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CASANOVA

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The Database of Ornament

            THERE are few more delightful books in the world than
            Casanova’s “Mémoires.”—That is a statement I have long
            vainly sought to see in print. It is true, one learns casually
            that various eminent literary personages have cherished a
            high regard for this autobiography, have even considered it
            the ideal autobiography, that Wendell Holmes was once
heard defending Casanova, that Thackeray found him good enough to borrow
from. But these eminent personages—and how many more we shall never
know—locked up the secret of their admiration for this book in some remote
casket of their breasts ; they never confided it to the cynical world. Every
properly constituted ” man of letters ” has always recognized that any public
allusion to Casanova should begin and end with lofty moral reprobation of
his unspeakable turpitude.

    No doubt whatever—and this apart from the question as to whether his
autobiography should be counted as moral or immoral literature—Casanova
delivered himself bound into the hands of the moralists. He may or may not
have recognized this. He wrote at the end of a long and full life, in the
friendly seclusion of a lonely Bohemian castle, when all things had become
indifferent to him save the vivid memories of the past. It mattered little to
him that the whirlwind of 1789 had just swept away the eighteenth century
together with the moral maxims that passed current in that century. We
have to accept this cardinal fact at the outset when we approach Casanova.
And if a dweller in the highly respectable nineteenth century may be forgiven
a first exclamation of horror at Casanova’s wickedness, he has wofully failed
in critical insight if he allows that exclamation to be his last word concerning
these “Mémoires.”

    There are at least three points of view from which Casanova’s “Mémoires”
are of deep and permanent interest. In the first place they constitute a docu-
ment of immense psychological value as the full and veracious presentation of a
certain human type in its most complete development. In the second place,
as a mere story of adventure and without reference to their veracity, the

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“Mémoires” have never been surpassed, and only equalled by books written on
a much smaller scale. In the third place, we here possess an unrivalled picture
of the eighteenth century in its most characteristic aspects throughout Europe.
Casanova lived in an age which seems to have been favourable for the
spontaneous revelation of human nature in literature. It was not only the
age in which the novel reached full development ; it was the age of diaries
and autobiographies. Pepys, indeed, though he died in the eighteenth century,
had written his diary long before ; but during Casanova’s lifetime Boswell was
writing that biography which is so wonderful largely because it is so nearly
an autobiography. Casanova’s communicative countryman, Gozzi, was also
his contemporary. Rousseau’s “Confessions” only preceded Casanova’s
“Mémoires” by a few years, and a little later Restif de la Bretonne
wrote “Monsieur Nicolas,” and Madame Roland her “Mémoires Particulières.”
All these autobiographies are very unlike Casanova’s. They mostly seem
to present the coulisses of otherwise eminent and respectable lives. The
highly-placed government official of versatile intellectual tastes exhibits him-
self as a monster of petty weaknesses ; the eloquent apostle of the return
to Nature uncovers the corroding morbidities we should else never suspect ;
the philanthropic pioneer in social reform exposes himself in a state of almost
maniacal eroticism ; the austere heroine who was nourished on Plutarch con-
fesses that she is the victim of unhappy passion. We are conscious of no
such discords in Casanova’s autobiography. Partly it may be because we
have no other picture of Casanova before our eyes. Moreover, he had no
conventional ideals to fall short of ; he was an adventurer from the first. ” I
am proud because I am nothing,” he used to say. He could not boast of
his birth ; he never held high position ; for the greatest part of his active
career he was an exile ; at every moment of his life he was forced to rely
on his own real and personal qualities. But the chief reason why we feel
no disturbing discord in Casanova’s “Mémoires” lies in the admirable skill
with which he has therein exploited his unquestionable sincerity. He is
a consummate master in the dignified narration of undignified experiences.
Fortified, it is true, by a confessed and excessive amour propre, he never loses
his fine sense of equilibrium, his power of presenting his own personality
broadly and harmoniously. He has done a few dubious things in his time,
he seems to say, and now and again found himself in positions that were
ridiculous enough ; but as he looks back he feels that the like may have
happened to any of us. He views these things with complete human tolerance
as a necessary part of the whole picture, which it would be idle to slur over

                              CASANOVA                                             43

or apologize for. He records them simply, not without a sense of humour,
but with no undue sense of shame. In his heart, perhaps, he is confident that
he has given the world one of its greatest books, and that posterity will
require of him no such rhetorical justification as Rousseau placed at the head
of his “Confessions.”

