Shadow Plays: Virtual Realities in an Analog World

Further Insights: The Stolen Crystal

Further Insights

The Stolen Crystal

The crystal-image may well have many distinct elements, but its irreducibility consists in the indivisible unity of an actual image and ‘its’ virtual image. But what is this virtual image in coalescence with the actual one?...The present is the actual image, and its contemporaneous past is the virtual image, the image in a mirror.

– Gilles Deleuze29

We have used Casanova’s play as a blueprint for our simulation. Reversing once again the direction of our lenses, we will now apply Casanova’s “diabolical little glass” to his own writing, as a critical tool. Indeed, something similar to a “polemoscopic” distortion, or subterfuge, is at work in Casanova’s masterpiece Histoire de Ma Vie (History of My Life). In it, Casanova plays a devious optical game with his readers. The explicit Rousseauvian goal, proclaimed in the Histoire’s preface—to unveil the author’s self without false modesty or shame in order to promote the universal knowledge of man as is, without embellishment—is only a trick meant to hide his real intentions: it gives the reader license to enjoy the private life of a libertine and the writer freedom to immodestly exhibit himself in all his unexcused narcissism. In other words, a voyeuristic fictional pact is tacitly at work in Casanova’s autobiography. Casanova claims to provide his readers with an honest, straightforward lens pointed at his own self, yet he stages his persona as he pleases, as a consummate actor on the social stage. A more subtle polemoscopic operation is also at work: remembering his life and writing it down for the reader, the author too acts as a voyeur—of his own life. If he has painted certain details too explicitly or indulgently, it is because, as he writes, “in my old age, my soul is reduced to feeling no pleasure but that afforded by memory.”30 The telescope of memory that brings distant things back, close enough to be described, is also an unreliable and enjoyable deceitful device with which the writer entertainingly relives his own life—the diverse abodes, royal palaces or ill-famed inns, including the bedrooms, which were the stage of his many adventures and sexual exploits. “Remembering the pleasures I enjoyed, I renew them, and I laugh at the pains which I have endured and no longer feel.”31 In short, his palace of memory is a casotto of self-pleasuring, voyeuristic acts.

An early episode in Casanova’s Histoire helps us illustrate the “polemoscopic” nature of this work. It is 1733, “six weeks before my father’s death,” old Giacomo tells us, and he was only eight years old: we will call it the episode of the stolen crystal. In Casanova’s narrative, this childhood episode follows another famous one, much commented upon by scholars: the story of Giacomo’s “healing” from a chronic nosebleed by the old witch of Murano. A strange ritual is performed in Murano (the island of the glass makers whose craftsmanship made possible the use of the refined mirrors and lenses adopted in telescopes and polemoscopes, or camerae obscurae). Locked by the witch in a wooden box, the child hears in the dark frightful noises and strange voices (perhaps in the Friulan dialect spoken by both the witch and Casanova’s grandmother Marzia): “I could hear in turn, laughter, weeping, singing, screams, shrieks, and knocking against the box. I didn’t care. At last I am taken out of the box; the blood stops flowing.”32 If the “magic” healing is related to his bodily constitution, the episode of the crystal is a symbol of his moral disposition and can further explain, as Casanova writes, “the manner in which my temperament was developing.” In fact, Casanova’s stolen crystal is reminiscent of Rousseau’s stolen ribbon, a formative episode told by the French philosopher in his Confessions, the explicit model for the Venetian’s memoirs. Here’s Casanova’s account:

One day, about the middle of November, I was with my brother Francesco, two years younger than I, in my father’s room, watching him attentively as he was working at optics. A large lump of crystal, round and cut into facets, attracted my attention. I took it up, and having brought it near my eyes I was delighted to see that it multiplied objects.33

Except for this mention, we don’t know whether Giacomo’s father, Gaetano Casanova, actually dabbled in homemade optical experiments, crafting contraptions similar to those mentioned by Lorenzo Selva in his treatise (fig. 10). This crystal is not a polemoscope, “the binocular with prismatic lenses,” at the center of his play; however, in these early pages of the autobiography, it becomes the objective correlative of a telling incident which also sheds retrospective (multifaceted) light on Giacomo’s relationship with his younger brother, Francesco, who later became a painter of some renown. In short, Giacomo steals the crystal. Here’s how old Casanova remembers what happened next:

A few minutes after this my father looked about for his crystal, and unable to find it, he concluded that one of us must have taken it. My brother asserted that he had not touched it, and I, although guilty, said the same; but my father, satisfied that he could not be mistaken, threatened to search us and to thrash the one who lied.

