Fall 2008


Victor Segalen’s inward exoticism

Leland de la Durantaye

In November of 1766, the French explorer and man of letters Louis-Antoine de Bougainville set sail for the South Seas. The passage was long and arduous. On April 6th, 1768, Bougainville’s ship, aptly named La Boudeuse (“The Pouting Woman”), stinking of bilge water and excrement, laid anchor in the shimmering bay of a lush green island. Canoes soon surrounded the ship. A girl climbed aboard from one of them, walking through a crowd of sailors to the quarterdeck. With a single graceful motion she let fall the cloth which covered her and, in Bougainville’s words, “appeared to the eyes of all beholders, such as Venus herself to the Phrygian shepherd.” More from shock than discipline, the sailors stood frozen. Taking their immobility for 
disinterest, she was offended and climbed haughtily from the ship.

Despite strict orders to the contrary, one man went ashore later that day. This was not Bougainville but, instead, his cook. As soon as he set foot upon the beach, a great crowd encircled him. They then proceeded to undress him—in Bougainville’s opinion, for the purposes of comparative anatomy. After gently examining him, they returned his clothes and invited him to go off with the girl of his choice to “content his desires.” To the approbation of his cook, Bougainville named the island “New Cythera,” after the island where the goddess of love first emerged from the waves.

During their stay both Bougainville and his cook had a new idea in mind. Fourteen years earlier, Jean-Jacques Rousseau had offered Europe the “noble savage.” Voltaire had said that institutions without 
a rational foundation corrupted human nature, but 
Rousseau went farther. In his Discourse on the Origin of Inequality Amongst Men (1754), he proclaimed that all institutions did so—that society corrupted man. And so he sung the praises of the “noble savage” in the “state of nature.” In that blessed state, so Rousseau believed, there was no servitude and no domination. Even sexual desire was not grasping and acquisitive—it remained simple and pure, with, in his words, “everyone peacefully await[ing] the impulsion of nature.

Bougainville had read Rousseau’s book and found its account of noble savages illuminating. After the military campaigns he had led in French Canada, however, he had ceased to believe in the nobility of savages. Upon reaching New Cythera—or Tahiti as its inhabitants called it—he changed his mind again. These savages seemed to him noble indeed. They seemed to know neither jealousy nor war. For reasons unknown, some of Bougainville’s soldiers killed three Tahitians. Instead of rising up against the French forces they outnumbered, the islanders came to their guests with an enormous banana leaf as a sign of peace. Sexual desire appeared neither violent nor acquisitive, and husbands were often the first to persuade their wives to give themselves to visitors. The island so abundantly provided for the needs of its inhabitants that it seemed to Bougainville that they hardly had to work to satisfy them. And yet despite this perpetual lassitude, the Tahitians possessed a great physical beauty—the men strong and well-proportioned, and the women, graceful and attractive. 

Bougainville’s journal entry for the last day his ship remained anchored in Tahiti ended: “I shall never recall without pleasure the brief time I spent in your midst and as long as I live will extol the happy isle of Cythera: it is the true Utopia.” The more sober Englishman James Cook laid anchor in this same bay a few years later and immediately compared it to Arcadia. Upon hearing this, Voltaire wrote, “When the French and English are in agreement, we can be sure that they have not deceived us.” Tahiti was paradise and the noble savage lived there.

• • •

The noble savage was soon in every home. It was perhaps the first philosophical idea outside of the teachings of the church to be actively discussed by Europeans of all social classes. Aspects of Tahitian culture, like human sacrifice and rigid divisions in social rank, were overlooked in favor of alluring images of simplicity and harmony. To satisfy growing curiosity, two Tahitians, four Indian kings, a handful of Eskimos, and several people from the French countryside believed to have been more or less raised by wolves were paraded through Europe’s capitals. The Tahitians stole the show. Ahutoru and Omai arrived in 1769 and 1774 in Paris and London, respectively. Both were pleasant, polite, well-spoken, and good-natured. They danced beautifully, had a fine sense for music, played chess and backgammon, learned to ride horses and to ice-skate, met the kings of France and England, and were popular with the ladies. The great French naturalist Buffon praised the strength of Ahutoru’s pulse and his “highly developed sense of smell.” Sir Joshua Reynolds painted Omai’s portrait (incongruously wearing an Arab turban). Before long, the rage for Tahiti and its noble savages was in full swing. 

