I cannot raise my eyes without encountering yours. I am incessantly compelled to avert my gaze; and by an incomprehensible inconsequence you draw upon me the eyes of the company at a moment when I would have even wished it possible to escape from my own.
– Choderlos de Laclos22
The intricate power dynamic of erotic seduction has been explored at length by Choderlos de Laclos in his epistolary novel Dangerous Liaisons. One of two main characters entangled in Laclos’s power play, the Marquise of Merteuil, is perfectly aware that in order to succeed in society, she is required “to join the talent of a comedian to an author’s wit.” In other words, she is perfectly aware of the theatrical nature of social passions. Yet, the acting required from a woman in the game of seduction is more subtle than that required from a man. A woman must also possess an author’s wit. Like Laclos’s Marquise, who “instead of seeking the vain applause of the theatre” is “resolved to employ for [her] happiness that which so many others sacrificed to vanity,” Casanova’s Countess sacrifices her vanity and her reputation, and perhaps also her happiness, for the sake of her dignity.23
In Le Polemoscope, the game of libertine seduction is embedded in an optical metaphor: a new twist on Goldoni’s idea that the world and the theater both mirror and contain each other. As an opera glass, the polemoscope adds another twist to the optical theater that has been our leitmotif all along. Casanova’s play takes us inside a teatro all’italiana, yet the focus is not on what happens onstage but, rather, on what distracts the spectators: the real spectacle is the audience. We can extend the metaphor beyond the erotic game. Indeed, Casanova’s polemoscope brings to light an intimate contradiction of our social being: our desire to look at others without being seen while fashioning ourselves in our most attractive and desirable disguises for the public gaze. This exquisitely ancien régime game of masks is the opposite of the cult of transparency and authenticity promoted by the Romantics (who, like Talvis, detest social conventions and hypocrisy and supposedly act on their passions and feelings, without restraints). A jealously protected private sphere is the necessary condition for the free exercise of one’s public persona, as the liberal doctrine will assert. Yet, as a tool designed for a polite and cautious lover—un galant politique, as the Count says in the play—the polemoscope betrays the hypocrisy and outright “lie” on which social conventions are based: the protection of one’s privacy is inevitably the infringement of someone else’s; the instrument of politesse can easily turn into a voyeuristic trap.
The public persona, the image of ourselves that we offer for public consumption, is a disguise meant to protect one’s real and not always honorable intentions. Indeed, as Gissor admits, “in Paris, the visual effects of a Polemoscope are so well known that nobody dares to bet any more on the real object of its gaze.”24 The setting of Casanova’s play is ancien régime Italy, yet the mechanisms it describes should be familiar to us, in our age of social media, in which our social self is both a virtual construction and the target of countless undetected gazes. Moreover, our new technologies allow us to uninhibitedly play with our (fake) identities, our avatars. The political subtext of Casanova’s play is also relevant: indeed, his polemoscope prefigures more insidious mechanisms of social control, a kind of panopticon. Translating Jeremy Bentham’s architectural blueprint for prison surveillance into a pervasive system, Michel Foucault has notoriously made the panopticon a model for modern forms of social control (fig. 8).25 Yet, in late modernity, the panopticon is embedded within the social body itself: no longer a centralized, totalitarian eye (Big Brother) but a “distributed” network of crisscrossing gazes. 26 A social theater in which everybody holds a diagonal opera glass is a more apt blueprint for this late modern panopticon: collective voyeurism as a form of social control (fig. 9).
However, what Casanova’s play also makes clear is that the panoptical social theater is based on gender bias, true discrimination. Both Gissor, the voyeur, and Talvis, the slanderer and blackmailer, play a devious power game in order to entrap the Countess. They both lie. Will the Countess, with her unexpected move, her counterintuitive admission of guilt—her own “lie”—manage to escape the polemoscopic logic of male desire? As the Marquise lucidly writes to her interlocutor and rival, the Vicomte de Valmont, in the Dangerous Liaisons: “For you men, a defeat is but one success the less. In so unequal a match, we are fortunate if we do not lose, as it is your misfortune if you do not win.”27 Casanova’s Countess goes even further: she wins by accepting defeat, she safeguards her own self-esteem by sacrificing her public persona. By unmasking (with the help of her husband) the perverse mechanism of the diagonal glass and by refusing to consider it just an innocent gadget, she discovers the real direction of the male gaze and manages to defuse the male power play.