Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women by Lydia Flem

Translated by Catherine Temerson

Farrar Straus Giroux 1997 256 pp. 24.00

Copyright © Steven E. Alford


In the subtitle of Lyndia Flem's new Casanova psychobiography, "the man who really loved women," emphasis should be placed on "loved." Flem contends that our received ideas about the man are wrong: while certainly a libertine, Casanova lived not for his own pleasure but for the happiness of his many lovers. Her book attempts to explain why Casanova genuinely cared for his conquests.

Born in Venice in 1725, fifteen years before France's Enlightenment Bad Boy, the Marquis de Sade, Casanova was abandoned early by his actor mother and placed in the care of his loving grandmother, who "instilled in him both a taste for life and absolute self-confidence." As a small boy he bled profusely from the nose, to the despair of local doctors, and only the intervention of a local witch cured him of his malady. Flem claims that "As a child, he was cured by magic; as an adolescent, he wishes to be cured by the most magical of human practices: sexual pleasure."

Casanova began his public career as an ecclesiastic, and changed careers as often as his women: in time he became a violinist, a professional gambler, a prisoner, the inventor of the Paris lottery, editor of a theatrical journal, translator of the Illiad, and, amazingly, an investigator for the Inquisition. His fame was assured by his most lasting creation, his own persona, created in the twelve-volume History of My Life. Begun at the age of sixty-four, his History forever forged his image in the minds of a shocked but fascinated European reading public.

"Tall-five feet nine inches-built like a Hercules, a slender and imposing figure, very dark skin. An "African" complexion, a candid face, a head held high, alert wide eyes with a lively and intense gaze, greedy lips," Casanova was humbly born, yet spent his life at the courts of European monarchs, owing in no small part to his intelligence and gift for witty conversation. To the wealthy and bored, he could discourse "on theology and medicine, taxes and the lottery, cotton growing and mining, the arts and princely genealogies, reform of the Gregorian calendar and literary criticism."

While he sought the company of high society, his amorous interests were utterly catholic, ranging from the wife of a stranger traveling with him in a coach, to female nobility, to-it is rumored-his own daughter. To him, each one is special.

"Casanova does not draw up a catalogue of his beauties. He does not love all women, he loves one woman at a time, each for her uniqueness. From a distance, through the passage of time, and sometimes beyond death, the memories of the women he loved remain intact within him."

What accounts for his popularity among women? It must be said: he's more concerned with their pleasure than his own. "He will do anything to fulfill a woman's expectations, certain of making her pleased with him if he can make her pleased with herself."

Indeed, unlike other famous Lotharios, "there is not a trace of misogyny in Casanova. In the great book of life, women are his masters. The feminine so fascinates him that he would like to merge with it."

While readerly interest focuses understandably on Casanova's love life, his amorous activities express a larger attitude toward living, one which his contemporaries found both morally repellent and sensually attractive. "Whatever his activity, he lives it to the full: love, dance, sleep, appetite, revenge, gambling, conversation. He is generous with everything he can give, excessive in all his passions. Words, money, sperm, movement-he spares nothing."

For Casnova, the site of his humanity is what his contemporary Christian friends would regard as the mere envelope of the soul. "For him, there is no other life but that of the body; reason is incarnated in it, not dissociated from it. His sensualism is a life principle, a philosophy of pleasure."

For readers interested in learning about Casanova's life, however, Flem's Casanova is not the place to visit. Setting up a counterpoint of excerpts from Casanova's autobiography and her own narrative analysis, Flem tries to have it both ways. She organizes her story at times conceptually, at times chronologically. Despite the workmanly recording of dates, the reader is left confused as to who was where, when, and with whom.

The merit of posthumous psychoanalysis rests in its explanatory power. Flem's neo-Freudian approach, demonstrating the influence of psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan, tries to show how Casanova's early parental influences could explain his later behavior. It is left to the reader to determine how much passages such as the following add to the understanding of Casanova:

"It is as though he had the irrepressible urge to try to change any authority into an obliging mother figure who encourages his fantasies of immunity. He remains the outlaw son of a magical mother and eliminates, through laughter and trickery any paternal prohibition."

The stylistic merits of this Belgian author are unmistakably French. To an American sensibility, this book will seem curious, as its high style continually pirouettes in front of the character it seeks to explain. Readers already familiar with Casanova's life with an interest in contemporary psychoanalysis will find this an exhilarating read. Those wishing to learn about the life of the man whose name is synonymous with love should perhaps first visit the Britannica.