Giacomo Casanova and Osama Bin Laden. Polar opposites! I'm hard put to find two human beings more different and, at the same time, more prototypically pertinent to our ongoing discussion about the future. Casanova, the 18th century illuminist, believed in reason, knowledge without limitations, a benevolent and pleasurable overall design for a developing universe, and the beauty of women. He had high-caliber intellectual friends, such as Voltaire, and was also at home in the demi-monde of charlatans and gamblers. He traveled intensely across Europe at a time when roads were about as good as they are in Afghanistan now. He wrote plays and performed in them, translated poetry from French into Italian and vice-versa, fashioned a magical fantasy world about a happy race of people who dwell into the interior of the earth, and near the end of his life, penned a splendid autobiography, remarkable for candor and unsparing self-examination, called Histoire de Ma Vie
-- the History of My Life
. Posterity wasn't kind to Casanova until recently because, until recently, posterity had a dirty mind and mistook his candor about sex for the whole of the man. Few saw his literary brilliance and the force of his moral example. He was a man free of superstition, erudite and courageous. In a democratic, secular world where individual liberty is at a premium, Casanova will one day be seen as exemplary.
On the other hand, there is Osama Bin Laden, a bigoted religious fundamentalist who sees liberty and pleasure as evil, and women as dirty. When he travels, which he doesn't do much these days, he has with him a gang of armed cut-throats who carry holy books and grenades under their robes. He writes religious diatribes he launches from caves on videotapes made by sycophants. His world is dark, authoritarian, narrow-minded, unlettered and terrifying. Laughter, dancing, romance and free-ranging discussion are unknown to him or to his followers who sit at his feet, not as equals but as worshipping zombies. Everything human is totally alien to him, except corpses, which is how he expresses himself in the physical world. He speaks in corpses and intones from his book of mumbo jumbo. A future that accorded to Osama bin Laden's wishes would need only a few masters, like himself, and millions of slaves. It would be a world without music, subject to the constant drill of fear. Osama Bin Laden is widely admired in the Arab world, according to the polls, and he doubtlessly has hidden support in the West as well, among the hateful and the insane.
Casanova and Bin Laden are having a duel in a field just outside your door. Can you believe it? Why hasn't this fight been settled like a thousand years ago?
Andrei Codrescu is the author of
Casanova in Bohemia, published by The Free Press.