Features November 2022
On Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova by Leo Damrosch.
By definition, adventurers are gamblers and deceivers, with a taste for masquerade. In naming his book Adventurer: The Life and Times of Giacomo Casanova, the canny and experienced biographer Leo Damrosch has adopted what could be a high-risk strategy.1 Potential readers may be deterred by what looks like a conventional narrative on a familiar subject, and indeed Damrosch sticks closely to the chronology as it is supplied by Casanova’s Memoirs (strictly speaking, they’re called Histoire de ma vie). But in fact the new work has a hidden critical agenda. Its subtitle reanimates a formula that seemed dead and gone. Every major incident along the way is contextualized by well-chosen details relating to the wider history and thought of the eighteenth century. Equally, the main title echoes that of many works using the same word or its cognate forms in other European languages, but the expression is given a twist here by the enlargement of its overtones. In modern English the term generally refers to a self-interested and gold-digging careerist, whereas aventurier in French has retained more of its older sense of one who embarks on great quests—it is used, for instance, of explorers and astronauts in children’s books. This richer implication underlies the lively tale that Damrosch tells. He has written an excellent book, using new manuscripts, drawing on the mass of modern scholarship (which is mostly francophone), and giving his own idiomatic translations from French and Italian of the Memoirs and numerous other sources. Moreover, the design values are up to Yale University Press standards, with color plates that are well reproduced and which present some distinguished works of art in their own
But who were adventurers, historically, in the English sense, and should Casanova be regarded as the archetypal member of this tribe? Damrosch writes that they formed “a true subculture, which overlapped with other subcultures that were important in Casanova’s story but have not been adequately explored by other biographers.” Among the attributes of the subject that he lists, there is gambling, but also interest in the occult, libertinism, efforts to borrow ideas from Enlightenment philosophy, and—most apposite of all—restlessness. These are certainly defining characteristics of the breed, but not peculiar to it, and other men (and women) exemplified some of the characteristics more precisely. Further on, Damrosch remarks that his hero was about to encounter “the shadowy underclass to which [he] himself would soon belong.” It’s doubtful whether there was an actual subculture in the way of a tightly connected milieu of the like-minded, as in the art world of late-nineteenth-century Paris or the hippie community of Haight-Ashbury in the 1960s. Nevertheless, a looser international grouping can be discerned, even if the participants were defined by actions rather than beliefs, and would never have agreed about very much.
We can extract some concrete hints about the nature of adventurism from a story run by a London newspaper in April 1788. This passage mentions the premiere of a comedy by Elizabeth Inchbald called Animal Magnetism, whose target was unmistakably the public exhibitions of Franz Anton Mesmer. Not long before, Mesmer’s supposed “cures” had been exposed by a commission in Paris headed by Benjamin Franklin, the chemist Antoine Lavoisier, and the later notorious Dr. Guillotin. Then comes this sentence: “Lunardi is at present in Italy, Blanchard at Strasburgh, Cagliostro at Naples, the Countess De La Motte and the Chevalier D’Eon in London.” The journalist was obviously well informed about the movements of this galère, which looks today an oddly assorted group, and readers would have recognized them all as people outside the common run of society. We understand the presence of the Italian psychic healer Cagliostro, also known as “Le Comte de Saint Germain, Celebrated Alchemist,” whom Casanova had the nerve to brand a “buffoonish charlatan.” Names we don’t anticipate are the pioneer balloonists Vincenzo Lunardi and Jean-François Blanchard. On his flight across the English Channel in 1785, Blanchard’s copilot had been John Jeffries, a physician and meteorologist, who became a misadventurer despite himself. He was available because he had been banned in Boston—that is, officially proscribed by a Massachusetts state law in 1778 as a Loyalist and forced to flee to England. This exploit was followed by Blanchard’s famous ascent in a hydrogen balloon at Philadelphia in 1793, for which he had to get a permit from George Washington, who witnessed the event. (Casanova, perhaps as a joke, contemplated a balloon flight at Vienna in 1784.) But why were Lunardi and Blanchard listed in this company? The answer is that they were entrepreneurs and inventors as well as aerialists, in quest of backers, and so qualified as dangerous projectors who might end up like Icarus. At this date the line between science and charlatanism was a fine one, as Mesmer’s case suggests.
