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Between Two Worlds

1.

Some Jews would no doubt have joined the Nazi movement if only it had not regarded them as mortal enemies. But since it did, no sane Jew was likely to see any merit in the Nazis. Lev Nussimbaum, also known as Kurban Said, or Essad Bey, was an exception. A famous writer in his time, he was an early admirer of Mussolini, and a defender of the Nazi regime. The “National Socialist revolution,” he believed, “has saved Europe from a catastrophe.”

He wrote this at the end of 1933, two years before he was expelled from the German Writers’ Union and barred from publishing in the Third Reich. The reasons for Nussimbaum-Said-Essad’s eccentric position—for a Jew, that is; not, alas, for many Gentiles in the early 1930s—are complex, and they are explained at exhaustive length in The Orientalist, a book about his life and times. But they can be boiled down to one simple motive: Nussimbaum’s loathing for the Bolshevik Revolution, which destroyed the world he grew up in, in oil-rich Baku, then a Russian city, now the capital of Azerbaijan. The Nazis, he said, were the one thing standing between “traditional European culture” and Bolshevik barbarism.

Reiss describes the traditional European culture of pre-revolution Baku rather well. It was the kind of boom city where a Muslim oil baron would build a replica of a Gothic cathedral, because his young wife had admired it on a holiday in France and decided she wanted to live in just such a place. It was a city where Georgians, Russians, Ossetians, Swedes, Poles, and Armenians, among others, traded huge fortunes; where Zoroastrians lived alongside Muslims, Christians, and Jews; where brand-new opera houses, museums, palaces, churches, and mosques arose to rival buildings of grander cities; where the oil was so plentiful that the sea sometimes caught fire; and where caravans of fire-worshiping monks passed through the gaslit streets. All this rich mélange of East and West in what Reiss describes as “equal parts Dodge City, medieval Baghdad, industrial Pittsburgh, and nineteenth century Paris” began to fall apart in the revolutionary violence of 1905 and 1919.

Nussimbaum, whose novel Ali and Nino, published in German in 1935 under the name of Kurban Said, is still regarded as a minor classic, was haunted all his life by memories of his native city. The novel is about the love of a Muslim boy and a Christian girl in tolerant Baku. Nussimbaum described the Muslim, Ali Khan, as a version of himself. It wasn’t fascism that shaped the imagination of this extraordinary man, but Orientalism, a fascination for the exotic East, which was a fantasy that owed as much to European tradition as it did to the world of A Thousand and One Nights.

Orientalism comes in many forms, of course. There is the sensual, aesthetic lure of the voluptuous East, depicted by such French Orientalist painters as Jean-Léon Gérôme: nude harem women lounging about in Turkish baths, or pretty girls auctioned in North African slave markets. Erotic fantasizing of this kind goes back a long way, stretching from the ancient Greeks to Pierre Loti, plucking the youth of his doll-like Madame Chrysanthème.

There is also a more high-minded Orientalist tradition. In India, for example, eighteenth- and nineteenth-century British Orientalists argued for the importance of training colonial administrators in the traditional languages and cultures of the subcontinent. Unlike the Anglicists, who despised local languages and wanted to press the Indian elite into a modern British mold, the Orientalists hoped to arrive at a higher civilization by fusing traditional Indian cultures with the ideals of the European Enlightenment. This produced a flowering of Indian culture known as the Bengali Renaissance, some of whose later members lamented the failure of the British to live up to their own Orientalist ideals.1

If British Orientalists were actively engaged in colonial administration, nineteenth-century German Orientalists were more dedicated to pure scholarship, often philology. Far from trying to prove the superiority of the Greco-Judeo-Christian Occident, the close study of ancient texts in Sanskrit, Arabic, or Sumerian by such scholars as A.W. Schlegel and Ernst Renan had the opposite effect. The Orient came to be seen as a source of deeper wisdom. Although not based on any great scholarship, Voltaire’s idea of China as the epitome of reason was based on a similar rejection of Western religious tradition.

Voltaire’s vision, though, is somewhat exceptional. A more conventional line of thinking is to contrast the rationalism of the West with Oriental irrationalism. Edward Said, among others, has shown how this was used to justify Western domination. But to many Orientalists, the wisdom of the East lies precisely in its supposed lack of rationalism: the counter-reason of Zen, the deep spirituality of Indian mysticism, the honor codes of “warrior races.” The East has spirit and authenticity, while the West is condemned to soulless materialism. This can contain the sinister overtones of purity, not just of culture, but of race.

