CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
Nos. 30/31, June/September 2012


Going Abroad and Staying Home | China Heritage Quarterly

The View From the Bridge
Aspects of Culture

Pierre Ryckmans

In 1996, Pierre Ryckmans (Simon Leys) presented the ABC Boyer Lectures. Subsequently published under the title The View from the Bridge the lectures have been serialised in China Heritage Quarterly with the permission of the author. Herewith we present the fourth and final lecture: Going Abroad and Staying Home. For the Introduction and the first lecture, Learning, see here. The second lecture, Reading, can be found here; and the third, Writing, can be read here.—The Editor


Dictators and toddlers share a curious characteristic: an inability to use the first person pronoun. They refer to themselves by their own names, in the third person. For instance, instead of saying 'I want an ice-cream', a small child will say: 'Jimmy wants an ice-cream'. Or a great General narrating his victorious campaigns does not write: 'I led my troops into battle' but 'Caesar led his troops into battle'.

As far as infants are concerned, psychologists have observed that the mental process that enables them to progress and eventually to adopt the first person pronoun is directly related to their ability to appreciate the reality of a second person. In other words, a child must first discover you before he becomes able to say I.

This reflects a fundamental truth: without you, I cannot be. It is only after an individual becomes aware of the existence of others as others (distinct from himself), that he discovers his own identity. Self-awareness is the outcome of a perception of 'otherness'. Small children arrive naturally at this realisation at a fairly early age. As to despots and autocrats, since they owe their position to a robust ignorance of other people's existence, there is little chance for them ever to rid themselves of their psycho-linguistic idiosyncrasy—but this is a problem that needs not concern us here.

What is true for individuals equally applies to societies. For instance, when people praise 'multiculturalism' their intention is generally unimpeachable, but their thinking may be somewhat muddled. The very concept of 'multiculturalism' is a pleonasm and a tautology. It is akin to demanding that water be wet. If one could validly speak of promoting a 'multiculture', this would imply the reverse possibility of the existence of a 'monoculture'. Outside the realm of agronomy (where a farmer may indeed devote himself exclusively to the cultivation of carrots, or grow nothing but turnips) the notion of 'monoculture' seems hardly conceivable. In human societies, complete cultural homogeneity, absolute insulation, self-sufficiency, perfect isolation, and total exclusion of all outsiders have always led to the death of civilization. Such a situation corresponds to what may be described as The Easter Island Syndrome. I have commented on it elsewhere, but it might be apposite to invoke this example again:

When modern navigators reached Easter Island, they were confronted with an enigma: what was the meaning of the colossal stone monuments that stood on top of the cliffs? Who had carved these monoliths? By what feats of sophisticated engineering were they erected? Since the local population could not offer the slightest clue to answer these questions, it was assumed that they were late-comers and that the original nation of monument-builders had vanished with its entire civilization. Archaeological and anthropological research eventually solved the riddle: the early settlers had reached the island by accident; at first they maintained their culture and technology, but then, marooned for centuries in complete isolation, deprived of outside contacts, challenges and stimulations, their descendants progressively could no longer muster the energy to cultivate their heavy heritage; eventually they ceased to understand it, and in the end, its very memory was lost. In its lonely and perfectly sterile purity, Easter Island is the perfect example of a 'monoculture'—or if you prefer, the ultimate paradigm of a 'national' culture.

From the beginning, there never was any 'monocultural' society. All societies were 'multicultural' in their formative stage; they achieved original syntheses through the centuries, elaborating systems of values that defined their specific character and ensured their cohesion. For a society to thrive, its system of values should be able to attract a constant inflow of outsiders, and powerful enough to make these newcomers desirous of adopting these values, and determined to preserve them, and transmit them to their own offspring.

Such was, for instance, the great strength of the Roman Empire at its apex, or also of the Chinese Empire in the golden ages of the Han and the Tang—a time when China was so dynamic and self-confident that it could afford to be open and truly cosmopolitan. Popular imagination often associates the great age of China with a picture of the Great Wall, and tourists tend to view this monument as a symbol of China's antiquity and, power. In fact, it can represent neither: it is not very ancient (by Chinese standards, at least) and in Chinese history, it is associated with a phenomenon of decadence and incipient paralysis. A civilization is strong in proportion to its capacity to tolerate within itself what is foreign to itself. Once it loses this bold confidence in the natural resilience of its own values, once it feels a defensive need to surround itself with walls in order to keep the outside world at bay its very survival becomes problematic.

Fig.1 Victor Segalen

For societies as well as for individuals, coming to terms with 'otherness' is a prerequisite for self-knowledge and for growth; it is a spiritual adventure which requires strength and courage. On this subject, instead of discussing abstract ideas, I would prefer to follow the exemplary journey of a modern French poet, Victor Segalen. Segalen felt compelled to go to the other end of the Earth in order to find his own spiritual identity, and I wish to show how his journey, which started as an exploration of the outside world, became a journey of the mind leading to a discovery of the inner self.

