In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • Japan’s Queer Modernity
  • Jos Lavery
Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities. Christopher Reed. New York: Columbia University Press, 2016. Pp. 440. $105.00 (cloth); $35.00 (paper); $34.99 (eBook).
Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching. Carrie J. Preston. New York: Columbia University Press, 2017. Pp. 352. $35.00 (cloth); $26.00 (paper); $34.99 (eBook).

Two excellent new books explore the impact of Japanese art and culture on the emerging gender formations of Western modernism. Which is already a little odd, since there have been, until the present, pretty much zero book-length studies of that theme, and there are a few more to come in the next few years—including (full disclosure and god willing) one by me. Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching by Carrie J. Preston and Bachelor Japanists: Japanese Aesthetics and Western Masculinities by Christopher Reed together comprise a persuasive case that, in certain important respects, Western modernists learned their queer identity practices from their interpretations of Japan. These books bear a family resemblance to work published on modernism and China a decade ago by Eric Hayot, Christopher Bush, Haun Saussy, Steven Yao and others in Sinographies: Writing China, which explored the imaginative, aesthetic, and (occasionally) political consequences of Orientalist writing, circumventing the pedantic objection that such interpretations were, by and large, wrong.1 Indeed, in certain ways these scholars sought to recover Orientalist wrongness itself as a critical tool to be wielded against the orthodoxies of Western-aesthetic chauvinism. Preston and Reed sharpen the point still further. Not only did major European modernists (such as Ezra Pound, Bertolt Brecht, and Walter Benjamin) turn to the Orient to shake off the fusty residues of Victorian rationalism, but a minor modernist tradition turned to Japan to subvert the Sinocentrism and masculinism of the main modernist stream. The two authors marshal different evidence towards a version of this argument. [End Page 193] Reed recovers a breathtakingly rich and original archive of artists, writers, and collectors proximate to, but just outside of, our familiar narratives (Henri Cernuschi, Isabella Stewart Gardner, Bernard Leach, and Mark Tobey are some of the most powerfully described). Preston, conversely, focuses on the queering and minoritizing consequences of teaching a more recognizable canon (Pound, W. B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett) in such a way as to heighten its exoticism.

Addressing overlapping but distinct archives, then, these two books also present two very different methods of assessing transcultural connections: labors of very different kinds of love. Learning to Kneel offers anecdotes both pedagogical and vividly personal: the author’s own body is frequently exhibited as a source of meaning and authority. Early on, Preston compares herself to the waki character in a noh drama, “persistently and self-consciously kneeling at the side of the stage, aware of my complicated position as a Westerner, woman, and scholar” (22). Each chapter includes detailed reportage from the author’s classrooms—both the ones she convenes as a professor of literature (whose students, indeed, themselves appear as recurring guest stars) and the ones in which she submits, in the pose that the book’s title describes, to the discipline of noh practice itself. Reed’s scholarly pose, if it makes sense to talk in those terms, is the much more familiar one of expertise, specifically here of three Western art scenes (late nineteenth-century Paris, turn-of-the-century Boston, and mid-twentieth-century Seattle), hubs of japoniste activity, sociality, and creativity. The microcosmic approach serves Reed well: Bachelor Japanists teems with suggestive detail, biographical narrative, and tittle-tattle, and artfully told history, and is by far the most thorough cultural history of modernist japonisme to date. There is a different kind of personal disclosure throughout: Reed’s own photographs, lovingly exhibited. And these books position themselves in relation to existing scholarship differently. The originality of Preston’s approach endows each of her readings with a powerful vitality, even at some distance from prevailing scholarly protocols; though more conventional in one sense, Reed displays an effective mastery of a scholarly field whose coordinates were set by Earl Miner. Indeed, by re-orienting the question of “modernism and Orientalism” back towards Japan, both...