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Showcasing Emptiness? Voicing Redemption Through ‘Saharomania’ in the French Literary Imaginary

Exposer le vide ? Exprimer la rédemption au travers de la « Saharomanie » dans l’imaginaire littéraire français
Amina Zarzi


The Napoleonic campaigns paved the way for French metropolitan travellers, military officers and literary authors to roam the barren stretches of North African deserts. Initially, imperial expansion was what brought French explorers to these lands. As devoted adventurers, they were quick to predict the literary opportunities of showcasing emptiness in military, scientific and literary projections. At once empty and loaded with spiritual charge, the desert embodies the essence of mystical connotations, for those who master decrypting its unsettling silence. This article argues that this seemingly empty space is in fact the cradle of spiritual pursuits, deployed in Sèbe’s ‘Saharomania’ concept as a redemptive locus. Showcasing emptiness thus represented a challenge to the spread of the cult of Western materialism. This is illustrated in two ways: the vision of French authors (Saint-Exupéry, Ernest Psichari, Charles de Foucauld, and Eric-Emmanuel Schmitt) who, taken together, amount to the establishment of a French desert genealogy of ‘Saharomania’, and the ways in which it offers a different reading of the accompanying Orientalist understanding of such works, through the prism of the redemptive wisdom of the desert. While taking part in Said’s Western canon on the Orient, redemptive ‘Saharomania’ also participates in the wider definition of the ways in which the imaginary of emptiness fuelled the fin-de-siècle cult of the void. It is in light of the alterity of the desert that the concept of ‘Saharomania’, specific to France, can be read: because showcasing emptiness meant empowerment, the success of the inscription of bareness in the imaginary of the French metropolitan public, and also its literary inheritance, was necessary to celebrate the French national sentiment. Taking the demanding crossing of the desert to heart, often for nationalist pursuits, was necessary to triumph over the physically and mentally exhausting desert. However, this article argues, authors incline when faced with the grandeur of the Sahara Desert, and its emblematic nomad dwellers, amidst the journey of the conventional fate of loss in the sands, ultimately changing the initial motives of the crossing. Thus, rather than condemning the present French literary productions within the confines of the orientalist and exotic tropes, this article offers different but no less significant interrogations about how ‘Saharomania’ valorises the desert as a locus of the higher forms of humankind, particularly defying the cult of Western hollowness through articulating spiritual resonance in the realm of the void.

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‘J’ai toujours aimé le désert. On s’assoit sur une dune de sable.
On ne voit rien. On n’entend rien.
Et cependant quelque chose rayonne en silence…’
(Saint-Exupéry, Le Petit Prince 82).

‘Ici, en l’absence de toute pollution lumineuse due à la civilisation,
le cosmos livrait ses splendeurs. Sa contemplation m’aurait suffi. . .’
(Schmitt, La Nuit de Feu 66).

‘ce néant où l’âme n’est plus étourdie
par le bruit du monde
et se mesure pour ce qu’elle vaut’
(Psichari, Le Voyage du Centurion 46).

  • 1 Prior to the European Renaissance, the Sahara Desert was considered a threatening place. Explorers (...)

1Perceived by Emperor Hadrian as a threatening place, the barren stretches of the Sahara appeared to the Romans as beyond their reach: they anticipated that it would be impossible to tame these environmental extremes. Deserts imposed strong physical and moral conditions, therefore nurturing heroic fortitude. While the Roman Empire demonstrated efforts to tame the desert through the establishment of settlements in the limes, the Romans ultimately harboured feelings of awe about the prospect of being swallowed forever by the shifting sands of the desert.1 In stark contrast to these observations, which do not betray any feeling of appeal towards desert spaces, the Napoleonic campaigns meant that the French encounter with this Terra Incognita initiated unprecedented affinity with barren milieus, reflected in what I articulate in this article, the French showcasing of emptiness.

  • 2 Durou’s book includes the following novels: Charles Diego Brosset’s Un Homme sans l’Occident (1946) (...)

2The conquest of Algeria in 1830 inspired in the era of French colonial literature new themes to make sense of the apparent void that was the hallmark of the hinterland. Literary scholar Jean-Robert Henry argues: ‘c’est seulement à partir de la conquête de l’Algérie que la sensibilité, ancienne ou nouvelle, au désert s’enracine dans un réel sensible et communicable’ (Henry 20). The arduous colonial experience of crossing the desert elicited profuse geographical, scientific and mystic interrogations, often projected in a literary enquiry of the French engagement with the theme of emptiness. Such authors include Théodore Monod (1902–2000) or Roger Frison-Roche (1906–1999), the prominent Catholic priest Charles de Foucauld (1858–1916) or, more recently, scholars Bruno Doucey (born 1961) and Michel Roux (born 1943), to cite only a few. Doucey’s Le Livre des Déserts (2006) gathers in a lengthy volume the genealogy of the desert: from the first depictions of Herodotus to the contemporary literary echoes, encompassing a wide spectrum of scientific, mystic, geographic and literary interest in desert spaces. Meanwhile, Jean-Marc Durou (born 1951) examines the place of the desert in the French imaginary through Le Roman du Sahara (2009),2 compiling a list of novels around the theme of desert experiences. Roux’s book serves as a conceptual framework to scrutinise Le Sahara dans l’Imaginaire des Français, an aspect with which I engage closely here.

