Journey to the Land of the Real — Reviews

The Times Literary Supplement, 16.6.2017.

Hyperallergic website


A Philosopher’s Journey to the Real

In Journey to the Land of the Real we get a glimpse of the utter foreignness that Victor Segalen experienced in China over a century ago.

Matt Turner

Victor Segalen was a doctor with the French army who was stationed in Qing and Republican Beijing, following a period of imperialist expansion by France and other nations. Unlike his looting compatriots, he developed a deep fascination with China and the concept he called, as early as 1912, “otherness.” This fascination led him to write a collection of prose poems imitating the form and rhetoric of Chinese steles, as well as a novel set in Beijing, in which a protagonist resembling Segalen investigates intrigue at the Forbidden City. It also led to a number of archaeological expeditions and monographs: Segalen was an amateur enthusiast who pioneered the field, even helping to locate the site of the Qin emperor’s tomb and the Terracotta Warriors. He achieved all of this in the scant six years he lived in Beijing, during which he divided his attentions between his imaginative work and what he calls the “Real” — the brute facts of the world as it is.

Journey to the Land of the Real is a journal of sorts that Segalen wrote while on his Tibet expedition in 1912. In it we get a glimpse of the utter foreignness that Segalen experienced in China over a century ago, when the tone of foreign communiques had only recently turned away from religious zealotry, and China had just a year earlier transferred centuries of autarchic minority rule to the corrupt, democratic Republic of China. The foreignness of Tibet in particular — then a separate country just released from near-suzerain status — provided Segalen with occasion to quest after the experience of radical difference, which is at the core of his inquiry; he sought to contrast imperial ambition, the levelling of cultures in the name of accessibility, and the projection of the self onto the other — all of which he opposed — with an image of alien difference.

Segalen’s project is fundamentally philosophical, in his belief that a foreign Real only exists outside of, and in distinction to, an individual “Imagination.” Whereas the Imagination constitutes personal hopes and perceptions projected onto the outside world, the Real can be seen as a corrective — especially at a moment in history when a Western imperialist Imagination was often imposed by force and  corresponded neither with China as a real place nor the imaginations of individual Chinese. Segalen writes,

[I]s the Imagination weakened or reinforced when it comes face to face with the Real? Does the Real not have its own appeal and joy? … Both the law of the exotic and its formulation — a kind of aesthetics of difference — must free themselves from the real, stark clash between climates and races. Following suit, through the everyday fact of being on the road the conflict between these two worlds will appear quite clear cut: between what one thinks and what one collides with, between what one dreams and what one does, between what one desires and what one obtains […]

Segalen approaches China’s various cultures through archaeological research based in scientific and historical facts, yet he is aware that his self-image is constituted largely by his imagination. As a response, he exposes himself to the Real as experiment — to see what happens when his expectations collide with the apparent reality of the people he encounters. Sometimes nothing happens, as when he arrives at a Himalayan foothill village populated by descendants of Wu Sangui, the Ming dynasty general who allied with the Qing dynasty in order to defeat the interregnum Shun dynasty. Residents of the village continue on as if no time had passed. They believe the Ming still reign, and are curious about their current emperor. Segalen reflects,

Obviously I cannot answer. The Great Ming dynasty and its city no longer exist, were wiped out long ago — three hundred years before. I cannot upset them so dreadfully. I cannot tell them the Nomads of the north now reign in Peking, an affront they would not believe possible.

Here, Segalen records the dreamlike experience of finding a rupture in what he sees as the Real: the villagers’ misapprehensions about their ruler mark the intrusion of the Imagination and he cannot bring himself to intervene in what he deems as the villagers’ contradiction of Imagination and Real. Instead, he suspends a “clash of climates and differences” by acknowledging necessary fictions.