Race is all,” wrote Benjamin Disraeli, whom Tom Reiss rightly places in a tradition of Jewish Orientalism. Disraeli may have been a converted Anglican, but everything, from his name to his dark, brooding looks, set him apart as an exotic in Victorian Britain. Rather than pretend to be a typical son of roast beef and old England, he made the most of his exoticism. In a variation of eighteenth-century British Orientalism, he, too, aimed for a perfect fusion between the Jews as the world’s oldest and noblest Oriental aristocracy and the English as the superior European race. By urging his Queen to become empress of India, he turned Britain into an Oriental power. By acting as the Oriental savior of the British upper class, he escaped from potential rejection. He embraced the Orient, or at least a fantasy of the Orient, in order to be accepted in the Occident.

Disraeli was the most flamboyant example of a wider trend among nineteenth-century Jews. If Reiss’s book is cluttered by far too much historical digression, his chapter on Jewish Orientalism is of enormous interest. Not long after Disraeli spun his Orientalist fantasies of ancient Jewish nobility, German Ashkenazim built synagogues in the Moorish style in a nostalgic tribute to Muslim Andalusia, when Jews and Muslims had a secure place on European soil. Even as Jews in the late nineteenth century were being increasingly rejected as aliens among the German Volk, Jewish Orientalists tried to “out-völk the Völkists,” as Reiss puts it, by claiming an Oriental purity of their own. This led to some peculiar ideals which would surprise many readers of Edward Said’s Orientalism.

Martin Buber, for example, linked Zionism to the ideal of pan-Asianism. Each Jew, he believed, was imbued with an “Asian spirit,” and Judaism thus belonged to the same civilization as China, Persia, and Egypt. His Zionism was not part of a Western colonial project. On the contrary, he wanted Jews to return to Palestine to revive “the ancient Oriental spirit,” which colonialism and Western influence had all but snuffed out. One of the ironies of modern Jewish–Arab relations is that when Buber moved to Jerusalem, his landlord was Edward Said’s father.

The difference between Nussimbaum and Buber, or Disraeli for that matter, was that Nussimbaum really was born with one foot in the Orient. As a child he was absorbed in his father’s well-stocked library by books about Persian wise men and Turkish knights. And he would roam around the old Muslim walled city and the crumbling palace of the khans, which for him became “the epitome of peaceful, ancient, silent grandeur.” In his imagination, if not always in reality, he would remain a man from the mysterious East.

Reiss quotes two passages, one from the novel Ali and Nino and one from a nonfiction book by Nussimbaum, published in Berlin in 1930 and entitled Twelve Secrets of the Caucasus. In the first, Ali muses about horsemen in the sandy Arabian desert, “their snow-white burnooses billowing in the wind,” and “prophets praying toward Mecca,” and concluded that he wants “to be one with…this desert, one with this incomprehensible, intricate script, one with the entire Islamic Orient, which in our Baku had been so ceremoniously carried to the grave, to the victorious drumbeats of European culture.”

The second quote is even more interesting, and self-revealing, for it concerns an Orient entirely of his own imagination, a place called Khevsuria, a society without policemen, separated from the rest of the world by a gigantic wall of rock, to be entered by sliding down a long rope. “Only the refugee dares use the rope, to be accepted if he is so inclined into the society of the Khevsurs and protected for ever from all dangers.”

Nussimbaum wrote this after first having to flee from political violence to Persia, then Constantinople, then Paris, and then Berlin, where he converted to Islam and liked to be regarded as an Ottoman noble. Other self-invented characters, some though not all of them Jews, come to mind. Nussimbaum entered Germany in 1921, a year after a failed putsch by rightwing military revanchists, led by Dr. Wolfgang Kapp and General Erich von Ludendorff, whose followers wore the swastika on their helmets. Kapp’s personal secretary was none other than the Hungarian Jew Trebitsch Lincoln, whose rich career included episodes as a Christian missionary in Canada, a British member of Parliament, a German spy, an oil speculator in Romania, and finally a Buddhist monk in China.2 It was Lincoln, according to a footnote in The Orientalist, who advised the young Adolf Hitler to flee the scene when the coup came to nothing.

The infatuation with ancient institutions and aristocrats, often to be found among these adventurers, is not without logic. As Reiss points out, monarchies were often good for the Jews, or at least better than the nationalist and revolutionary passions unleashed by their demise. That is why Joseph Roth, the great Viennese writer, was a lifelong monarchist. Emperor Franz Joseph offered a kind of protection to all his subjects. It is also why England, with its relatively liberal upper class (liberal enough to be led by a Jew at the height of Britain’s imperial glory), was a source of such fascination to the persecuted denizens of the Pale. Or indeed why Theodor Herzl looked for the patronage of Kaiser Wilhelm II, as well as British aristocrats, for his Zionist enterprise.