At this date the line between science and charlatanism was a fine one, as Mesmer’s case suggests.
Two names stand out. The so-called Comtesse de la Motte was really Jeanne de Valois-Saint-Rémy, about as pure an adventurer as one could have the misfortune of meeting. She had made off with a diamond necklace supposedly intended for Marie-Antoinette, the occasion of a scandalous affair which implicated a cardinal and brought Cagliostro’s career to an end. The trial that ensued in 1786 did more than anything else to damage the credibility of the Bourbon monarchy as the revolution loomed. De la Motte had been convicted, branded as a thief with a V for voleuse, and sent to jail, but she was soon allowed to escape thanks to prominent supporters. She fled to London, where she died in 1791 when trying to escape from creditors. In her case we see additional common factors in the adventurer’s vita: theft of jewelry (of which Casanova was also guilty); self-bestowal of aristocracy; banishment and life in exile; imprisonment and escape. Casanova’s flight from the Piombi under the roof of the Doge’s Palace in Venice is his most famous exploit, well described by Damrosch.
Then there is d’Éon, who had just returned to England as an émigré(e) for the rest of his life, in his new womanly incarnation (at least he was a genuine chevalier, if a bogus chevalière, whereas Casanova originally promoted himself to the nonexistent title of Chevalier de Seingalt). D’Éon had some complicity in his transition, though technically it was imposed by the French court. He was also a former soldier of repute, whereas Casanova had a brief and unimpressive spell in the Venetian army. Both were skilled swordsmen, d’Éon especially, and challenged others to duels. Both were tangentially involved in freemasonry, a cult that attracted some great men but also some outright scoundrels. More than a decade before d’Éon’s transformation, the pair had socialized in London, and then after the Chevalière made her appearance, Casanova described their contacts in his Memoirs. The renowned dissembler totally failed to read d’Éon: he wrote that Louis XV had known that the Chevalier was a woman and had allowed the deceit to go on simply to amuse himself. To show his own percipience, the memoirist added, “In spite of her manly ways I soon recognized her as a woman; her voice was not that of a castrato, and her shape was too rounded to be a man’s. I say nothing of the absence of hair on her face as that might be an accident.” One of Casanova’s earliest affairs had been with a woman disguising herself as a castrato singer, but that didn’t help. So much for this great authority on the female body and mind.
There are further wheels within wheels. When d’Éon transitioned, the negotiator for the French court had been Pierre-Augustin Caron de Beaumarchais, a fellow spy and sometime fugitive, as well as an inventor, financier, and gun runner. Like Casanova, he accepted d’Éon’s supposed sex as real, or affected to do so. Again, it seems odd that the creator of Cherubino might have been fooled. Beaumarchais had risen from humble beginnings by reason of his charm and his two great comedies based around the barber Figaro. As everyone knows, it was Lorenzo da Ponte who turned the second play into a libretto for Mozart’s sublime opera in 1786. (As it happens, the Mozart family knew Mesmer well.) Commentators have often noted that the friendship that da Ponte forged with Casanova was based on some obvious commonalities—their Venetian backgrounds, their early studies for the priesthood, their peripatetic lives, their banishments from Venice, their tell-almost-all memoirs. It is a duty of those who retell their stories, as with that of d’Éon, to correct and augment what they report: Damrosch does this insistently but tactfully. But I agree with da Ponte’s biographer April FitzLyon that his character was widely different from that of Casanova: there’s a good deal of truth in her claim that “In an age of adventurers Casanova was proud to be the greatest adventurer of all, whereas da Ponte was just an adventurer pretending not to be one.” In 1785 the former ended up alone at the remote Bohemian castle of Dux (which Damrosch calls “a minimum security prison”), whereas da Ponte did pretty well in New York as a grocer, opera impresario, and professor of Italian at Columbia College.
