Thursday, August 25, 2016

The Spanish Inquisition and the World of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

Note: This blog entry contains some spoilers. If you have not read all of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, you might want to skip this one. 

The Spanish Inquisition never takes center stage in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, but it's clearly part of the political landscape that protagonist Alphonse van Worden must navigate. At the end of Day 3, Alphonse is arrested by men claiming to act on behalf of the king and the Holy Inquisition; they demand a confession from him, threatening gruesome torture.

A few days after his escape, Alphonse receives a letter from a government minister, warning him to lay low for three months rather than report for duty in Madrid, because he has displeased the Inquisition (Day 9). Fear of the Inquisition, therefore, plays a key role in Alphonse's adventures in the Sierra Morena.

In her essay "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque," Ahlam Alaki suggests that much about the strange, nightmarish world Jan Potocki creates in his novel is best understood in the context of the effects the Inquisition had on Spanish life and culture. To understand why, it's necessary to have a little background on the earlier history of Spain, and why the Inquisition was given so much power.

Hispania (the Iberian Peninsula) was a Roman colony for several hundred years. After the fall of the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century, it came under the control of various Germanic tribes, especially the Visigoths. The first Visigoth kings were pagans, but they became Arianists starting in 395. Reccared I renounced Arianism in 587, becoming the first in a line of Catholic kings.

In 711, armies of the Umayyad Caliphate invaded Spain from Islamic North Africa through Gibraltar. The Visigothic kingdom, weakened by civil war, offered little resistance. Muslim forces (mostly Berbers and Arabs) conquered almost the entire peninsula in seven years, stretching across the Pyrenees into what's now Provence. It would take European Catholics seven centuries to take the territory back.

Panel of the Altarpiece of St. George, depicting Jaime I, King of Aragon, fighting
Muslim troops in the Battle of the Puig in 1237. Attributed to Marzal de Sas.

That struggle, and that period in Spain's history, are traditionally called the Reconquista, the "reconquest." The term makes it sound like a single, unified effort by European Christians against an Islamic occupation. But this was the Middle Ages, and of course the reality was much more complicated and confusing. Territorial lines moved back and forth; Christian kingdoms fought each other; Muslim rulers fought each other; alliances between Christian rulers and Muslim rulers were not uncommon. Still, in events that occurred more than a thousand years before Jan Potocki's birth, you can see the roots of a key cultural conflict explored in his novel. This deep history may be part of the reason why Potocki chose to set the novel in Spain.

Take a look at the map below, which shows the various kingdoms in power circa 1360.

Spanish kingdoms 1360. Courtesy of the University of Texas Libraries, The University of Texas at Austin. From The Atlas to Freeman's Historical Geography, edited by J.B. Bury, Longmans Green and Co., Third Edition, 1903. Public domain, via Wikipedia.

By this point, Spain's Muslim inhabitants (often called Moors) had been pushed south, holding only the small kingdom of Granada, which was a vassal of the powerful Christian kingdom of Castile and Leon. Now take a look at this next map.

Annotations in yellow are mine. CC-BY-SA-3.0 (
or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (],
 via Wikimedia Commons.

Remember the Sierra Morena mountains where Alphonse von Worden had to lay low for several months? Those mountains form a cultural fault line between the heart of Islamic Spain and the more Catholic, European north. Today the Sierra Morena form the northern boundary of Andalusia, the southern autonomous region of Spain that takes its name from Al-Andalus, the medieval Arabic name for the territory. The Great Mosque of Córdoba and the Alhambra Palace remain the region's greatest architectural treasures.

The Reconquista was complete in 1492. Isabella, heir to the throne of Castile, had married Ferdinand, heir to the throne of Aragon. Once they both came to power, they united their kingdoms and conquered the last Muslim kingdom on the peninsula, Grenada.

Except that the kingdoms weren't actually all that united. Regions that had existed as separate kingdoms for centuries retained differing languages, traditions, and political allegiances; in many places, nobles still ruled their territories like kings. To unite the country and strengthen their control, Ferdinand and Isabella turned to the power of religion.

