In the first decades of the twentieth century, a committed modernist had two ambitions: to make something new and to recover something old. In the search for new forms for the new age, it seemed as though everything was inspirational, and that the entirety of human history was rushing into the present: the folk songs and folk tales of European peasants, African and Inuit masks, Japanese haiku, Celtic rituals, Navajo blankets, Etruscan funerary sculpture, the unreconstructed fragments of classical Greek poetry, Oceanic shields and tapa cloths, alchemical drawings… The way into the future and out of the recent past—the perceived straitjacket of nineteenth-century art and mores—was to go back to the distant past.1
China, as the oldest continuing civilization, was inevitably magnetic. Paul Claudel was the French vice-consul in Shanghai and Fuzhou, and modernist Sinophilia begins exactly in 1900 with his perhaps overly Catholic book of prose poetry, Connaissance de l’est (Knowledge of the East). He was followed by Victor Segalen, who went to China as a medical officer, produced a scholarly history of the stone statuary, and wrote two of the greatest books of chinoiserie: Stèles—prose-poem “translations” of nonexistent originals, based on stone inscription tablets, and published as a Chinese-style book in Beijing in 1912—and the uncharacterizable novel René Leys, set in the Forbidden City during the Boxer Rebellion, which appeared posthumously in 1922. Two years later, Saint-John Perse, who had served as secretary in the French embassy in Beijing, published Anabasis, a series of prose poems set in an imaginary Central Asia. Although somewhat forgotten now, it was, along with The Waste Land, the most internationally influential book of poetry of its time, and was translated by T.S. Eliot, Walter Benjamin, and Giuseppe Ungaretti. Anabasis in turn led to Henri Michaux’s 1933 A Barbarian in Asia (which was translated by Borges) and Michaux’s lifelong experiments in a calligraphy attached to no language.
Nearly everywhere, ancient China was inextricable from the early avant-garde. The Mexican poet José Juan Tablada introduced Apollinaire’s calligraphy-inspired concrete poems (calligrammes) into Spanish in 1920 with a book called Li Po and Other Poems; one of the poems is in the shape of the character for “longevity,” a Taoist charm. The first major book in English of the new, imagistic free verse was Ezra Pound’s translations of largely Tang Dynasty poems, Cathay. Published in 1915, its poems from a thousand years earlier of soldiers, ruined cities, abandoned wives and friends had an immediacy for those in the trenches and those waiting at home. And Pound discovered (or, more exactly, semi-invented) in the structure of the Chinese ideogram itself a model for bringing disparate elements together into a single dynamic object of art. Sergei Eisenstein, studying Chinese, independently discovered the same thing, which he turned into his theory of film montage.
The modern German novel begins in 1915 with Alfred Döblin’s The Three…
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