08. 13. 2012. 09:33

Miklós Szentkuthy: Marginalia on Casanova (excerpts)

A Calvinist holding God at arm’s length and a baroque-Roman palling-up to God are probably equally bad extremes, but my theological heart mooches around the latter with unquenchable nostalgia.

Lectio (Saintly Reading)

1. He is a descendant of actors. That is decisive and important before all else. When I was still such a child that I sought to pursue philosophy and physiology in German, the sort of book that I constantly had in my mind’s eye had the title: Innerste Theatralik aller Wesenheiten. [i] The most primal principle of life is theatrical: the jellyfish in the fairylike-fatal underworld of the sea, the coconut periwigs in the Gothic fan-towers of palms, the fetid head of an embryo at the end of the umbilical cord, jasmine, horseradish, sicknesses: these are all theatrical, colorful, simulating and subterfuges. Not lies, just masks, mimics. That is what history is too; that is the darkest instinct of life. That and art. The darkest and also the loneliest. If I were not myself descended from an actor ancestor, I would not believe in my existence. Reality and theatre: unambiguous. Which is why it is so much an absolute law-book and Domesday Book that Casanova’s memoirs open with that alpha and omega without which there is nothing: actor, actor, actor.

2. But the other ‘ontological prelude’ is also perfect — the fact that two things light our way: the name of Locke and Hexerei. If you wish to live, then you can only be an actor, a comedian, like the gods and the cosmos; once you have started to live, then you must forthwith bear a duality of life, of humanity, that can never be elucidated: the clarity of meaning and the eternal hocus-pocus of meaninglessness, Locke and the witches, wise women, exorcists and evil spirits of the Venetian suburbs of Murano and Burano. That is the 18th century par excellence, but the whole of human life is eternal. This duality underlines Casanova’s entire eroticism: the sobriety and commonsense grayness of the atheism of ‘Experimentalphysik,’ the spirit of the demons, Roman ‘Irrlichter,’ [ii] and ineradicable wizardry. But could man be intelligent any other way? Life can exist somehow without witches, but not ‘human understanding.’

3. After that two-step humanist prelude, the codex amoris can begin. The first, the pre-love, pre-narcissism, pre-lust, pre-mind, pre-moral, pre-everything ‘papillonage’[iii]: young Bettina washes his legs, and she does so with such scrupulous thoroughness that little Casanova’s semen is loosed for the very first time into the world. If we wished, we might choose this pre-love as an eternal fate. This clearness, cheerfulness, ignorance, creepiness without horror, delight without nervous pathos, this asexual, anonymous, pre-narcissistic narcissism. Light colors — everything is creamy white.

It is morning. This is so important in the whole of Casanova’s youth — the all-obliterating victory of morning, dew’s primacy over the night. Love is a morning activity, adventure, beatitude — a gift of the fading Moon and silver mists on the park. A white washbasin, then skinny white child’s legs, white pillows, white towels, white children’s stockings, white milk, white milk jug, white apron, white soap bubbles, white flowers in the garden, white moon, white pollen.

What is soap, what is body, what is flower? What is dream, what is morning butter? What is sin, what a tickling sensation? What is washing and what nuptials? What is a twinge of conscience and what is joy? What is innocence and what perversion? What is tiredness and what strength? What is virginity and what eternal breeding? All this, and more, is as yet unequivocal, all this anything at all — this bud, this one and only happiness, the threshold of thresholds, Casanova’s youth codex is a book of nostalgia: by the time we first understand it, we are definitely no longer eight years old, and therefore we are excluded forever from the one and only paradise.

We are not youngsters anymore: this first melancholy underlining in itself already lends otherworldly magic colors to Casanova’s first volume. ‘Perdu,’ but so definitely and absolutely perdu that youth, that definiteness of non-existence, is already god. It is also symbolic that love, or prae-prae-prae-love: begins with a bath. The bathing is the secretive, spleen-sugared ‘center’ between love’s form of anarchy and love’s form of civilization.

