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?