You are on page 1of 12

Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 1



Robert Young defines the imperialist and colonial projects as distinct practices of
expansionism: “Colonialism functioned as an activity on the periphery…[I]mperialism on the
other hand, operated from the center as a policy of state, driven by the grandiose projects of
power” (16-17). Although Mirbeau’s Lettres de l’Inde, a series of 11 letters supposedly written in
India but, in truth, composed in France and published in Le Gaulois and the Journal des Débats
in 1885 are inspired by what Young calls “grandiose projects of power,” 1 they equally aspire to an
analysis of colonial affairs as, supposedly, researched at the periphery. In other words, Mirbeau
uses colonial discourse in the hopes of furthering a radically imperialist agenda. Instead of
opting for a tract, he seemingly de-politicizes his text by restricting the level of its involvement to
that of a sophisticated journal de bord, his political message veiled by the beauty of the landscape
and the scandalous suffering of the British-ruled Hindus. Mirbeau’s conflation of the colonial
and the imperial as defined by Young allows for the creation of a most powerful discourse,
anchored in the authority of spectatorship and suffused by the didacticism of political theory. The
two are by no means mutually exclusive; they are, in fact, mutually reinforcing. In Mirbeau’s
case, however, it is crucial not to lose sight of the fact that the eyewitness/colonial portion of his
project is in its intellectual intent entirely fictitious. Although it is based on a number of
historically legitimate textual sources2 and corresponds to historical facts fairly accurately, it uses
language not at the moment of its intersection with the material world but rather in view of the
latter’s production. Mirbeau’s discourse is not an act of language as historical event, interacting
and interrelating with material circumstance (Young 398); it is, on the contrary, what, according
to Young, Foucault’s discourse never meant to signify : “Foucault’s very radical notion of
discourse is primarily directed away from any form of textualism, textual idealism, texts as
disembodied artefacts, or intertextuality, toward a concept of the materiality of language in every
dimension” (398). The Lettres de l’Inde series, however, is not “disembodied.” Mirbeau’s text is
hosted in a valid discursive body, namely that of newspaper journalism. It is thus reinserted into
the larger frame of colonial discourse and as such becomes a locus for generating political power.
In other words, a fictional text with a real agenda is manipulated by political power structures in
place — Deloncle and his Jules Ferry connection in Mirbeau’s case — into discourse which by
definition intersects with material reality generating what is now an excess of power, while the
political program is to be cloaked by literature.
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 2

Who, then, assumes the excess of power generated in the fault line of text and material
reality ? Young describes imperialism as a dynamic system predicated on the model of capitalist
rivalry : “Imperialism was a dynamic, never a static system, and reflected in its international basis
the expansive process of production and consumption that mature capitalism had introduced into
the world economic structure” (31). Although these capitalist processes of production and
consumption are antagonistic in nature, they are all successfully inscribed within the frame of the
dynamic system that is imperialism. Antagonism, in other words, does not consume existing
power, it, in fact, increases it. Imperialist discourse is, to a certain extent, sustained by political,
social, and economic clashes. Young’s discussion of British association as opposed to French
assimilation (31-32) as political practice underlines the Foucauldian premise that discourses
operate in “unstable environments of change and transformation” (Young 403). In fact, Foucault
himself suggests that unstable discursive practices produce power : “ . . . il faut concevoir le
discours comme une série de segments discontinus dont la fonction tactique n’est ni uniforme ni
stable . . . Le discours véhicule et produit du pouvoir ; il le renforce, mais aussi le mine,
l’expose, le rend fragile et permet de le barrer” (Histoire de la sexualité I : La volonté de savoir
133). This argument allows for the assertion that overt colonial antagonism, at times involving
warfare, as practiced by colonizing states at the end of the nineteenth century in Africa as well as
in the Indian subcontinent and the Far East, was, in fact, not an elimination game but rather an
affirmation of imperialist projects. Foucault has argued that knowing and unveiling sexuality
empowers societal structures meant to control and subject : “ . . . la sexualité s’est définie comme
étant ‘par nature’ : un domaine pénétrable à des processus pathologiques, et appelant donc des
interventions de thérapeutiques ou de normalisation ; . . . un foyer de relations causales
indéfinies, une parole obscure qu’il faut à la fois débusquer et écouter” (92). The same can be
said of knowing, describing and assuming the power of the colonized within the larger frame of
colonial antagonism. Penetrability of the other’s space and normalization of his ontological and
political status are at the core of colonial discourse. Although practices may differ greatly and at
times clash, power is redistributed among the agents of colonization, in part because, as Foucault
suggests, cause-effect relations are rationalized in ways that encourage a persistently horizontal
expansion — a hierarchically vertical relationship to the racial other could open the door for what
Bhabha has defined as colonial mimicry, in other words, “an immanent threat to both
‘normalized’ knowledges and disciplinary powers” (86). This active colonial negotiation then
empowers the more abstract, more theoretical imperialist discourse inviting it in turn to inform its
own discursive practices creating in truth a closed circuit of signification capable of producing
the real : “Il faut cesser de toujours décrier les effets du pouvoir en termes négatifs : il ‘exclut’, il
‘réprime’, il ‘refoule’, il ‘censure’, il ‘abstrait’, il ‘masque’, il ‘cache’. En fait le pouvoir produit
; il produit du réel ; il produit des domaines d’objets et des rituels de vérité. L’individu et la
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 3