In 1492, the Reyes Católicos (Catholic Monarchs) issued the Alhambra Decree, stating that Jews who did not convert to Catholicism had four months to leave the country or face execution. Jews who converted were called Conversos ("converts"); they were allowed to remain but were generally regarded with suspicion.

Following a rebellion by Muslims in the city of Grenada in 1499, Castilian authorities gave the region's Muslim population a similar ultimatum: convert to Christianity or be expelled. Those who converted or claimed to have converted in order to stay were called Moriscos. 

Because Ferdinand and Isabella were counting on the Catholic faith to unify their new nation, the presence of all these Conversos and Moriscos was unsettling. How could you tell who had really accepted the Catholic faith? How many among Spain's population were secretly still practicing Judaism or Islam—and what if those pretenders were plotting rebellions and sabotage?

That's where the Inquisition comes in. The Papacy had authorized inquisitions in other countries to combat the rise of heresies, alternative versions of Christianity that were considered destructive and false. But in Spain the main job of the Inquisition was to find out who was pretending to be loyal to the Catholic Monarchs and the Catholic faith while secretly remaining true to their religious roots.

In Day 59 of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, reveals how he was told some of the secrets of the Sierra Morena by the Jewish astrologer Mamoun, father of the Cabbalist Pedro de Uzeda and his sister Rebecca. Mamoun told Pandesowna:

". . . you find yourself here on lands whose deep places are hidden from profane eyes; lands in which everyone has a secret to keep. There are vast caves and extensive underground workings in this chain of mountains. They are inhabited by Moors who have never left them since they were driven out of Spain. In the valley which stretches out before your eyes you will meet bogus gypsies, some of whom are Muslim, others Christian, yet others who confess no religion. . . . The house in which you find yourself is lived in only by Jews. Every seven years Portuguese and Spanish Jews gather to celebrate the sabbatical year. This will be the four hundred and thirty-eighth time since Joshua celebrated it. . . ."

Toward the end of the novel, Alphonse van Worden learns the purpose behind all the manipulations and trials he has experienced in the Sierra Morena. The Great Sheikh of the Gomelez reveals that his ancestor discovered a vast seam of gold in the mountains, which for generations the Gomelez family secretly mined, amassing great wealth. This ancestor, the first Sheikh of the Gomelez, was an adherent of Shia Islam, as opposed to the Umayyad Caliphate that in his time occupied the Iberian Peninsula; he thought that the Prophet "had shown him this gold and given it to him so that the caliphate would return to his family, that is to say, the descendants of Ali, and the whole world would be converted by them to Islam" (Day 62).

In other words, this is just the kind of conspiracy that the Spanish Inquisition was created to uncover. The current Great Sheikh of the Gomelez reveals to Alphonse that the Governor of Cadiz is in on the conspiracy, as were the valet and muleteer who abandoned Alphonse in the mountains, the false Inquisitors who threatened him with torture, the gypsy chief, and seemingly just about everyone else Alphonse has met since he set foot in Spain. There are clearly conspirators in the Spanish Court who arranged Alphonse's three-month leave, and it's implied that the Inquisition itself has been infiltrated, or at least persuaded to steer clear of the Sierra Morena (Day 1).

One of the Inquisition's many dubious innovations was the concept of purity of blood (limpieza de sangre). Residents of Spain came under suspicion by the Inquisition if their parents or ancestors were Jews or Muslims; their appearance of loyalty to the Catholic Church and the Catholic Monarchs might be a deception. Alphonse van Worden's situation is an ironic reversal of the historic Spanish definition of having pure blood. Because of the ancestry of Alphonse's mother, the Sheikh needs him, for Alphonse can father children who can "pass for descendants of the purest blood of the Gomelez" (Day 66). Alphonse's significant heritage has remained a secret from everyone—including himself.

