Saturday, October 31, 2015

The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as Gothic Fiction

When people try to fit The Manuscript Found in Saragossa into a category of literature, they usually turn first to the Gothic. The spooky, creepy parts of ’s book—the recurring motif of two corpses hanging from a gallows, the mysterious transformations, the numerous accounts of hauntings, seductions, and souls drifting toward damnation—certainly seem to fit the bill. But what about all the other stuff, the philosophical debates, the slapstick, the satire, the love stories? How accurate is it to call The Manuscript Found in Saragossa a work of gothic fiction?

The end of the Enlightenment, the birth of Romanticism

Author Jan Potocki was born in Poland in 1761. He grew up and received a nobleman’s education in the Europe of the Enlightenment, which emphasized reason, analysis, science, and individualism, and rejected superstition and trust in traditional authorities like the Catholic Church and hereditary rulers.

Yet beneath the mainstream culture of rationalism ran an ongoing public interest in the supernatural. In The History of Polish Literature, Czesław Miłosz writes

It would be unjust to bypass other aspects of the eighteenth century, as it was not only a century of rationalism … there was also a pronounced inclination toward the pietistic and mystical. Some Poles played a prominent role in the French “mystical” lodges which proliferated during the last decades before the Revolution. Europe was extremely cosmopolitan, owing to the new universal language, French, which replaced Latin; and ideas were transmitted from one country to another with great rapidity. Thus the mysterious, the bizarre, the supernatural fascinated all the European capitals, as the incredible international career of Cagliostro testifies. The demonic also captured imaginations, and the Marquis de Sade was not the only representative of that current. In view of this, the figure of the Polish writer Jan Potocki, author of the Saragossa Manuscripts (Rękopis znaleziony w Saragossie), is less incomprehensible.
The cover of the current Penguin Classics edition of the English translation of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa features an etching called The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters, created by the Spanish artist Francisco Goya in 1799. In the image, an artist (possibly Goya himself) has fallen asleep at his drawing table. Creatures of the darkness—bats, owls, a lynx—threaten him in his unconscious state.

Cover of the Penguin Classics edition of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, featuring the etching The Sleep of Reason Produces Monsters by Francisco Goya
The title of the etching, written in Spanish on the artist’s desk, can be interpreted as expressing Enlightenment values: Reason must stay awake and in control, for the nightmares of the past, like ignorance and superstition, are always ready to return.

Yet Goya wrote a more ambiguous caption under the print: “Imagination abandoned by reason produces impossible monsters; united with her, she is the mother of the arts and source of their wonders.”

Today many art historians consider Goya a transitional figure between the optimistic rationalism of the Enlightenment and the wild imagination and exaggerated emotions of Gothic Romanticism. I believe it makes sense to look at Jan Potocki's novel as a playful examination of these two movements, setting them against each other and then revealing how intertwined they are.

Horace Walpole and The Castle of Otranto

In 1764, when Jan Potocki was about three years old, a book was published in London under the lengthy title The Castle of Otranto, A Story. Translated by William Marshal, Gent. From the Original Italian of Onuphrio Muralto, Canon of the Church of St. Nicholas at Otranto. It was purported to be a translation of a manuscript that had been printed in Naples in 1529, relating a story that was even older. The strange tale involved an ancient castle, a mysterious death, obsessions and forbidden desires, and an unwholesome, possibly incestuous family.

The Castle of Otranto received mixed reviews in England but it sold very well. When the second edition was published, Horace Walpole, the Earl of Orford, revealed himself, not as the book’s translator, but as its author. At least one literary reviewer retracted his earlier praise, rejecting the book as work of barbarism:
When we considered it as such [an old Italian story], we could readily excuse its preposterous phenomena, and consider them as sacrifices to a gross and unenlightened age.  But when, as in this edition, The Castle of Otranto is declared to be a modern performance, that indulgence we afforded to the foibles of a supposed antiquity, we can by no means extend to the singularity of a false taste in a cultivated period of learning. It is, indeed, more than strange, that an Author, of a refined and polished genius, should be an advocate for re-establishing the barbarous superstitions of Gothic devilism!
—From a 1765 issue of The Monthly Review, reproduced in the appendices of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother

In his Introduction to the 2003 Broadview Press edition of The Castle of Otranto and The Mysterious Mother, Frederick S. Frank explains:
The bogus authorship of the first edition was a favorite game of eighteenth-century writers, but in Walpole’s case, the double pseudonym was protective as well as diverting. By giving free vent to the Gothic impulse in the composition of his novel, Walpole had risked his reputation as a man of taste, refinement, and social standing. Reassured by the success of the hoaxing first edition, Walpole emerged from behind the medieval and modern pen-names to announce his authorship and take his bows.
Another change was that Walpole added to the second edition the label “A Gothic Story,” describing its medieval setting. The Castle of Otranto is widely considered the first gothic novel.

Ann Radcliffe and the “explained supernatural”

We don’t know whether Jan Potocki ever read The Castle of Otranto; it’s fairly certain that he did read some of the works of Gothic fiction by Ann Radcliffe.  Ian MacLean, in the Introduction to his translation of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, states that Jan Potocki described his book as a Gothic novel “à la Radcliffe” in a letter to a friend.

Portrait of Gothic novelist Ann Radcliffe
Ann Radcliffe
If Horace Walpole invented Gothic literature, Ann Radcliffe made it into an art form that was both critically acceptable and insanely popular. Her 1794 book The Mysteries of Udolpho tells the story of Emily St. Aubert , a young French woman who is orphaned and becomes imprisoned in a remote castle by an Italian brigand who has married her aunt.

Udolpho Castle appears to be haunted—Emily hears unexplained music and strange noises, and she sees something hidden beneath a black veil that appears to be a woman’s corpse. Yet by the end of the story, the character of Emily and readers of the book have been given natural explanations for all the seemingly supernatural events.

This technique of the “explained supernatural” may have made Radcliffe’s novel more palatable for English readers at the tail end of the Enlightenment. It probably also helped that it was set in 16th-century France and Italy, not in contemporary England. More importantly, The Mysteries of Udolpho and Radcliffe’s later book The Italian (1797) were considered much more well written than The Castle of Otranto and other works that had been inspired by its Gothic themes.

The Mysteries of Udolpho and The Italian made Radcliffe—a middle-class woman married to a journalist and editor—the most popular and highly paid novelist in England in the 1790s. Her stories inspired scenes painted by Romantic artists; illustrated chapbooks with titles like The Southern Tower: or, Conjugal Sacrifice and Retribution; and stage productions in London. Sir Walter Scott called her “the first poetess of romantic fiction” and credited her with founding a new school of literature.
As the Gentleman’s Magazine proudly noted, not only were Radcliffe’s romances among the best ever to appear in the English language, they were translated into every ‘European tongue’ to the ‘honour of the country.’ She was a huge, Europe-wide success. The experienced publisher Thomas Cadell found the reputed sums paid for her novels (£500 for Udolpho and £800 for The Italian) so incredible he wagered £10 that the stories were false. He lost.
Ann Radcliffe: The Great Enchantress

Elements of Gothic literature in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa

When, in the last 50 pages of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, the Great Sheikh of the Gomelez explains away all the apparently supernatural events that Alphonse van Worden has experienced during his 66 days in the Sierra Morena, author Jan Potocki seems to be borrowing Ann Radcliffe’s technique of “the supernatural explained.”