In a similar scenario, Segalen encounters what he describes as the image of his younger self among the villagers when his expedition party stops in a mountain village. He feels great tenderness and tries to speak to his “younger self,” but his younger self neither recognizes nor responds to him. Whether this encounter is purely a figment of Segalen’s imagination, or there was an actual villager bearing a striking resemblance to him, it is significant that he describes it as “when the Other came to [him].” What comes to Segalen is a subject that cannot be divided neatly into an “other” and a “self” — or, put another way, the exterior “real” and the interior “imaginary.” This is what he calls the “exotic”:

But it must be understood that Difference, which is what we are talking about here, is fundamental. The exoticism is not the kind suggested by a word that has been so frequently prostituted. Exoticism is everything that is Other. To take one’s pleasure from it is to learn to savour Difference.

Segalen’s exotic Other diverges from what we today commonly identify with the term “Orientalism.” Rather than preserving a people as a specimen of cultural otherness or entertaining the myth of a true, unitary self, he prefers a position that is radically alien to to Western ideals of Cartesian selfhood. For Segalen, the “I” that constitutes the self can be either preserved or dislocated. By preserving it we (specifically Westerners) uphold a fiction of unquestioned identity and, by extension, cultural supremacy. His tone is not celebratory, but grimly realistic: as long as one pits one person or culture against another, imperialism and exploitation will result. To break this cycle, one must pit oneself against oneself.

Segalen asks us to “savour Difference,” but he is actually talking about self-fashioning. He believes that if we put ourselves in alien situations, we can experience an “exotic” state. By this, he does not mean a colonialist mythology of an unreflective “native potency” that can be recovered. He means that we can undermine our assumptions about ourselves. He writes about himself as he would like us to write about ourselves. Segalen examines how the whole — the concept of self, most importantly, but also those of nation, culture and ethnicity — are constructions. He observes from all sides, thus no side dominates. If no side dominates, it is because they are fictions.

Journey to the Land of the Real by Victor Segalen (2017) is published by Atlas Press.

First Things website, November 2017.


David Bentley Hart

Journey to the Land of the Real: a translation of Equipée by Victor Segalen

Translated by Natasha Lehrer

Atlas Press, 136 pages.

The death of Victor Segalen (January 14, 1878–May 21, 1919) was perhaps an enviable one. This is not to say that it was not also tragic: He was still quite young, and his demise came unexpectedly for his family, and by an agonizingly trivial mischance. But I tend to be something of a fatalist in regard to the lifespans of artists (the great ones, at least). Mozart was divinely destined to die young, an impossible prodigy appearing and vanishing like a flash of lightning crossing the heavens, while it was ordained from everlasting that Haydn should enjoy a serene longevity in which to unfold his genius; Keats grown old would have been a drastic error of taste on the part of providence, while it was absolutely necessary that Wordsworth begin as a “lyrical” radical but end up a withered Tory sage penning sonorous banalities. And I suspect that Segalen, having reached early middle age, was already putting a strain on the short, bright length of thread Lachesis had allotted him.

All the evidence suggests that his health was rapidly fading; one way or another, his days were coming to an end. And it was somehow fitting. For most of his life, he had been a living tempest of wildly diverse accomplishments, haunting inspirations, gnomic insights, and startlingly original ideas, but his was definitely a young man’s genius, sustained by spiritual restlessness. With age, he might have succumbed to the temptation to elucidate, to dispel the enigmas and clarify the inchoate intuitions, to produce a system rather than give free expression to his natural creative ferment, and that would have been a great pity. It is everything unfinished, evocative, and frustratingly suggestive in his writings that makes them uniquely fascinating. Anyway, by the time of his death he had probably already achieved as much as he might reasonably have hoped: He had been a certified naval physician, an explorer, a poet, a novelist, an essayist, an ethnographer, a linguist, a sinologist, an aesthetic theorist, and a few other things besides. And he had produced a body of work of indelible novelty and brilliance. Borges, for instance, believed him a far more important figure in French letters than any of his more celebrated near contemporaries, and credited him with having invented an entirely new approach to aesthetic experience, reconciling (without merging) the traditions of Asia and Europe. He had nothing left to do.

