above which the lotus, white nenuphar
Kannon, the mythologies
Ezra Pound, Canto LXXXi
At the Irrawaddy Literary Festival in Mandalay in 2014, I attended an enthralling presentation by Rupert Arrowsmith about a little known manuscript in the oeuvre of the poet and literary theorist, William Empson. This manuscript, which had been lost for decades, had recently been found in the British Museum in a box given to the museum in 2003. It was among the papers of the literary figure Richard Marsh. How it came to be lost, and then inadvertently re-discovered is one of many intriguing aspects of Empson’s The Face of the Buddha, edited by Arrowsmith and recently published by Oxford University Press.
The Face of the Buddha consists of a comprehensive account of Buddhist statuary in Asia, and most significantly, the presentation of a theory of facial asymmetry, which ascribes intentionality to subtle differentiations in the depiction of the left and right sides of the face of some, but not all, Buddhas. After initiating his ideas in Japan, the formulation of the theory developed apace when Empson visited the fifth-century Yungang grotto in northern China. There he discerned an added human quality to the work:
A good deal of the startling and compelling quality of the Far Eastern Buddha heads come from their combining things that seem incompatible, especially a complete repose or detachment with an active power to help the worshipper. Now of course these qualities must somehow be diffused through the whole face, indeed the whole figure, or it will have no unity.
As Empson puts it, the portrayal of very similar asymmetrical features suggests that the artists ‘were working on theory’, and that the differing right and left sides of the face ‘appeared to suggest conflicting spiritual or emotional states’.
William Empson’s position as a Cambridge don, which had seemed secure after the reception of his influential tome, Seven Types of Ambiguity, came to a sudden halt when contraceptives were discovered in a drawer in his rooms in 1929. He was dismissed. His mentor I.A. Richards was able to recommend him for an appointment in Tokyo in 1931, and it was in Japan that his research into aspects of Buddhist sculpture began. This research was extraordinarily thorough, involving travel to museums and often remote Buddhist sites all over Asia. He even continued to do this when war threatened, returning to China to take up another academic position for the 1937-38 year as the Japanese advanced to Peking.
Sadly for Empson, the manuscript which had travelled with him as he revised and updated its contents, remained unpublished in his lifetime, due to an unfortunate chain of events. He had given his sole copy to a friend, John Davenport, who in a drunken state left it in a London taxi. Or so he thought. He had in fact given it to the poet Tambimuttu, then editor of Poetry London, who in turn had delivered it to his colleague, Richard March. With the manuscript still in limbo, March died. His papers were sent to the British Museum, where the manuscript came to light a few years ago. Although the theory of asymmetry in many ways goes to the heart of The Face of the Buddha, the research has connections, as Rupert Arrowsmith explains in his fine introduction, to aspects of Modernism through the writings of Ernest Fenellosa, Lawrence Binyon and significantly, Ezra Pound.
According to his friend, the poet Kathleen Raine, Empson had been interested in Buddhist sculpture before he left for Japan, but once there he began a systematic and detailed study. This study, and the development of the theory of asymmetry, involved travel to sites in Asia which were often difficult to access, requiring travel by train, bus and sometimes bullock cart over difficult roads, but he succeeded in viewing and photographing sculpture in Korea, China, Ceylon, Cambodia, Burma and India. Empson was adamant that he must see these works in situ, that they must be photographed and that this direct apprehension would form the basis of his thesis. The engagement with the world of Asia and this subject in particular was enthusiastically shared with others, who accompanied him on both longer and shorter local visits to museums and temples.
Arrowsmith gives a lively account of the chronological trajectory of Empson’s discovery, which adds a sense of immediacy to the travel and to the theory’s development. Vivid particulars are given of the sites and their varyingly degraded condition. For example in Japanese-occupied Korea, the coloniser’s policy of cultural erasure could be seen in the positioning of a neo-classical style Government House in front of the Gyeongbokgung palace, seriously compromising the view. Empson was however underwhelmed by the quality of the sculpture found there, but on visiting the nearby Doeksujung, he lavishes praise on a sixth-century Maitreya:
There is a life size bronze Maitreya [which is] a very fine creature in itself, and of interest for its likenesses to the greater sculpture accomplished in Japan…The hands have a remarkable quality which also reappears in early Japanese work … you begin to imagine what it would feel like to have those hands, and realise that if you saw them in a living creature it would affect you as divine.