This secretive ‘center’ is the essence of the whole Casanovan experience — for a moment an era, or perhaps even just one person, and he perhaps only in his book: managed to reconcile the animal and ceremonial sides of love. Love was never so depraved, so golden-aged, so libertine, as here — never so elegant, so neatly turned and masked, as here.

Nowadays one can sense only one thing: such animal protoromanticisms and protochaoses as feelings of love can only die, be lost in caricature agony within civilization. Though one may also suspect that it was perhaps just this very civilization that made it so chaotic and romantic — might love without civilization be a — platitude? It is true that there is no problem of that kind in Casanova — here people can ‘bathe’ blithely, naked that is to say, but they are playful, they can blithely mix up the Eve era with the era of Molière’s doctors. The bath is an eternal European compromise-grimace: at times with nymphal charm, at times in desperation, but we can never renounce it as a compromise form of love. It is a hedging of bets, not a solution, even in Casanova’s time; but as a hedging of bets it succeeded better with him than anyone else.

What a marvelous ‘bath’ scale it is — from the washbasin of boyhood, through the peasant girl’s tub to the pool of the harem in Constantinople, where Turkish odalisques splashed in the nocturnal moonlight. The bath is cleanliness: at once baptism and hygiene. The bath is vanity: women use a lake’s stilled surface as a mirror. The bath disrobes and thus is an erotic game. Nymph myth and civilized hygiene frolic. How right medieval nuns were, to be sure, to consider cleanliness and love as being one and the same.

4. Casanova writes a note to his love. Will it truly always be so? Without letters, without the compulsion to write, would there be no love? Is the spirit always cowardly? Or will the body’s archetypal erotic cowardice always pass itself off as mind, and this mind again as literature? Mind out of cowardice, literature out of mind: is that inevitable circulation not touching?

What preludes: unselfconscious body-zither-playing and love letter — some bodily ignorance, nervous error, and some ‘littérature’ about the moonshine mind, dreams, myths. All literature ‘as such’ is charmingly here, but eternally and lethally compromised.

5. But this moment when the taste of the breakfast milk and diabolical sin still mingle in a single sweet uneasiness does not last long; even in the moment that is youth it is but a moment. The elements separate out; adolescents, whether girls or boys, make a start on the ‘mind’s’ great paradox harvest. Very much in the grand style, very crudely. Raw nervous disorders, raw mythologies, raw lies make their appearance — and moral insanity makes an appearance in all its consistent vividness.

Bettina is possessed by the devil. Now is that Catholicism or Freudianism, one may ask? Or is it just sober and calculating hypocrisy: who can decide, and anyway who would care? This is love’s indigestibility to itself, man’s natural impossibility for man. Over time, an adult gets used to the fact that he is, in point of fact, a self-contradiction and loitering absurdity, but not, as yet, a child — a child is still logical —, and for precisely that reason becomes neurasthenic or possessed by the devil or a liar: these little prepubescent liturgies are the sole adequate expressions for life’s inner self-contradictions. If Casanova and his young girlfriend for a moment were ‘Narcisse blanche,’ they subsequently also had to accept this Satanism.

6. And while saints and charlatans tussle with the devil in Bettina’s body, what sort of thought is hovering in the air? That of the ball to come. A ball is the same eternal hedging of bets as the bath, from its Hellenic sources to the plagues of Deauville. Naïve superstition though it may be, I insist that dance, the ball, was only truly dance, or ball, in the 18th century. This is the most central center in the entire Casanova myth: a ball is a good deal less than Dionysian, but much, much more than a social refinement or game. Evening dress is: half a ritual garment, a priestessly pose, half a hetæra advertisement.

The dance: half nuptials, half an artless Vestal tourney. If anyone wishes to know and feel the impossibility and nonetheless-affectation of European love, just take a look at a dancing couple: the subtext of tragicomedy is written in garish letters. For us, but not our Casanova. This is his element — he knows that this is the maximum in the sex history of Europe, so he plunges in and, with a laugh on his lips, salvages what can be saved. There is no ‘Christian morality’ or ‘pagan freedom’ here — instead it is some mysterious, iridescent third party: the dance. There is no brutal vegetation and refined society — here is a blissful third party: the ball, the carnival.

