feature

Seduced by Casanova: The Psychoanalyst on the Lover

Pin it

 OPINIONS



Seduced by Casanova: The Psychoanalyst on the Lover by Liza 
 
Featherstone


Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved Women

by Lydia Flem (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997; 256 pages.)




Promiscuity has a serious PR problem

these days, perhaps even worse than when Giacomo Casanova, the notorious eighteenth-century slut,

romped his way around Europe. If Casanova were around today, he’d probably be branded a

misogynistic, pathetically insecure disease risk. The promiscuous male appears, by turns,

untrustworthy (Bill Clinton), abject (philanderers turned Promise Keepers) or deadly dangerous

(NuShawn Williams). See The Ice Storm for the artsy expression of this grim consensus:

sleeping around leads to misery, alienation, death and bad weather. Last month on ABC News,

anthropologist Helen Fisher lamented the human male’s biological drive toward sexual variety as a

regrettable “triumph of nature over culture,” but sternly advised viewers that it could be curbed:

“That’s when you begin to be grown-up.”


    

Despite this unsympathetic atmosphere, history’s most notorious charmer has been enjoying

surprisingly positive press. Earlier this year Johns Hopkins University Press released a beautifully

packaged edition of Casanova’s twelve-volume History of My Life. Writing in The New

Yorker, Clive James recently called him “the man you would be, if you were free to act.” The

latest public valentine to the famous lover is Lydia Flem’s Casanova: The Man Who Really Loved

Women.


    

Giacomo Casanova was a diplomat, a violinist, a scholar, a magician, a spy and a man of

letters, but he is best known for his diligently recorded sex life. Ms. Flem, his biographer, is a

psychoanalyst. I was a little worried that she would scrounge for childhood trauma or try to measure

the great ladies’ man against the rather prudish standards of the mental-health obsessed ’90s. I

mean, talk about commitment issues — the guy went to bed with more than 120 women and never married

any of them. And sure enough, Flem does think that Casanova was unloved by his mother and spent his

adult life seeking approval from women to make up for it. But her refreshing conclusion seems to be,

So what? He enjoyed himself, and judging from the numerous fan letters Flem quotes, he made a whole

lot of women very happy.


    

In celebrating Casanova, Flem revels in the female lust that made his escapades possible.

Though Casanova’s name is used today as a catchall for caddy womanizers, Flem presents a man who

lavished affection on his paramours, and wasn’t always the initiator. Women ardently pursued him,

sending him love letters even in his later years, when shame about his waning performance kept him

coy and elusive.


    

To assume that the male slut is always taking advantage of women assumes that women never

want sex. Flem’s Casanova knows better. He even wonders

if women enjoy sex more than men do, admitting, “the pleasure I have felt when the woman I loved

made me happy was certainly great, but I knew I would not have wanted it if, to obtain it, I had had

to incur the risk of pregnancy. Women take the risk even after experiencing pregnancy several times;

therefore, they must feel that the pleasure is worth the pain.” Not wishing to take his good fortune

for granted, he wore “a little garment of very fine transparent skin . . . closed at one end, but

resembling a purse and having at its open end a narrow pink ribbon.”


    

If Flem’s accounts are accurate, the ladies had good reason to like Casanova, for whom

intellectual conversation with lovers was essential. Without it, he calculated, sexual pleasure was

diminished by “two thirds.” Many of his lovers were smart and accomplished; at one point, listening

to a lady friend play the cello, he almost faints, suffering, according to Flem, “such violent heart

palpitations that he thinks he will die of emotion.” The fact that he had a lot of lovers hardly

made them interchangeable; when he loved a woman, he was completely obsessed with her, and after

they parted, he often fell physically ill. And if we believe him, he was unselfish in the sack —

“the visible pleasure I was giving always made up four-fifths of mine.”


    

But the last point begs a pesky question: Why should we believe this flighty sybarite? I

don’t know that I do. Halfway through this volume, one begins to suspect that Flem is his latest

puppy-eyed prey. Indeed, if there’s anything less reliable than a sexual memoir, it’s a love letter,

and The Man Who Really Loved Women turns out to be more love letter than biography.


    

Like any admirer, Flem is way too generous to her beloved; she makes preposterous statements

like “Casanova never breaks up with a woman.” (Interestingly, one of the few points on which Flem

appears skeptical of Casanova happens to be the physical beauty of his lovers. Me-ow!) Flem so wants

to reconstitute Casanova as History’s First Feminist Man that she entirely ignores one disturbing

passage in which he describes assaulting a servant girl and swallows his spin on an

aggressive-sounding run-in with a farmer’s wife (she wanted it).


    

For a psychoanalyst, Flem doesn’t write too badly; the pace is brisk, with mercifully short,

jargon-free sentences. But love letters tend to gush, and this one is no exception — at one point

she calls Casanova “a beautiful warrior thirsting for exploits several times renewed.” Was that

really less embarrassing than saying he gets it up more than once?


    

It’s always better when she lets Casanova speak for himself. Casanova the writer is

successful for the same reasons that Casanova the lover was: he keeps his motives simple. He writes

to a friend,

“I cannot entitle my memoirs Confessions, for I am repentant about nothing, and without

repentance, as you know, absolution is impossible.” His real reason for writing? “You would not

believe how much it amuses me.”


    

Casanova’s Casanova isn’t infallibly slick. He catalogues his failures as well as his

successes, obsessing over women who reject him, including — perhaps most humiliatingly — a London

prostitute. One lady friend makes him dress up as a woman, then slaps him when his inopportune

erection stains the chemise. He’s constantly fussing over his appearance so women will want him;

this becomes more comically poignant as he grows older and finds that “the fair sex was no longer

interested in me at first sight. I had to talk, rivals were preferred to me.” He suffers from

performance-anxiety: “I have been dominated all my life by the fear that my steed would be

recalcitrant about starting a new race . . .”


    

It’s Casanova’s zeal for describing — or inventing — zany situations, especially those

that run afoul of cherished social taboos, that make his memoirs fun to read. The adolescent

Casanova is initiated into sex by two sisters who usually have sex with a third girl (“Don’t you

know” one of the girls asks him, “what women who are good friends do together?”). He likes female

crossdressers — even falling for an opera singer who passes for a castrati. For a while she won’t

reveal her sex: “You are in love with me whether I am a girl or a boy,” she teases him. “How can

you, with your enlightened mind, imagine, or flatter yourself, that if you found I am a man you

would cease to love me?” He gets it on with two nuns at once. Casanova even shocks himself when he

nearly becomes engaged to a young girl who turns out to be his daughter. He then has sex with the

mother in front of the daughter, who is fascinated to see how she was conceived. The raunchiest

modern day porn producers don’t have much on this guy.


    

It’s not hard to see that Casanova is more than the man we would be if we could: he’s the

person we already are — sleazy, violent, desperate to please, generous, loving, voyeuristic, but

mostly just plain horny.


For more Liza Featherstone, read:

Going with the Flow
Shocking Fuzz
Paradise Lost: Living in Latex
Let’s Talk About Saving $8.50
The Art of Noise
Seduced by Casanova: The Psychoanalyst on the Lover
Circling the Threesome

©1997 Liza Featherstone and Nerve.com