connaissance qu’on peut en prendre relèvent de cette production” (Surveiller et punir 196). If
oscillation-as-conflict and the ensuing gains and losses is what allows discourses to inhabit given
societal and political structures without ever exhausting themselves, then the French distrust of
and opposition to British colonial policies as “witnessed” by Mirbeau in India should be
interpreted as yet another discourse aimed at solidifying colonial rule. As long as power is
negotiated in discursive modes that exclude the racial other by revealing him, the discovery of the
“pauvre petit hindou,” victim of the British, empowers both colonial rulers’ imperialist project by
means of discursive and linguistic subjection. As Foucault suggests, there is nothing discursively
negative about the victimization of the colonized. It is, in fact, a fairly productive practice insofar
as it covertly advocates colonial confrontation which will subsequently yield power. In the
subject’s discontent and resistance the Frenchman does not discern a desire to assume the excess
of colonial power but rather a cry for help. Mirbeau’s letters fabricate a historical moment’s
authenticity under the false pretence of knowledge proving that colonial discourses, although
never “disembodied imaginative representation[s],” (Young 400) may develop languages capable
of producing History. Once reinserted into the real by means of valid discursive media — serious
journalism in Mirbeau’s case — they are as effective in their exercise of power as any other
discursive manifestation of the material world.
Mirbeau’s Lettres de l’Inde textually stage the dynamic oscillation Foucault and Young
discuss by both opposing and praising the British colonial model. The first letter which is
supposedly written on board the Saghalien as it approaches Egypt is a good example of what
appears to be vehement anti-British criticism and naïve pro-French propaganda : “[l’Egypte]
s’attriste par la dureté du spectacle d’une population affamée, rongée par la vermine anglaise,
sans espoir et sans lendemain” (27). The author concludes : “Et nous nous disons que les Anglais
ont beau occuper Port Saïd, Ismaïlia, Suez lui-même, depuis que nous avons Rass-Sejan, depuis
qu’ils sont impuissants à tenir la mer Rouge, leur occupation du canal n’est qu’un leurre” (28).
Although both quotes seem to detect and castigate British weaknesses in colonizing practices and
accept a de facto superiority of the French, they, in fact, suggest a rift not between France and its
rival, but rather between the two colonizers and the indigenous population. The sublime,
symbolical Egypt rising over its own people and lamenting their fate is a very effective colonial
discursive strategy insofar as it multiplies the distance between the colonized people and the
French onlooker. We are left to assume that if the French were in charge of Egypt, that same
disembodied entity, a relic of its past and a projection of exoticism at the same time, would have
mediated the narrator’s discourse. In other words, the nationality of the colonizer is irrelevant to
the subjection of the Egyptian people as colonial practice. This is further substantiated by the
complete effacement of the land and the people in the narrator’s appraisal of power distribution in
the area, a prediction that assumes two players and the impossibility of local involvement. The
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 4

