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Thursday, September 22, 2005

Casanova the Christian

It's long been an ambition of mine to read Giacomo Casanova's autobiography. I bought a paper copy several years ago but I never got round to reading it because it was in Italian. At the time I thought I was buying the original text because he was Italian, but I have since found out that it was first written in French. The recent BBC dramatisation of Casanova's life only intensified my interest and I was pleased to find an English translation on Project Gutenberg. I think most people who are old enough to be interested in such matters (and a fair few who are not) know that Casanova is famous for his enormous sexual appetite. You will understand then that my desire to read his autobiography is not entirely motivated by historical interest.

Casanova wrote about his life when he was an old man looking back on his youth. He says:

dear reader, I trust that, far from attaching to my history the character of impudent boasting, you will find in my Memoirs only the characteristic proper to a general confession, and that my narratory style will be the manner neither of a repenting sinner, nor of a man ashamed to acknowledge his frolics. They are the follies inherent to youth; I make sport of them, and, if you are kind, you will not yourself refuse them a good-natured smile.

Before he died in 1798 he gave the manuscript to his sister's son-in-law and it was eventually published in the 1820s. It was not until 1960 that we had access to the complete text and you can find out why here.

I'm not used to e-books so I can only read short sections at a time. This morning I read the preface in which Casanova explains his beliefs and his intentions as a writer. The most surprising thing I found was that despite his reputation he had a strong Christian faith. The preface is peppered with references to God. Almost at the very beginning Casanova writes:

I believe in the existence of an immaterial God, the Author and Master
of all beings and all things, and I feel that I never had any doubt of His existence, from the fact that I have always relied upon His providence, prayed to Him in my distress, and that He has always granted my prayers. Despair brings death, but prayer does away with despair; and when a man has prayed he feels himself supported by new confidence and endowed with power to act. As to the means employed by the Sovereign Master of human beings to avert impending dangers from those who beseech His assistance, I confess that the knowledge of them is above the intelligence of man, who can but wonder and adore. Our ignorance
becomes our only resource,and happy, truly happy; are those who cherish their
ignorance! Therefore must we pray to God, and believe that He has granted the
favour we have been praying for, even when in appearance it seems the reverse.

I wish that I knew more about Christianity in the eighteenth century because I would like to know where Casanova stood in the range of attitudes that existed at the time. I am guessing that he must have been a free thinker rather a religious conservative. He believed that God gave man the ability to reason, make his own decisions and follow his own path. Some other Christians at the time thought that God had already decided what would happen to them. I've highlighted the lines where Casanova refers to this idea.
Man is free, but his freedom ceases when he has no faith in it; and the greater power he ascribes to faith, the more he deprives himself of that power which God has given to him when He endowed him with the gift of reason. Reason is a particle of the Creator's divinity. When we use it with a spirit of humility and justice we are certain to please the Giver of that precious gift. God ceases to be God only for those who can admit the possibility of His non-existence, and that conception is in itself the most severe punishment they can suffer.

I found that Casanova's writing does meander a bit. A lot of eighteenth-century books do this so it's not a sign that he was a bad writer. He is definitely worth reading, particularly for his comments on human nature. I'll leave Casanova with the final word:
I have felt in my very blood, ever since I was born, a most unconquerable hatred towards the whole tribe of fools, and it arises from the fact that I feel myself a blockhead whenever I am in their company. I am very far from placing them in the same class with those men whom we call stupid, for the latter are stupid only from deficient education, and I rather like them. I have met with some of them--very honest fellows, who, with all their stupidity, had a kind of intelligence and an upright good sense, which cannot be the characteristics of fools. They are like eyes veiled with the cataract, which, if the disease could be removed, would be very beautiful.


Blogger Brandon said...

Thanks for drawing our attention to this; I've put up some thoughts of my own on Casanova's views at Siris.

7:15 am  
Blogger Max said...

The first few chapters of Casanova's autobiography (and perhaps the first two books) are the most difficult to read. It gets a lot better, and the part where he describes his romance with a nun is simply brilliant (as far as writing goes at least), even though it sounds pretty bad taken out of context like this. Also, a lot depends on the translation; I've found Arthur Machen's version being the best so far.

5:36 pm  

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