'Knowledge of the Orient": An Imaginative Publishing Project in Partnership with UNESCO

Article excerpt

"Knowledge of the Orient'

It is a Saturday towards the end of November 1985 and my desk is littered with a dozen or so press cuttings. All of them, without exception, enthuse about the publication, at last, of the first six re-issues of the Connaissance de l'Orient ("Knowledge of the Orient') Series, agreeably presented at a price affordable by the interested but less well-off readers--often the most zealous in their thirst for knowledge. Indian, Chinese and Japanese authors are represented in this first batch of re-issues, to be followed next Spring by an equally rich, successful and well-produced batch of masterpieces.

So this seems an appropriate moment for me to recount how and why I was led, inexorably, to launch this Series, which has received the generous support of Unesco, and why I should never have been able to guide it, successfully I hope, without the vigilant backing of this often misjudged organization.

No sooner had I arrived in Paris, in 1927, to enter the hypokhagne (the preparatory class for those wishing to enter the prestigious Ecole Normale Superieure) of the Lycee Louis-le-Grand, than I began to spend the greater part of my leisure hours in bookshops which, in those happy times, allowed students with open minds but empty pockets to browse at will through the books that interested them. I divided my time between three such understanding bookshops, reading twenty pages in one, thirty in another and ten in the third, and buying, each time that this was possible, one of those books I had already read but which I wanted to keep for my future library.

As you can imagine, young provincial as I then was, guided, or rather misguided until then by two schoolmasters whose religious fanaticism limited their literary repertoire to Bossuet, Pascal and Thomas Aquinas, I threw myself into the reading of the Manu-smrti (the Sanskrit code of law), the Life of the Buddha and Soulie de Morant's two-volume study on Confucius.

Subsequently, when this young provincial, newly-arrived at the Rue d'Ulm (the site of the Ecole Normale Superieure), was asked by the director of literary studies, Monsieur Celestin Bougle, for which higher degree he intended to study, he replied: "Philosophy'. To the further astonishment of Monsieur Bougle, the impudent young man added: "This, of course, means that I shall enroll immediately at the School of Oriental Languages and for all the classes of advanced Chinese studies, since it seems to me to be unthinkable to aspire to a higher degree in philosophy which covers only European philosophy. Moreover, the better to understand the relationship between moral philosophy and law I shall also enroll at the Faculty of Law.'

Considering me to be unbalanced, Monsieur Bougle promptly enrolled me for a grammar degree, saying: "The grammar candidates are mediocre and you might manage to get your degree; I wouldn't give much for your chances in philosophy, if you are hoping to cope not only with the Asian philosophies but with law, including Roman law which also forms part of the degree course!'

I am glad now that I was thrown thus unceremoniously into the deep end of grammar. I revelled in the study of the comparative grammar of the Indo-European languages, which gave me a taste for many different literatures. As the years passed I became infatuated with Japan, and, in 1934, as a New Year's Day present, I treated myself to a copy of the Haikai (short poems) of Kikaku.

In 1943, after a period spent in the United States with the Navajo and Hopi Indians, at a time when Rommel and his Afrika Korps were in retreat towards Libya, I was invited to Alexandria by that great Egyptian man of letters Taha Hussein to head the first Department of French and Latin at the university of which he was the Rector. A month in Martiniqu and Guadeloupe was followed by a long voyage under the constant menace of Nazi submarines, then three months in Algeria waiting for the aeroplane that would, finally, wing me to the Valley of the Nile. …