And, frankly, even though Segalen would probably not have chosen to die at forty-one, he almost certainly would have delighted in the sheer mysteriousness of his death, and especially in the uncanny way in which it seemed to bind his life together in a closed circle. He died east of Brest, deep in the woodlands of Huelgoat, a place that had been a frequent retreat when he was a child and where his imagination had first begun to float free from its moorings in ordinary life. In his final days, he had been using opium in increasing quantities to alleviate a number of ailments, and had been suffering from fainting spells for some months. One day he failed to come home from a long walk. His corpse was later discovered in the forest, resting against a tree as if he were sleeping, pale but apparently quite at peace. Flies had begun to gather at his eyes and the corners of his mouth. At his side was a complete edition of Shakespeare, bound in blue Moroccan leather, opened to a page of Hamlet. He had apparently bled to death from a deep laceration in one of his ankles, which he had probably gashed on a stone or root (though at least one old acquaintance suspected he might have made the incision himself). If I could add an apocryphal detail to the record here (as Segalen himself might have done), I would claim that his forefinger was resting on the lines “The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveller returns . . .” A bit of an obvious conceit, perhaps, but, in a sense, he had spent much of his life in search of an undiscovered country, and had wandered the globe looking for it; and yet, if he ever truly found it, it was there that day, in the quiet of the woodlands he had known from childhood, near the place of his birth.

Segalen had always been fairly devoted to his native province. He had even amputated the acute accent from his surname—he had been born Victor Joseph Ambroise Désiré Ségalen—to make it more authentically Breton. Though almost everything concrete that formed him as an artist and “thinker” was acquired elsewhere, during his extended journeys around the earth, arguably the only true spiritual home he ever knew was the countryside outside Brest, where he had enjoyed an almost idyllic early childhood before being sent in 1888 to a nearby Jesuit school. But from an early age, something else within him was urging him to venture out into the world of the unknown.

After taking his baccalaureate in 1893, he had to leave the region in any event, in order to attend the naval medical academy in Bordeaux. There, in 1901, he wrote a thesis on the portrayal of neurosis in the literature of his day, part of which he published the next year as a treatise on synesthesia in Symbolist writings. This soon brought him into contact with the editors of Mercure de France and with a literary set that included such figures as Max Nordau, Remy de Gourmont, and Joris-Karl Huysmans. The prospect of a literary career now opened before him. But it was not enough. And so his true “career” as a wanderer began the following year, when he decided to set sail for Tahiti, but it was no sooner begun than it was dangerously interrupted. Segalen contracted typhoid fever en route and was obliged to disembark in San Francisco, where he survived only by submitting to a long, careful convalescence. It was a near brush with death, but a very fortunate one. It was there that he had his first revelation of China, in the displaced, distilled, concentrated, and fabulous form of Chinatown, and his sensibility expanded to take in what would become perhaps its most vital element.

When at last he did reach Tahiti, Segalen became by default a kind of executor of the estate (such as it was) of Paul Gauguin, who had died just two months earlier, and in the process he became deeply absorbed in the study of Gauguin’s life and work. He even purchased one of Gauguin’s final finished canvases, Breton Village in the Snow, for a mere seven francs. (The auctioneer had displayed it upside down and offered it as a picture of Niagara Falls.) For nearly three years he lived in Polynesia, where he witnessed and deplored the slow, inexorable destruction of Maori culture before the advances of colonial “progress.” Then, early in 1905, he made a brief visit to Djibouti, arriving not long after the death of Arthur Rimbaud, with whose legacy he soon established the same sort of accidental curatorship he had done with Gauguin’s.

That February, he returned to France. He seemed ready now to assume the trappings of bourgeois life and to resume his fledgling literary career. He married, and his first son was born. He struck up friendships with Jules de Gaultier and Claude Debussy, and wrote a strange and lovely libretto for the latter—Orphée-Roi—which sadly was never set to music. He produced studies of Gauguin and Rimbaud, and even a treatise on cyclones in the Pacific regions. And in 1907 he published his first short story, in the pages of Mercure, and finished his first novel, Les Immémoriaux, which dealt principally with the plight of the Maoris under colonial rule. But, again, the settled life proved impossible for him. That serendipitous delay in San Francisco had inspired his imagination with an appetite that the comforts of a life of letters in the French countryside could not satisfy. In 1908 he went to Paris to pursue serious studies of Chinese, written and spoken, and the following year he left for China and joined an expedition into that country’s central territories.

