Sawaragi Noi: Notes on Art and Current Events 5

Ernest Fenollosa – the unacknowledged source of simulationism?

To those interested in the history of Japanese modern art, the name Ernest Fenollosa will be especially familiar. In particular, together with his assistant Okakura Tenshin, he dedicated himself to reviving and reforming Nihonga, while the significance of his shedding new light on the value and so on of Buddhist images and other religious artefacts (as ‘cultural treasures’ rather than objects of worship) destroyed in the anti-Buddhist violence of the Meiji period cannot be overemphasized. In short, one could even say that Japanese art was modernized (prior to modernity neither ‘Japan’ nor ‘art’ existed) and first gained a history of its own (history being the continual retroaction of the modern on the past) due to the efforts of Fenollosa and Okakura.

At the same time, as ‘Japanese art’ as shaped by Fenollosa became systematically fixed within officialdom and took on the status of something that unfolded over a long passage of time rather than in the maelstrom of modernization, it lost its freedom and was transformed into a disquieting ‘tradition’ that dulled thought. It was modern traditions in this sense that Okamoto Taro, having returned from France, targeted after the war when he announced his frontal attack. The series of movements referred to as avant-garde that arose from the same background as Okamoto also set their sights on new traditions of this kind (which is why the Japanese avant-gardes are in fact compatible with pre-modern mores).

Ernest Fenollosa (1853-1908)

But what if? What if the wide-ranging modernist attacks these various avant-gardes used as their chief weapons were not in fact antagonistic to Ernest Fenollosa but derived from the post-modern thought that was his legacy? What if the thing from which all of the risk-takers who seek to radically rearrange the languages and images of the 20th century unknowingly derive is the very founder of this evil tradition in Japan: Ernest Fenollosa?

It was the other day after picking up Takata Tomiichi’s Fenorosa iko to Ezura Paundo (Fenollosa’s posthumous manuscripts and Ezra Pound) (Kindai Bungeisha, 1995) that these thoughts came into my head. It’s widely known that after Fenollosa’s death, the notes concerning Japanese culture he wrote towards the end of his life were passed on by his widow to Ezra Pound in London, greatly inspiring the American poet. However, never before had I read a text that discussed in such detail the significance of this, and for this reason I was keenly interested in Takata’s book. The gist of his argument is that Pound’s innovative experiments in modern literature, which are known under various names such as imagism and vorticism, evolved under the overriding influence of Fenollosa’s manuscripts, of which The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry is worthy of the greatest attention. In particular, in the opening chapter entitled ‘The vorticism movement and E. Pound. Foreword: an inquiry into the background to Pound’s theory of art, Fenellosa vs Pound’, Takata tries to establish from the standpoint that Pound acquired Fenollosa’s manuscripts earlier than previously accepted that their influence was crucial. On the basis of this he presents a stimulating thesis, carefully examining similarities in the texts of the two writers.

I have used the phrase ‘previously accepted’, but it was only through reading Takata’s book that I learned that there are various theories within research into British and American literature regarding Fenollosa’s influence on Pound. Accordingly, purely in terms of literary research, there is nothing original about this particular viewpoint. But what about when looked at from the point of view that this same Fenollosa was also the founder of ‘Japanese art’? To put it in a way that cannot possibly be misunderstood, could it be that the approach of Fenollosa’s that so shook up Japanese art contained from the very beginning the kinds of ideas that would pave the way for the adventures in art of the 20th century? That the very existence of these kinds of ideas was what enabled Fenollosa to reform Japanese art? And furthermore that Fenollosa’s views on Japanese culture were an unignorable source of the ideas that passed through Pound to people like T.S. Eliot and James Joyce and that later, on account of their influence on Allen Ginsberg and the other members of the Beat Generation, ushered in the whole post-modern culture?

Because while reading Takata’s study, one’s attention is drawn to the fact that the possibilities Fenollosa saw in Chinese characters (Japanese literature) were far more daring than one imagined. For example, Fenollosa regarded things like flashes of lightning passing between the sky and the earth as primitive kinds of ‘sentence patterns’, and ultimately sought to eliminate the disparity between such natural phenomena and language. In other words, when he spoke of writing he was also referring to phenomena and things immanent in the natural world, and he didn’t regard language as something that artificially substituted meaning for nature, as it is generally understood. That being the case, because the nature immanent in writing is also perpetual motion itself, within writing there is always actual motion. Once we reach this stage we are but a hairbreadth from vorticism. The term vorticism derives from the word ‘vortex’, and as a movement it spread beyond poetry into something more general that also engulfed painting and sculpture. However, the fact that in all its manifestations one can observe the incarnation of shapes derived from nature can probably be traced directly to the non-semantic idea that ‘writing = natural phenomena’.

It’s highly likely that this radical view of characters on the part Fenollosa’s applied not only to poetry writing but also to ink and wash and others forms of painting. This being the case, because ink and wash paintings rely on the dilution of ink in water, the resultant forms are filled with nature (in the form of uncontrollable chance). Such a way of thinking is diametrically opposed to the Western method of writing, which used styluses (in theory, lines with zero width) and did its best to eliminate chance, thereby seeking to go against nature. To put it bluntly, the ‘Nihonga’ Fenollosa aspired to could best be described as Westernized versions of Kano school paintings, and, as might have been expected given that he became versed in Hegelian philosophy and Herbert Spencer’s brand of Darwinism while in the U.S., one would probably be correct in thinking that ideally he saw the goal of ‘Nihonga’ as dialectically sublating the conflicting natures of both (brush and stylus).

Fenollosa’s idea of trying to bring to an end at a global level in a Hegelian sense (the end of history) the contradiction/antagonism between the natural and the artificial, East and West, had an influence not only on Nihonga but on all of the 20th century experiments concerning pictures = writing. This being the case, it would not be unreasonable to regard the manner in which Pound’s most important work, The Cantos, which was inevitably interpreted by some as a complete and utter absurdity, has spread like some giant nebula, exhibiting the kind of multifariousness whereby everything is integrated into an almost boundless universe while at the same time having an outward appearance that resembles literature even less than the complex and inscrutable language experiments of Joyce, whom Pound patronized (come to think of it, the Japanese word ‘kaminari’ can be found in the description of the sound of thunder that appears several times in Joyce’s Finnegans Wake), and the later cut-up literature of William S. Burroughs, as representing the farthest limits of vorticism, the origins of which can be traced to Fenollosa, who likened lightning to written characters.

The more you become familiar with it*, the more you realize that the ahistorical anarchism of simulationism, which could be regarded as a distant descendant of The Cantos by way of J.G. Ballard’s condensed novels and Burroughs’ cut-up method among other things, may have unknowingly turned Fenollosa, who gave birth to it albeit after much twisting and turning, into a virtual enemy (i.e. killed their own father). And yet, if I may put it in the strongest terms, it may be that Fenollosa, the agent of evil tradition, is actually the unacknowledged source of simulationism.

*Sawargi is the author of a book titled Simulationism (2001)

4: From art history concepts to independents – On viewing the Expressionist Movements in Japan exhibition

3: Overseas territories as cultural resource East Asia Image of Modern Ages exhibition at the Toyota Municipal Museum of Art

2: On the ‘budget screening’ of the cultural administration

1: Where is the contemporary in Ohtake Shinro?

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