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Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature

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Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature explores an aspect of modern French literature that has been consistently overlooked in literary histories: the relationship between the colonies—their cultures, languages, and people—and formal shifts in French literary production. Starting from the premise that neither cultural identity nor cultural production can be
pure or homogenous, Leslie Barnes initiates a new discourse on the French literary canon by examining the work of three iconic French writers with personal connections to Vietnam: André Malraux, Marguerite Duras, and Linda Lê.


In a thorough investigation of the authors’ linguistic, metaphysical, and textual experiences of colonialism, Barnes articulates a new way of reading French literature: not as an inward-looking, homogenous, monolingual tradition, but rather as a tradition of intersecting and interdependent peoples, cultures, and experiences.


One of the few books to focus on Vietnam’s position within francophone literary scholarship, Barnes challenges traditional concepts of French cultural identity and offers a new perspective on canonicity and the division between “French” and “francophone” literature.

ISBN-13: 9780803249974

Media Type: Hardcover

Publisher: Nebraska

Publication Date: 12-01-2014

Pages: 312

Product Dimensions: 5.60(w) x 8.60(h) x 1.20(d)

Leslie Barnes is Lecturer in French Studies at the Australian National University. Her articles have appeared in French Forum and Journal of Vietnamese Studies.

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Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature


By Leslie Barnes

UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS

Copyright © 2014 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8032-6675-9



CHAPTER 1

Malraux's La Tentation de l'Occident

Exoticism and the Crisis of the West As always, we travelled great distances on what was merely a journey deep within.

—Victor Segalen


André Malraux wrote his first works of literature shortly after the end of World War I during his days as a would-be literary critic and small-time trader of the French art book. By 1921, he had published an article on the origins of Cubist poetry as well as Lunes en papier (Paper Moons), a fantastical work with illustrations by Fernand Leger that appeared in one of D. H. Kahnweiler's art-book collections. Shortly thereafter he published "Ecrit pour une idole à trompe" (Written for an idol with a trunk), another Cubist-inspired work that, in Walter Langlois's words, transformed reality into "a highly imaginative world of fantasy in which grotesque creatures lead a picaresque, two-dimensional existence."

Malraux's own "highly imaginative" reality was forever altered in 1922, when he discovered Henri Parmentier's writings on Asian art in the Bulletin de l'Ecole Française d'Extrême Orient and was captivated by the latter's article on the Cambodian Voie Royale (Royal way). At the end of 1923 Malraux left for Indochina with his wife, Clara, and old school friend, Louis Chevasson. The motives behind his decision to go to Asia have been much debated, with explanations ranging from the pursuit of fame and fortune to altruistic humanism to an identity crisis, but few have argued with Max Jacob's assessment: Malraux certainly seemed to "find his way in the Orient." Indeed, when Malraux left Paris, he was an unknown writer, an antique enthusiast, and a dandy. After a few years of scandal and political agitation in southern Indochina, however, he would return in 1926 as one of France's most sensational young literary talents.

Upon his arrival in Paris, Malraux established À la Sphère, a small publishing house dedicated primarily to bringing out lush illustrated texts. The same year he published La Tentation de l'Occident (The Temptation of the West) as part of a contract signed with Grasset before his departure for Saigon in 1925. The essay-novel, an epistolary work that recalls the philosophical concerns of Montesquieu's Lettres persanes (Persian Letters), can be read as the young author's reaction to the intellectual crisis signaled in France as early as 1919 with Valéry's "Crise de l'Esprit" ("Crisis of the Mind"). Through a series of publications, European intellectuals had begun to challenge Western rational values, which many held responsible for the horrors experienced on the battlefield. For his part Malraux, who had just returned from a protracted battle with the colonial government in Indochina—first during his trial in Cambodia (1923–24) and then during his brief stint as a political opposition journalist in Saigon (1925–26)—saw the decline of the West as inextricably bound with the institutionalized depravity rampant in the French colonies. Jean Lacouture confirmed the oppressive atmosphere dominating Indochina in the 1920s in his preface to the reissue of Léon Werth's Cochinchine: "colonial sadism was living its last good years." Malraux's La Tentation de l'Occident, a work drafted during his time in Indochina, raises the issue of the degradation of humanity in a way that immediately sets it apart from other literary currents of the early twentieth century and, in particular, Surrealism. It is a work of profound judgment and refusal, one that posits the East as the Other of European consciousness, not as an alternative to be emulated but as a necessary mirror in which the West might apprehend and diagnose itself.