William Hodges, The War-Boats of the Island of Otaheite [Tahiti], and the Society Islands, with a View of part of the Harbour of Ohameneno, in the Island of Ulietea, one of the Society islands, 1777.

In 1788, the HMS Bounty laid anchor in Tahiti under the command of William Bligh. She returned a year later under the command of Fletcher Christian (blood; sex; fire). Things began moving faster on Tahiti as more visitors came in search of the paradise that had lured Christian back. Representatives of church and state came to insure that both were well-represented. Certain ancestral dances, such as the legendarily lascivious upaupa which Paul Gauguin was to paint, but never see, were outlawed. A dress code was established and rigidly enforced. Bibles and preachers arrived in abundance. By 1802, the French writer and statesman Chateaubriand lamented Tahiti’s golden era having already run its course. “The lovely women of New Cythera,” he wrote, “pass their time reading the Scriptures with Methodist ministers, and deploring the excessive gaiety of their mothers.” The Tahitians seemed ever less noble and ever less savage.

In the coming years, Victor Hugo wrote about a Tahitian woman and her European lover. A young whaler named Herman Melville stayed (and was imprisoned) on the island, and wrote two novels about his experiences in French Polynesia. Rimbaud read and reread the tales of Cook’s Voyages and wove their images into lyric evocations of freedom and savagery. By the end of the nineteenth century, it seemed that the nobly savage Tahiti which Bougainville had marveled at a century earlier was no longer to be found anywhere but in art.

• • •

During the visit of the two Tahitians to London, Boswell said to Dr. Johnson, “I do not think the people of Tahiti can be reckoned savages,” to which Johnson sharply retorted, “Don’t cant in defense of savages!” By June 1880, this was a standard response. France annexed Tahiti. The children of Tahiti were forced to abandon native dress, to sing the Marseillaise, and to demand the return of the Alsace and the Lorraine. 

In 1891, forty-four-year-old Paul Gauguin, a 
successful businessman turned unsuccessful painter, arrived in Tahiti just as its last king, Pomare the Fifth, was dying. Gauguin could not have been more disappointed by what awaited him. The noble savagery
 he had dreamed of was nowhere to be found. Brick 
buildings with roofs of corrugated iron had replaced 
traditional dwellings. The island’s green was covered over by grime and soot. AWOL sailors and escaped convicts filled the ports. Venereal disease was rampant. Life was expensive, dirty, and violent; colonial repression brutal and open. Two days after he arrived, French officials offered Gauguin the honor of decorating the room of the recently deceased king. He declined. 

Gauguin was not long in regretting this as he soon found himself broke. He could not afford to eat the island’s abundant fresh food and subsisted on canned goods, white bread, and macaroni. He called the natives “savages,” leaving off the “noble.” You couldn’t fall over drunk, he claimed, without bumping into a parish priest or a colonial gendarme, and so he decided to leave the corrupt coast. What he found was another story. The exotic interior of the island was unblemished, and breathtakingly beautiful. Gauguin soon adopted native dress. He noted with pleasure that his feet had hardened from going barefoot, and that through constant exposure his skin “no longer suffered from the sun.” He declared himself a “savage.” In 1893, he was forced, however, to return to France. From the deck of the boat he cried, “Farewell, land of welcome, land of pleasures! Farewell, home of liberty and beauty!” 

William Hodges, A View of Maitavie Bay, Otaheite [Tahiti], 1776.

