There’s a new book coming out which I can’t wait to read. It’s Jamie James’s “The Glamour of Strangeness: Artists and the Last Age of the Exotic”. From what I gathered, it’s a collection of portraits of very different individuals whose common denominator, in the pre-globalisation era when the hideously ugly “expat” didn’t exist yet, is that they were exotes.
Here’s what Joseph O’Neill—one of my favourite contemporary authors—says about the exotes featured in James’s book: “Unlike the traveller or the tourist, who belongs somewhere and intends to return there, the exote is a ‘voluntary exile who goes to distant lands in search of a new home with no intent to repatriate’.”
Sounds familiar, doesn’t it?
The term itself isn’t James’s. It was coined by Victor Segalen, a French philosopher and sinologist who died in mysterious circumstances in 1919, at the age of 41, and who is one of the protagonists of James’s book. In addition to Segalen’s adventures in China, James also writes about the exploits (pun intended) of Gaugin in Polynesia, Isabelle Eberhardt in Algeria and Maya Deren in Haiti. As the title of the book suggests, also the remaining subjects are artists, perhaps with the only exception of Raden Saleh, who would be more accurately described as a socialite.
However, according to Segalen’s original idea, an exote isn’t necessarily a bohemian or an artist, escaping the discomforts of middle class. Rather, she is an explorer of the Other, and—by extension—of the Self.
That James’s exotes are in large part artists is hardly surprising. Nothing fuels creativity like a little bit of strangeness, a bit of exoticism. In the words of the inimitable Hilton Als (read him!) “for some artists—white as well as black—there is the sense that delving into ‘otherness’ allows them to articulate their own feelings of difference more readily.”
These were the exotes of the 19th and early 20th centuries. In the 21st century, is exote simply an expat? I don’t think so, and not just because it’s a fancy-ass word to describe an immigrant from Europe (so, to put it explicitly, a white immigrant, with all the privilege whiteness supposedly carries).
This intuitive sentiment of mine mirrors Segalen’s dislike of the tourist, who he felt was a category below the exote, someone uninterested in true exploration, who gawped rather than observed, who took mental snapshots instead of mental notes. Who admired, but didn’t analyse. To me, that’s what an expat does, only on a slightly more long-term basis than a tourist, or even a traveller.
In the era of the steam engine, literal “delving into otherness” was reserved for the more affluent members of society, and this is who James focusses on. Als, on the other hand, was talking about Eminem. Delving into otherness has become a lot more democratic. I’d say that the defining characteristic of a modern exote is not the distance travelled, nor the intention to never repatriate, but the fact that the feelings of ‘otherness’ are acted upon, turning into a refusal to stay put, in listnessness.
Read Joseph O’Neill’s review here.
Get Jamie James’s book here.
Hilton Als quote from the essay „White Noise”, which you can find in this collection of essays.