The young grand tourist immediately decided that “Ne[u]haus, an Italian, wanted to shine as a great philosopher. . . . I thought him a blockhead.”
Another itinerant whom Casanova met in a tavern in Berlin was James Boswell, and he too serves to establish a context. The young grand tourist immediately decided that “Ne[u]haus, an Italian, wanted to shine as a great philosopher. . . . I thought him a blockhead.” On his travels the Scotsman explored Europe as an intellectual tuft-hunter, seeking out his heroes, who included Voltaire, Rousseau, John Wilkes (currently exiled in Rome), and the Corsican patriot Pasquale Paoli. He found their ideas more enticing than anything in the circle of enlightened despots whom Casanova pursued from Vienna and Berlin to St. Petersburg. When the faux Chevalier got to pass some time with Voltaire, he unwisely tried to bandy words with the great sage. Boswell instead presented himself in the guise of a fervent groupie. At the start of his tour, Boswell had fallen in love with a Dutch bluestocking, Belle van Zuylen, who later shone as an author of novels and letters under the name Isabelle de Charrière; subsequently he married a shrewd Scottish lassie. Casanova liked his women to have a spark of wit, but brains weren’t the first thing he looked for. Not only did he not marry, but he never made a lasting marriage of true minds with the opposite sex.
It’s also noteworthy that Boswell harbored some romantic attachment to the Jacobite cause and dragged Samuel Johnson across wastes of the Scottish Highlands on the route that Bonnie Prince Charlie followed after his great adventure (read: quixotic crusade) came to an end at the Battle of Culloden. The Young Pretender, whom Boswell styled “the Wanderer,” fits the template we have limned: an exile kicked out of more than one country who was forced to carry his begging bowl around the courts of Europe, a fugitive in disguise, a follower of impossible dreams, and a figure with more superficial charisma than ability to get things done right, who survived until 1788 to see the last embers of belief die out in the fantasy world of the Stuarts.
Adventurers illustrate the malleability of fame in an age of growing celebrity culture. Many of the women most regularly mentioned in the press seem to have flitted between identities in the public imagination. A newspaper story from July 1791 mentions an engraving of the unconventional Methodist leader Lady Huntingdon, recently deceased. We are told that the print was originally designed to represent a notorious forger (and briefly inamorata of Boswell), Caroline Rudd, but then was “afterwards altered to the Countess de la Motte and Madam D’Eon and it was about to have been touched up as a capital likeness of the Pretender’s widow, when Lady Huntingdon died just in time to add a few wrinkles and an old-fashioned cap.” Forgers, it should be said, attracted strong hostility when caught, as they undermined the workings of a commercial society: the Chevalier de Seingalt may just not have been caught in the act.
What, then, marks out Casanova, since he seems to share so many features with others of his kind? Partly his quiddity lies in the fact that he had nothing to sell but himself. Many of his compeers were trying to push a dodgy business, promote an invention, or put across an idea.
A representative figure is the creator of Baron Munchhausen, a self-projector on a lunatic scale, whose story was first published in 1785, at the moment when the adventurers were enjoying their dubious heyday. The author, Rudolf Erich Raspe, was for some years a librarian (like Casanova, nominally, in his last refuge). Eventually he came to England with some reputation as a mineralogist but brought with him a backlog of fraud that meant he was kicked out of the Royal Society. He went to Scotland, where he pretended to have found valuable veins of ore, and on discovery of his gambit he was forced to flee again to Ireland. His career formed the inspiration for the swindler Dousterswivel in Walter Scott’s most amusing novel, The Antiquary.
Casanova was too busy constructing his own identity to develop schemes for the improvement of mankind.