  • 3 Alain Sèbe ‘has been awarded prestigious prizes from the City of Paris, Kodak Germany and the Frenc (...)

3Graphic productions have also played an important role in the construction of arid spaces in the French imaginary. Photographer Alain Sèbe (born 1939) is such an example of a creator whose artistic output ‘n’est pas sans résonance philosophique’ (Kaouah 11), with a personal and visual quest reflected in more than 25 books engaging with the aesthetics of emptiness and rewarded by prestigious honours.3 The symbolic relevance of arid peripheral lands amidst imperial imaginaries, and their nature as a chosen experience, is illustrated in Sèbe’s observation that ‘The Sahara has a unique appeal; unless born within its boundaries, those who experience it choose to do so’ (Sèbe 2001, 7). Though the conscious choice to travel within the confines of the Sahara could result from a lifelong passion—such as the significant lives of the hermit Father de Foucauld and the human scientist Monod, in other cases the call of the desert was merely part of a literary trajectory, inspired by historical circumstances and fuelled by the growing public interest in these spaces that were physically empty but, in the eyes of many, spiritually full.

4Thus, what was essentially a literary, historic, scientific, cultural and graphic fascination with desert spaces, culminated into a form of ‘Saharomania’, a term coined by historian Berny Sèbe to refer to the French ever-growing curiosity towards arid lands and their dwellers. His concept revolves around ‘personal fortitude, national success, and spiritual redemption’ (Sèbe 2020, 162). Central to the notion of ‘Saharomania’ is the perception of a literary dissemination of emblematic mystic figures, among which Foucauld is a case in point. For this reason, this article wishes to engage with the redemptive cult of ‘Saharomania’ when showcasing emptiness in the French imaginary.

5This study examines how the Sahara Desert amounted to a form of spiritual quest in the 19th and early 20th-century French imaginary, against the backdrop of French imperialism in the region. It engages mainly with the ways in which the notorious figure of Father de Foucauld, whose journey towards faith began with a military mission in Algeria in 1901, and whose personal trajectory led him to follow the call of religious missionary work rather than his initial duty as a cavalry officer. I examine here how his reputation acted as a point of reference to Goncourt Academy member Eric Emmanuel Schmitt (born 1960) in his novel La Nuit de Feu (2015). This study also engages with the mystic narrative offered by French military officer and writer Ernest Psichari (1883–1914) in Le voyage du Centurion (1922). Lastly, I will consider Antoine de Saint-Exupéry (1900–1944), the pioneering aviator and writer, who served in the French Armée de l’Air and who, in the course of his duties, survived in 1935 a plane crash in the Sahara Desert, as reflected in Terre des Hommes (1939). Drawing upon Sèbe’s ‘Saharomania’ and writer Georges Haldas’s concept of ‘Désert intime,’ among other theoretical standpoints, I demonstrate Psichari’s and Saint-Exupéry’s showcasing of emptiness in their imperial narratives, in particular as a mystic path and a place conducive to higher forms of humankind. In light of these developments, I demonstrate the continuity of French ‘Saharomania’, from imperial to contemporary times, as projected in the above chosen corpus.

6This article starts by highlighting the ways in which, from the late nineteenth century onwards, metropolitan mechanisation created a climate favourable to the articulation of genuine passion towards desert wisdom, often resulting from the juxtaposition of the West and the antithesis of modernity—the Sahara. It then demonstrates early redemptive French journeys into the desert, which informed the Sarahomanic appeal, that amounted to a form of literary inheritance. Interrogating Orientalist implications in ‘Saharomania’, as reflected in the corpus in question, proved worth examining to consider its role in rethinking Orientalism. The article ends by reflecting on the imperial journeys of Psichari, and Saint-Exupéry, and the ways in which the desert acted as a unique locus where the French prose voices redemption against the backdrop of an apparently unstoppable material industrialisation.

Materialism in Europe and the Desert as a Landmark

  • 4 According to Deleuze and Guattari, ‘L’Occident a un rapport privilégié avec la forêt, et avec le dé (...)