To extricate himself from a dangerous situation, young Giacomo stages a polemoscopic deception, diverting his father’s inquisitorial gaze from himself and repositioning the object, secretly and obliquely, where the father will eventually, and inevitably, find it—in his brother’s pocket:

Pretending to look for the crystal in every corner of the room, I slyly slipped it in the pocket of my brother’s jacket. At first, I was angry (fâché) for what I had done, for I might as well have feigned to find the crystal somewhere about the room; but the evil deed was past recall.34

In Casanova’s recounting, the physical properties of the object take a secondary role to the moral implications of his impulsive action. Yet, the whole episode can also be read as a kind of “philosophical experiment”—in optics. Young Giacomo (old Casanova tells his readers) was well aware of the wrongness of his action, but he could not help himself. Yet, we are also told, he was angry at himself, not for his dishonest act but for his lack of “presence of mind”: unlike the Countess in Casanova’s play, who honestly lied, declaring herself guilty although innocent, Giacomo is upset for having chosen the wrong kind of deception in order to hide his guilt. He could have feigned otherwise, pretending to find the object, thus defusing the situation, instead of framing his unwary younger brother. But he didn’t. In fact, to add insult to injury, here’s what follows:

My father, seeing that we were looking in vain, lost patience, searched us, found the ball of crystal in the pocket of the innocent boy, and inflicted upon him the promised thrashing. Three or four years later I was foolish enough to boast before my brother of the trick I had then played on him; he never forgave me, and has never failed to take his revenge whenever the opportunity offered.35

Faithful to his intention to tell the truth about himself, Casanova admits a less than honorable aspect of his developing personality; indeed, he doubles down, confessing to his readers his irresistible desire to callously brag before his victim. Here sits, however, the polemoscopic trick: Casanova confesses his guilt to his readers but in an ambiguous fashion, in such a way that his young self turns from guilty perpetrator into victim (of his brother’s excessive resentment). And, more importantly, under the disguise of confessing his guilt, in writing it, he draws the mnemonic pleasure of reliving the whole episode, implicitly bragging about his deception also before his readers and wooing their sympathy. (In short, he is both Gissor and Talvis, both the deceiver and the bragger).

Together with the episode of the “magic healing,” the story of the stolen crystal composes a double rite of passage for young Giacomo. In fact, a kind of optical illusion is involved in both. In his retelling, old Casanova doubts whether the exorcism of the Murano witch with its aftermath, the nocturnal visitation of a beautiful lady, a kind of fairy queen, who completed the healing, was in fact a dream, a vision, or a theatrical set-up concocted by his grandmother Marzia and his mother Zanetta Farussi, the actress: “I saw, or fancied I saw, coming down the chimney, a dazzling woman, with immense hoops, splendidly attired, and wearing on her head a crown set with precious stones, which seemed to me sparkling with fire.”36 In short, the vision could have been staged. The Dea ex machina (the fairy queen) of little Giacomo’s reverie, the elegantly dressed lady (“éblouissante en grand panier”) could have been his mother Zanetta in “costume de scene.”37 Or perhaps the vision is only a slide from the magic lantern of memory, a kind of mnemonic phantasmagoria that old Casanova is playing for himself and for his readers. The next morning, when Giacomo wakes up, his grandmother sternly reminds him of the witch’s command not to talk about it, “threatening me with death if I dared to say anything about what happened during the night”—a secret that old Giacomo is now finally breaking for his readers. Indeed, this mortal threat is what made the whole episode unforgettable in the first place: “This command, laid upon me by the only woman who had complete authority over me, and whose orders I was accustomed to obey blindly, caused me to remember the vision, and to store it, with the seal of secrecy, in the inmost corner of my dawning memory.”38

Whether real or imaginary, the “cure” works, and the sickly boy soon grows up to be a strong man, tall and fearless. Old Casanova draws from the episode an interesting lesson about superstition and optical “magic”: on the one hand, “magic” is debunked as a ridiculous trick; on the other hand, the trick has its effect, thanks to the power of suggestion.39 The lesson is simple yet treasured: once duped—by his actress mother no less, at a tender age—Giacomo will himself become a master of deception, later in life, pretending to possess the “cabalistic” powers to summon spirits and heal real or imaginary ailments, including old age and even mortality—without himself believing, or asking his readers to believe, in those powers. “You will laugh when you discover that I often had no scruples about deceiving nitwits and scoundrels and fools when I found it necessary...We avenge intelligence when we deceive a fool.”40 As Goldoni’s Eccliticus demonstrated with his fake telescope, in the Age of Reason, deception is a tool of knowledge: “I deceived them in order to make them wiser,” Casanova says. Once this complicity with his readers is established (perhaps it’s all a show, but an amusing and an instructive one), the writer can “confess,” indeed brag, about his own most spectacular deceptions, including his long series of seductions.41

An ambivalent kind of magic is also at work in the episode of the stolen crystal, a prismatic tool of trickery and self-knowledge. The entire episode is followed by an interesting coda which highlights Giacomo’s Catholic upbringing: “However, having at a later period gone to public confession, and accused myself to the priest of the sin with every circumstance surrounding it, I gained some knowledge which afforded me great satisfaction.”42 The knowledge Giacomo learns from confessing the theft of the crystal and his betrayal of his brother is an etymological one and results in a kind of new “baptism” for himself: the priest who absolves him also tells him the real meaning of his name (Jacques/Jacob) and, nomen est omen (the name is a sign), his destiny is to be a “supplanter.”43 This rhetorical move is based on a curious misreading of the Bible. In Genesis 27:36, it is Jacob’s older brother, Esau, who establishes the meaning of “supplanter.”44 But whence the need to reassert primogeniture if Giacomo is, like Esau, the elder brother? The misreading of the biblical source is unlikely an oversight. Yet, a possible explanation for this role reversal could be that although he was the firstborn, Giacomo felt he was not the “elected” one, the favorite of his father Gaetano (as Esau was the favorite of Isaac). In other words, as firstborn, he felt he had been “supplanted” (by his younger brother).