Back in Paris, the paintings he brought back from his atelier des tropiques were as little in demand as those he had painted before his departure in the atelier du sud he had formed with Vincent Van Gogh in Arles, and which had savagely ended two days before Christmas in 1888 when Van Gogh threatened Gauguin with a razor before cutting off his own ear with it. The show of works Gauguin managed to mount in Paris upon his return was, from a financial perspective, an unconditional failure (although Degas kindly bought eleven canvases so as to hide its full extent). Mallarmé marveled at how one could “load such bright colors with such dark mystery,” but painters such as Cézanne and Pissarro turned haughtily from his naïve works. The following year Gauguin received a small inheritance. Instead of dedicating it to the urgent needs of his wife and children in Copenhagen, he rented a studio in Paris and began supporting a Javanese mulatto named Annah Martin and her pet monkey Taoa. Later that year he got into a fight with sailors who mocked Annah and/or her monkey (accounts vary) and severely injured his leg.
He decided to sail for Tahiti—this time never to return.

Gauguin’s second arrival in 1895 disappointed him even more than his first. In his absence, the port of Papeete had acquired electric lighting and a merry-go-round had been installed in the governor’s front garden. Gauguin left the port immediately, returning to savagery and to his work. He varied his media, making ceramics, wood carvings, and experimenting with the ephemeral materials of wax and mud. He lived in a fertile creative chaos. In 1897, word reached him of the death of his daughter Aline. He was overcome by guilt and despair, and began work on a painting which was to be his testament. The mural-sized Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going? is an allegory of uncertain meaning. Read from right to left, as Gauguin once recommended, the figures proceed from virgin innocence to corrupt experience, from the infancy of culture to the decadence of civilization. If read, left to right, however, the painting points towards a new innocence. After completing the mysterious painting, Gauguin retreated to the island’s interior to take his own life. But this too went differently than he planned. The dose of cyanide he brought with him was too powerful and he became violently ill before it could take fatal effect. He literally crawled back to life.

By 1901, reconciled to continue a life so full of such diverse failure, Gauguin could take no more of a Tahiti that even in its interior showed distressing signs of civilization, and left for the remote island of Hiva-Oa in the Marquesas chain. He hoped “to see no more Europeans,” built a house that he baptized “Maison du jouir” (“house of pleasure”), and continued to work. In January 1903, a hurricane hit the island. Gauguin’s house was spared, but he didn’t have long to remain in it. A few months later, he was convicted by the colonial government of inciting “indigenous anarchy” through speeches criticizing the colonial system. His sentence was a fine of 1000 francs—ruining his finances—and three months in jail—ruining his health. A few days later, he wrote to a friend in Paris, “I am exhausted, but I am not beaten. Is the Indian who is able to laugh through his torture beaten? The savage is better than are we. You once said that I had no right to call myself a savage. You were wrong—I am one! What the civilized public see and feel in my works, and what surprises and unsettles them, is my savagery.” Less than a month later, he died.

• • •

As Gauguin lay dying, a twenty-four-year-old French doctor named Victor Segalen arrived in Tahiti. He had come to meet Gauguin. Redirected to the distant island to which Gauguin had retreated so as “to see no more Europeans,” he arrived too late. He visited the “Maison du jouir” and as Gauguin’s ramshackle estate had not yet been liquidated, his final works still lay where he had left them. Segalen was inspired by their wild colors and exotic forms. He wrote back to France that “before looking at—or should I not say, before living through—Gauguin’s final sketches, I had not really seen anything of the land of the Maori.”(The term Maori was used loosely in the nineteenth century by the French to indicate all Polynesian cultures.)

Segalen began writing articles both about Gauguin and the ravaged state of Polynesian society. Alongside these public projects, he began a private one: a novel. It was exotic in subject, but was to break with the exotic literature of the day—picturesque accounts of what awaited visitors on the sensuous islands of the South Pacific. Segalen’s ambition was to travel through this colonial looking-glass and tell the story of the Maori from their side, and thereby create a truly exotic literature. 

Drawing of Tahiti by Victor Segalen, undated. Courtesy Bibliothèque nationale de France.

In 1907, Segalen published Les immémoriaux at his own expense and dedicated it to “the Maori of forgotten times.” Its composition was equal parts savage and civilized. The civilization lay in the immense archival research that went into his writing of the work, and the savagery in the form he chose for it. Segalen tried, in his own words, to “write” the people of Tahiti in the same way that Gauguin had painted them. This meant inventing a French shot through with flashes of Maori. The idea was of course not to reproduce the broken French that the Maori used to translate their culture. Instead, he shaped French to reflect the innermost forms of Maori thought, language, and culture, to bend and twist the French language until it began to convey something of authentic Maori experience.

