japonisme: 3/2/08 - 3/9/08

07 March 2008

Lives of Two Cats (well, one...)


Most singular was the destiny which united to me this cat of the yellow race, progeny of obscure parentage and destitute of all beauty.

It was at the close of our last foreign war, one of those evenings of revelry which often occurred at that time. I know not how the little distraught creature, driven from some wrecked junk or sampan, came on board our warship, in great terror, seeking a refuge in my cabin beneath my berth. She was young, not half grown, thin and melancholy, having doubtless, like her relatives and masters, subsisted meanly on fishes' heads with a bit of cooked rice. I pitied her much and bade my servant give her food and drink.

With an unmistakable air of humility and gratitude she accepted my kindness, — and I can see her now, creeping slowly toward the unhoped- for repast, advancing first one foot, then another, her clear eyes fixed on mine to assure herself that she was not deceived, that it was really intended for her.

In the morning I wished to turn her away. After giving her a farewell breakfast, I clapped my hands loudly, and stamping both feet together by way of emphasis, I said in a harsh tone, " Get out, go away, little Kitty ! "

But no, she did not go, the little pagan. Evidently she felt no fear of me, intuitively certain that all this angry noise was a pretense. With an air that seemed to say, "I know very well that you will not harm me," she crouched silently in the corner, lying close to the floor in a supplicating attitude, fixing upon me two dilated eyes, alight with a human look that I have never seen except in hers.

What could I do ? Impossible to domicile a cat in the contracted cabin of a warship. Besides, she was such a distressingly homely little creature, what an encumbrance by and by !

Then I lifted her carefully to my neck, saying to her, " I am very sorry, Kitty " but I carried her resolutely the length of the deck, to the further end of the battery, to the sailors' quarters, who usually are both fond of and kind to cats of whatever age or pedigree.

Flattened close to the deck, her head imploringly turned towards me, she gave me one beseeching look ; then rose and fled with a queer and swift gait in the direction of my cabin, where she arrived first in the race between us ; when I entered I found her crouched obstinately in the corner from which I had taken her, with an expression, a remonstrance in her golden eyes, that deprived me of all courage to again take her away. And this is the way by which Pussy Chinese chose me for her owner and protector.

My servant, evidently on her side from the debut of the contest, completed immediate preparations for her installment in my cabin, by placing beneath my bed a lined basket for her bed, and one of my large Chinese bowls, very practically filled with sand; an arrangement which froze me with fright.

DAY and night she lived for seven months in the dim light and unceasing movement of my cabin, and gradually an intimacy was established between us, simultaneously with a faculty of mutual comprehension very rare between man and animal.

I recall the first day when our relations became truly affectionate. We were far out in the Yellow Sea, in gloomy September weather. The first autumnal fogs had gathered over the suddenly cooled and restless waters. In these latitudes cold and cloud come suddenly, bringing to us European voyagers a sadness whose intensity is proportioned to our distance from home. We were steaming eastward against a long swell which had arisen, and rocked in dismal monotony to the plaintive groans and creakings of the ship. It had become necessary to close my port, and the cabin received its sole light through the thick bull's-eye, past which the crests of the waves swept in green translucency, making intermittent obscurity. I had seated myself to write at the little sliding table, the same in all our cabins on board, — during one of those rare moments, when our service allows a complete freedom and peace, and when the longing comes to be alone as in a cloister.

Pussy Gray had lived under my berth for nearly two weeks. She had behaved with great circum- spection; melan- choly, showing herself seldom, keeping in darkest corners as if suffering from homesickness and pining for the land to which there was no return.

Suddenly she came forth from the shadows, stretched herself leisurely, as if giving time for farther reflection, then moved towards me, still hesitating with abrupt stops; at times affecting a peculiarly Chinese gesture, she raised a fore paw, holding it in the air some seconds before deciding to make another advancing step ; and all this time her eyes were fixed on mine with, infinite solicitude.

What did she want of me ? She was evidently not hungry : suitable food was given her by my servant twice daily. What then could it be?

