Understatement isn't exactly characteristic of William T. Vollmann's writing. In his previous journalistic attempts to understand some of the more paradoxical and confusing aspects of the world, he has exercised such an unremitting onslaught of literary hyperbole as to make it his stylistic M.O. His writing seems to exhaust the meaning of exploration, or of asking difficult questions in general. To his credit, this is also what makes his writing approach so inimitable. Rising Up, Rising Down
is the most immediate example that comes to mind; a 3,600 page meditation on the meaning of violence. In so many ways, it comes as no surprise that the subject for his latest nonfiction piece is the most notoriously ambiguous artistic tradition. Since the late 19th century, westerners have been simultaneously moved and confounded by Japanese Noh Theater. Ulysses S. Grant, after seeing his first Noh Play in 1879, was so moved by its subtle grace that he subsequently urged for the preservation of Noh theater. And Ernest Fennolosa, an Italian scholar of Japanese, went to great lengths to explain the technical aspects of Noh, and to introduce some of Zeami's famous plays to western audiences. Yet the amount of actual writings on Noh is scarce. With the exception of a few brief introductions to edited collections of classic plays (the Noh repertoire contains 250 different titles) there isn't exactly a definitive book on Noh that has been written in English. As Vollmann opines in the introduction of the book "Deaf, dumb and illiterate in Japanese, innocent of formal study in any discipline of art, a graceless dancer afflicted with bad eyesight, I may not be the perfect author for any essay on Noh drama." Maybe not, but as is the case with most of Vollmann's oeuvre, his epistemology creates so much neurosis about understanding anything outside of his own personal experience, that he is always more than willing to admit that he can't possibly understand the subject matter at hand, regardless of how much research he does, or how many interviews he conducts. Though this is also a trademark point of motivation for his books. This endless curiosity seems to prevent satisfaction with his own cultural ignorance. And herein lies a sort of explanation as to why his books tend to be so very long and, according to some critics, overwritten. It's because, as a journalist, Vollmann is not content with assumption, or over-confident assessment. He'll never truly understand poverty, the border politics of Imperial County, prostitutes, or the Soviet Army, but his books are a way of sharing this attempt to understand and connect to some other part of the world. Still, most readers, even those familiar with Vollmann's work, might be inclined to ask "Why Noh Theater?". In the case of Kissing the Mask
, Noh Theater is important because it's a cultural conduit through which he can channel the essence of feminine beauty. And throughout the book we follow Vollmann's quest to understand a little more about what it means to be a woman.
Of course, a majority of this book is specifically about Japanese Noh Theater. It's the cultural stepping stone for Vollmann's foray into the nature of feminine beauty. He traveled all throughout the island of Japan for the book, seeing most of the plays in either Kyoto or Tokyo. As always, a translator accompanied him for his interviews with various mask-makers and actors. The book begins ? as does Fennolosa's The Classic Noh Theater of Japan, a collection of plays (mostly his notes completed by Ezra Pound) ? with a brief overview of the roles of the actors, the musicians and their instruments, the stage schematics, and the relevance of the mask. There is a pretty detailed sketch of the idea of Noh Theater and how it functions formally, as the best approach to this subject for a western writer would be to begin with an elaborate description of the technical aspects of a Noh play. This is undoubtedly the most focused section of Kissing the Mask because Vollmann avoids digression at this point, trying to give the reader a coherent idea of the visual experience of a Noh play. A common criticism of his writing has been that he often assumes that the reader doesn't require too many explanations of the subject at hand. This may also be because he feels equally lost on this particular subject, maybe with the hope that he's describing it to the reader as he learns about it. He focuses on actor Umewaka Rikoru, grandson of the famous Umewaka Minoru (a Noh actor who did plays during the last days of the Shogunate, and continued acting up through the Meiji restoration period, which was a considerably difficult time for Noh actors as they lost their means of acting as a feudal lord's retainer). Many of the questions posed to Mr. Umewaka concern the emotional and psychological preparation of a Noh actor, most importantly, that most Noh actors strive to feel nothing on stage. As Rikoru's grandfather studied under Zeami, one of the first Noh play writers, as well as the most well known theoretician of the art form, Vollmann utilizes his writings on Noh as a philosophical crutch, and a helpful explanatory guide, assisting the reader through a comprehensive explanation of the underlying religious and philosophical connotations of a typical Noh play. Zeami's theoretical writings are important to Vollmann's understanding of Noh in that they offer insight into what is being conveyed through a majority of the plays, not simply through allusive physical gesture and stage props, such as the fan and the mask, but through the symbolic suggestiveness of the plays themselves. There is an emphasis on the concept of "the flower", which implies the beauty of a Noh performance, as Zeami states in his Fushikaden: (Teachings on the Style and the Flower). The flower as a metaphorical concept, represents a sense of beauty that is never immediately apparent. Therefore, with a Noh actor, as with a San Francisco street prostitute, the beauty behind the flower and the mask is veiled in a superficial aesthetic; an image or representation of beauty intended to create an illusion. The actor or beauty implies grace through their own soulfulness of movement and expression. The flower of beauty is an idea that compels someone like Vollmann to endlessly probe for information or knowledge that might aid in the penetration of the mask. Is enough knowledge or research the best way to understand or obtain this beauty? This is one of the more profound questions that his book has to offer. After this rough explanation of Noh Theater, and the mysterious nature of this artistic tradition, Vollmann delves deeper into various other manifestations of female beauty in the world that might help him adequately understand what it is that defines femininity.
