Tuesday, October 23, 2012

"Essay on Exoticism: An Aesthetics of Diversity" Victor Segalen


Exoticism and Diversity are for Segalen, not merely ways of experiencing the Orient, or the Exotic, but a philosophical stance on the nature of the Self and its relationship to the world around it, and its relationship to itself.

Segalen starts with two fundamental laws on the back of which he proposes his ideas:

Law 1: (Schopenhauer's Law of Representation) Every object presupposes a subject.
Law 2: (Jules De Gaultier's Law of Bovaryism) Every being which conceives of itself necessarily conceives itself to be other than it actually is.

The Exot is someone who is aware of the acute difference between himself and the other, between subject and object, and between his true nature, and his view of his own nature. This Segalen calls 'Diversity'.

Exoticism's power is nothing other than the power to conceive otherwise. ... I conceive otherwise, and immediately the vision is enticing. All of Exoticism lies herein.

The rapture of the subject conceiving its object, recognizing its own difference from itself, sensing Diversity.

The subject perceives the object, then is aware of diversity within the object. This awareness then reflects back on the subject leading to an awareness of the subject's own Diversity. There are therefore two movements: one out from the subject towards the object (going forth, the journey into the strange) one back from the object to the subject (the return to the homeland); both object and subject undergo a transformation: the feeling, the sensation of Diversity.

On a spherical surface, to leave one point is already to begin to draw closer to it!

The Exot arrives at a feeling of Diversity through observation of surroundings which are uncommon, to which he is unaccustomed. The importance of travel to far flung places: Exoticism includes the colonial adventure but is not restricted to it. It's the Exot's acute awareness of the difference between a new self in these uncommon surroundings –Oriental, African, Exotic- and the habitual self in habitual surroundings (what Gide calls the Epoch, the Homeland) that causes an awareness of Diversity. The Exot therefore has an awareness of his own strong individuality, and the extent to which this is impermeable by the outside.

Diversity is not contrast. It is subtle gradations. It is not green versus red, but hundreds of subtle shades of green, or hundreds of subtle shades of red.

The Exotic is not the Colonial or the Oriental merely, although this is a starting point, but the outside generally, the ex.

Types of Exoticism:
Exoticism of Nature
Exoticism of Plants and Animals
Exoticism of Human Kinds
Impenetrability of Races
Exoticism of Moralities
Exoticism of Race
Exoticism of Sexes
Exoticism of the Divine
Exoticism of the Future and the Past

The Exotic is not only spatial, but also temporal.

Is matter diverse or homogenous?

Exoticism and Diversity are ways to counteract the growing influence of modernity: market capitalism, mass tourism, feminism, democracy, which impose their own homogeneity on everything, what Segalen calls the Kingdom of the Lukewarm, the beige paste of entropy, a viscous mush.  The world tends inexorably towards maximum entropy. An aesthetics of Diversity is one way to counteract this movement. An aesthetics of Diversity will allow a sense of distance, a sense of mystery to remain in a more and more uniforming world.

Exoticism and Diversity represent the force of individuality in a world contaminated by the herd. The difference between the tourist and the traveller.

The decline of Exoticism thus understood.

The human:
Man is the measure of all things: but this leads to disappointment: humility is the acceptance of disappointment
The superhuman:
An expansion of the human, a quickening, not yet Diversity, but a movement towards it
The inhuman:
What is other than the human

..All things counter, original, spare, strange;
Whatever is fickle, freckled (who knows how?)
With swift, slow; sweet, sour; adazzle, dim;...

Gerard Manley Hopkins
Pied Beauty 1918

Unity can only represent itself to itself through diversity.

Jules De Gaultier
Des fondements de l'incertitude en matiere d'opinion 1896

Men are not born equal, nor are they born brothers. The lion does not lie down with the tiger, or the crow nest with the swallow. The world is created in a diversity of phenomena and each phenomenon has its own diversity. Between mankind there may be common truth and justice and common wisdom to lead to amity. But between men there are divisions and love cannot be felt truly except by like and like. Between like and unlike there can only be tolerance and absence of enmity – which is not at all the same thing as friendship. Perhaps the truth of this is most apparent to the Hindu who is born to understand and accept this concept of diversity.

Paul Scott
The Day of the Scorpion 1968

'No, not yet,' and the sky said, 'No, not there.'

E.M. Forster
A Passage to India 1924

Segalen has been accused of anti-feminism and elitism, and it's true, he does lay himself open to those charges. But one should see his ideas as an extreme manifestation of the Aesthete's art-for-art's-sake, as an early 20th century development of Baudelaire's dandy, of the extreme individualism of Decadence and Symbolism, as an incarnation within a Western context of the Dao.

Segalen's Essay offers a way out of the homogeneity implicit in the mass consumerism of global marketing –the obscenity of a Starbucks in the Forbidden City, for example - as well as the sentimental political correctness of our current age ("Deep down, aren't we all the same?"), its sheer parochialism, which purports to be blind to essential differences, but in doing so assimilates these differences, an assimilation which is nothing less than the exercise of the power to decide which differences should be ignored and which should not, and the power to impose the result of that decision on to others.