    In the preface to the “Mémoires,” Casanova is sufficiently frank. He has
not scrupled, he tells us, to defraud fools and rascals, “when necessary,” and
he has never regretted it. But such incidents have been but episodes in his
life. He is not a sensualist, he says, for he has never neglected his duty—
“when I had any”—for the allurements of sense ; yet the main business of
his life has ever been in the world of sense ; “there is none of greater import-
ance.” “I have always loved women and have done my best to make them love
me. I have also delighted in good cheer, and I have passionately followed
whatever has excited my curiosity.” Now in old age he reviews the joys of
his life. He has learnt to be content with one meal a day, in spite of a sound
digestion, but he recalls the dishes that delighted him : Neapolitan macaroni,
Spanish olla podrida, Newfoundland cod, high-flavoured game, old cheese (has
he not collected material for a “Dictionnaire des Fromages?”), and without any
consciousness of abrupt transition he passes on to speak of the sweetness of
the women he had loved. Then with a smile of pity he turns on those who
call such tastes depraved, the poor insensate fools who think the Almighty is
only able to enjoy our sorrow and abstinence, and bestows upon us for nought
the gift of self-respect, the love of praise, the desire to excel, energy, strength,
courage, and the power to kill ourselves when we will. And with the strain of
Stoicism which is ever present to give fibre to his Epicureanism, he quotes the
maxim which might well belong to both philosophies : “Nemo laeditur nisi a
seipso.”

    The fact that Casanova was on one side a Venetian must count for some-
thing in any attempt to explain him. Not indeed that Venice ever produced
more than one Casanova ; I would imply no such disrespect to Venice—or to
Casanova ; but the racial soil was favourable to such a personality. The
Venetians are a branch of a northern people— allied by race as well as in art
and commerce to the full-bodied, fair-haired people of the Rhine valley—
who long since settled by the southern sea to grow mellow in the sunshine.
It suited them well, for they expanded into one of the finest races in Christen-
dom, and certainly one of the least Christian races there, a solid, well-tempered
race, self-controlled and self-respecting. The Venetian genius is the genius of
sensuous enjoyment, of tolerant humanity, of unashamed earthliness. What-

44                                  THE SAVOY

ever was sane and stable in Casanova, and his instinctive distaste for the
morbid and perverse, he owes to his Venetian maternal ancestry. If it is
true that he was not a mere sensualist, it was by no means because of his
devotion to duty—”when I had any,”—but because the genuine sensualist is
only alive on the passive side of his nature, and in Casanova’s nervous system
the development of the sensory fibres is compensated and held in balance by
the equal vigour of the motor fibres ; what he is quick to enjoy he is strong
and alert to achieve. Thus he lived the full and varied life that he created for
himself at his own good pleasure out of nothing, by the sole power of his own
magnificent wits. And now the self-sufficing Venetian sits down to survey his
work and finds that it is good. It has not always been found so since. A
“self-made” man, if ever there was one, Casanova is not beloved of those who
worship self-help. The record of his life will easily outlive the largest fortune
ever made in any counting house, but the life itself remains what we call a
“wasted” life. Thrift, prudence, modesty, scrupulous integrity, strict attention
to business—it is useless to come to Casanova for any of these virtues. They
were not even in his blood ; he was only half Venetian.

