To Saragossa and Part Way Back: A Polish Ghost Storry

The Napoleonic Wars, Hexamerons, Samech and Vav, Rosicrucian Motifs, Blarney, Gödel, Escher, Borges When Drinking, Mesmer, Book Four of Herodotus, Semi-Psycho-Autobiography, Sewers, Matroishka, Pagan Zest

To Saragossa and Part Way Back: A Polish Ghost Storry

Michael Atkinson
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There is a book I love by an eighteenth-century Pole called The Saragossa Manuscript. Or, The Manuscript Found in Saragossa. Or, not quite a book but an onion-layered opus Alexandrinum of self-published fantasies, notebooks, drafts, addenda, co-opted fables, separately issued tales, story frames without end, rhetorical inquiry, Voltairean farce, circular reasoning, rampaging incompleteness. I love it like the memory of an adored girl, like a koan, because I cannot grasp it. Though it is set in Spain, it was written in French, by a Pole, M. le Comte Jan Potocki. (Say Poe-tos-ki.) It has survived, as it was initially disseminated, only in fragments, many in questionable translation and retranslation, and the distinct possibility remains that there is still more of it, somewhere, undiscovered, unread. The possibility remains that there will never be, in fact, an end to it—which is as it should be, since the abyssal farce of eternal narrativity is more or less its bread and butter. It was made into a fascinating if necessarily selective Polish film in 1964, itself the chronic victim of cuts, re-edits, losses, mis-releases, sequesterings, restorations, and mysterious vacuums. It, too, may not be available to us in its conclusive form, although there remains some question about what exactly that would be. The most recent re-release clocks in at 182 minutes, but more of that tentacling monster may be awaiting excavation somewhere in the world’s vaults. There may be, in fact, no end to it.

What happens: A French soldier, narrating during the Napoleonic conquests, discovers “several handwritten notebooks” in a house after the 1809 fall of Saragossa; later, as he is captured himself by the Spanish forces, he and his captor read and translate the work, being the memoirs of one Alphonse van Worden, a Walloon officer waylaid in the Sierra Morena ranges in 1739 on his way to Madrid. We read as they read van Worden’s story, which itself recounts tales told to him by innumerable, unreliable, and often reoccurring strangers about stories they’ve experienced or heard, which may be baloney but in turn contain stories told by others that might be true, and so on. The text is a nightmare of indistinctly signifying pronouns—virtually every “I” is a mad summons to retrace your way back through tale-told jungles you were lucky to emerge from once. At one point, we’re six degrees deep in a fabulistic bog: Potocki’s narrational surrogate—the French soldier—is transcribing the story of van Worden lost in his Gothic-Iberian wonderland as he (van Worden) recounts having met a gypsy chief named Avadoro, who tells him his life’s story (a tale that otherwise trails on for fifty days and is interrupted for other stories thirty-five times, give or take a yarn depending on what you qualify as an interruption), amid which he (Avadoro) is given cause to listen to one Lope Soarez, a young invalid, as he informs him (Avadoro) of the events leading up to and including his (Soarez’s) disablement, a section of which story involves a grifter named Don Roque Brusqueros, who, while trying to scam Soarez in one manner or another, tells him (Soarez) about the saga of his life, including an episode in which he (Don Roque) had attempted to burglarize a Salamanca apartment and scared a man out of his connubial bed; the next day, he (Don Roque) met with the kink-sympathetic wife, who recounts her own story of maturation, marriage, vengeful gaslighting, and vice…

This book, this manuscript of an MS. of a “manuscript,” tells stories—that is, it does nothing but tell stories. Relentlessly. Page space is not wasted on inner monologues, introspective digressions, context, description, psychology. In outline, it is a hexameron, a narrative of “embedded” narratives that occupy sixty-six days of diegetic time, although several hunks of it were originally published as “decamerons,” that is, equal tenths of a larger decameron that would never come to exist, as far as we know. There may have been more, many more, days in Potocki’s plan—even, perhaps, an infinite number—although structuralistically limiting the action to sixty-six days hardly limits the text itself from birthing stories within stories within stories within stories, Zeno-like. In Hebrew, sixty-six translates numerically to samech, a circle, and vav, a line. In kabbalah—a facet of 1700s Polish life Potocki references explicitly, along with the tarot deck, Gnostic myth and Rosicrucian motifs—after the initial tzimtzum (the withdrawal of G-d’s light to allow for the creation of independent realities), what remained was the samech and the vav, a great circle and then a line, a ray of light, projected into the emptiness, with the circle around it. Then another circle emanated from the line, and another, and so forth, each concentric circle “enlightening” the hollow darkness…