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 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.

The Essay is underpinned by two complementary gestures: the gesture towards futurity, and the palinode.

First, the gesture of pure potentiality. The Essay does not exist. Not only is it unfinished but it only exists in note forms, in fragments written over a 14 year period in various different notebooks, on random scraps of paper, in letters, and collated for the first time after Segalen's early death. These scraps project a potential, future Essay. The discourse is everywhere characterised by future tenses, by imperatives, by notes to the self of what the Essay will be like, should be like. Write a book on Exoticism, the text begins. Begin with the sensation of Exoticism...As for my project... it is to be an Essay on Exoticism, an Aesthetics of Diversity. ...I will surely write that Essay on Exoticism, an Aesthetics of Diversity.

(In this the Essay resembles Dostoevsky's Legend of the Grand Inquisitor, which also does not exist except as a precis, a summary of a work that Ivan hopes to write one day.)

Second, the palinode, which is a gesture of retraction. In 1902 Segalen published an article in the Mercure de France: Les Synesthesies et l'Ecole symboliste. If synesthesia represents a blurring of the senses and the arts – a drive towards homogeneity – then the Exotic represents the opposite movement – a drive towards differentiation, Diversity. Segalen conceived his Essay on Exoticism as a palinode to the essay on synesthesia: Palinode of my synesthesias.

But, how can one retract what is already written? To write is to preserve indelibly. The palinode does not erase, it only complements, contrasts, argues. The original statement and its retraction exist side by side. The palinode is a kind of failure, because its desire to retract, to erase can never be fulfilled. Language cannot erase, it cannot retract: Segalen calls this the treason of language. The palinodial is represented in the text by the desire to empty his vocabulary of previous associations: Throw overboard everything mis-used 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....'Exoticism' is now so bloated that it is about to explode, to burst, to empty itself of its contents. ...After giving it a thorough delousing I wanted to try to restore to it –along with its initial value – all the primacy it once possessed.... I want first to cleanse that word: inhumanity, that is cruelty, crudeness, the contrary of humanity understood as goodness...

The Essay shares with all of Segalen's masterpieces a playful attitude to the paradox of simultaneous being and not-being: it exists and yet it does not. Segalen notes that the first part of his non-existent Essay will deal with negation, of describing what it is not: I must remove from the word 'Diversity' and especially from the word 'Exotic' all the too-positive notions with which they were laden up to now. I must vacate the premises and then dust them off in order to attempt not the filling up of the wineskin,... but the puncturing of the wineskin itself, so that no one will speak of it again. 

There's also a certain irony in the fact that everywhere Segalen reminds himself, admonishes himself, not to use quotations from previous writers, and then quotes extensively from de Gaultier, de Guerin, Clouard, Quinton, Claudel and Gide. The text is a Mosaic of bits.

Allied to these gestures is the notion of chance, or rather the French concept of par hasard, with its resonances of the hazard of chance. It is as a result of chance –or is it?-  that the Essay takes the form that it does because Segalen died before he could put his scraps and notations into a final, more fixed form. But, if he had lived longer, would he have done so, would he have made a final arrangement? Or would he have left it as an open text like this, a Mosaic? This is a much more attractive idea because, in its present form, the text frustrates a linear reading: it categorically refuses any kind of development. Sentences which appear later in the book are quoted in earlier parts, stumping causality and the notion of an ordered sequence of ideas. For Segalen, philosophy was about the play of ideas, not the ideas themselves, which were often merely derivative. As it stands now incomplete, fragmentary, the form of the text mirrors perfectly the play of ideas.

Form is that artificial and miraculous thing that is art's reason for being.

The ordering principle – such as it is - of the text in its current form seems to be based on a remark of de Gaultier – whose spirit hangs over the whole endeavour, it must be said-, to the effect that the wise man knows his principle of certainty is nothing more than an initial desire for something, which is then developed; that a belief is nothing more than an unrestrained enthusiasm for something: his desire is the centre of the universe. Segalen is aware that his principle of certainty - Exoticism and Diversity- is based on his enthusiasm for seeing the world as he does, for seeing its Diversity. To order the ideas, to place the fragments into some final order, to develop them, would be to impose a homogeneity on them. The lesson to be learned is not known in advance, and because of this, the reader must be left free to orient her own way through the text according to her own desires, recreating or repeating the process Segalen himself went through in writing it: It is in order to be able to determine its true state in the world with certainty that I present and attempt to link my thoughts in this particular way. I will then be free to allow my desire to orient the answer.  All of this is a manifestation of Daoism, which refutes an ordering of the things of the world.

See the world, then put forth one's vision of the world.

Par hasard, this 2002 English edition of the Essay, published by Duke University Press, has the first two pages missing, and also pages 16 and 17, which are just blank empty pages. However, the footnotes at the back refer to things outside the book but which have their origin on these blank pages, origins which can not be known (except by reference to another edition), but which can only be guessed at or pieced together from the matter the footnotes refer to. Perhaps this is the only form of retraction possible: the misprint, the blank page. I can't help feeling that Segalen would have seen in this example of what he calls creative error the ultimate palinode.

And he rejoices in his diversity.

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