Thursday, February 2, 2012

Victor Segalen : "Les Immémoriaux "

Paul Gauguin : “Marahi Metua No Tehamana Aka” or “Tehamana Has Many Ancestors”

Faire lire « Les Immémoriaux » est faire acte de militantisme humaniste.

Patryck Froissart

Although the French novelist Victor Segalen died at the early age of forty, he is the writer of three remarkable books: Les Immémoriaux (1907), Stèles (1912) and Rene Leys (1922).

Still, and notwithstanding the genius of his writing and the actuality of his themes, by the beginning of the fifties, both writer and his works were as much as forgotten. It was an occurrence, fit for a scene out of “Ice Station Zebra”, a techno-thriller by Alistair MacLean, which would rescue the genial writer from the doom of oblivion…

On 16 June 1951, Jean Malaurie, a French cultural anthropologist and Polar traveller, the first man ever to reach the geomagnetic Pole with dog sleds (together with fellow -traveller Kutsikitsoq ), accidently discovered the secret nuclear base of Thule. Once recovered from his surprise and realizing what the Americans tried to hide from the world, Malaurie decided to publicly stand up against the superpower and in his book “Les Derniers rois de Thulé” (The Last Kings of Thule), he accused this rape of a pristine environment and the fact that base, bombers and nuclear bombs had been installed without consulting or even informing the local Inuit population.

“Les Editions Plon”, based in Paris, accepted to publish the book. But, Malaurie, who was by now “a man on a mission”, wanted more. He suggested Plon to use his book as the founding tome of a new collection he had in mind, a collection of books which not only described the many endangered cultural communities scattered over the globe, but also defended these minorities against the encroaching imperialistic values  of the Western World. Malaurie wanted to force-feed a new conscience to the French reading public, a radical shift in perceiving the world, away from the traditional Western colonial paradigms. 

Plon accepted Malaurie’s idea, and « Les Derniers rois de Thulé » became the first book of the legendary « Terre Humaine » series,  a collection of books that today boasts more than 100 titles, of which a quarter at least, is considered a timeless classic. “Terre humaine”, unique in French language or any language at that moment, hammered down that the intellectual value of a writer was not only restricted to his erudition, his culture and his craft but also, and primarily so, by his moral responsibility.  

When Plon asked Malaurie what other three important books, beside the “Kings of Thule” they should prepare to kick start their new collection, Malaurie did not hesitate a moment: “Tristes Tropiques” and “Affable Savages”, by Levi Strauss’ and Francis Huxley’s, two anthropologists of World renown.

The third one would be a masterpiece by the forgotten Victor Segalen : “Les Immémoriaux”


The choice of Segalen’s book as a corner stone of the collection “Terre Humaine” was remarkable, not only because Malaurie selected an obscure writer amidst two writers of world renown, but also because Segalen’s “Immemoriaux” is a piece of fiction (un roman) and both other works sociological studies. But the choice was a sound one and confirms an opinion which has been held since: Segalen‘s fictional work is so well researched, his observation so acute, that still today, it can stand comparison with any anthropological work.

Born in Brest in 1878, Victor Segalen was a French naval doctor, who travelled to Polynesia, Russia and China and who, realizing that he was a last witness of disappearing worlds, turned into an explorer, archaeologist and ethnographer.

Segalen arrived at the Marquises islands a few months after Paul Gauguin’s death. He helped to clean up artist’s dwellings and saved some important works and paintings from the garbage heap. Gauguin’s legacy, especially his manuscript Noa Noa, would have a tremendous influence on the young doctor.

Segalen died young, on the 21st of May 1919, in a mysterious accident, which happened during a lone walk in the forest of Huelgoat in France. After a frantic search the day after his disappearance, his body was found, propped up against a tree, his coat tucked up, between him and the tree, and a terrible gash in his ankle. The ground around the position of his foot was soaked with blood. Apparently Segalen had bled to death, a victim of a freak accident.

But the scene looked staged. Segalen had an open copy of Hamlet by his side and he was wearing his grand Marine uniform. It could well have been that Segalen, a very sensitive man trying to recover from a deep depression, stepped out of life by his own free will.


Segalen’s book “Les Immémoriaux” relates, in a bit more than 300 pages, the complete destruction of the original Tahitian culture (called Maori in the book) by the British and French colonial rule.

