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)