Acommon claim about womanizers is that, like Tolstoy's happy families, they're all alike. They are not -- though some share singular characteristics, such as potent mothers and the early loss of fathers. Such narcissistic wounds were certainly true of Lord Byron, Leonard Cohen and Giacomo Casanova.
Why bother with roguish men who dedicated large parts of their lives to seduction? Here's one answer: Literary seducers celebrate the senses. They affirm that pleasure and adventure are as worthy pursuits as money and fame (and that happiness may be the greatest aphrodisiac). In a culture where many of us work almost a month more per year than we did in the 1970s, reminders of that capacity for sensual enjoyment are like the healing balm of a summer wind.
Byron: The Flawed Angel, by Phyllis Grosskurth (Macfarlane Walter & Ross, 1997) is a detailed, highly readable biography of the early 19th-century British poet whose brooding manner helped birth the romantic sensibility in European literature. Grosskurth, perhaps Canada's most respected biographer, says that Byron learned how to exaggerate the hardship of being born with a clubfoot, and that he publicly blamed his fat, doting and gullible mother for causing his deformity by lacing her corsets too tightly in pregnancy. Grosskurth follows his self-destructive journey from the death of his father, when Byron was still a child, to Byron's own death in 1824, fighting for Greek independence.
She writes that it was both his fear of engulfment and his terror of separation from his mother (who went without a carriage so Byron could enjoy the frills of Oxford student life) that kept him from fulfilling love relationships. Byron made 700 conquests during his Venetian period alone, yet not one of his love affairs ended well. He showed contempt for the intellectual women of his time, and his misogynist views reinforce the notion that his style of love is synonymous with the seducer as cad.
Casanova offers a contrast. French psychoanalyst Lydia Flem's neo-Freudian portrayal, Casanova: The Man Who Really Liked Women (Farrar Straus Giroux, 1997), undresses our image of him as a sexual predator who used women, and says the legendary Venetian lover evolved into a true friend of the fairer sex.
Part biography, part poetic prose and part psychological investigation, her wonderful book begins with the important landmarks in Casanova's life and then leaps from theme to theme in chapters with such intriguing titles as The Stratagems of Voluptuousness and The Backstage of the Body.
Flem argues that Casanova's near-death experience as a child inspired him to live as if everything that happened to him was a magnificent afterlife. His mother, Zanetta Casanova, was a beautiful, celebrated actress. After the death of her actor husband, she spent her life performing in Vienna. The boy stayed in Venice, raised by his grandparents. Idealizing Zanetta to avoid the pain of her absence, he saw himself as the outlaw son of a magical mother, and women as creative people in their own right. The idea of harming a mistress was abhorrent to him, Flem says. Whereas seducers like Byron may have feared women's power, Casanova viewed male desire as a tribute to female omnipotence. Flem provides a scholarly, poetic discussion of some of his 122 love affairs and points out that he remained friends with many of these women, often finding them rich husbands.
Like Byron, Casanova was a veteran traveller. Unlike him, he never produced an acclaimed work of literature until after his death in 1798 (his brilliant, 12-volume memoirs weren't widely read until the mid-20th century). Casanova ended his life by thinking that true happiness flows from reminiscence. Memory not only takes the place of voluptuous pleasure, it renews it, Flem writes in her conclusion.
The life and work of Leonard Cohen has yet to be dissected by intelligent feminist critics. For an encounter with Canada's still-living poetic legend, I recommend Cohen's Stranger Music: Selected Poems and Songs (McClelland & Stewart, 1993). It contains no psychological investigations of the death of Cohen's father when he was a boy, no biographical list of his failed marriages. Instead, this glorious book is a sweeping, 401-page survey of Cohen's work -- passages from his novel Beautiful Losers, the texts of such songs as Suzanne, First We Take Manhattan and Dance Me to the End of Love.
Over and over in these poems and songs, Cohen presents himself as a troubadour who finds women both his reward and his anguish in a life that puts art first. His amorous solitude reverberates in lines that describes him listening to Hank Williams coughing, "a hundred floors above me, in the tower of song." Cohen, like Casanova, relives his life and loves in literature, seducing readers through his pleasure-giving verse. "Forget your perfect offering/ There is a crack in everything/ That's how the light gets in," he sings in Anthem. Could Shakespeare have done it better?
These literary seducers remind us that the capacity to appreciate is also a creative art -- an art many of us in the work-obsessed 21st century have forgotten.
Susan Swan's novel, What Casanova Told Me, was a regional finalist for the Commonwealth Prize 2004. See http://www.susanswanonline.com.