As mentioned, Francesco became a painter of some renown, specializing in battle scenes, with a flare also for the representation of perilous travel (fig. 11). In an interesting coincidence for us, he was also for a while the tutor of de Loutherbourg, the inventor of the Eidophusikon. Perhaps the episode of the stolen crystal should be read in light of an enduring brotherly rivalry. Francesco received the praise of no less than Denis Diderot, who called him “an imaginative man, a great colorist, a hot and daring temperament, a good poet, a great painter.”45 As a writer, a painter in words, Giacomo too will be known as a gifted “colorist,” but for a kind of “warfare” quite different from the battles that were Francesco’s main subject: “Those who think I lay on too much color when I describe certain amorous adventures in detail will be wrong, unless, that is, they consider me a bad painter altogether,” old Casanova writes in the preface to his memoirs.46

The knowledge that old Casanova consciously or unconsciously aspires to establish in his life story is actually the knowledge of a name, his own: the renown that only an enduring work, like the one he is busy composing in his Bohemian exile, can provide. It is no coincidence that Histoire de Ma Vie begins with a long, and mostly invented, genealogy. At this stage of the work-in-progress (Casanova’s autobiography will be published only years after his death), his younger brother Francesco still has an advantage over Giacomo—he is fairly well known as an artist, while Giacomo’s stock is falling in the forsaken corner of Europe where he is presently confined (he might as well be hiding inside a crater on the moon). Writing Histoire de Ma Vie is for the aging Casanova the only way to avoid falling into oblivion.47 Writing is his tool, his weapon, the deceptive tool, the corrective lens that can shed the best light on his own life and name—at the expense of others.

Thus, the entire and only apparently incidental episode of the stolen crystal could be read as follows: in remembering his act of deception and cowardice, or even cruelty, toward his brother, and in writing it down, the old Casanova establishes his own right—as a “painter” of words, an author. He tells the unabashed, unflattering truth (as in a public confession) but in a colorful way, biased in his own favor, and is rewarded, or better, rewards himself for doing so. Old Casanova wants to set the record straight, but what he writes reads like a novel, a work of fiction. The self-knowledge he shares with his readers, to make them wiser, is his self-portrait as a trickster: a quality that makes the writer an even better “painter” than the painter himself (his brother). In retelling the episode of the stolen crystal, the symbolic object of his father’s secret craft, the patriarchal jewel, the powerful talisman that “multiplies objects” and lets its user see the world as it is—as a colorful kaleidoscope of truths and lies—he, the elder Casanova, reclaims his birthright, his primogeniture. Jacques/Giacomo the “supplanter” is the one who will ultimately prevail, redirecting the public gaze from his famous brother to himself. The polemoscopic magic worked: Francesco’s memory as an artist has faded, while Giacomo has finally become himself: the immortal Casanova.

The episode of the stolen crystal has another coda. A rumor circulated that Francesco’s father was not indeed Gaetano but the Prince of Wales: Francesco was born in London where both his parents were on a theatrical engagement at the time, while Giacomo was back in Venice, cared for by his grandmother Marzia (the one who took him to the witch in Murano to be healed).48 If the rumors were true, Francesco would have indeed “supplanted” Giacomo, in terms of noble birth: Giacomo might well be, in fact, himself the illegitimate son of a Venetian nobleman, a Grimani, as he claimed in a vengeful pamphlet, La stalla ripulita (literally “The stable cleaned up” but perhaps more accurately translated as “Airing the dirty laundry”) published in Venice in 1782, a work which earned him final exile from his homeland; but Francesco may boast an even nobler birth, as the son of royalty (the Prince of Wales later became King George II). Whether true or false, Giacomo’s claim seems more believable than the gossip surrounding his brother’s paternity: yet, this adds another subtext to the family play, the brothers’ rivalry. Old Giacomo could not forgive his younger brother for (willingly or unwillingly) claiming a nobler birth. In the end, this episode of the stolen crystal hides another polemoscopic trick: it shifts our gaze from the mother (Zanetta Farussi) to the father (Gaetano Casanova). Yet, if Gaetano crafted the deceptive tool of knowledge, the prismatic lens coveted and stolen by Giacomo in order to “supplant” his brother, it is Zanetta, the actress, the elegantly dressed lady, the fairy queen in costume de scène, who holds the secret to the brothers’ birthright.

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