- Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000
Jan Walsh Hokenson's masterful work, Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000, traces the migration of the Japanese aesthetic into French art, through French literature, and ultimately into Western modernism and postmodernism. Despite the title, this book goes beyond French poetics, for it deals with some philosophical views about knowledge and art, and it offers an extended argument for the value of comparative studies, including comparative philosophy. The author moves easily among the areas of literature, art, and philosophy, all of which she discusses with authority.
Her story begins with the birth of 'japonisme,' the term coined by critic Philippe Burty in 1876 to refer to the passion-artistic and commercial-for things Japanese. She identifies three waves of japonisme in French literature: pre-World War I, between the wars, and post-World War II. She leads the reader through each of these waves, detailing the cultural and artistic milieu in each and closely analyzing key figures.
For the origins of japonisme, Hokenson takes us to the studio of Parisian engraver, printmaker, and designer Felix Bracquemond in 1856, which was just after the end of Sakoku. Bracquemond, according to the "most persistent legend," [End Page 699] opened a box of Asian ceramics and discovered that they were wrapped in extraordinary materials-layers of Hokusai woodcut prints the likes of which he had never seen. He summoned members of his circle, which included Manet, Degas, and Whistler (pp. 13-15). It is thus through an intriguing historical contingency that this relatively inexpensive, mass-produced art form would become the inspiration for some of the most personal and expensive art works today. More relevant to Hokenson's interest, however, is the fact that these woodcuts would be a seminal force in the direction of French letters.
Had Bracquemond not had the vision to see the artistry of these prints or had the shipper used a different packing material, would Western painting and literature have taken a different turn? Would the West have seen impressionism, symbolism, or art nouveau? Would Proust, Claudel, Mallarmé, and others have written different works? From Hokenson's account one gleans that the French avant-garde eye was ready to see Hokusai and others, for artists felt that the mimetic view of art had led them to an impasse. Visual and literary artists were ready to abandon the Renaissance ideals of verisimilitude, perspective, the integrity of space, and the linearity of time. They were ready to accept the fragmentation of picture space, perspectivism, and suggestiveness that were all characteristic of the Japanese aesthetic.
She explains how Henri Bergson, with his theories of intuition and subjective time, provided a philosophical foundation for the artistic commitments of the early japonistes. She documents the access many of the japonistes had to Bergson. Bergson, like the japoniste poets and painters themselves, emerged from a French tradition of using subjectivity as a starting point. The reader sees this respect for the subjective interact with various Japanese influences over the course of the twentieth century. The receptiveness to the haiku exemplifies this phenomenon, as it begins from a fleeting, intuitive, personal experience. She points out that "by 2000, the haiku was almost a commonplace in French poetry" (p. 407).
Although she says little about what Bergson may have absorbed from the japonistes, she does tell of the little-known influence exerted by the Japanese phenomenologist Kuki Shūzō in 1928 on Jean-Paul Sartre. Both Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir either forgot this relationship or forgot to mention it in their respective narratives about the development of existentialism. Indeed, this was not discovered, Hokenson reports, until the 1980s. She rightly points out that that this changes the usual story about French philosophy in the early twentieth century, for it means that Sartre became acquainted with German phenomenology before 1932 and from someone other than Raymond Aron (pp. 333-334, 343, 474 n. 10). In a fascinating discussion of Kuki's...