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This essay shall examine the themes of the jungle and the city in two authors and two travel texts: André Gide’s Voyage au Congo (1927) and Henri Michaux’s Ecuador (1929). The selection of these texts needs little justification: firstly, Gide and Michaux are arguably the most eminent French literary voyagers of the twentieth century and the two texts chosen are, in the first case, a prominent and controversial work, and a considerable early literary achievement in the second. Aside, then, from reasons of literary history, the differences in approach taken by Gide and Michaux are themselves illuminating of the process of writing travel and representing, in particular, the jungle and the city from Central Africa to Equatorial Latin America. In the face of colonial injustices, Gide seeks to highlight the truth of the situation for the greater good: “Je ne veux tenir pour certain que ce que j’aurai pu voir moi-même, ou pu suffisament contrôler” (Congo: 31) and adopts a fitting documentary narrative for his voyage. Michaux’s writings, on the other hand, have an impressionistic, subjective texture absent in the Gidean texts; a point framed by his text’s publication in the Gallimard L’Imaginaire series. This study will aim to elucidate the difference in the manner of apprehension of the new in the texts of each writer and the effect this has on representation. Our chief concern here is these visited places, for the writers, exotic and far-flung; however, reflecting the pattern of the texts themselves, we cannot completely forgo consideration of the métropole; though Michaux, a Belgian, did not take French nationality until 1955, he identifies with France and displays scorn for Belgium (Ecuador: 12-13). In their treatments of the jungle, French and European landscapes and trees figure prominently for purposes of contrast and comparison: references to the European landscape abound especially in Congo (see, for example, Congo: 118, 123, 136, 141, 251). Similarly for the city, the European model, especially Paris, serves as the primary concept of a city; a concept
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d’oubli. the Western presence negates any interest in the town (Congo: 71). When Gide does encounter “une ville indigène”. ostensibly untouched by Western influence. de bonheur” (Gide) . Gide is disappointed (“Bangassou me déçoit un peu”) that the town has lost much of its strangeness. Conversely. Gide derives his pleasure from the city as much from absence as presence. the “Quintessence d’exotisme”. “Une contrée ou ville étrangère est aussi remarquable par ce qui lui manque que par le spécial de ce qu’elle possède. now explicit. Gide can look into the living enclosures which he believes affords him “d’étranges intimités”. we note his belonging to the tourist category outlined by Todorov (198: 378-379). He attributes this impression to the military occupation of the town: searching for simple difference. On horseback. It is remarkable for what it lacks.or cityscape. He wishes to observe but not engage with the town. is furthermore. the French quarter presents nothing new to his senses: hotels. one recognises equally the absence of the familiar and the presence of the different (“le spécial”) in a land. par la suite. ‘Western’ is the withheld epithet of Gide’s “écran de la civilisation” (Congo: 30) which actively intervenes between him and the potential of his African experience.to which cities these writers come across can either conform or contrast. the charm of the African quarter is that there are no white people there: “Joie de se trouver parmi des nègres” (Congo: 15). Gide can imagine “rien de moins exotique” (Congo: 15). The difficulty of finding difference in the cities explored is a common theme in these writers: Gide’s conclusion. atmosphere and architecture. garishly-lit cafés and braying laughter. Meeting “des gens coiffés de façon extrêmement bizarre” on the outskirts of the town. “Rien n’est plus désespérant” (Michaux): reactions to the city Michaux realises his experience of the new is directly or indirectly mediated through the known when he writes. The European comparison is now implicit. (ii) “Une indéfinissable atmosphère de paix. as Lucey contends (1995: 150). in terms of people.”(Ecuador: 37) In other words. This town. What is valued is difference. that he cannot make real contact (“contact réel”) with difference will persist throughout his voyage. chief of which we discover. is black people. drawn while still at Brazzaville. It is the Western presence which detracts from his anticipated enjoyment of the town of Bangassou. The comparison he makes with Swift’s Lilliput Page | 2 . Gide’s early experience in the city of Dakar in effect illustrates Michaux’s point.
