Ten years ago, the Harvard New History of French Literature made not one mention of the remarkable Victor Segalen. How wrong that was. It’s a big book and progressive almost to a fault in what it chooses to cover; Segalen should have been in it, as a writer and theoriser about both life and literature whose concerns are more timely now than they were when he was expressing them. He’s come well and truly out from the shadows in France in recent years and now we have the first book in English to have been devoted to him. It’s not the sort of book that’s going to be widely read, but it’s a start.
Segalen’s quite short life is best broached from its near end, not the far: from the curiously elegant mise-en-scène of his death. It occurred in 1919, when he was 41, and out of doors, in the forest of Huelgoat in the far west of Brittany. This was a legendary, Arthurian site, where the wicked daughter of King Gradlon once did away with a whole relay-team of dud candidates for her favours. It was visited and written about in the 19th century by Flaubert and by Hugo, and later by Segalen himself, in his first piece of real writing. He was found dead there two days after leaving for a day’s walking from the hotel where he was staying; but the question was, and is, dead from what? He had a deep cut above the ankle, probably caused by a sharp root, and it’s imaginable that he had severed an artery and bled to death, the blood having then been washed away by a storm. Except that Segalen had spent twenty years as a qualified doctor and would have been well able if he’d wanted to put a tourniquet on the wound. On the other hand, he had a recent history of fainting fits, he might have passed out, and died from the cold or exhaustion. There was no inquest and so no knowing medically how he came to die.
Other people having looked for him in vain, his body was found at once by his wife, lying in a spot where they had walked together a few days earlier, and it was her wish that there should be no investigation of his death. Rather than have it explained away in the clinical jargon of a post-mortem, she preferred that it should remain open to whatever more private interpretations might be put on it, fitting as those would be for a man who had more than once quoted with approval the Taoist saying that there is no such thing as a natural death. She was helped by the fact that the forest setting wasn’t as haphazard as it might have been. Segalen had died with an edition of Shakespeare within reach of his hand, where certain passages in Hamlet – we’re not told which – had been underlined. Hamlet the character – Mallarmé’s ‘seigneur latent qui ne peut devenir’ – had long attracted Segalen, who may or may not have seen something of that broodingly estranged son in himself, as he fought to escape from the orbit of an interfering mother, and was quick to find real-life Hamlets in faraway courts, notably that of the Imperial family in Peking (as it then was). The latent prince might also stand as a role model for those whose lives have stalled, as had Segalen’s, who at the time of his death was on extended sick leave from the French Navy suffering from what had been diagnosed as ‘acute neurasthenia’, a depressive condition he’d known on and off all through his adult life and which may have been brought on this final time by his having been trying to get off opium, to which he’d been long addicted, and having also fallen culpably in love with his wife’s closest friend. Injured leg or no, there’s good reason to think that his was a willed, not a simply accidental death.
The forest of Huelgoat was no great distance from where Segalen was born and raised, in the port of Brest, so the restless seeker out of the distant and exotic had come back in the end to a place familiar to him, as though accepting his defeat by the spherical nature of what he disparagingly called the ‘Great Ball’. A flat Earth on which you could keep getting further away from where you started might have suited him better. But then again, travel a long way off, into the reality of what had first drawn you as an Elsewhere, and the forsaken reality of home can become an alluring Elsewhere in its turn. In the notes he made over a number of years for an ‘Essay on Exoticism’ that he never published, Segalen observed that the Félibrige poet, Jules Boissière, wrote his most beautiful Provençal poems when he was living in Hanoi, and that, more pointedly still, the picture that Gauguin was working on at the time of his death in the Marquesas Islands was of a Breton church under snow. This wasn’t, by Segalen’s lights, the homesick act of an unhappy man at the end of his tether, but a sovereign gesture of the born traveller, the ‘Exote’ (his coining), caught up in the ‘poised two-way play’ (‘ce double jeu balancé’) between the place where you are and another place where you aren’t, a dynamic toing and froing between perception and imagination whose cultivation produces ‘an inexhaustible, boundless diversity’. Segalen’s theory of the exotic thus derives its energy from what any surviving Structuralists will recognise and salute as an old Saussurean friend, the ‘play of difference’. Segalen himself, be it said, was an excitable rather than a measured thinker, far more a poet in his own eyes than a philosopher, and, for all the suggestive ways in which he anticipates modes of thought that took off only long after his death, not to be filed away merely as a sort of erratic precursor. Some of the definitions he finds for the exotic in the ‘Essay’ are so inflated as quite to swamp the normal extension of that term: at one moment he has it that any object at all in the external world is ‘exotic’ vis-à-vis a human subject, a generalisation apt, you’d have thought, to induce solipsism in the traveller rather than a healthy curiosity – though one that might have appealed to an Existentialist distressed by the awful strangeness of the most ordinary of the world’s contents.
