japonisme: 2/3/08 - 2/10/08

07 February 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Finale

new orleans had its storyville, paris montmartre, and edo had the yoshiwara. the last two, anyway, shared several things: a severe ranking system, a prominant (and defining) social presence, and an opportunity for the brilliant and talented woman to gain the world outside the home.

in these prints we see poets, painters, musicians, writers; were you to go looking for them during this edo era, you would only find them in courts, and in courtesans.

The great majority of Japanese women who succeeded as artists were also talented poets. Because so many noblewomen of earlier ages were renowned for their novels, dairies, and poetry, the Edo-period literary world was prepared to accept women. Those who won the most popular acclaim did so because their talents were visible to the public. Many were courtesans, employed in one of the few vocations in which intelligent women of the plebian classes were encouraged to display their talents. Within this profession there were many levels: At the bottom were low-class prostitutes, but at the top were exceptionally talented women skilled in traditional poetry, calligraphy, and painting. 1

The licensed pleasure quarter of Edo, Yoshiwara, famed for its government-sanctioned brothels, kabuki theater, fashionable restaurants, and street entertainment, was a principal inspiration for many Ukiyo-e artists. It was here -- in this "floating world" of pleasure and entertainment -- that the confines of social class could be pushed aside. Various forms of entertainment, particularly kabuki theater and the pleasure quarters, lured monied patrons who were eager in turn to acquire the vivid images of celebrated actors and exquisite courtesans created by Ukiyo-e artists.

The high-ranking courtesans from Yoshiwara are identified on each print by their names, the houses in which they worked, and the locations of the houses. Gorgeously attired from their elaborately coiffed hair to their lofty platform shoes, these women create a dramatic impression. There were several parallels between kabuki actors and high-ranking courtesans during the Edo Period, including the use of hereditary names that could carry the caché of celebrity down through generations.

This print by Kikugawa Eizan (1787-1867) depicts Ono no Komachi (ca. ninth century), a celebrated poet, famed also for her spectacular beauty and its decline in her old age. The translated inscription on this print reads:

Even if we say life is limited,
The accumulating years would not matter
If one's appearance did not change. 2

(though i could find no other clear evidence of it, she is clearly depicted here as a courtesan.)

Is this love reality
or a dream?
I cannot know
when both reality and dreams
exist without truly existing. 3

(also by ono no komachi)

Collectors and connoisseurs sought out verses written by eminent courtesans like Ohashi, who was active in the mid-eighteenth century. In her poems on decorated paper, Ohashi positioned the words beautifully, the lines of writing bridging the division between the upper blue field and the plain paper below. Heavily inked strings of characters deftly balanced against lighter ones created when her brush began to run dry. Her poem refers to the inevitable parting between lovers at dawn, and the sadness that follows.

Kinuginu no
Wakare wa yume ni
Nariyuke to
Ukarishi tori no
Ne koso wasurene

"On the morning after,
Let your parting
Be like a dream."
I cannot forget
The wretched cry of the bird. 3

There were, of course, varying degrees of courtesans, and, as a rule, it is only those of the highest class, called oirans, that are represented in prints.

The dress of all courtesans, particularly of the oiran, was of a splendour wholly different from the costume of the ordinary woman, and their coiffure also was of a very elaborate nature, which was built up upon a light frame and kept in position by a regular forest of light metal or wooden pins, which framed the head like the halo of a saint in a stained-glass window.

They were further distinguished by wearing the sash (obi) tied in front, whereas all other women, including geisha (dancing and singing girls), tied them with the bow behind. It is often in the decoration of the obi that we find the most elaborate and brilliant designs, even in a costume which is gorgeous throughout. 4

the stresses of setting style may have been set aside by a sense of sisterhood, and some oirans commanded enough to bring down a castle in exchange for an evening's pleasure, but as with the women in montmartre, in storyville, they were surely stars, but stars of a ghetto.