In the wilds of Yungang in China rows of beheaded statues attested to illegal trade. Empson was there able to view the ‘heads hacked off for sale’ and take note of a general asymmetrical rule of their being ‘more slant on the right’. At the Ajanta Caves in India, which have a stylistic connection with later Far Eastern art, his ecstasy at the quality of the work was tempered by his awareness of how the frescoes had been sullied by poor restoration methods.
In The Face of the Buddha, Empson firstly provides a thorough historical survey of Buddhist art, and then proceeds to develop his theory of asymmetry with the fine attention to detail he had perfected with his method of close reading of literary texts seen in Seven Types of Ambiguity. As Partha Mitter observes in his preface to this book, ‘Rhetoric, semiotics, and the close reading of texts, pioneered by I.A. Richards and William Empson, stood in good stead in the latter’s comparative analysis of Buddhist iconography’. In developing his extensive commentary on the Buddha’s facial expression, his attention to minutiae in for instance the intricacies and variations of the eyes, eyebrows, nose mouth and smile, unfolds like a Proustian disquisition. Of a sculpture from Yungang he writes:
In the right hand face, as usual, the lines slant upwards from the centre; in the left hand face similar lines are horizontal or are made to seem so. This applies not only to the eye and mouth lines… but to the jowl and the line at the bottom of the nose. The inner eyebrow is perhaps actually steeper on the left, but it meets the nose at an angle; on the right there is a continuous strong curve from nose to brow which makes the slant more important. The left brow is slightly higher and has less hollow beneath it, which makes the face more passive and less protected. The bulge below the eyeslit, suggesting an eye, is nearer the nose in the left version, giving the squint of meditation; on the right is longer and more pronounced, giving a forward-looking eye that seems to wink.
This speculative journey has a personal dimension. Empson was not a trained scholar in this field, but was in many ways, as Arrowsmith reveals, a maverick, pursuing an individual line of enquiry with a deep reverence for the direct encounter. Thinking outside of the square was his stock in trade, but he remained hopeful that his theory would be accepted. Then, as now, opinion is divided.
Be that as it may, Empson’s achievement is exceptional. By combining both serendipity and strategy, he succeeded in producing a beautiful piece of reflective writing. As he surveys each selected site, he graces his observations with just the right note of humour. Of Yungang he writes:
… the novelty about the first Buddhas in China is that they have already a suggestion of ironical politeness and philosophical superiority. Delicious conversation pieces are found in progress between the reserved but winking figures, withdrawn like the classical Chinese poets from the vulgar herd rather than the world… I am not clear how far the work corresponded to a strong popular movement, but the idea of the Thousand Buddhas, which is carried out in several of the caves (a sheer wall of innumerable Buddhas like a wallpaper pattern, to show that the Buddha nature is omnipresent) was well suited to a mass religion; even a peasant could afford to sponsor one of these repeated objects, which would count as his own.
Empson’s investigation, however, was dictated not by chronology but opportunity. His journey begins, crucially, in Nara, and the two sculptures from the Horyu-ji temple to which he pays most attention, the Yumedono Kwannon and the Horyu-ji Kwannon, is where the Modernist connection comes in (The Japanese Kwannon and the Chinese Guanyin are cultural variations on the Bodhisattva of compassion, Avolokitesvara). The Yumedono Kwannon, known as the ‘Secret Buddha’ was wrapped in yards of cloth, locked away and rarely viewed. However, Fenellosa (whose study of Japanese art was a reference point) managed to secure a viewing in 1884, as did Empson on two occasions. In relation to the Kudara Kwannon, Lawrence Binyon, who had earlier visited some of the sites on Empson’s itinerary, included it in his famous lectures on Asian art held in the British Museum, which as Arrowsmith demonstrates, was the central location for the development of early Modernism. Some of Binyon’s lectures were attended by Ezra Pound (who remained a long-term friend) and it is quite likely to be the Kannon referred to in The Cantos. While Empson was able to refer to this sculpture as a basis for his general thesis that ‘the chief novelty of the far-eastern Buddhist sculpture, beyond what has been done in India and central Asia, is the use of asymmetry to make the face more human’, he was candid in admitting, so as ‘not to appear crazy over my facial theory,’ that the Yumedono Kwannon ‘seemed to me completely symmetrical on the two occasions I saw it.’ However, despite an early interest while at Cambridge in the translations of Arthur Waley, and sharing similar pursuits (and geographies) with some of these seminal figures, even consulting some of their accounts of the sculpture, Empson appears to have developed his study independently of them.
