Konomi-san, an apprentice geisha, in the Gion district of Kyoto, 2006; photograph by William T. Vollmann from Kissing the Mask

Some twenty years ago, William T. Vollmann wrote a remarkable novel, entitled Whores for Gloria,1 about prostitutes plying their trade in San Francisco’s Tenderloin. He has written about prostitutes in other books too, notably in The Royal Family and Butterfly Stories, about an American’s adventures in Southeast Asia. In “The Shame of It All,” an essay reprinted in Expelled from Eden: A William T. Vollmann Reader (2004), he writes:

I have worshiped them and drunk from their mouths; I’ve studied at their feet. Many have saved me; one or two I’ve raised up. They’ve cost me money and made me money. People might say that we’ve “exploited” each other. Some have trusted me; a few have loved me—or at least said so. They’ve healed my loneliness, infected me with diseases and despair.

Vollmann likes to do his homework. To research Whores for Gloria, he spent many hours with whores, drinking and smoking crack, paying them to tell him stories, and whatever else was required. But unlike many others afflicted with nostalgie de la boue, he does not romanticize his subject:

The kitchen floor was black with dirt. Nicole lay down on it and raised her legs to make her cunt so nice and tight for him, and Jimmy stood over her watching the groping of those legs, which were speckled with boils and lesions, until her left ankle came to rest on the chair that she had sat on, while the sole of her right foot had to be content with bracing itself against Jimmy’s refrigerator.

One of Vollmann’s literary tics is to repeat certain images in unexpected ways—in the case of Whores for Gloria, flowery images. Jimmy, observing Nicole’s genitals, which “glistened under the kitchen lights with the brightness of metal foil,” remarks: “Your pussy is just like a flower.” This elicits another Vollmann tic, the footnote displaying the author’s quirky erudition, often about some historical example of horrific violence:

“I still remember the effect I produced on a small group of Gala tribesmen massed around a man in black clothes,” wrote Vittorio Mussolini. “I dropped an aerial torpedo right in the center and the group opened up like a flowering rose. It was entertaining.”

It might seem a very, very long way from the scuzzy, crack-addicted denizens of San Francisco’s Tenderloin (or indeed the bombing of hapless tribesmen in Ethiopia) to the refinements of Japan’s Noh theater, and yet, once one gets the drift of Vollmann’s preoccupations, the transition is not as radical as one might think. The main character in Whores for Gloria is Jimmy, an alcoholic Vietnam vet, seedy, fat, and unprepossessing in every way, but for one odd kind of grace: he is a romantic, forever searching for his great love, the ideal woman, his adored wife, his goddess, Gloria, who may or may not have existed.

In Kissing the Mask, not a literary fiction this time, Vollmann sets out on an equally romantic quest, for the secret of female grace, feminine beauty, the source of man’s dreams of erotic fulfillment. He seeks it, this time, not in the sweaty stink of cheap Skid Row hotel rooms, where the promise of love and beauty is grotesquely out of sync with reality, but in the masked dramas of the Noh stage, where male actors express the ancient passions of female beauties with a flick of an exquisite fan and the tilt of a pale mask. Something no less artificial, of course, but of a very different order. Artificiality is in fact the point, for grace and beauty in Vollmann’s books are not the unadorned products of nature. Adornment is everything; what leads men on in their never-ending chase after female beauty is less a matter of biology than of art and performance. And no performance of femininity is more stylized, more artificial than Noh.

After spending much time in such rugged places as Afghanistan and the murderous US–Mexican borderlands, Vollmann has picked his destination well. For Japan is the right place to observe artificial beauty, from the plastic cherry blossoms that adorn city streets in spring to the mincing steps of the (male) actor of female roles (onnagata) in the Kabuki theater. Few cultures have developed the refinements of erotic performance more than the Japanese. Japan has the reputation of a country soaked in exquisite beauty (once you know how to pick your way around the neon and concrete jungles) and kinky sexual adventure. These things are there, to be sure, but beauty and grace are rarely approached directly; they are represented rather than revealed, and thus elusive. And that is what interests Vollmann: the dream, the way our desires act on the imagination, whether they be that of an old drunk trying to find Gloria in the eyes of every whore he meets or the Californian author stalking Noh stages and the straw-matted rooms of geisha establishments.


Some believe, in defense of the great art of men playing women in Noh, Kabuki, or in pre-Communist days the Chinese opera, that men can represent the allure of female beauty better than women can. For the idea is not to mimic reality but, as in a Chinese painting, to express an idea of reality, an abstraction almost. Men can represent the idea of women better, because they can take a distance from the real thing and reinvent it as art.2

Vollmann does not quite buy this: “My own opinion is that telling other people what they are incapable of expressing is always absurd.” Yet he is mesmerized by the great Noh actor Kanze Hideo playing the ghost of an old woman who was once a celebrated beauty. “Played by Mr. Kanze,” writes Vollmann, “she still is. When I remember that performance now, I am moved almost to tears.” Elsewhere he writes that “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.”

