Reflection by Kristin Mahoney

The most beautiful thing about Grace Lavery’s Quaint, Exquisite: Victorian Aesthetics and the Idea of Japan is its form of historical practice that brings texture and specificity to our understanding of the “transnational affective flows” traveling between Britain and Japan in the nineteenth century (xiii). Said’s “Orientalism” and Bhaba’s “mimicry” have been incredibly generative for Victorian studies. However, our reliance on abstractions to categorize the wide range of transnational encounters in the nineteenth century can at times threaten to flatten or obscure the particularities of these encounters, operating as placeholders and perhaps stalling or impeding the work of comprehending the manner in which difference was apprehended and negotiated during this period. The work here enacts the more “flexible historicism” that Lavery herself advocated on this website in a response to the “V21 Manifesto” (a mode of historicism she is careful to say she takes to already exist in the field), dwelling in the kinds of specificity that demonstrate the insufficiency of abstractions for describing the various ways that Japan and Britain encountered one another in the nineteenth century and into the present (180). Centering Japanese Anglophone writers and collectors, such as Yone Noguchi and Mikimoto Ryuzo, as much as Gilbert and Sullivan and the members of the Aesthetic Movement, Lavery details the “psychic need[s]” and “sexually dissident utopian longing[s]” that underwrote the exchanges, obsessions, reductions, and revisions that occurred as cosmopolitan subjects transmitted and remade cultural forms, such as the haiku, and implemented cultural objects, such as vellum, in generating networks and intimacies (137, 24).[1]

Lavery’s sensitivity to the texture of these exchanges, her capacity to relay and theorize the affective and political complexity of these encounters, to make historical detail deeply meaningful, demonstrates the value of her methodology. The chapters on Yone Noguchi and haiku and Mikimoto’s Ruskin collection in particular enact this carefulness and sensitivity. Pushing back, for example, against the binary logic that wants to see Noguchi as either “[buying] into” or “[rebelling] against” Orientalist stereotypes, Lavery reads Noguchi as engaging in performative acts of appropriation, acts of parody that do not amount simply to critique, that involve accommodation and renegotiation and the conscription of Victorian verse tradition “within a transnational cultural formation, over which a cosmopolitan Japanese Anglophone reader could assume stewardship” (95, 93). Lavery inhabits the affective space of Mikimoto’s Ruskin collection in a chapter that could be understood as theorizing archival methodologies and pleasures, conceptualizing Mikimoto’s assemblage of editions and artefacts as a form of loving. As Lavery notes, Mikimoto’s Ruskin, who is “breathtakingly remote from the ornery sage and repressed fuddy-duddy of critical stereotype,” would probably be unrecognizable to Victorianists, but, like Noguchi’s appropriation of Western forms, this is read by Lavery as a creative form of expropriation that reworks, remakes, and repurposes its source material (116). This chapter, in which one can feel the longing that underwrote the construction of Mikimoto’s Ruskin collection as well the curiosity driving Lavery’s own interaction with that collection, serves as a moving reflection on that much desired “touch across time” described by Carolyn Dinshaw in her work on transhistorical reception. And it shows us how to tricky it us to write about power and influence when attempting to characterize transnational contact.[2]

All of this can only emerge by the kind of focus and attentiveness Lavery bestows on the gazes levelled back and forth between British and Japanese subjects in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Concepts like Orientalism are not done away with but made rough, renewed, and textured through close examination of the kinds of detail and political intricacy that indicate the insufficiency of abstraction when working to comprehend the past.

[1] Lavery draws on Ann Cvetkovich’s discussion of “the quest for history as a psychic need” in An Archive of Feelings: Trauma, Sexuality, and Lesbian Public Cultures (Durham: Duke University Press, 2003) 268.

[2] See Carolyn Dinshaw, Getting Medieval: Sexualities and Communities, Pre- and Postmodern (Durham: Duke University Press, 1999).

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