In the last installment of this series, I told you about meeting author Laurence Bergreen as I arrived at the Casanova Conference in January. By the time I stuck on my name tag and dropped my bags in the back corner, I had missed the introductions and about 15 minutes of the first paper being presented. I looked longingly at the coffee urn but instead quietly slipped into a seat.
Raphaelle Brin was knee-deep in explanations of sexual violence depicted in Casanova’s History of my Life. This is a subject that has long fascinated me. (If you’ve followed my blog for a while, you’ve seen that I’ve brought up this subject before.) Brin, from the Sorbonne in Paris but now teaching in Russia, was exploring the question of consent in Casanova’s sexual encounters. She brought up a couple examples, such as Casanova’s moral questioning of buying a “rape chair” to use against Le Charpillon in London (he never did buy it), or the Carnevale “debauch” (aka gang rape) at Cantina Do Spade in Venice.
Brin pointed out that Europeans in the eighteenth century had differing perceptions of rape, more tolerant of it as a society than Westerners today. There was a belief that “the consent of the victim cancels the violence” (as seen in Emile by Voltaire, Brin explained). There was also the possibility that some women would welcome a sexual encounter but must “save face” by resisting in order to appear chaste. At a time when women were not supposed to enjoy sex, this explanation sounds feasible. This theory also accepts the idea, Brin stated, that the female body can feel sexual pleasure, an idea not widely accepted in the eighteenth century.
Casanova often told his tales of sexual coercion with a heavy dose of humor. For example, Brin recounted the story of Casanova sexually enjoying a woman in a carriage during a rain storm, and though she resisted at first, the way he tells the tale, she expressed her pleasure as well. The frightening lightning storm allowed her to “save face,” to use that as an excuse for why she was overcome by C’s advances. Brin stated that “the brutality of rape is sold by the comical topos” of the scene.
Of course, we readers only ever hear C’s version of these stories. We don’t hear the women’s versions, or read their letters or their diaries. Casanova stated early in his memoirs that he abhored the idea of taking a woman by force; for him, the act of seduction was the fun part. His stories bear this out, as Brin showed. I won’t moralize here about C’s actions, but Raphaelle Brin shared her insightful thoughts that helped me to see more shades to this issue.
(These are three of the presenters: L to R, Jean-Christophe Igalens, Raphaelle Brin, and Michel Delon.)
After I had a chance to get my coffee and danish, and greeted my friend Tom Vitelli, we heard the next paper. Mladen Kozul of the University of Montana shared his paper “Casanova and the Undifferentiated Body.” Lots more sex to discuss! I was so glad that I had already read Casanova’s novel Icosameron, about a utopia at the center of the earth where the 12-inch-tall genderless people called Megamicres all have breasts they use to feed each other. Two Brits, brother and sister, land among these people and make a life there, raising scores of twins who all marry each other and produce numerous twins themselves.
(It’s just about the weirdest book I’ve ever read, and predates Jules Verne by 200 years. But I’ll go into this more in a different blog. Aren’t you mad at me now, or maybe relieved? that I’m not continuing to talk about the Icosameron?)
Kozul produced an analysis of the recurring themes of breasts, breastmilk, semen, and blood in Casanova’s writing. And man, there’s a lot of all these liquids in his stories! Besides the Icosameron, in his memoirs C tells stories of sucking milk from his lovers and, well, this is a pretty PG rated blog, so I won’t go into any more details here. If you’ve read the History of my Life, then you already know! Kozul overwhelmed us with the number of incidents involving these bodily fluids. He then made the point that Casanova often blurs gender lines, men taking on female roles and vice versa, adults behaving like babies, and so on. Medical journals during C’s day often cited breast milk as having healing properties for the ill. Casanova writes of all these things assuming that his reader will not disapprove, as if there is no reason to question these acts that are natural to our bodies. Kozul also stated that when the body is “undifferentiated,” it removes the question of consent for these acts. It’s no longer about a male / female binary.
Some interesting questions: How does all this breastfeeding relate to Casanova’s mostly absent mother? Is he seeking her in his lovers? In the scenes later in his life where he suckles a breast, is he trying to recapture his youth? Does this display his “need to abolish time” as Kozul suggests?
Wow, and these were only the first two of 11 papers! It was proving early on to be a conference full of depth and questions.