Spoor of Desire: Selected Poems
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Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Notes on Recent Reading 22 [Waugh, Belloc, Okakura]

When the Going Was Good [Waugh]

I am generally intolerant of abridgments, but I can recommend this volume, made of five long continuous excerpts from the four travel books Waugh wrote between 1929 and 1935. Waugh, whose portrait by Henry Lamb elegantly if casually dressed with a pipe and a drink, insouciantly held, manages in these works of his youth to alternate comedic and satiric episodes reminiscent of Mark Twain with anecdotes detailing the sort of weird disoriented experience the traveler often encounters. He is, in these latter moments, kin to Robert Byron and Bruce Chatwin and, I would venture, a late and dry descendent of Smollett’s “sentimental” traveler.

He’s just fine on Istanbul and Cairo, but the book excels in the tropical boondocks. Describing his visits to British Guiana and in “Abyssinia,” where Waugh attended first for Haile Selassie’s coronation and later reported on the Italian invasion, he provides an excellent report of both the discomforts he underwent from climate and insects and the total dysfunction of government and, indeed, most aspects of life. He relays accurately the sensations of the outsider passing through, but, at the same time, these stories plant a suspicion that one’s own world might be at bottom little different than these remote places.

If Waugh’s own vision was tinged with shadow, this dark side was emphasized by the final piece reporting on the coming of Italian fascism to a hapless African state and the devastating world-wide war that followed. His calling these pre-war books When the Going Was Good reflects not just a nostalgia for his younger days, but also a sense that the wholesale destruction from years of war, accented by the unprecedented horrors of Auschwitz and Hiroshima, had aged not just the author but the world as a whole which never could be the same again.

The Road to Rome (Belloc)

Belloc’s account of his pilgrimage on foot from Lorraine to Rome is clever, imaginative, and provocative. The book is embellished with his landscape drawings (he says he cannot draw people and includes these sketches for “fun”). A spirited stylist and a wit, he is perfectly willing to sound as often uncharitable or even harsh as he is sympathetic and generous-spirited. Though the Latin tags and religious musing had their own appeal, I read the book as a road chronicle, thinking of Jack London and Jack Kerouac as Belloc describes his disreputable appearance from days of walking and sometimes sleeping rough. His contemptuous dismissal of socialist and anarchist ideas recalled to me his fondness for fascism (though he had a peculiar variant of his own in Distributism as Pound did in Social Credit)and his easy expression of the most commonplace and thoughtless anti-Semitism. These interfered with my own appreciation no more than his odd and absolute notions of Catholicism, to him definitive of European culture. He runs the risk of all more or less accurate travel journal of dry patches (that need not correspond at all to what seemed tiresome in lived experience). Indeed he comments on the problem more than once in amusing dialogues between auctor and lector.

The Ideals of the East (Okakura)

Kakuzo Okakura played a critical role in mediated cultural relations between the Far East and the West a hundred years ago. His Book of Tea popularized Buddhist and Taoist thought in the U.S. and Europe. This exponent of Asian art was himself profoundly bicultural. After attending mission schools, he was trained by Ernest Fenellosa (who meant so much to Pound) at Tokyo Imperial University. He wrote his most significant work in in English and, after founding the Japan Art Institute, headed the Asian arts division of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts. Associated with Heidegger, Tagore, Vivekenanda and other non-Japanese, he sought to define Asian art in broadest and most ambitious view.

Though we are all familiar with the traditional presentation of European art that traces concepts and practices from origins in Greece and Rome through to the present, I think I have never before read a book that sought to present Asian culture as a whole from India to Japan. While Okakura’s book may be seen as an early attempt to explain Asia to the Occident, it is also an assertive statement of national pride. Okakura subtitles his work “with Special Reference to the Art of Japan,” and his nationalism along with his bias toward ethnic explanations seem to arise from the recent successes of the Japanese military against the Russians and to point ominously forward to the militarists who were to invade China and bomb Pearl Harbor a few decades after this 1904 work. This tendency is heightened in his The Awakening of Japan a few years later. It is also possible read these ideas backward to the influence of Hippolyte Taine and his “race, milieu, moment.”

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