Who couldn’t go on all day? The Saragossa Manuscript isn’t merely a book, a three-winded-sheets black river of blarney occupied by ghosts, bandits, compromised noblemen, banshees, nymphs, In­quisitors, logorrheics, sheikhs, clergy, philosophers, torturers, gypsies, cabalists, and infidels, most of whom masquerade as someone else at least once. It’s a dream of reading, a dream of storytelling. It’s a book that exists in its own secret history, occupying a hidden timeline the way toys, in children’s tales, are thought to run clandestine governments when the nursery door is closed. At the same time—all this time—it is itself such a secret history, a litany of alternate universes that runs beneath the surface of human life like long-abandoned sewer canals you can escape into, leading to the sea. If it is not in fact the only book we know that never ends—on the page, and in real time, its subterranean career spiraling out even as we speak—it is surely the single book that could be defined in its every aspect by its neverending-ness. It is its infinite-jest nature to elude ideological capture as something to be explicated and boxed. It is literature sans frontières, like an Escher staircase that doesn’t conclude but doesn’t circle in on itself either, or a Gödelian theorem whose paradoxes reside not within contradictory self-categorizations, but in the inability to quantify something, like an electron’s scramble, that will not stop happening.

And the MS. has rarely been out of print, in one version or another. The English translated editions I have are all different: a 1990 Hippocrene Books selection (Tales of the Saragossa Manuscript, translated by Christine Donougher from the Polish, translated itself from the French at one time or another) was issued stateside by a mysterious outfit called—naturally—Subterranean, but that volume has since been overruled by Ian McLean’s 1996 Viking-Penguin translation (from the French), which trowels in every known bit of Potockiana and covers all sixty-six days. This is self-declaratively the “first modern edition” (as the 1989 French publication it’s translated from characterizes itself)—but what of the forgotten 1960 Orion Press edition, subtitled A Collection of Weird Tales, translated by Elizabeth Abbott from the French, which encompasses the first fourteen days and then inexplicably leaps ahead to the forty-ninth (and edits it down to a wisp), the fifty-third and, finally, to an anticlimactic section that intersects with trimmed versions of days twenty-seven, twenty-eight, fifty-five, and fifty-six?

What we’re waking up to here, like the book’s hapless van Worden dozing off with harem maidens and regaining consciousness among corpses, is the idea of Saragossa itself—not, clearly, the Spanish city of Zaragoza, birthplace of Casanova’s great-great-great-great-great grandfather and today a thriving metropolitan hub of some 640,000 Spaniards, a world-famous university, and a mighty network of public utilities and public spaces incorporating many surviving pieces of Roman and Moorish architecture, including the seventeenth-century basilica of Nuestra Señora del Pilar. No, Potocki’s Saragossa is a Borgesian nebula, a virtual country of illimitable expanses, an imaginary planet pocking an endless plane of dimensional variables. Whereas John O’Hara’s Samaara and Carlos Castaneda’s Ixtlan, for two, are merely mirages of psycho-spiritual hunger, Potocki’s Saragossa is a concretely experienced mythscape that more suggestively interfaces with Borges’s Babelian library, a realm that exists ab aeterno insofar as the spawning layers of self-consciousness and imaginary sub-worlds are capable of multiplying forever, and insofar as the book itself, and its sapling-clone of a film, exist in a permanent state of “to be continued.” Kinda like life, as Borges was known to say when drinking, except life ends.

Such ethereality seems almost homey to us today. We live in a Saragossan age, don’t we, in which culture—mass, personal, high, and low, forming a harrowed quincunx around the pop, or the commercial—is a universal and ever mutating troposphere of self-consuming, infinitely reflexive, publicity-entwined, profit-targeted, unseizable vapor, rather than the tangible, traditional relationship between the individual Homo sapien and an individual smackerel of expression. Attempting to nail it down translates today to acknowledging that a book or a movie or a poem or an artwork is in fact so incorporeal in substance that the very hammer in your hand turns to steam. (You’ve heard it 100,000 times: a painting sort of “evokes” some kind of simple thematic notion, a poem’s achievement is limited to how it seems to “suggest” its maker’s free-associative consciousness, a novel vaguely “reveals” something in its ironic detachment, etc.) In fact, you could say the ceaseless, diminishing spiraling-out of pop culture mimics the Mandelbrot spread of the MS., but who cares, since its fuel and purpose is money? And postmodernism? What happens when it’s no longer an aesthetic posture, or a philosophy even, or a self-congratulating amusement, but instead an ignorant state of mind to which everything is merely the reflection, result, or client of something else? Does anyone remember laughter?