Terii, the main character of the book, is a lower level Haèré-po, a young apprentice “keeper of the word” who, like others of his guild, travels on moonless nights from one sacred place to another to recite, to gatherings of villagers, the “good and beautiful words” in which the mythological origins, the genealogy and the laws of their people are endlessly repeated.

As the Polynesians live in an illiterate world, their identity and beliefs, their history and their taboos, their entire culture so to say, relies on a collective memory which is passed on orally by priests from generation to generation. This oral memory is terribly vulnerable for if the string of wisdom is disturbed or interrupted, it would take just a few years, just one or two generations, to completely eradicate their culture.

And this is exactly what happens. In an opening scene, fit for a Classical tragedy, Térii, during one of his ritual evocations before a vast audience, suddenly and unexpectedly stumbles over his words, stops, utters again a sentence, only to realize that he has forgotten the next string of names. The people around him are first completely shocked but then their surprise turns into a terrible anger and Térii has to flee.

Terii’s lapse of memory is understood by the villagers as one more sign of the wrath of the Gods, bad omens, they started to notice since the arrival of the white people. Strange illnesses and internal wars are decimating the villages and the Maori Priests can’t seem to turn the tide, as if these plagues are created by unknown Gods.

The book then follows two men, Terii, and the Maori priest Paofai. Terii is Paofai’s apprentice and maybe also his son. If so, then Paofai has transgressed a terrible taboo, for his cast is not allowed to have any offspring. The story of both men is related over three parts, three chapters. A first one, describing  life before the Western influence, then a short chapter narrating their 20 years exile and roaming over the Pacific and then a last one, the return to a new Christian Tahiti, a changed world, a foreign aberration.

(2) Paofai has noticed that the white people use “small black signs they put on a white canvas” as a back-up for their memory. It could be the key for the rescue of his own culture, but he doubts if the same signs can be used to capture Polynesian memories. He needs something of his own people. An elder man remembers that the priests on Easter islands, far away from Tahiti, have signs too to help them remember things. Paofai and Terii, decide to escape from their Island and embark on a quest for those signs. Their Odyssey between the islands will last 20 year. 

(3) Térii, who has already lost his social position, will lose, during his exile his history too. When, in the third and last part, he finally sets foot again on the shores of his Island, his people do not recognize him, as he does not recognize his people. His people have become strangers in their customs and their ways. It is as if they have “changed their skin”. A new paradigm of law and order has effectively installed itself over the tropical island.

Térii is in time to witness and participate in two important events: The mass conversion of the Tahitians to Christianity in 1819 and the destruction of the last heresies 1821-1827.
While Terii is at first taken aback by the changes, he soon enough sees his chance to get rid of his pariah skin too. Through his conversion to the new faith, he sheds the last scale of his identity: his name. Terii becomes Iakoba (Jacob) and turns out to be the most successful social climber in the church establishment. From a Classic tragedy and an Odyssey, the narrative, with Terii’s tortuous and repugnant scheming, now gets the allures of a provincial drama. 

Once a proud keeper of his people’s memory, Térii finally joins the ranks of the “Immémoriaux”, the “people who have lost their culture”, the ones who have forsaken and forgotten their own words and ancestral practices, the people finally, without memory. 

The writing

The genius of Segalen, and I don’t know if others have done it before him, is that he changes the point of view away from the traditional occidental in favour of  “the other”, to the Polynesian, giving him back his Maori voice. By a careful choice of words and locutions, Segalen is in fact reconstructing this lost voice, which by the time of the composition of “Les Immémoriaux” had already been effectively and permanently wiped away.

Because in the eyes of the Tahitians, the ways of the foreigners are so outlandish, Segalen recounts them in something like what John Carey calls a narration in “Martian Mode” : to show familiar things from an alien viewpoint. The “New people” for instance arrive on “floating islands” and to the big surprise of the Tahitians the strangers can “take off their hair”. The Christian colonist becomes in Segalen’s book the “stranger”, a barbarian with weird and surprising habits and rituals. They shake hands instead of sniffing each other and the Piritani ( British ) Priests accept pigs and vegetables as presents but do not accept, the higher valued gifts like beautiful and eager women or human sacrifices. Seen from the Maori perspective, the Christians – with – the – good – intentions display only insulting arrogance and totally misplaced proudness.