    The Casanova family was originally Spanish. The first Casanova on
record was a certain Don Jacobo, of illegitimate birth, who in the middle of
the fifteenth century became secretary to King Alfonso. He fell in love with
Dona Anna Palafox, who was destined to the religious life, and the day after
she had pronounced her vows he carried her off from her convent to Rome,
where he finally obtained the forgiveness and benediction of the Pope. The son
of this union, Don Juan, killed an officer of the King of Naples, fled from Rome,
and sought fortune with Columbus, dying on the voyage. Don Juan’s son,
Marcantonio, secretary to a cardinal, was noted in his day as an epigrammatic
poet ; but his satire was too keen, and he also had to flee from Rome. His son
became a colonel, but, unlike his forefathers, he died peacefully, in extreme old
age, in France. In this soldier’s grandson, Casanova’s father, the adventurous
impulsiveness of the family again came out ; he ran away from home at nineteen
with a young actress, and himself became an actor ; subsequently he left the
actress and then fell in love with a young Venetian beauty of sixteen, Zanetta
Farusi, a shoemaker’s daughter. But a mere actor could find no favour in a
respectable family, so the young couple ran away and were married ; the hero
of these “Mémoires,” born on the 2nd April, 1725, was their first-born. There is
probably no reason to doubt the substantial accuracy of this family history, but
if one desired to invent an ancestry for Casanova one could scarcely better it.

    His race helps to account for Casanova, but the real explanation of the

                              CASANOVA                                             45

man can only lie in his own congenital organization. That he was a radically
abnormal person is fairly clear. Not that he was morbid either in body or
mind. On the contrary, he was a man of fine presence, of abounding health—
always looking ten years younger than his age—of the most robust appetites,
a great eater, who delighted to see others, especially women, eat heartily also,
a man of indubitable sexual vigour; however great the demands he made upon
his physical energy it seldom failed to respond, and his capacity for rest was
equally great ; he could sleep nineteen hours at a stretch. His mental health
was not less sound. The most punctilious alienist, with this frank and copious
history before him, could not commit Casanova to an asylum. What-
ever offences against social codes he may have committed, Casanova can
scarcely be said to have sinned against natural laws. He was only abnormal
because so natural a person within the gates of civilization is necessarily
abnormal and at war with his environment. Far from being the victim of
morbidities and perversities, Casanova presents to us the natural man
in excelsis. He was a man for whom the external world existed, and who
reacted to all the stimuli it presents to the healthy normal organism. His in-
telligence was immensely keen and alert, his resourcefulness, his sagacious
audacity, his presence of mind, were all of the first order. He was equally swift
to feel, to conceive, and to act. His mental organization was thus singularly
harmonious, and hence his success in gratifying his eager and immense
appetite for the world, an appetite unsatiated and insatiable even to the last, or
he would have found no pleasure in writing these “Mémoires.” Casanova has
been described as a psychological type of instability. That is to view him
superficially. A man who adapts himself so readily and so effectively to any
change in his environment or in his desires only exhibits the instability which
marks the most intensely vital protoplasm. The energy and ability which
Casanova displayed in gratifying his instincts would have sufficed to make a
reputation of the first importance in any department, as a popular statesman, a
great judge, a merchant prince, and enabled him to die worn out by the
monotonous and feverish toil of the senate, the court, or the counting-house.
Casanova chose to live. A crude and barbarous choice, it seems to us with our
hereditary instinct to spend our lives in wasting the reasons for living. But it
is certain that Casanova never repented his choice. Assuredly we need not,
for few judges, statesmen, or merchants have ever left for the joy of humanity
any legacy of their toil equal to these “Mémoires.”

    But such swift energy of vital action and reaction, such ardour of deed in
keeping pace with desire, are in themselves scarcely normal. Casanova’s