If there is no love without ‘littérature’-cowardice and conjuring up of the devil, all the less can it exist without the ball. What is so splendid about Casanova is that these ‘Urphenomena’ are nowhere else than with him to be found interwoven in the epic with such nonchalance and yet ontological weight (rococo and ontology? yes, and how!… Mozart).

7. Adolescents, hence their milieu too, may sometimes be seized by pedantry: since Bettina was possessed by a devil, she switched to the other logical stance — became mad. A kind of intermittent madness. This game between child madness and ballroom mood is pleasant: now doctor, now hairdresser; now a straightjacket, now a periwig; now Beelzebub, now Pulcinello.

There is and will be nothing other than these two, says the most reliable gospel: madness and ball, agony and dance. Here it is not a matter of some kind of game of romantic opposition, but of two things in themselves, Dingen an sich. Apropos of Casanova one feels most of all that any commentary is, in the end, risible windiness — this is simply the point at which an entrance is made by fundamental facts without which there can be no love within civilization, and one has done one’s job by pointing a finger at these fundamental facts. A fact illuminates solitarily, like a lonely but eternal lamp in the depths of a blind lagoon. If it were possible to comment sensibly it would no longer be a fact but a thought or, God forbid, some other such litter.

8. The nicest thing in Casanova is the absolute certainty with which he puts his finger on the essential features of love (not the ideal love, maybe, but the possible, ‘relatively still the best’ love). He started before all else with acting as primary matter, following that with the kinship of ‘Locke’ and ‘Hexerei,’ then he flashed a light on the butterfly charm of dawn-time chance pollution (something so fine as to be almost, but not quite, impossible), then after that on the grand and irrefutable logical monumentality of adolescents when they pump themselves full of the devil and hysteria, and their every desire is that the ‘ball’ should go on ‘forever’: now, after all that, he gives ‘the dogmatism of the ages of life’ with just as much declared accuracy. In Venice he connected with a seventy-year-old nobleman, white Senator Malipiero. ‘Connected’: we can already remark here that this ‘connecting’ is no lazy epic platitude but just as much dogma as everything else in this book.

The sine qua non for love is wandering, continual ‘connecting,’ from palazzo to palazzo, from bordello to bordello, from seminary to prison, from ship’s cabin to harem, from park to maid’s room, from pontiff into the Venetian night — irresponsible throwing into a milieu is the essence of love. Malipiero is seventy, Casanova fifteen. Both are in love with a young girl living in the house opposite. This is the dogma: love is a thing of the senile and children — an adult man’s love is nulla. The essence of love is: the boundlessness of sensuality and the boundlessness of dream-dreaming; only here does it exist absolutely: in the pre-spring snowdrop and the last post-autumnal yellow leaf. In immaturity and in ‘ripeness is all.’[iv]

Just as in art the finest works are those of extreme youth and extreme old age, March and November; summer be hanged. No one suggested this as categorically as Casanova did in the next scene. In one of the palace’s boudoir dining rooms, elderly Malipiero and child Casanova are taking supper under a candle which burns with a sputtering reminiscent of a large tidal swell in a lagoon — and they are talking about the actors’ offspring who lived across the way. They have a perfect understanding of one another: they are on a shared level of impossible sensuality and impossible dream. Love as sweet impossibility, not apocalyptic nonsense: that is something only the two of them understand. The melancholies of renunciation, self-denial, disappointment, doubt, paradox, infidelity and forgetting: to bestow charm, a flower, a scent, a smile, melody — those are things only Casanova understood. That in essence crude adventurer. Was it perhaps writing, after all, which made him tender?

But there is something here even more important, of prime importance, which swallows up even Casanova, love and everything in its colorful darkness: the appearance of Venice. Casanova’s first volume is a big self-hypothesizing of youth and Venice: youth as a Mozartian phantom of transitoriness and Venice as reality itself; a primum mobile, a mainspring, which renders gods and loves superfluous. Europe is a poor word and superfluous reality — there is just one word and one reality: Venice. Venice is no ‘beauty spot,’ it is not a paradoxical opal of history and aquatic vegetation; Venice is reality.