When she was sufficiently near to touch my leg, she sat down, curled her tail about her, and uttered a very low mew; and still looked directly in my eyes, as if they could communicate with hers, which showed a world of intelligent conception in her little brain. She must first have learned, like other superior animals, that I was not a thing, but a thinking being, capable of pity and influenced by the mute appeal of a look; besides, she felt that my eyes were for her eyes, that they were mirrors, where her little soul sought anxiously to seize a reflection of mine. Truly they are startlingly near us, when we reflect upon it, animals capable of such inferences.

As to myself, I studied for the first time the little visitor who for two weeks had shared my lodging: she was fawn- colored like a wild rabbit, mottled with darker spots like a tiger, her nose and neck were white; homely in effect, mainly consequent on her extremely thin and sickly condition, and really more odd looking than homely to a man freed like myself from all conventional ideas of beauty. Besides, she was quite unlike our French cats : low on the legs, very long bodied, a tail of unusual length, large upright ears, and a triangular face; all her charm was in the eyes, raised at the outer corners like all eyes of the extreme Orient, of a fine golden yellow instead of green, and ever changing, astonishingly expressive.

While examining her, I laid my hand gently upon her queer little head, stroking the brown fur in a first caress.

Whatever she experienced was an emotion beyond mere physical pleasure ; she felt the sentiment of a protection, a pity for her condition of an abandoned foundling. This, then, was why she came out of her retreat, poor Pussy Gray; this was why she resolved, after so much hesitation, to beg from me not food or drink, but, for the solace of her lonely cat soul, a little friendly company and interest.

Where had she learned to know that, this miserable outcast, never stroked by a kind hand, never loved by any one, — if not perhaps in the paternal junk, by some poor Chinese child without playthings, and without caresses, thrown by chance like a useless weed in the immense yellow swarm, miserable and hungry as herself, and whose incomplete soul in departing, left behind no more trace than her own ?

Then a frail paw was laid timidly upon me— oh ! with so much delicacy, so much discretion ! — and after looking at me a long time beseechingly, she decided to venture upon my knee. Jumping there lightly she curled herself in a light, small mass, making herself small as possible and almost without weight, never taking her eyes from me. She lay a long time thus, much in my way, but I had not the heart to dislodge her, which I should doubtless have done had she been a gay pretty kitten in the bloom of kittenhood. As if in fear at my least movement, she watched me incessantly, not fearing that I should harm her — she was too intelligent to think me capable of that — but with an air that seemed to ask: "Is it true that I do not weary you, that I do not trouble you ? " and then, her eyes growing still more tender and expressive, saying to mine very plainly: " On this position cats immediately comprehend, and say to themselves, " Here is a man who understands us; his caresses we can gratefully condescend to receive."

pierre loti, 1900

(he's also the guy who went to japan and was inspired to write a book called madam chrysanthemum, which was the seed to everything madam butterfly that was to follow.)

translated by mary b richards

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04 March 2008

japonisme in the land of the pueblo

"That thin green line of cotton- woods down there is the Little Colorado River," Flo was saying. "Reckon it's sixty miles, all down hill. The Painted Desert begins there and also the Navajo Reservation. You see the white strips, the red veins, the yellow bars, the black lines. They are all desert steps leading up and up for miles. That sharp black peak is called Wildcat. It's about a hundred miles. You see the desert stretching away to the right, growing dim -- lost in distance? We don't know that country. But that north country we know as landmarks, anyway.

"Look at that saw- tooth range. The Indi- ans call it Echo Cliffs. At the far end it drops off into the Colorado River. Lee's Ferry is there -- about one hundred and sixty miles.

"That ragged black rent is the Grand Canyon. Looks like a thread, doesn't it? But Carley, it's some hole, believe me. Away to the left you see the tremendous wall rising and turning to come this way. That's the north wall of the Canyon. It ends at the great bluff -- Greenland Point.

See the black fringe above the bar of gold. That's a belt of pine trees. It's about eighty miles across this ragged old stone washboard of a desert. . . .

Now turn and look straight and strain your sight over Wildcat. See the rim purple dome. You must look hard. I'm glad it's clear and the sun is shining. We don't often get this view. . . . That purple dome is Navajo Mountain, two hundred miles and more away!"

