History of Single Life

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Though the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in Europe were known as the "Age of Reason," the philosophers of the Enlightenment (being French) did not solely live the life of the mind. As Denis Diderot said, "We are constantly railing against the passions; we ascribe to them all of man’s afflictions, and we forget that they are also the source of all his pleasures." What Diderot did not mention was that the woman a gentleman was likely to take his pleasure with was often not his wife.

In many ways, the culture of aristocratic libertinism that flourished in the period following the wars of the Reformation was a reaction to the conservative middle-class values of both the Reformers and the Catholic Counter-Reformation, a sort of sexual counterpart to the Galileos and Copernici who had rejected the Church’s theological explanation of the world. For instance, no sooner had the monarchy been restored in England in 1660 then Charles II reopened the theaters that had been closed by the previous regime. The "merrie monarch," who had acquired his taste for fleshly indulgence while in exile in France and eventually fathered no less than fourteen illegitimate children, enjoyed more than just the spectacle of bawdy Restoration-era comedy: He was the first English monarch to allow women on stage, and actresses, such as Moll Davis and "pretty, witty" Nell Gwyn (as Samuel Pepys called her in his famous diary), were his preferred mistresses.


Similar attitudes prevailed in other nations, whether Protestant or Catholic, as well as amongst the more sophisticated inhabitants of New World cities such as New York and Philadelphia. If both Reformers and Counter-Reformers stressed the importance of modesty, self-control, and godliness, then libertine culture self-consciously inverted these virtues. Let merchants count pennies and peasants fear the wrath of God; for the aristocrat, wasting enormous sums of cash gambling at cards and whoring was less of a disgrace than a reputation for miserliness. Where the reformer chose sobriety, the libertine chose indulgence; where the reformer chose thrift, he chose conspicuous display, where the reformer chose chastity; he chose dissipation. Even marriage did not interfere with libertine enjoyment, since wives were married for dynastic, not personal reasons; in fact, in some circles, loving one’s own wife was considered decidedly déclassé. As exemplified by Choderlos de Laclos’ epistolary novel Les Liaisons Dangereuses, life was like a play, filled with elaborate, symbolic gestures and conspicuous display; one was judged not only on the role one played, but how well one played it.

If life was theater, then Giacomo Girolamo Casanova, the son of an emotionally distant but beautiful actress in the commedia dell’arte, was a consummate player. Born in 1725 in Venice, the city of masks, Casanova was favored with neither wealth nor

Even Casanova’s trysts were theatrically staged.

noble birth, but, like a fencing expert or dance master, was able to move in the highest circles by making himself indispensable. It was by sheer virtue of his personality and charm that Casanova gained admittance to the courts of Europe. His clothes were painstakingly chosen, his manners and language were carefully cultivated, and even his trysts were theatrically staged. For an assignation with two beautiful nuns, he rented an elegant Venetian casino, or small house, of five rooms, and stocked it with oysters, truffles and ice cream. He was, in short, the epitome of the self-fashioned man.

One of the secrets of Casanova’s success was his willingness to play whatever role was required of him. While employed as a lowly violinist, the twenty-year-old Casanova shared a gondola with a Venetian nobleman, nursed him through a sudden illness, convinced him that he was the possessor of cabbalistic secrets, and had himself declared an adopted son — at least until the Inquisition had him carried across the claustrophobic ponte dei sospiri, the "bridge of sighs," and imprisoned in the tiny, filthy, airless stone cells behind the Doge’s palace. Escaping from that hell on earth a year and five months later, Casanova paused only to adjust what remained of his elegant clothing and reflect on the sunrise over the Grand Canal before fleeing to a new life on the terra firma.

In 1757, he became a millionaire by introducing the lottery to France; in Amsterdam, he was unafraid to pass himself off as an occultist to con the gullible; back in Paris again, he allowed an aged marquise to talk him into a sex-magic ritual, a "philosophical" ménage a trois that was supposed to conceive a blessed child. In at least one way, though, Casanova was truly a magician. His last act on Earth, putting down his memoirs for posterity, was, like all writing, a magical act — for, in writing, one has not only the capability to disguise oneself behind a mask of sorts but, even more powerfully, to shape the perceptions of the reader.

Casanova is best known, of course, as a lover of women — a title he had more than earned ever since losing his virginity to two sisters at the age of seventeen. In all, he boasted of having sacked no less than 132 bedmates, even claiming to have seduced his own illegitimate daughter. (There was something of the transgressive in many of Casanova’s liaisons: The great love of his life, for instance, was a Provençal opera singer named Henriette who cross-dressed to impersonate a castrato, with whom he shared three heavenly months in Parma.) However, though his name has become synonymous with fear of commitment, Casanova’s story, in his own words, was not published until 1960. Up until that point, all editions of his autobiography, La Historie de Ma Vie, had been based on a bowdlerized 1822 German version.

Our sense of eros is still fundamentally theatrical.

How many of Casanova’s erotomaniacal claims were true? Did he really seduce all those women, hang out with Voltaire, Frederick the Great and Benjamin Franklin, fight duels, and win and lose fortunes in an evening’s gambling? Was he a victim or a victimizer? Or were these lies of an old man reminiscing in the decrepitude of his retirement as a librarian in a crumbling castle in an obscure corner of Bohemia?

In the end, none of the answers are really important. Casanova remains fascinating to us precisely because he was so precociously postmodern. The ideals and preoccupations of the Enlightenment elite self-fashioning, wearing of masks beneath masks, "philosophical" seduction instead of the stern morality of God’s law — are so familiar because they resemble our own (or, perhaps we should say that they birthed our own). Anyone who has moved to a big city seeking the sort of life that couldn’t be found in their home town, spent hours agonizing over their online dating profile, or told half-truths and lies to some attractive stranger knows full well; the only difference today is our methods. Furthermore, our sense of eros is still fundamentally theatrical: We’re still as fascinated by actors and actresses as sex symbols and ideals of the sublime life as any eighteenth-century libertine, and the tableau vivant of pornography, be it magazine, film, DVD, or .mpg, has schooled the libidos of entire generations. In the next column, we’ll meet another dramatical debauch√© from the Age of Enlightenment who took this preoccupation to extremes: the Marquis de Sade.

©2007 Ken Mondschein and
Ken Mondschein is a Ph.D candidate at Fordham University and the author of A History of Single Life.