Segalen also peppers his texts with Tahitian words and expressions. From the Arii ( chiefs ) to the Véa ( messengers ) and from the Ori ( dance ) to the Péhé ( songs ), the writer introduces a whole lexicon of foreign words to create the effect we are seeing the world through Maori eyes. It can be tedious at moments but luckily my edition had a short explicative word list at the end of the book.

To add to the realism, Segalen builds his text around real events and he makes sure that he is truthful to the smallest detail. For this he carefully studied the diaries and journals rendering the events of “the arrival of the HMS Duff”, “the mass conversion of the Tahitians” and the “destruction of the Arioi and the Mamaia Heresy”. In the two first parts of the book, when Térii has not completely adopted the foreign ways, exact dates are omitted, but once he has completely changed camp and understood that Sunday is the day of the True Lord, dates are given as Westerners have the custom to do.

“Surprising conclusions”

A careful appreciation of Segalen’s writings, brings about some conclusions about the writer’s standpoints.

1° The beginning of “Les Immémoriaux” and the beginning of the Tahiti’s cultural destruction coincides with the arrival of the London Missionary Society on the HMS Duff on 5 March 1797.

That is remarkable for the first recorded contact between the West and Tahiti, was thirty years earlier, on 17 June 1767, when the HMS Dolphin under the command of Samuel Wallis sailed into Matavai Bay.There were some skirmishes, some gun shots, when the Tahitians tried to attack and beach the ship of the intruders but after that initial “mésentente”, cordial relations where soon established between Wallis and Queen Oberea. For 30 years, ships would visit Tahiti, on a yearly basis and this without any animosity. These were the days of Bougainville and Cook, but also of numerous whaling ships that came to collect water, fresh victuals and some romance.

The Westerners unintentionally introduced new diseases and by 1797 the local population had dwindled from an estimated 35.000 people to maybe 16.000. It is not known what diseases, the Europeans took back home. (When strange Worlds meet, Well’s “War of the Worlds” remains a heeding). Segalen does not omit the fact that the Polynesians are dying from new diseases but apparently sees this as something unintentional and unavoidable

Segalen is more concerned by the final blow to the culture of the Tahitians which would come on the 5th of March 1797, when representatives of the London Missionary Society landed at Point Venus (Mahina) on board HMS Duff. These people did not come out of curiosity, or to barter or to make scientific observations, no, they came with the intention of saving the native population from paganism. It is the when one starts tinkering with the hearts and minds of the people that real evil is done.

2° Disturbance of the social order

In les Immémoriaux, Segalen makes it clear that the intrusion of the French and (for a certain period) the English completely overhauls the existing social and political equilibrium.
The first explorers like Wallis, Cook and Bougainville had the intelligence not to intermingle in local power struggles. Not that their help was not requested by the people they met, but they made it clear from the start, that they would not be involved in politics, of which they were not part off. Smart.
It is only around 1790, when the lawless punks of the Bounty mutiny, offered their mercenary services to the clan of the Pomare, that the power equilibrium was dangerously disturbed.
The real ruler of Tahiti, as Segalen underscores, was the Teva clan. They of course obstructed all intrusion in their affairs by the whites, because any further development could only come to their detriment.
The West saw an opportunity in using the Pomare clan as a puppet dynasty, which would not hamper the colonisation and evangelisation. Pomare in the bargain got himself a strong ally. It is not surprising that Segalen describes him as an usurper, a coward and a clown.

In 1819 Pomare was baptized and proclaimed King of the Tahiti isles. By then he had translated the Holy Bible, that “jumble of oriental gossip” into Tahitian. It is paradox that thanks to this translation the Tahitian language was saved.

3° The decadence of the Polynesians

Textbooks use to remind us that the Polynesian communities had reached a level of decadence at the moment of their first contacts with the Occidentals. I don’t know if this is true, or if this decadence has not been a result of the terrible epidemics that scoured the island. While anthropologists seem to agree that the inhabitants of Easter islands for example had seen better days in the past at their first contacts with the Occidentals, I am not sure that such conclusions can be generalized for all Pacific islands.

