Monday, November 05, 2007

Stéles bt Victor Segalen, trans. And ed. Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, Wesleyan University Press, 2007. Review by Bert Stern

Stéles bt Victor Segalen, trans. And ed. Timothy Billings and Christopher Bush, Wesleyan University Press, 2007. $34.95, paper, ISBN 0-8195-6832-5.

Review by Bert Stern, PhD.

There’s something so grand and powerfully willed about the spiritual/aesthetic project of Victor Segalen (1878-1919) that it can be described only as it describes itself. The impulse of Segalen’s short life and prolific work was to uncover the spirit of the Other, or, more exactly, of the space that separates two different mind-systems. The context of the project was the “Romantic” assumption that science, commerce and industry and the colonial system, along with Philistinism and propaganda, were rapidly homogenizing the world.

Segalen brought to his project an enormous range of developed talents: he was a French naval medical officer; twice librettist and co-composer of two operas by Debussy (significantly on the subjects of Orpheus and Siddhartha), neither of which was completed; a Sinologist who, after scarcely having set foot on Chinese soil, set off on an archaeological expedition that discovered what was at the time the oldest piece of carved stone identified in modern archives. Segalen published articles in areas like Chinese porcelain and Chinese carved stones that changed the nature of these disciplines. His work on aesthetic theory has become a founding document for academic thinking about Otherness (Segalen’s term, “l’Exotique.”)

Segalen also published several novels, two of them available in English though one out of print. A book of his called Paintings, which I haven’t seen, was published, like much of his work, posthumously. His archaeological writings won the attention of Levy-Strauss himself, and today, though belatedly, his work has gained much national appreciation in France, though there remain important letters that are still unpublished. Stèles, the book I’m reviewing was published for the first time seven years before Segalen’s mysterious, untimely death. Today, the book is a national classic, taught in French schools.

Speaking about “the Other” can quickly lead to mystifications, which I will try to avoid. Everyone is familiar with Yins and Yangs, but it’s harder to take in that our own tribal way of looking at the world is but one of any number of tribal ways. By tribal ways I mean here the whole system of assumptions about reality that form our outer world into the familiar shapes we are used to.

Segalen was no friend of democracy, on the ground that it was just another homogenizing process. But he was a great friend of “diversity,” which for him meant giving the Other its due, aspiring to think the Other rather than describe it. To know the other was to be its subject, not the other way around, as our knowing apparatus ordinarily arranges epistemological events.

Segalen spent a good part of his life studying and reflecting on Chinese language and culture, and published both a novel and this collection of poems that probe toward the hidden centers of Chinese thinking and acting. In the semi-autobiographical novel, René Leys, a narrator called “Victor” recounts his relations with his young Chinese tutor, a Belgian who has won the favor of the Forbidden City, even so far as to have luxuriated in the arms of the Dowager Empress, Tsu Hsi, though she’d have to have been quite old and scary at the time. Victor, who himself wants more than anything to be brought closer to the secret world he imagines as contained behind the walls of the Forbidden City, persistently pries into his friend’s mind, begging for stories of his adventures and penetrations. Among other things, Leys is the head of the palace secret police, and he carries on love affairs with slaves given to him by the emperor and with near-mistresses from among the wives of highest Ming families. Ley is finally poisoned by enemies, as the narrator had forewarned him might happen.

After Ley’s death, Victor, the narrator, reflecting on that final sequence, sees Leys in an entirely new light. Everything Leys reported was the result of something that Victor had put into his head. Although nothing is sure, Leys seems to have imaginarily played out for the narrator the narrator’s own fantasies about the mysteries of the Forbidden City. Perhaps none of what he reports has actually happened. The upshot is that in the end the narrator is as far away from true knowledge as he was in the beginning.

I could say that this is where Segalen wants us, or, at least wants himself. For him, exoticism was marked by the perception of Diversity and the knowledge that something is other than one’s self.” Exoticism is the act of the conscious being who, in conceiving of himself, can only do so as “other than he is.” What he wants to know can’t be gained through external, appropriating knowledge, which is merely another form of colonialism. Segalen’s method, true to Romantic practice, requires the undoing of subject/object relationships.