Surely, Potocki was a student of Chaucer, Boccaccio and The Book of the Thousand and One Nights, if not of the eleventh-century Sanskrit epic The Ocean of Story.1 It’s a well-known legacy of ever blooming never-metafiction-we-didn’t-like that the MS. would have unceremoniously joined had not an obscure and suspicious history of lapsed connections and post-medieval skullduggery overcome it at every step. Potocki himself was in every way a man of his epoch. Born into a wealthy and powerful royal family in 1761, he was at first and at least an inveterate explorer, quickly gaining back-hand familiarity with the entire Mediterranean basin, from Gibraltar to Tunis to Constantinople, but also roaming as far as the Mongolian Gobi (on an aborted mission to Peking for Czar Alexander I) and the Caucasus.

In the 1780s, the young count appeared in prerevolutionary Paris, wandering among séance faddists, warring Christian sects, and subversive societies, the notorious magician-courtier Cagliostro, the “animal magnetism” quack Mesmer, Illuminati originator–spy master Adam Weishaupt and his agitating minions (whose secret practices were rumored to mix Christian reverence, mystical inebriation, and orgies), the Swedenborgians, the Elus Cohen freemason cult founded by alchemical theorist Martinez de Pasqually, the soon-to-be-beheaded alchemist-novelist Jacques Cazotte, et al. (Jan Potocki, you are Aleister Crowley!) In 1790, he made himself famous in Poland by ascending in a “hydrogen balloon” with notorious aeronautic pioneer Jean-Pierre Blanchard. (Jan Potocki, you are Baron Munchausen!) He was a knight of Malta and a captain in the Napoleonic Engineers Corps; he was a political provocateur with the Jacobins and a servant of the czar; he was a seminal researcher-scholar in the disciplines of Egyptology, ethnology, and ethnographic archaeology (a published title among many: Early History of the Peoples of Russia; with a Complete Exposition of All the Local, National and Traditional Ideas Necessary to an Understanding of the Fourth Book of Herodotus, published in St. Petersburg in 1802, a lost book that begs to be found since there is no reference to Russia in Book Four of Herodotus); he also scoured the wild deserts of Morocco, searching for the original manuscript of The Book of the Thousand and One Nights. (Jan Potocki, you are Sir Richard Burton!) In 1789, pissed off at the Polish government’s free-press restrictions, he established in his castle a free press, upon which he somewhat surreptitiously printed 100 copies of the first shards of what would become the MS.

This printing didn’t survive for long. In fact, Potocki’s authorship of the work was perpetually in question, even after a second printing, from St. Petersburg but with no date, place, or publisher attributed, appeared in 1804 and 1805. Washington Irving, for his tale “The Grand Prior of Minorca,” ripped off the MS.’s fifty-third–day story, “The Story of Commander de Toralva,” published for the first time in 1813 Paris as part of Avadoro, A Spanish Story, which amounted to separated strands from what would become sixteen separate day tales, from number fifteen to number fifty-six. But, according to Irving, his source was a possibly ghostwritten, possibly apocryphal memoir bearing the name of Cagliostro, who opened a lodge of his Egyptian Rite Freemasonry in Warsaw in 1780 (did Potocki join?), died in an Inquisition prison six years after the MS.’s first printing, and who was also a knight of Malta.2 (This myth-monger is blessed this summer with his third full-on biography, The Last Alchemist by Iain McCalman—where’s Potocki’s Boswell?)

The St. Petersburg edition, corrected proofs of which are housed, at last report, in the Bibliothèque Nationale, ends in midsentence. This sentence was completed when Potocki released a version of the text’s first ten days or so, as a kind of prequel, in 1814. The next year, he killed himself. Holed up in his castle at Uladówka, the story goes, depressive, politically disheartened, supposedly haunted by thoughts of lycanthropy, possibly syphilitic, the great polymath—as Maclean puts it—“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 out his brains in his library (or his bedroom), having written his own epitaph (or, according to other sources, drawn a caricature of himself)….”