Carley yielded to some strange drawing power and slowly walked forward until she stood at the extreme edge of the summit.

What was it that confounded her sight? Desert slope -- down and down -- color -- distance -- space! The wind that blew in her face seemed to have the openness of the whole world back of it. Cold, sweet, dry, exhilarating, it breathed of untainted vastness.

Carley's memory pictures of the Adirondacks faded into pastorals; her vaunted images of European scenery changed to operetta settings. She had nothing with which to compare this illimitable space.

"Oh! -- America!" was her unconscious tribute. --zane grey

Until the late 19th century, much of the Southwest was a mystery to Americans. Rarely did people venture into the remote corners of New Mexico and Arizona territories, which became part of the U.S. in 1848.

However, writings by such people as Charles Lummis, Mary Austin, George Wharton James, and others, and representations by artists such as Ernest L. Blumenschein, Bert Geer Phillips, and Oscar E. Berninghaus, began to appear in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Ethnographic interest in the native peoples had existed since the earlier surveys and military movements which encountered these populations. No longer considered a "vanishing race," Native Americans became mythologized through the popularity of their artwork and culture.

The Southwest was compared to the cultures of the Middle East. The spectacularly varied arid landscape, the ruins of ancient cultures, and the ongoing exoticness provided by the indigenous cultures and the Spanish colonial peoples and settlements, made the Southwest an attractive destination. 1

when arizona and new mexico became part of the united states in 1912 they were ripe for the railway tourism which had begun when the transcontinental railroad was completed in 1885. as happened in europe, the need for railway posters at that moment gave the new printmakers an opportunity.

folks who saw the posters and read the books had to go and they told their friends who came for short visits and stayed. they came from norway and sweden and england and germany and japan; the world was beckoned and the world responded. here, the plains/planes of flat color and the simple lines that had been pored over in the japanese prints came intensely to life. the shapes and shadows and tones called to the imagist poets.

“In a cold like this, the stars snap like distant coyotes, beyond the moon,” I read. “And you’ll see the shadows of actual coyotes, going across the alfalfa field. And the pine-trees make little noises, sudden and stealthy, as if they were walking about.

And the place heaves with ghosts. But when one has got used to one’s own home-ghosts, be they never so many, they are like one’s own family, but nearer than the blood. It is the ghosts one misses most, the ghosts there, of the Rocky Mountains. ...because it is cold, I should have moonshine ...” --d.h. lawrence

"I think that New Mexico was the greatest experience from the outside world that I have ever had. It certainly changed me forever...the moment I saw the brilliant, proud morning shine high up over the deserts of Santa Fe, something stood still in my soul, and I started to attend."

"Art...is a kind of tyrant; it pushes you around. It came to me dressed in wanderlust" --gustave baumann

As the wagons went forward and the sun sank lower, a sweep of red carnelian-coloured hills lying at the foot of the mountains came into view; they curved like two arms about a depression in the plain; and in that depression was Santa Fé, at last!

A thin, wavering adobe town . . . a green plaza . . . at one end a church with two earthen towers that rose high above the flatness. The long main street began at the church, the town seemed to flow from it like a stream from a spring. The church towers, and all the low adobe houses, were rose colour in that light, -- a little darker in tone than the amphitheatre of red hills behind; and periodically the plumes of poplars flashed like gracious accent marks, -- inclining and recovering themselves in the wind. --willa cather


No one takes the absence
into account the way I do --
this rind of backbone, the bridge
and scale of its blank articulation,
sustains some perfectly whole
notes of light against the raw
muscle of the land unbound,
the undercurrents surfacing
in concert with the white riffs
of cholla spotting the swales.

Put right, one part of loss
counterpoints the next, leaves us
much to see despite the frank
abrasion of the air, Finally,
this thighbone is every bit
the bright, hard stuff of stars
and against the hills'
rust and clay sets free
a full, long silence here
that as much as anything
sings all my life to me.

Christopher Buckley

From Blossoms and Bones by Christopher Buckley,
Vanderbilt University Press. © 1988 Christopher Buckley

for a wonderful essay on how christopher buckley came to write a long series of poems based on the painting of georgia o'keeffe, click here.

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