46                                  THE SAVOY

abnormality is suggested by the tendency to abnormality which we find in his
family. We have seen what men his ancestors were ; in reading the
“Mémoires” we gather incidentally that one of his brothers had married,
though impotent, and another brother is described as a somewhat feeble-minded
ne’er-do-well. All the physical and mental potency of the family was intensely
concentrated in Casanova. Yet he himself in early childhood seems to have
been little better than an idiot either in body or mind. He could recall
nothing that happened before he was eight years of age. He was not
expected to live ; he suffered from prolonged haemorrhages from the nose, and
the vision of blood was his earliest memory. He habitually kept his mouth
open, and his face was stupid. “Thickness of the blood,” said the physicians
of those days ; it seems probable that he suffered from growths in the nose
which, as we now know, produce such physical and mental inferiority as
Casanova describes. The cure was spontaneous. He was taken to Padua,
and shortly afterwards began to develop wonderfully both in stature and
intelligence. In after years he had little cause to complain either of health or
intellect. It is notable, however, that when, still a boy, he commenced his
ecclesiastical training (against his wishes, for he had chosen to be a doctor) he
failed miserably as a preacher, and broke down in the pulpit; thus the Church
lost a strange ornament. Moreover, with all his swift sensation and alert
response, there was in Casanova an anomalous dullness of moral sensibility.
The insults to Holy Religion which seem to have brought him to that prison
from which he effected his marvellous escape, were scarcely the serious protests
of a convinced heretic ; his deliberate trickery of Mme. d’Urfe was not only
criminal but cruel. His sense of the bonds of society was always somewhat
veiled, and although the veil never became thick, and might be called the natural
result of an adventurer’s life, it might also, perhaps, be said that it was a certain
degree of what is sometimes called moral imbecility that made Casanova an
adventurer. But while we thus have to recognize that he was a man of dulled
moral sensibility, we must also recognize that he possessed a vigorous moral
consciousness of his own, or we misunderstand him altogether. The point to
be remembered is that the threshold of his moral sensibility was not easily
reached. There are some people whose tactile sensibility is so obtuse that
it requires a very wide separation of the æsthesiometer to get the right
response. It was so with Casanova’s moral sensitiveness. But, once aroused,
his conscience responded energetically enough. It seems doubtful whether,
from his own point of view, he ever fell into grave sin, and therefore he
is happily free from remorse. No great credit is thus due to him ; the same

                              CASANOVA                                             47

psychological characteristic is familiar in all criminals. It is not difficult
to avoid plucking the apples of shame when so singularly few grow on your
tree.

    Casanova’s moral sensibility and its limits come out, where a man’s moral
sensibility will come out, in his relations with women. As in the life of the
natural man generally, women played a large part in Casanova’s life. He
was always in love. We may use the word “love” here in no euphemistic
sense, for although Casanova’s passions grew and ripened with the rapidity
born of long experience in these matters, so great is the fresh vitality of the
man that there is ever a virginal bloom on every new ardour. He was as far
removed from the cold-blooded libertine typified in Laclos’s Valmont, un-
scrupulously using women as the instruments of his own lust, as from Laura’s
sonneteering lover. He had fully grasped what the latest writer on the
scientific psychology of sex calls the secondary law of courting, namely, the
development in the male of an imaginative attentiveness to the psychical and
bodily states of the female, in place of an exclusive attentiveness to his own
gratification. It is not impossible that in these matters Casanova could have
given a lesson to many virtuous husbands of our own highly moral century.
He never sank to the level of the vulgar maxim that “all ‘s fair in love and
war.” He sought his pleasure in the pleasure, and not in the complaisance, of
the women he loved, and they seem to have gratefully and tenderly recognized
his skill in the art of love-making. Casanova loved many women, but broke
few hearts. The same women appear again and again through his pages, and
for the most part no lapse of years seems to deaden the gladness with which
he goes forth to meet them anew. That he knew himself well enough never
to take either wife or mistress must be counted as a virtue, such as it was, in
this incomparable lover of so many women. A man of finer moral fibre could
scarcely have loved so many women ; a man of coarser fibre could never have
left so many women happy.

    This very lack of moral delicacy which shuts Casanova off from the finest
human development is an advantage to the autobiographer. It insures his
sincerity because he is unconscious of offence ; it saves us from any
wearisome self-justification, because, for all his amused self-criticism, he sees
no real need for justification. In Rousseau’s “Confessions” we hear the
passionate pleader against men at the tribunal of God ; here we are conscious
neither of opponent nor tribunal. Casanova is neither a pillar of society nor
yet one of the moral Samsons who delight to pull down the pillars of society
he has taken the world as it is, and he has taken himself as he is, and he has

48                                  THE SAVOY

enjoyed them both hugely. So he is free to set forth the whole of himself, his
achievements, his audacities, his failures, his little weaknesses and superstitions,
his amours, his quarrels, his good fortune and his bad fortune in the world
that on the whole he has found so interesting and happy a place to dwell in.
And his book remains an unending source of delightful study of the man of
impulse and action in all his moods. The self-reliant man, immensely apt for
enjoyment, who plants himself solidly with his single keen wit before the
mighty oyster of the world has never revealed himself so clearly before.

