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The Stranger Within

Notes on French literary exoticism
A wide, flat valley with a mountain in the distance. In the foreground, a flock of sheep, a tent, and a man in white, flowing garments.

Abdelkebir Khatibi (1938–2009) was a Moroccan man of letters who attended both Koranic and French schools. Alternately a poet, playwright, novelist, essayist, and even sociologist (having defended a dissertation at the Sorbonne in 1965 with Roland Barthes among his examiners), he is best known for two books first published in 1983, Amour bilingue (a novel, translated in 1990 by Richard Howard as Love in Two Languages), and Plural Maghreb (a work of postcolonial theory, translated by P. Burcu Yalim in 2019). As those titles alone indicate, he was fiercely committed to the dismantling of linguistic, national, and ethnocentric boundaries, and his literary criticism continues to be a major source of inspiration for students of world literature.

What follows is the preface to his 1987 book Figures of the Stranger in French Literature. At once autobiographical narrative, essay, apologue, dialogue, and commentary, the text recounts the estrangement of the exile in the language of the colonizer. Like many of Khatibi’s essays, it takes as its subject the very experience of writing, of encoding his identity in language. Here, Khatibi is our guide to typical literary constructions of the foreigner and the exile, the colonizer and the noble savage.

—Joseph Pomp and Chahrazad Zahi

This book is the journey of a journey. From its first steps, this second-degree itinerary limited itself to an interrogation of the representation of the foreigner in the French literary imaginary, particularly into what we call exoticism. However, exoticism, here, isn’t a surface-level folklore but the secret of all literature, of all its paradigms.

I had attuned myself to a limited selection of modern texts dealing with countries that are foreign to France because of differences in language, civilization, religious or artistic imagination. Working from this selection, which I’ll come back to, I asked myself the following question: Up until now, how has French literature worked through these differences?

Isn’t reevaluating the “concept” of literature the task of all writing worthy of the name?

The perspective of my inquiry changed over the course of this itinerary: the more I read and explored this so-called exotic literature about different parts of the world (especially East Asia and the Arab world), the more I encountered an abundance of texts of unequal value: while Asia is the object of beautiful texts by Claudel, Perse, Michaux, Barthes, and above all Segalen, and while all this richness set me to dream and to work, I didn’t discover a single valuable text on Black Africa. Gide’s travel diaries on the Congo and Chad don’t amount to an original work, whether in terms of form or of thought on cultural difference. I was almost amused when I realized that the best French text on Africa is Impressions of Africa. But the Raymond Roussel book is completely imagined, built upon a play between two words: billiard (billard) and pillager (pillard). I remind myself: Africa is truly a black continent in this imagination, a sort of unknown planet.

I had to change direction and, from close-up, get a handle on the two sides of exoticism, inside and outside—because exoticism from within is inherent to all literature. I’d also been led to follow this literature along its journey in space and time, to reconstruct the path of textual memory from the perspective of poetry. I had called this path “France.”  But which France, for its own sake and for every foreigner who approaches it from inside and outside?

Revisiting the path of this research, which I began three years ago at the new Collège international de philosophie[1], and its results, I now see that I had set off with too pressing, too current of questions. This journey through the antiquated and memorial—surely a targeted reconstitution of my own memory—had led me to an ancient, indelible question that lies in the backstage of French literature and its history, and buttresses the future of this literature and some of its structural paradigms. 

We know that the Homeric narrative, the first Western narrative and a bridge from vocal literature to written literature, is an introduction to extraneousness, meaning the world as narration of the outside, the strange, the foreign, the barbaric. The narrative is as much the mythic core of the representation of others as it is a sequence of marvelous journeys; it is as much this introduction as it is magical thinking about ways of representing oneself, of deciding for oneself what is on the outside (territorially, linguistically, culturally, spatially, cosmically). And this outside—in the Homeric narrative—is also the journey of no return (of the narrator, of the traveler). I’ll later say this: I come from far away, and the foreigner comes from even further inside my memory and its dispersion, whether from nostalgia, ignorance, or denial.

An anamnesis is at work on both sides of the Mediterranean: a circular trail, as well as a rosary whose beads are islands of dream and prayer in one’s hands. To write is to return to the call on solar memory.

Ulysses, this first narrative, was placed under the sign of travel, of narrative as a metaphor for travel. It is no accident that Joyce—who isn’t the only one—stages his intertextual revolution by diverting Ulysses from his initial journey. Joyce’s writing is a monumental narrative of languages. The limit of modernity that he sought is a new Tower of Babel moving through this era of translations, codes, computerized languages, and new technologies.

My journey will have been made in an alternate direction: one step on the path of textual memory, another toward this nascent memory in the modern text and its explorations of the imaginary.

I say to myself again: Isn’t reevaluating the “concept” of literature the task of all writing worthy of the name? And isn’t this reevaluation, thus beginning with whatever rupture or transformation any innovative writer makes, part of the work itself? Yes, certainly. But here is the strategic point of my research: between Homeric and modern European narrative, there are lines of force in the imaginary representation of the foreigner in his literary form. These lines of force, which we can call mythic figures, supposing here that myth is the narration of a secret that memory keeps with its most ancient, nocturnal past. Here are three myths: the noble savage (Indian, African), barbaric passion (which characterizes the Arab world), and the art of mystery (China, Japan). Far from being inconsistent, these myths capture a secret. Such a secret brings the French imaginary into its illegible space, its paths of long memory.

