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Hualin International Journal of Buddhist Studies 1.1 (2018): 192–225;
(This article belongs to the Special Issue Buddhism in the West)

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Staging the Buddha: Victor Segalen’s Siddhârtha and the Unsettlement of Western Culture

Université Sorbonne nouvelle (Paris 3)

Abstract: Colombo, November 1904. Returning from Tahiti to France after an almost two-year trip, a dispatch boat made an unforeseen six-week stop-over. Victor Segalen (1878–1919), the French famous post-Symbolist poet, had been appointed as the shipboard physician. During this unplanned stay, Segalen encountered Theravādin Buddhism and was inspired to write a play not on the Buddha as god, idol, or myth, but on the human life of Siddhārtha Gautama, the historical Buddha. Segalen did not fully know at the time that similar dramatic projects had already been attempted by other European writers and artists. Furthermore, he soon discovered that his own encounter with Buddhism took place at a crucial point of world history. By writing a play on the Buddha, Segalen actually testified to an era of unsettlement in which Buddhism, Empire and Modernism met. I argue here that a contextualized analysis of Segalen’s drama helps delineate important and underestimated transnational and cross-cultural issues of the early twentieth century.

Keywords: Victor Segalen, Literary Globalization, Theatre History, Orientalism, Life of the Buddha, Modern Buddhism, Literary Geography


About the Author: Samuel Thévoz received a Ph.D. in literature from the University of Lausanne where he has been teaching French literature from 2008 to 2012. In his dissertation he studied the perception of landscape by the French explorers to Tibet. From 2012 to 2016, he has been leading a three-year stand-alone project on the reception of Buddhism in French theater as an advanced researcher supported by the Swiss National Science Foundation. He is now studying the lives of the Buddha in modern Western and Asian theatre as a research fellow supported by The Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation Program for Buddhist Studies. He is the author of Un horizon infini: Explorateurs et voyageurs français au Tibet (1846–1912) (2010). He recently edited Marie de Ujfalvy-Bourdon, Voyage d’une Parisienne dans l’Himalaya (2014).


This is an open access article distributed under the Creative Commons Attribution License which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original work is properly cited.