Casanova does not speak about Venice — for everything is Venice. In the end that has to be expressed dogmatically: Venice is an article of faith and unappealable reality, the one thing, after all has broken down, for which it is worth living, but then forever. If a mother loses her only son, all I can do is say with Casanova: Venice. If all gods are dead for anyone, I have just one response: ‘Venice.’ Because if love is in part what, and only what, it is to aged Malipiero and the child Casanova: a sweetly blazing unreality — then love is something else besides — a place; it is always identical with some scenery, town, house or shore.

In love the word milieu is useless; Venice is not some backdrop to love. Venice is itself love. How exclusively decisive it is in Malipiero’s love that the streets of Venice are narrow, the windows are vast, and consequently it is possible to spy in quite mystic comfort (comfort is always mystical, perhaps the one thing that is!) on a woman: into her home, her boudoir, her soup and her washing basin. ‘Narrow street’ — life hinges on things like that, always on such bare, nothing-more facts on which no commentary is possible: which is why art and philosophy are superfluous.

Naturally, Venice’s aspects are inexhaustible; on the day we die we shall be just as falsetto-toned amateurs in other-worldly polyphony as we were to begin with — but here, out of this infinitude, for example, Casanova shows one thing: the identity of the civilized city, aristocratic caste-pigeonholes, and the jungle in the era of primordial ferns.

Everybody is infinitely close to each other, it is not possible to get closer, yet the contour map of social chasms is still huge. That too is ‘central’: between town and forest — only there can love be optimal. The house walls are terracotta colored: not vermilion nor brown — that too is already the height of love. The windows are longish, slim, almost curved in their Gothic lankiness: that is the reality (not just some version among a million others) and thus, of course, immediately love itself. The windows are in stone frames, the houses are decaying but they are from the Renaissance: for me they are not ‘travel reminiscences’ but the only thing in which I have faith. Casanova in the end solved everything with this Venetian beauty-ghastliness: no more was there a need for myth, no need for thought, no need for love, no need for art. After that Casanova really can become easy, can be a dancer here, where we have long been dead, because at the bottom of everything seethes and whispers in midnight lilac the discovered metaphysics: Venice. That is also the only aspect of tragedy in it, the all-excluding swampy eternality of Venice.

9. From then onwards, of course, everything is different; floating behind everything in the colors of ice-spring the city’s death-gentian. The dogmatizing tone remains — with next being: a loose, finely decayed Catholic milieu. Casanova himself is a young abate — who in that era was free to wear ecclesiastical garb as he wished, no one was checking. There is no question that his entire erotic career was not based on Geneva but Rome.

Only in Roman Catholicism would the eerie proximity of St. Ignatius Loyola and Don Juan be possible. In any case it would be interesting (if it were possible to believe in anything else than reality for example in so-called thoughts) to juxtapose three figures: Don Juan, Casanova, and Cagliostro. It would be just as exciting to compare the Casanova of Venice and the Casanova of Rome. Venice is always the Atlantic tragedy of the whole of existence, of reality — Rome is no more than the joviality of the gods, the ephemeral splendor of Elysium.

Protestantism recognizes neither the penitential frenzy of lonely eremitism nor the swaggering purple of Roman simony — therefore it does not recognize Casanova. Just as within a short space of time in the course of his travels Casanova sets eyes on the Arabian aridity and ascetic poverty of Calabria, then the easy-going harems of Constantinople: so the background to the whole mental possibility is this Catholic duality — a Baroque ermine and Toledan (Grecoesque) self-torture.

That is the psychology which operates in him: it derives from the psychology of confession, and it returns to that notwithstanding any cynicism. The hypothesis is thus: a Protestant cannot be in love. Of course, nor can a true Catholic either — only this maneuvering Counter-Reformation-era, peripheral Catholic, shuttling between hypocrisy and superstition.

