Reading 1.3: Detour and Access (Francois Jullien)

In 1783, a young Napoleon was sent to liberate the French town of Toulon from the British. Rather than attack the fortress town directly (the only real option in the minds of his staff and superiors), Napoleon ignored the town and instead attacked l’Aiguillette, a small fort on a hill across the harbor. The capture of this smaller fort, located on what was later recognized as the key terrain around the city, led the British garrison to vacate Toulon and Napoleon to secure one of his first early victories with little fighting. How did Napoleon’s detour from conventional thought and direct engagement provide him unexpected access?

Francois Jullien begins this work on the subtleties of allusion with the following questions:

In what way do we benefit from speaking of things indirectly? How does such a distancing allow us better to discover — and describe — people and objects? How does distancing produce effect? Westerners find it natural and normal to meet the world head-on. But what can we gain from approaching it obliquely? In other words, how does detour grant access?

This, the second of three works we’ll look at by Jullien offers a sweeping look at language, communication, and the subtlety of intent across western and eastern traditions. Some of the discussions are very theoretical and grammatical while other, such as his look at the direct and indirect military approach are highly practical. The book should expand our perspectives on effective means to an end and at least enlighten us to the possibility of the greater use of detour to achieve a better access.