Segalen, Victor (France Sri Lanka Cultural Exchanges - Suriyakantha)

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Le site bilingue consacré à la vie culturelle au Sri Lanka et en France

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Fascination of the body

Paul Cézanne

In the Light of Gauguin


Jean de La Fontaine


Pigeon houses in Quercy






Death Penalty

Mental Health



Miniatures of Kangra, India


October 2001

L'Alliance Francaise de Kandy, Sri Lanka invites you to a festival of books and to an encounter with Victor Segalen (1878-1919), André Malraux (1901-1976) and Albert Camus (1913-1960).





Alliance Française de Kandy,
412, Peradeniya Rd,
Kandy, Sri Lanka.
Tel : 00 94 8 22 44 32
e-mail :

17th October

18th October




20th October



23th October

Poster drawing festival by the students under the theme of reading.

Opening of the new library : Bibliothèque Victor Segalen.
Albert Camus - "The Outsider" - adapted for stage monologue by Marc Amerasinghe.

Opening of the exhibition - "André Malraux speaks of Sri Lanka" - evocation in commemoration of his 100th birth anniversary. Exhibition continues to the 26th Otober between 10.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m.

"A Fun Fair of Books" - Exhibition and sale of book in partnership with Gunasena & Co., Exhibition and sale continues till the 23 October between 10.00 a.m. and 6.00 p.m.

Round table discussion with Dr. Piyasiri Wijenaike (author and translator).

Lecture by Gérard Robuchon (French Lecturer, Université of Kelaniya, Sri Lanka) - "Victor Segalen : One of the first French writers discovering Buddhism in Ceylon."


Seeing the world and having seen it, telling one's vision.
I saw it in its diversity.
This diversity, I wanted to give back its taste.

23rd of May, 1919...

The body of a still young man is found at the foot of a tree in a forest in Britanny - copy of Shakespear's Hamlet at his side, On his leg, a deep wound covered with a rough bandage.

" I do not have any sickness that can be detected
But however, it seems to me that I am seriously sick
I do not weigh myself anymore, medicines are of no importance to me
I simply realise that life is getting away from me"

 And in this way ends the life of a great French poet whose writings take the many different colours of the cultures he met during his career as a navy Doctor.

Writer, traveller, ethnographer, his talent lies in his efforts to put face to face the forces of the imaginary and the real, of literature and action.

This "journey to the land of reality" is undertaken in order to give some substance to the words of the poet, in order to provide them with all their weight of reality.

 Born in Brittany in 1878, he obtains his Doctorate in Medicine in 1902 , the subject of his research being " the neuroses in contemporary literature".

 Then starts his geographical and mental journeys: the first of these many great travels taking him to Polynesia with the idea of reviving the Maorian culture - following the model of Gauguin and to the discovery of the Chinese continent.

He sees the end of a race, the end of a culture, the Maorian culture - later, in China, it will be the agony of a myth, the myth of the Emperor, son of the sky.

1903, he arrives in Tahiti where he discovers the remains of the Maorian culture ruined by European presence. On a brief stopover in the Marquises islands, his attention falls on the last sketches done by Gauguin, dead three months ago.

Paul Gaugin, a meeting that never happened, but a decisive one.

Resulting from his stay in the Polynesia, he produces a book 'Les Immémoriaux" (A Lapse of Memory), published in 1907.

The tragedy of a race which has lost the meaning of the 'sacred'. A cry of alarm then one of farewell to which the answer will be soon the silence.

The liberation of a man whose identity was revealed by these islands.

The passionate nostalgia of a forgotten people.


     1908 He becomes interested in China and by 1910 he wishes to serve as a translator his wife and son. He publishes the first edition of Stèles in Beijing in 1912.

     A somewhat 'strange' personality, who has secured his place in the royal line-up of visionary poets for whom Poetry is a means of going beyond the human condition.

    This poet, this doctor fascinated by the complexity of unconscious, this archaeologue, ethnologue, pioneer of sinology was, by spirit and by nature a researcher, an explorer.

 During an archaeological expedition in China, his work is interrupted by the war and so, he returns to France, works in the war front for some time and returns to China to recruit volunteers. He continues his research in archaeology.

At the end of the year 1917, sick, he leaves the East forever.