phantom of Egypt is exactly that : a theoretical notion useful to the British and the French as
discursively oscillating object and as the necessary Foucauldian anchor in reality.
The narrator’s report from Ceylon further disconnects the colonized from his presence on
the colonized land. In the fourth letter, the reader follows Mirbeau’s account of the Modeliar
princes’ history since colonization which is, of course, suffused with British injustice and
wrongdoing. This is a heavily annotated text meant to demystify and historicize a locus of exotic
literature. What the letter in fact achieves is further mystification of the metropolitan reader who
witnesses the past come to life through the narrator’s literal eyes:
Je revoyais le dernier prince de Candy, assassiné sur cette marche devant la Dent
auguste, par un soldat anglais ; puis je m’imaginais Ceylan revivant sa vie
nationale, et ce temple où j’étais redevenant le centre politique de l’île, tandis que
les Modéliars, s’en allant, un à un, venaient tous me serrer la main comme s’ils
sentaient que quelque chose de leur rêve avait passé dans moi. (54)
The choice of a Buddhist temple as setting, the explicit references to local mytho-theology as
well as the quasi-mystical intellectual and emotional kinship between the narrator and the
indigenous people assign divine attributes to him. Being different in both kind and degree from
the Modeliars, the battle he will fight on their behalf will necessarily exclude them. The power
generated by the clash between the Frenchman and the Englishman, a conflict which becomes
possible thanks to what is posited as concrete knowledge of the other’s culture, will be
redistributed along the horizontal axis of colonial expansionism. When the narrator says that
there exists, “dans toutes ces villes de sages et doux hommes, la menace et l’effroi d’un canon
anglais, toujours braqué,” he assumes inertia among the colonized, a deficiency of agency which
renders his intervention inevitable. The difference in kind highlighted in the previously discussed
passage is here reinforced by the emphasized incompatibility between the local people’s character
and the colonizer’s technological superiority, a logically flawed argument, but one which furthers
Mirbeau’s colonial discourse, this time by rationalizing French involvement: without the help of
the French, the indigenous people will never be able to anchor themselves in the reality of
colonial affairs.
This, however, is not the only reason why the French should expand their colonies in
the subcontinent. When the narrator arrives in Pondichéry he makes the following observation:
“Oh ! qu’il fait doux retrouver la langue de France, le pavillon qui flotte sur le mât des signaux et
domine bien haut cette terre française de l’Inde, cette patrie qui nous sourit comme une vieille
amie ! Il semble que l’air est moins pesant, la terre plus libre, l’homme moins courbé . . .” (57).
Appropriating the other’s land is only at the surface of the narrator’s project. The most narratively
fascinating aspect of this passage is the insidious reconfiguration of the city’s human face : the
language of the land is apparently French, its stylistic transformation into an old friend assumes
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 5

the presence of familiar faces, and the feeling of freedom is much more reminiscent of a post-
revolutionary French city than it is of a colonized Asian one. Once again, it is very hard if not
impossible to discern the actual inhabitants of Pondichéry. And although this nationalistic
outburst appears to target the English, it really only ensures the perpetuation of colonial rule in
the area, since an obliterating colonizing force is always displacing and spatially deferring the
colonized, be it the English canons or the sweet sound of the French language. The letter closes
on an aural image, more powerful in its discursive effect than anything Mirbeau has previously
described: “Et du côté de la caserne, où se tiennent les élégantes créoles de Pondichéry, la
musique des cipayes joue le God save the Queen et la Marseillaise” (63).
The following letter, entitled L’Hindou, suggests the possibility of a revolt. It is the first
time that Indian inertia is mitigated by the potential of an uprising leading to a poorly defined
independence from the British. Mirbeau foresees the following historical circumstance for such
an event to take place: “ . . . si jamais, comme on l’écrit et comme on le dit dans ce pays, une
guerre éclate entre l’Angleterre et la Russie pour la possession de l’Inde, on sera bien étonné en
Europe, de l’attitude nouvelle des Hindous, et l’ébranlement qui s’ensuivra refera peut-être, dans
l’histoire, la page immortelle de l’indépendance hellénique” (69). The French would not be
involved in such conflict but they would be expected to take sides: “ . . . [les indigènes] n’en
comptent pas moins sur notre intervention pacifique, quand l’heure sera venue” (70). This is,
however, a very problematic emancipation narrative. The seeming reappearance of the indigenous
people is radically undercut by the lack of agency. The role assigned to them is clearly defined by
the colonizer’s political agenda. Rivalry between Russia and Great Britain is what sustains
French aspirations in the area. France’s hope is to appropriate the power generated by the Anglo-
Russian conflict. Power will not be distributed to or shared with the emancipated people; British
rule will be displaced by the “peaceful” presence of the French allowing once again for horizontal
absorption of excess by the same agent that created it, namely colonial discourses. Mirbeau’s text
plays an active role in the proliferation and affirmation of such discourses insofar as it stages
potential conflicts the what-if analysis of which solidifies the working assumption of any
discourse, the controlled and contained distribution of power. At the core of the uprising scenario
is the assumption of knowledge: knowing and revealing the other relegates him/her to a de facto
state of subjugation.
Homi Bhabha has argued in The Location of Culture that stereotyping is a complex
discursive practice :
Stereotyping is not the setting up of a false image which becomes the scapegoat of
discriminatory practices. It is a much more ambivalent text of projection and
introjection, metaphoric and metonymic strategies, displacement,
overdetermination, guilt, aggressivity; the masking and splitting of ‘official’ and
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 6