he writes. Cities remove freedom and constrain Michaux physically and viscerally: the prospect of the return to Paris means “on sent déjà les crampes de la misère. The city becomes an enlarged prison which Michaux’s mind longs to escape: “Pour une ville. de méfiance. A museum exhibition on the Equatorial Indians in Berlin provokes a tirade against the pressure he feels to “faire le voyageur intelligent. which obviously support it. d’oubli. qu’il me faut.” The urban landscape instantly controls and limits the individual. de bonheur” (Congo: 221). l’amateur d’exotisme”. the main target of Michaux’s anti-city writing: “Mais Quito! L’étouffement même” (Ecuador: 83). peu accessible. Is it the excitement. and the hate and envy he needs for his health can only be found in a city: “Une grande ville. (Ecuador: 80) The city is linked with regulation. Quito is now only a “petit village”. on est fixé. un esprit d’une certain dimension ne peut avoir que haine. et puis tout n’est qu’images acharnées d’égoïsme. cities retain some irresistible pull on Michaux. like walls. Quito. The city for Michaux tends to a single significance. emphasis in original). on his return voyage. sans doute merveilleux. The identification of city and prison is not restricted to physical features. suffit de regarder une ville. et on se tracasse malgré soi pour la chambre à punaise qu’il s’agira de trouver dans ce grand Paris” (Ecuador: 118). A visiting troupe of singers enlivens the Page | 3 . In the prose poem Je suis né troué./Une grande consommation d’envie” (Ecuador: 94). un Equatorien « donne » ce mot comme Paris. is. where Michaux spends some time on different occasions. this paradoxical need for the pernicious city is again voiced. de rigidité. punishment and authority wielded over the individual. the “merveilleux”. the stasis of the Berlin museum represents the removal of his intellectual freedom (Ecuador: 98). which carries over from Old World to New: imprisonment. Michaux needs of a city? An excoriation of Quito in the latter half of his journal perhaps confirms this view. (Ecuador: 88. He can acknowledge this even as he re-affirms the city’s danger: “El Oriente. “Paris? Et puis quoi?/ Ah que ce retour a de crampes” (Ecuador: 170). Pas besoin de connaitre le code Napoléon. de sottise. it pervades the entire physical and notional structure and Michaux equates the city directly with the French penal code: Les murs d’abord. Later. however. dangereux tous deux.confirms one’s impression that Gide derives pleasure from the scene in so far as it conforms to some phantasm of a utopian existence and that Gide has not succeeded in breaking through the “écran de la civilisation [occidentale]”: “Une indéfinissable atmosphère de paix. Notwithstanding these unambiguously odious characterisations.
Western European civilisation. “C’est le début de très honorables sciences exactes. cultural and geographical features of his French. For all his palpable eagerness to come across the exotic. The repeated reference to the European landscape makes familiar the exotic jungle landscape. de leurs branches pend une profusion de lichen vert tendre. its exotic qualities reduced through his desire to catalogue the jungle in European categories. semiosis for Gide occurs chiefly through his previous knowledge or expectations. the “merveilleux”. as Victor Segalen the seminal theorist of l’exotisme wrote. He attempts to explicate the unknown in terms of the known. comme on en voit aux mélèzes de l’Engadine. is the imprévu. Gide provides a finely detailed description of the jungle. d’une taille qui doit dépasser de beaucoup celle de nos arbres de France […] (Congo: 56) In characteristically elegant and balanced prose. Ce n’est pas de l’Exotisme” (1978: 79). the different. In expressing both the similarities and differences of the jungle in accessible European terms. knowing your jungle: Gide in Africa and Michaux in Amazonia Gide habitually represents the jungle in European terms. The following instance is exemplary of his practice: La forêt change un peu d’aspect . leurs troncs sont plus distincts . including the novel. previously viewed images. which denudes the jungle of its exotic mystery: Page | 4 . the jungle is domesticated. that is. What we find in Gide’s many descriptions of this type. of course.town and Michaux comments ironically that this “nous exhorte à croire que tout à Quito n’est pas irrémissiblement prévu depuis toujours” (Ecuador: 101). Our argument is that though Gide and Michaux are both seeking the exotic. It seems that what Michaux requires still of the city. désencombrés de lianes. Gide draws out the similarity to the Engadin valley and the dissimilarity of these taller trees to those found in France. The description of the forest makes the European connexion both positively and negatively. his representation of it is constantly in tones of disappointment. including film and. Certains de ces arbres sont gigantesques. les arbres sont plus beaux . despite his distaste for it. Under this rubric of the known may be included past travellers’ reports and accounts. (iii) Knowing my jungle.
