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Don Juan and Casanova

by Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.(more info)

listed in psychology, originally published in issue 57 - October 2000

Psychology is often not the best source of wisdom concerning the passions of life. Probably better to turn to great literature and real life itself. This is especially true when discussing love and sex, those two perennials of the consultation room.

It was not so many years ago that female patients who were sexually active were labelled 'nymphomaniacs' by traditional psychologists. As an antidote to that prejudice, a more liberated practitioner once stated: "A nymphomaniac is a woman who is having a more active sex life than her analyst."

Let's look at some characters on the male side of the fence. Both Don Juan and Casanova are terms applied to male predators who are sexually active. But the two are radically different. Looking closer, the Don Juan is a man who seduces many women, then discards them and moves on to the next. He is more interested in the conquest than the woman. In the opera, he gets his comeuppance, as we all know.

The term Casanova comes from the name of a real person, Giovanni Jacopo Casanova (1725-1798), a great Italian adventurer who wrote a historical memoir in 12 volumes, discussing among other things, his many love affairs. Casanova was born into a family of actors, and was known for his great wit. At the tender age of 12, it is said, he established himself at a party by giving a clever answer to a difficult question. A noblewoman asked the young lad, who was somewhat of a linguist, why it is that in many languages the male sex organ is classified as 'feminine', while the female variant takes the 'masculine' case (referring here to the sphere of grammar). The budding seducer answered wisely: "Because the servant takes the name of his master."

The Casanova, as a type, is not as cold-hearted as the Don Juan; instead, he loves women, adores their charms, and just cannot get enough of them. He cannot limit himself to any one woman, but needs to express his love to many. He does not drop one lover to go on to the next conquest, as is the case with the Don Juan, but prefers to retain his lovers.

The distinction, so often blurred in everyday usage, could not be more clear. The Don Juan is primarily interested in the chase, the lure of the hunt. He prides himself in being a skilled hunter, and the woman is simply the prey, the hunted. He is not so terribly interested in the women themselves. This is the picture we get from the literature on the Don Juan, and in the real world, there are certainly many men who fit this description.

The Casanova is more concerned with having a love story, albeit often a short one. But he is in search of love, or at least is able to delude himself that this is his main goal.

As an example of a modern-day Casanova, let's take Rick, an acquaintance of mine from university. He's a tall, slender, dark gentleman who devotes most of his time to seducing women. And loving them. For he truly adores women, that's how he spends most of his time.

He has dabbled in philosophy, and even a few odd jobs, but his main interest in life is pursuing the eternal feminine. It's not that he has any special power with women, he explained to me one day, but his success is due to his persistence. He simply spends more time on the pursuit of female beauty than other men. The rule seems to be, if at first you don't succeed, try with another one.

So he exerts himself day after day, picking up women, and eventually will find one who falls for his line. Other men give up too easily, or don't have the time to devote to this endeavour, but for Rick it's the major portion of his life. A rather thin life, many would say, but for him, it's the great play of passion.

According to the classical Freudian theory, he is doing all this in order to prove his manhood, i.e., there is an element of latent homosexuality behind all this effort. A normal man, according to psychoanalysis, would not need to go so far to prove to himself that he is virile.

Moreover, Freud believed that the constant chase after women is in reality an attempt to discover one that has the male sexual elements. That is, he is driven compulsively to undress women in a fruitless search after a penis.

Well, that's the theory, and one may or may not believe it. And one is not compelled to accept every theory; I prefer to judge each case on its own merits – look at the quality of the activities involved. Does Rick appear driven by some irrational inner compulsion? Or does he take genuine pleasure in the search? Only by a closer examination of the details can one come close to understanding what is actually going on. I have known men similar to Rick who one day meet a special woman and then give up their quest, settling down into a 'normal' family life style.

I was discussing this topic over lunch not long ago with a colleague, who recommended I see the Hollywood film 'Don Juan Demarco'. A good film, with Johnny Depp playing the lead, a romantic young man who adores women; actually the character is more of a Casanova type than a Don Juan, since he loves women and throughout the film does all he can to make women happy. But that´s Hollywood; they probably thought the label 'Don Juan' would sell more tickets. Marlon Brando plays a psychiatrist who learns something from his patient. All in all, an entertaining and moving story.

My colleague who appreciated this film also told me of one of his recent cases, who perhaps represents a sub-group of the Don Juan type – maybe you could label him the 'Don Juan teaser'. Roy is a very handsome young man who likes to have women run after him, but has no interest in returning their lust. When Roy sits on the underground, women stamp on his feet to attract his attention – so appealing is he to the average woman. But he apparently gets his pleasure from arousing their desire, only to return their eager look with a disdainful shrug.

"Is he gay?" I asked. "No," replied my friend. "It´s just that he´s in love with his mother."


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About Sheldon Litt, Ph.D.

Dr Sheldon Litt is an American psychologist who trains professionals in modern methods of psychotherapy. He has taught at many universities in northern Europe. He was trained by Fritz Perls at the New York Institute for Gestalt Therapy.S. Litt, Inedalsgatan 25, S-11233 Stockholm, Sweden. Tel: +468 651 2489 Email:

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