There are aspects of René Leys that are jejeune, and sometimes the action rises no higher than two young men talking out their sexual fantasies, fantasies that one of them claims to have made real. But, although an erotic element is present in Stèles too, it is only one aspect of a perfectly serious subject, which I’ll pose as a question: Once we have invested all our resources of mind and spirit to understand l’Exotique, in this case, the ancient Mandarin mind at its richest and wittiest, playing with cultural and historical allusions as if they were pretty butterflies, to be moved here and there so as to make a slightly new arrangement – after we have done all that, do we understand anything at all? And in that very non-understanding may we not find the subject we seek, now that we have released it from the position of subject?

A beautiful fact about all this is that the subject-object of these poems is the steles themselves, large hexagonal stones not quite 20 centuries old, half sunken back into the earth but still carrying, in inscribed epigraphs in their upper right hand corner, the edict or proclamation or piece of wisdom once inscribed on them, in a script just barely legible to the present.

The new Wesleyan University Press edition of Stèles mirrors some of Segalen’s own careful bookmaking. Segalen gave much thought to the script in which to print the epigraphs, to the blend of Chinese and Korean papers that balanced the delicacy and strength he was after, and to other such ‘details.” He intended this to be a realized book, not just in its letters but in its very presence.

Wesleyan has made remarkable efforts to present that book – for one, an en face facsimile of the French text – so as to invoke the original edition. As the same time, though the poems have strong appeal even to a reader ignorant of their background, admiration deepens with greater knowledge. The book preface and forward by the translators and by the scholar Haun Saussy help the reader move closer and thus to better experience the energy of Segalen’s project. So do rich footnotes and précis of individual poems. Notes follow the poems, and there are also helpful précis. To make full use of the volume requires some heavy lifting, but the rewards are great. With the help of the editorial apparatus, even the reader with no knowledge of Chinese language and culture can feel some appreciation of Segalen’s adroit and deep mastery. (Interestedly, Segalen professed to have no interest in the Chinese, only in China.)

Segalen’s poems are alternatively petitions to stone or the recording of monitions by stone. Yet the monitions themselves, vestigial imperial decrees, tend to deconstruct themselves. The opening poem, for example, entitled “With No Reign Mark,” declares itself uninterested in honoring “renowned Sages” enumerating “the Just,” or repeating “on all sides that such a man / lived, & was notable, and his countenance virtuous.” Instead, the speaking stone is “Attentive to what has not been said, subject to / what has not been promulgated, prostrate / before what has not yet come to be.” Often as here, the English is dignified and grave, carrying authority. The voice concentrates “my joy & my life & my piety to / declaring reigns without years, dynasties / without accessions, names without people, people without names.”

The poems can also be impish, as in the one in which a Chinese mind looks with polite irony Christian legend (the Holy Ghost is rendered in this way: “The newborn even / fond itself adopted b a bird that cradled / him with one wing & fanned him with the other”; or with a naked eye at the cruel practices of warrior tribes. Some of the poems are courtly, and suggest an amatory relationship with an invisible other capable who is evasive if not outright treacherous. Along these lines it would be possible to reconstruct a tale of a similar kind as that of Shakespeare’s sonnets.

Often, as with medieval English lyrics, Segalen’s amatory poems can be understood in either secular or spiritual terms, though in his case the veiled feminine is not, say, the Blessed Virgin, or the Shekinah, or Buddhism’s Blue Tara, but, still more simply and mysteriously, the face of the other itself. “To please her,” one of the poems says, “I have lived my life.”

Segalen groups these poems around the four directions, plus the wayside and the middle as “directions.” Some of the poems of the wayside are indeed advice to spiritual travelers, but they rest on uneasy, gossamer foundations: “Beware of choosing a refuge. Do not believe in / the virtue of a virtue that lasts: break it / with some strong spice that burns and bites / & gives a taste even to blandness.”

There are strong resemblances between the state Segalen’s steles evoke and the Buddha mind: in both, there is to be experienced “the intoxicating eddies of the great river Diversity,” once we have relinquished our customary point of view.

To a reader who complained that he’d have to spend the rest of his life in order to read Finnegans Wake, James Joyce replied, ‘Why not, I’ve spent most of my life writing it.” Segalen worked faster, but, then, he had less time. He leaves us with a book of poems that open onto the wellsprings of the imagination. He points the way to a new that stays new, once we have the courage to abandon our orientation.

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