of family and permanent love) did not touch his emotions. He suppresses his feelings, and takes refuge in witty comments and philosophical statements. Not sure whether to believe in God or not? Then just employ Pascal’s Wager, and all will be well, Casanova suggests. (Pascal’s Wager, named after the French philosopher Blaise Pascal, is a name given to a sort of “cost-benefit” argument used to justify belief in God. Very basically, it says that since we will never know whether God exists or not, it makes more sense to believe in the existence of a Deity, since the benefits of belief outweigh the disadvantages of belief).
Crime may not pay; but then again, normal life is an existential straight-jacket.
Casanova never apologizes for any of his frauds, schemes, and trickery he did in his life. He definitely gives the impression that, although he regrets how he ended up, his personality would not have let things turn out any other way. Normal life was a soul-destroying charade anyway, he apparently believed, so a little fraud now and then would never hurt anyone.
Character determines fate.
This idea goes back as far as the Greek tragedians. Casanova knows that he could not escape his true nature, no matter how hard he tried. He appears to have discovered things about himself he would rather not have known at certain times in his life, and this knowledge sent him further down the path where he ended up. Basically, he had a stoic fatalism that suggested the wheels of Fate grind on regardless of a man’s plans or needs. He ended up as he did because his character made it inevitable.
Fun counts for something.
Regardless how he ended up, Casanova packed several lifetimes of adventure into his years on this earth. He knows this very well, and always slyly suggests that it was all worth it. While he never advocated unrestrained debauchery, there is little doubt that he structured his life around the pursuit of sensual delights.
Alienation is inescapable.
Casanova takes delight in relating how he outwitted the wealthy aristocrats he came into contact with. He, from a poor background, could not help but notice how alienated and separated he was from the people he mixed with. No matter how hard he tried to integrate himself into proper society, it never worked. Casanova was the consummate outsider, condemned to live his existence on the margins. He was arguably the first red-pill ingester. And he knew it.
All in all, Casanova remains a figure of controversy. For how he ended up (unhappy and alone in a castle), one may ask: Was it all worth it? Did all the trickery, womanizing, and gamesmanship leave him better off than he would otherwise have been? I will let readers draw their own judgments. I have no doubt that he would have said yes. And it is difficult to disagree with him. One suspects that the Greeks really were right after all: perhaps, when all is said and done, character really does determine fate.
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