    What manner of man Casanova seemed to his contemporaries has only
been discovered of recent years ; and while the picture which we obtain of
him has been furnished by his enemies, and was not meant to flatter, it ad-
mirably supports the “Mémoires.” In 1755 a spy of the Venetian Inquisition
reported that Casanova united impiety, imposture, and wantonness to a degree
that inspired horror. It was in that same year that Casanova was arrested,
chiefly on the charge of contempt for Holy Religion, and sentenced to five
years imprisonment Fifteen months later he had effected his famous escape,
and was able to pursue his career as an assured and accomplished adventurer
who had brilliantly completed his apprenticeship. It is not until many years
later, in 1772, when his long efforts to obtain pardon from his country still
remained unsuccessful, that we obtain an admirable picture of him from the
Venetian agent at Ancona. “He comes and goes where he will,” the agent
reports, “with open face and haughty mien, always well equipped. He is a
man of some forty- years at most [really about forty-eight, thus confirming
Casanova’s statement that he was always taken for some ten years younger
than his years], of lofty stature, of fine and vigorous aspect, with bright eyes
and very brown skin. He wears a short chestnut-coloured peruke. I am
told that his character is bold and disdainful, but especially that he is full of
speech, and of witty and well-instructed speech.” Two years later Casanova
was at last permitted to return to Venice. He there accepted the post of
secret agent of the State Inquisition for service within the city. Like Defoe
and Toland, who were also secret political agents, he attempted to justify
himself on grounds of public duty. In a few years, however, he was dismissed,
perhaps, as Baschet suggests, on account of the fact that his reports contained
too much philosophy and not enough espionage ; probably it was realized that
a man of such powerful individuality and independence was not fitted for
servile uses. Finally, in 1782, he was banished from Venice for an offence
to which the blood of the Casanovas had always been easily inclined—he
published an audacious satire against a patrician. From Venice he went to

                              CASANOVA                                             49

Trieste, and thence to Vienna. There he met Count Waldstein, a fervent
adept of Kabbalistic science, a subject in which Casanova himself was pro-
ficient ; he had found it useful in certain dealings with credulous people. In
1784 the count offered him the post of librarian, with a salary of one thousand
florins, at his castle of Dux, near Teplitz, in Bohemia. It is said to be a fine
castle, and is still noted for its charming park. Here this prince of Bohemians
spent the remainder of his life, devoting seven years to the “Mémoires,” on which
he was still engaged at his death. A tcrra-cotta bust discovered at the castle
(and etched some years ago for “Le Livre”) shows him in mature age, a
handsome, energetic, and imposing head, with somewhat deep-set eyes ; it is
by no means the head of a scamp, but rather that of a philosopher, a philo-
sopher with unusual experience of affairs, a successful statesman, one might
say. A medallion portrait, of later date, which has also been reproduced,
shows him at the age of sixty-three with lean, eager face, and lofty, though
receding forehead, the type of the man of quick perception and swift action,
the eagle type of man. The Prince de Ligne has also left a description of
him as he appeared in old age, now grown very irritable, ready to flare up
at any imagined insult, engaged in perpetual warfare with domestics, but
receiving the highest consideration from those who knew how to appreciate
the great qualities of the man and his unequalled experiences, and who knew
also how to indulge his susceptibilities and smile at his antique fashions.
Once he went off in a huff to Weimar, and was graciously received by the
Duke, but he soon came back again ; all the favours there were showered on
a certain court favourite, one Goethe. It is clear, as we read the Prince de
Ligne’s detailed description, that the restless old adventurer had need, even in
the peaceful seclusion of Dux, of all the consolation yielded by Socrates,
Horace, Seneca, and Boethius, his favourite philosophers. Here, at Dux, on
the 4th of June, 1798, Casanova died, at the age of sixty-eight. “Bear
witness that I have lived as a philosopher and die as a Christian ;” that, we
are told, was his last utterance after he had taken the sacraments.