Despite his theoretical if not aesthetic disappointment with the Yumedono Kwannon, throughout his travels Empson found enough examples to develop his theory. Arrowsmith points out additional sources which could have bolstered his argument, such as the ambiguity integral to Noh masks, and works like the nineteenth-century Burmese sculpture the Jade Buddha, in white jadeite or marble, which was mostly hidden from sight in the Peking Empson visited in 1933. Of this work, Arrowsmith observes:
The face is particularly fine, and the fact that it seems to illustrate many points of Empson’s theories on asymmetry makes it incredibly unlikely that he saw it and then chose to leave it out of The Face of the Buddha. If one looks particularly at the eyes, one can see immediately that the pattern Empson perceived in the face of the Kudara Kannon at Horyu-ji is also here. The left side of the face has a level eye and an overall expression of detachment, while the incline in the angle of the other eye and the ‘Mona Lisa’ smile’ in the corner of the mouth make the right side of the face appear to engage sympathetically with the viewer.
In the account of his journeys, Empson’s lively prose is refreshingly free of colonial cant, and he speedily debunks generalisations which come out of this mindset, such as the scholar Geoffrey Gorer’s assertion that the artisans of the Angkor Bayon carved work (derided by him, but praised by Empson) which indicated they were ‘soaked in opium’. Of the French claim to have ‘discovered’ in Angkor ‘a lost city’, Empson observes:
The mystery of Angkor has perhaps been rather overdone. When the dying French explorer staggered through the jungle and discovered the lost city he found a community of Hinayana monks still in residence, though it hardly seems good taste to point that out.
He is also impatient with the Romantic trope extolling the magnificence of the intertwining of nature and sculptural ruin. Writing approvingly of restoration undertaken by French archaeologists, in a letter to Edith Sitwell in 1938 Empson writes:
The French have pulled down that beastly tree that destroyed Neak Pean, which everybody writes of so tenderly. Pray God they put the stones back now instead of saying how picturesque they look lying in a heap.
The Face of the Buddha provides the reader with the story of an extraordinary journey, in which as Arrowsmith puts it, the multiplicity of asymmetrical facial types ‘actively helped him form a way of thinking’ and equipped the writer with a means to identify the nature of a philosophical system which attracted him. As Arrowsmith writes, Empson’s account suggests that while Empson had made known his dislike of monotheistic religions, the absence of this feature in Buddhism may have been a contributing factor to his engagement, and to giving the impression that he was something of a ‘crypto Buddhist’.
The quest for the asymmetrical face suggests an apprehension of the transcendent, a search within the contours of the face for a mirrored identity. Asymmetry in Empson’s account radiates the very nature of human consciousness, and possibly confirmation of, or more likely a resonance of the writer’s own interiority. Interesting in this respect are Empson’s experiments in photography and the use of the mirror to pinpoint how a facial image may be perceived. Arrowsmith writes that Empson had, at the same time that he had begun the first draft of the Face of the Buddha
begun to experiment in the photographic darkroom, manipulating images of the faces of Buddhist sculptures in an attempt to better understand their asymmetries. The resultant images put particular sides of the faces together with their mirror images in order to produce what Empson called ‘left-left’ and right-right combinations … these photographic experiments allowed [him] to mentally reduce the faces of the sculptures he had seen at Nara, Seoul and Yungang into abstract patterns, converting them, in a very real sense, into the continuous elements of an obsessive geometric puzzle. Empson was, of course, tipped for a career as a mathematician before he chose instead to specialize in literary studies
If Empson’s relation to contemporary Modernist figures and creative method could be viewed as tangential, his quest has some parallels with that of the poet and explorer Victor Segalen and his frustrated search in China for the face of a Han warrior (see John Mateer’s 2013 essay ‘In the Chinese Mirror’). His 1912 collection Steles anticipates Pound’s Cantos in the use of text and Chinese characters, the significant difference being the collection was grounded in extensive travel, immediacy of experience, and fluency in the language. As Jamie James writes in his essay on Segalen, ‘The Empire of the Self’ (included in his recent book, The Glamour of Strangeness), Steles was ‘a bold experiment in pure cultural overlay, which attempted to coalesce Chinese and French sensibilities in a wholly original literary form.’ When James notes that for Segalen, ‘immersion in the Other was… a means of expanding the consciousness, amounting to an aesthetic path to enlightenment’, it is an observation that could be applied to Empson’s long-term substantial encounter with the face of the Buddha, and investigation of its ethereality.
