Columns: A good idea from ... Casanova
Alain de Botton
Alain de Botton is a philosopher, writer and television presenter. His books include Essays in Love (published when he was only 23), How Proust Can Change Your Life (1997), Status Anxiety (2004) and Religion for Atheists (2012)
Sunday 28 November 1999
Then, in a library a few days later, I happened upon a shelf loaded with 12 volumes of A History of My Life by Giacomo Casanova (1725-1798). Intrigued, I took the whole lot out and caught up on some basics. He was born in Venice, he was intelligent and charismatic but - interestingly - not good- looking. He was an adventurer, impatient in search of the wildest short- cuts to the three things he most valued: fame, money and women. He was supremely self-confident: "When a man sets himself to do something, he will succeed despite all difficulties in his path: he may even make himself Pope or Grand Vizier." He didn't quite manage that, but he was, variously, a playwright, gambler, lottery organiser, spy, military officer, mining consultant, mathematician, police agent and violinist. He lived in Turin, Milan, London, Moscow and Vienna, and wound up as the librarian to Count Waldstein of Bohemia, in whose castle he wrote his candid memoirs from 1782 until his death.
So how much of a Casanova was he? Estimates range from 2,340 to a conservative 221. In any case, enough for us to believe him when he says, "To cultivate the pleasures of the senses was throughout my life my main preoccupation; I have never had any more important objective." It was impossible for him to spend a night in a new town without seducing someone, be it the innkeeper's daughter or a local princess. He tells us that he liked to talk during sex - "without speech, the pleasure of love-making is diminished by at least two-thirds" - and that he always felt deeply about the women he slept with - "Without love, this great act is a shallow thing."
Yet despite all the bragging, what comes across from his memoirs, quite unintentionally, is how boring it must have been for Casanova to pass through these 2,340 beds. Far from making his conquests seem attractive or courageous, the 18th-century libertine succeeds only in making us feel the barrenness of shifting so relentlessly from one woman to the next, the way it denies one the pleasures that can grow between people only through time and loyalty.
Because he played out a leading male fantasy in the real world, Casanova's life-story is instructive to men who, from within the constraints of a marriage or relationship, wonder how much happiness they might enjoy beyond monogamy. Whatever the occasional pleasures of glancing around the room at parties, the suggestion from the man who knew is, it seems - not very much.
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