 Orientalist, in search of exoticism, though not a 'spoilt exoticism' but one which translates for him the idea of 'difference', everything that refers to 'the other'. He invents the term "exote" to refer to 'the ideal traveller, always a stranger and always xénophile".

The sensation of exotism, which is none other than the notion of being different, the perception of Diversity, the understanding that something is not yourself, and the power of exoticism, which is none other than the ability to recognise the other.

 For him, exotism does not mean melting in the Other, rejecting one's self, making the foreign culture one's own.

Although I felt strongly about China, it did not lead me to becoming Chinese. Deep feelings about the dawn of Vedas did not make me regret that I was not born as a shepherd three thousand years ago.

Only those who possess a strong individuality are able to sense the difference.

Almost all his works, written between 1909 and 1913 has, as its hidden theme, his conception of exoticism, which he considers as an "aesthetic of difference". And so, he asks from Tahiti, China or Tibet only to show him their true faces and to leave him to discover their deep reality through which he will nourish his vision.

That is what he asks from Ceylon as well on a day in November 1904 when a sudden stopover leads him to discover Colombo and Kandy and this brief encounter draws the first sketches of his book "Siddhartha".

Native Bullock Carts, Ceylon. (c) Plâté & Co.,

     Colombo, Thursday, 7th November 1904

    We get closer. The pirogues with fluttering huge red sails
    The first steps on this land are full of exoticism...
    The picturesque bursts as always with the different means of transport,
    Large chariots with immense wheels drawn by bulls...



Young disciples of Buddha. (c) Plâté & Co.,

    Kandy, Friday, 8th November 1904

    I walk round the lake. My footsteps take me towards the monk. He is young, bright shining eyes... and sometimes in the pose of a monk, sitting against the light on the bed, it seems to me that everything is flying away, that hut whitened by chalk, low and dull, flies away in fragments, that a light radiates...

    Thursday, 22nd December 1904

    Day of the full moon - Poya. Almost my last night in Ceylon, this night - excellent, pure, lactescent and fragrant...

 This journey to the Far-East, the answer is a dive into his internal universe of which is reflected in his writings...

As always one makes a long journey which is none other than a journey into ones own self.

It is through the path of diversity that one reaches the centre, that means into the self.

A multiple being, a meeting point of languages, polyphonic individual, an artist, fond of beauty

An entirely aesthetic belief, an exclusive research of beauty, a permanent desire to reach, the beauty everywhere, an to realise out of them a reflection in his thinking, in his action, above all in his works.

At a time where everything has become so uniform
thus ruining the priceless diversity of the Other
He helps us to still believe in
the myth of the metamorphose through travels

Existence finds its splendor in Difference and in Diversity
The Difference decreases. There lies the immense danger...

So says in 1917 this great French poet

 Victor Segalen

"The most fascinating personality in modern literature"
Jean-Luc Godard (1958).

André Malraux

André Malraux fought for freedom throughout his life: against French colonialism in Indochina, fascism in Spain, Nazi Germany. He denounced the misery of Man and exalted his greatness. He was also an aesthete and art critic, and introduced the French public to the wealth of civilisations and cultures outside Europe, particularly in Asia.

    No other Frenchman in the XXth century worked harder to sacralize the French Republic, through the preservation and extension of French culture, hoping to make it not only a powerful force in the world but the preeminent force for unification in a divided nation.

    At a young age, Malraux became a ravenous reader, enjoying the works of Hugo, Balzac, and Sir Walter Scott, and also Victor Segalen.

    As a young man, he began working as a chineur... Malraux's passion for the printed word, first as chineur, then as author and editor, was his primary means of livelihood for most of his life, and that he never "worked" at anything else.

Along with his passion for the written word, Malraux was a great lover of art from a very young age, stating,
'I have lived in art since my adolescence'.
Indeed, Malraux is just as famous for his writings on art as he is as a novelist.

When we think of André Malraux we are tempted, more often than not, to remember his passionate involvement in all the great causes of our century :

    • Indochina : fervent anticolonialist and an advocate of social change.
    • China : crossing to China, he apparently participated in several Chinese revolutionary incidents.
    • Spain : as fascism, in the shape of Nazism, rose in the 1930s, Malraux recognized its threat and in 1935--before the world in general had learned that concentration camps existed--published Le Temps du mépris (Days of Wrath), a short novel describing the brutal imprisonment of a communist by the Nazis.