Rather than return home at expedition’s end, he stayed on, and in February of 1910 he summoned his family to join him. The three of them then traveled by way of Shanghai to Beijing, where Segalen somehow attached himself to the French delegation and, in his official capacity, was even granted an audience with the emperor. Then, in 1911, he managed to secure a position for himself at the Imperial Medical College in Tientsin, and there his daughter was born the following year. It was in these years that his greatest phase as an artist began. In 1912, he finished a lovely book of Odes and published (in Beidang) the first version of Stèles, a magnificent cycle of forty-eight poems written in the “genre” of imperial proclamations supposedly graven on stone steles on the empire’s frontiers. Composed in Chinese and French, Stèles is a book without poetic precedent: mysterious, cold, at once spare and gravely gorgeous. Dispassionate, impersonal, remote, monumental, it somehow summons up, without describing, an entire fantastic world of deserts, mountains, palaces, and always more distant horizons.

Segalen added sixteen more poems to the cycle in 1913, publishing them in Mercure, and then released the complete version of the book in the definitive edition of 1914. He also, during the same period, composed his brilliant novel René Leys, which would not be published in his lifetime: an altogether mesmerizing, often disorienting meditation on the shifting boundaries between reality and fantasy, built around a deceptively simple story about a Western visitor to Beijing seeking to learn the mysteries of the Forbidden City from an unreliable but magnetic “expert” in palace affairs.

By then, reluctantly, Segalen was back in France, having returned in 1913 in time for his second son to be born on Breton soil. He had no sooner arrived home, however, than he began raising money for another Chinese adventure, this time an archaeological expedition and topographical survey in the hinterlands between Beijing and the Tibetan border, which set out from the capital in February of 1914. It resulted in at least one significant discovery: On March 6, Segalen discovered and identified what remains the oldest specimen of statuary ever found in China, a decayed ancient sculpture of a warhorse trampling down a foreign invader. But the trip had scarcely begun before it was curtailed by the outbreak of the Great War, and Segalen was obliged to return to France to resume his duties as a military physician in a hospital in Brest. He was sent to the Belgian front for a brief period in 1915–1916, but soon contracted some kind of debilitating ailment and was sent home again. This was probably the first sign of an infirmity that would wear upon him the rest of his life.

Despite both war and illness, in June of 1916 he managed to publish another book, Peintures, a series of glitteringly fragmented descriptions of fictional Chinese paintings. It is a remarkable work and, again, one without any literary precedent. Somehow it almost succeeds, as it flows along, in fashioning its own inner world of aesthetic experiences. And then in 1917, even before the war had ended, Segalen contrived to have himself sent on another Chinese expedition, this time ostensibly to recruit native labor for French munitions factories. This would be his last visit to China, and many of the changes he observed taking place there, such as the democratic reforms of Sun Yat-sen, displeased him mightily; to him, these abrupt alterations of an immemorially ancient society seemed like nothing but further instances of the “colonial” and “capitalistic” homogenization of a world under the dominance of Western finance.

He did not have long to lament what he saw, however. He was recalled to Brest in March 1918, and at that point, something—whether psychological or physiological is unclear—was broken in him. He was working away diligently at yet another long poem, Thibet, which even in unfinished form probably deserves to be ranked among his masterpieces. But he seemed to be reaching some limit within himself, just as the war was drawing to a close. His near constant use of opium and his fainting spells began. In January 1919, he was hospitalized in a psychiatric ward, and was then sent to Algeria to convalesce for two months with his wife as company. Whether this had any salutary effect is impossible to say, but it seems unlikely. In his journal he recorded that, though he was suffering from no illness that could be diagnosed, his body was failing him, and that he had abandoned any hope of remedies: “Je constate simplement que la vie s’éloigne de moi” (“I note simply that life is moving away from me”). Soon after his return home, he was dead. Very little of his work had been published at that point; most of it had to wait decades to be discovered and issued in print in France. For a long time, he was forgotten by all but a very discerning few.

