Copyright The National
Kissing the Mask
William T Vollmann
The farewell dinner was held in a dimly lit Chinese restaurant in downtown Honolulu. The room filled up quickly, and as endless new dishes were brought forth, the drinks were refreshed, and toasts delivered. I was the guest of honour. Having just spent a full academic year as a visiting scholar at the University of Hawaii, my brain was freshly stuffed with a year’s worth of intensive Japanese and the readings from a handful of other graduate school courses in East Asian affairs.
As the evening began to wind toward its conclusion, a veteran journalist of the region in his early sixties proposed yet another toast. His prim younger wife sat next to him at the large table, sober and suddenly visibly on edge, perhaps betraying a presentiment of what was to come: “Howard, we’ve heard a lot of interesting stories here tonight, and you’ve already been given much sound advice, so let me just leave you with one thought.”
As he spoke, there was no controlling a wicked grin. “Just remember, try as you might, you can never have all of the women you’ll soon be lusting after.” With that, there were embarrassed titters as others moved to change the subject. A few minutes later, the dinner had ended.
As someone who had spent his career up to that point in the Third World ‚Äì Latin America, the Caribbean, and especially Africa ‚Äì it was the first inkling I would get of a world whose full dimensions I had, perhaps naively, scarcely suspected: the capacious realm of the Western man’s sexual obsession with Eastern women.
Like me, the author William T Vollmann would seem to be another latecomer to the topic, and in his customary fashion, he plunges deeply into his subject in his latest book, Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater.
In past efforts as an author, Vollmann has straddled the familiar categories of the novel and non-fiction to probe prostitution, war and poverty. As he has cranked out an enormous oeuvre of over 20 typically voluminous titles, he has worked with an all but obsessive attachment to what might be called authenticity, inhabiting his subject matter (even smoking crack, in one famous example) in the belief that this is the best, or perhaps for him the only way, to bag the prey he seeks to deliver to his readers.
In Kissing the Mask, Vollmann ostensibly takes on Japan and one of its most iconic and esoteric traditional art forms, Noh theatre. In fact, his overriding topics, in a book that at once proves immensely learned, entertaining and peripatetic to the point of occasionally lacking cohesion, are the elusive subjects of feminine gender identity and beauty.
Never declared, and yet haunting the entire effort, like the ghosts that animate Noh theatre is yet another preoccupation: the age-old attraction of Western man to Eastern woman.
By comparison, the endless details about Noh, a 600-year old theatrical tradition in which masked men play the roles of women, and which is codified to the extreme, escaping the comprehension even of most Japanese people, mostly leave the reader with the impression of weightless ephemera.
The start and end point for this extended meditation is the East Asian female. But oddly for a Vollmann book, there are only occasional hints of his customary direct, immediate and sensual approach.
In one striking example, that is far more detailed than even the following quote suggests, the author hires, expensively, a Japanese make-up artist, Yukiko, who caters to cross-dressers and transvestites at $700 (Dh2,600) a pop, to try on a female guise himself.
“Who am I?” Vollmann asks, once the elaborate makeover is complete. “My reddish-gold hair spills down to my breasts, so soft and golden in its highlight, matching my new eyebrows. I have pearly-pale skin ‚Äì no, actually I seem to be a rather hard-skinned woman; the creases in my face show more and more; soon my stubble will overpower the concealer; at least I possess a bright glowing smile. (Thank goodness I recently got my teeth cleaned.)”
For the most part, however, Vollmann intellectualises instead of exoticising his subject, and this serves in many ways as a refreshing and instructive departure from the far more familiar, indeed near-ubiquitous fetishisation of East Asian womanhood, through pornography and a long tradition of western cinema and literature.
Indeed, in eschewing the visceral, for which he is rightly best known, and sparing us the details of nonetheless hinted love affairs and carnal obsessions, the seedy and all too familiar fetishisation of the Asian woman as willowy and docile object becomes the mirror against which Vollmann is trying to write.
During much of the time spent in the cerebral mode, the reader can never fully escape the sense of a mismatch between the author and certain, shall we say crucial aspects of his chosen subject matter. Nowhere is this truer than with the extensive use of Noh as a vehicle for exploring the book’s main themes of womanhood and beauty, and yet even here, Vollmann is capable of surprising us in strikingly refreshing ways.
“Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese, innocent of formal study in any discipline of art, a graceless dancer afflicted with bad eyesight, I may not be the perfect author for any essay on Noh drama,” he writes, beginning on the very first page. “Fortunately, this is no essay, but a string-ball of idle thoughts. Rarely able to compose a short sentence, let alone a short book, I admit that this attempt of mine to extol the beauties of understatement may well approach the ludicrous. All the same, can’t a man praise the woman he loves? Can’t he describe her? Without presuming to be her, or to know her as she knows herself, can’t he claim acquaintanceship with her moods and ways?”
On reflection, though, might there not be something more than mere befuddlement going on here? Alongside fetishisation, Vollmann is clearly preoccupied with orientalism, but instead of delivering the standard critique, he has turned his engagement with the subject into a kind of performance art, allowing us to observe him, the self-conscious Westerner openly and ostentatiously cast his gaze on the East and its supposed mysteries.
In the end, Vollmann’s attempts to define Asian beauty would seem unsatisfying, devolving into a series of citations involving everything from ancient texts to modern-day geishas that awkwardly give primacy to different features.
Here, it is the waterfall of shimmering hair, “as black as the bowels of a mud snail.” There, it is the skin, “taut, wide awake, young and luminous.” Elsewhere, it is the collarbone, “arguably one of the most feminine parts of the body.” Or yet again, the “patch of unwhitened skin” at the nape of the neck, alternately described as that “glamour spot in kimono,” according to one modern Japanese publication the author cites. Examples like this by no means end here.
Woven deep into this occasionally errant narrative, this reader found a deeply perceptive reflection on the wages of man’s obsession with woman as aesthetic and sensual object; on mankind’s unrelenting preoccupation with feminine beauty, both as a matter of form and of ceaseless performance.
Although he is less than explicit on this point, the fetishisation of the East Asian female is a mere subchapter in a far older, bigger, indeed universal, story. Avoiding lecturing and pedantics, and showing no guilt for his own appetites, which when not on direct display are no less clearly inferable, Vollmann leads us on a tour d’horizon of this phenomenon, taking us from the particular to the general.
Some of the sharpest insights, in fact, come not from an Asian woman, but from Shannon, a white friend: ‚”I once remarked that surely an attractive woman [like her] can be envied for her ability to turn heads. She replied: “I’ll tell you how it actually is. You go downstairs in your high heels and you worry about tripping. You worry that your lipstick is smearing, and you need to find a restroom to check yourself in the mirror and there’s no restroom. You constantly repair yourself, and you have no time to be in the moment. When you’re young you don’t understand what little power you have, which means that you don’t have it; and once you start getting older you spend your time worrying.”
As for the geisha, the ultimate, if widely misunderstood symbol of submissive Japanese sensuality, Vollmann unpacks their history, exploring the fine line between their trade and ordinary prostitution. Stories are told of girls sold off at a young age who must find “patrons” as early as 11.
“I hope not to insult any of them with the false sympathy which derives from imagining myself in their situations, being all the whilehalf-blinded by my own particular fantasies of self-actualization,” he writes. “Nor would I care to dismiss their ‘enjoyment,’ such as it may be, of whichever femininities they must perform.”
Howard W French, who covered both Africa and China for the New York Times, is the author of A Continent for the Taking: The Tragedy and Hope of Africa.
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Copyright The National