Sightseeing: Voyage au Congo and the Ethnographic Spectacle

  • Jeffrey Geiger


Contemporary readers approaching André Gide’s Voyage au Congo and Le Retour du Tchad are likely to feel a certain amount of anticipation at the idea of the self-absorbed man of letters retracing the steps of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. We inevitably wonder whether Gide’s persistent self-regard will at last find itself challenged: perhaps the precision of his prose will break down in the face of encounters with exotic locales and strange practices on the fringes of colonial control. Of course, these expectations are bound to be disappointed. For in these journals—through monotonous treks on foot, by horseback, boat, and car; through oppressive heat, bitterly cold nights, and hookworms burrowing into his flesh—Gide maintains the utmost sense of civility. At any given moment along the way, we might find the author uncorking a half-bottle of Cliquot, reading from Bossuet’s funeral oration on Henrietta of England, “plunging” into Goethe’s Elective Affinities after being carried for hours by bearers in a tipoye, or avidly writing amidst the “sickly stench” of a whale-boat (Travels 250), while strips of hippopotamus skin periodically rain blood—“or, more accurately, … sanguineous liquid”—all around (Travels 250).1 It is possible to mistake such resilient civility for a form of national chauvinism during the period of “high” colonial administration in French Equatorial Africa, but the case of Gide’s travels is not so simple. As a young Roland Barthes observed of the persona that often glimmers through the journals, Gide’s figure has too often been perceived wholly in terms of good or evil; critics should beware of formulating overly reductive conceptions of Gide’s self-projections.


Visual Record Western Observer Colonial Project Direct Cinema French Equatorial 
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© Tom Conner 2000

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  • Jeffrey Geiger

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