'Swoon': How to Be a Modern-Day Casanova
In her new book, "Swoon: Great Seducers and Why Women Love Them," cultural historian Betsy Prioleau looks at famous seducers—many of them writers and poets—and endeavors to uncover the secrets of their romantic success. Drawing on literature, philosophy and contemporary science, as well as some of history's juiciest anecdotes, she distills the qualities, personality traits and techniques that gave these world-renowned wooers their edge.
We look at some of the grade-A rakes and the qualities that won them sex in excess, complete with books to give you further insight into their winning, wooing ways.
Lorenzo Da Ponte: Tenacity
It's a no-brainer that self-esteem is an essential element of seduction. But according to Prioleau, what sets apart history's greatest Lotharios is their ability to cultivate and maintain confidence in the face of adversity. Lorenzo Da Ponte, the 18th-century Venetian poet and opera librettist to Mozart, was a "psychological high-achiever, a man of stature who sparkled with élan and self-belief." But "he came up the hard way," as it were: born into a Jewish ghetto, motherless from the age of five and poorly educated. As detailed by Rodney Bolt in his biography "The Librettist of Venice," Da Ponte educated himself and ascended the social strata. It was at that point, Prioleau says, that "women descended." While not everyone can boast so dramatic a rags-to-riches tale, Da Ponte's success in romance shows that prevailing over hardship can mean sex appeal in spades.
Alfred de Musset: Joie de vivre
Intangible as it can be, charisma is another given in the art of seduction. Again, Prioleau identifies a key a component: joie de vivre, meaning vivacity or love of living. "Real ladies' men pulse with ebullience," Prioleau writes. One such man of enthusiasm was the 19th-century French poet and novelist Alfred de Musset, who "won half the hearts of the Parisian female population." "A vivacious dandy," Prioleau writes, "[de Musset] bounded into drawing rooms in tight sky-blue trousers, bubbling over with bon mots." So while an exact definition of charisma eludes us still, it seems that cranking up your spontaneity—if not silliness—may play a part.
De Musset's intensity and penchant for pleasure is on fully display in "Gamaini, or Two Nights of Success," an erotic novel inspired by his romance with the French writer George Sand.
Giacomo Casanova: Love of women
Don't let your careful cultivation of self-confidence and charisma blind you to the raison d'etre of seduction. Among the winning qualities of Giacomo Casanova, arguably the most famous romancer in history, was his simple enjoyment of women. "Coddled by his grandmother and other ministering angels as a boy," Prioleau writes, Casanova was "never a man's man" and "preferred the society of women." "Such gynephilia," Prioleau argues, "makes a man hum with charisma…. When someone empathizes and synchronizes with us, the effect is galvanic."
To hear about Casanova's reverence (and appetite) for women in his own words, look to his action-packed memoir, "The Story of My Life."
"In theory," writes Prioleau, "the Darwinian he-man ought to get the valentines, but oddly enough, a man in touch with his inner femininity frequently has the romantic edge with women." One such figure was the Greek god of wine, Dionysius, who "perfumed his curls and wore women's saffron robes tied with a flowery sash."
The sex appeal of androgyny has been observed in psychology as well, says Prioleau. "Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung thought both genders possess an inner bisexuality" and "later thinkers conjectured that we never lose an unconscious striving for a synthesis of male and female."
"The God Who Comes," by mythology researcher Rosemarie Taylor-Perry, looks at sex practices in ancient Greece, with a focus on "Dionysius Mysteries," social rituals aimed at unraveling sexual inhibition.
Ivan Turgenev: Wounded manhood
An unexpected charm among history's great seducers was flawed masculinity. "Women find a soupcon of fallibility in a man especially erotic," Prioleau writes. "A hairline crack in a man's aplomb, a hint of vulnerability--either physical or psychological--can turn a woman inside out." The flaws vary: they can be an injury, a hidden insecurity or a condition such as blindness (as was the case with Mr. Rochester in "Jane Eyre"). The Russian writer Ivan Turgenev, whose novels include "Fathers and Sons" and "A Month in the Country," is an exemplar of this rule. With his anxiety, hypochondria, drab-colored eyes and stooping posture, he "may be one of the least heroic yet the most loveable ladies' man of the nineteenth century," Prioleau writes.
Harold Frederic: Unceasing personal development
Prioleau quotes the philosopher Robert C. Solomon, who wrote in his book "About Love": "When self-improvement stops, love stops." History's great Romeos knew that sustained passion requires not only initial charm, but unceasing self-expansion and development as well. Whether you're increasing your knowledge, heightening your self-awareness or fine-tuning your life philosophy, continuously aiming to be a better you is key. Prioleau points to the Victorian novelist Harold Frederic as an example. A favorite among society ladies in London, Frederic "epitomized the German concept of Bildung—the constant unfolding of one's potential." Springing from a less-than-extraordinary middle-class upbringing in upstate New York, Frederic emigrated to London to work as a New York Times correspondent in his 20s and went on to write 10 novels and two books of nonfiction. But even into later life, he continued his education, studying rare plants, music theory and haute cuisine, among other things, until his death at 42.
Perhaps channeling his own experiences, Frederic wrote "The Damnation of Theron Ware," a novel about a young man who loses his naiveté and commits himself to lifelong intellectual refinement.