One of those unpublished works, Équipée: de Pékin aux marches thibétaines (Expedition: From Peking to the Tibetan Frontier)—or Journey to the Land of the Real, in Natasha Lehrer’s luminous new translation—is putatively a short account of the abortive archaeological and topographical expedition of 1914. In reality, it is a combination of recollection and invention, as Segalen freely admits. It is a strange, oddly absorbing book in its own right, but one whose larger meaning is fairly obscure if it is not read in light of Segalen’s aesthetics of “difference” or “diversity” or (to use his favored term) “exoticism.” He was perhaps the first French cultural theorist to speak of cultural and aesthetic difference as an absolute value in itself, almost a kind of transcendental, dependent on neither some more original unity of human experience nor some ultimate synthesis of distinct cultures in a higher “speculative” truth. He was not a champion, like certain later French theorists, of a kind of relativist or “perspectival” celebration of a merely abstract difference as such, since this effectively reduces all concrete cultural diversity to just so many diverse instances of a single “truth.” He did not pretend or aspire to occupy some vantage above or outside the play of cultural diversity, appreciating difference merely as a disembodied ideal. What he most prized in the encounter with cultural otherness was the brute shock of the impregnable, the mysterious surfeit of experience over expectation in those moments when one encounters the reality of a phenomenon that will not submit to dissolution into the familiar.

This made him something of a reactionary in respect to modern pieties about social progress. While he had no patience for race theory, for instance, he did believe in the inviolable uniqueness of distinct peoples, and of their separate imaginative atmospheres, and he was cordially hostile to anything that might dilute it—especially the homogenizing forces of Western imperialism, trade, and social democracy. This led to the rather curious situation that his anxiety to preserve traditional cultures against Western dominance was inseparable from a choleric distrust of any narrowing of class differences within those cultures, or of any broad social ameliorations at all. He did not like to see class divisions erased.

Similarly, while he probably held women in general in somewhat higher esteem than he did men, he objected to any and every modern tendency that might lessen the distance or diminish the mystery separating the sexes. Women, he believed, should remain at once emotionally open and jealously enigmatic, spontaneously caring and cunningly selfish, forthrightly submissive and subtly indomitable, while men should remain essentially simple in their ruthlessness or their generosity, their impulse to command and their willingness to sacrifice themselves in perfect obedience to what they love or imagine. Each sex should remain unfathomable to the other, and no assault upon social and moral conventions must be allowed to endanger the precious iridescent veil of that mystery. For him, hierarchy was necessary as the only effective alternative to mediocrity.

Happily, Segalen’s art transcends the more suspect features of his philosophy, and in the end, his sympathy for other peoples and persons is more pronounced in his work than is his animosity to their social advancement. And if nothing else, he was at least consistent in his convictions as far as his own national station was concerned. He was as free of aristocratic pretensions as he was of any feigned solidarity with the peasantry, and, far from wishing to be Chinese, he was as anxious to preserve the impenetrable otherness of China against any personal impulse to “go native” as he was against any sociological or political attempt at cultural synthesis. For him, the animating principle of exoticism was the appreciation of irreducible distinctions, over against the mass global culture of capitalist vulgarity. And the heart of the exoticist sensibility is the recognition that, within a world of genuine differences, the picture of reality that one particular people might cherish can never be more than a set of arbitrary conventions, which should not be imposed on other peoples. Thus the exoticist is ideally also a militant fantasist, freely indulging in the exploration of other frames of reality, other worlds even, and ultimately of that ineffable, intangible, but alluring “Elsewhere” known only to dreamers and poets, which is a place lying only in the past or the future or some other time altogether. Above all, a true aesthetics of the diverse demands that we not resent that which we find utterly incomprehensible in foreign culture, but instead allow ourselves to be drawn to the foreign by its very refusal to divulge its secrets. This is no sentimental romanticism of the charmingly unusual or quaintly peculiar in other cultures. It is, rather, an austere and principled rejection of the search for analogies by which to reduce other peoples to amusingly defective shadows of ourselves, as well as a fierce and unrelenting willingness to expose the self to what it cannot surmount, and by which it may even find itself shattered, so that in the salutary violence of that encounter the self might awaken to its own indefinable separateness and perilous fragility.