Gauguin was for Segalen a hero of both life and art. A hero of life because he’d suddenly upped and gone, from a relatively easy but hemmed-in existence in France to live autonomously but dirt-poor in the Pacific; and a hero of art because he’d done as a painter what Segalen meant to do as a writer: he had recorded the encounter between a Westerner, culturally and intellectually of his own time and place, and the exotic culture and outlook of the Maori inhabitants of the islands he lived on. He hadn’t done this by ‘going native’, the phrase with which those like Gauguin who were seen as cultural apostates were mockingly written off in the age of colonialism; he had done it by remaining exactly what he had been, responding to the exotic in a wholly individual way. Segalen didn’t believe that you could go native, however much you might fancy it, because diversity was diversity and not to be undone by any wilful process of assimilation. Nor should you want to undo it when the right thing was to secure its preservation. You could lodge with the diverse, run your eye and mind over it, make art or literature out of it, but there was to be no ultimate penetration or taking possession of it, which would have been a sinful ambition had it not in the first place been illusory. Your due reward when you came up against diversity was ‘the acute and immediate perception of an everlasting incomprehensibility’.
This is not for sure what the averagely hopeful traveller will be looking for: the everlastingly incomprehensible has the ring of a turn-off, not of an attraction. Segalen may have here had in mind only the initial shock of the exotic, however: that first sense of alienation for which the French have just the right word, dépaysement. For all his medical education, once he began to try and write it was the Symbolists and the poets he went to for instruction, not the physiologically-minded hard men of Naturalism. He was especially receptive to the Baudelairian notion of synaesthesia, or of correspondances between the senses, on the grounds that phenomena such as ‘coloured hearing’, which the medical establishment might well look on as a freakish or regressive malfunction, were, on the contrary, evidence of a superior, because more fully evolved, adaptation to the external world. He was welcoming also of the newly assertive Freudianism of the turn of the century and the way in which it was undermining the positivist model of the mind’s workings of the Charcot generation. (In what must have been a highly unusual naval medical school thesis he stressed the good that writers and other artists could derive from the exploration, or else exploitation, of their neuroses.) His ‘criterion’ in art, he declared in a Mallarméan moment, ‘crystallised’ around the ‘sensation-idea’, and where more intensely could this feely-thinky ideal be realised than in exposure to cultures as antipodal to his own as the Polynesian or, especially, the Chinese?
Even before he left France, Segalen spent time reading up on the history and cultural condition of first Polynesia and later China, which doesn’t fit with the idea that their exoticism was going forever to refute his understanding of them. In practice, indeed, he struck a self-conscious balance between what he did and didn’t understand as a traveller, or, in the terms which he favoured, between the ‘real’ and the ‘imaginary’: the creative play between the two, once the Exote is in situ, is simply a local transposition of the original play between the here and the there. The urge to court and to register the strong effects that an exotic landscape and exotic manners have on you, when you are uncertain of how far and how justly you understand them, was anyway to become the subject of what is far and away the cleverest and most enjoyable thing Segalen ever wrote, the novel René Leys.
