Essay on Exoticism
An Aesthetics of Diversity

By Victor Segalen
Translated by Yaël Rachel Schlick
Edited by Yaël Rachel Schlick


Copyright © 2002 Duke University Press.
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 0-8223-2822-4


Chronology: Victor Segalen (1878-1919)...............................7
Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity......................11
Other Works by Victor Segalen Available in English..................89
Selected Critical Works on Victor Segalen in English................91


Chronology: Victor Segalen

1878 Victor Joseph Ambroise Désiré Segalen is born on 14 January in Brest, his parents' first son. His family is middle class and Catholic. A sister, Jeanne, is born in 1883.
1888 Segalen attends a Jesuit school where discipline is very strict. There he meets Henry Manceron and Max Prat, who are to be his life-long friends.
1893-98 Having passed both his baccalaureate exam and his entrance exam for medical school, Segalen begins his studies at the Ecole de Santé Navale in Bordeaux.
1901 For his thesis, Segalen decides to write about neurotics in contemporary literature. In the course of its preparation in Paris, he meets several important scientists and novelists. Among them are Max Nordau, Huysmans, and Remy de Gourmont, the last of whom introduces him to a circle of writers associated with the Mercure de France journal. A portion of his thesis is published in the Mercure de France the following year under the title "Les Synesthésies et l'école symboliste."
1902-4 In October, after an internship at the maritime hospital in Toulon, Segalen leaves for Tahiti aboard La Durance. Falling ill in San Francisco (where he has the opportunity to visit Chinatown) delays his arrival in Tahiti until 23 January 1903. In Tahiti, Segalen becomes interested in the work of Paul Gauguin, who dies in May 1903. He visits the island of Hiva-Oa in August, where he meets those who knew Gauguin and visits Gauguin's house. His article about the artist, "Gauguin dans son dernier décor," is published in the Mercure de France in June 1904. It is during this year that Segalen first makes note of his desire to "write a book on exoticism," and his first entry, dated October 1904, clearly reflects the strong impression which his experiences in Tahiti, and especially his belated "encounter" with Gauguin, made upon him. His next entry will not be until June 1908, just prior to his departure for China.
1905 Due to a stop in Djibouti upon leaving Tahiti for France in January 1905, Segalen interviews the Rhigas brothers about the writer Arthur Rimbaud whom they knew, and he subsequently begins a study of Rimbaud. "Le Double Rimbaud" is published in the Mercure de France in April 1906. During this time, Segalen is also working on what will be his first published novel, Les Immémoriaux. He arrives back in France on 4 February 1905.
1905-6 During a leave, he meets and courts Yvonne Hébert, the daughter of a doctor from Brest. They marry in June. Their first son, Yvon, is born on 15 April 1906.
1906 At this time, Segalen meets two men who will have a strong influence on him: Claude Debussy, to whom he proposes a collaboration, and Jules de Gaultier, a philosopher and author of works on German thinkers such as Kant, Nietzsche, and Schopenhauer.
1907 "Dans un monde sonore," a story about an individual who lives solely in a world of sound, appears in the Mercure de France in August. In September, Segalen's first major work, Les Immémoriaux, is published. It tells of the decline of Maori civilization as a consequence of its first contact with Europeans in the first half of the nineteenth century. The title of the work refers to those who have forgotten their customs, their gods, and their traditional knowledge—in short, to those who have forgotten their own past by adopting European values and customs. Both of these texts are published under the pseudonym Max Anély.
1908-10 Segalen contemplates an assignment in the Far East, in preparation for which he begins to study Chinese at the Ecole de Langues Orientales in Paris. He leaves for China in 1909 as a student-interpreter. His goal while in China is to improve his Chinese. His arrival in Beijing in June 1909 is quickly followed by a major expedition to central China which he undertakes with his friend Auguste Gilbert de Voisins. Segalen's wife joins him in February 1910, and the family journeys to Beijing via Shanghai, arriving in the Chinese capital at the end of March. As part of a French delegation, Segalen is admitted to see the Emperor. (This visit is transformed into an important episode in the novel René Leys, wherein the protagonist is allowed an exceptional peek into the Forbidden City).
1911-12 Segalen moves from Beijing to Tientsin in 1911 to take up a position as professor at the Imperial Medical College. His second child, Annie, is born in August 1912 Segalen's second major work, a collection of prose poems inspired by Chinese steles and titled Stèles, is printed in the same month in Beidang. This first edition contains forty-eight poems. Sixteen new prose poems are published in the Mercure de France the following year, and these are included in a second, definitive edition of Stèles, printed in 1914. Stèles is dedicated to Paul Claudel, the author of Connaissance de l'Est.
1913-14 In July, Segalen returns to France, where he is successful in raising funds from the French government for an archaeological and topographical expedition in China. A second son, Ronan, is born in November 1913, just as Segalen is beginning preparations for the expedition with Gilbert de Voisins and a naval officer, Jean Lartigue. But the expedition, which begins in February 1914, is soon interrupted by the outbreak of World War I. The three men return to France, where Segalen is assigned to work at the hospital in Brest.
1915-16 After being sent to fight in Belgium in May 1915, Segalen falls ill with acute gastritis and returns to take up administrative duties at the hospital in Brest. Peintures, a work whose premise is a narrator's commentary on a series of imaginary Chinese paintings, is published in June 1916.
1917-19 In January 1917, Segalen returns to China as part of a military mission to recruit Chinese laborers for work in French munitions factories. He returns to France in March 1918, taking up his position in Brest after medical training in Paris during May, June, and July. In January 1919 he is hospitalized in the psychiatric ward of the Val-de-Grâce hospital in Paris and subsequently departs for two months of convalescence in Algeria with his wife. On May 21 he leaves for a walk in the woods at Huelgoat, east of Brest. When he does not return, a search party recovers his body, finding evidence of a fatal accident. He had likely fainted from a hemorrhage caused by a deep cut near his ankle and not regained consciousness.