Casanova was different. Always in need of cash and a habitual user of people, especially women, he did not desire wealth so much as social status, respect, and recognition of his learning. He once put his money into a silk-printing business, but that soon went bankrupt. Willing to cheat as he was, he seems never to have fully believed his own publicity in terms of occult divination or numerological mumbo jumbo. By contrast, Cagliostro, Mesmer, and quacks such as James Graham, who purveyed sexual therapy by means of a celestial bed and electrical cures, had convinced themselves of the efficacy of their products. If the Memoirs are a safe guide—and on large matters, as opposed to the small matter of facts, they may be—Casanova was too busy constructing his own identity to develop schemes for the improvement of mankind. He indulged not in the myth of mesmeric cures, gold in the far north of Scotland, or utopian republics, but in the myth of Giacomo Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt.
How are we to judge the best known feature of the Memoirs, the litany of seductions and conquests? Many observers have noted that today Casanova would be liable to conviction for child rape, since he had a lamentable fondness for underage girls—often innocent teenagers rather than the twelve-year-old but knowing Lolita whom Humbert Humbert criminally assaulted. He was also guilty of trafficking when he carried the maid Rosalie from Marseille to Genoa, where he set her up as a courtesan. He probably committed incest. As for the “legitimate” lovers, his story is always that he gave sexual pleasure to the women he loved and left. This is probably true in many cases, but it leaves out of the account the impressionable virgins he introduced to a squalid future, the respectable wives whose reputation he might leave in tatters, and the lonely spinsters he deserted without compunction.
In any case, lots of Casanova’s actions that now seem beyond the pale were also reprehensible in his own day. Some find it easy to excuse his behavior; the Freudian psychiatrist Lydia Flem has written a book translated in 1997 as Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women, where the pattern of his sexual relations has Oedipal roots. (“The little boy’s attempt to identify with his father goes wrong and is converted into deception. . . . Malice is never involved. Love intrigues him; for him, love is neither philandering nor vanity. It is a kind of madness, an incurable disease.”) Perhaps, but one may feel doubts when one reads his cynical efforts at the wit of La Rochefoucauld or Wilde: “A woman is as old as she looks” (a feeling some men possibly have, but certainly not all women).
The mystery is how such a man could have written a book so endlessly fascinating, and the answer seems to be his infectious fascination for himself.
His wider outlook is often unattractive. In an age leading up to democratic revolution, he was a libertine but not a libertarian, caring little for the fate of the mass of society condemned to narrow and impoverished lives. Finally allowed to return to Venice, he joined up as an informer for the very secret police who had arrested him nearly twenty years before. The mystery is how such a man could have written a book so endlessly fascinating, and the answer seems to be his infectious fascination for himself. Somehow the author with a modicum of shallow reasoning about human experience got himself entrenched in The Portable Age of Reason Reader, along with Locke, Hume, Voltaire, Lessing, Kant, Madison, Jefferson, Adam Smith, Rousseau, d’Alembert, Montesquieu, Bentham, and others. Casanova felt so intensely about what happened to himself that we forgive his blindness to almost everything else.
The finest exploration of this paradox I know remains the essay by Edmund Wilson in The Wound and the Bow (1941). He saw Casanova as “one who had some of the qualities of greatness . . . always poised on the brink of a pit where taste, morals, the social order, the order of the world of the intellect, may all be lost in the slime.” His personal effrontery “had ended by acquiring in his Memoirs a certain intellectual dignity when he had found finally that all his struggles to make himself a place in society were vain and that this was the only companion that was left him in his solitude at Dux.” We certainly get the sense that, in the long postcoital sadness that followed the climax of Casanova’s golden years as a sexpot, it was the Memoirs that preserved his whole identity. In his last two chapters Damrosch has good things to say on the subject, developing his recognition that “what is amazing about the Histoire de Ma Vie is its freedom from bitterness and its celebration of life.” It is the story of a man who transcended the status of an adventurer only when his adventures were safely past.
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This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 41 Number 3, on page 28
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