Potocki might as well have been a character in his own MS.—or the MS. might as well be
considered semi-psycho-autobiographical. Naturally, the decades that followed saw multiple MS. plagiarizings and lawsuits, which only muddied the trail of authorship further. In fact, Potocki pundit Roger Caillois, preface-writing in that 1960 edition, tells of discovering a handwritten note attached to the St. Petersburg proofs, possibly by one Ant.-Alex Barbier, author of Dictionnaire des anonymes, which maintains that famed fantasist-lexicographer-bibliophile (and author of a bio-critique of Jacques Cazotte) Charles Nodier was responsible for selling Potocki’s original pages to an indicted MS. plagiarist, the Count de Courchamps, for the purposes of publishing it as the fake Cagliostro text Irving got his mitts on soon thereafter. All the same, years later, one Paul Lacroix, describing in Enigmes et Découvertes bibliographiques a MS. manuscript in his possession signed by Nodier, declared that Nodier himself was the writer.

It hardly helps to untangle the lineage to learn that in 1847 Edmund Chojecki published the whole kit and kaboodle—but in Polish, translated from more than five overlapping and conflicted sources, and itself subject to addenda whenever additional pages and notes have been unearthed, which has happened as recently as the late 1950s. For subsequent French editions, translators have had to retranslate whole sections of the Polish back into French; translations into other languages thereafter pile up the levels of potential translative mutation to a factor of four. Translators have been known, in any case, like Saragossan scalawags, to either incorporate or disregard the corrections and contradictions made in various editions and on various proofs, depending upon their whim; Caillois simply cites the first Paris text as “unreliable.” If this is a book, it is not a book anyone could claim to have ever truly read, even if they’ve read it.


That’s it—I don’t want to know anymore, if more, or all, can in fact ever be known. The MS. is best regarded as an underground river one can never completely follow or adequately map. The text itself is about unknowability, after all; I salute the Potocki scholars filling their lungs with book dust investigating the MS.’s complete and aboriginally true self, but will shun the goldbricker who decides he or she has concluded the hunt.

The patterns of chaos, or the chaos of patterns, persist with the film adaptation, which predictably required the brave, rangy, New Wavey ’geist of 1960s film culture to bring it about. Wojciech Has’s arabesque epic, starring what was then virtually the entirety of Film Polski (including swollen rebel star Zbigniew Cybulski) is as buoyant and roguishly sardonic as the book, stuffed with tarot iconography, carrion-strewn landscapes (anamorphically shot in the rocky outlands of Kraków), ceaseless double takes, and of course a weft of narrative madness that amounts to a crazed, ongoing debate between Christian anxiety and pagan zest. Using the section of the book encompassed by the two Paris editions—the first ten days, and the tale of Avadoro—Has even reaped from Méliès and Griffith for his yesteryear sense of superstitious angst, and so thanks to the plastic reality of the medium, the movie MS. is more, shall we say, concretely dreamy, and therefore even more disorienting, than the book. The passage from one concentric story-within-a-story to the next—really, minimovies huddled within larger movies, a matrioshka of cinematic worlds—is accomplished with nothing more ceremonious or portentous than a simple cut; transitions, whether they are between narrative universes or between angles on a “normal” scene, are all equal and equally deceptive. Nothing is certain.

Have a heretofore uncirculated behind-the-scenes story, published recently online by Rice University professor Jan Rybicki, from the mouth of MS. producer Barbara Pec-Slesicka:

The biggest scandal concerned the main part, that of Alphonse van Worden. I just don’t know how it all happened, but they hired this French guy, at least he said he was French, I don’t even remember his name, and they even rented a villa with a maid just for him and his family—this was unthinkable in those times. I think they hired him because he looked a bit like Fanfan le Tulipe. Anyway, when it came to his acting it all proved to be a hoax, he simply was not an actor at all, and Has was at a loss to what to do….

An imposter! Even the film’s production began with a cock-and-bull story-within-a-story, leaving the interpreters of Potocki’s ceaseless whirlpool in an all too familiar muddle-headed lurch. The nameless rapscallion may well have proceeded to the next meeting, the next set, wandering Europe posing as a movie star, discombobulating the illusion machine at its basest point of entry.

Watching Has’s MS. remains an exercise in surrender, although only recently has it been made available in its Cannes Film Festival premiere length of three full hours, thanks to a restoration initiated by an endowment by Jerry Garcia made to the Pacific Film Archives. Garcia was apparently a devoted fan of this headiest of sixties submersions, despite the fact he’d only seen radical ax-jobs of it (or did the Dead tour Poland before the 1968 Soviet crackdown?); his stipulation to the PFA, once they own the restored film, was that he be able to waltz in to screen it whenever he liked. (Would he have, very often? Passions run hot on this baby. Luis Buñuel, no great cinephile or dallier with other people’s films, admitted to seeing Has’s MS. three times, for him a “world record.”) As it was, Martin Scorsese and Francis Ford Coppola had to chip in for the balance of the archival work necessary, and Garcia died, sadly, days before the premiere.

