Latent Prince

John Sturrock

  • Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity: Journeys between Cultures by Charles Forsdick
    Oxford, 242 pp, £40.00, November 2000, ISBN 0 19 816014 3

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.

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