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.1

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.”2 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 on non-Western cultures. He hated anything that flattened diversity.

Segalen’s first trip to China was in 1909. He had studied Chinese for one year, enough to get a taste of the culture, but not much more than that. Still, it was all he needed, for it was through his imagination, and not his expertise, that he sought to filter his experiences. Segalen was a keen archeologist, with a special interest in the inscribed stone slabs called steles, which inspired his collection of poems, entitled Stèles. As in his novel on Tahiti, he adopted the voice of “the Other,” in this case a Chinese literatus, without losing his own sensibility. China was also the setting for his masterpiece, still regarded as a classic in France, the novel René Leys, first published in 1922.

There was other work: an early novel about China, Le fils du ciel; a long poem, Thibet; essays on exoticism and on Chinese art, and two libretti for Segalen’s friend Claude Debussy, which the composer professed to admire but never set to music. Segalen was well known in literary circles. Apart from Debussy, he was friendly with, though not an unqualified admirer of, Pierre Loti and J.-K. Huysmans. But fame only came long after his death, in the 1950s, when poets and ethnographic writers, such as Henri Michaux, Michel Leiris, and Claude Lévi-Strauss, took him up. By the 1970s, he had become a popular author in France. And recently Segalen’s championship of cultural diversity has attracted the admiring attention of postcolonial theorists in the US. It would be a pity, however, if Segalen were to be buried in the dense and often unreadable prose of academics whose texts are marred by too much “privileging” and “discourses.” Segalen deserves better than that.


Essay on Exoticism is a most peculiar document. It was never finished, and never meant to be. It consists of fragments, letters to friends, notes to himself outlining a book on exoticism (never written), and random thoughts on the subject, sometimes repeated almost verbatim in different parts of the essay. Segalen worked on it for several years. He wrote in 1911: “This work is not an assertion so much as a search. If I undertake to write it, it is not in order to display fully formed ideas, but in order to help me think this matter through.” And yet it is almost always interesting, because Segalen is interesting, and because he was trying to come to grips with something that still preoccupies many of us more than ever: how to understand another culture and express oneself about it, without falling into the traps of mimicry, pedantry, or prejudice. Segalen’s other, highly contemporary, concern was how to treasure cultural diversity in a world shaped more and more by the effects of global commerce and politics.

Like many romantics, Segalen was not a friend of democracy, which he saw as a spreader of mediocrity and destroyer of mystery. To Segalen, anything that brought people and things to the same level was bad. Colonialism, especially in the spirit of a French “civilizing mission,” was noxious because it sought to impose common standards all over the empire. As he put it: “Ignominy begins wherever Europe drags its cultural cross-fertilization.”3 Feminism was deplorable because it eroded the mystery of sexual difference. His views on the absolute differences between races brought him dangerously close to the mental orbit of such racialist thinkers as J.A. Gobineau. But Segalen, unlike Gobineau, did not believe that the white race, or European culture, or the male sex was superior. He simply thought that races, like cultures, genders, and individuals, were, to use a favorite expression of his, mutually “impenetrable.”

Democracy has to be based on equality, common standards, and transparency. Segalen preferred the mystery and “distances” of aristocracy and absolute monarchy. In Essay on Exoticism he writes:

There used to be a considerable distance between the Tsar and the muzhik—the Son of Heaven and the people, despite the paternal theory: ancient courts, the small courts of Germany, or the princely cities of Italy were some of Diversity’s beautiful tools. The rule of the people brings with it the same customs, the same functions everywhere.

And this, of course, was lamentable.

One might have thought that this kind of politics would not endear Segalen to postcolonial theorists. In his foreword to the current edition of Segalen’s Essay, Harry Harootunian, an American scholar known for his “deconstruction” of Japanese intellectual history, describes the above quote simply as a “testimony to the emerging shape of mass society and consumer culture where quality and value were vanishing under the weight of quantity and the regime of sameness….” Well, that is one way to put it. And why not? It would, after all, be rather boring to castigate a romantic French poet for his political views. But then Harootunian sees fit to lash out at Simon Leys in a way that is most revealing, not so much of Segalen himself as of the sympathies he attracts.

Leys is the nom de plume of the eminent Belgian Sinologist and writer Pierre Ryckmans.4 Clearly a Segalenian himself, he took his name from René Leys, Segalen’s novel about a young Belgian who appears to have penetrated the inner chambers of Peking’s Forbidden City. Leys, the author, may or may not be a roman-tic in his literary taste (see his bril-liant essay on Don Quixote5 ), but he loathes the romanticism of Euro-pean political pilgrims who used to fawn at Chairman Mao’s court. To him, the Maoist enthusiasms of Roland Barthes, Julia Kristeva, and other Parisian intellectuals in the 1970s smacked of a poisonous chinoiserie. It was a “new exoticism based, like the earlier ones, on ignorance and imagination.” Harootunian then states that Leys offers in its place “precisely the exoticism of the dream world constructed by the Sinologist.” Simon Leys, he argues, is driven by elitist nostalgia for a historical fantasy world, while the Maoist Parisians, by using their imaginations freely, were doing something admirably “consistent with a certain understanding of Maoism.”