phantasmatic knowledges to construct the positionalities and oppositionalities of

racist discourse. (81-82)
Mirbeau’s phantasmatic yet official knowledge of the Hindu, the Veddah and the Afghan is at the
core of a discourse meant to solidify, to use Bhabha’s words, colonial positionalities within a
radically racial frame of oppositionality. His description of the Veddah is predicated on the myth
of the bon sauvage. In the fourth letter, the Veddah is a lyrical poet who lives “dans les antres de
cette nature inculte et magnifique” (51). The Afghan, on the other hand, is scientifically known:
“Vous me pardonnerez de vous fournir quelques données scientifiques sur cette nation très peu
connue” (74). The facts that follow are either elements of Afghan foundational mythologies or a
blend of racially tinted behavioral characteristics and political and social shortcomings (75-76).
Contrary to the Veddahs, however, the Afghans have a political role to play in colonial affairs,
hence the lengthy diatribe on their potential revolt against the British, which would primarily
result from the colonizer’s inability to understand them. The British see nothing human in them:
“Pour [l’Anglais], ce ne sont pas des hommes, mais des troupeaux qui rapportent tant par tête et
doivent deumerer dans l’abjection, comme de vulgaires parias du sud” (77). The Afghan,
however, lives for vengeance (76) and is very likely to side with Russia in order to avenge
national humiliation (78). In other words, whether politically useful or simply strange, the other
is positioned at a considerable distance from the narrative — and imperialist — center. He is
geographically removed, but also culturally distinct. As Bhabha has argued, however,
stereotyping the other is not a monolithic practice. It presupposes a parallel repositioning of the
center. In Mirbeau’s case, that center is not unique. It is occupied by multiple and numerically
unstable sub-centers apparently antagonistic but, in truth, mutually strengthening. The loss of
British influence in the area is a case of metonymic power transference justified by the radical
racist oppositionality between the Afghan or Veddah and the colonizer. Whether it is British
ignorance of local character or carefully calculated orchestration of national conflicts by the
French that motivate unrest in the Afghan country, power generated by warfare will be
redistributed within the center, repositioning discursive elements, renaming and reconfiguring
oppositionalities, without, however, exhausting the discourse. According to Mirbeau, the Afghan
language has codified colonial discursive practices : “Je connais un proverbe afghan qui dit:
‘Mieux vaut deux poux russes qu’une puce anglaise” (76).
The use of racial otherness as part of complex subjugation practices is amplified in
Mirbeau’s presentation of the Hindu : “L’Hindou n’est pas comme le Français ou l’Anglais, un
homme d’une seule origine. L’Inde comprend d’innombrables races, différentes entre elles du
tout au tout” (65). Although it appears that this passage unproblematically separates the
discursive object from the analyzing subject, rendering, thus, the hitherto covert, mostly
symbolic, obliteration of the local people more concrete, it shifts the discursive frame of the sub-
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 7