Les immémoriaux tells of the “civilizing” of Tahiti during the first period of colonization (1798–1819). It begins with a young Haere-Po, or “keeper of genealogies,” named Terii who forgets a line of his recitation—an extremely bad omen. Terii soon makes another such error and narrowly escapes from the wrath of the listeners with his life. After unsuccessfully trying to turn himself into a tree, a miracle meant to redeem him in the eyes of his fellow islanders, he flees the island in the company of his mentor. The two circle Polynesia in search of “the origin of things.” They make a pilgrimage to one island to hear a great orator, but Terii falls asleep during what turns out to be the man’s final speech. A visit to Rapa Nui (Easter Island) is equally frustrating. Their trip lasts twenty years. Failing to find the lost origin, they return to Tahiti to find a society more changed than they could have ever imagined. Terii’s companion and mentor refuses to meet the demands of this new society and is soon sentenced to death. Terii proves more flexible. He changes his name to Iakoba, and his religion to Christianity. There, where he had failed in the stringent society into which he was born (his poor memory disqualifying him from the priesthood), he succeeds in the new colonial society whose many books compensate for such lapses. Terii-Iakoba sells his daughter for two bags of nails with which to build a church and decides that the new society is to his liking. 
So ends Europe’s first anti-colonial novel.

• • •

While working on Les immémoriaux, Segalen began another project—one that he would work on for the rest of his life and that in recent years has attracted increasing interest. It is not a novel but instead an “Essay on Exoticism.” It was to consolidate the sentimental education that Segalen’s travels imparted to him. When he died fifteen years later, the essay was at his side—and still unfinished. 

The editors of a recent edition have chosen to order the fragments chronologically. Fittingly, the first entry is written at sea—“within sight of Java,” and the work’s program is clearly laid out therein. Segalen aspires to bring into relief a parallel between receding in time—“historicism”—and advancing in space—“exoticism.” After this ambitious statement of purpose, he seems to have found himself at a loss as to how to continue. The notes quickly taper off as the boat approaches Java, not to be taken up for another four years.

Having completed Les immémoriaux, in the second entry Segalen clarified his intention in that work: “Not the effect of the environment on the traveler, but the effect of the traveler on the environment is what I sought to express in writing about the Maori.” He continues: “Why should I not do the same thing to express what I will see: a temple, a Chinese crowd, an opium eater, an ancestral ceremonial, a city of millions of inhabitants … do this for everything that would otherwise become part of a worn exoticism, but which would thereby take on a completely new appearance.” Here, too, Segalen strives for an analytic definition of a very synthetic experience. Exoticism, as he conceives of it then, indeed involves contact with exotic material, with the far away and the strange. But this exotic material is seen with an eye both more disciplined and more adventurous than the average one. Segalen formulates an approach we have since come to call anthropological. He studies the foreign not simply as it appears to us, but as we appear to it. For Segalen, the uncertainty principle that conditions anthropology’s enterprise—the effect 
of the observer upon the behavior of the observed—is 
not to be effaced by objective observation. It is to be 
creatively explored and exploited. 

As he continued to travel to more and more exotic places (he had taken up residence in China), it became increasingly clear to Segalen that his exoticism wasn’t other people’s exoticism—that his sense of the word had little in common with what others understood by it. In his first note, he had defined exoticism as a function of spatial distance. It became more and more clear to him, however, that “movement in space” was not an essential component of the exoticism he was trying to describe. This led him to a singular conclusion.

Following his revised program, “exoticism” is to be “extended … to Everything.” Realizing this was a stretch for his readers, he enlarged the name, calling it “Universal Exoticism” and defining it as “the ability to conceive otherwise.” This was a decisive formulation, one that both allowed him to continue to write and prevented him from ever finishing his essay. His task in exploring exoticism was nothing less than, “defining … the sensation of Exoticism, which is nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity.” 

