- Learning to Kneel: Noh, Modernism, and Journeys in Teaching by Carrie J. Preston
There is much to admire in this well researched and appealingly written book, but there is also a great deal to be concerned about, making this the most difficult book review I have ever written. Carrie Preston, a scholar of literary modernism and gender studies, makes no pretentions to being an expert on nō or Japan. Her teaching and research led her to become an amateur student of nō (both in the United States and Japan) in order to better understand its global circulation among primarily Western modernists. She readily admits that she cannot read Japanese but learned enough spoken language to be able to carry on conversations. While discussing luminaries such as Yeats, Pound, Brecht, Beckett, and Britten, she emphasizes what she [End Page 263] sees as the complex and continual influence—indeed, the centrality—of Yeats' At the Hawk's Well and especially of Itō Michio, the Japanese dancer for whom Yeats created his Celtic nō. Intimations of this supposed influence recur in almost all of her chapters. As much as I admire Itō, I question if his influence is really as profound as she claims. Throughout, one wonders who the intended audience might be: the book repeats well-trodden, previously researched ground about modernism, so it is not for scholars of Euro-American modernism. The material on nō and Japanese culture is elementary (and uses only English language sources), so it is not for Japan specialists. Directors or acting teachers seeking to incorporate nō performance into the curriculum or into plays may learn a little from her experiences, but they are clearly not the target, either. My guess is that this is written as a text for those Euro-American literature professors who would like to teach a class about Japanese influences but who don't know where to turn for the Japanese information. Sadly, once one understands the idiosyncratic perspective of the author, it becomes evident that the volume is inappropriate for this purpose as well.
Both the title and the author's photo on the inside flap—a blond Caucasian woman holding a nō practice fan—led me to think that this book would be primarily about teaching nō performance to non-Japanese students, but this is not really the case. The Preface offers the first real clues:
As I took lessons in noh chant, dance, and drumming; began writing plays based on noh models; and choreographed dances with gestures toward noh movement, I realized I was replicating many of the stories typically told about how modernist artists learned about noh. These stories usually include a pedagogical scene in which "Western" students of noh, like me, become captivated by the ancient form of theatre and by their teachers and collaborators in the transnational lesson. We train, study, translate, adapt, perform, and ultimately teach something we call noh, usually with some recognition that we are failing our teachers. … Failure, but really our shallow conception of failure and success, is a major topic of Learning to Kneel.(pp. vii–viii)
While failure looms large, nō pedagogy is but a small part of this deeply disquieting book. Rather, it is a polemic about the supposed joys of intellectual and physical submission in the guise of an intercultural study of nō and modernism. On numerous occasions, Preston states her awareness of the power of "gender and postcolonial theories that emphasize forms of agency based on the subversion of the many misogynistic, racist, homophobic and ethnocentric laws and practices of imperialist and neoimperialist states" (p. x). She insists, however, that [End Page 264] her Western scholar's tendency "to devalue seemingly conservative traditions" is short-sighted. She notes:
Few of us manage to live primarily in the realm of subversion. There are pleasures in submission—dangerous pleasures, to be sure—as my story of modernist noh's entanglement with fascism emphasizes. But that story also reveals the danger of ignoring the appeal...