7When the clouds of Western industrialisation loomed, writers launched a conscious quest for values seemingly lost in the growing modern world. The desert was then shaped in colonial observations as the antithesis of modern civilisation, or a tragic, primitive site that, through juxtaposition with modernity, gave its full meaning to the cult of emptiness. On a theoretical level, philosophers Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari have observed the impact of geographical positionality on the ideologies of both civilisations, arguing around key concepts, notably the presence of the forests in the privileged West, cultivated through ‘agriculture’, thus grounding ‘transcendence’. In stark contrast, they argue, the Orient is geographically characterised by ‘la steppe et le jardin’ and cultivated through a philosophically immanent ‘horticulture’ (Deleuze and Guattari 28).4 A detailed look at these observations reveals that both geographical spaces inform ideologies that construct distinct civilisations. The French colonial texts recount that the encounter of a seemingly geographical void proves loaded with spiritual substance, as exemplified in Psichari’s famous novel Le Voyage du Centurion: ‘ce néant où l’âme n’est plus étourdie par le bruit du monde et se mesure pour ce qu’elle vaut’ (Psichari 46). In stark contrast, the mechanisation of the modern world was blossoming to the detriment of a vanishing spiritual fervour.

8That said, both civilisations have a complementary relationship, i. e. while Saharomanian efforts to shape the desert in the Western imaginary discern the ethics of the modern world, the antithesis of civilisation appears to Westerners as a landmark where ‘le désert rehausse les valeurs traditionnelles’ (Henry 24). This article highlights that Saharomanic inclinations reflect engaged personal responses, mainly triggered by distinctive redemptive sentiments, as astutely observed by Monod: ‘Le désert, comme le diocèse, vous ponce l’âme, vous apprend les gestes en symbiose avec le corps, une certaine lenteur intérieure’ (Monod 37). One such example in the period of the French Empire is Father de Foucauld, whose journey to the Algerian Sahara Desert revealed in him the virtues of an eremitic monk, who chose to retreat on a high plateau of the Ahaggar Mountains, Assekrem. His place in the French imaginary is celebrated as a mystic figure, highlighting redemption through ‘Saharomania’, as I shall demonstrate.

Inheriting the French Imperial Redemption of ‘Saharomania’

9Berny Sèbe defines ‘Saharomania’ as a ‘complex projection, playing at various cultural and political levels, [that] carved in the French colonial imaginary a specific niche which would lay the foundations of a durable emotional and intellectual attachment with this region of the world’ (Sèbe 2020, 163). A pertinent example of this filiation between early twentieth-century French attachment to the Sahara, and contemporary investment of desert regions with special meaning, is the influence of the example of Father de Foucauld on Schmitt. Interestingly, the author’s La Nuit de Feu (2015) embodies a contemporary instance of Sèbe’s concept of the niche, on which the French imaginary built a substantial emotional attachment, whilst at the same time echoing a spiritual journey on Foucauld’s traces.

  • 5 The name Ahaggar will be used in this article to refer to the mountains around Tamanrasset in South (...)

10It is worth noting that ‘Saharomania’ does not equate with uncritical admiration for the desert. Drawing upon a set of statistical data based on a geographical perspective, Roux has sketched the desert as ‘un univers répulsif qui s’oppose au monde civilisé. La mort et la souffrance sont des thèmes récurrents. D’une part le désert avec ses étendues vides, tristes, monotones traduit le néant qui conduit à la folie. D’autre part il est une terre de souffrances occasionnées par les atteintes physiques que sont la chaleur, la soif, le risque de se perdre’ (Roux 12). Schmitt had his share of extreme feelings when faced with the conventional risk of loss amidst the sands. However, the exact experience of loss defined an endured belief in the desert as a ‘terre privilégiée’ (Roux 12), where the demanding experience of loss paralleled the encounter of ‘Dieu ou soi-même’ (Roux 12). The desert acted for Schmitt as a powerful stimulus for self-understanding. His epiphany in a distinguished night of loss in the Ahaggar5 was the motivation behind the title of the novel, inspired from the experience of Blaise Pascal (1623–1662). Similar to Pascal’s night where he received the grace of faith in such a ‘Nuit de Feu’, Schmitt perceives a spiritual sentiment, through which he would perpetuate the French tradition of the desert as a place of ‘spiritual redemption’ (Sèbe 2020, 162). Schmitt’s ‘Nuit de Feu’ is thus a significant example of one aspect of ‘Saharomania’ projected in the quest of ‘a form of religious absolute’ (Sèbe 2020, 162), perpetuating in the late twentieth century feelings and perceptions that had emerged against the backdrop of the nineteenth-century French conquest of the Sahara.