Essay on Exoticism

An Aesthetics of Diversity


    Write a book on exoticism. Bernardin de Saint-Pierre—Chateaubriand—Marco Polo, the initiator—Loti.

    Include the fewest number of quotations possible.

    Argument: Parallelism between stepping back in time (Historicism) and moving out in space (Exoticism).

    Study each of the senses and its relation to exoticism: sight, the sky. Hearing: exotic melodies. Smell above all. No taste or touch.

    Sexual Exoticism.

    Sight. The painters of exoticism. The painter-novelist (Fromentin). Gauguin.

    The sensation of exoticism: surprise. Rapidly dulled.

    Exoticism is willingly "tropical." Coconut trees and torrid skies.

    Not much Arctic exoticism.

    Geology. See Pontfilly's book.

9 JUNE 1908.


From the very heart of the matter.

"I imagined that things were speaking"

    It is important that I set down my various views on future exoticism—or even past exoticism—in an orderly series of pages, like prose poems, as clear and as rhythmic as possible.... But consisting of what? Some traveler's "impressions" perhaps? No, not that! Loti already provides these by the score. Saint-Pol, too, would have excelled at this genre had he followed the usual trajectory. And Paul Claudel has done for a small portion of the Far East what, in my youth, I had thought to do for Tahiti: cast a new vision upon it, using a symbolist form. But spontaneously I ended up doing something quite different. And, out of personal necessity, this latter tack must be my point of departure in order to return, as we shall see, to this vision.

    So, not Loti, nor Saint-Pol-Roux, nor Claudel. Something else! Something different from what they have done! A true stroke of inspiration must be simple ... and, to begin, why actually should I not simply take the opposing view from those views I am defending myself against? Why not strive to counter-prove their findings? They expressed what they saw, what they felt in the presence of unexpected things and people from which and from whom they sought to experience a shock. Did they reveal what those things and those people themselves thought and what they thought of them? For there is perhaps another shock, from the traveler to the object of his gaze, which rebounds and makes what he sees vibrate. Will not his very intervention—at times so inopportune and venturesome (especially in venerable, quiet, and enclosed spaces)—disturb the equilibrium established centuries ago? Will he not, by reason of his attitude—whether hostile or meditative—arouse mistrust or attraction? ... I attempted to express all that, the effect that the traveler has on the living milieu rather than the milieu's effect on the traveler, when I wrote about the Maori race. Here precisely, I am led back to my own preoccupation. Why not do the same thing later 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.

    —Yes, no doubt Kipling accomplished this for the Beasts of the Jungle who gaze upon the Little Man and, to some extent, also for the Ship and the Locomotive (though the sense of exoticism was no longer present there). But here my exoticism to the second degree is a matter of stubborn bias, because it is initially obscure and latent and extended outward toward "things," in sum, to the "external world," to the Object in its entirety. This exoticism to the second degree makes up the essential core of my own stance ever since I have systematized it in this way.... In doing so, I will perhaps be able to create a terrain where I feel completely at home, where I will be able to send forth, in the form of short, dense, and nonsymbolic prose pieces the very inverse (so close and so fitting on the front of the page) of my own vision. Upon a ladder of steps made of artifice and skill, would not the highest rung be to express one's vision by an instantaneous, continuous translation that would echo one's presence rather than blurt it out bluntly?

