"Few books are more thrilling
than certain confessions,
but they must be honest, and the author must have something to confess."
~ Simone de Beauvoir (1949)
Mind Caviar, Vol. 3 Fall Issue, 2002
Casanova's True Life Story?
In fact, the history of Casanova's life story and sexual conquests is as complicated as any mystery. On his deathbed, Casanova allegedly bequeathed his autobiography to Carlo Angiolini, the son-in-law of his sister, Maria Maddalena. In 1820, Angiolini's son sold the manuscript to Brockhaus, a Leipzig publishing house. The text was first published sometime between 1822 and 1828 in German adapted by Wilhelm von Schütz. A French translation of the German text appeared in 1825, without permission of the Brockhaus firm. Although it was in its original language, the actual text had little relation to Casanova's manuscript, which the translators had been unable to consult.
Brockhaus, seeking to forestall future piracies of this kind, engaged Jean Laforgue, a French professor in Leipzig, to edit the manuscript and to polish Casanova's Italianate French. Laforgue at once proceeded to commit one of the great literary crimes of the century. Not only did he polish Casanova's French, but he made extraordinary changes to the original manuscript. Laforgue freely extemporized on Casanova’s manuscript, eliminating details which he prudishly found too prurient. Just as frequently he added explicit details to the love scenes, descending from the elegance of the original to something not unlike pornography. Laforgue also had a political axe to grind. An anti-clerical republican, he ignored many of Casanova's professions of Christian faith, and suppressed most of the Venetian's uncomplimentary references to the "execrable French revolution."
Truth More Complex Than Fiction
Without exaggeration, it seems that Laforgue's Casanova is mostly a fictional character loosely based upon the original autobiographical writings of the man himself. Unfortunately, Laforgue's bastardization became the most accepted and authoritative version of Casanova's Histoire: the text upon which nearly all other editions and translations would be based for over 130 years. It was, in fact, not until 1960 that Brockhaus allowed the unexpurgated, uncut, and "unpolished" publication of Casanova's manuscript to be released. Most readers and scholars agree it was worth the wait. Today, scholars have access to Casanova's Histoire in his own words provided they take care the edition or translation they're reading is based on the Brockhaus-Plon text. In any case, even the most authentic version is still minus four chapters which Laforgue apparently lost.
The enigma of Casanova's autobiography may be mostly solved, however, much of what we think we may know about many other erotic writers is still cloaked in mystery and myth. The life of Lord Byron, or at least what we’re told about it, is a brief saga of scandal and sexual behavior which shocked his more prudish English contemporaries. He was accused of incest, of numerous seductions, and consequent abandonments and adultery. Byron's long epic poem “Don Juan” is considered autobiographical by critics and researchers who seem to delight in speculating about the lead character’s sexual escapades. Many have analyzed this work in order to attempt to discover just whom Byron was reputedly boinking at the time it was written. Of course, this is mere conjecture on the part of the researchers. Unlike Casanova we do not have Byron’s original autobiography to help clarify things as it was destroyed by his heirs four days after his death was known in England.
Understanding Classic Erotic Authors
Apart from their literary work, we know really very little of the inner self of both de Sade and Sacher von Masoch, because most of what we think we know is latter-day analysis and interpretation by other writers, each of whom have their own reasons for justifying their beliefs. There are pros and cons: the prudish expurgate and censor; the enthusiasts exaggerate and justify. In both cases, we are given a pointed glossing over. We don’t actually look into the heart of these people to see their desires. We see only the written physical expressions which are, for good or bad, only the surface of the heart, the passion, and the love. As with any autobiographical writings, truths are often left out, fictions created, memories distorted, and poses assumed. How are we as readers, for example, to understand what de Sade, Casanova, von Masoch or any writer really means when they say “I loved...I wanted...I desired...?” We are left with only the mechanics, the how, the blatant evidence of those loves and passions, distorted by time, by history.
Writers of erotica are usually concerned with depicting specific techniques in order to show readers the what’s happening within the context of a sex scene. Readers of erotica bring into the experience their own motivations, much like a voyeur to the written scene. Romanticists seem to want to luxuriate in long, inward-looking passages describing the character's feelings and thoughts, while strokers concentrate only on the hot parts, in which the sex acts are depicted in graphic, physical phrases, and where the emotions are secondary at best-- if described at all. Yet what readers and writers share are the desires of wanting to know.
Probing Modern Erotica Writers
Since Freud, we've learned how to probe the psychological facets of erotica. More modern writers have tried, sometimes too desperately, it seems, to articulate the ripple effect of the passions depicted in erotic literature and how they affect every part of our lives. Some erotica writers, such as Henry Miller, Anais Nin, and Anne Rice stand on the shore and plunk stories into the pool of passion. They depict how fetish and obsession, hunger and need, circle outward to control our lives. Others, more delicate, perhaps, like Isabel Allende, Jorge Luis Borges, Marilyn Jaye Lewis, and Jeanette Winterson launch their curiously floating rocks which lull us, like siren songs, to wider voyages.
From time to time, we have writers who drop great, unexpected boulders from a seemingly hidden niche to cause a temporary upheaval and reveal depths below the surface we only suspected were there. Nicholson Baker’s Vox plunged in and showed us the lonely longings for intimate communication that underpinned phone sex.
M. Christian, Jamie Joy Gatto, Greg Wharton, and other contemporary writers skip stones across the human psyche and record the sensual splashes and droplets that occasionally punctuate daily existence, while fantasists like Ian Philips and Cecilia Tan make us peer deeper at the seascape of passions.
The finest erotica writers throw stones which are not flat, gray missiles, but crystalline gems which, landing on our bookshelves and in our hands, dash our faces and spirits with refreshing sprays. As we enjoy their fluid, ebbing and flowing prose, we can see, too, the reflections of our own heart’s desire.
© 2002 William Dean. All Rights Reserved. Do not copy or post in whole
or in part.
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