Upon the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War in 1936, Malraux went to Spain, joined the Republican forces, and organized for them an international air squadron, becoming its colonel. His novel L'Espoir (Man's Hope), based on his experiences in Spain, was published in 1937.

    • World War II : when World War II broke out, Malraux enlisted as a private soldier in a French tank unit. He was captured but escaped to the free zone of France, where he joined the resistance movement. On the Alsatian front he met General Charles de Gaulle, with whom his destiny was thenceforth to be linked.

His high-soaring lyricism as the flamboyant Minister of Culture alongside General de Gaulle, between 1958 and 1969 is particularly striking in his famous speech in front of the Pantheon for the homage to Jean Moulin, an heroic victim of nazism.

By highlighting these different episodes of his adventurous life, we forget a little too quickly the marvellous novelist and the genuine, simple and immediate pleasure to be gained today from reading his stories, stories where adventure does not exclude reflection.

His entire body of work follows the spreading of contemporary ideologies, from the Chinese nationalist and Communist revolution of the twenties to the Spanish Civil War of 1936, not forgetting his obstinate battle against Nazism.

One reads The Conquerors (1928), Man's Fate (1933), Days of Hope (1937), The Walnut Trees of Altenburg (1943) with the great dramas of history in mind.

And yet, in the manner of the Greek classics, André Malraux is far less interested in the merits of political movements or their chances of success than in Man himself, in what elevates him or brings about his downfall.

As a thinker, he is situated half-way between the generous musings of Albert Camus and the serene harmony of the world of Antoine de Saint-Exupéry, the author of The Little Prince (1943): like them, he, too, is someone for whom the nobleness of the soul imparts meaning to the fate of Man.

There is another, less frequently observed dimension to the work of André Malraux: Malraux's hero (or, more rarely, heroine) regenerates his strength, his faith in life, his enterprising spirit in games of love, refined rites inspired by Asia, a code of relations which, in itself, already sketches out a way of life.

For that, indeed, is the third and no less singular side of this brief yet plentiful work: the quest for the aesthetic.

Attracted early on by Asia (Cambodia, India, Japan), in 1929 he made important discoveries of Greco-Buddhist art in Afghanistan

At the same time, he began to write his Psychologie de l'art (3 vol., 1947-50; The Psychology of Art), an activity that bore a relationship to his other interests, for to Malraux aesthetic ideas, like the philosophy of action expressed in his own novels, would always be part of man's eternal questioning of destiny and his response to it.

He revolutionised the art debate after the War by breaking down the traditional barriers between "noble" and "primitive" art.

Nothing that Malraux writes in this connection is indifferent.

La Tête d'obsidienne, his essay on Picasso; Les Antimémoires (1967-1972), which, in spite of its title, really is an autobiographical text; The Museum Without Walls (1952-54) are simply opportunities for establishing subtle relationships between the primitive and the contemporary.

 André Malraux and Ceylon

This complex and fascinating personality tell us now the sensations he felt in his brief visits to a country called at this time - in 1923 and 1958 - Ceylon...


In 1923 I expected Ceylon to be a more dazzling version of North Africa. The junk-merchant had boarded the steamer yelling like pirates and carrying dainty baskets from which they drew sparkling trinkets with the solemnity of guardians of the Crown Jewels. Once on land, I found houses all covered with green on the side facing the monsoon, vast, almost flowerless gardens, palms dripping after the rain ; then, towards evening, the Brahmin quarter, a glimpse of India in a narrow square with its bearded patriarchs like characters out of Homer in front of a tower pullulating with blue caved figures; and at night the sculptured prows of Arab dhows beneath the ancient lights of torches swinging back and forth like hanging lamps - the forgotten vessels of Sinbad.

Since 1929 I have heard frequent encounters with Buddhism, from Ceylon to Japan. Colombo is one of the calmest places on earth. Its inhabitants wander imperturbably among the scarlet flamboyants, the purple bougainvilleas, and the shrubs dominated by pink acacias. The asphalt avenues with the very occasional cars are graced, in the evening, by processions of saris whose colours are those of the pastel drawings of the English spinsters buried in the nearby cemeteries. Beside the Victorian commemorative monuments, neat and proud as ironclads overgrown with orchids, a Singhalese musician plays, watching the remains of the British Empire gently rusting under the thorns.