I am not sure what this “certain understanding” is supposed to mean, but Harootunian is certainly unfair to Leys. The great Sinologist might indeed have lamented Mao’s destruction of Chinese culture, such as his demolishing the walls of Beijing, but that was not why he criticized the Mao-worshiping exoticists in France. What provoked his fury was Europeans fantasizing about a society where millions were being murdered. He did not attack Barthes et al. for their lack of expertise, but for their willful refusal to see what was plain to anyone who could read a newspaper.

Segalen was not particularly interested in politics. He was an aesthete who lived through his imagination. But he was not like other aesthetes who traveled only in their own minds. Des Esseintes, the protagonist in À rebours by J.-K. Huysmans, that immortal bible of students with decadent aspirations, dreams of visiting Holland and England. He did manage to rouse himself once from the perfumed rooms of his house in France to visit Holland. It was a great disappointment, for the real thing was so much less interesting than the dreams inspired by Rembrandt or Jan Steen. Off he sets for London nonetheless, only to finish his voyage in an Eng-lish pub in Paris, decorated with English prints, and filled with English travelers drinking beer and eating Stilton cheese. This is quite enough, he thinks. Why be disappointed once again by reality? What folly to have believed in an excursion, which could only have destroyed “the gentle visions in [his] brain.”

Segalen was not like that. He wanted to experience for himself the shock of the new, the other, the impenetrable. To feel the otherness of diverse peoples and cultures, he thought it was imperative to stay conscious of his own background. Assimilation or mimicry were not what he aimed for. He had to remain a Frenchman, a Breton, a man of his race and culture, and yet, at the same time, imagine what the world might look like through the eyes of others. Here he cannot be pigeonholed as an “Orientalist” or a “colonial” writer. For he never imposed his vision on an alien world, and certainly not to justify colonial missions. He wrote: “Exoticism is…not an adaptation to something; it is not the perfect comprehension of something outside one’s self that one has managed to embrace fully, but the keen and immediate perception of an eternal incomprehensibility.”

Exoticism, in Segalen’s imagination, can be applied to anything, or anywhere. Where Loti and other “colonial” travel writers celebrated the picturesque—the Japanese in their pretty kimonos, or the Middle East with its minarets and houris—Segalen deliberately severed his idea of the exotic from “tropics or coconut trees, the colonies of Negro souls,” or “camels, ships, great waves, scents, spices, or enchanted islands.” His exoticism was not just geographic, but could also be found in the past, or in the future, in sexual relations, and even inside oneself. He was enchanted by the idea of “Bovaryism,” the idea, that is, personified by Madame Bovary, that “every being which conceives of itself necessarily conceives itself to be other than it actually is.”

The exotic, then, as imagined by Segalen, was meant to be a bastion of individualism in a world of mass mediocrity. In this he was a true romantic. Assimilation, whether racial or cultural, would kill individual difference. As a writer, traveler, scholar, and fantasist, Segalen tried his very best to penetrate other cultures and races, and yet to “retain the eternal pleasure of sensing Diversity” he insisted that this had to end in failure. To retain the freedom to “conceive otherwise,” others have to remain impenetrable.


One of the clichés of modern literature, and indeed cinema, is the erotic encounter of a young Western man, usually in search of himself, with a beautiful woman of a different culture or race. The Far East is a favorite location for such encounters. The model is Pierre Loti’s Madame Chrysanthème. Madame Butterfly is a variation on the theme. And so is François Truffaut’s very funny but also very conventional film Domicile conjugale, about a young bourgeois Frenchman who falls in love with a Japanese beauty in Paris. The Frenchman (Jean-Pierre Léaud) is already married to a nice, bourgeois French woman. The kimonoed beauty is an enigma, beautiful but mostly silent. She is more like a vision than a human being. In the end the nice bourgeois Frenchman returns to his nice bourgeois French woman. East and West, never the twain…

In Truffaut’s film, the Franco-Japanese encounter is doomed from the start, because the lovers will never be able to understand each other. Penetration can only take place on a physical, animal level, never in the mind. Segalen would have liked this conceit. But what Truffaut presents as comedy, as a moment of youthful folly, Segalen would treat more seriously. In his perception, there can be no meaningful erotic encounter without mystery. Understanding would spell the death of it. Segalen’s exoticism, in a way, is a constant state of charged erotic frustration. You want to penetrate the other, but can never succeed, for otherwise the attraction, and thus the charge, would vanish. This is true of the enchanted traveler in a strange land, of the poetic scholar of other cultures, and of the lover too.

About the “exoticism of the sexes,” Segalen writes: “This is where all Difference, all incompatibility, all Distance rise up, call for recognition, roar, cry, and weep with either love or frustration.” He is talking here about men and women. But where Segalen gets even more interesting is when he touches upon the delicate matter (more often seen in porno stores than in serious poetry) of turning other cultures or races into a fetish. Segalen’s longing to penetrate China and Polynesia is overtly erotic in his writing. In a letter to his friend, Henri Manceron, he remembers his time in Tahiti: “The whole island came to me like a woman.” Reading this, I remembered something a well-known English expert on China once said to me. Not a shy man in these matters, he was talking about making love to his girlfriend in Hong Kong. It felt, he said, “like fucking China.”

