I had heard of Victor Segalen only fleetingly and long ago, and I’m not even sure whether in connection with poetry or Sinology, but he was clearly an interesting guy: the (absurdly skimpy) Wikipedia article says he was “a French naval doctor, ethnographer, archeologist, writer, poet, explorer, art-theorist, linguist and literary critic” and that he “died by accident in a forest in Huelgoat, France (‘under mysterious circumstances’ and reputedly with an open copy of Hamlet by his side).” The much more expansive French Wikipedia article goes into detail about his two expeditions to China, whose language he studied and loved; what Wesleyan University Press calls “his bilingual poetic masterpiece Stèles / 古今碑錄” sounds amazing:
Stèles / 古今碑錄 is a hermetic collection of wry, intriguing, and at times haunting prose poems that are presented like translations of imaginary Chinese “steles” or inscribed stone monuments (shibei 石碑), each of which bears a heading in classical Chinese — sometimes quoted from classical texts or actual monuments, sometimes composed in literary Chinese by Segalen himself. Although written in a tightly formal French and a broadly allusive style in imitation of Chinese inscriptions, these poems often speak of the more intimate matters of friendship and erotic love, the self and otherness, the spiritual and supernatural, in addition to the corruptions within organized religions (from Buddhism to Christianity). Among Segalen’s creative work, this collection of poems is the most sustained and concentrated realization of his ideas about l’exotisme and the transformative power of what he termed le Divers or la Diversité. It is a truly original work that continually thwarts the expectations of the typical critiques of Orientalism, and that has an immediate appeal and an enduring interest to lovers of poetry and theorists alike.
Wesleyan has published it in two volumes; the first, which contains a facsimile reproduction of the 1914 edition, a complete English translation, and extensive critical notes and materials, is available only in print, but they’ve put the text online, and “Volume Two (available only online) contains excerpts of sources and contexts as well as the unpublished stèles found in Segalen’s manuscripts, and much more.” What a great thing to do! I’m very glad to know about it, and I thank Jon for the link — it is, as he says, “a lovely model for how to share this sort of scholarship.”
(Incidentally, the name of the Breton village where he died, An Uhelgoad, means ‘high woods’; uhel ‘high’ = Welsh uchel, and koad ‘woods’ = Welsh coed. I don’t know whether there are standard rules of Frenchification that explain why it’s Huelgoat in French.)