The Orient, or an idea of the Orient, offered a refuge to a man like Nussimbaum, who could not feel safe anywhere in the Western world. It was an identity that lent him pride, a certain grandeur, even as he was denounced by German anti-Semites as a “Jewish forger.” Which in a way of course he was, but partly out of necessity. It was never easy to be a Jew in Europe, and after the Nazis came to power positively dangerous. Nussimbaum certainly could not publish in his own name. But in the end fantasies can only offer a temporary escape.

Joseph Roth, one of the last dreamers of restoring the Austro-Hungarian Empire and possibly a convert to Roman Catholicism, died in drunken exile in Paris on the eve of World War II. Lev Nussimbaum, aka Kurban Said, aka Essad Bey, died poor and almost forgotten in Positano, Italy, in 1942. His time had run out. His offer to write Mussolini’s biography was rebuffed. He was given some money to record fascist propaganda in Persian for the Fascist Colonial Service. But despite his posing as an American, his Jewish identity was known. If he had not died of illness, he might well have ended, like his father, in a death camp in Poland. Reiss quotes a sentence, later crossed out, near the end of Nussimbaum’s last manuscript: “The author of this book is dead. He was the victim of an airplane crash that occurred when he wanted to cross the short stretch that separates southern Europe from Asia.”

2.

Self-conscious efforts to merge different traditions often end in forced hybrids, where tradition is little more than superficial decoration hiding ill-digested ideas. One artist who succeeded brilliantly in absorbing Asian and Western influences was the American sculptor and designer Isamu Noguchi. This was not always recognized in his time, when both American and Japanese critics sometimes dismissed him as being too alien. The most vicious attack on his work, launched in 1935 by a reviewer for the New York Sun, ended with the words: “Once an Oriental always an Oriental, it appears.”

I’m not sure it would be fair to describe Noguchi as an Orientalist. He was certainly fascinated by Asian cultures, especially Japanese, but also Indian, Chinese, and Indonesian. Born in the US, partly raised in Japan, apprenticed to Brancusi in Paris, and an indefatigable world traveler until the end of his life, Noguchi was not so much interested in Asian scholarship or Oriental role-playing (though there was a bit of that) as in reimagining Asian and Western traditions to find his own artistic style. This endeavor spilled over into his life, much of which was spent crossing borders, while imagining what it was like to belong somewhere. His friend Buckminster Fuller recalled Noguchi’s “stated envy of the natives of various lands who seemed to him to ‘belong….’”

One of the many merits of Masayo Duus’s biography of Noguchi is her lively treatment of Noguchi’s estranged father, Yonejiro (“Yone”) Noguchi, a Japanese poet who made his name in American literary circles in the 1890s by writing English poems with a highly exotic flavor. He lived in San Francisco and New York, where he met Isamu’s mother, a bookish young woman named Leonie Gilmour, who transformed Yone’s ungrammatical Japonaiserie into coherent English poetry. There is no hint of exoticism or incoherence in Duus’s own prose, but she appears to have an equally profitable arrangement with her husband, the Stanford historian Peter Duus, who translated her book, which first appeared in Japanese, into excellent English.

Living abroad turned Yonejiro’s thoughts increasingly to his homeland. A fellow Japanese wrote to an American friend: “Yone is most queer boy among all Nipponese…. He is dreamer. Yes, he are [sic] dreaming always of his sweet dream, mostly of his native country.” When he did finally return to Japan in 1905—without Leonie and their child—he was treated as much as an exotic there as he had been in the US, though initially with much less success. He only began to write his poems in Japanese sixteen years later. One poem begins:

When Japanese read my Japanese poetry they say,
“His Japanese poems are not so good but perhaps his English poems are better.”
When Westerners read my English poetry, they say,
“I can’t bear to read his English poems, but his Japanese poems must be superb.”

Perhaps as a reaction to being a cultural misfit, Yone turned to extreme chauvinism in the 1930s, producing books with titles like Mysterious Japan and New Japanism.

Although Isamu lived in Japan between 1906 and 1918, he saw little of his father, who had started another family with a Japanese wife even before Isamu and his mother arrived. Isamu resented his father for the rest of his life, yet adopted his name (instead of Gilmour) when he became an artist in New York, as a way perhaps, in the words of Masayo Duus, of “flaunting the ‘exotic’ blood that ran in his veins.” Whatever one makes of his poetry, Yonejiro was a pioneer in expressing his Japanese sensibility in a Western medium. At various points in his career, his son tried to do the reverse, adapting his sculptural techniques to Japanese-style pottery, paper lanterns, and gardens. As he put it later: “I am a fusion of East and West, but I want to transcend both worlds.”