Segalen was born in 1878, and died in 1919. You need not feel ashamed of your ignorance if you never heard his name. Although he has now become the object of many biographical and critical studies, until a few years ago, he was still largely unknown even in his native country. The relative obscurity that had long surrounded him was due partly to the fact that he died at the early age of forty-one, having published very little; the main body of his work appeared several years after his death—and is still in the course of publication. More, essentially, I think, by its very nature, his poetic endeavour does not afford an easy access to the common reader, but should prove rewarding for those who make the effort of retracing his spiritual adventure.

Segalen was frail and intense, full of nervous energy and willpower; he was a dreamer and a man of action; an aesthete and an adventurer. In his short life, he managed to combine multiple careers: in turns (or simultaneously), he was a Navy officer, a poet, an anthropologist, a traveller, a Sinologist, a medical doctor, an archaeologist.

Born in a provincial and conservative petit bourgeois family of Brittany, Segalen experienced early the urge to break free from his narrow milieu. He became a Navy doctor, and his first posting took him to French Polynesia. There, for two years, he knew the bliss of being alive and young in Paradise—but that Paradise was already on the verge of being irretrievably destroyed. His Polynesian experience eventuated in a book, Les Immémoriaux, in which he strongly reacted against the fashionable 'colonial' literature of his time. The opposite of the tourist-writers, hunting for picturesque impressions, what mattered for him was (as he himself said): 'Not the impact of the strange land upon the traveller, but the impact of the traveller upon the strange land. What do these people think? How do they feel?'

Then, fortuitous circumstances put him for the first time in contact with the Chinese world—and he realised at once that this was what he had been looking for all along, without knowing it. He arranged for the Navy to send him to Peking, to learn Chinese as a trainee-interpreter. Until his death, China remained for him the great cultural magnet that was to polarize all his creative activity. Besides his language studies, he conducted two long and adventurous archaeological expeditions in the old hinterland of China. His stay in China was finally interrupted by the First World War. Back in Brittany, the nervous strength that had sustained him for so long suddenly collapsed. He was struck with a mysterious exhaustion of his whole being. One day he went for a walk in an old magic forest that is celebrated in Celtic legend—and never came back. A couple of days later, his body was found sitting under a tree; a volume of Shakespeare he had been reading was still open by his side.

While alive, he had only published three books—two of them being slim collections of prose-poems, printed at his own expense in Peking, in a limited number of copies. All his other works were published posthumously.

Paradoxically, his most important book the—key to all his writings—is a book which he never wrote. Through all his career, he pondered over this project which, in his intention, was to be the summing-up of his entire creative activity, and an answer to the central quest of his life. We only have the title of this work: Treatise on Exoticism—and a few observations and preparatory jottings scattered through his notebooks and his correspondence.[1]

In selecting the word exoticism to name his philosophy, Segalen chose deliberately to 'recycle' a notion that had been utterly discredited through years of misuse. He himself explained: 'It might have been wiser to avoid a word fraught with so many pitfalls, negative connotations and disreputable ambiguities. Should I therefore have coined another term, less shocking, less scandalous? No, I have preferred to take the risk, and to retain this word, which is still valid and strong, in spite of the bad use it has been put to lately. By delousing it thoroughly, I might be able to restore its original virtue.' But then, 'A first task will be to clear the ground—to throw overboard all the worn-out and rancid appurtenances still attached to this concept, and to rid it of all its old fittings: pith-helmets, palm trees, camels, etc. But, good God! What a smelly removal!'

The first target in this huge cleanup should be the facile stereotypes of travel literature; the quest for colourful impressions and the post-card collecting are obscene hobbies that can only occupy the 'pimps of exoticism'.

True and genuine exoticism, on the contrary, is built upon an acute perception of difference, of distance, of separateness—it is a wall, a dam which interrupts the flow of consciousness, to raise its level, to intensify its force, and to store up its energy.

'Exotic knowledge', Segalen says, 'is the knowledge of all that is distinct from the self. Exotic power is the power of conceiving otherness—the power to see differently'. One must become attuned to diversity: this capability is stimulated by cultivating inadaptation, singularity, imagination, dream and desire. Conversely, it is threatened or extinguished by habit, proximity, adaptation, possession, satiety and—worst of all—by in-creeping homogeneity. Homogeneity is a hideous state of terminal blandness—all particularities and distinctions lose their sharp edges, become blurred, and merge into one huge viscous and tepid un-differenciation. Ominously, there may lie the future fate of mankind—a future already foretold by the present decay of ethnographic diversity.