I know exactly what he means. One of the most extraordinary Kabuki performances I have ever seen was in Osaka, in the late 1970s. It was a famous love scene in the eighteenth-century play Chushingura between a samurai, Kambei, and his young wife, Okaru. Compelled by tragic circumstances, she is to be sold to a brothel, and he is about to commit suicide. Their last scene together is unbearably sad. But what sticks in my mind is the grace of the young woman, played by a great actor, Nakamura Ganjiro, then in his late seventies. The samurai husband was played by Ganjiro’s own son.

Like Jimmy, the protagonist of Whores for Gloria, Vollmann is clearly a romantic, a man given to hopeless quests. The impression you get from his writing is of a somewhat nerdish romantic; his obsessions lead to voluminous research, and not just in libraries. To write Kissing the Mask, he not only read everything he could find in English on Japanese art and theater, but he paid geishas to perform for him (this can cost thousands of dollars for a short session), interviewed cross-dressers and transsexuals, pestered Noh actors with endless questions, and even had himself made up and dressed as a woman by a lady in Tokyo who caters to men with secret transvestite yearnings.

Vollmann is not someone who wears his hard-earned learning lightly, despite his almost Oriental disclaimer of any academic expertise. The opening sentences of the book are immediately disarming: “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 an essay on Noh drama. Fortunately, this is no essay, but a string-ball of idle thoughts.”

His thoughts are rarely idle, however, and Vollmann has the prolixity of the autodidact. All his inquiries, and the possible answers, are laid out at great length, even though this book of 504 pages is actually slender compared to some of his other works.3 There is something bold and even refreshing about a writer who shows so little concern for the shrinking attention spans of modern readers. Vollmann will go where he has to go. This can be wearying. And so can the occasional tangles of woolly prose:

We have said that the Japanese concept of aware refers to the beauty and harmony beyond direct expression which shines uniquely from various entities in their own occasion—for instance, cherry blossoms about to fall.

But even though he can sometimes come across as the bore at a drinks party who pins you to the wall as he holds forth on his latest theory, Vollmann has a fascinating mind, which makes up for the patches of boredom. And his research turns up some highly arresting facts, such as the famous woodblock artist Utamaro’s categories of the ideal vagina: “takobobo, todatebobo and kinchakubobo (octopus, which sucks; trapdoor, which grips; purse, which is tight).” What makes this book particularly interesting is the way Vollmann mixes personal experience with intellectual sleuthing. Ideas and feelings are often in a state of tension, which means that in the end we learn as much about the author as about Japan, and that distinguishes this literary work from an academic tome. One can’t somehow imagine Professor Donald Keene, say, one of the great American experts on Noh, telling us all about his love life.


Here is Vollmann on the mask of the zo-onna, the ideal of pure female beauty, which he has compared to the face of a contemporary Japanese porn star. The Noh mask, no matter how exquisitely carved, comes to life only on stage. The zo-onna, writes Vollmann,

awaits the ceremony of being inhabited by yet another man, a man whose true flower sweetly guides him, like the woman I love who sometimes sits astride me to better control her pleasure; he inhabits her in order to bring her back to life in the manner that he expresses life, so that we may watch and experience the joyousness of our own desire, which he and the zo-onna have understated into metaphysics.

This might strike some readers as unbearably pretentious, but I think Vollmann has caught something important about Noh. For Noh is the art of making live drama out of the most minimalist, stylized means: a masked man gliding very slowly across a stage of cypress wood, which is bare except for a simple painting of a pine tree. This is what Vollmann calls “understated.” Again, as in a Chinese landscape painting, with its large empty spaces, much is left to the imagination. By reducing the expression of life to the barest of means, the art form increases its intensity.

Like many (perhaps all) ancient forms of drama, Noh has religious origins. Once called sarugaku, monkey music, because the first practitioners were supposedly monkeys mimicking the gods, the earliest dances were performed at Shinto shrines to pray for good harvests. These dance dramas were refined and made into a high art during the fourteenth century by a father and son, Kan’ami Kiyotsugu and Zeami Motokiyo. They wrote most of the plays that are still performed today. Noh might actually not have survived if General Ulysses S. Grant had not arrived in Tokyo on a goodwill tour in 1879 and declared that this fine art should be preserved.4 His was an important encomium, because Japanese at that time were keen to jettison all kinds of traditions in their efforts to look Western.

The religious aspects of Noh, despite its beginnings in Shinto shrines, owe more to Buddhism. As Vollmann points out, the plays are mostly about the fatal delusion of our earthly desires and attachments. Nothing lasts, everything dies, but the power of our desires can continue to haunt us even after our deaths. Hence the fact that many Noh plays feature ghosts, often female ghosts, who appear on stage in various guises to lament unrequited loves or past wrongs. Resolution is only reached once these last vestiges of earthly attachments are cut and the spirit, in Vollmann’s words, “attains Buddahood ‘free of delusion.’ In Noh we never meet with any of the passionate epiphanies that can fulfill a life; for desire, of whatever kind, is precisely the problem.”