11Although Schmitt’s detailed journey into the desert remained unveiled for a quarter of a century, its recent publication is a significant contemporary contribution to the genealogy of the French showcasing of emptiness. Therefore, La Nuit de Feu validates the inheritance of the concept of redemption in ‘Saharomania’. Though the first motives of the journey were not the wish to embark on a quest for religious experiences, but rather a rational project on the traces of Father de Foucauld, ‘ce héros sur lequel nous élaborions un scénario’ (Schmitt 20), the author’s experience ended by a call for spiritual fervour, that validates the cult of redemption in contemporary times. By projecting this experience, Schmitt highlights the long-lasting impact of Foucauld’s example and experience on the French public imaginary. This is particularly evident when he evokes his figure in laudatory terms: ‘Charles de Foucauld… Nous frémissions d’intimidation… Charles de Foucauld, le preux qui occupait nos heures de lecture, de travail et de rêve… Charles de Foucauld, donc nous voulions tout savoir... Charles de Foucauld, le marabout blanc’ (20). Thus, as Schmitt’s text reveals, encountering the divine in a ‘Saharomanian’ frame consolidates the inheritance of Foucauld, whose distinguished mystic sentiments meant that he would have ‘des héritiers qui ont su eux aussi faire du désert un chemin spirituel’ (Maxence 1070). Schmitt’s literary trajectory in the footsteps of Foucauld is therefore a powerful contemporary demonstration of the enduring appeal of the Sahara in the French imaginary: whilst it has left the strictly national context since 1962, it has remained an eminently appealing proposition to many French people.

A Self-Changing Journey on the Traces of Charles de Foucauld: Past Experiences and Contemporary Echoes

  • 6 See for instance Salem Chaker, H. Claudot and M. Gast. Textes Touaregs en Prose de Charles de Fouca (...)

12The imaginary of the desert has traditionally been associated with the legendary hospitality of desert dwellers;6 Schmitt’s experience is no exception. The way in which his work operates within the conventional colonial imaginary around desert inhabitants is manifested through a projection of a psychological experience triggered by the Touareg’s demeanour, where the hospitality of the latter kindles memories that have been buried for decades. In the author’s words, ‘ce souvenir avait sombré pendant deux décennies ; les mains d’Abayghur qui flattaient son pain chaud l’avaient arraché à l’oubli’ (Schmitt 62). Schmitt’s memory could therefore be analysed in the light of Proust’s famous memory process. Stimulated by his ‘madeleine’ that brought about ‘Un plaisir délicieux [qui] m’avait envahi, isolé, sans la notion de sa cause’ (Proust 95), one can conceive of a Schmittian reading of this cause, as he argues that ‘Le souci de nourrir les autres me faisait rallier une apaisante solidarité [...] J’étais devenu un spectateur subjugué. Maintenant, il rinçait son pain à l’eau. La voiture rouge… Un souvenir remontait du passé [...] la voiture rouge [...] Je suis là’ [...] Naître à moi-même’ (Schmitt 61). The epiphany that was provoked by the process of making bread fuelled ‘une essence précieuse : ou plutôt cette essence n’était pas en moi, elle était moi’ (Proust 95–96).

  • 7 In conceptualising the dichotomies of the West and the Orient, Said interrogates in Orientalism, ‘w (...)

13Thus, departing from postcolonial studies founder Edward Said’s interrogations on the Western man’s sympathy7, the question of the role of human interaction and its symbolic place in the process of changing the self is absolutely at the centre of Schmitt’s novel, as emphasised by critic Thierry Durand: ‘Car c’est l’humain qui intéresse Schmitt et cette quête de l’humanité le porte à donner la priorité au rapport privé’ (Durand 506). Illustrating this remark, Schmitt takes the motif of the journey in the desert in La Nuit de Feu to shape the depth of interactions—mainly the relationship with the divine; the spiritual awakening. While Durand has noted that fundamental to the cause of Schmitt’s earlier plays, ‘le théâtre de Schmitt fait apparaître dans l’insignifiance du dialogue qui est celui de tout un chacun la présence du sacré dans la vie même’ (Durand 519), in the novel in question, Schmitt explicitly describes the drive behind the implication of the sacred in his earlier works. Interestingly, the mystic experience that he acutely portrayed projects a resonance of the traces of Foucauld, the subject of, and reason for, his journey to the desert.

  • 8 As the desert is imbued with spirituality, Sufism is a major symbolic reference. In this regard, Li (...)