For Segalen, moreover, this enigmatic allure of unspoiled otherness was positively erotic, in the most innocent and necessarily chaste of senses: It was the unattainability of the object of one’s fascination that made the desire for it so exquisite. He adored the impenetrability of cultural difference as a kind of invincible purity, something that could only be lost the moment it was actually possessed, in the way a Provençal troubadour ideally adored the unapproachable beauty and intact honor of the highborn lady of his ballades. Hence his insistence upon the aesthetics of distance—of that interval of separation that cannot be traversed without destroying what one does not understand. He was convinced that, whenever we transform the strange into another version of the familiar, we make the familiar itself vacuous and undifferentiated. His dread of finding the whole world conformed to the image of the modern West was also a dread of the disappointment of an encounter with “the Real” in which the self finds only itself once more, for this would mean that the self is no more than a ghost, a banality, a cipher: just one more instance of an endlessly reiterated pleonasm. When, though, one has known the truly different in its irreducible otherness, even if only for a moment, one is transported out of oneself. This in fact was, for him, the true purpose of the expedition he undertook in 1914—this ineffable and always unique instant of surprise: “Before I began to think about the results, I experienced both shock and an immediate sense of beauty that is, for those who have known it, unassailable.”

It is within the embrace of this aesthetics of difference that Journey to the Land of the Real pursues its impossible object. For Segalen, we always approach the realm of the Real out of the realm of the imagination, not in order to take leave of the imagined, nor certainly to be disenchanted or “enlightened,” but in order instead to discover that liminal place where the two realms meet and mingle, and where we find or forge a meaning greater than either. To him the Real can never be perfectly attained or decisively entered into, and yet the imagination can exist only in being called out of itself into that unconquerably concrete actuality that lies beyond it. And so we are always engaged in a conflict between two worlds: “between what one thinks and what one collides with, between what one dreams of and what one does, between what one desires and what one obtains . . .” In a very real sense, each of these worlds is revealed only by the other. Thus Segalen begins by announcing that he has no intention of scrupulously observing any clear distinction between the accurately recounted and the willfully fabulous. And thus also his narrative begins not with his expedition’s departure from Beijing, but rather with the way in which he first imagined the entire journey to the Tibetan frontier, in great detail, before ever setting out. For him, the impenetrable immensity of the Real initially takes the form of an ideal landscape, one that the Real itself alone can then fulfill or fall short of or exceed. Only when the imagined Chinese wilderness has assumed its full dimensions for him does he make his (rather dreamlike) departure from his “Porcelain room” and venture out into what lies beyond.

And, again and again, he emphasizes both the concreteness and the fluidity of the experience of the Real that follows. He praises, for example, the Chinese li, a unit for measuring the distance of a journey corresponding not to any constant fraction of the space traversed, but to the varying conditions of the terrain and the gait of the walker. Perhaps his most valued companion on the journey is the “obligatory miniature god of travellers” that he takes with him, precisely because it is a figure resistant to all fixed meanings:

What a fine little pocket travel-god he is, an indispensable accessory for the vagabond I have become. Empty of dogma and so a lighter burden for my mules. I shall ascribe to him divine decisions that will pass like lightning from the Sinai of my head to his, which I will then retract with each new and successive Testament. And, because of the rich material from which he is hewn, I know that all this will be the colour of fuliginous gold, gilded smoky crystal, hot crystal, incomplete, and passionate beneath the icy glitter.