    Absolute subjectivism, however, is indisputably the only possible metaphysical stance to assume. Any visible transformation has to do only with the method one chooses.... That is to say, the form one employs, form being that artificial and miraculous thing that is art's reason for being. So, complete aesthetic justification.

17 AUGUST 1908.


    Begin with the sensation of Exoticism, at once a solid and elusive ground. Brusquely remove all that is banal from this sensation—coconut trees, camels—and move on to its gorgeous flavor. Do not try to describe it but rather to suggest it to those who are capable of savoring it with rapture....

    Then take up what follows ... in a series of well-defined Essays. Few quotations. This is not literary criticism.

    Then, little by little, extend the notion of Exoticism, like the notion of Bovarysm (Hindu method), to include:

    —the other sex. Animals (but not madmen in whom we discover ourselves so well!);

    —history. Past or Future. The frantic passing of the Petty Present;

    —Everything. Universal Exoticism. The ability to conceive otherwise.

    Contrast this with the flavor of Individualism. Turn it into a great moving force. A source of nourishment. A vision of beauty.

The Sensation of Exoticism


    Definition of the prefix Exo in the most general sense possible. Everything that lies "outside" the sum total of our current, conscious everyday events, everything that does not belong to our usual "Mental Tonality."

So, Exoticism in  {
In Time { Past:
Historical Exoticism, chronicles above all.
Does not exist by definition.
Imaginary Exoticism: Wells, for example. His mechanism: the dissociation of ideas, and their subsequent reassociation with a peculiar state of mind. Examine the question of "the Future."
in {
Wells, his prediction of the future.

    In Space: The only one I will develop.


    Return to the Sensation of Exoticism. My whole study of Exoticism will only be concerned with sensations treated as something like irreducible entities. I will therefore examine:

I. The sensation of Exoticism of Space in our era, and in our contemporary minds, according to the following plan:

a) Etiology. Cause: failure to adapt to the surroundings.

b) Development. Its ephemeral nature, disappearing with adaptation to the surroundings.

c) The use it can be put to in:

The Plastic Arts
Literature { Firsthand

    The disturbances of this sensation. Its absence = Déjà Vu. Its development through the ages—to our own age and beyond.


    The position conveyed in this rhythmic, dense, measured, and sonnet-like prose cannot be that of the I who feels ... but, on the contrary, of the call of the milieu to the traveler, of the Exotic to the Exot who penetrates it, attacks it, reawakens it, and agitates it. The familiar "tu" will dominate.

    This procedure must be measured, almost rhythmic (like a poetic form: ballad or rondel, or sonnet—to be determined).

Excerpt from a letter to Max Prat,
written in Paris on 10 December 1908.

    I am now renumbering the various facets of my life; which is, alas, more complicated than that of Maître Jacques. 1) Orpheus—take it up again once Debussy has delivered his new symphonic poem, that is, around 20 December. 2) China — of the everyday. 3) A short story about Oceania called La Marche du feu. I may give it freely to Marius-Ary Leblond. Together with other short stories by Pierre Mille (Africa), Randau (Algeria), Leblond (Madagascar), Nau (the West Indies), and Bertrand (Tunisia), it will make up a book called Les Exotiques, which will be published by Calmann-Lévy. As the Soirées de Médan did for naturalism, this work will reveal the existence, not so much of a school or a group but of a sincere and fecund exotic moment. Preface—to be examined. I accepted this proposition only for its beneficial effects for my writing and for perfecting my views on exoticism, having initially rebelled against the invitation to submit my story. Despite myself, however, the proposition triggered my imagination and my story emerged in three hours. I will not hold it back in three months' time.


Of Exoticism as an Aesthetics of Diversity.
Introduction: The idea of exoticism. Diversity.

    Clear the field first of all. Throw overboard everything misused or rancid contained in the word exoticism. Strip it of all its cheap finery: palm tree and camel; tropical helmet; black skins and yellow sun; and, at the same time, get rid of all those who used it with an inane loquaciousness. My study will not be about the Bonnetains or Ajalberts of this world, nor about programs offered by travel agents like Cook, nor about hurried and verbose travelers.... What a Herculean task this nauseating sweeping out will be!

    Then, strip the word exoticism of its exclusively tropical, exclusively geographic meaning. Exoticism does not only exist in space, but is equally dependent on time.

    From there, move rapidly to the task of defining and laying out the sensation of Exoticism, which is nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one's self; and Exoticism's power is nothing other than the ability to conceive otherwise.