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05 February 2008

courtesans, prostitutes & whores: Part IIIC Courtesans


Lafcadio Hearn

There was once a very pious and learned priest, called Shôku Shônin, who lived in the province of Harima. For many years he meditated daily upon the chapter of Fugen-Bosatsu [the Bodhisattva Samantabhadra] in the Sûtra of the Lotos of the Good Law; and he used to pray, every morning and evening, that he might at some time be permitted to behold Fugen-Bosatsu as a living presence, and in the form described in the holy text. 2

One evening, while he was reciting the Sûtra, drowsiness overcame him; and he fell asleep leaning upon his kyôsoku.3 Then he dreamed; and in his dream a voice told him that, in order to see Fugen-Bosatsu, he must go to the house of a certain courtesan, known as the "Yujô-no-Chôja,"4 who lived in the town of Kanzaki. Immediately upon awakening he resolved to go to Kanzaki; — and, making all possible haste, he reached the town by the evening of the next day.

When he entered the house of the yujô, he found many persons already there assembled — mostly young men of the capital, who had been attracted to Kanzaki by the fame of the woman's beauty. They were feasting and drinking; and the yujô was playing a small hand-drum (tsuzumi), which she used very skilfully, and singing a song. The song which she sang was an old Japanese song about a famous shrine in the town of Murozumi; and the words were these: —

Within the sacred water-tank5 of Murozumi in Suwô,
Even though no wind be blowing,
The surface of the water is always rippling.

The sweetness of the voice filled everybody with surprise and delight. As the priest, who had taken a place apart, listened and wondered, the girl suddenly fixed her eyes upon him; and in the same instant he saw her form change into the form of Fugen-Bosatsu, emitting from her brow a beam of light that seemed to pierce beyond the limits of the universe, and riding a snow-white elephant with six tusks. And still she sang — but the song also was now transformed; and the words came thus to the ears of the priest: —

On the Vast Sea of Cessation,
Though the Winds of the Six Desires and of the Five Corruptions never blow,
Yet the surface of that deep is always covered
With the billowings of Attainment to the Reality-in-Itself.

Dazzled by the divine ray, the priest closed his eyes: but through their lids he still distinctly saw the vision. When he opened them again, it was gone: he saw only the girl with her hand-drum, and heard only the song about the water of Murozumi. But he found that as often as he shut his eyes he could see Fugen-Bosatsu on the six-tusked elephant, and could hear the mystic Song of the Sea of Cessation. The other persons present saw only the yujô: they had not beheld the manifestation.

Then the singer suddenly disappeared from the banquet-room — none could say when or how. From that moment the revelry ceased; and gloom took the place of joy. After having waited and sought for the girl to no purpose, the company dispersed in great sorrow. Last of all, the priest departed, bewildered by the emotions of the evening. But scarcely had he passed beyond the gate, when the yujô appeared before him, and said: — "Friend, do not speak yet to any one of what you have seen this night." And with these words she vanished away, — leaving the air filled with a delicious fragrance.

The monk by whom the foregoing legend was recorded, comments upon it thus: — The condition of a yujô is low and miserable, since she is condemned to serve the lusts of men. Who therefore could imagine that such a woman might be the nirmanakaya, or incarnation, of a Bodhisattva. But we must remember that the Buddhas and the Bodhisattvas may appear in this world in countless different forms; choosing, for the purpose of their divine compassion, even the most humble or contemptible shapes when such shapes can serve them to lead men into the true path, and to save them from the perils of illusion.

1 From the old story-book, Jikkun-shô.

2 The priest's desire was probably inspired by the promises recorded in the chapter entitled "The Encouragement of Samantabhadra" (see Kern's translation of the Saddharma Pundarîka in the Sacred Books of the East, — pp. 433-434): — "Then the Bodhisattva Mahâsattva Samantabhadra said to the Lord: . . . 'When a preacher who applies himself to this Dharmaparyâya shall take a walk, then, O Lord, will I mount a white elephant with six tusks, and betake myself to the place where that preacher is walking, in order to protect this Dharmaparyâya. And when that preacher, applying himself to this Dharmaparyâya , forgets, be it but a single word or syllable, then will I mount the white elephant with six tusks, and show my face to that preacher, and repeat this entire Dharmaparyâya." — But these promises refer to "the end of time."

