Comparative Literature Studies 40.3 (2003) 344-349
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Particular and Universal: Studies in Asian, European and American Literature. By Madison Morrison. Taipei: The Crane Publishing House, 1999. viii +166 pages. $29.00
This is at once a stimulating and exasperating book, as inspiring a reading experience as it is disappointing. The author is erudite, admirably bold in his insights, breathtaking in his summary judgments, and almost always readable; however, carelessness and casualness vitiate the real treasures he has to offer. In a work of such scholarly ambition, the absence of any footnotes, bibiliography, or index is a travesty, and undermines any aspirations [End Page 344] that Crane Publishing House has to academic publishing. Morrison is evidently a dynamic lecturer, and he has developed a podium personality which is doubtless very effective with undergraduates and non-specialists, but when he publishes these locutions, and textualizes what is tolerably transient in oral discourse, the results are not at all impressive.
First, his triumphs. The range in this work is dazzling, starting with the Greeks (Homer, Aristotle) and Romans (Vergil, Ovid), covering the medieval (Dante) as well as the Renaissance (Tasso, Ariosto) traditions, surveying the whole of English literature (from Chaucer to Eliot), and including--almost as a lagniappe--a study of Taoism, along with analyses of the Eastern influence on Yeats, Eliot, and Pound, on the one hand, and on Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens on the other. Few in the world would be capable of such comprehensiveness; fewer still would attempt such a project in less than 200 pages.
Yet, I salute Madison Morrison for not being content with mastering the whole of the Western tradition, and for venturing into the intercultural realm of Eastern influences on Western writers. (Incidentally, though admittedly a pet peeve, I insist on capitalizing "West" and "Western", "East" and "Eastern", because they are proper nouns designating specifically historical areas of the world, and reflect an Eurasian ethnocentricity: Europe, for example, is east of the Americas, just as the Americas are east, not west, of Asia.) Morrison exemplifies the post-modernist scholar who can no longer confine himself to his native tradition, who, in fact, questions the notion of a monocultural "native." His fascinating forays into the Asian factors in the modernist tradition, both cosmopolitan--as with Yeats, Eliot, and Pound--and provincial--as with Frost, Williams, and Stevens--offer salutary perspectives in enlightened scholarship.
The first chapter is a revealing excursus into the Eastern influences on six Anglo-American writers: W. B. Yeats, T. S. Eliot, and Ezra Pound, whom Morrison includes among the "cosmopolites," i.e., those with some substantial exposure to Asia and its traditions; and Robert Frost, William Carlos Williams, and Wallace Stevens, whom Morrison includes in a group called "provincials." While the division is helpful, it is not entirely accurate. Although Yeats, Eliot, and Pound worked with Asian texts either through translations or as translators, none of them had first-hand, on-site experience, and they all had their share of provincial attitudes. And, if Frost and Williams were resolutely American in their outlook and perspective, the Francophilic Stevens can not really be meaningfully characterized as a "provincial." Although the essay glints with occasional insights, it is mute on some crucial texts, including John Nolde's exhaustive Blossoms from [End Page 345] the East: The China Cantos of Ezra Pound (1983) and Wallace Stevens's early verse play, Three Travelers Watch a Sunrise--in which the three travellers are Chinese, used as decoratively as W. B. Yeats used them in his "Lapus Lazuli."
Chapter 5, "Allegory and the Western Epic" is a dazzling survey of the major allegorical writers in the West, from Homer to Milton. The Western epic, as Morrison admits, "is a large subject." But then he adds, with a disingenuously false humility: "We shall limit ourselves to examples from pre-Classical Greece and Alexandria; ancient Rome; medieval Italy; Renaissance Italy; seventeenth-century Spain; and sixteenth, seventeenth- and nineteenth-century England" (97). But, still, in this chapter, Morrison's strengths as a critic are...