The Mad Count
Most Western readers have never heard of Count Jan Nepomucen Potocki; indeed, his singular literary masterpiece was only translated into English in 1995, some 180 years after it was completed. However, here in Poland he remains a household name, achieving no small share of celebrity during his own lifetime, a celebrity which he has sustained in the nearly two centuries since his death. Potocki’s immortality is due as much to the endurance of his strange, supernatural novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa as it is due to the mystery and intrigues of his life – and the bizarre circumstances of his departure from it. The Saragossa Manuscript (as it is also known) is therefore that rare work of literature, the story of which is inextricably entwined with that of its author, each giving the other more speculative potency.
Unlike most of us, Jan Potocki (1761 – 1815) had the good fortune of being born into one of the wealthiest aristocratic families in Poland; his great-uncle Franzciszek was known as the ‘King of Ruthenia’ due to the hundreds of towns and villages he owned across over one million hectares and was the wealthiest Pole in history up to that time. Wealth was a privilege Potocki put to good use throughout his life – a life composed primarily of exotic globetrotting exploits in the pursuit of secret knowledge (nowadays we have Wikipedia). Born in what is today Western Ukraine, the young Count was educated in Geneva and Lausanne where he received a solid grounding in what was known of the world at that time and developed an amazing capacity for languages, speaking eight fluently. From Switzerland it was off to the Vienna Academy of Military Engineering, after which he spent two separate stints in the Polish Army as a captain of engineers, interrupted by a gig upon a galley in the service of the Knights of Malta which included a naval battle against the Barbary corsairs (dastardly Muslim pirates of the era).
Potocki was getting around, as the independently wealthy so often do. Hop-scotching through continental Europe, the Count developed a strong scholarly interest in other cultures about which he began to write extensively, as well as recording accounts of his own spirited adventures thus becoming one of the first modern travel writers. Collecting historical, cultural and linguistic research as he went along his way through North Africa and Asia, Potocki wrote a series of books and essentially founded the study of ethnology. It was a passion he applied to his own homeland as well, finding time to also found the study of Slavic languages and civilizations about which he wrote extensively.