Beyond their persistence, from century to century, these myths led me to exoticism from within, which makes every literature foreign to itself and its national or patriotic context. They forced me to distinguish literature from paraliterature. At the end of this work, I’ll recall that it is a monumental reproduction of doxa, whereas the paradox of literature is the secret way in which forms are constructed and take on paradigms.  

A long apprenticeship in reading (I’m as much a writer as a reader) made me roam, if not occasionally wander, in the literary memory of France. From The Song of Roland to Tournier’s The Golden Droplet or Genet’s Prisoner of Love, I discovered that France is a terra incognita, its archaeology extremely hidden. As a writer myself, a bit on the margins, perhaps I was inclined to observe the transformations that French literature underwent around the world. In my readings, I wracked my memory alongside this claim: classical France is an imaginary union between court language, charismatic power, and theological nationalism. Later, I needed to loosen this claim and, on my own tab, take care of all textual memory that could soften the paradox of illegibility. My France will have been a reading rubric.

Let’s march with the travelers: they alone guided me on this literary map of time and space, in every metaphor for displacement, marginalization, exile. To approach these figures of the foreigner, I needed to borrow their trajectory, their traversals, their roaming, and their return to a paradoxical France. The work of Victor Segalen was a fluke, a remarkable exception.

Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Proust, and Segalen received the foreigner as the fantasy of a language

But before that discovery, I felt like I kept reading the same book. Take literature written about Arabs and Muslims. Montherlant’s Desert Love, with its sexual ambiguity, sent me back to the colonial period and its stories; what did I have to do with this female prostitute in the middle of the desert if desert love was that author’s myth? Meanwhile, I read and re-read books for their “inner extraneousness” (Valéry), meaning their most intimate, receptive outside. How can you receive the foreigner without the laws of hospitality in one’s own love language? I also ask myself this: How can you rediscover yourself in the face of the abyss of your identity? A text has the opportunity to catch a secret, but how do you share a secret with the foreigner without being able, or willing, to meet him at his furthest reaches, like a limit, a line that transforms my identity entirely? Approaching this meeting is a promise. Then perhaps comes the song from the heart of the cities, countries, and landscapes that we’ve traveled through in our life’s fantasy itinerary. I must now say: Baudelaire, Nerval, Rimbaud, Mallarmé, Proust, and Segalen received the foreigner as the fantasy of a language. In an era of industrial and colonial expansion, these writers turned to a literary internationalism. This affinity, a mnemonic one, was the closest I got to France, its intimate resonances, its sensory map. My memory then recognized these “elective affinities” which cross borders. Their text was a song. Dislocation began with every sentence.

From there, I needed to read so-called “exotic” literature according to a major principle: that of poetic memory. The more I put this literature under scrutiny, the more I saw it crystallize in an imaginary landscape, often in ruins. Neither Persian Letters nor The Romance of a Mummy nor Salammbô nor Eden, Eden, Eden could guide my journey. Something else needed to lead this journey. I chose six twentieth-century texts, which sufficed to verify my first hypothesis while also taking me toward the unknown. This corpus comprised two universes: the Far East and the Arab world, the latter being more familiar to me, and thus more real and problematic. The recent publication of Jean Genet’s last book, Prisoner of Love, was a mixed blessing. This text offers the construction of a figure more elaborate than a foreigner: a professional foreigner. This swan song is the horizon of an admirable literary migration.

But had I made a mistake along the way? Had I moved too much around a single question, a single nagging? Perhaps this bears repeating: this book is organized as a journey within a journey, for which a brief imaginary dialogue between critic and author will serve as a conclusion. What sort of conclusion? Let’s say, a conclusion without exclusion of every foreigner, every identity being formed in a new literary internationalism.  

Victor Segalen was one of the founders of this internation, this literary modernity. His work sought to bring French literature out of its ethnocentrism and excessive nationalism. It thus put literature into conversation with art “forms” irreducible to all truth (of territory, language, or civilization). Forms that would draw from a perfectly concrete outside (peoples, languages, sites) a larger experience of the world, presented through an exploration of literary language. Segalen gives in to the outside’s demands and turns them into a rule of writing. All he can write about is this outside, and foreigners. Outside of the terrain and margins of the French novel, outside of his values and frame of reference. This is how his practice of both alterity and alteration operates. It’s an opening up of his native tradition. In this sense, the exotic doesn’t exoticize: “The entire history of [French] literature needs to be written,” he wrote in his notes on exoticism.

Such an undertaking isn’t meant to create an entirely new folklorist method. The concept of “literature” steps in here: contexts, forms, hierarchies. Following this direction, it would be appropriate to re-read this literature for its ability to travel across time and space, and to look over the differences, especially those which resist it in revealing the scope of its illegibility. But who still clings to, let’s say, the unity of the French language? Who still speaks today of French literature? There are obviously literatures. What, would you say, are they?



[1] Founded in Paris by Jacques Derrida, François Châtelet, Jean-Pierre Faye, and Dominique Lecourt in 1983.