Saturday, August 22, 2015

Characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa: Diego Hervas


" ... of making many books there is no end; and much study is a weariness of the flesh."
— Ecclesiastes 12:12 (King James Version)
Of all the characters in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the virtuous, the villainous, and everyone in-between, I think it's Diego Hervas who inspires the deepest sympathy in me. I find this disconcerting because the whole purpose he serves in the book is as an example of someone who fails in all his endeavors, surrenders to despair, falls into heresy, commits suicide, and is damned.

Diego Hervas starts out, though, as a brilliant scholar and mathematician with ambitions of academic glory. He brings together discoveries by Enlightenment luminaries René Descartes, Thomas Harriot, Pierre de Fermat, and Gilles Personne de Roberval, integrating them and refining them into a single volume that takes him a year to write. He titles it The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, together with the Science of Infinite Dimensions, and he spends his whole inheritance printing a thousand copies, which he assumes he will have no trouble selling (a classic mistake that self-publishers make to this day). Then he packs all the books onto mules and heads to Madrid, where he leaves all one thousand copies at Moreno's bookshop (which also plays a key role in the life of Don Felipe Avadoro).

Three weeks later, Hervas returns to the bookstore and is mortified to learn that not a single person has purchased his book. Soon after, local law enforcement arrives to arrest him, because his book has inspired a popular joke mocking the minister of finance.

   The two or three copies put on sale by Moreno soon fell into the hands of curious people who frequented the shop. One of them read the title, The Secrets of Analysis Revealed, and said that it might well be an anti-government pamphlet. Another, scrutinizing the same title-page, said with a sly smile that the satire must be directed towards Don Pedro Alanyes, the minister of finance, because analysis was the anagram of Alanyes; and the second part of the title, Infinities of All Dimensions, was also directed at the minister, who was physically infinitely small and infinitely fat, and mentally infinitely low and infinitely high....
   It wasn't long, either, before the minister Alanyes was called Señor Analysis, Infinite in Every Dimension. This financier was quite inured to the people's criticisms and paid them no attention. But when the same nickname came to his ears more than once he asked his secretary to explain why. He in turn replied that the origin of the joke was an alleged book of geometry on sale at Moreno's shop. Without making further inquiries, the minister first had the author arrested and then confiscated the whole edition.
The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 48

Poor Hervas. After six weeks in prison, he is released, to discover that every copy of his book in existence has been destroyed. But the upside is that during his imprisonment, he's conceived of an even more ambitious book project, "a work in a hundred volumes, which was to contain all that men knew in his time."

The description of Hervas's 100-volume encyclopedia, which takes him 15 years to write, is a lovely bit of absurdity. Jan Potocki describes the contents of each volume in order, in a passage 15 paragraphs long. If you manage to wade through it, you find a wonderful nugget of satire buried in the middle:

Then, in the seventy-fourth [volume] came exegesis, which is the exposition of Holy Writ; in the seventy-fifth, hermeneutics, which is its interpretation; in the seventy-sixth, scholastics, that is, the art of conducting a proof completely independently of common sense; and in the seventy-seventh, the theology of mysticism or the pantheism of spiritualism.
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 49

This grandiose undertaking, of course, implodes in an appropriately absurd manner. I won't go into detail, but it does involve an empty house and some hungry rats. The fate of the one hundred volumes is so perfect and so sad that whenever I come to this part of the novel, I feel like laughing and crying simultaneously. I understand the desire to systematize and organize all aspects of life, just as I recognize the futility of trying to do it.

Laura Miller, in her review of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa for the San Francisco Examiner, notes that "Potocki, himself a scholar of wide-ranging interests, treats intellectual ambition with a fond but often cruel irony." P. N. Furbank's review "Nesting Time" in the London Review of Books mentions that Potocki's own ethnological treatises and tables of 'universal chronology' were "roughly handled by scholars."  

Hervas spends eight years repairing and recreating the destroyed volumes, only to find that advancements in science and mathematics have rendered his encyclopedia out of date. Updating the great work takes four more years; the total of 12 years spent without leaving his house destroys his health, but at least he can finally take the one hundred volumes to Moreno's bookshop and beg him to publish them, thereby bringing honor to Spain.

   Moreno opened all the volumes, examined them carefully and then said, 'Señor, I will undertake the work, but you must bring yourself to reduce it to twenty-five volumes.'
   'Go away, go away!' replied Hervas in the deepest indignation. 'Go back to your shop and print the romantic or pedantic rubbish which are the shame of Spain! Leave me, Señor, with my kidney stones and my genius, which if it had been better known would have won general esteem. I have nothing left to ask of mankind and still less of booksellers. Go away!'
— The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Day 50

At this point Hervas gives in completely to despair. He becomes obsessed with the existence of evil and the question of whether God created evil. Then he develops his own theory of how the cosmos and all living things might have come into existence independently of God.

Of course, through his various storytellers—Pandesowna is relating the story that Busqueros recounted that Cornádez says the man claiming to be the "Reprobate Pilgrim" (Blas Hervas) told him—Potocki expresses shock and dismay at such a theory being developed. However, he goes into enough detail about it that I suspect this may have been a cautious way of putting forward a controversial scientific theory of his own. Some of the precursors to evolutionary theory had already been published. Erasmus Darwin's Zoonomia (written 1794–1796) proposed that all warm-blooded animals could have descended from a single micro-organism; Jean-Baptiste Lamarck's 1809 book Philosophie zoologique articulated one of the first fleshed-out theories of evolution.

But within the context of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Hervas's heretical theory of how the creation could exist without a Creator is portrayed as part of his ongoing descent and degeneration. He eventually commits suicide, wrapped in a bed sheet like a shroud and drinking poison from a goblet. Before he dies, he says a humble prayer: "Oh God, if there is one, have pity on my soul, if I have one" (Day 50).

Two final notes on Diego Hervas:

  • Other characters in the novel speak of him as if he were a notorious figure. Rebecca de Uzeda comments that "Everyone knows the story of the atheist Hervas, which the Jesuit Granada recorded in the notes to his work" (Day 49). Yet in a footnote in his English translation of the novel, Ian MacLean states that "It is not clear to whom Potocki is here referring." I interpret that as meaning that MacLean hasn't been able to find historical evidence of either an "atheist Hervas" or a "Jesuit Granada." So was Potocki referring to actual cultural figures known in the Enlightenment, who have since been lost to history? Or were these two characters, the infamous atheist and the respected Jesuit scholar, just fictions Potocki invented himself? Like so many questions about The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, this one may prove difficult to answer.
  • Also, in my copy of Ian MacLean's translation, Diego Hervas is described twice as a polygraph. I believe this is a translation error. I'd guess the intention was to describe him as a polymath, defined by Merriam-Webster as "a person of encyclopedic learning."  A polygraph is a lie detector, and those weren't invented until more than a hundred years after Jan Potocki's death.