In Ahlam Alaki's essay "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque" (yes, we're finally getting back to it), she teases out plenty of other ways in which the grotesque world that Alphonse encounters can be seen as an absurd, through-the-looking-glass version of Spain under the Inquisition. Here are a few highlights:
  • "Saragossa [now more commonly spelled Zaragoza] is remembered in the dreadful history of the Spanish Inquisition, as it was the location of a notorious Inquisition tribunal, and its marketplace was where punishments were carried out" (p.187).
  • "The Inquisition is represented by Potocki (after Cervantes) as fabricating a Spanish society of masquerades and heresy in which nothing is what it seems to be" (p. 194). Later in the essay, Alaki observes how "Many characters in this tale go under different disguises: Avadoro, Lonzato, Elvira, Frasqueta and her lover, the duchess of Avila, the Conde de Pena Valez and his sister, Laura Cerella, Rebecca, Blas Hervas, and Busqueros" (p. 199–200). 
  • Alaki relates how people accused by the Inquisition could obtain forgiveness by confessing their sins, and providing information on the sins of others. "The Inquisition threw Spanish society into consternation, and introduced the idea of spies being everywhere" (p. 199). The character Don Roque Busqueros may represent such a threat, as he appears out of nowhere to spy out secrets that could destroy Juan Avadoro and advance his own position. 
  • In Day 63, the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez explains to Alphonse that his entire childhood was spent literally underground, hiding in caves: "I had been inculcated with a deep hatred of Christians. All these feelings were more or less innate and grew as I grew in the darkness of the caves." This metaphor of a persecuted faith and culture being forced underground may explain some of the ubiquity of the images of caves, underground tunnels, and darkness in the novel. 
  • Alaki notes that "Moors and Jews were forced to convert to Christianity or leave. Alternatively, they were forced to bury their otherness in a state of Gothic limbo" (p. 197). 

I think this last comment is especially insightful. As sometimes happens in gothic fiction, I think Potocki has used images of ghosts, hauntings, and people returning from the dead to play with ideas of what happens when a culture tries to kill part of itself and bury it. Perhaps in Potocki's novel, Spanish culture is being haunted by the ghosts of its Jewish and Muslim past. 

Thursday, May 26, 2016

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as a European Arabian Nights

Note: This blog entry contains some spoilers. If you have not read all of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, you might want to skip this one. 

For every gothic element or motif in Jan Potocki's early 19th-century novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, there seems to be at least one that doesn't feel gothic at all. The novel features Jewish characters who are magicians, for example; underground treasure that can only be retrieved by select individuals; and a strange blurring of the realms of magic and science/mathematics.

Many of these elements that feel "foreign" to the modern reader are things that Potocki borrowed from Middle Eastern fiction, particularly from The Thousand and One Nights, commonly known as The Arabian Nights in the United States.

The Arabian Nights had caused a sensation in Europe when a French translation first became available between 1707 and 1717. Robert Irwin, author of The Arabian Nights: A Companion, repeats one estimate that "almost 700 romances in the oriental mode were published in France in the eighteenth century" (p. 241).  The craze was part of a broader European mania for things from the "exotic" East, which is now called Orientalism. Irwin describes it this way:

... a wider fashion for chinoiserie, turquerie, oriental silks and ceramics, and architectural follies in the Egyptian or Chinese mode. The increased consumption of opium in the eighteenth century seems to have gone hand in hand with an interest in oriental imagery. The translations of Sir William Jones (1746–96) from Hindu, Persian and Arabic classics were widely read. The travel narratives of Chardin, Tavernier, Tournefort, Sherley and Bernier were also popular. (p. 242)

A Harem Beauty at her Toilette, 1839.
Paul Emil Jacobs [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Jan Potocki wrote and published narratives of his own travels in Turkey, Egypt, and Morocco. Irwin and other scholars report that in Morocco he tried and failed to locate and purchase a copy of The Arabian Nights in the original Arabic, one of the many languages he had mastered (p. 255).

These days, most English-speakers think of The Arabian Nights as Middle Eastern fairy tales; if asked, we might be able to identify the stories of Aladdin, Sinbad the Sailor, and Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves. But the original Middle Eastern work was a vast, much more varied compilation, with a much more adult audience. It took Antoine Galland 17 years to produce his 12-volume French translation, Les Mille et une nuits.