Where Gauguin had led, Segalen could follow, literally as it turned out. His first foreign posting after he qualified as a naval doctor was to Tahiti, early in 1903. He joined his ship there by way of New York, which he disliked, as a city to all appearances lacking a past, and San Francisco, which he took to, thanks to Chinatown, the opaque glamour of whose cultural life was just what the young doctor would have ordered for himself – how right that the apprentice Exote should first have been turned in a sinological direction by the sight of Chinese life in its export version. In May 1903, Gauguin died, and three months later, Segalen’s ship arrived in the capital of the Marquesas to collect the painter’s effects. Segalen went to the house he’d been living in, talked with the locals who had been his friends, and took his part without question against the French authorities who had hounded Gauguin as a ‘defender of the savages’. At a subsequent auction, he bought several canvases, wood carvings, some notebooks and Gauguin’s palette, 24 lots in all for 190 francs, or a little less than a month’s pay. This wasn’t a bit of speculative connoisseurship: at the time he seems to have had little interest in the work as such; rather, he was declaring for Gauguin, the admired ‘outlaw’, one of two great creative escapees, the other being Rimbaud, in whose succession he felt himself to have enrolled. Segalen later sold much of what he’d bought at the sale to pay for the publication of his first book.
This was Les Immémoriaux, a novel that wasn’t published for another four years and is just about unreadable today, certainly if you attempt it as a work of fiction, such is the fullness with which its author reports on the rituals, customs, myths and beliefs of the Polynesians he’d moved among during his time there. When it was reissued, many years after its first publication, it was in a collection of ethnography, which is where it belongs. It’s not straight ethnography, however: Segalen had a case to make, the same case that Gauguin and Robert Louis Stevenson had made before him, against the degradation of native life which had set in, first with the coming of Christian missionaries to the islands early in the 19th century, and then with the onset of a colonial administration. The Maoris had begun to die out, destroyed physically by European diseases they had no immunity against and spiritually by an imposed morality and theology that led not to any improvement in their way of life but to deracination and, characteristically, apathy. They had been robbed of their collective memory, whence the title of Les Immémoriaux: the immemorial ones are those whose forgotten past needs urgently to be restored to them through the decontamination of their present. Their diversity should have been recognised as sacrosanct.
This was Segalen asking that the colonial clock be turned back, but without at the same time falling for the sentimental phantasm of the Noble Savage. Savages didn’t need to be noble for him to come to their rescue, it was enough that they were savages. Their diversity was an absolute; the life the islanders had led before the Europeans arrived could have been perfectly horrible but no one from outside had the right to try and ‘improve’ it. In fact, Segalen’s cult of diversity is aesthetic to a disconcerting extreme of laissez-faire, the diverse seemingly requiring to be conserved more for the gratification of discriminating souls like his than for any benefit that might come to the races who embodied it.
This cruelly dispassionate point of view – his reading of Nietzsche had done a lot to form it – makes Segalen an equivocal mentor for those in anglophone academia currently riding the ‘post-colonial’ wave. He was against colonialism, right enough, and the commercial exploitation that went with it, not out of any – demeaning, as he’d have argued – sense of fraternity with those who suffered it but because the colonisers had committed the crime of working to erase cultural difference. He was a Lévi-Straussian avant la lettre, who saw the takeover of vulnerable cultures by strong, i.e. wealthier ones as leading to a form of entropy. This was a scientific buzzword of the time, latched onto by degenerationists of the Max Nordau kind; Segalen for his part saw the entropy – that’s to say, the homogenisation – of once disparate cultures as ushering in a ‘Kingdom of the Tepid’, something that he regarded as ‘worse than Nothing’, a lukewarm End of History. It goes without saying that he was also against the ‘colonial school’ of writing, whose authors might take colonial life as their subject-matter but only with the intention of assimilating it, of bringing it closer to home for easy consumption: the best known novelist then writing that sort of thing in France, Pierre Loti, was dismissed by Segalen as a ‘pimp of the exotic’.
