Recently I’ve become interested in nineteenth century japonisme, a strain of “Japan-fever” that Akane Kawakami, author of Travellers’ Visions: French Literary Encounters With Japan, 1887-2004, describes as a “passing Parisian fad [which] became an important part of the creative imagination of major artists, composers and writers of the period.” One of these writers, French naval officer Pierre Loti, became widely popular for his novel about a Japanese geisha named Madame Chrysanthemum, whom he arranged to “marry” for a six-month period while stationed in Nagasaki. In Loti’s fictionalized Japan, Madame Chrysanthemum and her fellow geisha figure as lovely, decorative objects, gaily painted and largely ornamental features of a miniature world filled with dozens of other decorative objects: painted fans, silk screens, teacups and patterned kimono. Japan is a world of surfaces and puzzling encounters with Japanese women the size of dolls: “yellow-skinned, cat-eyed,” and “no larger than a boot.” At one point in Madame Chrysanthemum, the narrator remarks that Chrysanthemum is so lovely and “dragonfly”-like, sleeping on her tatami mat, that he would prefer her to always remain in such an attitude of repose—he finds her much more interesting that way.
Initially a bit stunned (and horrified) by Loti’s representations of Madame Chrysanthemum and her counterparts, I began researching the critical conversations that have surrounded this text over the last few decades, and found that opinion is divided between those who condemn the novel for its overt colonial and “sexploitative” agenda, and those who read with a bit more sympathy for Loti’s subtle treaments of japonisme. My stance? As yet undecided. I am somewhat unconvinced by arguments in favor of Loti’s veiled sympathies for his Japanese subjects, but remain open to them nonetheless. At the very least, I find his representations fascinating and, more importantly, telling of the prevailing attitudes held by many in nineteenth-century France while japonisme was all the rage. The culture’s fascination with “Japan” (or rather, its imagined “Japoniste” equivalent), the aesthetic, and the surfaces of things, bear interesting implications for contemporary Asian American poets (particularly those who, like myself, are invested in revitalizing the “East”-“West” encounter in terms that are more relevant to the current moment, but also informed by the literary histories of the past).
My primary question in engaging this novel is as follows. In light of the literary history of encounters between the “West” and the “East,” how do I, as a somewhat oddly positioned hybrid of these two imagined spaces and cultures, follow in the tradition of what has come before? As an English-language poet, I fashion language in the tradition of Western writers and thinkers that, paradoxically, include men like Pierre Loti; as a Japanese American, however, I fashion thought and sense in what I fancy to be patterned at least to some extent (yes, my language here bogs heavily with modifiers!) after my Japanese ancestry… but then again, perhaps this all just japonisme!
Attempt #1: write a poem that casts in exaggerated terms that which the Orientalist (and his 21st century compatriots) strive so hard to accomplish. He wishes to parrot Japanese female voices? Then dress the man in geisha garb! Paint his face white, rouge his cheeks, and lash his belly around and around with an obi a mile long. My attempt at this literal enactment of the japoniste project was… amusing. The effect was odd, incongruous, yes, but amusing nonetheless. I particularly liked the image of an oversized, cross-dressing geisha tripping into a tea room, kneeling demurely before his patron, and deftly flicking his wrist to reveal, as Arthur Golden would say in “his” Memoirs of a Geisha, softly scented skin calculated to delight, but nothing more.
Attempt #2: bring the man home to meet the family. Yes, it’s true, I’ve written a poem in which Pierre Loti appears at one of my family gatherings as the newest grandson-in-law. Blessed with an endless parade of granddaughters (all lovely fourth-generation Japanese American girls), in recent years my extended family has been steadily growing due to an increasing number of marriages. The appearance of a new cousin-in-law (or prospective cousin-in-law) at the annual oshogatsu, or New Year’s celebration, is no new thing. But the appearance of a French japoniste from the nineteenth century… now that’s something new. What, I asked myself, would happen if the next cousine brought home a French naval officer with japoniste predilections—and not just any French naval officer, but Pierre Loti himself, with his oddly constructed visions of Japan, his tales of Madame Chrysanthemum, and penchant for all femmes jaune.
The poem is overtly anachronistic (and a bit absurd), but this, I think, is part of its project. Of course, it sets out to do much more than it could ever possibly accomplish, but my sense is that it poses some interesting questions. By wrinkling the fabric of time, culture, and geography, what strange new juxtapositions can the artist render in imaginative language? This, after all, is at the heart of japonisme and those striving to recast it in more cosmopolitan terms.
Attempt #3: forget the entire thing. Abandon the Orientalist project; instead write about tulips. I tried this, and was unsuccessful. Japonisme-inflected words like like “consorting” and “lovely” kept creeping into my language, and I found the tulips functioning as thinly veiled geisha girls, decorative objects waving gaily at the reader from across my living room floor. Are the tropes and conventions of japonisme really so persistent as that?
This, of course, is not where the project ends. If you’re interested in this tradition of Western literary encounters with “The Orient,” or know something that I have not yet discovered, please comment with your insights and/or perspectives. My exploration will doubtless continue, as will my poetic engagement with such odd occurrences in Western literature as Madame Chrysanthemum.