Epaisse. he is chasing its shadow and repeatedly disappointed by what he does see. ils s’écartent un peu. il est vrai. J’espère trouver mieux ailleurs… Ni fleurs. (Congo: 40) Ce n’était pas encore la grande forêt ténébreuse […] (Congo: 44) Si intéressante que soit cette circulation parmi les végétaux inconnus. (Congo: 43) The succeeding entry in his journal describes the failure of this sense of the mysterious and eroticised jungle to endure: “Mais cette orgie n’a pas duré” (Congo: 43). ni fougères arborescentes. between the sign of the jungle and the object. cette fausse image ne luttera pas contre le souvenir […] (Congo: 95) “Image de l’ancien « Magasin Pittoresque » : la barre à Grand-Bassam. si des lianes les enlacent. plus tard. The shortcoming is explained by his previous expectations. Gide’s repeated wish to reach the real heart of the country (Congo: 35. se disposent sur le grand miroir du Congo d’une manière si harmonieuse qu’il semble que l’on circule dans un parc d’eau.” (Congo: 18) Page | 5 . laissent s’ouvrir des baies profondes de verdure. mais pas très haute et n’encombrant ni l’eau ni le ciel. c’est avec des courbes si molles que leur étreinte semble voluptueuse et pour moins d’étouffement que d’amour. Les îles. through its reliance on the atmosphere or impression created by the vegetation: Abondance d’arbres extrêmement hauts. There is a décalage between the jungle as he expects it and the jungle as he finds it in the real world. il me faut bien avouer que cette forêt me déçoit. His imaginary representation of the jungle dominates to the extent that. His visual expectation encumbers him to such an extent that any profound appreciation of the scene is fleeting. 44. once he finds himself in the Congo. se creuser des alcôves mystérieuses et.Je m’attendais à une végétation plus oppressante. ce matin. as if an attained benchmark of height and density immediately qualified a scene as ‘exotic’. (Congo: 46) It is the very specificity of the exoticism Gide seeks in the jungle which is “oppressante”: the minute attention he pays to the height of the trees and the thickness of the foliage. as shown in the quotations above. 46) underline the point that his visual expectations are not matched by his experiences. whether an image in his own mind or one externally supplied in a magazine of picturesque scenes: Ma représentation imaginaire de ce pays était si vive (je veux dire que je me l’imaginais si fortement) que je doute si. His search for a precise correspondence between his imagined and the real Africa condemns this aspect of his mission to failure when the success of a ‘jungle scene’ is determined by its correspondence to his preconceived visualisation of it. by what he previously knew of Africa. qui n’opposent plus au regard un trop impénétrable rideau .
Michaux succeeds not only in maintain the mysterious allure of the jungle but manages also to inverse the conventional figuring of the apartment as a comfortable space. 2004: 178). 2004: 165) characteristic of this voyage. an irreconcilable difference between the European reading self and the Amazonian jungle other and further Page | 6 . rather. His technique conforms to exoticism’s constitutive paradox as identified by Todorov (1989: 298). Michaux first presents the jungle to us in a paradoxical metaphor: “Cette forêt est chauffée. a conventional domestic space. is to preserve the exotic’s essential otherness by representing it in an imaginative and unfamiliar way. techniques in themselves inimical to straightforward understanding and familiarity. shown through his modification of literary defamiliarisation. to make it strange or unfamiliar. On est mal à l’aise. C’est la forêt tropicale” (Ecuador: 59-60). the reader experiences Segalen’s moment of exoticism as the comparison of the self (Western apartment) with the jungle other prompts “la perception aiguë et immédiate d’une incompréhensibilité éternelle” (1978: 44). conventionally. Michaux’s strength lies in his appreciation of the foundation of exoticism. The forest is transformed in metaphor into an apartment. he makes his own use of Flaubert’s policy. Gide’s reliance on realistic botanically-informed description of the jungle shows his desire to gain a complete knowledge of the jungle. This. To modify Todorov. Exoticism is “un éloge dans la méconnaissance”. where a successful jungle scene is one which becomes “ressemblant” (Congo: 43. On se méfie. Michaux’s technique in his best passages. Michaux’s text operates in such a way as to preserve the exotic in his representation to his readership. This initially familiarising aspect is ironically reversed when the apartment takes on some unspecified sinister and unsettling quality. “the fantasy of an ultimate centre and a correspondingly englobing sign” (Scott. knowledge (“la connaissance”) is seen to be incompatible with the representation of the exotic (1989: 298) and this ultimately accounts for the weakness of Gide’s exoticist writing of the jungle. ‘Dérouter le lecteur’ and cultivates the exotic in his representation. His search for knowledge determines his writing of the exotic jungle. sights imagined and produced images results in the “semiotic tautology” (Scott. Thus. Michaux’s writing is suffused with irony and humour. is the depiction of the common in such a way as to reveal it in a new light. Unlike Gide. which conforms to an existing visualisation of Africa. he realises the immensity of a forest does not “s’être laissé saisir” (Ecuador: 183).This jostling of sights seen. emphasis in original). Immense appartement. Michaux does not set out to familiarise the exotic for himself nor for a domestic readership.
