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Modernist Studies in Asia Conference 2019 at Aoyama University

Ryan Johnson


Writing his first editorial for Make It New, Mark Byron decreed that “two key concepts” would structure The Ezra Pound Society during his time as President: ‘Collaboration’ and ‘Look East.’ The 2nd Modernist Studies in Asia conference, Modernism and Multiple Temporalities, which ran from 12-14 September at Aoyama Gakuin University in Aoyama, Tokyo, served as an ideal venue at which to test these precepts. 

 The Society had two guaranteed panels, both of which were clustered around Pound, modernism, and East Asia. The first, East-West Chronotopes in Modernism, focused on Pound’s responses to Chinese and Japanese fine art and literature. Miho Takahashi (Kansai University) presented an informative talk on Pound’s relationship with Japanese literary sources, especially those from Noh theater. Takahashi demonstrated that that there is an important but relatively unexplored change in theme and execution between the Noh-inspired work Pound created when first under the spell of Ernest Fenollosa’s notebooks and Pound’s mature responses to Noh, including his Japanese-inflected translation of Sophocles’ Women of Trachis (1957). Mark Byron (University of Sydney) discussed the ways in which the Admonitions scroll (女史箴圖Admonitions of the Court Instructress), a Tang-era scroll acquired by the British Museum following its theft during the Taiping Rebellion, served as a visual impetus for modernist poets visiting the Museum’s reading room during the 1910s. The complicated history of the scroll, Byron argued, with its more than a millennium of involvement with Chinese and colonial politics, is inscribed in much Orientalist modernist poetry, even that of modernists unaware of the scroll’s historical significance. Finally, Tsuyoshi Hasebe (Kansai University), meanwhile, looked at Mori Kainan, whose lectures formed the basis of Fenollosa’s notebooks. Kainan’s Sinology influenced Fenollosa and, by extension, Pound, but the Japanese scholar’s influence on the development of modernism has largely gone unstudied. 

The second panel, Time and Translation in East-West Modernism, continued the theme of modernist translation and transnationalism unsettling standard chronologies East and West. Andrew Houwen (Tokyo Woman’s University) drew our attention to Pound’s reading of the Noh play Nishikigi. From Nishikigi, Houwen persuasively argued, Pound drew inspiration for Vorticism, namely the ‘vortex’ in which past and future whirl together. Ryan Johnson (University of Sydney) compared Pound’s and Paul Claudel’s uses of the Daoist thought of Wang Wei and Tao Yuanming, and argued that treatments of Chinese and Japanese literature and religion by Pound’s East Asian contemporaries should be more often compared with Pound’s own. Kita Yoshiko (Chuo University) turned to the late modernism Basil Bunting’s translation of the medieval “Hojiki,” a topic previously treated by Houwen, to craft a poem reflective of the fragility of interwar Britain. Though each paper differed in focus and scope, all six of the papers spoke to the immanence of medieval and early modern Chinese and Japanese art and literature to modernism. 

The keynote speakers, Douglas Mao (Johns Hopkins), Aaron Gerow (Yale), and Laura Marcus (Oxford), each encouraged the theme of multiple temporalities constructing the concept of ‘modernism.’ But it was Aaron Gerow who brought us back to Japan. If ‘multiple modernisms’ or a ‘Japanese modernism’ exists, Gerow contended, we will not be able to identify it by imposing on Japan foreign concepts of modernism and modernity. Rather, to understand how ‘modernism’ and Japan intersect, we should attempt to understand the literary landscape from a Japanese perspective and see what valency the term ‘modernism’ might have within that literary field. 

A variety of panels and papers would have appealed to members of the Society. An exhaustive list is impossible, but among them were Ira Nadel’s (University of British Columbia) paper on late style, Paul Giles’ (University of Sydney) exposition of his recent book Backgazing: Reverse Time in Modernist Culture, along with numerous interesting papers in panels including “Modernism and Alternative Temporalities,” “Japanese Modernisms,” and “Intersections of Time and Space.”

A summary of the conference would not be complete without acknowledging the people who made the conference possible: Fuhito Endo (Seikei University), Asako Nakai (Hitotsubashi University), Kohei Saito (Aoyama Gakuin University), Motonori Sato (Keio University), Kunio Shin (Aoyama Gakuin University), Yoshiki Tajiri (the University of Tokyo), Kyoko Yoshida (Ritsumeikan University), Erica Aso (Aoyama Gakuin University), Noriko Matsunaga (Waseda University), Akiko Mizoguchi (Tokyo Woman’s University) and Teppei Kuruma (Aoyama Gakuin University). Aside from ensuring the conference itself ran smoothly, the organizing committee provided a fine reception in Aoyama, while Kohei Sato organized a special dinner at Crista in Shibuya. Discussing French poetry with organizer Teppei Kuruma there was, for me, an unexpected highlight of the conference. 

The conference, then, not only functioned as a vehicle for the East Asian energies of the Society, but succeeded in bringing together scholars from across much of the world to discuss the limits and possibilities of modernism East and West, North and South, past and present. The renewed vigor of Modernism Studies was palpable throughout. We look forward to seeing many of you at the third annual conference in Shanghai next year.