Irwin writes that, in addition to some stories that might pass as fairy tales, the work

...also includes long heroic epics, wisdom literature, fables, cosmological fantasy, pornography, scatological jokes, mythical devotional tales, chronicles of low life, rhetorical debates and masses of poetry. A few tales are hundreds of pages long; others amount to no more than a short paragraph. (p.2)

What ties all this material together is a frame story. All these varied entertainments are being offered to the fictional King Shahriyar by the storyteller Sheherazade. In The Arabian Nights we learn that the king caught his queen cheating on him with a lowly slave. After having them both executed, Shahriyar becomes obsessed with never again experiencing sexual betrayal. Every night he has a beautiful virgin brought to his bed; the next morning, he has the woman beheaded.

Arabian Nights illustration:
Shahrazad tells her story to Shahryar,
while her sister Dunyazad is listening
By Unknown (London, 1706)
[Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. 
To stop the slaughter of innocent women, the daughter of Shahriyar's vizier volunteers herself, against her father's wishes. Presented to the king, Sheherazade requests that her sister Dunyazade accompany her. After Sheherazade has been deflowered by the king, Dunyazade discreetly appears and asks her sister for a story to help her sleep. The tale that Sheherazade tells is so captivating that, when morning comes and it has not ended, the king delays her execution so that she can finish it the following night. Then clever Sheherazade continues the story, but embedded within that story is another story, which is also unfinished at the break of dawn. As long as she can keep delivering fascinating material without a clear resolution, Sheherazade survives.

The story of Alphonse van Worden in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa has clear parallels to the Arabian Nights frame story. The trick to seeing it clearly is that, instead of looking at it from Alphonse's perspective, you have to consider it from the point of view of the Sheikh of the Gomelez.

What's at stake is not one life but the bloodline of a wealthy and powerful Muslim family called the Gomelez, living secretly in the mountains of Spain. The Sheikh has two daughters but there are no pureblood males for them to marry. The family's only hope is to recruit Alphonse, who is genetically acceptable even though he has been raised as a Christian and a loyal Spaniard.

So the conspiracy is laid to interrupt Alphonse's travel through Spain to Madrid, where he intends to serve in the Spanish military. Incorporating Alphonse into the Gomelez family will be no easy feat. A faithful subject of the Spanish crown, he'll have to be trusted not to reveal the family's secrets to the government. What's more, the Sheikh wants Alphonse to marry or at least impregnate both his daughters, to secure the genetic line; Alphonse will need to reject his Christian faith and his culture's sexual norms to do so.

All this will take time. Accomplices deliver a letter to Alphonse from the royal court, telling him to delay his arrival in Castile for three months, because he has displeased the Inquisition. While Alphonse wanders the frontiers of Castile and Andalusia, keeping a low profile, the Gomelez family and their supporters arrange for him to have experiences and hear stories that will open him up to new perspectives and new possibilities. On Day 66, the Sheikh explains to Alphonse:

We had to retain you longer among us and we feared that you would grow bored. That is why we thought up various distractions for you. Thus Uzeda had an old man of my band memorize the story of Ahasuerus, the Wandering Jew, which he took from his family chronicles and which the old man recited to you. In this case we were combining business with pleasure. 

The Sheikh of the Gomelez is playing Sheherazade to Alphonse's King Shahriyar. As long as Alphonse can be delayed and the stories keep being told, the family's future survives.  

The essay "Potocki's Gothic Arabesque," by doctoral student Ahlam Alaki, explores how both books' embedded stories-within-stories structure is a reflection of these themes of delay, storytelling, and survival:
Embedding in the orientalist context of the Arabian Nights promises textual infinity, since lack of closure signifies the constant deferral of final meaning or endpoint; in Beckford, and in Potocki's novel, this suggests the sublime, which paradoxically creates 'delightful horror', in Burke's phrase. The text evades death by opening endless gates to infinity through a series of sublime transformations and repetitions. Ending a story and beginning a new one, which offers a repeated image of closure (death) and resistance to closure (resurrection), provides textual 'immortality'. (p. 191)

But to really dig into the question of the meaning of these two frame stories, I recommend reading Richard van Leeuwen's essay "The Art of Interruption: The Thousand and One Nights and Jan Potócki." His work offers such valuable insights that I'll try to offer a decent summary of his argument here (of course, reading the original essay is better).