    Having arrived at this progressive contraction of a notion which was so vast in appearance that it seemed initially to include the World and All Worlds; having stripped it of its innumerable scoriae, flaws, stains, fermenting organisms, and molds that such continued use by so many mouths, so many prostituting tourist hands have left it with; having at last taken hold of this notion with a state of mind that is both clear and alive, let us give it the opportunity to restore its solidity, and to develop freely and joyously without hindrance and yet without excessive encouragement, like a purified seed; it will seize all the sensory and intelligible riches that it meets in its process of growth, and, being filled with all these riches, it will revitalize and beautify everything.

    This play of thought is no other than the kind of thinking freely to infinity of Hindu thought. The Hindus think, and immediately a particular principle tends to become a universal (see Oldenberg. Le Bouddha).

    (For fear of betraying myself, this essay must leave no gaps and must forget nothing. I should not be content with "provoking thought," as Montesquieu puts it in reverse. I must exhaust my subject so that nothing else can be said about the sensation of Diversity which does not already exist in potential form here.

    Right away, metaphysical analogies present themselves and must be classified, incorporated, or discarded: Schopenhauer's law of Representation that every object presupposes a subject. Jules de Gaultier's law of Bovarysm, that every being which conceives of itself necessarily conceives itself to be other than it actually is. Can it be a question of law here? Here is a fact: I conceive otherwise, and, immediately, the vision is enticing. All of exoticism lies herein.)

    Quinton told me that all truth can be found in nature, that in nature we will find that truth which we possess in ourselves. Darwin, an Englishman, discovered a truth of Struggle and Strain. Quinton, a Frenchman, is now moving despite himself toward the idea of a moral instinct.

    Now, there are born travelers or exots in the world. They are the ones who will recognize, beneath the cold and dry veneer of words and phrases, those unforgettable transports which arise from the kind of moments I have been speaking of: the moment of Exoticism. Without contravening the two aforementioned and formidable laws, which constrain the universal being, exots will attest to the fact that this notion which we have put forth puts the very flavor of the interplay of these laws into relief: the rapture of the subject conceiving its object, recognizing its own difference from itself, sensing Diversity. And, surely, nothing more will be created. But I hope that for them the flavor will be greater and more deeply rooted than before, and that the freedom of this interplay will be beyond measure. It is for them that I write.

    Then will follow a series of Essays, which, in accordance with this spontaneous "development" of ideas, will proceed from the idea of Diversity.



    Only those who have a strong individuality can sense Difference.

    In accordance with the law which says that every thinking subject presupposes an object, we must assert that the notion of Difference immediately implies a personal point of departure.

    Only those with a strong individuality can fully appreciate the wonderful sensation of feeling both what they are and what they are not.

    Exoticism is therefore not that kaleidoscopic vision of the tourist or of the mediocre spectator, but the forceful and curious reaction to a shock felt by someone of strong individuality in response to some object whose distance from oneself he alone can perceive and savor. (The sensations of Exoticism and Individualism are complementary).

    Exoticism is therefore 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.

    Let us proceed from this admission of impenetrability. Let us not flatter ourselves for assimilating the customs, races, nations, and others who differ from us. On the contrary, let us rejoice in our inability ever to do so, for we thus retain the eternal pleasure of sensing Diversity. (This may lead to the following question: if we increase our ability to perceive Diversity, will we enrich or impoverish ourselves? Will this rob us of something or endow us with something greater? The answer is clear: it will infinitely enrich us with the whole Universe. Clouard expressed this well when he said: "One can see that this naturalism implies neither our debasement nor dispersion, nor nature's superiority at the expense of human personality. It represents the growing influence of our minds upon the world.")


The Exoticism of Nature

    And this is our first experience of exoticism. The external world is that which immediately differentiates itself from us. Let us not dwell on those old debates regarding the reality of things. Oh! What does it matter! if they rouse us? For the feeling for nature only came into existence when man began to conceive of nature as different from himself.

    For a long time man animated nature with his own breath. He ascribed his own passions and gestures to it. Can we say that the Vedas truly grasped nature? No! They animated nature according to the interplay of their own desires. We know to what extent the Greeks ignored nature. We pretend that savages largely ignored it. The sense of a non-anthropomorphic nature, of a nature that is blind, eternal, and immense, a nature that is not superhuman but ex-human and from which all humanity-strangely!—is derived—this sense of nature's exoticism only emerged from the understanding of the forces and laws of nature. These were so remote from human laws and forces that man ran, distraught, to the other end of the world, where he recognized two worlds: the physical world, and the mental world.


Excerpted from Essay on Exoticism by Victor Segalen. Copyright © 2002 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.