And so Kissing the Mask is imbued with allusions and analysis of various examples from Japanese culture. Just as much as Noh theater is essential to Vollmann's understanding of feminine beauty, so is Lady Muraskai's the Tale of Genji, Kawabata's Snow Country, Geishas, Kabuki Theater, the Norse Sagas, Andrew Wyeth's Helga Testorf drawings, Mishima's obstinate attachment to youthful beauty, transgender women, and porn actresses. Many Noh plays, such as Kayoi Komachi (Komachi and the Hundred Nights), focus on the transient nature of existence, the disintegration of the body, and the futility of attachment to the passage of time; a mortal obsession which occupies much of the second half of the book. And this theme is to be found to some relative degree in all the aforementioned cultural and artistic examples. These are digressions, at times successful, at other times, seemingly inconsequential, that help to illuminate the initial concerns of representational beauty in Noh Theater. To summarize the importance of every cultural digression on beauty would be tiresome. What's important is that each example emphasizes some artistic or social version of attachment to beauty. These meditations and digressions make Kissing the Mask unfocused in ways, yet help illuminate Vollmann's central theoretical concern in others. This middle portion of the book almost caves in a way. Some readers, already struggling to keep up with the information on Noh, may feel bogged down by such an overwhelming display of cultural allusion. The intention is always clear though, and each chapter offers hours of contemplative thought. One of the intellectual consolations of the book is the thought provoking aspect of each and every one of these artistic examples of veiled beauty, how the various examples connect, and most importantly, how each one might relate to feminine beauty and the art of understatement.
In chapter 16, entitled They Just Want to Look in the Mirror: Yukiko Makes Me Over, Vollmann gets a Geisha makeover by Yukiko, a famous Japanese make-up artist. It's a particularly entertaining section, and a moment of the trademark self-insertion of Vollmann into his subject matter, that he is so well known for. Now he can look into the mirror to truly ponder what a woman is, more importantly, in what way it is possible to create the illusion of feminine beauty. For, as he states in the fourth chapter with the help of some of Mr. Umewaka's thoughts on the illusion of beauty in Noh, "...one of the many astonishing achievements of Noh is when a dumpy old man becomes a lovely young girl, all the while showing his swollen feet in the white tabi socks and working his Adam's apple as he sings in his old man's bass. No matter what his body is, the young girl lives in him! He possesses the true flower." So then, if the flower blooms by maintaining secrecy; is the mask of feminine beauty always an illusion? He attempts to find out by putting himself behind the mask of the Geisha. There is a beauty to this display of curiosity about beauty, in and of itself. And reading Vollmann muse on the seemingly feminine image in the mirror in front of him (not to mention being able to view the pictures that he takes of himself) is one of the most moving passages of the book.
Readers less interested in exploring some of the more classic Noh plays and artistic allusions in Kissing the Mask, will be more interested in the case of Mishima Yukio, the infamous Japanese novelist who committed Seppuku in 1970, supposedly motivated by an attempted coup d'etat, and wrote modern versions of some of the famous plays of Zeami. Mishima was a writer, notorious for several theatrical personas, which were all part of a lifetime attempt to create an artistic legacy out of aesthetic contrivances. As Paul Schrader has suggested, in his film Mishima: A Life in Four Chapters, Mishima's obsession with the essentially transient beauty of youth prevented him from being capable of dying honorably, in full acceptance of the lamentable process of aging. Even though his famous ritual suicide is often associated with what is typically considered an honorable death. As Donald Richie states so calmly in his Japan Journals, "The theatricality of this sort of death, as melodramatic as the plots of any of Mishima's plays, was a necessary piece in the life so spectacularly terminated. That is what I thought of when I learned of Mishima's suicide. There was no surprise." Early on, in his description of the beauty of feminine allusiveness, and an aspect of Noh Theater that makes its own ambiguity so astounding, Vollmann comments on its ability to surprise the spectator with the symbolical nuances of beauty that are never immediately apparent. Mishima, in his rebellion, not only against his own self-hatred, but against the accepting nature of the transience of beauty and young age that the tradition of Noh Theater embodies, lets his characters pursue their vain obsessions to a delusional degree. His example might as well blend into the miasma of cultural allusion that Vollmann has to offer, but it should also stand out as a sort of moral allegory within this text. Mishima's attachment decries the Shintoesque calmness and acceptance of death and aging that all Noh plays attempt to convey. To be more precise, concerning this particular book; the lesson that Vollmann aims to instruct most of his readers on through the example of his own stubbornness, is that the attachment to an understanding of beauty is analogous to madness and confusion. It will not show us the true nature of beauty. Rather it will put us at war with its essence. Hence, the case of Mishima Yukio, and the vain futility of attachment.
What is feminine beauty? What is Grace? What is Poverty? What is Violence? To approach any of these questions with the assumption that enough knowledge and self-education can assist one in coming to a satisfying conclusion is a fallacy. So why should the average reader invest the time that it takes to read 400 or more pages full of ponderous meditations? It's because insatiable curiosity informs our motives for reading books in the first place. This intellectual desire to come to a conclusion, or wrap up a complicated question is wholly absent from Vollmann's treatise on beauty, as it is with his previous nonfiction pieces. And yet, this is what makes for such a compelling exploration of beauty. Of course, this is not to dismiss its value as one of the few, and most recent, studies on the art of Noh Theater. With so few books written on Noh Theater in the English language on the market these days, it's culturally refreshing to hear a contemporary voice analyze the complexities of such a mysterious artistic tradition, and it's furthermore remarkable that he is capable of using it as a lens through which to attempt to understand such an aesthetically abstract concept as feminine beauty. Vollmann is more than capable of holding his own with the likes of Arthur Waley, Donald Keene, Ernest Fennolosa, and Ivan Morris. Which is an incredible accomplishment for an "ape in a cage", who going into this book, didn't understand the first thing about the Noh theater, or Japanese language for that matter.