Japan, France, and East-West Aesthetics: French Literature, 1867-2000
Jan Walsh Hokenson

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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, designer Felix Bracquemond in 1856, which was just after the end of Sakoku. Bracquemond, according to the “most persistent legend,” 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 his 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 Shuzo 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 “watershed” lectures at Pointigny, Hokenson argues that Kuki stands as a foundation not only for the thought of Sartre, but also for the work of Malraux, Yourcenar, and ultimately Barthes and Lyotard.

This is a brilliant chapter, but it raises a question that bears on any comparative approach to Japan and the West. In describing Kuki’s “comparative perspective,” she says that he “examine[d] with authority the issues of aesthetic imitation and cultural difference.” She refers to “the precision of his analysis” (p. 341). One wishes that she had explored some of the presuppositions for describing Kuki’s examination as “authoritative.” Hokenson brings this into clearer focus in her final chapter, “Epilogue,” in which she discusses how the japonistes had used traditional Japanese principles for “innovating in French.” She introduces two Francophone writers depart from this tradition and thus are at the vanguard of a new wave of japonisme: Michel Butor and Inès Oseki Dépré. Twenty-first-century globalization, Hokenson implies, is producing personal and artistic identities in which polarities dissolve. We can see the start of this dissolution, she rightly suggests at the current philosophical moment, as philosophers, both Asian and Western, view their own philosophical tradition as containing the other, giving a new meaning to ‘difference’ or ‘other.’ Hokenson insinuates that this “collaps[e] of alterities” (p. 417) will lead the way out of the paradoxes of postmodernism, for in discussing the contemporary philosophical François Jullien, Hokenson says, “To place oneself as a thinker within Chinese languages and historical contexts can crack the framework of Western though” (p. 417).

Hokenson, conversant with literary theory, clearly specifies that her approach is aesthetic rather than political. She nonetheless takes up the inescapable issue of postcolonialism, arguing against its relevance to her concerns, namely the aesthetic conversation between Japan and the West. She expounds some of the traditional objections against viewing Japan through the lens of Edward Said’s widely adopted analysis (pp. 22-26). If she leaves unstated her own position on Said’s approach more generally, one can surmise her view from her balanced analysis of Barthes, Kristeva, and the members of the Tel quel circle, whose conception of ‘the oriental’ varied depending on individual intellectual concerns. Unlike Said, she does not describe the developing concept of the ‘oriental’ in terms of Western aggression, arrogance, or drive toward hegemony. She believes that whatever political forces may have been at work, we must explore first the individual artist’s personal sensibility and artistic problems and the parameters of the genre. She offers close, clear analyses of relevant texts without neglecting historical contexts, thus illuminating formal and artistic aspects of the aesthetics of japonisme.

In this light, Hokenson could have discussed Western aesthetics with more nuance. As she has it, japonisme involved in a dialect between Western mimetic aesthetic and the Japanese “affective” aesthetic. The Western aesthetic has a strong mimetic tradition, but tone wishes that she had devoted more than a few pages to the influence of European romanticism, which, for various reasons, but have helped to turn the French eye to Japan.

Rich in thought and information, this book goes far beyond the obvious domain of French studies and comparative poetics. It will be of value to scholars in Japanese studies and those interested in the issues of literary reception or the relation between the visual and literary arts. As a philosopher, I recommend it to other philosophers, including those whose focus may be other than aesthetics. We are in the midst of the current interchange between the West and Asia. The dialogue between Japanese and Western philosophies is the continuation of one that began in 1856 and has occurred through the arts as well as philosophy.

Carol S. Gould, Philosophy East & West, Vol. 56, No. 4, October 2006

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Photograph courtesy of Louise Dell-Bene Stahl © 2001



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