As an abate he had access to young girls: he is familiar with the pleasure of uncertainty — part friend, part-lover, part priest; all and none of these. Civilization wanted that: obscure, glossed-over roles. Casanova was well aware that by then civilization was just as eternal an entity as any ‘virgin nature’ and so could be counted on. He was aware that an out-and-out priest, an out-and-out adventurer or an out-and-out lover is just: comic — so he will be an absolute cocktail.

The marvelous thing is: precisely that this is a complete, unstinting acceptance, a brave and winning affirmation of the self-contradictions of civilization. Making a supreme pleasure out of all that on which others go romantically to rack and ruin. Another adolescent in the same situation contracts nothing less than a comme-il-faut neurasthenia and becomes a writer: Casanova makes civilization’s lie healthy, a sport. There are already many who made art out of lies; Casanova knows how to produce joie de vivre as well.

10 “Ging ich in Maske aus”[v] — that is the logical culmination of civilization as an affirmation of self-contradictions. That culture: a mask culture, the reality of the eighteenth century, the reality of the mask. ‘Psychology’ here is a mistake arising from the mask, games of quid pro quo; sensuality only becomes truly great through the secret of the mask. Behind the mask lurks nihilism — a mask is almost as much a possibility of tragedy as Venice is simply by virtue of being Venice.

Neither Sophocles nor Shakespeare wrote a sentence as tragic as Casanova’s: “Ich ging in Maske aus.” A colored mask? A black one? With a long, corkscrew freak’s nose or just a simple covering for the forehead? Life is only tolerable in a mask — in this daring gesture civilization makes use of all game of games, a paradox from which it follows, but at the same time its nostalgia for non-civilization is quite tremendous.

A masked head is a death mask. In this disguise are preluded the two or three adventurous Venetian midnights which play a part in Casanova: when he has his revenge on an adversary; when a senator faints in a gondola; when marble tables are thrown together on resounding stone and he drunkenly tolls the bells with his musician companions.

11. As a small baby abate Casanova delivers a sermon in church. What is important above all else is that there is a world in which such a thing is possible, historically speaking. A world in which no one gives a damn about whether a person wearing a priest’s garb is a priest; a world in which a young boy can make a debut like a little ballerina. If that is the milieu then a thousand other things are self-evident. Yet Casanova’s entire intellectual mission (because he has none other in life) hangs on this: that a milieu can be one such or another, but there are only situations, the dramatis personae are not so much negligible as nothings.

Love is not a human death game or erotic game of patience, it is not a soul, not a body, not a marriage, not an adventure — love is: a ‘situation’; a constellation of objects, people, and times, one in which every object or time or even human component counts equally, irrespective of any ranking. Every Catholic child has been through that sweetly confusing age of twinges of conscience when budding sexual fantasies and equally budding religious notions chase each other around: we said our prayers with Greuze tears[vi] in our eyes and felt that God would excuse us for the female portrait, the one carried around in one’s pocketbook. Anyone who did not experience those partly uneasy, partly idyllic self-apologies knows little about love. Casanova’s sincere sermon and sincere adolescent boy’s eroticism fit alongside one another in his soul — that is what makes him childish. At this point moral insanity and Loyolan furor hover in balance — perhaps the finest sentimental and moral moment. One continually has the feeling that Casanova has a right to preach; something completely logical and completely free of hypocrisy is going on here. God wishes that the sermon should not be delivered by a bearded St. John in the wilderness but by a love-stricken Venetian young rascal in a periwig and without genuine faith: the whole religion is thereby cozier, more human, truer. After making his sermon, Casanova got a bagful of love-letters from female admirers; they straightaway smuggle into the sacristy.

Why should it be impossible and out of the question to label this as: frivolousness? How do we dare to say that the gondolaing settecento was religious, maybe because there is greater morality in this post-carnival ease? That it is all “I’ll go to confession and have done with it!” because everything is in Pauline contrition-versus-ecstasy? Because man is somehow so incestuously warm, somehow in an intimately fait accompli position with God: that God seeks to fall into the gossip net of human life, and this is where it happened. A Calvinist holding God at arm’s length and a baroque-Roman palling-up to God are probably equally bad extremes, but my theological heart mooches around the latter with unquenchable nostalgia.