Van Leeuwen explains that the Arabian Nights is part of a long tradition in Middle Eastern literature of story compilations enclosed by frame stories. It's part of a genre now called "tales for the instruction of princes." In these frame stories, a young prince undergoes some kind of initiation and is told meaningful tales that teach him about the world and transform him into a wise, responsible ruler.

As an example, van Leeuwen gives this overview of the Sindbadnama, a Persian story cycle that dates back to at least 1190:

... as the result of a divination a prince is forbidden to speak for ten days. He is lodged in the harem of the palace and is subsequently accused by the queen of having attempted to seduce her. As he will die if he speaks he is unable to defend himself, and the ten viziers of the king tell exemplary stories to postpone the prince’s execution, while the queen tells stories to convince the king of his guilt. After ten days, the prince is delivered from his predicament. (p. 184)
The worldview that the princes (and therefore the readers) are initiated into is a patriarchal one, in which wise men work to sustain their authority and power, not tolerating any source of discord, particularly not women "meddling in affairs of the state." (p. 186)

The genre plays with specific dualities, symbolized by light and dark or day and night. To us this system of symbols might seem simplistic (not to mention sexist) but in medieval Middle Eastern writings they were treated as normal and natural.

In the frame stories in the "tales for the instruction of princes" genre, the happy ending generally consists of the young prince learning to turn away from the seductiveness and deceit of women, taking on his new role of authority with reason and wisdom.

Van Leeuwen uses the 10th-century Persian story of King Jaliad and His vizier Shimas as an example. A dying king advises his son how to rule wisely and entrusts him to the care of his steadfast vizier. But upon becoming king himself, the son indulges in his appetite for women and neglects his duties (i.e., the night trespasses into the rightful territory of the day).

When the court viziers try to persuade the young king to repent, he follows the advice of his wife and has the viziers executed. The young king only realizes his folly when his empire begins to fall apart and is threatened with invasion. Then he finds a wise vizier to advise him, and together they save the kingdom.

Now consider the story of King Shahriyar and Sheherazade in light of these dualities. At first The Arabian Nights seems to be following the pattern. King Shahriyar's world is turned upside down when he discovers his queen has deceived him, choosing a slave over her king. "The night has intruded upon his day, undermining his authority and spreading disorder and chaos." (p. 188)

King Shahriyar responds by punishing not just his unfaithful wife but all women. He re-asserts his authority through violence, imposing harsh control not just in the public realm but also in the marital and sexual realms. As long as his wives are beheaded each morning, none of them can threaten his daytime role as monarch. "Shahriyar fails to restore the regular duality between the components symbolized by day and night, but instead has the day swallow the night, imposing the daytime regime on the night," Van Leeuwen writes. "There is no alternation of light and dark, there is only the one-dimensional force of control" (p. 189).

In this story, the complete triumph of the day over the night is a catastrophe. Not only is an innocent woman being unjustly executed every 24 hours, but the king is stuck in an endless cycle of one-night-stands, with no hope of a relationship of deepening intimacy or the birth of an heir to the throne. The kingdom is doomed.

Only Sheherazade, a courageous and insightful woman, can interrupt this endless cycle. Through the power of stories, she gently eases Shahriyar back into understanding that human life requires elements and experiences associated with both the day and the night:

... the metaphorical world which she creates symbolizes the boundary which Shahriyar has to cross in order to deserve his new status. He has to internalize her lessons, but also to transform his personality to admit the world of the imagination, of women and emotions. Only then can the regular passage of time be restored and can Shahriyar be re-incorporated into the domain of normal social relationships. (p. 190)

After countless nights of storytelling and lovemaking—almost three year's worth, if you want to take the probably-metaphorical "thousand and one nights" literally—Sheherazade has born the king several children and he repents of his past actions, sparing her life.