Such feelings are adequately served in pornography, as I said, but rarely in poetry or great art. René Leys is, in my opinion, a great novel. It opens on a note that has become commonplace in postmodern literature, but was utterly fresh in Segalen’s time. The narrator, Segalen himself, begins his diary of events by telling us it is unreliable, and that the truth cannot be known: “I must close, having only just opened it, this journal of which I had hoped to make a book. The book too will never be.” The events described in the diary concern the last days of the Chinese Empire, before the republican revolution in 1911, which Segalen witnessed with dismay. But the novel is really about penetrating China, culturally, politically, metaphysically, and sexually.

The main object of desire, standing in for the mystery of China, is the Forbidden City in Peking, where the Empress Dowager lives with her young son. The Forbidden City is a real, albeit virtually inaccessible place, and a site of mystery and dreams. The narrator meets various people who have some access to the mystery: a dull, pedantic Frenchman who takes on Chinese nationality, an absurd case of attempted assimilation. Then there is Segalen’s tutor, a prosaic Chinese bureaucrat named Wang, who can only describe the Forbidden City and the culture it contains in banal statistics and clichés. His wife, a beautiful Manchu woman, is the object of Segalen’s fantasies of, as it were, fucking China. It is not to be, of course, but the narrator is haunted by the possibilities and impossibilities of an affair: “I want to resolve, even provisionally, this problem: Can a European, and more particularly a Frenchman, red-blooded and nubile, claim full possession of an equally nubile young Manchu, who is officially married to boot, and honor this possession with the word ‘love’…”?

But the main character of the novel is René Leys, the son of a Belgian grocer and a French mother, handsome, young, and gifted with a perfect command of courtly Chinese. It is through Leys that the narrator, in his imagination at any rate, comes closest to unraveling the mysteries of the Chinese court. He accompanies him to brothels and opera performances, where he meets cultivated Chinese nobles, some of whom appear on stage as singers in fantastic costumes. Others turn out to be secret agents. A court eunuch who “spoke too much” is arrested backstage. This is a world of double or triple identities: nothing—and nobody—is what it seems. The Peking opera is the ultimate exotic performance. Leys watches it as a connoisseur. But the narrator, Segalen, is simply enchanted: “I watch, I watch, beside myself.” We try to penetrate other cultures, or other people, to lose ourselves, only to find ourselves more sharply defined in contrast to the others. They also watch the grand Chinese women in the audience, dressed in beautiful silks. But Segalen’s greatest interest is not in them, or the nobles, or the actors on stage, but in René Leys himself, the Scheherazade of the story, who has provided these visions of absolute diversity.

Leys has a shadowy position in the Forbidden City, as a kind of secret police chief who, disguised as a Manchu princess, has penetrated as far as the Empress’s bed-chamber, indeed as far as the Empress herself. Segalen experiences all this vicariously through Leys’s accounts. The language used to describe these often absurd adventures in nocturnal Peking sometimes reads like a parody of Pierre Loti’s flowery prose, a pastiche of the worst Orientalist fancies. Elsewhere, Segalen writes in the breathless manner of a detective story. This is of course deliberate. He plays with various ways of telling stories about China. The novel, which begins with the sentence “I can know no more,” is about mystery, and yet is quite transparent too. Like a puppet player on a Japanese stage, the narrator shows you all the time what he is doing: the China of his tale is a story, and Leys is the puppet through whom the story is told.

The story ends with the fall of the Chinese Empire, which coincides with the death of René Leys. Sun Yat-sen, that “peddler of the Rights of Man,” that “Cantonese flea,” has unleashed his revolution. The mystery is over; the secrets of the Forbidden City are laid bare. Entropy will no doubt set in, and China will become like everywhere else. (If only that had been true, but Segalen did not live to see the rise of Mao, which might have enchanted him as much as it did the Parisian romantics attacked by Simon Leys.) The death of René Leys, however, remains a mystery: Was he poisoned, did he poison himself? Did he even exist outside the imagination of the storyteller? We shall never know, and that is the essence of Segalen’s exoticism. For if we already know, what would be the point of living?

  1. 1

    Various interpretations of Segalen’s death are analyzed with all the apparatus of postmodern theory by Charles Forsdick in his useful book, Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity (Oxford University Press, 2000).

  2. 2

    Oeuvres complètes, edited by Henry Bouillier (Paris: Robert Laffont, 1995), p. 5.

  3. 3

    Quoted in Forsdick, Victor Segalen and the Aesthetics of Diversity, p. 145.

  4. 4

    He has been a frequent contributor to The New York Review.

  5. 5

    The Imitation of Our Lord Don Quixote,” The New York Review, June 11, 1998.