Jan Potocki, bearer of the Pilawa coat of arms, was a Polish author who wrote in French, famous for The Manuscript Found in Saragossa.
He was born on March 8th 1761 in Pików in the Podole region, and he commited suicide on December 23rd 1815 in Uładówka, close to Pików.
Potocki was the first Polish archaeologist and a researcher of Slavic antiquities. A scholar, fascinated with new scientific concepts, a freethinker and an idealist, he was a bright mind who was before his time. As Aleksandra Kroh writes in the biography Jan Potocki. Daleka podróż (Jan Potocki. A Long Journey, 2007):
He was a citizen of three countries and a subject of six sovereigns. Born in Ukraine, he grew up surrounded by French language and culture, he became an officer of the Austrian army, a Knight of Malta, an emissary of the Great Sejm, an advisor of the tsar Alexander I on the questions of Asia, and he was also a great historian, ethnologist, linguist and traveller who visited Morocco, Egypt, Caucasus, Siberia, China and almost every European country.
He was born into an aristocratic family. His father was Józef, a great krajczy ("carver", an honorary title) of the crown, one of the leaders of the Radom Confederation. His mother was Teresa Potocka. As a seven-year-old boy he left the country and started his education in Lausanne and Geneva. He often visited Paris and spoke French very well. Only after returning to Poland in 1778 did he speak Polish again.
He travelled to Turkey and Egypt (1784), The Netherlands (1787), Spain and Morocco (1791), Lower Saxony (1794) and to Caucasus (1797-1798). He served in the Austrian army and fought Berber pirates on the Mediterranean sea. He documented his adventures and some of his notes were translated into Polish by Julian Ursyn Niemcewicz. He was one of the first researchers of Slavic history and archaeology. He put his discoveries in the books Recherches sur la Sarmatie (1789-1792) and Histoire primitive.
After returning to Poland he was appointed as an emissary of the Great Sejm, where he worked actively for the reformers. In September 1788 he created the Drukarnia Wolna (“Free Printing-House”), which published a weekly newspaper, Journal Hebdomadaire de la Diète, reporting on the Sejm debates.
After the king joined the Targowica Confederation, Potocki moved to Łańcut. In 1792 he wrote Recueil des Parades, a commedia dell’arte play for the courtly stage.
From 1803 Jan Potocki was a member of the Warsaw Society of Friends of Learning. Thanks to the influence of Adam Czartoryski, who was the minister of foreign affairs working for tsar Alexander I, he was designated as the chair of a research team (linguists, ethnographers, naturalists) next to the Russian mission of 240 members, which was supposed to travel to China in 1805. When the Russian ambassador refused to pay homage to the representative of the Chinese emperor, on February 19th 1806, the mission had to come back.
In the report sent to Czartoryski, which was found not long ago in family archives, he analysed the causes of the conflict in a masterful way. He regretted that the Russian emissary had been so self-righteous and incompetent. He underlined how important differences in mentality and governing are. Afterwards he also drew up a memorial for the Asian department in Petersburg: there he underlined the question of Siberia’s economic independence.
– wrote Roger Caillois.
On December 23rd 1815, tortured by neuralgic pains and a fearful of losing his mind, he took his own life. His true time of death was announced for the first time by François Rosset and Dominique Triaire in the biography Jan Potocki (2004). According to Stanisław Chołoniewski, who had seen Potocki’s body a few hours after his death, he killed himself with an old pistol that he loaded with a leaden knob that he cut from a lid of some tin.
The pistol was partly crushed, as it probably exploded. Edmund Chojecki speculated that Potocki used a leaden knob, because he didn’t have anything else at hand. The witnesses to whom Chojecki spoke, didn’t say anything about consecration of this knob by a priest. The legend about a knob broken off from the lid of a sugar bowl, polished by the eccentric count for years, was created much later. The rumour about “Potocki holding his silver, consecrated suicide bullet, looking through a corner of The Manuscript Found in Saragossa at the divine-human comedy” was popularised in Poland by Gustaw Herling-Grudziński.
Jan Potocki was buried on January 1st 1816 in a vestibule in a church in Pików.
He’s known chiefly thanks to his philosophical, frame-tale novel The Manuscript Found in Saragossa, a fantastical romance based on Persian and Arabic stories. Three versions of this work existed. The first excerpt, where the action takes place in 13 days, was published by Potocki in Petersburg in the spring of 1805. Another version, from 1804, consists of 45 days and lacking an ending, while the text from 1810 – of 61 days.
The Polish canonical version from 1847, censored and translated by Edmund Chojecki, consists of 66 days (the additional five were compiled from different versions of the text). Later version was revised by Jan Lenartowicz (1917, three volumes).
Potocki’s novel was extolled by Wojciech Jerzy Has, who filmed it superbly in 1964. In 1992 Tadeusz Bradecki staged a six-hour-long adaptation in Teatr Stary in Kraków. The life and works of the author provided him with the basis for the romance Saragossa that he staged in Teatr Narodowy in Warsaw (1998). On the website of korporacja ha!art an Internet adaptation of the Manuscript, created by Mariusz Pisarski and illustrated by Jakub Niedziela, can be found.
Jan Potocki left behind around 30 works, written only in French. Apart from The Manuscript, the most important are Voyage en Turquie et en Egypte (1788), Essay sur l'histoire universelle et recherches sur celle de la Sarmatie (1789-1792, 4 volumes), Voyage dans quelques parties de la Basse-Saxe pour la recherche des antiquités Slaves ou Vendes (1795).
From his first marriage to Julia Lubomirska he had two sons: Alfred Wojciech Potocki and Artur Stanisław Potocki. His second wife, Konstancja Potocka, gave him a son Andrzej Bernard Potocki, and a daughter – Teresa Potocka.
Author: Janusz R. Kowalczyk, January 2013, translated by N. Mętrak-Ruda, 8.10.2015.
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