Sheherazade and Sultan Schariar, 1880. 
Ferdinand Keller [Public domain],
via Wikimedia Commons. 

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa can be understood as a European, Enlightenment retelling of the Arabian Nights. The realms of the day and the night with which King Shahriyar wrestles are broadened by Jan Potocki to reflect those elements that the average European of his time would have categorized as "normal" parts of life or the alien "Other." Ironically, Potocki's novel, almost an homage to a classic text of the Islamic world, presents the ultimate "Other" as a Muslim.

When Alphonse van Worden embarks on his journey through southern Spain, it is as a Christian gentleman, raised on the values of courage, loyalty, and tradition. On a strange night in a haunted inn in the mountains, he meets his cousins Emine and Zibbedee, who tell him that the Muslim Gomelez family is also part of his heritage—and can offer him an attractive future.

... Alphonse is given a choice: the girls ask him to convert to Islam and to marry them, to be able to join the Muslim Gomelez family. It seems, however, that in order to do this he has to give up his previous identity, substitute one identity for another and renounce everything he has stood for in the past. It is a choice between two seemingly opposing, irreconcilable worlds that are marked by mutual exclusion. The stories that follow are intended to help Alphonse in making his choice, by showing examples from the real world, by showing him how life can be, how many guises it can take on, that the world is not monolithic and one-dimensional, but complex and multi-faceted. (p. 194)

Like King Shahriyar, Alphonse ultimately finds a way to synthesize the two worlds, rather than accept one and reject the other. He never converts to Islam, and he faithfully serves the Spanish crown, but he embraces his love of the two sisters and gives them both the children they desire.

The result, Van Leeuwen writes, is "a synthesis which satisfies all parties and which suggests a world in which Christian and Muslim components are somehow harmoniously put together. Two worlds have been placed in their correct relationship, not one hidden inside the other, as a potentially dangerous ulcer, but one beside the other with revitalized amicable, even familial, links." (p. 196)

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The Life of Jan Potocki as Gothic Fiction

"One of the strange and spectacular qualities of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa," writes Potocki expert François Rosset, "is the sort of mysterious aura radiating from this text, like that of a Pharaoh's sarcophagus, affecting its desecrators and their descendants. The striking similarities between the characters of the novel and their author have often been noted, and we can see a similar relationship between the tales of adventure in the text and those of the novel's manuscripts" ("Quotation and intertextuality," 99).

That's certainly how I've felt, the more I've learned about the life of Count Jan Potocki. In The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, characters you thought were contained within stories being told to Alphonse van Worden unexpectedly escape into his reality. The young lovers Lonzeto and Elvira, for example, are minor characters in the story that Pandesowna, the Gypsy Chief, is telling Alphonse about his adolescence ... until Alphonse meets a much older version of Lonzeto coming up the road.

Frequently throughout the book, characters will prepare and eat olla podrida, a kind of stew cooked over a fire, which seems to have been thrown together from bits of meat and vegetables. Some critics have described The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as an olla podrida, a literary hodgepodge of genres and jokes and tragedies and romances and folktales. I imagine that strange stew as bubbling over and overflowing both backwards, into the events of the author's life, and forward into the 200 years of the novel's publication history.

In Laura Miller's review of the 1995 English translation, she relates an anecdote about the 1964 film adaptation:

The novel inspired a legendary 1964 Polish film, The Saragossa Manuscript, long unavailable in this country. After many efforts to extract a print from Film Polski, the Telluride Film Festival finally managed to secure one this year with the help of a personal request from the late Jerry Garcia, who considered it his favorite Eastern European movie. Alas, the print arrived the day before Garcia's death.
   This web of coincidence, influence and catastrophe seems quintessentially Potockian, as if the Count were exerting his subtle hand from beyond the grave. Who can say? The magical frequently collides with the rational in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, and the victor remains rather obscure, like so many things in this fascinating book.
— "New take on legendary book," San Francisco Examiner

Jan Potocki-themed postage stamp issued in Poland in 2015,
in recognition of the 200th anniversary of Potocki's death

Many strange stories are told about Jan Potocki, and some of them seem to have come straight out of a gothic novel. I'd like to focus on three quotes from the quick Potocki biography that Ian MacLean weaves into the introduction of his English translation.

