Essay on Exoticism

Of Exoticism as an Aesthetics of Diversity.

by / 31 October 2023

Excerpt from V. Segalen, Essay on Exoticism: an Aesthetics of Diversity, tr. eng. Y. R. Schlick, Duke University Press, 2002 [original copyright held by éditions Fata Morgana, whom we thank for their kind permission: V. Segalen, Essai sur l’exotisme: Une esthétique du divers, 1978]

It was in the span of his short life, at the beginning of the 20th Century, that Victor Segalen nominated exoticism “as the candidate best suited to protect contemporary life from the relentless banality wrought by the transformation of capitalism into mass-society imperialism and colonialism”1. The dreadful feeling of a secret sacrifice that civilization were performing, and an alleged solution to that conspiracy. What is the Other, stripped of all projections and of all objectifying tendencies? What do “I” owe to the Other, what does the Other ask? In the visionary attempt to discover the world as the place of an irresolvable extraneity and impenetrability, Segalen anticipates some of the poststructuralist themes and perspectives of the second half of the last century.


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….2 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).3

(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.4 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.5 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.6 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 free- dom 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.

I. Individualism

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 curi- ous 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.’’)7

II. 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?8 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.

III. Exoticism of Plants and Animals

The distance here is not as great. The flavor is fainter, but the quality of the sensation is more oblique and disquieting. (And all the more disquieting because it is closer to us in the scale of things. A rock is never alarming unless it begins to move or becomes animated. A tree is only frightening when it plays at being a ghost.)

IV. The Exoticism of Human Kinds

This exoticism is almost of a similar nature, though literarily it is the only one which is recognized. (Let us immediately aban- don the illusory difference between sages and madmen. There is no Exoticism in considering those deprived of their reason: we discover ourselves so well in them!)

Its innumerable prostitutions. Its various stages: the ‘‘Travel Account,’’ the ‘‘Traveler’s Impressions.’’


At another level: the direct representation of exotic material as conveyed through form (see project of exotic prose).

VI. The Impenetrability of Races

This is nothing other than the extension of the impenetrability of Individuals to the impenetrability of races. The treason of language and of languages.

VII. The Exoticism of Moralities

Moral shocks. The great dramas and beautiful agonies of races which ensue from this.


Of the perfecting of Travel and of the threats to the survival of the flavor of exoticism which follow from Travel.

Thus understood as an integral part of the play of human intelligence, the sensation of Diversity has nothing to fear from the likes of Cook Travel Agencies, ocean liners, airplanes….

Perhaps some balance will be established whereby the constant intermingling of individuals will be redeemed by the small number of individuals who will retain the capacity to feel Diversity. (See Louis Bertrand’s article in the Revue des Deux Mondes.)9

IX. The Exoticism of Race

Extra-terrestrial Exoticism.
The Worlds of Martians and others.
[In the margin] Exoticism of the sexes. This is where all Difference, all incompatibility, all Distance rise up, call for recognition, roar, cry, and weep with either love or frustration. This is akin to the madness Lovers feel when they desire, through some miraculous force, to merge with each other in a way that is as excessive as the Yogi’s desire to merge with the Brahma.


Para-sensory Exoticism: that is to say, the creation of a world different from our own by its selection of a particular sense as the predominant one (a sonorous world,10 an olfactory world, etc.) or by its differing Spatial properties: four-dimensional Space.


The Exoticism in Time. Going back: history. An escape from the contemptible and petty present. The elsewheres and the by-gone days.


The future to come.


Finally, the chosen notion and mode of seeing the world which surrounds us, the subject’s attitude toward the object having more than fully embraced all thought, the conscious being (by way of the Hindu mechanism) finds himself face to face with his own self.

(After discussing universal Exoticism, we arrive at an essential Exoticism. I am obviously proceeding straight from Jules de Gaultier’s thought.)

