Making a Fetish of Mystery

The corpse of Victor Segalen, the author of three published works, two of which were obscure documents on Chinese poetry and painting, was found still sticky with blood in a forest in Brittany. One shoe was off, revealing a wounded ankle wrapped in a handkerchief. Beside the body was a Complete Works of Shakespeare bound in blue Morocco leather, opened at Hamlet. Flies were buzzing in the dead man’s eyes and mouth. The year was 1919. Segalen was forty-one.

Nobody knows quite how he died. Paul Claudel thought it was suicide. He had been taking too much opium, and was generally in a troubled state of mind. Others thought he had collapsed from exhaustion; he was given to fainting spells. A curious thing about Segalen’s death was the way it resembled the end of Paul Gauguin, described in detail by Segalen himself in a book about the artist. Gauguin, too, had collapsed from exhaustion with a wounded ankle, though not in Brittany but in Polynesia, where Segalen arrived two months after that event.

The mystery around Segalen’s death is just what he might have wished. Segalen was a connoisseur, a fabricator, even a fetishist of mystery. It is what he lived for. Mystery lies at the heart of his work, the bulk of which appeared after his death. It is what his Essay on Exoticism is all about.

Who was Victor Segalen? Born in Brest in 1878, Segalen trained to be a naval doctor. Although he did work as a doctor, his true calling was traveling and writing. In 1906: “I was born to be a wanderer, see and feel everything there is to see and feel in the world. I shall pursue my collection, and will surely start in the Far East.” In fact, his love affair with China began in San Francisco, where he was stranded by an attack of typhoid in 1902 while on his way to Tahiti, where he was to take up a medical position. Segalen discovered Chinatown, was enchanted, and bought a Chinese writing set. This, too, was typical: China existed first as a fantasy, a place of mystery, and Segalen’s approach was literary.

Segalen’s experiences in Tahiti made him aware of the destruction of indigenous cultures by European colonialism. Like Gauguin, whom he admired, Segalen sought to express what was being obliterated in his own vision of the exotic. Back in France, in 1905, he wrote a novel, entitled Les Immémoriaux, about the influence of French missionaries in Tahiti. Because of this novel, one of his three published works at the time of his death, Segalen became known as le Kipling français. He was categorized as a colonial writer, like Pierre Loti, who wrote precious and often fanciful travel books about the mysterious Orient. What made Segalen different from Loti and other colonial writers, however, was his attempt to express the point of view of the colonized. He loathed the effect of missionaries and colonial administrators …

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