This landmark edition of The Face of the Buddha is highly detailed and beautifully presented. It includes photographs taken by Empson, which were fortunately recovered with the original manuscript, plus a series of coloured plates. Arrowsmith’s finely written introduction complements Empson’s style in its mix of erudition and wit, and provides a compelling account of a unique journey which has its mirror in many others.
I was in Copenhagen last week, revelling in the exoticism. Mouse-blond hair, sea-glass eyes; tall Vikings cycling along, with their fresh complexions and stubby boots. Wearing stripes and eating shrimp on black bread. Looking patient, civilized, sturdy and weathered, with a touch of glorious paganism under the surface. Privy to the great magnetic secrets of the boreal realm. Sexy: so cold and well meaning and white. Mysterious: the real reason that I devour all that generally disappointing Scandinavian noir. While they were busy looking at me and savoring the imaginary fire under my swarthy skin and kinky hair, I was busy enjoying my fantasies about them.
It comes from the Greek exotikos, “foreign,” which in turn comes from the prefix exo, meaning “outside.” All dictionary definitions of “exotic” have two strands: “from a distant place,” and “striking and attractive because unfamiliar.” So, a simple conflation of strangeness and desire.
Google “exotic nature” and you will find an essential image: a coconut; a hammock; two palm trees.
A versatile concept, one would say, available for interpretation by all who notice differences. Yet anyone raised within the confines of the European canon knows that, in that context, “exotic” inevitably means “dark.” What I myself—a woman of African descent, domesticated by European rules—first envision, when I hear “exotic,” is an eye, black as a bottomless well. Darkness with a secret glitter in its depths, hinting at information both offered and withheld. But, for me, intense light—sun beating on rye fields, eyes like a bare Montana sky—can also evoke mystery and desire.
The writer and ethnologist Victor Segalen, drifting between Paris and China, Java and Tahiti, wrote his “Essay on Exoticism” in 1904. Oddly enough, with the passing years, Segalen has become somewhat exotic himself: French. An opium-addicted dreamer. An explorer. A tracker of dangerous themes through the forest of iconoclasm that was the early twentieth century.
In my childhood house in Philadelphia, a huge gold-framed painting hung in the dining room, an heirloom from a rich cousin of my father’s who had travelled all over the world and died senile in a house stuffed with mementos. Painted in the nineteen-twenties by a famous black woman artist, the painting depicted, in murky tints, what seemed to be a very stiffly rendered French marquise, complete with beauty patches, vapid rouged face, and powdered wig. But, if one looked closer, the subject proved to be a large French doll—and not alone, for almost invisible behind her stood another doll, a turbaned black mammy whose eyes and gold earrings and red lips shone with unsettling vividness out of the shadows.
The mammy doll was there in the immemorial tradition of the black servant, an intended touch of exoticism. Yet in the end—and certainly not by accident—the convention was upset. She dominated the scene, glowing with triumphant demonic life, as if she had sucked the blood out of her pale mistress and replaced it with sawdust. An example of the exotic spilling out of bounds, taking on a power that it isn’t supposed to have. This picture sat in the background of our middle-class colored Sunday dinners like a memento mori, and we made fun of it the way you joke about things that truly scare you.
When I was eleven, and one of the first black pupils at an expensive girls’ private school, I was excluded from many parties and other social activities. But I was given a small role in “The King and I,” as the Siamese noblewoman Lady Thiang. For this, I was unquestioningly costumed in a blue sari someone’s family had brought back from a tour of India. “Oh, how that color suits your skin!” the teachers and suburban mothers who made up the audience exclaimed. “How lovely! You look so exotic!”