'Exoticism', Segalen pursues, 'is not the perfect comprehension of what is distinct from ourselves; it is an acute and immediate perception of its permanent incomprehensibility. Let us not pretend that we can assimilate customs, races, nations—the others; on the contrary, let us rejoice in our inability ever to achieve, such an assimilation, this very inability is a guarantee that we shall continue to enjoy diversity forever.'

The crudest and most shallow form of exoticism is found in travel. But Segalen does not forget that his own quest began with what he came later on to view as a 'childish' approach; after all, by his entire formation, he himself was still an intellectual product of the nineteenth century, an age that was deeply imbued with the myth that travel can transform the human soul. Countless illustrations of this belief can be found in the novels of Balzac and Dickens, for instance, where we see some characters reappearing after long absences in faraway lands: sunburnt and bearded, they are hardly recognizable: distance has endowed them with a new life.

This naive faith in the transforming power of travel actually persisted well into our own century. For example, between the two World Wars, the great scientist and philosopher Teilhard de Chardin, having gone to fetch a friend at the railway station in Peking, observed the travellers debarking from the Trans-Mongolian express, and was memorably surprised to discover that the crossing of the vast grasslands and deserts of Central Asia had not left any visible imprint upon the banal faces of these businessmen, shopkeepers, tourists and stockbrokers. He noted in his diary:

Mingling in this crowd of tourists, I had a shock: I realised that Distance does not transform, does not enrich… . Nothing in that train distinguished those who arrived from Mongolia from those who merely came from their hotel in Peking. Probably, he who returns from afar, may be able—thanks to a revelation from spatial distance—to reach a superior zone of the spirit (initiation). But this is not a direct result of his travelling. An explorer without capacity for thought may effect the most amazing journey—yet, on returning to his starting point, he finds himself back to zero.

At about the same time as Teilhard, Somerset Maugham registered a similar puzzlement during one of his Asian journeys, he had come across a man who had travelled into remote and mysterious regions where he had met with the most extraordinary adventures—and yet the fellow—without being stupid or uneducated—was incurably boring and insipid. 'When I met him', Maugham wrote, 'I sought to discern how the variety of his experience had affected him; but though he was full of anecdote, a jovial friendly creature, willing to talk at length of all he had seen, I could not discover that any of his adventures had intimately touched him… . The oddities of life amused him. He had an insatiable curiosity. But I think his experiences were merely of the body and were never translated into experiences of the soul. Perhaps that is why, at the bottom, he was commonplace… . That was certainly why, with so much to write about, he wrote tediously, for in writing, the important thing is less richness of material than richness of personality.'[2]

Today, of course, the situation has become much worse. As a child you may have dreamed in front of a planisphere—but now are there any more magic names to be found on a world map? Busloads of tourists, planeloads of dentists, solicitors and greengrocers on holiday have desecrated them all. To measure the extent of the disaster, you need not even bother to interview some inarticulate astronaut just back from the Moon, it is enough to rub elbows for five minutes in the crowd of any big international airport, and you will rediscover a truth which the Classics already knew two thousand years ago: 'Caelum non animum mutant qui trans mare currunt' ('They change their sky, not their soul, who run across the sea': Horace).

Nevertheless, in his time, Segalen had relished the bracing joy of travel—but he came also to measure its limits. It was in China that he received a decisive revelation. In contrast with his early Polynesian feast of the senses, he found the Chinese experience dreary and austere in many respects—but its impact was radical: 'This huge continent, supremely "exotic", helped me: it shattered my original exoticism and enabled me to reach a perception of universal "otherness" ' —for China is simply the other pole of the human experiment: China is the essential 'other' without the knowledge of which the West would not be able to perceive the outline and the limits of its own self.

This enlarged conception of 'exoticism'—an exoticism as inexhaustible as life itself, which Segalen intuitively perceived in China—seemed to contain the only chance of salvation from the ubiquitous menace of entropy. Entropy is the name which is given in Physics to the phenomenon resulting from the Law of constant loss of energy. The concept has been borrowed by anthropologists to describe the progressive degradation of ethnographic diversity in the modern world. Segalen, in particular, repeatedly pondered the ominous question: is exoticism not necessarily fated to decay and to vanish?

He observed that

The exotic space was doomed from the moment the Earth had ceased to be flat. The first journey around the world must have been a most disenchanting experience. Lucky Magellan! He died before returning home. But his pilot simply fulfilled his task without suspecting the new dreadful reality: from now on, distance was finite. It is at that time that tourism began: the Earth had been reduced to a mere ball.

Tourism is a dismal perversion of travel: its very success is destroying its purpose—its original object was to provide change, but it is effected in conditions that preclude any genuine possibility of change.