. parfois éruption. tragique”. sans famille. 1978: 43)2.. sa couronne est de trois branches ou cinq et point à la même hauteur. Etonnante. while nonetheless maintaining the “méconnaissance”. (1934 (2005)). Toujours tête de défi. et de domination. “et le bois est tout différent de 1 2 The interpretation of Segalen’s theory of the exotic derives from Scott (2004). endowed as it now is with these sinister and unsettling qualities1. trees have “une grande famille” (Ecuador: 60-61). without recourse to rational explication and “connaissance” and embracing “le moment d’Exotisme” (Segalen. It begins. He branches into another metaphor to give another impression of the jungle. Received western visualisations of kingship are activated. It forcibly cultivates the reader’s negative capability. Secondly. this last word activates a rich personification of the jungle. pp 32-35 Page | 7 . Michaux stresses his subjectivity in the jungle by twice repeating.. the verb. The distinction made between “morts” and “vivants” no longer simply refers to alive and dead trees but also to living and dead people. The attention of the narrative now switches to the king of the trees: “Matapalo (tueur d’arbres)”. One of the concluding images of this diary entry is that of the lumberjacks felling Matapalo and discovering some other tree. haute. necessary to the exotic experience. The forest is “immense et mouvementée.prompts reflection on the self incarnate in the apartment. 58-59 A useful account of negative capability is John Dewey’s Art as Experience. Michaux’s account of the jungle is a paradigm of writing of the exotic.” phrasing. it allows us to experience the exotic of the jungle through this vivid extended metaphor of the jungle’s animation. and the “parfois. mais rameaux et feuilles arrangent ça. with a defiant and dominant aspect. parfois. It firstly confronts the Western locus (the apartment) with the exotic other of the jungle. “un Cumbi. il y a pour moi” and. Non. vraiment impériale . his or her capability of accepting uncertainties and doubts as intellectually valid. croix mise à plat. unlike Gide. Pas cette espèce de bol renversé comme tant d’autres. mentions European trees only to deride them: “nus. We know the tree’s qualities: surprising and truly imperial. “La forêt n’enterre pas ses cadavres”. the lack of complete and total knowledge. (Ecuador: 62) Note that the ambiguity of this description prevents any precise visual grasp of the appearance of this tree.. only to be quickly dispelled and dismissed in the subsequent sentence: Ce Roi a une couronne. but a visualisation of it is denied us through the ambiguity of the number of branches. arranger... ou un cèdre ou quelque grand arbre” at its centre. and provoking reflection on. lisses. très humaine. abandonnés” (Ecuador: 60). “Ici. parfois elle fait croix. the heretofore unquestioned safe domestic space and awareness of alterity. destabilising.
Travel is for both a means of encountering difference. was reporting on the situation in colonial Congo and his narrative grounds itself therefore in documentable fact. To travel in Michaux’s jungle is “sentir le Divers” (Segalen. Page | 8 . at the beginning of his career. writes imaginatively of his real voyage to Latin America. as Bowie rightly point out. The diversity contained within Matapalo and this individual tree is a metonym for the entire unknowable and unpredictable diversity of the jungle. 1973: 54). while Michaux’s is the fruit.ce qu’on attendait” (Ecuador: 63). however. rather. (iv) Conclusion The essential differences between these two writers’ works are not generic: both are travel journals with appended (and footnoted) essays. at the height of his fame. Michaux. does not trouble to detail his expectations of his travels. 1978: 43). Michaux. their methods of representation differ radically in their willingness to experience difference. Yet. Gide relies heavily on his expectations and represents the city and the jungle as accurately as he can. Gide. Gide’s text is undeniably documentary. of his attempts at the “craft of literary travel” (Bowie. he communicates his experience if the exotic in exotic ways: defamiliarising and ultimately denying to the reader the comprehensive knowledge of the exotic Gide strives to impart.
Todorov. Gide's bent: sexuality. 1929. 2005) 5. Tzvetan. Semiologies of Travel from Gautier to Baudrillard (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. Malcom. Gide. André Voyage au Congo (Gallimard: Paris. John. Michael. writing (New York . repr. Balch and Company. Michaux. Segalen. London: Perigee Books. Henri Michaux . Oxford : Oxford University Press. Art as Experience (New York. Bowie. 1995) 2. 1989) Page | 9 . Paris: Fata Morgana. 2004) 7.Bibliography Primary Texts: 1. 1908. Essai sur l’exotisme (Fontfroide: Bibliothèque. repr.a study of his literary works (Oxford: Clarendon Press. 1927 & 1928. David. Nous et les autres : la réflexion française sur la diversité humaine (Paris: Éds du Seuil. repr. 1978) 8. politics. 1995) 6. 1934. 1968) Secondary Texts: 3. repr. Henri Ecuador (Gallimard: Paris. Scott. Victor. Minton. Dewey. Lucey. 1973) 4.
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