I was flattered, but puzzled that I—invisible, untouchable to them in everyday life—could suddenly be beautiful in the identity of a fictional woman from the East.
This was the first of many times that white people—lovers, friends, complete strangers at parties—called me “exotic” as if they were giving me a wonderful present.
What else is “exotic”? It involves strangeness and desire, the desire for strangeness, with a sense of risk but no real threat of danger. There is always an element of ownership and control about “exotic”—because the dreamer controls the fantasy—which is the downfall of real contact. There is always something willfully stupid about “exotic”: two-dimensional, fundamentally dull, like all fetishism. Exoticism is built on limitation. It is exciting in the same amateur way as mild bondage in lovemaking, and as quickly forgotten.
“I’m feeling so exotic,” a Bollywood actress sings in a duet with a mediocre American hip-hop star. “Mumbai, Cuba, baby, let’s go / La-love me all the way to Rio.”
Segalen writes that it is “nothing other than the notion of difference, the perception of Diversity, the knowledge that something is other than one’s self.”
He omits the element of attraction, the human conflation of mystery and longing that leads circuitously toward the divine.
On another occasion at my school, the community-service club was appealing for volunteers. To the assembled rows of students in blue uniforms, the senior girl making the announcement described Philadelphia’s black neighborhoods in a dramatic voice, as if she were narrating an adventure story. “Have you ever visited the ghetto?” she asked. “Have you ever been to an African Baptist church?”
She could not have known that one neighborhood she described was where my mother taught elementary school. And that my father was the minister of the church whose name, on her lips, sounded so thrillingly savage. Alone in that sea of white girls, I sat frozen with the shock of worlds—entire dimensions of existence—colliding.
Recently, I asked my secretary, a young English woman, what springs to mind when she hears “exotic,” and she said “waxed”—she did not know why. Waxed like a tropical fruit, brought from too far away, and already stale inside? Waxed like a porn actress’s faux-childish vulva? I know she isn’t telling me everything.
On the island where I spend several months a year, off the northwestern coast of Madagascar, apples are exotic fruits. Shipped from France or New Zealand, they are bruised and mealy and cost a fortune in the supermarket where only the whites and rich Malagasy go.
I saw an old photograph commemorating the arrival of the first bananas in Norway. Bunches are displayed hanging before a warehouse, flanked by tall Norwegians in formal suits and hats, local merchants and dignitaries, posed ceremonially, as if welcoming royalty. What strange insects, what fantasies, arrived with that cargo?
When I first came to live in Italy, I was in Rome crossing Via Veneto one summer afternoon when two strolling Italian men, possibly tourists from a provincial town, turned to look at me. One said to the other, quite audibly, “That, my boy, is a mulatta from Cuba or Brazil!” He said it admiringly, with mock instructiveness but also with triumph, like a naturalist who has just sighted a rare specimen.
An art-historian friend, whose parents, years ago, moved from Mumbai to New York, tells me that what is exotic to her is golf. For me, too, growing up black in Philadelphia, golf—with its verdant country-manor acres and its association with the Scottish Highlands and other northern regions, where even dogs’ eyes are blue—was an activity of distant glamour. It belonged to the masters, who at that point in history were no longer officially masters but still clearly ran the world.
Strangely enough, many of the men I knew in childhood—doctors, lawyers, ministers, including my father and uncle—themselves played golf, at a public links that accepted middle-class colored folk. But this fact had no place in my fantasy, which was about an opulent world in which my presence was forbidden. I imagined what my father and his friends did as a poor copy of the real activity, a sham: Negro golf.
On a Sunday afternoon in winter, in the bleak hinterland of an alpine Italian city, I glimpse an exotic tableau. Beside the road behind the shopping mall, amid the trash and frozen weeds, a bonfire burns. In its light stand two impossibly beautiful Nigerian prostitutes, nearly naked in bras and thong underwear. Long braids streaming, buttocks gleaming like teakwood, symmetrically posed half turned away from each other, like a pair of urns on a mantelpiece. They seem impervious to the December cold. Their faces are masks.
The scene has an almost supernatural beauty that one immediately feels is too grand for its audience: glum Turin factory workers who come out in their battered Fiat Unos with a shamefaced desire for a taste of darkness between Sunday lunch and dinner.