But even then, the conscious being knows that in conceiving of himself he cannot but conceive of himself as other than he is. — And he rejoices in his Diversity.11

  1. V. Segalen, Essay on Exoticism: an Aesthetics of Diversity, tr. eng. Y. R. Schlick, Duke University Press, 2002, Foreword by H. Harootinian, p. vii
  2. Paul Bonnetain (1858–99) was a travel writer and novelist who published various works based on his travels to the Far East. These include Au Tonkin (1885), L’Extrême Orient (1887), and Amours nomades (1888). Jean Ajalbert (1863–1947) wrote similar travel sketches, among them Sous le sabre (1898), Paysages de femmes (1887), Sur le vif (1886), and L’Auvergne (1897). Their writings are likely the kind of impressionistic works Segalen is frequently critical of in Essay on Exoticism.
  3. H. Oldenberg was a professor at the University of Kiel, Germany. The second edition of his work, Le Bouddha, was translated from the German and published in France in 1894. It is a general overview of the Buddha’s life, doctrine, and disciples. Segalen was probably also familiar with Oldenberg’s La Religion du Véda, which was published in a French translation in 1903.
  4. Charles de Secondat, Baron de Montesquieu (1689–1755) was a political philosopher and novelist best known for his epistolary novel Les lettres Persanes (1721) and for L’Esprit des lois (1748), a lengthy treatise on the general principles and historical origins of laws.
  5. Jules de Gaultier (1858–1942) is the author of Le Bovarysme. He was an important popularizer of German thought (especially of Nietzsche’s) in France in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.
  6. René Quinton (1867–1925) was a French physiologist. He is best known for his work L’Eau de mer, milieu organique, where he reveals a similarity between plasma and sea water, and draws some therapeutic applications from this discovery. Quinton plasma—sea water that is sterilized and diluted with distilled water in such a way as to approximate human plasma—bears his name. Segalen, who was trained as a doctor, was interested in both the medical and philosophical aspects of Quinton’s work. [French Edition]
  7. This passage from Clouard is added in the margins of the text, no doubt after he read Henri Clouard’s article, ‘‘Maurice de Guérin et le sentiment de la nature,’’ which was published in the Mercure de France on 1 January 1909. [French Edition] It is discussed further in the letter to Jeanne Perdriel-Vaissière, dated 7 January 1909 and in the entry dated January or February 1909.
  8. ‘‘Veda,’’ the Sanskrit word for knowledge, is the name given to the four sacred texts of the Hindus: the Rigveda, the Samaveda, the Yajurveda, and the Atharvaveda. They are understood to have been revealed to humans by the divinities and to contain all divine knowledge.
  9. Louis Bertrand published several articles in the Revue des Deux Mondes at about the time of this entry, but Victor Segalen is surely referring to the one titled ‘‘Le Mirage Oriental’’ in the 15 September 1908 issue: 353–75. In this article, Bertrand expresses sentiments similar to those of Segalen: he criticizes skewed and superficial visions of the Orient, especially the use of the Orient (by Westerners) as no more than ‘‘local color’’ or ‘‘scenic backdrop.’’ For these tendencies, he blames both past literary accounts of the Orient (specifically Victor Hugo’s Les Orientales) and contemporary modes of travel. The latter, by providing comfort and displacement with ease and rapidity, prevents travelers from coming into contact with the realities of their destinations. They become passive viewers who satisfy themselves with picturesque scenes. He ends the article by recommending a way of traveling capable of correcting this stunted vision of the Western traveler. A sequel article by Bertrand, published in the same journal on 1 November 1908: 139–72, continues and somewhat extends the argument of the first installment. 
  10. Segalen’s short story, ‘‘Dans un monde sonor,’’ explores just such an idea: it tells the story of a man who lives solely in a world of sound. The story was first published in the Mercure de France on 16 August 1907.
  11. The phrase ‘‘[a]nd he rejoices in his Diversity’’ comes from Jules de Gaultier’s Le Bovarysme. It is quoted twice more in this work, notably at the very end of Essay on Exoticism.

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