As exoticism became for Segalen the exploration of a “sensation” or “perception” of “Diversity,” the “geographic” component ceased to play a central role. The exotic was no longer foreign or far away. Making love to Tahitian princesses or being initiated into the secrets of the Forbidden City were, for him, only “exotic” if they conveyed a sense and sensation of this “Diversity.” Distance and strangeness were still essential to an experience of the exotic, but they migrated inwards. “For the child,” Segalen wrote, “exoticism comes into being along with the external world.” 

Segalen (with right hand in pocket) at the site of Bao Sanniang’s tomb in Sichuan province, 1914. Collection Musée des Arts Asiatiques-Guimet, Paris, France. Courtesy Réunion des Musées Nationaux / Art Resource, NY.

As a final move in what ultimately becomes a philosophical treatise, Segalen writes: “After discussing Universal Exoticism, we will arrive at an Essential Exoticism.” This concerns something else again—the fact that, “the conscious being knows that in conceiving of himself he cannot but conceive of himself as other than he is. And he rejoices in his Diversity [Et il s’éjouit de sa Diversité].” This curious final phrase—“And he rejoices in his Diversity”—is the one with which his unfinished essay ends. Though Segalen does not indicate this, it is 
a quotation—and one from a singularly unexotic source.

• • •

Gustave Flaubert was born in Normandy, grew up in Normandy, hated Normandy. Hearing of life in exotic places France was then conquering, such as Egypt and Algeria, he declared at twenty that he was “born to live” in such environments. His young mind filled with oriental imaginings, he wrote The Temptation of Saint Anthony. He invited his two closest friends to his home in Normandy in September 1849 and during the next four days read his book aloud to them for eight hours each day. Every page burned with a bright oriental fire. When he finished his marathon recitation, his friends retired. They came back with a unanimous verdict: burn the book and travel to take your mind off it. He did not take their advice about burning but he did about traveling, and set off for exotic lands. 

A year later, standing astride the border between Upper and Lower Nubia with the second cataract of the Nile at his feet, an idea came to him. During his year and a half in Egypt, Palestine, Rhodes, Asia Minor, Constantinople, Greece, and Italy, he had been captivated by the bright colors, strange sounds, and new sensations of his travels. As soon as he returned home, he began a work far more strange and unfathomable than The Temptation of Saint Anthony. The revelation that had come to him on the Nile was the least exotic work in the history of French literature: Madame Bovary. Instead of describing the pyramids by moonlight, reproducing the rhythm of travel by camel, or mixing with nomads, pirates, and courtesans, he described what he knew best and liked least—his native Normandy. The flash of the scimitar was replaced by the dull glow of an inept surgeon’s scalpel, oriental sunsets by Norman fog, and the reality of travel and adventure by an insatiable longing for travel and adventure. At the center of his story lay a woman so seduced by works of exotic literature that she found herself unable to reconcile herself to the unexotic life she found herself leading. Like a doomsday machine set in motion, this inability slowly destroys her life and those around her. 

Forty years later, Segalen’s favorite philosopher published a serious book with a seemingly light-hearted title—Le Bovarysme (1902). The word was not completely new and had already been used as an insult, but Jules de Gaultier lent the awkward term metaphysical wings. In Le Bovarysme, he argued that “the flaw that marks Flaubert’s characters points to a fundamental human faculty: the power granted to man to conceive himself as other than he is.” Segalen’s Essay on Exoticism contains many references—to Gauguin, to Pierre Loti, to Nietzsche, and to others. More frequent and more decisive than any other, however, are those to de Gaultier. Though the majority of the quotations from de Gaultier are without quotation marks, Segalen makes no secret of the debt he owes the eccentric philosopher. When he introduces his distinction between “Universal Exoticism” and “Essential Exoticism,” he writes, “I am obviously proceeding straight from Jules de Gaultier’s thought.” Segalen repeatedly wrote to de Gaultier to express his admiration and even copied out passages from this correspondence directly into the text. 

