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$9.6 Million for Casanova's Memoirs? Why Are the French Still Impressed With Sexual Cads?

The idea of the heroic male seducer, while dated and dangerous, lives on.
 
 
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Giacomo Casanova's home in Venice, Italy
Photo Credit: Argenberg via Flickr

 
 
 
 

In 2010 the National Library of France dropped $9.6 million on the original manuscript of Casanova’s memoirs. Penned in 1798, the memoirs tell the tale of the shameless and legendary seductor who slept and swindled his way across Europe. Next year, the library will open an extensive exhibit centered around the manuscript, including artifacts of the time and assorted personal effects of the man himself.

It’s set to be an elaborate display—its “biggest heritage acquisition ever”—and last year, the Web site Most Expensive Journal declared it the priciest written manuscript of all time. Which, surely, is a great bragging point for the French National Library...but what does the expense and fanfare say about the way society rewards the idea of the male Lothario?

The story of the manuscript’s journeys—and how it landed in the lap of the French National Library for such a princely sum—are certainly intriguing, almost as much as Casanova’s Story of my Life. Freidrich-Arnold Brockhaus, patriarch of the long-publishing German Brockhaus family, acquired it in 1821, and held it within company ranks until 1945, after American troops discovered it hidden in a building in Leipzeig, where he’d kept it during WWII. Thought to be scandalous and controversial—Casanova is said to have seduced over 120 women—the memoirs were not published in full until 1960. And in 2007, the National Library bought it from a mysterious unknown seller, who had originally offered it to a French ambassador. It is a tale worthy of a Nicholas Cage thriller. And, unless some rogue archaeological bandit steals it, the manuscript will stay on display at France’s National Library through March.

The exhibition, which not only displays the manuscript but other artifacts from the French-speaking Venetian traveler, seeks to recast Casanova. As the press release puts it:

“In the collective imagination, the name Casanova has often been linked with the terms 'womanizer' or 'Don Juan.' History made Casanova a legend; however, the character was created by Casanova himself as he was both a talented performer and a gifted narrator. Disclosing his powerful writing, the exhibition offers visitors the opportunity to follow the footsteps of the amazing pleasure seeker who always made a point of preserving his independence and never sacrificed it for a woman, a cause or a taste for possession.”

The concept of Casanova as a libertine and a pleasure-seeker has not been disputed; his lust for sex paralleled his lust for life, which he spent traveling restlessly, finding older rich benefactors, and mismanaging his (and their) finances. Yet the concept of the notorious seducer is the one that precedes him, and the above statement from the French Library doesn’t exonerate him from womanizing; in fact, it makes him sound more like a creep.

It’s a fine line between celebrating sexual freedom and pedestalizing the concept of the male Lothario as an individual with social primacy. Casanova is said to have had 132 partners, which frankly in this day and age isn’t all that unusual (or at least not as rare as it used to be). Along with the French Library, some have made the case that Casanova was deeper than his legend; that beneath the notorious seducer was a man who greatly privileged intelligent women, who assisted another with obtaining an abortion (not his). (He was also a master manipulator, prone to filching money from the women he slept with.)

But whether or not a nascent feminism existed within him, that is not the Casanova that lives on as an archetype. Commonly, Casanova is generally thought of as pure seducer, and admired and celebrated for essentially tempting women into bed. Disdain for this archetype has nothing to do with morality (or disdain for sex), and everything to do with the elevation of his male promiscuity, where a woman doing the same would still be reviled and scorned as a whore. And, not to pick on the French, but this archetype played out perfectly in the case of Dominique Strauss-Kahn, whose alleged sexual assault of Nafissatou Diallo is still clouded in lies. When he was initially arrested, some publications cited his well-known past as a "ladies' man" as a way to downplay the rape allegations—as though somehow being promiscuous has anything to do with sexual assault. For some, the rape aspect of the story was clouded beneath his "virility," a Casanova archetype that painted him as strong and desirable, when the crux of the story was appalling, despicable and disgusting. 

When DSK was first arrested, his defenders—including a majority of the French media—were appalled by the sight of his perp walk. But even more so, they scoffed at the idea that he could have actually assaulted anyone, and brought up his international reputation as a man who loved women, and who had cheated on his longtime wife, Anne Sinclair, with impunity. (The latest development in the Casanova tale: she was recently chosen as woman of the yearby French smart-woman magazine Terrafemina.)  In September, after the sexual assault charges against him were swept clean after a long and protracted media attack on the character of DSK’s alleged victim, the former IMF head apologized—for what he called his own “moral fault.”

The prologue to Casanova’s memoirs:

“I begin by declaring to my reader that, by everything good or bad that I have done throughout my life, I am sure that I have earned merit or incurred guilt, and that hence I must consider myself a free agent. … Despite an excellent moral foundation, the inevitable fruit of the divine principles which were rooted in my heart, I was all my life the victim of my senses; I have delighted in going astray and I have constantly lived in error, with no other consolation than that of knowing I have erred. … My follies are the follies of youth. You will see that I laugh at them, and if you are kind you will laugh at them with me.”

The flipside to victim blaming is the elevation of uncontrollable male desire over all else—it rewards the idea that men are not only unable to control themselves, but that sexual power belongs entirely to the man (the seducer) unless it doesn’t (the man wrought helpless by feminine wiles). Casanova may have been an eloquent writer, a fascinating traveler, a skilled lover. But sleeping with so many women does not make him a hero. When the crowds flock to the exhibit at the French National Museum next month, let’s hope they remember it.

Julianne Escobedo Shepherd is an associate editor at AlterNet and a Brooklyn-based freelance writer and editor. Formerly the executive editor of The FADER, her work has appeared in VIBE, SPIN, New York Times and various other magazines and websites.