centers’ interdependency from politics to race. It suggests that colonial endeavors are at least
partially justified by the superiority of racial purity which, although a widespread propaganda
argument, has not been Mirbeau’s obvious theoretical reference. It also implies emulation of the
British imperialist model insofar as it promotes the white man’s burden agenda. How are we to
reconcile Mirbeau’s fervent anti-British rhetoric with a shift in tone that appears to accommodate
the rival ? Addressing this question invites the use of Bhabha’s concept of phantasmatic
knowledges as an operational model. Mirbeau is basing his social theory of India on Gobineau’s
Essai sur l’inégalité des races.3 He echoes Gobineau when he suggests that India’s power resides
in its cast system : “Rien, rien d’humain ne détruira cette immobilité sublime, qui fait sa force et
son salut, ni les armées et leurs canons, ni les banques et leurs caisses. Ils sont venus les Anglais
; ils peuvent venir les Moscovites : l’Hindou se courbera et laissera passer l’effroyable tempête”
(68). Not only is knowledge of the Hindu masked by its textual source but it is also split by the
antagonistic intentionality of the colonial discourse. The British appears to be centrally positioned
by means of his racial similarity to the French only to be relegated to an unsuccessfully conflicted
periphery where a fundamentally racial oppositionality between the European and the local is
operative. As it has already been shown, such oppositionalities reposition the colonizer in the
center and power generated in the process alternatively benefits the sub-centers. In other words,
a seemingly radical shift in language is no more than an amplified metonymic strategy of
displacement. Rhetorical clashes between the British and the French, such as their diverging
philosophical interpretations of cast (71), aim at the same official knowledge of the other, a
phantasmatic creation which introduced in political practice acquires the legitimacy of power.
Emulating the antagonist, either indirectly or as obviously as Mirbeau’s suggestion in the
eleventh letter that the French follow the sunnud model (94) of government, is part of Bhabha’s
ambivalent text of projection and introjection, a discourse of expansion and retraction meant to
manage and absorb excesses of power at the periphery.
This pulsating motion of expansion and retraction is metaphorically embodied by one of
the most important peripheral players in late nineteenth-century colonial matters, namely China.
Mirbeau’s discussion of the political importance of the Tchambi valley is revealing:
On peut dire que c’est un coin que la Chine a enfoncé entre le Sikkim et le Boutan,
dans l’Inde anglaise, presque jusqu’aux limites du Bengale. Jalousement gardée,
âprement défendue, reculant insensiblement, et jour par jour, les bornes de son
territoire, elle constitue un des phénomènes les plus curieux de cette politique
chinoise, qui s’étend partout comme une lèpre, et qui sait, même quand elle perd
des empires, se ménager une entrée dérobée, un accès qu’on ne peut lui ravir, au
centre même des territoires perdus. (92)
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 8