When was it that I began to exoticize white boys? There was a prince in a storybook illustration who had hair like a new broom and wore such a bored expression as he kissed the princess that I instantly fell in love. And the classmate in fourth grade who was slow in reading and arithmetic but entranced me with eyes the sullen gray of late-winter ice. Later, there were prep-school boys with grubby khaki trousers and the pure, androgynous faces of Christmas-card angels.
My thoughts also lingered on the bad white Southern men who, I had learned from the news, wished to murder little black girls like me, to set police dogs on us, to blow us up even in church. This inexplicable hatred gave them, to me, a perverse allure: in daydreams, I imagined holding them at gunpoint—before falling dead, they’d acknowledge my beauty and power. As I grew older and started to identify the elaborate tracery of mixed African and European blood in my own family, I began to glimpse the obsession that lay beneath white loathing. It didn’t take many years to discover that there were white men who found me as exotic as I found them.
For a short time, one of my boyfriends was a sweet-natured, freckled student who had worked in Appalachia and could imitate a backwoods twang. He was puzzled when I made him talk in that hillbilly voice over and over again, in and out of bed.
One night in Moscow, when I was on a university exchange there, a drunken workman suddenly embraced me on a crowded bus. He stank of sausage and raw spirit, and it was like being abruptly swallowed up by all of Russia. As other passengers pulled him away from me, he hoarsely and joyfully repeated a few words of English: “My—black—friend!”
Strangely enough, this phrase has lived on in my family. My children use it whenever they think a white person has said something ignorant but really cute.
Once, when I was very small, my mother suddenly informed me: “Jewish people, you know, eat in restaurants.” She made this peculiar declaration, one of the few things she ever said about another religion, with an oracular air that flooded me with curiosity, and also with envy—for our family, whether from parsimony or fear of prejudice, never ate out. At that time, I knew little of Jews, but that enigmatic piece of maternal wisdom lingered in my imagination, draping a veil of mysterious glamour around an entire people and their faith. Why, I wondered, did they eat in restaurants? And when? Always? Were they so grand?
The Ghanaian novelist whose personal beauty we struggle to separate from her spare, forceful writing sits gleaming like onyx in a yellow gown. She lives in Rome and is talking to an Italian journalist about the concept of home. The journalist, a young man, stammers his questions as he stares at her with the expression of a sailor who has just sighted the Fortunate Isles.
High above the Schuylkill River, on a wide suburban avenue, there was once a Polynesian restaurant called the Kona Kai. My family of restaurant avoiders drove by it on our way to dine at Aunt Mabel’s house, in Germantown. I yearned to feast in splendor at the Kona Kai, which looked like a huge, dark stockade, studded with blazing torches and guarded by giant tiki statues that seemed to demand adornment with the skulls of conquered enemies; inside were said to be waterfalls, orchids, fiery drinks, and barbaric skewers of meat. Surrounded by ranks of gleaming station wagons, it enshrined the power of the rich Philadelphia suburbs nearby. It seemed that, in addition to country clubs, the residents possessed their own small primitive kingdom.
“Can something be exotic and real at the same time?” asks one scholar, who has written about exoticism in an unexpectedly boring way.
I went to a small police station near my house in Turin to report a minor loss. There, in a gloomy, biscuit-colored room that overlooked a vegetable garden whose zucchini vines were already beginning to twine onto municipal property, I found two bored young carabinieri at their desks. One of them sat in a daze, staring out the window. When I filed my report and said that I was from the United States, this boyish policeman sighed heavily, and, still gazing at the zucchini, said in a dreamy voice: “I want to move to America—and to live in Malibu.” He said “Malibu” with the same rapturous tone of longing with which some Americans say “Tuscany.”
My daughter called me from her college exchange program in Beijing and informed me excitedly that she was dating a celebrity, the most famous black model in China.
“How many black models are there?” I asked.
“Well,” she said, reflecting. “Him, of course. And then—his friend.”
On my first visit to Madagascar, I walked on an empty beach in a silk Indian wrap, carrying a Chinese sunshade. I knew that, behind the trees and out on the bay, there were fishermen and cane cutters whose faces looked much like mine, or like the faces of my relatives in Philadelphia and Washington, D.C. But their language, their stark poverty, was untranslatable, and I moved among them behind a crystal wall of privilege. So there I was on the sand, like a flat figure—romanticized, exotic—from English wallpaper or a French toile, consciously theatrical rather than embarrassed, as I ought to have been.