    From that moment Casanova and everything that concerned him was
covered by a pall of oblivion. He seems to have been carelessly cast aside,
together with the century of which he was so characteristic, and, as it now
appears, so memorable a child. The world in which he had lived so joyously
and completely had been transformed by the Revolution. The new age of
strenuous commercialism and complacent philosophy was in its vigorous
youth, a sword in its right hand and a Bible in its left The only adventurer
who found favour now was he who took the glad news of salvation to the

50                                  THE SAVOY

heathen, or mowed them down to make new openings for trade. Had he
been born later, we may be well assured, Casanova would have known how to
play his part ; he would not have fallen short of Borrow, who became an agent
of the Bible Society. But as it was, what had the new age to do with
Casanova ? No one cared, no one even yet has cared, so much as to
examine the drawers and cupboards full of papers which he left behind at
Dux. Only on the 13th of February, 1820, was the oblivion a little stirred.
On that date a certain Carlo Angiolieri appeared at Leipzig in the office of
the famous publisher, Brockhaus, bearing a voluminous manuscript in the
handwriting (as we now know) of Casanova, and bearing the title, “Histoire de
ma Vie jusqu’à l’an 1797.”

    But even the appearance of Carlo Angiolieri failed to dissipate the gloom
. Fifty years more were to pass before the figure of Casanova again became
clear. This man, so ardently alive in every fibre, had now become a myth.
The sagacious world—which imparts the largest dole of contempt to the
pilgrim who brings back to it the largest gifts—refused to take Casanova
seriously. The shrewd critic wondered who wrote Casanova, just as he has
since wondered who wrote Shakespeare. Paul Lacroix paid Stendhal the
huge compliment of suggesting that he had written the “Mémoires,” a
sufficiently ingenious suggestion, for in Stendhal’s Dauphiny spirit there is
something of that love of adventure which is supremely illustrated in Casanova.
But we now know that, as Armand Baschet first proved, Casanova himself
really wrote his own “Mémoires.” Moreover, so far as investigation has
yet been able to go, he wrote with strict regard to truth. Wherever it
is possible to test Casanova, his essential veracity has always been vindi-
cated. In the nature of things it is impossible to verify much that he
narrates. When, however, we remember that he was telling the story of his
life primarily for his own pleasure, it is clear that he had no motive for
deception ; and when we consider the surpassingly discreditable episodes
which he has recorded, we may recall that he has given not indeed positive
proof of sincerity, but certainly the best that can be given in the absence of
direct proof. It remains a question how far a man is able to recollect the
details of the far past—the conversations he held, the garments he wore, the
meals he ate—so precisely as Casanova professes to recollect them. This is a
psychological problem which has not yet been experimentally examined.
There are, however, great individual differences in memory, and there is
reason to believe that an organization, such as Casanova’s, for which the
external world is so vivid, is associated with memory-power of high quality.

                              CASANOVA                                             51

That this history is narrated with absolute precision of detail Casanova
himself would probably not have asserted. But there is no reason to doubt
his good faith, and there is excellent reason to accept the substantial accuracy
of his narrative. It remains a personal document of a value which will
increase rather than diminish as time goes by. It is one of the great auto-
biographical revelations which the ages have left us, with Augustine’s, Cellini’s,
Rousseau’s, of its own kind supreme.

                                                                                                Havelock Ellis.

MLA citation:

Ellis, Havelock. “Casanova.” The Savoy vol. 7, November 1896, pp. 41-51. Savoy Digital Edition, edited by Christopher Keep and Lorraine Janzen Kooistra, 2018-2020. Yellow Nineties 2.0, Ryerson University Centre for Digital Humanities, 2019. https://1890s.ca/savoyv7-ellis-casanova/