La Tentation de l'Occident contains the germination of the metaphysics Malraux would develop in subsequent novels. As his first attempt to confront the absurdity of existence, it is a work of absolute negation, presenting an empty world under an empty sky. For Malraux, like Friedrich Nietzsche before him, belief in God was impossible as a matter of cultural fact; individuals, thus deprived of any recourse to the supernatural, were forced to ascribe meaning to their lives in full awareness of the reigning spiritual void. In a sense, the work seeks to enact the destruction that must precede creation and is considered to be the first step on his quest to articulate a renewed sense of existential value. Moreover, in staging the confrontation between East and West, La Tentation de l'Occident emerges as a twentieth-century manifestation of a nineteenth-century exotic project, a phenomenon Chris Bongie describes as "a discursive practice intent on discovering 'elsewhere' the values 'lost' with the modernization of European society." Despite his knowledge of Indochina, however, Malraux looked to China to establish a foundation upon which he might then construct a new universal subjectivity and a new doctrine of action in the three novels that followed: Les Conquérants (The Conquerors), La Voie royale (The Royal Way), and La Condition humaine (Man's Fate). This chapter explores the ways in which La Tentation de l'Occident was conditioned by both the French tradition of literary exoticism, a tradition that has been only superficially addressed in Malraux criticism and most often with a marked degree of skepticism, and the author's own experiences in colonial Indochina. In other words, to grasp its role in the gestation of Malraux's early literary project and its pivotal status in the historical relation between French colonialism and innovation in twentieth-century French literature, we must situate this first publication in both a literary and a historical context.

In order to understand Malraux's work in relation to French literary exoticism, and in particular to determine how it responds to and deviates from this tradition, I begin by addressing the notion of exoticism and providing a schematics of the exotic paradigm. I continue my analysis by exploring the ways in which Malraux's critique of the West depends on the espace lointain, or distant land, essential to exotic literature. In this section, I concentrate on the traditional exotic imagery that pervades the initial pages of the book and that resurfaces in the subsequent novels. Unlike his predecessors, however—Segalen, Pierre Loti, and Paul Claudel, for example, the direct inheritors of François-René de Chateaubriand's Romantic vision—Malraux's urge to look elsewhere is informed by a new mal du siècle; that is, a profound sense of the absurd tied to a uniquely modern spiritual void. It is to this historically conditioned void that I turn next, exploring not only the echoes of Valéry's "Crise de l'esprit" in Malraux's project but, more important for our purposes, the importance of his legal troubles in Cambodia and his time as a journalist in Saigon. Here I focus specifically on his two newspapers published in 1925 and 1926, L'Indochine (Indochina) and L'Indochine enchaînée (Indochina in chains), as well as on the influence of one important figure in Malraux's entourage, Nguyen An Ninh, the French-educated Vietnamese anarchist and journalist whose two-pronged critique of Confucianist neo-traditionalism and French colonialism is echoed throughout La Tentation de l'Occident.