However Segalen seems to endorse the idea of decadence, for Terii, the major character in the book is everything but a hero. After his catastrophic fumbling during his recitation, he, the rising star of the haèré-po community, needs to hide in the bushes like a vulgar criminal. To survive and restore his reputation, he tries to pass himself as a magician with miraculous skills, but he is quickly found out and risking impalement he goes undercover again. In the middle chapter, when trying to get away from Tahiti, he begs the old and dying Master – Navigator to teach him the starpath to Havaii, but useless Térii,, during the recitations by the old blind man, falls asleep.

So Terii cuts a rather bad figure and is in fact nothing more than a “failure” in Tahitian society. And it is of course a highly ironic twist of Segalen, that exactly this person, in the third and last chapter of the book, will be successful in the world of the white people, but only because he cheats the rules of the new Christian morality. Térii, the failed Haèré-po, to fulfil his ambitions in the adoration of his new God, Iesu-Kérito, will have to transgress the most sacred rules of the new people…

If found out, Terii’s last act would damn him in the Christian world too…

In the end, Segalen tells us much more than just how a culture is destroyed. He also explains through which destructive process an “Immémorial” is made, from what circumstances he is grown. Térii is not an isolated case. By the end of the 20th century, he has become the archetype of the numerous immigrants, the homeless and beggars, who flock to our Western cities in the hope of a better future.

Térii stands for all the ones who had to disavow themselves in order to survive.

Recovery of identity

The middle chapter of “Les Immémoriaux” , the “Navigation chapter”, is incomparably short between the first and the third. It functions as a hinge between the worlds “before” and “after” the colonization. But technically it allows Segalen to create, quasi unnoticeable, the Odyssean 20 year time-span needed to transform Tahiti from an exotic Paradise to a christian slum at the end of the known world.

But with some hindsight, it could well be that with this chapter Segalen had the premonition of how and by what means the Polynesians could and would reconquer not only their lost identity but also their pride.

In this chapter, Térii, who has lost his way, goes to see Opoa, an old and blind Master Navigator and asks him to teach him the starpath to Havai-i.  Opoa, who has the stature of a living divinity, is not sure that Térii has the skills to understand what he is saying. But Térii is the last of the young ones who will consult the old man and therefore he indulges the haèré-po’s wish and starts his lessons in Navigation...

While the first explorers who reached the far ends of Polynesia, did not seem to be surprised to see human beings on these isolated shores, scientist in the beginning of the 20 th century did start to question the origins of the Polynesian people.

With their usual condescending and racist attitude, Westerners doubted that the prehistoric forefathers of the indigenous people could have reached those far-out islands, those tiny specks and dots in that vast Pacific Ocean, as a result of an active exploration. The major theory emphasized that Polynesian settlement was a result of the vagaries of wind and current rather than the skills of the voyagers themselves. With other words, if there were people in Tahiti, it was by accident or sheer luck.

Some people however, like the New Zealand doctor David Lewis and his colleague Mimi Rogers, never doubted that the Polynesians had the boats, but also the navigational skills to travel all over the Pacific.

But they did not know exactly how. Accounts of the early encounters with Polynesians Master Navigators were frustratingly badly documented by the likes of Wallis, Cook and de la Vega. While they all lauded the skills of these mariners, they omitted to write down, how exactly courses were laid out and steered and how crossings were accomplished. By the time Segalen visited Tahiti, these skills, together with their entire culture and beliefs had disappeared.

In the last decades of the 20th century, Lewis and Rogers started to collect available information and interviewed the last surviving Navigators. They collected their findings in “We, the Navigators”, a book that would send an electrical shock through the Polynesian community.

People started to come together, and under guidance of anthropologist Ben Finney, the Polynesian Voyaging society, was established. Their aim was the study of the ancient navigational skills and the construction of replicas of the famous double hulled voyaging canoes.

On May 1, 1976, a first replica, the Hokule’a, steered by Mau Piaulaug, one of the last traditional navigators with the knowledge to sail without instruments, succeeded to cross the Pacific from Hawaii all the way to Tahiti. When they landed on the third of June 1976, thousands flocked to the beach. The exuberant admiration of the local people and the tremendous welcome they gave the sailors was of such unprecedented scale, that everybody understood that the Polynesians had finally found back their Pride.