The book abounds, I should mention, in splendid set pieces, both descriptive and contemplative. There is a wonderful account of the desperate navigation of river rapids in a small boat, with Segalen himself obliged to man the sao when the captain is badly injured. There is a mesmerizing account of a European’s coffined corpse recently carried out of Tibet, where the unnamed man had been killed twenty-two days earlier. There is an almost entirely incredible episode involving a village that somehow seems to exist outside the flow of history. There is a coldly sardonic meditation on the special art of the porters who quite literally bear the weight of the journey—though with an eerily sustained lightness of step—which ends in a ghastly fantasy of Segalen riding one of them like a horse. And so on. But each tableau serves in its distinct way to illustrate the jarring meeting and inconclusive struggle for dominance between the imaginary and the Real. One of the homeliest and yet most brilliant of these illustrations is Segalen’s reflection on the faint victory his topographical jottings allow him to achieve over the blank cartographic terra incognita whose spaces it is his business to fill in. As the unknown is gradually translated into the known, in however tenuous and symbolic a form, the indeterminacy of the possible is at once narrowed and intensified in the exactitude of the actual, and the imagination gradually surrenders more and more of its territory to reality, and yet the imagination finds itself not so much suppressed or displaced as deepened.

Even so, precisely how this relation between the provisionally imagined and the intractably Real is to be understood is rather elusive in Segalen’s text. At one point, he describes the matter in Kantian terms: “The phenomenal realm and the noumenal realm—the world from which we come, and the one towards which we are heading.” But several pages later, he appears to contradict himself: “The Real here means nothing other than that which contradicts the pure game of thought; what can be touched, seen, smelled, measured or felt.” In the end, his best treatments of the matter turn out to be those that are least analytic: “The Real has always seemed to me to be very womanly.” He is at his most illuminating, in fact, when he imagines a woman “lying in the bed of the Real” and then—rather than reduce the image to some obvious allegory for some insipid concept—instead allows his mind to drift off into an entrancing meditation on the ineffable strangeness for Western men of the beauty of Chinese women, its enticing opacity, the way in which its allure and affect seem to escape the carnal calculations of a Western sensibility.

If, however, Segalen ultimately fails to provide a coherent definition of the Real (which would, by his own account, be impossible), he comes close to providing a clear picture of difference, or at least of that experience of difference—that liberating shock of the impenetrable—that he so fervently values. And it turns out to be an experience he knows not because it can be defined in itself, but because it awakens him to his own essential otherness, his own difference from the familiar, his own inner core of the impenetrably Real. Perhaps the oddest episode in the book, and one written in a manner that stubbornly resists either a wholly literal or a merely metaphorical reading, comes near the end, where Segalen describes reaching the frontier of Tibet and meeting “the Other”: supposedly another European, dressed in faded beige, someone who should not be there, who responds to none of Segalen’s queries, and whom Segalen suddenly and dizzyingly recognizes as himself, fifteen years or so younger, a “phantom part” of his own confused youth. “The pensive look, the adolescent expression, the startling charm of all the intuited hopes from that time, before harsh realisation stifles them one by one, selecting just a few to grow out of all proportion. So this is what I had come all this way to find.” And this is the end of the quest; nothing remains for the traveler but to turn back home. But Segalen pauses long enough to leave the reader with one final image, borrowed from traditional Chinese iconography: two beasts confronting one another over some indistinct object (perhaps a coin) lying on the ground between them. It is the best symbol he can find for the irresoluble confrontation between imagination and reality, and for that unutterable “between” over which neither can claim sovereignty but from which neither can achieve independence.

It may be the case that, taken in sum, Segalen’s aesthetics of difference constitutes not so much a cogent theory as a comprehensively explored and charted sensibility. Taken to the end purely as a philosophy, exoticism would probably yield only a familiar kind of incoherence, the sort of unsustainable imbalance produced whenever one extreme of a necessary polarity is emphasized to the exclusion of the other. It is easy, of course, to understand the pathos of Segalen’s protest against his age. As a reaction to the homogenizing Western triumphalism of modernity, as well as an expression of a sincere solicitude for all those unique and irreplaceable things that modernity threatens to sweep away, it made perfect sense to elevate difference over identity as an absolute value, and to assert that the event of “the Other” always precedes the rule of “the Same.” And, after all, much of the history of philosophical systems consists in constant and predictable pendulations between contrary logical poles, thought “correcting” an excessive fixation on one by swinging away to an equally excessive fixation on the opposite. Still, by itself, Segalen’s perspective is inadequate.