3 The Kyôsoku is a kind of padded arm-rest, or arm-stool, upon which the priest leans one arm while reading. The use of such an arm-rest is not confined, however, to the Buddhist clergy.

4 A yujô, in old days, was a singing-girl as well as a courtesan. The term "Yujô-no-Chôja," in this case, would mean simply "the first (or best) of yujô."

5 Mitarai. Mitarai (or mitarashi) is the name especially given to the water-tanks, or water-fonts — of stone or bronze — placed before Shintô shrines in order that the worshipper may purify his lips and hands before making prayer. Buddhist tanks are not so named.

from this story ruth st. denis created her "dance drama" O-Mika. inspired by seeing sado yacco's work, and by studying noh theater, she created a japanese dance illustrating, interestingly, the true nature of the courtesan. i am not completely certain these all come from that one ballet, but most of them did. most of the images are from the nypl.

O-Mika means "New Moon."

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03 February 2008

courtesan sidebar part b: Salomé-mania!

almost every artist here has been featured in this blog before. can you guess who the artist is without looking?

what a day it's been. i had a rising feeling of discontent as i thought more and more about the inherent misogyny in this story, and how at the moment when women shed their corsets they became frightening on a new level.

of course, this myth, the woman with the knife, with the scissors, wasn't born then. salome is an ancient tale, and the form takes so many names: delilah, for one.


Salome Awaits Her Entrance.

I was standing in the doorway
when he reproached her.
Not with words, but a simple
absence of attention: She was smiling,
holding out a slip of meat, skewered fruit--
some delicacy he'd surely never seen
in all his dust-blown, flea-plagued
wanderings--and he stared at it
for the longest while,
as if the offer came from it and not
those tapered fingers, my mother's
famous smile. He said nothing,
merely turned away his large
and beautifully arrogant head.

Herodias, in the Doorway.

More than anything I ache to see her
so girlish. She steps languidly
into their midst as if onto a pooled expanse
of grass ... or as if she were herself
the meadow, unruffled green
ringed with lilies
instead of these red-rimmed eyes,
this wasteland soaked in smoke and pleasure.
Ignorant, she moves as if inventing
time--and the musicians scurry
to deliver a carpet of flutes
under her flawless heel.

Herod, Watching.

I should have avoided this, loving her mother
as I do, to the length and breadth of my kingdom
even to the chilly depths of history's wrath.
But it was my birthday; I was bent upon
happiness and love, I loved
Herodias, my Herodias!--who sends
her honeyed daughter into the feast.
The first veil fell, and all
my celebrated years
dissolved in bitter rapture. O Herodias!
You have outdone us all.

The Fool, at Herod's Feet.

Just a girl, slim-hipped, two knots
for breasts, sheathed potential
caught before the inevitable
over-bloom and rot (life's revenge
if death eludes us)--all
any of us men want, really.
Just a girl. Otherwise,
who can fathom it, how is it
to be fathomed? At his behest, her mother's?
It matters little--she was dispatched
into the circle of elders, and there
she rivets the world's desire.

Salome, Dancing.

I have a head on my shoulders
but no one sees it; no one
reckons with a calculated wrist or pouting underlip.
I've navigated this court's attentions
and I will prove I can be crueler than government,
I will delegate what nature's given me
(this body, this anguish,
oiled curves and perfumed apertures),
I will dance until they've all lost their heads--
the nobles slobbering over their golden goblets,
the old king sweating on his throne,
my mother in the doorway, rigid with regret,
the jester who watches us all and laughs--

O Mother, what else is a girl to do?

Rita Dove

RITA DOVE served as United States Poet Laureate from 1993 to 1995. Among her many literary and academic honors are the 1987 Pulitzer Prize in Poetry and the 2001 Duke Ellington Lifetime Achievement Award. Her most recent poetry collections are Mother Love and On the Bus with Rosa Parks.

COPYRIGHT 2003 Modern Poetry Association

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