Before that, for decades, the MS. had become infamous as an unseen film, a sort of Gnostic legend among cinephiles who, if they had seen it as it meandered around the world in the late 1960s, had seen only a fraction of the original work and couldn’t trust their memories. According to Brit scholar Ian Christie, writing for a 2002 University of London colloquium on Potocki, the very first viewers of the film at its debut at the 1965 Cannes Film Festival were split down the middle between exasperation and entrance­ment. Unanimous, however, was the buzzing assertion that the movie had to be cut down, winnowed down, simplified. Postif critic Robert Benayoun wrote during the 1965 fest that international distributors had announced their mutilative intentions on the spot, prompting him to unleash a Potockian curse: “Beware! The Inn of Venta Quemada has not yet cast its last spell, and will send its vengeful ghosts….”

It was cut and simplified, more times and by more hands than anyone can count, until no one outside of Poland knew what its proper running time might be. I’ve found eleven different running times globally, five different titles (after translation), four cast/crew discrepancies and a persistent question about its time line—dozens of sources (including London’s National Film Theatre guide in 1966, and Polish reference texts) list its date of release as 1964. In that semi-acknowledged year, lost in the heaving, decaying extra-Soviet glaciers of neglected documentation, could there not have been a slip in the current, a further debacle or calamity, another circumstantial contingency, more footage and extrapolations and addenda, a mystery wrapped in an enigma, and so on? Doesn’t the movie’s corporeal finiteness seem unlikely? Chaos theory tells us that entropic patterns repeat themselves into oblivion, doesn’t it?

The restored version on DVD today, out from Image Entertainment (never have DVD menus been more useful), was manufactured from Has’s own print—the negative having long vanished, not so unusually—so for most MS.-ians the investigation is over, and they can go home. Call me a doubter, however, in the great tradition of the European agnostics: Cervantes, Kafka, Shulz, Buñuel, Lem, the Strugatskys, Robbe-Grillet, Gombrowicz, Godard, Tarkovsky, and Potocki himself, who protest any idea of the world that doesn’t hinge on the forces of subjective vision and irrational experience. I’ve always been, somewhat privately, an ambivalent believer in a kind of secret, Jungian culture flow—the notion that ideas, stories, and images exist and thrive and crossbreed beneath the crust of our awareness, beyond our agency or guidance. (A favorite, synchronicitous example: Michelangelo Antonioni’s Red Desert, praised for its expressive-experimental use of color, particularly in a climactic scene featuring a bowl of mysteriously gray fruit—the very same season of the very same year, 1964, that saw the TV broadcast premiere of the animated-puppet special Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, in which scenes at Santa’s supper table feature… a bowl of gray fruit.) In this, our melancholy twenty-first century, we can no longer reasonably keep faith with the mysterioso subrealities that Potocki and his contemporaries pursued, or even fear the occult networks of epic suspicion that Pynchon envisioned. But I know the MS. endures; I know it hasn’t finished evolving. If we were to pay it no mind, its history would continue. That’s the story I’m telling about it, anyway. There are doubtless others, too many lost forever to time (did Potocki and Cagliostro hit the Warsaw grogshops after their Masonic communion, and what did they wish for in their cups? Did Potocki hear bedouin fables in Morroco, and how many did he steal?), too many percolating under the tarmac as we speak. Now, you: Write something about reading this, and viva la Saragossa.

1. Which may not have seen a French or Polish translation until the twentieth century, but its rare and sole English publication has been described rather succinctly by mega-super-fictionite John Barth as the “nineteenth-century prose translation of Somadeva’s Sanskrit redaction of King Satavahana’s third-century publication of the demigod Kanabhuti’s retelling of the demigod Pushpadanta’s version of the Great Tale told by the god Siva to his consort Parvati.”

2. Here’s where the inevitable reference to Thomas Pynchon should fall in like a tossed puzzle piece—the Maltese connection, the maddened quest for logical historical motion, the Saragossan dreamland of Vheissu, the steaming of revolutionary boil, not to mention the creepy knowledge of secret, conspiratorial dynamics à la Tristero…. One could presume that Pynchon read the Orion edition as he was writing V., but it’s easy to believe he’d also devoured Sade’s 120 Days of Sodom and Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer, two barnstorming, Potocki-era books that also, like V. and the MS., embrace an apocalyptic vision of story-spinning, and history-spinning, as the psychodramatic destiny of man and the only viable recourse to his solitude.

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