Diary: Peter Brooks, What is a libertine?
Dom Juan’s valet Sganarelle (Claude Brassuer) in Marcel Bluwall’s 1965 adaptation of Molière's Dom Juan for French television, with Michel Piccoli (Photo by Norbert Perrau\INA via Getty Images)
Giacomo Casanova counted sex with some 129 women over a period of thirty-nine years. Not quite up to Don Giovanni’s numbers given in his valet Leporello’s famous catalogue, in Mozart’s opera, with its punchline: “Ma in Ispagna son già mille e tre” (But in Spain there are already a thousand and three). Both Don Juan and Casanova have entered history as seducers, the former a mythical Spaniard, the latter real, though clearly devoted to making himself something of a legend in the 3,700 manuscript pages of his memoirs, the Histoire de ma vie. He wrote in French, the language that would give his legend the widest circulation, and was published only after his death, in a reliable version only in our own time. Leo Damrosch titles his new biography of Casanova Adventurer, and Casanova was fully that, also a cardsharp, con man, sometime necromancer, utopian schemer, medical quack, who traveled all over Europe while most at home in his native Venice, though he spent a time imprisoned in the Leads of the Doge’s Palace, from which he escaped in his most sensational adventure (he wrote a book about it).
Casanova was a libertine, of course, like the near contemporaneous Valmont and Madame de Merteuil of Choderlos de Laclos’ Les Liaisons dangereuses, and many a less distinguished eighteenth-century novel. Valmont and Merteuil have something of the true mark of the libertine: the claim of their absolute freedom from divine and social law. A libertine originally was something more than just a seducer—that may simply have been its easiest social manifestation. The original libertins of seventeenth-century France risked prosecution and execution for their impulse to break social bonds, of the Church, especially. Notable was the case of the wonderful baroque poet Théophile de Viau, banished from France, then put on trial in the 1620s and condemned to be burned, eventually escaping, but rearrested and imprisoned, and once more banished from Paris, his health broken, to live under the protection of a duke in Chantilly. He was apparently a disciple of Lucilio Vanini, who believed only in the material laws of nature, indeed in biological evolution, and was clearly an atheist though he denied that label. He was condemned in court in Toulouse to have his tongue cut out, then to be strangled and his body burned to ashes. Being a true libertine was a risky business in Old Regime France, in Italy as well.
The best dramatization of the libertine may be Molière’s play Dom Juan of 1665, which faced a difficult fight against censorship. The plot is not unlike Mozart’s opera, but the Don’s defiance of religious precept is more overt. There was a splendid made-for-French-television film in 1965 where Don Juan was played by Michel Piccoli. I still recall the moment when Done Elvire calls down upon him the vengeance of heaven, and he turns to his valet (Sganarelle, in the French version), and with quizzically cocked eyebrow and a defiant smirk exclaims: “Sganarelle, Heaven!” It is left to Sganarelle to explain to the outraged Dona Elvire: “Yes, truly, we mock all that.” “We” in this case means all those libertines who are willing to face social opprobrium or even the fate of Vanini. Like Mozart’s Don, Molière’s will provoke divine retribution when he invites the statue of the Commander, whom he has slain, to dinner: he is dragged off to hell, in a mechanical satisfaction of public morality.
Libertinage was a step toward the eighteenth century’s crucial focus on the “pursuit of happiness,” as Thomas Jefferson would write it into the Declaration of Independence. (The great American mirage?) Yet for many men, as for Casanova, the model of seduction remained the most easily available and most fun expression of their freedom. In his classic Love in the Western World, Denis de Rougemont claimed that sexual conquest was all that was left to a French aristocracy stripped of its feudal military prowess. Casanova, the son of actors, was no aristocrat (except in some of his imaginative self-incarnations) but he underlines the point. He presents himself as the charming rogue-hero of a picaresque novel who will spend weeks lovingly making a conquest—then happily move on when rewarded. Liberty above all.
Peter Brooks is Sterling Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Yale University. His most recent book is Balzac’s Lives. He has written for Book Post on Sally Rooney and the conte philosophique and Alex Ross’s Wagernerism.
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