1. "By 1812, politically disillusioned and in poor health, he had retired to his castle at Uladówka in Podolia."

Like you do.

2. "He married twice, and had five children; he was divorced from his second wife in 1801. There were rumours of incest."

If there exists a more gothic sentence in the English language than "There were rumours of incest," I'd like to know what it is.

Oh, wait, here it is: "There were rumors of freemasonry, and of incest" (Miller, "New take on legendary book," San Francisco Examiner).

I've tried to find more specifics about the contents of these rumors, without much luck. P. N. Furbank's review in The London Review of Books mentions that "there were disagreeable rumours about what, after his death, the Biographie Universelle would call his 'cynical tastes, too reminiscent of those of the Marquis de Sade'" ("Nesting Time"). Again, I'm not exactly sure what that means, but it doesn't sound good.

3. "On 2 December or 11 December 1815 (depending on the source), he committed suicide, although whether out of political despair, mental depression or a desire to be released from a highly painful chronic condition is not clear. Many stories are told about his death. He is said to have fashioned a silver bullet himself out of the knob of his teapot (or the handle of a sugar-bowl bequeathed to him by his mother); he had it blessed by the chaplain of the castle, and then used it to blow his brains out in his library (or his bedroom), having written his own epitaph (or, according to other sources, drawn a caricature of himself)."

Some sources repeat an extremely gothic story to explain Potocki's choice of suicide methods. According to P.N. Furbank's piece "Nesting Time," Potocki "was suffering increasingly from neurasthenic ills and lupine delusions." Other, less scholarly articles tend to come right out and say that Potocki thought he was becoming a werewolf.

Many biographers have attributed Potocki's suicide to "melancholy," or depression. John Weightman's 1995 review in The New York Review of Books comments that "He had been suffering from some chronic indisposition, the symptoms of which — alternations of manic excitement and deep depression — sound suspiciously like those of syphilis."

In those three common elements of Potocki biographies, we have a mysterious suicide; hints of forbidden, sinister sexuality; and an eccentric or disturbed individual locking himself away in his remote castle — a kind of gothic trinity.

Looking at the gothic elements in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa and in the stories that have come down to us about Potocki's life (and death), three theories come to mind to explain the correlation.

Theory A

Jan Potocki really was a very bizarre person, who was able to get away with outrageous behavior because of his wealth and his politically powerful family. This theory suggests that The Manuscript Found in Saragossa was simply a literary manifestation of a peculiar, possibly disturbed personality.

Theory B

Jan Potocki was not actually as strange as commonly perceived; people assumed the worst and the strangest about him because of his eccentric, theatrical personality.

Many sources comment on Potocki’s proclivity for dressing up and making dramatic public appearances. In April 1788, Potocki and his wife rushed home from a trip to Vienna in response to rumors that Prussia was preparing to invade Poland. The Polish king encouraged citizens to show their patriotism by donning the traditional costume of Polish noblemen, and Potocki embraced his civic duty with enthusiasm.

Potocki’s appearance at court in hybrid Cossack and Circassian garb, complete with sabre and shaven head ‘in the manner of fifteenth-century engravings’ caused a sensation in Warsaw, eliciting an endless flow of gossip, the rumour being spread that ‘the entire Potocki household would dress up in the Polish fashion.’
—Taylor-Terlecka, “Jan Potocki and his Polish milieu,” 66

Later, during his travels through Turkey, Potocki “became so entranced with the oriental way of life that afterward he frequently appeared dressed in the Turkish manner, and it was from that country that he brought his valet (from whom he was inseparable), Osman” (Czeslaw Milosz, The History of Polish Literature, 192).