14Unexpectedly lost in the Ahaggar mountains, the author projects his mystic enlightenment on this particular night: ‘Ma métamorphose spirituelle, je la ressentais presque organiquement’ (Schmitt 156). This insight is a recurring fate amidst desert adventurers, whose inner state often reaches its culmination through a deeply-seated Sufi mystic sense,8 or, as Schmitt notes, ‘la conséquence de ma nuit mystique: la béatitude’ (Schmitt 159). With this beatitude and metamorphosis in mind, along with the projection of the experience of Foucauld, the author perpetuates a sense of national French rootedness that is at the centre of the French imaginary of the desert and its associated concepts.

15Even though Foucauld’s prayers did not resonate initially when Schmitt first experienced the desert, they made sense effectively in the immediate aftermath of his Nuit de Feu. In the author’s own words: ‘Charles de Foucauld avait rédigé cette prière d’abandon. L’ayant découverte durant mes recherches, je l’avais notée car je voyais la condescendance de sa spiritualité qui m’était si étrangère. Aujourd’hui, chaque terme vibrait en moi, je souscrivais au moindre mot. Remercier. S’émerveiller. Adorer’ (Schmitt 165). Thus, the understanding of Foucauld’s famous prayer is converted through a consciousness that finds its source in the desert.

16In keeping with ‘Saharomania’ and the deeply rooted French attachment to the desert as a place of redemption, it is important to note that Schmitt’s connection with Foucauld’s experience is reminiscent of this figure as a national celebration of spiritual achievement in a particularly hostile environment. Thus, the author’s remembrance of Foucauld’s experience echoes a fervent revelation and celebration of the Ahaggar that amounted to a locus of mystic experiences in the French imaginary of the conquest of the Algerian Sahara. A close look at Schmitt’s description, ‘Charles de Foucauld, lanceur, mandarin, avait connu une révélation mystique un jour d’octobre dans l’église Saint-Augustin à Paris. En écho, je venais de vivre la même au pied du Hoggar. Il avait 28 ans. Moi aussi’ (Schmitt 161), reveals Paris as Foucauld’s redemptive place, a sentiment that would blossom in the Ahaggar, befitting the traces of a monk. Similarly, though with distinct motives, Schmitt’s contact with the Ahaggar explicitly illustrates the endured mystic experience in the desert, similar to a long-lasting ‘Saharomanic’ effect, defined by Sèbe as ‘a long-term and pervasive sociocultural interest towards the Sahara as a space where exceptional national and individual qualities could be deployed’ (Sèbe 2020, 163). By the end of the novel, the author reflects on the early days of the journey with a different perception, realising that ‘la destination importe moins que l’abandon’ (Schmitt 160), where the ‘abandon’ is evocative of Foucauld’s prayer, therefore asserting redemption as a significant element in the established French affinity with the desert. Having said that, interrogating Orientalist tropes as informed in Schmitt’s manuscript is worth examining with a view to shedding further light on the place of ‘Saharomania’ in considering Orientalism.

Rethinking Orientalism in the Light of ‘Saharomania’

17Building on Said’s theoretical framework on Orientalism and its associated colonial discourse, a reading of Schmitt’s depiction of the desert and its majestic Tuareg populations reveals an aesthetisation of the latter. Such an instance illustrates Said’s notion of the ‘inhuman beauty’ (Said 167) of the Orient, evident in Schmitt’s representation of the Tuareg as ‘Un seigneur drapé de coton bleu’ (Schmitt 33), having ‘la tête ceinte d’un chèche blanc’ (Schmitt 35). According to Edward Said, such a glorification of the Orient—the Tuareg in this context—is championed by Western Orientalists to affirm their superiority whilst depicting a rather aesthetic imaginary with a view to attracting readers (Said 181). Along the same lines of thought, literary critic David Spurr argues in The Rhetoric of Empire that elaborate aesthetic representations serve as the thrust of colonialism. Such an example is Schmitt’s fascination with the hands of the Tuaregs that he represents as ‘des doigts délicats comme des pattes d’araignée’ (33). This illustrates Spurr’s argument contending that the animal metaphor implies colonial tropes (Spurr 21–22).

18Furthermore, in locating the Tuareg’s hospitality outside the chronotope of the modern West, Schmitt rehearses and strengthens the exoticist trope: ‘L’hospitalité m’a toujours déconcerté car j’ai grandi à Lyon, une métropole frileuse, recroquevillée, où l’on ne reçoit un camarade qu’après des mois—voire des années’ (Schmitt 9). Expanding on this view, it is worth noting, however, that this illustration does not exclude the inclination of the author when confronted to the higher aspect of mankind displayed by the Tuareg, whose appearance ‘semblait d’une autre chair que la nôtre. Supérieur. . .’ (Schmitt 58). What is valorised in the exotic Tuareg is thus a non-existent reality in the author’s city. In other words, Schmitt’s exoticism has less to do with a sheer exotic glorification of majestic Orientals, than as a form of criticism towards modern civilisation that is deeply concerned with the impact of such encounters on the Western traveller. The rational journey initially planned for the scenario of Foucauld’s film then generated a genuine experience that validates the critic Tzvetan Todorov’s argument on the ‘rule of Homer’ that highlights the necessity of a ‘remote country’ (Todorov 265), where ‘the country with superior values is a country whose only relevant characteristic is that it is not my own’ (Todorov 264). In this regard, Schmitt develops the same argument when he says: ‘Quelque part mon vrai visage m’attend’ (Schmitt 39), where ‘quelque part’ refers precisely to the desert.

