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From Orientalism to surrealism: Wojciech Jerzy Has interprets Jan Potocki

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This article re-examines the relationship between Saragossa Manuscript’s (Has, 1964) literary original and its film adaptation, directed by the idiosyncratic Polish film-maker, Wojciech Jerzy Has. As the eighteenth century neared its dusk, the novel’s author Jan Potocki set off for his journey to the Orient. Highly educated and always sceptical of organized religion, he revelled in the cultural traditions of the East and admired its people, while making sure to avoid any of the Christian holy places that were soon to attract scores of European travellers. Later, when travelling in Europe, Potocki was most attracted to Spain, and especially to Andalusia, where Europe’s own multicultural past was still palpable. The Saragossa Manuscript, a picaresque novel to whose writing Potocki devoted the last decade of his life, became a testament to his enlightened encounters with cultural difference. Has’s film, which fascinated film-makers Louis Buñuel, Martin Scorsese, Francis Ford Coppola and musician Jerry Garcia, recasts the original’s ‘enlightened’ message in a surrealist idiom. The concept that best describes the film’s relationship to its literary original is that of a palimpsest, and the element that shines most clearly through its surface layer is a type of Orientalism that leads to a questioning of established and rigid boundaries of culturally determined identity.
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Keywords: Jan Potocki; Orientalism; Polish cinema; Wojciech Jerzy Has; surrealism

Document Type: Research Article

Affiliations: Stony Brook University

Publication date: April 1, 2013

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