Chinese colonial practices, although presented as radically other, are eerily reminiscent of French
and British politics — the leper metaphor is a metonymic stand-in for the British elsewhere
metaphorically associated to vermin in particular and disease in general (letters I and IV).
Although in China’s case it would be impossible to tell where the center ends and the periphery
begins, the same power generating oscillation that defines European colonial politics is at the
core of its expansion. Acknowledging the Chinese threat and describing it in rhetorical and
imagistic terms paralleling those used to illustrate colonial antagonism between France and Great
Britain, implicitly signifies acceptance of the two competitors’ interdependence and mutual
reliance for the advancement of their national colonial projects. If China, as other, embodies one
type of colonial discourse, no matter how similar to the one developed by the British and the
French, the clash of the two colonial models not only justifies European expansion but it equally
allows for power generation by multiplying conflicts and thus creating new loci of distribution.
What makes these practices discursively effective is their anchoring in material reality.
According to both Young and Foucault, colonial discourse is textually fabricated at the center as
imperialist ideology but practically implemented at the periphery by legitimate military,
governmental, commercial, and economic structures. Why, then, would a series of fictional letters
warrant analysis as discourse ? They are fundamentally textual in both nature and inspiration,
there is an obvious stylistic attempt at the a-political, and, most importantly, they were not written
at the periphery, they were, in fact, composed at the center. However immaterial Mirbeau’s letters
appear to be, their publication in newspapers as a reporter’s account of historical events allows
for the participation of a fictional text in shaping colonial policy. Mirbeau may have never set
foot in India, but it is difficult to deny the literal materiality of his letters as well as their
discursive effect in solidifying expansionism. In other words, Mirbeau’s letters could have
potentially contributed to the advent of observable and recordable historical events. Whether they
did or not is beyond the scope of this study, but it is problematic to reject the possibility. In that
sense Lettres de l’Inde is imperialist discourse, produced at the center with a clear political
agenda, with the added advantage of colonial legitimacy, doubly effective, in other words, as
ideology a posteriori recounted as historical truth.
Mirbeau uses a number of different narrative strategies to ensure the textual legitimacy
expected from an eyewitness’s account. The first letter is dated (“23 janvier 1885”) and although
en route to India the location is mentioned as well (Aden), in observance of the fundamental
conventions of letter writing. The second letter is centered around an interview of Arabi-Pacha,
the founder of Egypt’s National Party and instigator of Egyptian resistance against the British in
the early 1880s.4 This is not the only time Mirbeau fictitiously interviews an important political
figure in his series of letters. He also visits the Myingun prince, son of the Burmese king Mindon
Min who was displaced by British occupation of Lower Burma.5 Both interviews are reported in
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 9

direct speech, typographically dialogical and content-wise authenticated by Mirbeau’s assertion

that he speaks both Arabic (36) and Hindi (59). The Myingun prince interview is introduced by
the following disclaimer: “Je n’ai voulu ni poétiser ni dramatizer le récit, tenant au contraire, à lui
conserver sa saveur de simplicité” (59). Mirbeau annotates his own text not to conceal its lack of
authenticity — his sources (Notes de l’Inde and Deloncle’s reports) guarantee a sufficient degree
of historical accuracy — but mainly to discursively frame the content of his interlocutor’s speech,
to assign truth value to what in both cases is condemnation of British colonial policies and
adulation of the French, which, as it has been shown, ultimately increases the colonial sub-
centers’ power. The Arabi-Pacha interview is revealing of the discursive advantage Mirbeau’s
letters have: although part of the interview is taken verbatim from Deloncle’s report on Arabi-
Pacha, the section on the Mahdi is entirely different.6 Mirbeau updates the information available
to him based on events that have taken place between Deloncle’s report and the time of
composition. In other words, he inserts elements of present historical reality in a fictional text
based on the textual version of past historical events, empowering the imperialist center he writes
for with the gift of insight translatable into political capital to be used for the further development
of colonial discourses.
Another strategy Mirbeau uses to ensure discursive legitimacy is the incorporation of
information as it supposedly appears in the press. At the beginning of the fourth letter Mirbeau
reports from Ceylon a sudden change of plans:
Je me proposais de vous écrire encore longuement sur l’île admirable que j’habite
depuis huit jours. Mais les graves nouvelles que publie le Times of Ceylan [sic]
sur l’agitation soulevée dans l’Inde par la nouvelle de la chute de Khartoum et
l’occupation russe de Pendjeh, en Afghanistan, vont m’obliger à résumer mes
impressions et à partir précipitamment pour l’Inde, où la situation semble devenir
critique. (49)
This newsflash is a less than subtle reminder of both verifiable events occurring during the
reporter’s supposed stay in India and the dominating British presence on the island. It is worth
noting that although the information is provided by a source Mirbeau has no reason to trust, at
least according to the unenthusiastic picture of the British he, himself, has been painting all
along, he unquestionably vouches for its reliability by organizing the rest of his journey around it.
Whether this report is part of Mirbeau’s strategy to anchor his text in History or a turn of events
necessary to the continuation of his narrative is, to a large extent, beside the point. The Times of
Ceylan is a valid colonial discursive medium: published at the periphery, it is an expression of
power and an agent of its proliferation. Information is distributed by two seemingly rivaling but
in truth complementary sources: the British colonial newspaper and the French imperialist press.
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 10