19Though one might argue that the conventional aesthetisation of Orientals fits within the oriental tropes, it is worth noting that Schmitt’s consciously limited engagement with the codes of Orientalism results in an epic version that aligns with the redeployment of exoticism as a ‘rhetorical gesture’ to revalorise essential values (Bongie 20). It gives birth to an imaginary of the desert imbued with genuine forms of human sympathy that Said interrogates and that appear symptomatic of the redemptive ‘Saharomania’. In keeping with this idea, postcolonial critic Chris Bongie claims that the early exotic writers resented the changes that took place in the backdrop of industrialisation. Thus, civilisation, ‘by virtue of its modernity, was perceived by many writers as being incompatible with certain essential values—or, indeed, the realm of value itself’ (Bongie 4–5). What was sought through their prose was then ‘re-valorising what has been definitely devalued’ (Bongie 20). That said, the desert in Schmitt’s manuscript appears as an exceptional prism to attain self-enlightenment, to criticise the lost values while also showcasing colonial traces, and above all challenging the cult of modern emptiness through voicing redemption in the void.

20Still in relation with the conceptualisation of ‘Saharomania’, there is significant evidence of the emotional impact of the desert on the author’s psyche. Imbued with a mystic sense, Schmitt’s emulation of Foucauld’s spiritual cult reinforces the priest’s place as a prominent figure in a unique site. Supposedly devoid of colonial pursuits, Schmitt explains the choice of Foucauld’s unique environment: ‘Charles de Foucauld avait élu l’endroit parce qu’il lui semblait délaissé par la civilisation coloniale française—et il souhaitait d’ailleurs qu’il le restât. Persuadé qu’on n’y installerait ni mission, ni garnison, ni télégraphe, il s’était dévoué aux autochtones selon son idéal’ (Schmitt 24). Taking up on Schmitt’s last phrase in this quote, the devotion to the local inhabitants has been subject to a contemporary debate around the motives behind this dedication. Anthropologist Hélène Claudot-Hawad perceives Foucauld’s trajectory amidst colonial times as imbued with a sense of military and colonial motives, hoping to halt the local tribes’ prospect of rebellion, arguing: ‘Adhérant profondément à l’entreprise coloniale, Foucauld y participe activement en prodiguant nombre de conseils et de renseignements aux militaires’ (Claudot-Hawad 120).

  • 9 These two analyses of Foucauld’s role can be put in context through the lengthy examination of Paul (...)

21Similarly, scholars in the post-independence context, such as Ladji Ouattara, have reflected on his experience as inseparable from the drive of the colonial conquest, claiming ‘la canonisation de Foucauld semble en inadéquation avec cette nouvelle conscience planétaire’ (Ouattara). Yet, such a view is far from unanimously supported. In a recent response to Ouattara’s statement, ethnologist Paul Pandolfi and anthropologist Dominique Casajus have challenged the view of Foucauld as a purely colonial agent, whilst simultaneously recognising the significance of his colonial input. However, the scholars’ emphasis was that ‘Foucauld ait été un homme de son temps’ (Casajus and Pandolfi)9 with multiple considerations depending on the motivations behind approaching his life. Building on the complexity of the priest’s political and religious engagement, and in convergence with the overall aim of this article, Foucauld’s spiritual devotion and its representation in a twenty-first century novel, demonstrate the resilience of a French national sentiment that amounted to a form of collective mystic imaginary of the desert. This sense of redemption has been reinforced by the recent example of La Nuit de Feu (2015) in which the author follows Foucauld’s traces in the desert, a place considered as first and foremost felicitous to a journey towards a mystic self-changing. Besides, as I have discussed throughout this chapter, Schmitt’s text would rather choose to perpetuate the redemptive experience of a customary solitary lost path in the sands, revealing the conventional French trope when it comes to showcasing emptiness.