And then there’s the ballooning adventure. In the 1780s, the Polish aristocracy became fascinated with hot-air balloons. Potocki worked with Frenchman Jean-Pierre Blanchard in constructing, at his own expense, a balloon that was “stitched over a period of several months by eighteen journeymen tailors from 13,000 ells of rainbow-colored Chinese silk imported from foreign manufactories, and filled three large halls of his palace in Rymarska Street” (Taylor-Terlecka, “Jan Potocki and his Polish milieu,” 67-8).

When Potocki flew his creation over Warsaw in May 1790, becoming the first Polish balloonist to return safely to the ground, he was accompanied not only by Blanchard but also by his Turkish valet and his pet dog, Lulu. So I think it’s safe to say that subtlety was not Potocki’s strong suit … nor a virtue he aspired to.

There’s also a real element of theatricality in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Characters pop up in startling ways, then disappear, only to reappear when you think you’ve seen the last of them. All they need to change their lives is a quick change of outfit, switching from boy to girl, from nobleman to gypsy chief, from acrobat to demoniac.

Professor Ewa Borkowska captures this aspect of the novel well:
Potocki seems to have accomplished one of the great feats of the artist in narrative;  he has created a sort of natural coup de theatre in which the scenes are made up of lights, settings and draperies provided by the most fabulous landscape of Spain. What moves the plot in this theatrical narrative is the rhythmic comings and goings (as if to and from the stage), the fairy sceneries and those most breath-holding, the startling confrontations with sprites, ghosts and vampires, the mistaken identities (like the one with a demon-woman Orlandine) and numerous other signs and events of affection.
“The Labyrinth of Melancholic Mind,” 135

Theory C

It may be that people enjoying the bizarre stories from The Manuscript Found in Saragossa have been eager to believe, retell, and elaborate on the wildest and most gothic stories told about its author. In The History of Polish Literature, Czeslaw Milosz writes that "In Polish literature, Potocki has a legend of his own, that of a buoyant, somewhat crazy, life, tending toward the melancholy skepticism of mature age" (194).

For example, take the story of Potocki shooting himself with a silver bullet he'd had blessed by a priest. Janusz R. Kowalczyk, in an article for the website, claims that a witness who saw the scene of the suicide a few hours later said nothing about the bullet being silver or having being blessed. Kowalczyk suggests that the silver bullet story is a rumor that was popularized by Polish literary critic Gustaw Herling-Grudziński in the 20th century.

An article by a different writer on the same Polish culture website puts forth a very different version of Potocki's death. Basing his conclusions on scholarship done by Michał Otorowski, writer Mikołaj Gliński states that one of the first people to see the count's body was Stanisław Chołoniewski, Potocki's neighbor and friend, a Catholic with whom Potocki had a long-standing philosophical debate.

On the fatal day Potocki invited Chołoniewski to join him later at his residence. When Chołoniewski arrived at his mentor's manor he found his host lying on the bed, his face disfigured by the gunshot. In a memorable account of those macabre circumstances, Chołoniewski noted that Potocki's brain had splattered the walls and the floor. "One of us slipped on Potocki's brain," recalled the priest, who had come to the palace with a friend.
   Did Potocki try to lure his young friend into this gory show? Was he sending a message? And if so, what was it?
— Mikołaj Gliński, "Was Jan Potocki a Kabbalist? Revisiting The Manuscript Found in Saragossa"

I find this account almost equally strange as the familiar stories of lupine delusions. Sure, it's less cartoonishly gothic, but the idea that Potocki set up his friend and neighbor to discover his post-suicide corpse in order to make some kind of philosophical  point is deeply disturbing.

Finally, there's Theory D — an "All of the Above" combination of Theories A, B, and C — which is probably where the truth lies. Of course, it would help me get closer to the truth of Potocki's life story if even a single good, book-length biography were published in English. Numerous well-researched biographies are available in Polish and in French.

Translation rights, anyone?