First he had to deal with rejection, however, not just by his father, but by the societies that formed him. He was bullied at his Japanese elementary school for being a stupid gaijin (foreigner). But he was no less of an outsider at the English-speaking Catholic school in Yokohama. He fared better at another Catholic school, in Indiana, where he was taken under the wing of the first of many father figures, Dr. Edward Rumely, who liked the “little Jap.” Isamu, Dr. Rumely remembered, “was much interested in wood-work, wanted to go to the wood-shop. I sent him, with flying colors.”

This was in 1918. In 1941, after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Noguchi was a misfit once again. Rejected as a useless “half-breed” by the American authorities to whom he had offered his services, he volunteered to move to a relocation camp for Japanese-Americans in Arizona, where he proposed to teach handicrafts. His identification with the imprisoned citizens of Japanese descent was short-lived. They were mostly rural people. He was a celebrated New York artist. And besides, his irresistible sex appeal to some of the married women in the camp was causing trouble. His release was a relief for everyone, including Noguchi himself, who recalled feeling “completely alone.”

He had, in fact, felt more at home in Paris in the 1920s, where he worked in Brancusi’s studio, had numerous affairs, and met fellow expatriates such as Alexander Calder and the Parisian-Japanese painter Fujita. Brancusi was an ideal mentor. His style, a seamless fit of Romanian folk art and sleek modernism, was to be a lifelong influence on Noguchi, who tried to develop a modern style of his own that owed something to the craftsmanship and love of nature he had observed as a child in Japan.

His first trip to Japan, as an adult, was a mixed experience. He set off with a Guggenheim fellowship in 1930. When he left Japan the following year, he had refreshed his love of traditional Japanese art, but felt oppressed by the general atmosphere of militarism, and by his father, who felt ambivalent about his half-gaijin son and was moving into his most chauvinist phase.

When Noguchi returned to Japan in 1950, however, things could not have been more different. Even though the country was barely emerging from its wartime ruins, Japanese artists and intellectuals felt liberated from the militarist regime to which some of them had lent their artistic support. There was a hunger for new ideas, experimentation, and modern art, and Noguchi, who could barely speak Japanese anymore, was welcomed as a kind of savior from the West.

As an American,” he later recalled, “I expected to be treated like a foreigner…. Yet there was an eager approach to brotherhood, which other Americans, too, can attest to. I was immediately swamped by all the artists, and their various groups seeking my participation. I felt like the pigeon harbinger after the Deluge.” He actually thought that the Japanese infatuation with the new had gone too far. It was no good, he said in interviews with Japanese reporters, to copy everything that came from abroad. “To be authentic and original is to be modern. Therefore if something in Japan is authentic and original it is even more modern than anything imported from abroad.”

Even though this may not have been what Japanese artists in their rush for things foreign wished to hear, they were at least willing to listen, for here was a famous man from America, who had the added attraction of bearing a famous Japanese name. This was also the beginning of Noguchi’s Oriental fantasy. Back in New York, he met a Japanese movie actress, named Shirley Yamaguchi, also known as Yamaguchi Yoshiko, or, during the war, as Li Xianglan. She was a bit of an Oriental fantasy herself.

As Li Xianglan (Ree Koran in Japanese), she had specialized in playing Chinese parts in wartime propaganda movies about Japan’s benevolent efforts to “liberate” Asia. Her parts were mostly of Chinese girls who fell in love with brave Japanese soldiers or enterprising Japanese pioneers in occupied China. After the war, as Shirley Yamaguchi, she had a short-lived career in Hollywood productions playing Japanese women who fell in love with brave American GIs. When Noguchi met her, she was being squired around New York by Yul Brynner, who was playing the Siamese monarch in The King and I on Broadway.

Shirley and Isamu recognized fellow misfits as soon as they saw each other. They got married in 1951, and moved to an old farmhouse tucked away in a pretty valley of rice fields and thatched-roof houses on the edge of the old samurai capital, Kamakura. This picturesque spot could have served as an open movie set of Old Japan. The landlord was a famous potter, named Kitaoji Rosanjin, who lived in the exquisitely sober manner of a traditional Japanese aesthete. He was so exacting that even his toilet had to be just right: a fine ceramic urn filled with fresh cedar leaves. Such banalities as washing hanging out to dry were never allowed to spoil the pristine view. A plaque above the gate to the cluster of houses where he and the Noguchis lived bore the stylishly drawn phrase Mukyo, “World of Dreams.”

