December 16, 2007

The Manuscript found in Saragossa

Our understanding of the enlightenment in popular culture is driven by a perception of it as the age which lighted up Europe after centuries- millennia- of barbarism. The philosophes of the Enlightened Age- Voltaire, Gibbon, Hume, Rousseau, Spinoza et al- were successors to Lucretius and Cicero- masters of science, economics and philosophy, sages who advanced the arguments which led to modernity. Of course part of that picture is right: but the Enlightenment was a much broader and deeper phenomenon- nourished not merely from the springs of philosophy but also fortified in verse and sustained by the birth of the European novel. Think of the Eighteenth Century and it isn't merely the shades of Hume and Smith that return to haunt you, but those of Samuel Richardson and Fanny Burney. The explosion of the public sphere led not merely to the economics of Riccardo and the horrific events of the Terror, but also to the novels of Jane Austen and the poems of Byron. The Enlightenment was far broader and more vast than the pens of intellectual historians can traverse, as a moment in European history it encompassed so much more.

Jan Potocki, the Polish political adventurer, ethnologist and egyptologist, was one such typical enlightenment figure. From the 1790s onwards he prepared a vast manuscript- the Manuscript found in Saragossa, which tells the adventures of Alphonse Van Worden, an officer in the Walloon guard in the mid-eighteenth century, as he attempts to travel from France towards Madrid. Its scale is stunning- Van Worden's journey is interrupted by a series of characters who each tell their own stories. Those stories inclose other stories and they are told by a wide variety of people. Their subjects are even more vast. Potocki wrote of all frames of human experience- we have touching reminiscences of the past counterposed with humourous almost Quixotic accounts of the danger of Chivalric honour. We have accounts of the construction of the universe in a deeply Spinozistic way- even at one point a Hobbesian account of the soul as motion. Those are set aside deeply erotic tales of seduction by Moorish ghost princesses and by aristocratic grand ladies in Spain. We have love and horror. Characters return in different contexts as the story's mosaic takes in Italy, France, Spain, England and Austria. The strength of this is Chaucerian in its love of life- Potocki sees virtue in absurdity.

Throughout the tale, Alphonse Van Worden grows. We read it through his account and consequently we read his response to what he finds out. Often we hear him comment on stories- particularly those which affront his sense of honour (Van Worden's father was a world renowned expert on duels) and Christianity. Throughout the book, Van Worden though becomes exposed to different ideas- to exotic thoughts that he did not deem existed. He has to recognise them and deal with them- and while he is not converted, he is changed by his experiences. The last section of the book deals with his later career and definitely it seems that Van Worden realised that the conventional life he lived after his adventure was dimmed by the glory of the strangeness he encountered. Potocki definitely leaves us in no doubt that variety is to be treasured- to use Isaiah Berlin's distinction this is the novel of a very wise Fox who knows many things.

Variety here is not merely the variety of experience- though that's there, Ian Maclean, the editor of my edition, suggests that the novel is like a Spanish inn containing all social sectors of society. We also see the variety of culture. For this Spain is a successor to medieval Spain- the Spain of Maimonides and Averroes as much as of Charles and Phillip. The novel is filled with the occult- characters like the wandering Jew and the Marquis of St Germain make appearances. Indeed the whole book is bound together, the story is even created, by a vast conspiracy run secretly from caves amidst the Spanish mountains. Everything is revealed eventually to be the creation of this conspiracy- like a Newtonian universe, the exterior of the story is mysterious, but its interior workings are as logical as clockwork. The interest in conspiracy though is typical of an era which was buttressed at one end by the controversy of the Rosy Cross and at the other by rumours of the influence of Freemasons. In that sense Potocki is a child of his times, seeking a mechanism even in the fertile abundance of his novel that will equate to the mechanisms of nature.

And neither are they neglected, for one of the characters, Velasquez is as interested in the enlightenment that we know of as any of our intellectual historians are. He unfolds the design of the universe to his willing (and unwilling listeners- one of the great pleasures of the book is the number of times people go off and say they are bored by other people's tales! There is a reassuring humanity to these characters) listeners. He even manages to seduce a girl to be his wife through his skilful geometrical unfolding of the Cartesian world. And his understandings are based upon the solid foundations of enlightenment science: he gives us a little tour of the world of enlightenment thought from Herriot to Newton, from Locke to Leibniz. That tour is yet another attempt to read the universe's hidden logic- to illumine that which is darkened. To use Kant's phrase, he and Potocki both dare to know.

What is so astonishing about this book is that you come out of it without one clear idea- the fox here has definitely won over the hedgehog who knows one thing very well. Its a book that breaks up impressions into shards- and confutes its own attempts to rationalise its progress. Like the Canterbury Tales, to which its been compared, its pleasures and beauties lie in its minatures- in haunting tales of gothic melodrama, in subtle comic take offs of false chivalry and in the constant humanity of many of its principal narrators (particularly the wry Gipsy King Avarado). Its hard to sum something of this size and complexity up save to say that it is huge and complex- but to some extent I think that's the point. It demonstrates that despite the best efforts even of the Enlightened philosophe, our intelligence cannot sum up the whole of existance in a set of laws or any idea of God. Existance is too vast for us to ever totally grasp, and all our theories can only be proved by their incompleteness and their imperfection.

Potocki's life and his work are filled with vitality and colour, they can't be captured even on the canvass of a blog post, go and read the book.


Unpremeditated said...

What a marvellous post. "The Manuscript ..." has long been one of my favourite books and your blog reminded me that I must return to it soon. As you suggest, all human life really is there. It is hard to think of a more enriching book.

Gracchi said...

Yes its an amazing book- its one like the Canterbury tales that you could spend your life reading and rereading.

Anonymous said...

I'm reading it now, in Polish.
It's a shame for me, because I'm 34 years old and I started to read it now only. I say "shame" cause I'm Polish and this is a great masterpiece of our litterature - and of European-Mediterranean culture, generally. A tale based in Spain, written in French by an Egypt-loving Pole about Muslims, Catholics, Jews, Pagans and love. It's delicious.