Many other Gothic motifs can be seen as evidence of Radcliffe’s influence on Potocki’s writing:

  • Ghost stories—By my count, at least eight ghost stories are told or read during the course of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
  • Strange settings—While medieval castles (the ultimate Gothic setting) play a minimal role in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, other exotic, remote, or unfamiliar places are central. The labyrinthine caves of the Gomelez, the purportedly haunted Venta Quemada, and the gallows of Los Hermanos are all located in the threatening, untamed landscape of Spain’s Sierra Morena mountains. 
  • Sexual danger and temptation—In Radcliffe’s stories, vulnerable heroines are abducted, threatened with forced or false marriages, and in danger of being raped or murdered; the villains are typically greedy, lustful, or jealous men. A few vulnerable, innocent maidens, like Maria de Torres’s sister Elvira, appear in The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. A more common motif, however, is men being drawn into unconventional sexual situations by women. Much of Alphonse van Worden’s confusion is caused by his uncertainty about how to respond to the seductive sisters Emina and Zubeida; he worries that they seek to convert him away from Christianity into Islam, or may even be evil spirits trying to lure him to his damnation. 
  • The Inquisition—A central plot point of Radcliffe’s novel The Italian, or the Confessional of the Black Penitents is that the heroic Vincentio di Vivaldi, on the verge on marrying his beloved Ellena, is arrested and taken to the prisons of the Inquisition in Rome. Alphonse van Worden, on Day 3, is captured and threatened with torture by people who appear to be agents of the Inquisition.  Also, on Day 26, Pandesowna relates how, as a child, he ran afoul of the Inquisition and ended up imprisoned, only to escape into a graveyard. 
  • Uncertainty about the supernatural—In The Mysteries of Udolpho, Emily St. Aubert fluctuates between clinging to a modern, scientific worldview and fearing that the strange events she experiences really have supernatural causes. Similarly, Alphonse van Worden struggles to determine whether he is interacting with magicians, spirits, vampires, and reanimated corpses or if he is being manipulated by his fellow human beings. 
Personally, I don’t usually associate gothic fiction with comedy. I was surprised to discover that even Jan Potocki’s use of humor has precedents in both Walpole and Radcliffe. In The Castle of Otranto, two servants named Diego and Jaquez break the tension of the story with random comments and foolish arguments; the naïve maidservant Bianca is an entertaining gossip. The Mysteries of Udolpho includes the talkative servant Theresa and the superstitious Annette, while Vivaldi in The Italian has a bumbling servant named Paulo.

How Potocki Rebels Against the Gothic Genre

In her excellent essay "From Fantastic to Familiar: Jan Potocki's Manuscript Found in Saragossa," Katarzyna Bartoszyńska identifies several ways in which the novel subverts the expectations of gothic fiction that existed in the early 19th century:

  • When gothic fiction first became popular in England and throughout Europe, cultural commentators feared that the novels would be dangerous to readers, causing them to confuse fiction and reality. Potocki parodies this idea throughout the novel: as young girls Emina and Zubeida become obsessed with ideas of passionate love after reading forbidden books, and Lope Soarez reads so many romance novels on his long journey from Cadiz to Madrid that upon arrival he's ready to fall in love at the drop of a hat ... or a locket. 
  • In a typical gothic scenario, an innocent, civilized character becomes lost in a wild, exotic, barbaric situation; the story resolves happily when the character returns to safety in a more modern world, with supernatural threats defeated or debunked. Protagonist Alphonse van Worden would seem like a man of the Enlightenment venturing into dangerous, primitive territory, but instead of escaping it, he eventually settles down there, finding a new home and family. What's more, he's revealed to carry his own outdated baggage in the form of a strict honor code built on fearlessness and fighting duels—which many characters in the Spanish wilderness advise him to outgrow. 
  • Some of the classic threats in gothic scenarios are sexual corruption, loss of religious faith, and damnation. Alphonse van Worden resists the advances of Emina and Zubeida because he fears their power as spiritual and sexual tempters. In the course of the story, however, he gives in to his attraction to them, and the consequences are almost entirely positive: he becomes wealthy and has a wonderful family, with a Christian daughter he loves and plans to make his heir. He lives happily ever after, basically. 

In later blog entries, I plan to explore two other likely sources of inspiration for Potocki: The Arabian Nights (first translated into French between 1704 and 1717, and hugely popular and influential throughout the 18th century) and the picaresque novels of France and Spain.