It’s this more than anything that has brought Segalen back into view, as a writer of obvious significance for the post-colonialist critics whose war-chants are currently rising into the sky from our throbbing campuses. In its dry and orderly way Forsdick’s book does an excellent job in situating him, with the ‘Essay on Exoticism’ as its main focus, in relation to the arguments of Edward Said and others. In passing, it situates Segalen also in relation to the reform movement we’ve seen take hold in the writing of ethnography, whereby ethnographers have been freed to write themselves into the accounts of their fieldwork and abandon the pretence that they weren’t really present there as individuals at all, only as invisible, trustworthy because impersonal servants of the notebook and the tape recorder. They can even go further, as Segalen did, and guess as to the effects their own intrusion may have had on the societies they are inquiring into. This of course is to recognise one’s own symmetrical exoticism when being looked at from the other side of the fence, as a – who knows? perhaps everlastingly incomprehensible – representative of foreignness. And with that recognition there comes the opportunity for a little quiet irony at one’s own expense, as the play of difference is set loose from its moorings in a single culture.
Any Exote of Segalen’s generation in France who was worth his salt would have hoped one day to set off for China, the most grippingly different country of all, to find himself physically in the Orient instead of letting the Orient come to him, in the etiolated form of a drawing-room taste for Chinoiserie. Segalen had long planned to get there and in 1909 he did, when he was sent to Peking by the Navy to learn the language and qualify as an interpreter. He lived there, or elsewhere in China, right up until the start of World War One, with a single absence of a few months back in France. He travelled widely and receptively, becoming impressively well informed about the country’s archaeology and its art, he practised medicine when there was a call for it, and he wrote.
He wrote enough to fill a thousand pages of the second volume of his collected writings. And it was this writing, or some of it, that gained Segalen a following, a small one through the 1920s and 1930s, a wider and more understanding one after 1945 – he now appears, I gather, on the list of set texts for the agrégation exam. Of his thousand Chinese pages, the ones that stand out are Segalen’s two works of fiction, Le Fils du Ciel (‘The Son of Heaven’: it seems never to have been translated into English) and René Leys. Neither has the form of a conventional narrative (of the time), because he had strong views about what was wrong with conventional narrative: it was impersonal and it was all-knowing, two properties that for him went entirely against the grain. His own two narrators are personalised and they are prey to uncertainty, they are fulfilling the requirements Segalen had long ago laid down for the traveller in exotic places.
The Chinese are said proverbially to hope to live in uninteresting times, but the local times were unusually interesting when Segalen arrived in Peking, and he made good use of them. After three hundred years, the Manchu dynasty was just about at an end. A year earlier, the Emperor Kuang-Hsu had died, perhaps put to death on the orders of his gruesome aunt, the Dowager Empress Tz’u Hsi, who had come to regret having once secured the succession for her then infant nephew, since he had grown up to be something of a political reformer. She eventually confined him to a bridgeless island within the Imperial precincts and resumed power herself as a self-appointed Regent; until she, too, died, at much the same time as Kuang. This was a situation Segalen found irresistibly mysterious, since rumours far outnumbered facts in whatever accounts were to be had of these tenebrous Palace doings.
Segalen described Le Fils du Ciel as the ‘free novel’ of Kuang-Hsu, as a book in which he meant to ‘take China and twist it as I want’. The unfortunate Son of Heaven is a man of two grossly discordant worlds, one of them transcendent, inasmuch as the Emperor is not an individual but the embodiment of an ancient, quasi-divine office, the other domestic and full of cruelty and pettiness. The form the novel takes makes the most of the contrast between one world and the other. It is purportedly compiled by an annalist, appointed by the Regent, to record Kuang’s actions and words in his imprisonment, but the annalist’s formality and the Emperor’s emotions, obliquely expressed in the poetry he writes, are necessarily in conflict: a conflict between, in Segalen’s words, ‘the solid, dry, granitic Annals; and on the other hand, all the passions, the hopes, the Hamlet-like will … of my one character’. To make the Emperor Kuang into a dreamy, versifying Hamlet figure might seem like an unprincipled familiarity on Segalen’s part, but he could have defended himself against the charge of cultural misappropriation by pointing out that Hamlet and the Son of Heaven are both imaginary figures who no longer exist when not on the stage.
