It’s that time of the year again, Back to School, written in fire, so most of what I’m reading right now (and what’s stacked beside my bed) is related to the classes I’m teaching this semester (one on collage, one on Conceptual Writing), but I’m also able to fit in a few titles connected to my current writing project, a book of three novellas set in Tokyo, a city I just visited for the first time back in May.
1. Among my book’s concerns is the history of American representations of Japan, so as soon as I saw Christopher Benfey’s The Great Wave: Gilded Age Misfits, Japanese Eccentrics, and the Opening of Old Japan, I knew I needed to check it out. Benfey tracks the late 19th century Japanese journeys of several New England artists and intellectuals, from Herman Melville and zoologist Edward Sylvester Morse to Henry Adams and painter John LaFarge. Lamenting the effects of what they perceived as a burgeoning crassness in America following the Civil War, the book argues, these travellers sought cultural renewal in the elegance and exoticism of Japan’s ancient traditions, newly accessible now that the country had abandoned centuries of self-imposed isolation. For Morse, this led to his collection and cataloguing of prehistoric Japanese pottery, an influential book on the morphology of Japanese homes, and a series of lectures on Japanese culture, which he delivered to large crowds back in Boston. But Japan, in its push toward modernization, was simultaneously looking to the West for inspiration, so it wasn’t long before these dreamy New Englanders began to take a proprietary and acquisitive stance toward what they believed to be Japan’s physical and less tangible cultural treasures. If Japan wasn’t going to preserve the excellence of its past, they would, even if their tactics were somewhat bullying, even if those treasures had to be removed to American museums. And they were sometimes assisted in their project by native “translators” like Kakuzo Okakura, a Japanese art scholar, author of an influential book on tea culture and somewhat of a playboy, who made fast friends with philanthropist Isabella Stewart Gardner. Benfey’s history is full of novelistic pathos and complexity, and it’s a bit of a wonder to read how these mostly good-intentioned aesthetes shaped a now familiar and very persistent vision of what it means to be Japanese.
2. “I, too, was clad in a black robe, but neither a priest nor an ordinary man of this world was I, for I wavered ceaselessly like a bat that passes for a bird at one time and for a mouse at another.” This is one of my favorite lines of Basho’s, not haiku but prose, part of the prelude to his brief account of a truly sublime mission: “I wandered out on the road at last one day this past autumn, possessed by an irresistible desire to see the rise of the full moon over the mountains of the Kashima Shrine.” I read The Narrow Road to the Deep North and Other Travel Sketches a few years ago as a sort of tonal guide for my Tokyo book’s first novella, and I’ve come back to it now, as I’m completing the work, for a refresher, to help me think again about that simple economy and the potency of haiku’s seasonal words: birds, flowers, grasses, weather. I’ve always loved the character of Bash?’s language—humble, laconic, philosophical, lightly humorous, lyrically documentary, sometimes gritty, sometimes ethereal—and the style of these narratives, completing a precisely observed scene with one haiku or eliding prose altogether in favor of several poems by Bash? and his traveling companions, responses to a moment, as in the case of that Kashima moon, which never quite emerged from the clouds.
3. For my Conceptual Writing workshop, I’ve been working my way through Craig Dworkin and Kenneth Goldsmith’s Against Expression: An Anthology of Conceptual Writing, which contains the work of familiar contemporaries, like Vanessa Place, Robert Fitterman, and Harryette Mullen, as well as predecessors, such as Marcel Duchamp, John Cage, and even Denis Diderot. The book makes a strong argument for its vision of Conceptual Writing (not necessarily an immutable definition, or the only one), and appropriately places it within an art context by including writings by Vito Acconci, Joseph Kosuth, and Dan Graham. Among my favorite pieces are genre-bending texts like Fiona Banner’s “The Nam,” a 1000-page transcription of her viewings of Apocalypse Now, Born on the Fourth of July, Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Hamburger Hill, and The Deer Hunter. In the anthology’s excerpt, we see/hear the opening of Apocalypse Now, which is totally recognizable from the details and dialogue Banner narrates, but which takes on a strange new layer of emotive content as it’s re-shaped by the interpretive act of rendering what’s seen into words.
4. As Goldsmith says of Dworkin’s book Parse, a re-writing of Edwin A. Abbott’s textbook on parsing sentences using Abbott’s own methods and terminology (e.g., “Preparatory Subject third person singular intransitive present tense verb”), such works must be considered on terms unfamiliar to typical methods of receiving and evaluating writing because they’re “asking different questions of us.” In his book Uncreative Writing, Goldsmith plays the congenial and provocative guide as he takes us on a tour of these questions, many of them resulting from appropriating or otherwise translating the dynamic and puzzling effects of digital processes on language, as well as through a radical expansion of our sense of what kinds of language might be seen as poetry.
5. For awhile now I’ve been wanting to think about writing more through writing about art than writing about writing, in large part because hybrid texts of language and image or works focused on process simply can’t be adequately discussed using the language of the creative writing workshop. Both my courses this semester provide opportunities to discuss such writings with students. Conceptual Writing, of course, as I mentioned, wants us to look back at the varied statements of Joseph Kosuth, Lawrence Weiner, Sol Le Witt, Lucy Lippard, Sarah Charlesworth, Martha Rosler, et al., all of whom I’ve enjoyed visiting with in the packed pages of MIT Press’s Conceptual Art: A Critical Anthology.
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