Writing in the wake of European imperialist expansion and from one of France's most prized colonial possessions, Malraux was keenly aware of the impossibility of his exotic gesture. By 1923 the world had become a finite entity, and its "elsewheres" had all been contaminated by contact with the West. These locations, which once offered the melancholy individual an alternative—that is, some sort of physical or moral respite from modern existence—were now either teeming with Western explorers or, worse, built up as colonial replications of Western society. And if Malraux journeys to Asia in his early novels, it is not to escape European civilization but to rediscover and reinvigorate it. In this his motives recall those of a French anthropological tradition that reaches back to Michel de Montaigne. As Malraux noted shortly after publishing the book: "The youth of the West are looking for a new idea of man. Can Asia bring us new insights? I don't think so. Rather, it can offer a particular discovery of what we are." La Tentation de l'Occident does not offer China as a cultural or spiritual solution to the decline of the West, nor does it bemoan the passing of the exotic Other. Instead, after the first few pages, Malraux reverses the exotic gesture and focuses the rest of this short piece on the modern Chinese traveler's assessment of European values. It is not the Other who is apprehended and understood by the Western man in Malraux's text, but the Western man who is revealed to himself through the mediation of the Other's perspective.

And yet this is not a simple example of second-degree exoticism, by which the Other exposes the cruel barbarity of Western civilization through his naïve observations. China, in Malraux's work, has lost its exalted innocence and is itself in decline. The text suggests that both China and the West are defined by a modern arbitrariness and, as such, are on equal footing. It is this common wallowing in uncertainty that allows Malraux's text to operate not as an escape but as a meeting of perspectives, as a confrontation that calls the superiority of the West into question without prizing the East as an exotic ideal or alternative. And it is the persistence of the exotic gesture in Malraux's work, despite its impossibility, that allows him to create a distance in which he might make the known unknown, alienate the European from Western values, and expose the absurdity of the human condition. Having resisted the temptation to lapse into a melancholy privileging of the Other above the West, Malraux transforms his understanding, his connaissance, into a new doctrine for a new generation. Creating a space for critique and regeneration in his deployment of a twentieth-century exotic paradigm, Malraux begins the transition from the exotic to the existential.


The Exotic and the Colonial

For Tzvetan Todorov, the exotic gesture involves the valorization of what is a fundamentally unstable notion of the cultural Other. The traditional China mourned in the work of Loti or Segalen, for example, is not a fixed ontological entity but a relative ideal that varies according to the observer. Much like the exotic object, "exoticism" as a genre is an imprecise category, one that requires—and has received—much critical elaboration. Though multiple varying definitions exist, the basic assumption guiding many critical assessments is that the exotic novel presupposes and is the discursive record of some form of contact with an Other. Such a general definition allows for a wide range of writings to be considered exotic, however. Early modern travel narratives, nineteenth- and twentieth-century colonial and adventure novels, postcolonial immigrant novels that locate the exotic within the metropole, narratives that privilege a return to an earlier, often simpler time (i.e., temporal exoticism), and science fiction all fall within the reach of exoticism as it is defined here. As such, some further parameters are necessary.

A crucial component of exoticism is the exotic object. Fundamentally linked to the voyage, be it spatial, temporal, social, or all three at once, the exotic text represents the quest to discover a new world, which is often figured as a promised land or Paradise Lost. For Jean-Marc Moura, this identification between the quest and the espace lointain distinguishes exoticism from travel literature more generally. If the primary object of the exotic narrative is the foreign land, equally important is the tension created when what is familiar or known comes into contact with this unknown. The exotic novel presents "an other world, distant, strange, in relation to a world supposedly known, similar, familiar." The alterity explored in the exotic novel can thus only make sense, can only assume its difference, in relation to what is known to both the author and the implied reader, who is assumed to occupy the same space as the author. For the nineteenth- and twentieth-century French traveler and writer, France is the known; that is, the space of physical and cultural existence. France stands as the point of departure, and French culture is the standard against which other input is measured.