Le Fils du Ciel is in the main a serious book, though tending agreeably to satire whenever foreigners – ‘barbarians’ to the Chinese – are introduced. Its successor, René Leys, is a less serious book, a comedy indeed, and Segalen’s masterpiece. The narrator this time is a Frenchman by the name of Segalen, newly arrived in Peking and desperate to penetrate the secrets of the Imperial Palace. He fears, however, that the whole idea is hopeless, that he’ll never get inside it or learn just what goes on there. All he can do is to walk or go on horseback round the walls, the Dedans or ‘Inside’ is a provocative blank. But instead of having to imagine for himself what sorts of thing may be happening within, the fictional Segalen finds a surrogate, René Leys, a Belgian boy whose father runs a grocer’s shop serving the foreign legations and who already, by the age of 17, is a teacher of political economy. René appears to come and go from the Forbidden City in absolute freedom, to be a high-up in the Imperial secret service, to have had an affair and even a child with the widow of the late Emperor Kuang. To every question put to him about life on the Inside, he has a full and suspiciously melodramatic answer, involving rivalries, sexual shenanigans, assassination plots, concubines, the lot. And he himself comes particularly well out of the episodes he recounts.
The year, however, is 1911, the reigning Emperor is a small boy, and revolution is getting closer. As René one days puts it, anxiously, to Segalen, ‘there’s this Sun Yat-sen.’ As very soon there is, and suddenly the Celestial Empire and the Manchus with it are finished. So, too, is René Leys, who is no longer of any use, either to the regime he has served so brilliantly or to the probing Segalen. He dies, poisoned by his enemies perhaps or else by his own hand, leaving the way clear for a repressed reality to make its return following this brief but hyperactive reign of the imaginary.
René Leys the ever resourceful fabulist is meet punishment for someone like the fictional Segalen, who has gone against the real Segalen’s austere principles and can’t accept that the Forbidden City is what it says it is. You might conclude therefore that the Belgian boy is nothing more than a comical plot device, employed in order to show how gimcrack the imagination can become when fed on a diet of clichéd excess – life in the Palace in René’s version is assembled from the cheapest literary sources. The extraordinary thing is, however, that when he was in Peking, Segalen actually met and befriended a young Frenchman whose father ran the French postal service there and who spun him gaudy tales of Imperial goings-on of the very kind that René Leys is made to spin, even the one about having slept with the Dowager Empress. There’s no knowing how far Segalen was taken in by this young man, although his biographer, Gilles Manceron, suggests that he was by no means as sceptical as you would have expected.
That he should have found himself in China at the moment when it became a republic is ironic, for Segalen could not bear to see any institution as truly exotic as the Chinese Empire give way to a form of government not only regrettable in itself but also imported from abroad. Sun Yat-sen, the prime carrier of this Western infection, he describes at different times as a ‘cretin’ and as ‘a certain commercial traveller selling all that 1789 and Rights of Man junk’ – a description that puts him into the wrong class of traveller altogether. The Chinese should have known better than to succumb, but then those of them that Segalen had dealings with had by no means measured up to the elevated idea he had of their country and its Imperial past. ‘I may feel China keenly,’ he once wrote, ‘but I’ve never felt the desire to be Chinese,’ and the Frenchman who, in René Leys, had felt that desire, had married a Chinese woman and thought himself ‘naturalised’, is treated with total contempt. And as with China, so six years later Segalen was to be found deploring the Revolution in Russia, as further proof that entropy was nigh, when the be-all and end-all of democracy lay in the elimination of what were to him highly desirable differences between one citizen and another.
Dying when he did, Segalen was spared the experience of a Western world in which travellers are no longer born but made, by the relentless and deceptive pimping of the exotic that yearly draws people out from their homelands by the million. Yet even this entropic nightmare can be turned to advantage. In ‘The Essay on Exoticism’, he dares to look ahead to the age of ‘[Thomas] Cooks, steamboats and aeroplanes’, and to reflect that there would still be a place in it for the Exote: ‘It’s possible that a balance may be established: promiscuity will be redeemed by the small number who will still know how to feel.’ Which goes perversely to show that for a fanatic of diversity such as Victor Segalen the polluting of the Great Ball by the vagrant hordes is as much an opportunity for distinctiveness as a threat of submersion.