Books

How Victorian Intellectuals Idealized Japan and Its Culture

The undercurrent of the book is the link between Japonisme, aesthetics, and queer culture: Admiring Japan was, in several cases, shorthand for queerness and a dainty homoeroticism.

Cover of Quaint, Exquisite by Grace E. Lavery

Author and professor Grace Lavery could not have picked a catchier and more alluring title than Quaint, Exquisite for her recently released book about Victorian aesthetics and the way Victorian intellectuals idealized Japan. Both words, in fact, convey a sense of ambiguity, which reflects Japan’s inherent contradiction in the eyes of Victorian audiences. Quaint means “old-fashioned,” but also “historically insignificant,” “trivial,” while exquisite, which, according to Lavery, was the most common written descriptor of Japan in that era, indicates something both beautiful and cruel. “Twee, Uncanny” would have made far less impact.

Quaint, Exquisite consists of five sections, each of them examining the way Victorian, fin-de-siècle culture adapted, or appropriated, certain stylistic ideas that referenced Japan. The chapters are organized more or less chronologically: Chapter one analyzes the 1885 Savoy opera The Mikado. Chapter two surveys the trope of inserting Japanese decorative elements, such as vases, fans, and screens into artworks and literary works. Chapter three examines the dialogue between Pre-Raphaelite art and haiku — an analysis shepherded by Yone Noguchi’s English-language haiku “My love’s lengthened hair,” (1902). Chapter four deals with how Japanese intellectual Ryuzo Mikimoto sought to transform Japanese modernity by heavily promoting, through his own translation and commentary, the work of Victorian art critic and socialist John Ruskin. Chapter five is a sweeping study of the trope that juxtaposes the oftentimes meek Japanese woman with the sword, with examples ranging from Madame Chrysanthème to the Kill Bill heroine Beatrix Kiddo.

The book has an uneven pace: The first four chapters analyze with philological precision the textual evidence present in the selected works to prove how some words, lines, and turns of phrase are actually an echo of the view that Victorians had about Japan in terms of stereotypes, decor, and poetry. But chapter 5, “The Chrysanthemum and the Sword” has a radically different tone. Starting by analyzing the French novel Madame Chrysanthème (1887) that became a then pop-cultural sensation spawning countless adaptations and retellings, it shows how the trope of the seemingly delicate and beautiful woman capable of acts of violence seeped into modern cinema — from Japanese horror movies, such as Audition, to Quentin Tarantino’s Kill Bill saga. It’s the most readable, and perhaps the strongest of Lavery’s creative nonfiction since it succeeds in demonstrating how a fin-de-siècle literary trope managed to become a timeless fixture which continues to appear in current pop-culture offerings.

The undercurrent of the book is the link between Japonisme, aesthetics, and queer culture: Admiring Japan was, in several cases, shorthand for queerness and a dainty homoeroticism. Lavery cites Oscar Wilde’s essay “Art and the Handicraftsman,” where Wilde conjures his own alleged Japonisme as an ugly rumor. She also cites W.E. Henley’s poem “I watched you saunter down the sand,” where a seemingly Scottish, genderless individual ambles in the golden weather with attributes such as a “peacock feather” and is described as “enchanting, comic, Japanese!”. William Schwenck Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s opera The Mikado, with its slapstick and voluntarily absurd Japanese setting, deals with flirtation as something worthy of capital punishment. And if we follow Lavery’s interpretation, one does not need to make too much of an interpretative effort to understand that the heart of the matter actually is a parody of Victorian uptight mores regarding queerness.

Henry Alexander, “Scene from ‘The Mikado’ with Louise Paullin,” (1886) oil on panel painting, at the De Young Museum (image by Henry Alexander via Wikimedia Commons)

“It is an academic book, written for an academic readership” Grace Lavery wrote in her newsletter announcing the publication of the book. In fact, the level of textual analysis she offers through chapters one through four is definitely going to be challenging for those who haven’t fully mastered literary terminology: “bathetic gasp,” and its cognate “bathos,” “dactylic trimeter,” or “aporia,” pretty much belong to university-level literary analysis. While a little convoluted at times, her scrutiny is a boon for all those working with words, since picking a text apart is a type of mental exercise that all aspiring wordsmiths should engage in. Lavery also adds another layer of analysis by generously quoting and citing the likes of Immanuel Kant, Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel, Roland Barthes, and Hegelian 20th-century philosopher Alexandre Kojève. Elements of psychoanalysis recur quite often. Before explaining the way Ryuzo Mikimoto tried to bring the writings of John Ruskin to a Japanese audience, for example, Lavery launches into the way classical psychoanalysis frames the relational dimension of abandonment. In explaining the symbology of the sword in the chapter “The Sword and the Chrysanthemum,” and of the “love’s lengthened hair,” in chapter three, she discusses Freud’s castration complex.

While Lavery’s analysis could easily have sustained itself without many of the above philosophical and psychoanalytical digressions, what might be missing from Quaint, Exquisite is a more extensive survey on the way Japonisme penetrated (or failed to seep into) the visual arts, apart from elements of décor. The only two paintings that are analyzed are James Abbott McNeill Whistler’s paintings “Symphony in White no.2: The Little White Girl,” (1864) and “Caprice in Purple and Gold, The Golden Screen,” (1864) and that’s because the former features “orientalized” objects such as a fan and a vase, while the latter has a quite imposing golden screen.

What this book does exceptionally well is the assessment of orientalism as a foundation in the history of English-language literature and aesthetics. Without ethical judgment, which oftentimes penalizes current art and literary criticism, Lavery painstakingly details how the sometimes idealized and misinformed view of Japan indeed shaped Victorian sensibilities, in both form and content. Victorian art and literature referenced the East, both in terms of “exotic” objects featured in a painting or a  literary work, and in the subjects the works addressed (Madame Chrysanthème and The Mikado being two clear examples). Quaint, Exquisite pairs well with fellow Princeton-University-Press title The Power of Cute, which, by contrast, details the way the ambivalent version of “cute” that is the Japanese concept of kawaii dominates contemporary, worldwide aesthetics. They both maintain a Japanese versus Anglo-Saxon cultural approach, which, however, does not fail to highlight the way Japan influenced our aesthetic for the past two centuries.

Quaint, Exquisite is now available from Princeton University Press.

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