Having found yet another father figure, Noguchi copied Rosanjin’s rather dream-like way of life, eating fresh Japanese food served in elegant bowls, some of which he had made in his traditional kiln, bathing in a wooden tub, dressing in kimonos, sleeping on tatami, and decorating his farmhouse with finely chosen Japanese objects. He insisted that his wife wear nothing but a kimono and straw sandals. One day, when she came back from the movie studio in plastic sandals, because the traditional straw ones made her feet bleed, Noguchi flew into a rage at this intolerable show of vulgarity.

Although he doted on Noguchi, Rosanjin was a bit of a tyrant, and the life in this rarefied retreat from the mod-ern world became wearisome to Ya-maguchi. And in fact Noguchi could not live this dream forever either. Indeed, even in those early days of Japanese-American “brotherhood,” acceptance of the foreigner was far from total. Noguchi’s experiments with traditional paper lanterns, the “light sculptures” which are still sold all over the world, baffled Japanese critics, who either ignored or ridiculed them. And in 1952, Noguchi’s beautiful design for the Hiroshima atom bomb memorial, the Arch of Peace, commissioned by Tange Kenzo, was rejected at the last minute by a committee of distinguished experts. The reason may have been nothing more than a fit of professional pique because the gentlemen of the committee had not been sufficiently consulted, but Noguchi took it personally. His Japanese idyll was over, at least for a while. And so, four years later, was his marriage to Shirley—Yoshiko, Li Koran—Yamaguchi.

In fact, however, Noguchi could never stay away from Japan for long, and in the late 1960s he built his own paradise in a traditional stonecutters’ village on the Inland Sea coast of Shikoku. It was there, in Mure, that Noguchi’s modernist, Western sensibility found its perfect complement in the traditional skills of Izumi Masatoshi, whose family had been making stone ornaments for centuries. Izumi, the consummate craftsman, learned how to anticipate Noguchi’s wishes, and knew how to carry them out. Out of their extraordinary relationship, based on body language and a shared love of stone, came some of Noguchi’s greatest works.

They are not exactly abstract. Noguchi was not interested in “purely cold abstraction,” he once told an art critic. “Art has to have some humanly touching and memorable quality.” Rather, Noguchi’s work on stone, a jagged edge here, a polished ridge there, adds a human touch to the material without dominating or diminishing its natural qualities, a bit like Japanese cooking, in fact, where highly sophisticated skills are needed to make the most of natural flavors.

Some of the finest examples can be seen in the Noguchi Museum in Long Island City. The model for the Hiroshima memorial is there, and so are such masterpieces as the black granite The Origin. Although Noguchi’s life in Mure, where he spent part of each year in a beautifully reconstructed eighteenth-century merchant’s house, could be described as an Orientalist idyll, his work had neither the scholarly nor the frivolous, let alone the imperialist, elements commonly associated with the term. He really had found a form that “transcended” cultures, even as it was rooted in them. Unlike Lev Nussimbaum and similar fantasists, who pretended to be something they were not, Noguchi, in his art, had found a kind of individual authenticity. Perhaps this had something to do with sex.

Although Nussimbaum, with his mysterious bearing and exotic posturing, had no trouble attracting German girls, he almost always rejected them when things became too intimate. Sex to him appears to have been rather a beastly business that was best avoided. Noguchi, on the other hand, never passed up an opportunity. Anaïs Nin and Frida Kahlo were among the many women with whom he had intimate relations. Sex, he said, is “very important to give you a feeling of being alive. There are frequent changes in the history of the human race but one thing that never changes is sex.”

It is a pity you are not allowed to touch the polished granite or marble sculptures displayed in the Noguchi Museum, for they have an extraordinarily tactile quality. Instead of finding refuge, then, in dream palaces of Arabian princes and Oriental Shangri-Las, Noguchi pared his vision down to a basic sensuality, which owed something to Brancusi and European modernism, and something to Japanese traditional craftsmanship, but mostly to his own extraordinary talent and sensibility, which allowed him to find warm life in the hardest of stones.







  1. 1

    See, for example, Nirad C. Chaudhuri’s Thy Hand, Great Anarch!, reviewed in these pages on December 8, 1988.

  2. 2

    For an account of Trebitsch Lincoln, see Hugh Trevor-Roper, “His Brilliant Career,” The New York Review, June 2, 1988. The Autobiography of an Adventurer, by J.T. Trebitsch Lincoln, translated by Emile Burns (London: Leonard Stein, 1931), is still well worth reading.

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