The Curse of Loss and the Treasure of the Void

22Often perceived as a cradle for monotheist religions, the desert is also said to attract discerning minds. The French writer Antoine de Saint-Exupéry is a classic reference in that regard. Published in 1939, Terre des Hommes is a novel where he projects the experience of two lost aviators, reflecting a sense of the limited command of mankind over its environment. Throughout the journey, Saint-Exupéry stresses the psychological strain that accompanies the threat of death in a physically challenging emptiness. Both of the author’s characters are thus in desperate need of a helping hand, and this quest turns the wandering Bedouin into a hero. Amidst this psychologically dramatic condition, Saint-Exupéry stresses the treasure of human hospitality in extremely inhospitable milieus, eventually informing an ascetic path. Roux observes: ‘La démarche de Saint-Exupéry est proche de la démarche ascétique, en ce sens qu’elle cherche à faire fondre, elle aussi, la gangue de plan pour libérer l’accès au trésor intérieur (Roux 38). Terre des Hommes, as its name suggests, offers Saint-Exupéry the remedy of a convenient space to showcase emptiness, where the vacuum proves to fuel the very essence of human limits and fortitude.

  • 10 Developing a similar reflection on the indiscernable yet strongly felt treasure in the desert, Sain (...)

23Along the lines of the biblical past, the Sahara Desert also appears to answer concerns around the concept of ‘Truth’. Psichari, whose works project religious sentiments, illustrates this aspect perfectly in his mystic journey Le Voyage du Centurion.L’âme, livrée à elle seule, découvre des trésors qu’elle ne soupçonnait pas et c’est dans l’élémentaire que se posent les problèmes, avec l’équation de la substantielle vérité’ (Psichari 107). Central to Psichari’s experience is the personal affiliation with a genuine source of truth, triggered by the sentiment of the presence of treasure in an elementary setting. As Haldas has elaborated through his concept of ‘désert intime’, ‘C’est cette relation intime avec la source qui lui permet de pénétrer, à travers le visible, en effet, la réalité invisible’ (Haldas 86). This relationship between the visible and the invisible emphasises the importance of the soul that indicates the imperceptible part of the body, or what he refers to as ‘corps intime’. Thus, Psichari and Saint-Exupéry’s standpoints converge in informing the often-invisible intimate relationship with the inhospitable milieu.10 Their characters embark on a journey of individual renewal, conventional to the French tradition of crafting the sense of the void when voicing vertiginous journeys.

24Thus, while haphazard loss lies at the centre of the process of unveiling the desert grandeur and its associated wisdom, it also reflects the French individual redemption when confronted with exceptional environmental extremes. As Roux affirms: ‘Il faut mourir au monde des apparences et des conventions pour accéder à une nouvelle vie, plus spirituelle donc plus réelle’ (Roux 38). Such considerations are reminiscent of forms of universal humanity that, in the eyes of many French thinkers at least, modernity seemed to have neglected. In that sense, the desert constituted an important element in the ways in which the French showcased ‘Saharomania’ in imperial times. From the 19th century onwards, the desert became in the French public imagination a unique environment where the higher aspects of mankind could be deployed.


25Drawing on the early observations of the barren stretches of the North African desert and interpreting that the subjugation of this alterity results in heroic fortitude, as conceptualised through the lens of Napoleonic campaigns rather than Roman views on the impossibility to tame the desert, this article offers a perspective on the French way of showcasing emptiness, particularly as a locus of spiritual fervour, and as a promising space where the higher forms of personhood are revealed. It thus highlights the resonance and inheritance of the mystic destinies of the French Empire as read in the contemporary productions. In doing so, it exemplifies the redemption of the void through challenging the western cult of materialism, whilst also illustrating the ongoing redemptive appeal of ‘Saharomania’ in a country that conquered the lion’s share of this region of the world at the time of the ‘Scramble for Africa’.

26Building on the previous analysis, nineteenth-century ‘Saharomania’ meant that the desert featured among the most coveted destinations for adventurers, often resulting in higher forms of individual enlightenment. In the multiple expressions of this French desert passion, one can observe orientalist tropes, often wedded to exotic representations: contemporary echoes are no exception. However, parallel to the exotic accounts of majestic desert dwellers, another reading was approached to make sense of a redemptive strand of ‘Saharomania’ as well as the inscription of the higher forms of mankind in the void, where ‘le philosophe et l’homme de foi ont cherché dans cet univers minéral des réponses aux questions essentielles’ (Nantet 9). Through voicing the civilisation of emptiness, or ‘Désert Intime’ (86) to use Haldas’s reference to the individual approach to the desert, French redemption-seeking in desert spaces highlights a simple yet ardent journey, that authors seek to preserve in the public imaginary. The encounter with the Sahara thus encompasses the excitement of receiving grace at decisive moments, often experienced through a physically and psychologically challenging loss in the desert, giving rise to a unique destiny of unity with the divine.

