Enlightening Infotainment!

October 12, 2009 § Leave a comment

Just finished: The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.

The cover of my Penguin Classics copy is this famous Goya etching:


“The Dream of Reason Produces Monsters,” the typical translation of the writing on the desk goes.  I’ve loved it ever since I first learned about it (and about Goya) researching a paper during my freshman year of college.

It’s a fine choice for the cover, since the tug between reason and faith, science and the supernatural, is a major part of Potocki’s book.  While the theme is perhaps standard for the Gothic genre, here it also acts like something of a brilliant thematic complement to the historical fiction, since the manuscript narrates events in 1739, in the thick of the Enlightenment.

Central to the theme is the core mystery of whether or not van Worden’s encounter at the Venta Quemada was supernatural, and how it could be explained otherwise.  This does all get resolved, if somewhat unsatisfyingly, by the end of the book.  But three subplots also directly address, and complicate, the reason vs. faith struggle: the computations of Velasquez the geometer, and the stories of Uzeda the cabbalist and his summoning of the Wandering Jew.

Velasquez is in the habit of turning any narrative into an equation, plotting its coordinates on a graph or applying his newfangled calculus to discover its underlying logic.  (Velasquez often seems more like a behavioral economist than a geometer.)  We are often given Velasquez’s process in solving these “problems” in full.  He is, essentially, the stereotypical absent-minded professor, wandering off to complete his equations whenever they occur to him.  But these sections are, essentially, word problems, and their place in the narrative seems to be to serve as — dare I say it again? — infotainment!  (I’m a big fan of the use of the exclamation point in The Informant! — best ever use of punctuation in a film title?)  There really seems to be no other reason for Potocki to give them to us in full, rather than summarizing them.

Which is not to say that they don’t serve a narrative function, as well; Uzeda’s daughter, whom we first know as Rebecca and then as Laura, serves at first as a sarcastic foil to Velasquez’s nerdy twisting of every life story into an equation, but gradually comes to respect his “system” and love him for his mind and his heart.  Velasquez delves into his system on the 37th to 39th days, and his thoughts on religion do seem formed by — and in reaction to — the Enlightenment.  It seems that these thoughts, reconciling reason and religion, shift Rebecca away from sarcastic dismissal of Velasquez’s over-rational approach to life and toward an appreciation of his finer qualities:

Thus, rather like the lines we call asymptotes, the opinions of philosophers and theologians can converge, without ever meeting, to within a distance which is smaller than any given distance….  Now does a difference which I cannot perceive give me the right to set my convictions up in opposition to my brothers and to my Church?  Does it give me the right to sow my doubts in the faith that they possess and which they have made the basis of their ethics?  Certainly not…. So I submit heart and soul.

The other most blatant example of infotainment in the book is the Wandering Jew’s story.  The Wandering Jew here functions as a kind of historical Forrest Gump: giving us a crash course in history as well as telling us about his brief encounters with historical figures (Cleopatra!  Herod!)  For much of the middle third of the book, Velasquez and the Wandering Jew monopolize great chunks of text with their edifying infotainment: Velasquez’s supreme reason and Ahasuerus’s implausible march through millennia taking turns educating us.

You can certainly argue that the book’s ending closes the argument decisively in favor of reason.  However, I believe that Potocki thinks there’s something to Velasquez’s apologia for religion; and while he may have exposed superstition, he has certainly been careful to leave the door open on faith.  More than that, a perfectly rational explanation for everything in the novel is, at some level, rather beside the point: the cabbalists, ghosts, demons, and underground kingdoms are the fuel that keeps the narrative moving, that keeps the reader interested, in ways that Velasquez’s equations never do.  The experience of the book is such that one does not know whether to believe or disbelieve and, like Velasquez, must “submit heart and soul” to find out how Potocki wraps it all up.  Suspension of disbelief is a much more spiritual undertaking than we typically acknowledge; and frankly, it’s a little disappointing when a writer tries to explain that while I thought I was taking a leap of faith, there was really a nice mattress waiting for me all along.

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