Reflection by Anna Maria Jones

One would be tempted to called Grace Lavery’s new book exquisite, had she not taught us in that very book to be wary of the term. Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan (Princeton, 2019) is, in any case, beautifully written, carefully crafted, and trenchantly argued. Lavery not only offers a thoroughgoing treatment of the late-Victorians’ affective and aesthetic investments in Japan but demonstrates how those investments continued to pay dividends, so to speak, beyond the temporal and geographic confines of late nineteenth century England. Indeed, she shows that the descriptors that came to signify Japaneseness in fin de siècle Orientalism—quaint, exquisite, eccentric—remain active in contemporary culture, not to mention in the theoretical traditions that continue to inform literary studies. As she puts it, “[T]he late-Victorian idea of Japan as eccentric, producing exquisite art, and subject only to quaint styles of memorialization laid the groundwork for the influential post-structuralist historiographies of the twentieth century” (24).

The book’s eponymous key terms enable Lavery to explain how the idea of exceptional Japan—the “Other Empire” that is very close and also impossibly far, modern and not modern, alien yet analogous to the West—became central to “a wide range of aesthetic, historical, political, and cultural fantasies, both populating and sharply delimiting the imaginative field of the modern world” (4). The exquisite, partaking of both pleasure and pain, signifies a melancholic investment in the “subjective universal character of the judgment of taste,” which believes in fellow feeling and reciprocity in aesthetic judgments while, at the same time, always experiencing the “failures and refusals” of that subjective universal (11). Lavery defines quaint as “the manner in which exquisite objects become (or fail to become) historical evidence” (31). Related to quaintness is the eccentric, “the character-type of the quaint temporal mode” and the minor, which Lavery means “quite conventionally” to designate people, cultural phenomena, and texts that are less-than major figures, phenomena, texts, etc. (31).

So, the rigid formalities of the Japanese tea ceremony, the stylized minimalism of the haiku, the tortured tweeness of the bonsai tree, the “incomparable achievement of certain harmonies in colour” in Japanese art (Swinburne qtd. in Lavery 66), were, for the late-Victorians, exquisite. They were also quaint, perfect for what they were, but lacking historical weight. The beautiful objects of Japan were fascinating to a coterie of late-Victorian Aesthetes, Orientalists, and sexual dissidents (an overlapping Venn diagram, as Lavery points out), but the tastes of that late-Victorian “Cult of Japan” have been viewed as largely inconsequential to the history of Western aesthetics, or to the history of Victorian literature and culture, for that matter. Note that past and present blur here: fin-de-siècle Victorians thought Japan was quaint and eccentric, and we, their descendants, are inclined to characterize their fascination with Japan the same way.

That the late-Victorians loaded Japan up with a whole raft of contradictory desires and anxieties centering around aesthetics will not be surprising to anyone who recalls Oscar Wilde’s provocative line in “The Decay of Lying”: “The Japanese people are the deliberate self-conscious creation of certain individual artists. … In fact the whole of Japan is a pure invention” (98). But that is not all Lavery argues. She claims, rather, that this historical instance, British Aestheticism’s idea of Japan at the fin de siècle, “represent[s] the social form of aesthetics itself: that it was through the embodied and socially embedded practices of cultivating beauty that the exquisite limits of aesthetic thinking were formulated as a historical problematic” (57). Thus, she demonstrates, the aesthetic productions of those eccentric Victorian Japanophiles, as well as the works of “minor” Japanese Anglophone writers who capitalized on the vogue for all things Japanese, such as Yone Noguchi and Sadakichi Hartmann, are, in fact, central to the history of Western aesthetics. Quaint, Exquisite, then, works in a recuperative mode that Lavery herself calls quaint: one which “seeks to activate quaint attachments in order to develop a richer engagement with obsolete aesthetic categories than traditional historicism generally accesses” (31). This is a method at once generous and rigorous; it is one that can teach us a great deal about the idea of Japan, and about aesthetics and the social order. It is, moreover, a method that bears emulating.

Wilde, Oscar. “The Decay of Lying.” The Complete Works of Oscar Wilde. Vol. 4. Edited by Josephine
Guy, 72–122. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2007.

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