The spelling mistake — although by no means the only one in Mirbeau’s letters — illustrates the
discursive potential of what appears to be political tension between two colonial powers.
Although a significant number of Mirbeau’s letters are more or less overtly pro-colonial,
it would be very difficult to classify letters VIII and IX as even remotely political — the section
on the inhabitants of Sikkim notwithstanding). They describe at length the natural beauty of
Darjiling and marvel at the philosophical integrity of Buddhism. These two letters have been read
as the westerner’s desire to lose himself in nirvana — hence Mirbeau’s signature: initially
Nirvana and then just the letter N. Christian Petr argues that “les lettres de Mirbeau inscrivent
dans notre littérature une nouvelle tentation du sujet occidental: celle d’aller en Inde disparaître
en tant qu’entité psychologique . . .” (336). Despite the fact that Petr’s article discerns no
political dimension in Mirbeau’s text, this particular observation carries significant political and,
in particular, colonial meaning. The description of Darjiling is so exaggeratedly poetic that it
clearly transcends the actual landscape. I would argue that, contrary to Petr’s interpretation, the
Darjiling chapters attempt the articulation of a rather philosophically oriented colonial discourse :
discovering and exploring Buddhist philosophy is certainly more than an orientalist novelty ; it is,
in fact, a spiritual retelling of the inaugural colonial narrative, only, this time, it is not the promise
of a new world but that of a new, post-psychological self that motivates expansion.

Mirbeau’s Lettres de l’Inde, although fictional, produce significant discursive effects: by

pretending to know the colonized other and assuming responsibility for excess of power as it is
produced at the fault line of colonial antagonism, they facilitate its redistribution among colonial
sub-centers, in this particular case Great Britain and France. The fact that a text with such a
problematic relationship to reality does in fact participate in actual discourses thanks to its
medium, namely journalism, legitimizes the assumption that it may, at any given time, cluster
with or clash against equally fictitious texts producing real events at multiple removes from
reality. Is the use of the word discourse justified in such an eventuality ? To the extent that,
according to Foucault, power is in essence restrictive7, restraining the limits of verifiability
should be acknowledged as a perfectly acceptable practice : its discursive effect is no other than
the intensification of the search for verifiable truth, a quest on the one hand bound to failure by its
very philosophical nature, but on the other hand productive in its incitement for creation and
proliferation of structures apparently meant to ensure its success, but, in truth, guaranteeing the
inexhaustibility of the discourse at hand.
University of California, Irvine
Lettres de l’Inde: Fictional Histories as Colonial Discourse 11

Mirbeau’s fictional letters were published with help from Deloncle whose clear political agenda was the
intensification of colonization. The journalistic fortunes of Mirbeau’s letters are discussed in detail by Pierre Michel and
Jean-François Nivet in the préface to their edition of Lettres de l’Inde.
Mirbeau’s most important sources are Deloncle’s 17 voluminous reports addressed to the president of the Jules
Ferry Council (Lettres de l’Inde, preface, 11). Other sources include Robert de Bonnières’ Notes sur l’Inde and Haeckel’s
Lettres d’un voyageur en Inde.
see note 115, p. 108
see note 25, p.99
see note 103, p.106
see note 34, pp.99-100
“Le pouvoir, comme pure limite tracée à la liberté, c’est, dans notre société au moins, la forme générale de son
acceptabilité” (Histoire de la sexualité I: La volonté de savoir 114).

Works Cited

Bhabha, Homi. The Location of Culture. London: Routledge, 1994.

Foucault, Michel. Histoire de la sexualité I: La volonté de savoir. Collection Tel. Paris: Gallimard,


---. Surveiller et punir : Naissance de la prison. Paris: Gallimard, 1975.

Michel, Pierre and Jean-François Nivet. Préface. Lettres de l’Inde. By Octave Mirbeau. Eds. Pierre

Michel and Jean-François Nivet. Paris: L’Echoppe, 1991. 7-23.

Mirbeau, Octave. Lettres de l’Inde. Eds. Pierre Michel and Jean-François Nivet. Paris: L’Échoppe,


Petr, Christian. “L’être de l’Inde.”, Cahiers Octave Mirbeau 4 (1997): 329-337.

Young, Robert. Postcolonialism : An Historical Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 2001.