Pierre Loti: not your best ball guest
The name Pierre Loti came up in my previous post, where I talked about Nakajima Atsushi’s stories of the Southern Seas; in probably the most famous of them, “Mariyan,” the protagonist of the same name, a Micronesian Kanaka girl, is reading one of Loti’s books, Rarahu. Loti is also linked to Akutagawa, who did a very astute rewrite of a Loti piece, responding to some of the mean comments the Frenchman had directed at Japan’s modernisation in the early Meiji period (cca 1880s). This here is quite the bundle of racism and colonialism (with a touch of machismo, for good measure), and I might need a few more posts to untangle it, but let me just start by telling you one or two things about Pierre Loti— by his real name, Julien Viaud ((1850–1923).
Loti was a French naval officer who, one might say, lived his life true to the sailor’s motto, having a wife in every port. Or maybe not exactly in every port, but at least in those most susceptible to European colonialism (cultural or actual), whose proud representative our officer was. As a men of letters, he became famous by publishing Rarahu, or Le marriage de Loti (1880), in which he describes his idyll with a Tahitian girl. His fame grew further when he published Madame Chrysanthème (1887), a semi-autobiographical novel about the temporary marriage (?) between a French officer and a girl in the Japanese port of Nagasaki. In fact, if one is to look over Loti’s works, there are hardly any that talk about his native France: there’s one set in Constantinople; one in Senegal; one in Maroc; then the Southern Seas, China, India, Japan…
In his collection of short stories? essays? Japoneries d’Automne (1889) about his visit to Japan there is one, called “Un Bal a Yeddo,” in which Loti retells his impressions about an official ball he attended at the Rokumeikan (a western style building, designed by Josiah Conder, and completed in 1883). Of the building Loti tells his reader that, “[b]uilt in the European style, all fresh, white, and new, it resembled — my God — a casino in one of our second-rate resort towns; one could believe oneself to be anywhere at all, except in Edo…” (in David Rosenfeld’s 2001 translation).
Overall, Loti is not impressed with the way in which the Japanese are trying to imitate Europe — or worse, America! (of the houses around the Tokyo train station he bluntly comments that they are “of an American ugliness”). He is particularly disenchanted with the Japanese women, most of all with those who are dressed in French ball gowns: “too many hoops in their skirts, perhaps, or too few, or placed too high or too low, and their corsets of an unfamiliar shape. Their figures were not common or coarse, their hands were small, and their dresses were straight from Paris; but in spite of all this, they were somehow strange, they were improbable to the last degree, with the smiles in their narrow eyes, their feet turned inward, and their flat noses,” he tells us.
Loti is particularly amused by the “disguise” donned by the young Japanese girl he is dancing with; yet, cannot help but imagine her “true” self, hidden beneath the French dress: “shortly she would return to the paper walls of her own home, and like all the other women, take off her tapered corset, put on her kimono embroidered with a stork or some other such common bird, and kneeling, intone her prayers to the Shinto or Buddhist gods, and then using her chopsticks, eat her rice from a bowl…” He had been equally smitten a few pages earlier with a group of Japanese women in traditional attire, whose appearance and fashion he describes in great detail, and finally voices his awe for the old Japan they represent thus: “One could imagine them as people escaped from between the pages of some old book where they had been preserved for centuries, pressed like rare flowers in a collection. Ugly, perhaps — I am no longer sure — ugly, but superlatively distinguished, and nevertheless with a certain charm.”
In a nutshell, what Loti, like many other European and American men who washed up on Japan’s shores immediately after her opening up to the West, was looking for in the Orient was (then, as today), a glimpse of the “old Japan,” the strange land they’d heard stories about, a place that would transport them back in time (earlier travellers had indeed spoken of the country in terms of Roman and Greek antiquity — like, for example Arthur George Bridge in his article “The Mediterranean of Japan” from the Fortnightly Review №18 of 1875, or William Elliot Griffis in his book The Mikado’s Empire, Book II: Personal Experiences, Observations and Studies in Japan, published in 1876).
Faced with a Japan eager to “escape from between the pages of some old book” where she “had been preserved for centuries,” Loti cannot let go of his Oriental dream, in which it’s OK to give nonsense-Japanese names the women around him, describe them in bulk, and carelessly admit to being unable to distinguish among them (“a Miss Miogonitchi or Karakamoko, I don’t remember which.”) He is overall a terrible guest, and even compares his hosts with moneys at some point.
And thus, some 30 years later, Akutagawa, having most likely read the Japanese translations of this piece, decided to retell the story from the point of view of one of “[t]hese Misses Arimaska,or Kounitchiwa, or Karakamoko” — so in my next post I’ll introduce to you Akiko, the protagonist of “The Ball,” a true child of the Meiji Restoration, as her name also shows (does this count as a cliffhanger?)