The unknown, on the other hand, can be imagined as a continuum rather than as a fixed point, with some spaces physically and culturally more distant than others. With the unknown defined by this relativity, there is room in the concept of French exoticism for the tension created through regional and inter-European contact. In an effort to specify the theoretical purchase of the concept, however, Moura reserves the adjective "exotic" for spaces marked by their great physical distance from the domain of the known and by the significant historical, cultural, and linguistic chasms that render them unfamiliar. From this viewpoint, exotic texts are understood as Western literary representations of spaces like Africa, Asia, Oceania, the Americas, and the Orient. Moreover, the known space is not limited to that of France, for as the title of Malraux's essay-novel indicates, it is not a simple confrontation between China and France that is at stake but a much larger interrogation of the West (that which is more or less known) catalyzed by contact with the East (the Other, the unknown). As Moura has noted, national boundaries, much like those imposed by the grouping of literatures into centuries or literary currents, do little to develop our understanding of the intercultural modes of exotic literature. For Moura, who favors a more global approach to exoticism, the French exotic take on China is better understood as the expression of a European or Western mentality than a distinctly national one. Nevertheless, in order to assess the importance of exoticism in the development of French existentialist fiction via the early Asian novels of Malraux, it is necessary to limit the discussion here to the traces of the French exotic tradition in these novels.

Much as with Edward Said's concept of literary Orientalism, the French exotic tradition, though not geographically determined in the same way Said's Orientalism is, is largely a practice of rewriting one's predecessors, particularly in the wake of imperialist expansion and the accompanying disappearance of alternative horizons. The political and social realities of the exotic locale, thus mediated, are increasingly removed from the narratives. Each new exotic author recycles the myths and literary techniques of previous works, such that Segalen's China, like that of Loti, is constructed with many of the same images found in Claudel's writings. In the same way, Claudel's infinite enthusiasm for the innocence and contentment of the Chinese despite the abject poverty in which they live is undoubtedly inspired by Chateaubriand's lyrical descriptions of Amerindian bonheur. Indeed, the entire tradition has its roots not only in the image of the Romantic individual isolated from the world and in commune with nature but also in that of the bon sauvage celebrated as early as Montaigne's essay "Des Cannibales" ("Of Cannibals") and nurtured throughout the eighteenth century, most notably in the work of Jean-Jacques Rousseau.

Praised by early European missionaries, the noble savage embodies a current of primitivism that has inspired centuries of philosophical and poetic discourse on the opposition between nature and civilization. According to the myth of the noble savage, which was particularly potent in discourse on the Americas, native communities boast an innocent simplicity that is in stark contrast with the corruption marring European man. They live "without law, without monarch, without priests, without yours or mine ... happy and virtuous, the proof that a natural moral doctrine, one founded in instinct and reason, is superior." Predicated less on actual knowledge of these peoples than on European perceptions—the lived reality of Montaigne's "Cannibales" and the native people in Denis Diderot's Supplément au voyage de Bougainville (Addendum to the Journey of Bougainville) matters very little—discourse on the noble savage allowed the European to express disenchantment with European society. In Western representations, the noble savage is happy because of being ignorant of the woes afflicting the civilized—laws, social etiquette, and property, for example—and as such is the symbol of a utopian desire to return to the plenitude of the past, which for the civilized European can only be recovered elsewhere.


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Vietnam and the Colonial Condition of French Literature by Leslie Barnes. Copyright © 2014 the Board of Regents of the University of Nebraska. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF NEBRASKA PRESS.
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Table of Contents


Acknowledgments
Introduction

Part 1: Intersections: Andre Malraux Between the Exotic and the Existential
1. Andre Malraux's Tentation de L'Occident: Exoticism and the Crisis of the West
2. The Metaphysical Adventurer: The Indochinese Novel and Malraux's Asian Trilogy

Part 2: Dissections: The Politics and Poetics of Marguerite Duras's Metissage
3. "C'est beaucoup cela, mon style": Reading Vietnamese in Marguerite Duras's Autobiographical Returns

Part 3: Vivisections: Lina Lê and the Expression of Universal Pain
4. Trauma and Plasticity in Lina Lê's Metaliterary Project
5. Toward a "Littérature déplacée": The Aesthetics of Exile in Lê's Nonfiction

Conclusion
Notes
Bibliography
Index