In the following simulation, we have translated Casanova’s polemoscopic game into a thought experiment involving social voyeurism: the four protagonists of the play are positioned inside a theatre, isolated in their individual boxes, their reciprocal gazes crisscrossing in the dim light. In this panoptical theater everybody watches everybody, supposedly undetected, through a polemoscope, while trying to guess the direction and the meaning of the other’s gaze. In Casanova’s play, it is the quick-witted Countess who discovers the trick, and the trap, of the polemoscopic gaze. In our simulation, there is no dénouement: our model of Casanova’s theater is meant to recall our own virtual social life, our own entrapment in the net of indirect gazes, false pretenses, gossip, (fake) truths, and lies, within our social media sphere.
Resuming our analysis of Casanova’s play, why did the Countess choose to admit to an affair she did not have? The explanation for the Countess’s unexpected “confession” is given by her husband, the Count: as a homme poli, a gentleman of the world, he declares faith in his wife’s innocence and praises her presence of spirit, as the subtitle of the play, La Calomnie Demasquée Par La Présence d’Esprit, declares. Whether he really believes her or simply covers for her, here is his solution to the riddle: if she had told the truth and refuted Talvis’s slander, then the Countess would have been considered nonetheless guilty, “precisely because you declared yourself innocent”—as the Count says. As she herself puts it: “I thought better to force the innocent to pay in order to escape the trap set by the villain.”28 In short, the trap set by Talvis is a cruel double bind: even if the Countess had told the truth and denied the affair, he would have bragged that she was lying—obviously to protect her own honor—and it would have been his word against hers. As a result, she would have been judged guilty either way in the public eye. In other words, the Count acknowledges the tyranny of public opinion—and gossip. By falsely admitting her own guilt, the Countess instead obtains the opposite result: with her presence of mind, she stifles the gossip and gets rid of both unwanted pretenders. Punishing Gissor for his deviousness, she deprives Talvis, the slanderer, of his ammunition. This dénouement may seem counterintuitive to us, yet it aptly illustrates the impossible situation in which a lady finds herself in the face of slander and public gossip: guilty in any case, whether she claims to be innocent or not. While a man could always avenge his honor with a duel, the only chance she has is to divert the devious “polemoscopic” nature of the social gaze: appearances may indeed deceive, but if there is no real secret to gossip about, no matter how false, soon all speculation and innuendo will hopefully be put to rest.
The proud and honest Countess withdraws from the public eye, confining herself to the symbolic cloister of her own palace and thus forcing the truly innocent to pay the price of a “cruel trick.” Yet, her enlightened husband claims he believes her—that is, he believes that her lie is the best resort she had, given the circumstances: whether he does so because of true love and trust in her faithfulness or for political calculus (the persistence of a salacious rumor would have damaged his reputation as well) remains ambiguous. The political dimension of the polemoscopic play now comes to light: the Count is an aristocrat, a member of the local Italian elite, in a city occupied by a French garrison; he could not have challenged a French officer to a duel without creating a diplomatic incident. A more diplomatic course of action is necessary, a recourse to de facto powers. After summoning Gissor and hearing the whole truth from him, the commander of the French garrison (the famed Maréchal de Richelieu) decides to take a stand. He and his wife invite the Countess and the Count to their house for a social function in order to publicly restore their reputation. The motives of the Maréchal are not entirely clear, however: Do he and his wife truly believe that the Countess is innocent and condemn Talvis’s “cruel trap”? Or are they unconvinced of her honesty but want nevertheless to demonstrate the superiority of French politesse because, as the Maréchal says, it is the “political” thing to do? Casanova’s play leaves us undecided. Yet, the truth in the end triumphs: Talvis is condemned and banished from the city. His punishment even turns deadly: the villain will lose his life, killed in what appears to be an unrelated incident (in which, however, the devoted lady’s husband may have secretly had a hand—another way to protect his wife’s honor, in secret, with a vendetta, Italian style). What is remarkable, however, is that Casanova celebrates the presence of mind of a lady, able to deflect the insidious power of the devilish lorgnette: thus, perhaps demonstrating the superiority of Italian spirito over French esprit and (hypocritical) politesse. Indeed, by revealing, with a simple geometrical calculation, the distorting mechanism at work, Casanova’s enlightened heroine theatrically unmasks the “cruel trap” of public opinion, breaks free from the double bind of social voyeurism: anonymous prying and social surveillance. We can certainly appreciate her quick-witted courage in face of a bully like Talvis. However, to our twenty-first century eyes, ensnared as we are in the net of social media, her attitude seems hardly a viable defense against the entrapments of the panoptical theater in which we ourselves live.