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1 Prior to the European Renaissance, the Sahara Desert was considered a threatening place. Explorers such as the Italian Marco Polo regarded it as a savage place full of evil and magical creatures. Similarly, when North Africa was integrated into the Roman empire under the reign of Emperor Hadrian, the desert was considered a harsh place, based on objective observations gathered through first impressions, as reported by Lacarrière (1925-2005): ‘au-delà de la région des dunes, dans l’extrême sud de la Libye, ce n’est plus qu’un désert, sans bêtes, sans pluies, sans arbres, sans la moindre goutte d’eau’ (Qtd. in Doucey 628).

2 Durou’s book includes the following novels: Charles Diego Brosset’s Un Homme sans l’Occident (1946); Louis Gardel’s Fort Saganne (1980); Joseph Kessel’s Vent de Sable (1923); Joseph Peyré’s L’Escadron Blanc (1934); Herbert Kaufmann’s Croissant Rouge (1958); Marc Durin-Valois’s Chamelle (2002)

3 Alain Sèbe ‘has been awarded prestigious prizes from the City of Paris, Kodak Germany and the French academy’ (Sèbe 2020, 173).

4 According to Deleuze and Guattari, ‘L’Occident a un rapport privilégié avec la forêt, et avec le déboisement ; les champs conquis sur la forêt sont peuplés de plantes à graines, objet d’une culture de lignées, portant sur l’espèce et de type arborescent […] L’Orient présente une autre figure : le rapport avec la steppe et le jardin (dans d’autres cas, le désert et l’oasis), plutôt qu’avec la forêt et le champ ; une culture de tubercules qui procède par fragmentation de l’individu […] Occident, agriculture d'une lignée choisie avec beaucoup d’individus variables ; Orient, horticulture d’un petit nombre d’individus renvoyant à une grande gamme de “clones”. N’y a-t-il pas en Orient, notamment en Océanie, comme un modèle rhizomatique qui s’oppose à tous égards au modèle occidental de l’arbre ? Haudricourt y voit même une raison de l’opposition entre les morales ou les philosophies de la transcendance, chères à l’Occident, celles de l'immanence en Orient’ (28).

5 The name Ahaggar will be used in this article to refer to the mountains around Tamanrasset in Southern Algeria. When original texts use the other French name for them (Hoggar), it will be kept.

6 See for instance Salem Chaker, H. Claudot and M. Gast. Textes Touaregs en Prose de Charles de Foucauld et A. de Calassanti-Motylinski. Aix-en-Provence: Édisud, 1984.

7 In conceptualising the dichotomies of the West and the Orient, Said interrogates in Orientalism, ‘where the human sympathy has gone, into what realm of thought it has disappeared while the Orientalist vision takes its place’ (154).

8 As the desert is imbued with spirituality, Sufism is a major symbolic reference. In this regard, Libyan Tuareg writer Ibrahim Al-Koni’s (born 1948) contemporary works decipher Sufi and mystic symbolism of desert spaces with unprecedented vigour.

9 These two analyses of Foucauld’s role can be put in context through the lengthy examination of Paul Pandolfi on the role of Foucauld in the Ahaggar (Pandolfi).

10 Developing a similar reflection on the indiscernable yet strongly felt treasure in the desert, Saint-Exupéry observes about a local nomad met in Western Sahara: ‘Et j’admire ce Maure qui ne défend pas sa liberté, car dans le désert on est toujours libre, qui ne défend pas de trésors visibles, car le désert est nu, mais qui défend un royaume secret’ (Saint-Exupéry 1939, 93).

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Electronic reference

Amina Zarzi, “Showcasing Emptiness? Voicing Redemption Through ‘Saharomania’ in the French Literary Imaginary”Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [Online], 93 Printemps | 2021, Online since 01 June 2021, connection on 16 September 2021. URL:; DOI:

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About the author

Amina Zarzi

Amina Zarzi is a PhD researcher in colonial and post-colonial studies at the University of Birmingham. In light of a confluence of postcolonial literary theories, she posits the desert as an overlooked theme in literary criticism. Her PhD project centres around the place of the literary representation of the Sahara Desert in the development of Algerian identity. She examines the ways in which arid spaces featured in the Algerian national narratives, from colonial to contemporary times.
Amina Zarzi
est doctorante en études coloniales et postcoloniales à l’université de Birmingham. En s’appuyant sur plusieurs théories littéraires postcoloniales convergentes, elle défend l’idée que le désert est un thème négligé par la critique littéraire. Son projet de thèse se focalise sur la place de la représentation littéraire du désert du Sahara dans le développement de l’identité algérienne. Elle analyse les manières dont les espaces arides figurent dans les récits nationaux algériens, depuis l’époque coloniale jusqu’à nos jours.

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Licence Creative Commons
Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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