What defines de Gaultier’s bovarysme (“conceiving otherwise”) also defines Segalen’s exoticism (“conceiving otherwise”). Emma Bovary did what Flaubert did, and what we all do: she conceived of herself other than as she was. De Gaultier frees this trait from its pejorative context and extends it to all of humanity. Bovarysme is what makes us what we are, and makes us think we are something else. Exoticism, for Segalen, was a method for making a virtue of this necessity.

Segalen’s text ends on an enigmatic note, with a phrase which, like an invocation in a fairy tale, is repeated three times: “And he rejoices in his Diversity.” The reader might well wonder who “he” is—and to what this “Diversity” refers. The singular phrase is from de Gaultier and designates the product of bovarysme: ever-expanding, ceaselessly multiplying, endlessly ramifying “Diversity.” “I will call ‘Diverse,’” Segalen writes, “all that up until now has been called foreign, strange, unexpected, surprising, mysterious, amorous, superhuman, heroic, and even divine, everything that is ‘Other.’” That is quite a lot—even for a capitalized substantive to bear. In the primary place it accords to a constantly developing “otherness,” it anticipates an idea which will resurface two generations later at the fore of French philosophy via the advocates of alterity—Lévinas, Bataille, Blanchot, Lacan, Foucault, Derrida, Irigaray, and Cixous, to name a few. No term enjoyed such currency in the philosophy of the late twentieth century as this “Other,” which has raised its curious head to face every new form of identity.

During the years when Segalen began writing the work that was to occupy him for the rest of his life, exoticism was a suspicious word. It had become both a commonplace and a marketing strategy, and it was with this exoticism that Segalen wanted to break. He did not want, however, simply to jettison the term—he wanted to retain the freshness and the strangeness it contained, but to do so he needed to recast it. It should come as no surprise that Segalen never finished his essay. How could he have? In seeking to account for the perception of difference in repetition, of alterity in identity, his project asked of him that he do nothing less than develop a philosophy of perception. Segalen writes at one point of “the exoticism of nature,” defined as nature viewed in a “non-anthropomorphic” fashion. This is tantamount to analyzing how and why we make the foreign and unfamiliar (the natural world, in this instance) bear our features and turn a reassuring face towards us. Bataille’s efforts in this unchartable area also remained incomplete, as did Heidegger’s more systematic ones in Being and Time. Freud’s remarks in his most speculative and outlandish work, Beyond the Pleasure Principle, describe but a single moment in such perception and even then are unable to accurately describe the genesis of the mechanisms which protect us from too much exotic stimuli. Aristotle claimed that philosophy proceeded from wonder—from wondering at the near and the far, the foreign and the familiar, from ceasing to take the given for granted. It would seem that for Segalen to accomplish his goal—and thereby finish his essay—he would have needed to do no less than account for the birth of wonder in the mind of man. 

Ultimately, however, the question Segalen posed himself could not to be answered in conceptual terms. What remained to be done was nothing less than to write—to express his own individual sense of wonder, the effect of the exotic upon him. It is not without irony that the most intelligent and influential treatise on exoticism of its time was inspired as much by the sensual wonders of Tahiti as by what was for a Frenchman of Segalen’s day the least exotic place on earth—Normandy. The bright colors, intricate tattoos, rich sensuality, and living myths of Gauguin’s Tahiti shaped Segalen’s work, but so too did the sleepy and stifling Norman countryside and the frustrations it brought to the fore. 

In the same years as Segalen was traveling the world and writing his essay, a singularly sedentary writer reached a similar conclusion. “You need not leave your room,” wrote Franz Kafka. “Remain sitting at your table and listen. You need not to even listen. Just wait. Be quiet and still. The world will freely offer itself to you to be unmasked. It will roll in ecstasy at your feet.”

Leland de la Durantaye is associate professor in the Department of English at Harvard University. He is the author of Style is Matter: The Moral Art of Vladimir Nabokov (Cornell University Press, 2007) and Giorgio Agamben: A Critical Introduction (forthcoming from Stanford University Press, 2009). Alongside his scholarly work, he has written for the Boston Globe, Harvard Review, Rain Taxi, Bookforum, and the Village Voice.

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