On a much deeper level, the menace of entropy is inscribed in the natural development of culture. Culture (as it was observed earlier) is a product of diversity; it feeds on differences, it grows through exchanges. It is because cultures are different, that their meeting can be fecund. Yet, when exchanges are successful, they naturally lead to increasing uniformity. The benefit which cultures derive from these exchanges is in direct proportion to the qualitative distance that originally separated them. But the very success of the exchange results in reducing the distance: in the end there is nothing to exchange, for there is no more distance—the differences have disappeared. This is the perspective

which now confronts our modern world: is the culture of mankind not going to sink progressively in the smooth blandness of homogeneity? Aren't we sliding into the deadly slumber of universal entropy?

Segalen put his ultimate hope in the irreducible otherness of the individual. He listed among his projects a study of the exoticism of the sexes: the otherness of woman for man, and of man for woman—and he outlined the criticism of a mistaken form of feminism—the feminism which, instead of fighting inequalities, endeavours to suppress differences.

Essentially, however, he envisioned that exoticism would reach its fullness in 'any thinking person, who facing himself, discovers his own otherness, and rejoices in his own diversity'.

Therefore, the ultimate exoticism should be found in a return to the starting point—not the return of a tourist who has turned all around our Earth-ball, but the return of a true traveller, who progressively transformed a journey to the other end of the world, into a discovery of the inner self.

To understand this notion, the best image could perhaps be provided by Chesterton's tale, in which an English yachtsman miscalculates his navigation, gets lost, and finally discovers England—believing that he has landed in a South Seas island.

On a more serious mood, the same idea inspired T.S. Eliot's verses:

We shall not cease from exploration
And the end of all our exploring
Will be to arrive where we started
And to know the place for the first time.[3]

* * *

Should this be the end of my survey? I am nearly home now—but not yet there. One final topic seems to be still missing, which could have found its natural place at the end of this series: Dying. I pondered some time over the suitability of introducing it here. Two objections immediately came to my mind—one was final: these reflections are all drawing to some extent from personal experience, and since (at least, at the time of writing) I am not dead, it would be impertinent (in both senses of the word) to pontificate now on this subject.

The other objection was not as persuasive as might have first appeared: Can dying be considered as an aspect of culture? In fact, the answer is: Yes, very much so, I should think. Some time ago, The Jerusalem Post published a review of The Oxford Book of Death; the reviewer criticised the editor, as he felt that Jews were grossly under-represented in this work, and he explained his position: 'Gentiles die too, of course, but Jews do it more often.'[4] I think the same observation—in a way—could be validly extended to all the people who are blessed (or cursed) with some measure of culture and imagination.

Whether we will behave well in the face of death is not the question I had in mind—for this is an issue that does not depend upon our culture, but upon our courage, and courage is not the ability to overcome fear, but merely the ability to hide it. As regards overcoming fear, this is a matter that largely escapes our control: at times we can, and at other times we cannot. Bravery is essentially a product of circumstances, which can be fickle and even frivolous; when coming to the crucial juncture, whether one is unprepared or duly forewarned, blissfully unaware, or on an empty stomach, or happily drunk, can make the whole difference that separates a brave man from a coward.

Zhuang Zi saw death as a coming home. He said: 'When I fear death, how do I know if I am not simply like a man who, having left home when he was a child, forgot his way back?'[5]

The very idea of return has something in it that is richly comforting, and mysteriously fulfilling. In poetry, and more particularly in music, the return—in the form of a recurrent theme—is always a most harmonious and satisfying structure. The good life has often been compared to what is called in French, a rondeau—a form of song that ends up exactly as it began. It may therefore be also fitting for these reflections to follow that same pattern. Since my introduction started in the garden of a philosopher-friend, let me conclude in a similar setting—only this time I shall call upon a friend from four hundred years ago—Montaigne, to whom the final word should now belong:

May death find me as I am working in my cabbage patch, indifferent to its coming, and even more indifferent to the imperfection of my garden.[6]


[1] These notes were collected and posthumously edited and published (with an Introduction) by Gilles Manceron: Victor Segalen: Essai sur l'exotisme, Fata Morgana 1978: Le Livre de Poche, Paris, 1986. All subsequent quotes from Segalen are drawn from this book.

[2] Somerset Maugham, On a Chinese Screen, Jonathan Cape, London, 1927, 'The Rolling Stone', p.20.

[3] Four Quartets, 'Little Gidding', V.

[4] Quoted by D.J. Enright: Interplay, Oxford University Press, Oxford, 1995, p.219.

[5] Zhuang Zi, chapter 2 'On Making All Things Equal'.

[6] Montaigne: Essais, I, 20: 'Je veux que la mort me trouve, plantant mes choux, mais nonchalant d'elle, et encore plus de mon jardin imparfait.'