All knowledge, even knowledge of the limits of our knowledge, requires taking leave of extreme positions and learning to negotiate the analogical middles of things. Even to know in what sense and to what degree incommensurable things really are incommensurable requires some common proportion between them; a primordial difference, without any “equiprimordial” term of identity to differ from, would be beyond all thought, beyond even experience as such. Even the bare, brute “shock” of impenetrable otherness is recognizable as an affective intuition only through its measurable relation to the ordinary experience of “the same.” If every true difference were just another utterly opaque instance of pure alterity, then all experience would be vacuously uniform; the different would itself be “the same,” one empty cipher after another, always reiterated in the most depressingly unvaried fashion. The only way to preserve true novelty, true uniqueness, from either dissolution into the merely familiar or fragmentation into the trivially diversified is to recognize a rule of analogy, an inseparable interplay of similitude and dissimilitude within everything that exists, which by transcending simple identity and simple difference alike is able to hold them together in fruitful tension. This is the full dynamism of reality as it is actually available to experience. But to see this is, happily, to discover something amazingly unanticipated even in what we think perfectly familiar.

In a sense, Segalen’s characterization of the first immediate encounter with true otherness is little more than an account of our first experience of any phenomenon whatsoever. Everything arrives for us initially as the “shock” of the Real, even when long familiarity so softens the blow that this shock remains below the threshold of conscious astonishment. That is because, in scholastic terms, what is for us the first moment within the ordo cognoscendi, the order of understanding, is really the final moment within the ordo essendi, the order of being. We know everything first as an effect, before we can know its causes. But then, in order to understand anything—in order even just to register it as some sort of discernible event—we have to attempt to move from the effect back toward the cause, in the hope of finding some common source of intelligibility that allows our consciousness and the object encountered to be joined in a concrete experience. We may not make it very far, of course, but we shall not even make it as far as the recognition of our failure to understand if we do not proceed according to an analogy with those things we do already know. Absolute difference is a nonsensical idea, and should not be entertained even out of regard for the inviolability of “the Other.” The only proper experience of otherness is simultaneously the joyous discovery that all real diversity gives expression to a genuine, if mysteriously inexhaustible, commonality. All cultural differences are, so to speak, variations upon the shared theme of the human, which it is equally destructive either to reduce to simple uniformity or to treat as incapable of harmonious accord. This shared human nature is a reality that we discover through its endlessly various but analogous manifestations in others, and that we only thereby come to understand within ourselves. Cultural synthesis is not only possible but also, if it occurs naturally, an enrichment of our knowledge of our humanity and of the possibilities of experience. And the power of differing cultures truly to come to understand one another, precisely in their divergences from one another, is the power of every soul to find the common human theme ever again, however strange and “exotic” the music in which it has been made audible. And this certainly points toward a shared ground of experience more original—and a shared end of experience more ultimate—than mere diversity as such.

And yet, all of this having been said, one must finally concede that Segalen’s most fundamental insights regarding the relation between imagination and reality were correct. Most of us already, at some level, know as much. All of us, in every moment, are approaching the same frontier, the same as yet undiscovered country of the Real that lies just beyond the worldly horizon of the possible. This is the tragedy or irony or absurdity that encircles every life: As we strive forward toward an imagined future—enchanting, terrifying, perplexing—the implacable reality of the drearily or grimly inevitable is constantly approaching to meet us upon the same path. We know that the only full encounter with the Real is the encounter with death, because only then will all our questions be either answered or, at the very least, resolved. And the most that we can hope for reasonably is that, in the ever-diminishing interval between these two relentlessly advancing fronts, we shall happen as often as possible upon objects and moments of true beauty. So, naturally, Segalen’s journey to the Real reached its end only on that last day in the Breton woodland of his childhood, when the world for him returned to its beginning and then melted away altogether, and he encountered the final true commonality in which all difference either entirely vanishes away or wholly rises up into an ultimate harmony. For, at the last, the Real in its truest, barest essence is either nothing or everything, and the imagination can find its ultimate rest only in one or the other.

David Bentley Hart is a contributing writer at First Things and a fellow at the Notre Dame Institute for Advanced Studies.