The scene itself is unforgettable: a church next to the water like a swimming box of relics, the steps meeting the green paludial liquid like coins which have slipped just a nuance further out from an overturned stack of money; prows jammed together, gondolas lurch in one place around the gate like miff–necked black swans around an invisible morsel — the church is small, the whole thing no more than a boudoir, the women, in their balloon silks, thrown on each other — the lagoon’s marsh reek, an oily fish smell billowing out from the eating-houses, many perfumes and stifling hard fumes of incense concentrated into a single Catholic dogma: that’s Casanova’s world. This is the image added to which I always imagine Miracoli.[vii] When one first sees it: from behind. Thank goodness, we have such an entirely cost-free key to the reality-nature of reality: one must glimpse such magnificent edifices for the first time from the back, the ‘bad’ perspective. This is Santa Maria dei Miracoli: at one moment a powder-box at the edge of a green washbasin, the next moment (with its Byzantine artichoke cupolas) the new St. Mark’s church, a celestial Constantinople.

In cupolated buildings like this the high, smooth walls almost outgrow the height of the cupolas, with the green Orthodox cones falling between the shoulders. They are always falling; the five or six cupolas hurriedly shrink as if Orthodoxy were doubling the perspective, were hastening them to double. Casanova’s childhood sermon has grown together with this in my memory, and that too is symbolical: just like the miracle boudoir and Constantinople, so even Casanova’s young days of the intensification of sweetest intimacy with the world right up till the fateful journey (“ich muss… ich muss...”)[viii] to Byzantium.

12. Giulietta is twelve, girl X eleven, Y thirteen. All of them, however, are ripe for love; they are just as much cut out for dreams as for marriage. Nowhere are children of so mystical a hue as here. They are at once angelic and delicacies bred for voluptuaries, but they could not be otherwise for if they were just one thing, they would hardly be worth anything. Casanova perfectly unites voluptuousness with a completely sublime, divine naturalism — the shading of the one into the other gives the charm and philosophical romanticism to his manner of making love. ‘Youth’ would by now be a pathetic blunder: children are what is needed. With Casanova, this too, as with anything else, stems from the most primitive logic of nature; it is not something random. There is undoubtedly something perverse in the cult of the child, but Casanova asserts that if we now live in a civilization, then a certain perversity is part of our underlying character: it has to be accepted like the air we breathe.



[i] ‘Inmost theatricality of all entities.’[ii] ‘will-o’-the-wisps.’
[iii] ‘Butterflying,’ craving for variety.
[iv] Phrase used in a remark by Edgar in King Lear (I.ii).
[v] “I set out masked.” The English translation, and what follow in the endnotes, are the equivalents taken from Giacomo Casanova, Chevalier de Seingalt: History of My Life. Tr. Willard R. Trask. Baltimore & London: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1967, indicated in this particular instance: English vol. 1. Chapter 4, p. 102. (Masks were customarily worn during the theater season in Venice, from roughly late October to Carnival.) The German quotations (as in the very first published version of the Diary, which was written in French) are as they originally appear in Szentkuthy’s Szent Orpheus breviáriuma, I. Széljegyzetek Casanovához. Budapest: Magvető Könyvkiadó, 1973.
[vi] Jean-Baptiste Greuze (1725-1805) won great popularity, especially for his pretty heads of young girls.
[vii] Also known as the "marble church," Santa Maria dei Miracoli is one of the best examples of the early Venetian Renaissance including colored marble.
[viii] “I must... I must...” Engl. vol. 1. ch. 4, p. 128.


Miklós Szentkuthy: Marginalia on Casanova
New York: Contra Mundum Press, 2012
Translated by Tim Wilkinson
Cover design by István Orosz



Translated by: Tim Wilkinson

Tags: Miklós Szentkuthy