Sunday, 8 May 2011

Beautiful Because Strange

I saw the usual Buddhist furniture – service bell, reading-desk, and scarlet lacquered mokugyo – disposed upon the yellow matting.  The altar supported a stone Jizo, wearing a bib for the sake of child ghosts; and above the statue, upon a long shelf, were smaller images gilded and painted – another Jizo, aureoled from head to foot, a radiant Amida, a sweet faced Kwannon, and a gruesome figure of the Judge of Souls.  Still higher were suspended a confused multitude of votive offerings, including two framed prints taken from American illustrated papers: a view of the Philadelphia Exhibition, and a portrait of Adelaide Neilson in the character of Juliet.  In lieu of the usual flower vases before the houzon there were jars of glass bearing the inscription ‘Reine Claude au jus; conservation garantie.  Toussaint Cosnard: Bordeaux.’  And the box filled with incense-rods bore the legend: “Rich in flavor – Pinhead Cigarettes.’  To the innocent folk who gave them, and who could never hope in this world to make costlier gifts, these ex-votos seemed beautiful because strange; and in spite of incongruities it seemed to me that the little temple did really look pretty.  (Writings from Japan, by Lafacadio Hearn)

Which is the more exotic: Jizo and Kwannon or Pinhead Cigarettes and Ms Neilson?

Adelaide Neilson and the cigarettes, I think, for everyone; though each for their own reason.  Perhaps the original person did find these objects beautiful because strange.  However, for Hearn it is not the objects themselves, but the incongruity, the context, that makes them odd: the shock of something known and mundane amongst the new he was so keenly exploring.  Today, or for this reader at least, there is a different aesthetic response; after a century of the collage we have learnt the value of strange contrasts: that little spark of dissonance, within an overall harmony. 

All are exotic, but each in their own way.

This suggests one of the problems with the theory of Orientalism, and its belief that the construction of an “exotic” other is inherently negative – because it creates a caricature of the unknown and foreign; which in turn can be dismissed and manipulated.  The simple-minded response: they see us as exotic too!  It goes deeper: to turn the mundane details of another society into objects of worship suggests the very power of strangeness to create empathy, providing it can be accommodated within one’s own culture.  The Japanese have an extraordinary history of doing just this – Korea, China, then Europe; and finally America.  Of course it can work the other way, thus the racist stereotypes of the Second World War.[i]  But Hearn’s passage, indeed the whole book, suggests the weakness of Edward Said’s argument, too influenced by Foucault, which conflates culture with politics.  Knowledge isn’t necessarily power.  Though intertwined like the trees in a jungle they can, with a little work, be separated out.  And we can, through close attention and sympathy, get through to the clearing on the other side, to see Adelaide Neilson safely ensconced in a Buddhist temple.  Just one more object amongst many others; and just as Japanese as the rest of them. The context makes her so.[ii]




[i] John Dower’s War Without Mercy is good on this.
[ii] Another problem of Said’s problem is mixing up culture and knowledge.  Again closely entwined, they too can be separated out.  Cultural sympathy providing the sensitivity to enable an understanding of the new and the unknown.  For some that will lead to real insight into a foreign culture; usually by scholars and aesthetes.  In others it will provide the raw materials to change one’s own: Gauguin, Van Gogh, Matisse and Picasso…

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