Thursday, February 19, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Don Juan van Worden

Reading The Manuscript Found in Saragossa means traveling through the bleak Sierra Morena mountains of southern Spain with Alphonse van Worden, a young man who is headed to Madrid to serve the king of Spain as the captain of a company of Walloon Guards. Alphonse himself is almost a blank slate; he's young and hasn't done very much, or developed much personality, apparently. In the story he mainly functions as a kind of Joe Average, expressing an appropriate degree of confusion at all the bizarre adventures that happen to him.

Alphonse's only distinctive trait seems to be his preoccupation with his own honor. This is what sends him into the dangerous, mysterious mountains, in fact, in spite of various innkeepers warning him that "Travellers who ventured into that wild country found themselves assailed, it was said, by countless terrors which would make even the stoutest of hearts tremble."

Alphonse dismisses such warnings, refusing to take a safer road to Madrid.

I replied to him that this choice of route might suit ordinary travellers, but that as King Philip V had graciously bestowed on me a commission in the Walloon Guards, I was bound by the sacred laws of honour to take the shortest route to Madrid without considering whether it was the most dangerous.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 1

This overblown sense of his own personal honor, we soon learn, is something that Alphonse has gotten from his father, Don Juan van Worden. While Alphonse himself raises some interesting questions, which I'll look at later, I'm more interested in his father, who I find a lot more absurd and therefore a lot more fun.

Juan is part of an ancient family that runs a fief called Worden in Wallonia, which today is the southern region of Belgium. In the early 18th century, it was part of the Spanish Netherlands, under the control of Spain. King Philip V of Spain ordered infantry regiments to be recruited from the Netherlands starting in 1702, which is how Juan ends up as a lieutenant-colonel in the Walloon Guards.

"At that time in the Spanish army there was a strong sense of honour which was sometimes taken to extremes," Alphonse explains on Day 3; "my father went even further."

That is one of the book's great understatements. In Madrid Juan becomes the man to get if you're challenging someone to a duel and want to make sure the duel is conducted properly. He keeps a history of all the local duels, which makes him a respected authority. He also shows no hesitation whatsoever when it comes to fighting duels himself.

Traveling through France on his way back to his ancestral castle in Wallonia, Juan's carriage is passed on the road by the carriage of a French army officer. What does Juan do? Challenge the man to a duel and very nearly get killed, of course.

French and Spanish fencing racks, an illustration from an 18th century book called (in Russian) "The School of Fencing," by Domenico Angelo.


My favorite bit about Juan is the description that Alphonse gives of his father's wedding:

My father thought it appropriate to invite to his wedding all the men with whom he had fought duels (I only mean those, of course, whom he had not killed). A hundred and twenty-two came to the wedding feast. Thirteen of those absent were away from Madrid, and it had been impossible to trace a further thirty-three whom he had fought while in the army. My mother told me on more than one occasion that the feast had been extraordinarily merry and that there was an atmosphere of great cordiality. I do not find this difficult to believe, for my father had at bottom an excellent heart and was much loved by everyone.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 3

Later in the book, when the Duchess of Medina Sidonia is telling how her father and mother separated, Don Juan van Worden suddenly pops up as a secondary character. He's a member of a military tribunal sitting in judgement to determine whether the Flemish commander van Berg was fairly killed by a Spanish officer in a duel or was murdered. Van Worden contradicts his fellow Flemings on the tribunal by voting in favor of the Spanish officer's innocence.

   "It is my conviction which makes me speak in this way, although I hate having to contradict the opinion of my eleven comrades. Being almost certain of having the misfortune of having lost their affection, and in the hopes of forestalling in the least violent manner any manifestation of their displeasure, I ask all eleven of them to do me the honour of duelling with me, six tomorrow morning and five tomorrow afternoon."
   This argument gave rise to a general murmuring but the challenge had, in propriety, to be taken up. Van Worden wounded the first six, who came in the morning. He then began on the last five. The first three were wounded by van Worden, the tenth wounded him in the shoulder and the eleventh ran him through and left him for dead.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 28

In recounting all this, Alphonse expresses nothing but admiration for his father's intelligence and honorable conduct. Clearly author Jan Potocki is satirizing the code of honor; the witty Rebecca comments to Alphonse, "If your father hadn't duelled with eleven officers a quarrel might well have arisen. This he did very well to avoid."

Why Potocki was so interested in satirizing the code of honor is something I don't fully understand. My first guess was that it might be a spoof of a perceived exaggerated sense of honor among the Spanish, but Don Juan van Worden is Flemish, not Spanish, and there are plenty of Spanish figures in the book who carry their sense of honor much more lightly. Maybe it was a Flemish thing?

Another idea is that the ritual of fighting duels for honor was an element of the Age of Enlightenment that was beginning to fall out of favor by the 1770s. Perhaps Potocki saw the hypocrisy in rational, educated aristocrats stabbing each other to satisfy their sense of personal honor.

If anyone has alternate theories or can provide more historical context, please comment or email me!


This character is introduced in Day 3.