Because I myself have been casually described as “exotic” so many times, I feel, in a vague way, that I own the word. Some related things that I vaguely feel I own:
All Venetian jewelry in the form of glittering turbaned Moors’ heads.
All Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers.
All black American music—jazz, blues, soul, R. & B., funk, house, dub, extending on into rhythmic black eternity—that I hear in Europe.
All naïve European chinoiserie, like blue willow plates, or the yellowing eighteenth-century wallpaper scrolls that I have hanging in my bedroom, which show a pair of aristocratic Chinese ladies with tiny bound feet, European features, and high powdered wigs.
Any form of decoration with a colonial theme, like steel engravings showing Adonis-like black slaves hauling cane.
Any piece of antique furniture woven with wicker and shining with brass.
All molasses, sugar, and rum.
The anarchist and critic Félix Fénéon, one of the shadowiest mavericks of turn-of-the-century France, was sometimes described by his artist friends as a Yankee—a term intended to give him a dangerous gloss of American exoticism.
The exotic may be impertinent, playful, or decorative, but it is always unexpected. A pearl in a black ear. A beauty mark on a powdered white face. A mythical white queen in the heart of Africa. A real black poet in the heart of Russia.
On a hot Sunday afternoon, I am walking down a beautiful street of baroque palaces in the center of Turin when I hear black American laughter drifting down from a leafy balcony. A voice with an unmistakable accent makes some remark in English about “white people,” and I feel such a sudden wave of nostalgia that I barely restrain myself from shouting up to these unknown conversationalists, who, in Italy, are as out of place as I am. Later, I wonder at how many different kinds of desire a foreigner can both inspire and feel.
In physics, it seems, an exotic atom is one born with some unusual particles mixed in. Because these outlandish particles are often unstable, exotic atoms, like tragic mulattoes, live short lives.
Segalen describes “the sensation of exoticism: surprise. Rapidly dulled.”
Sometimes one can recapture that fleeting sensation with names—place-names. If I am hiking up a familiar path near my house in Turin and I think, “I am climbing a hill in Italy,” there is a brief whiff of foreign glamour. And, when I arrived in Uzbekistan and was disappointed to find that city people took buses and trams as they do everywhere else, I could revive a touch of fantasy by silently repeating, “Streetcars in Samarkand.”
I like French and Italian movies that portray America as an exotic place. A generation ago, the setting was the boundless blood-spattered West. Now the fantasies of European directors are often sparked by wide landscapes of unfenced suburban houses, by oversize cars and people, vast dishes of bland food, the earnest virtues and mild eccentricities of families without long pasts. With stale modernity smeared over everything like ketchup. I like to watch this stuff and drift into imagining, just for a minute, that I’m seeing it all for the first time.
At the center of the courtyard of the Radcliffe library grew a single pine tree whose humpbacked silhouette suggested a letter in unknown calligraphy. I used to look up from studying and think of Greece or Japan. The twisted tree, with its fringe of fine light needles, meant distance and the unknown to me, and as I stared at it season after season I swore a fierce promise to myself: that I would travel far enough to decipher that cryptic, that irresistible, message.
Now I live in a country far from where I was born—in fact, have made it my life to be a foreigner. And I have admired many magnificent pines, rising like geysers out of the rubble of old monuments, or bent like arthritic hands beside foggy mountain shrines.
And these days, oddly enough, what I find most mysterious and alluring is the image of the person I was back then—the ever more distant seventeen-year-old girl in patched jeans and a man’s undershirt who sat reading Baudelaire like a cheap guidebook.
In the end, no one has come up with a good definition of exoticism. We all use the word carelessly, complicit with the ineradicable tinge of tawdriness that it always carries with it. And still it never loses its strange power.
My eldest brother calls me from California with an idea for a crime novel that he wants me to write. The heroine would be an Italian nun. But the hook, he says—he who too often was cast as the dark magus in school Christmas pageants—the hook is that the murder victim is an immigrant who arrived illegally in Italy by boat or truck. “You know,” he adds cheerfully. “African or Asian, one of those exotic types.”