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Staging the Buddha: Victor Segalen’s Siddhârtha and the Unsettlement of Western Culture
Université Sorbonne nouvelle (Paris 3)
Keywords: Victor Segalen, Literary Globalization, Theatre History, Orientalism, Life of the Buddha, Modern Buddhism, Literary Geography
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.