Like the barrenness of the cypruswood stage and the spare, almost ghostlike quality of the masks, it is an austere vision of life that Noh offers. There are no happy endings; the only release is total detachment, that is to say, death. This is why Noh appealed to the warrior caste in premodern times, whereas the more lively Kabuki theater was for city merchants. Kabuki is also closer to Vollmann’s other interest, prostitution. In the early seventeenth century, many Kabuki actors were effectively prostitutes as well, and the Kabuki theaters were traditionally located in the brothel districts; the playacting in the teahouses, where courtesans often bore the names of historical beauties or literary characters, merged with the drama in the theaters. Vollmann has little to say about Kabuki, except for this rather astute aside: “Kabuki is the way that I so often write; Noh is how I would write if I were more ‘spiritual,’ more understated or perhaps just older.”

If even our deepest desires are no more than delusions, then the objects of our desires are forever beyond our reach. But Vollmann, like most of us, though moved by the performance of Noh, is not ready for Buddhist renunciation. This, he writes, “is not what I wish to believe. I want to kiss the mask, and when I put my lips against its wooden emptiness, I want to feel a woman’s tongue in my mouth.”

Not only is it refreshing to hear Vollmann’s musings on his own life—the superb description, for instance, of a love affair that is dying, even as one tries to hang on regardless—but it is also good to see his resistance to shallow Japanophilia. Unlike other American literary pilgrims to Japan (some of the beat poets, for example), Vollmann does not take to wearing kimonos or spouting Buddhist koans. On the contrary, he prizes his “foreignness, thanks to which Noh, not to mention Japan, can never be mastered by me.” If I understand him correctly this implies a refusal to demystify the foreignness of Japan. He quotes Ivan Morris, the celebrated Japan scholar, who translated, among other things, the Pillow Book of Sei Shonagon. Morris wished to escape the “false exoticism that can arise from identifying the Emperor’s residence, for example, as ‘the Pure and Fresh Palace.'” To which Vollmann responds: “I could not disagree more.”

Vollmann resembles one of those nineteenth-century French Romantic Orientalists, such as Victor Segalen,5 who celebrated rather than deplored exoticism. This can result in preciousness, something Vollmann doesn’t always manage to avoid, but also in insights that a more prosaic approach might have missed.

So what is the secret of beauty and grace? To hold its appeal for a romantic, that must remain a mystery. But Vollmann keeps on probing nonetheless. In Japanese aesthetics, especially but not only in Noh, beauty contains the idea of decay. Beauty must have an air of evanescence, the intimation of its own demise. On a trite level, this is why Japanese make such a fuss over the cherry blossom: it blooms, and then, very quickly, it dies. The usually homoerotic worship of the adolescent, the bishonen, is something similar, beauty just before it matures into full bloom.6 On the morbid end of the scale, this leads to the cult of suicide, celebrated in Kabuki plays, not a few saccharine popular songs, and of course the kamikaze tactics in World War II. Kamikaze squadrons were indeed called “cherry blossoms.”

Youth at the cusp of maturity is not the only thing that suggests the highest form of beauty to Japanese. So can the very old. Mono no aware, an aesthetic expression that literally means “the sadness of things” and is sometimes translated as lacrimae rerum, is associated with two famous categories of Japanese beauty known as wabi and sabi, simplicity and tranquility. Sabi literally means “rust,” patina. Vollmann mentions a famous Noh play about a female poet and great ninth-century beauty called Ono no Komachi. The play, Sekidara Komachi, showing her as an old beggar, is, in Vollmann’s phrase, about the “ruins of allure.” She is invited to dance one more time at a festival. Her body is no longer up to it, but something still hints at her former glory. “In the instant when she seems to embody her lost youthful elegance, the chorus chants: ‘How sad! My heart breaks! A flowering branch of the withered tree.'” This is wabi-sabi in human form.

Vollmann has very interesting things to say about these aesthetics in the literature of Mishima Yukio and Kawabata Yasunari. The former was obsessed with death and decay, and one of the reasons he might have decided to commit such a spectacular suicide, by disembowelling himself with a samurai sword at the age of forty-five, was aesthetic; he couldn’t bear to see his body grow old. Mishima’s modern Noh play about Ono no Komachi leaves her little dignity; there is no allure in her ruin. Kawabata’s melancholy about the passing of things is much less flamboyant. In Vollmann’s words: “The sadness, for him at least, comes from transience. Whenever his artistic gaze met schoolgirls in blue uniforms, green lanterns, red walls, necklaces of wisteria spilling down the tree-trellis, it was as if he remembered rather than perceived them.” He, too, committed suicide, but not with a samurai sword, and he was already an old man.

Vollmann, however, is not Kawabata or Mishima. He is an American who sees the appeal of Japanese fatalism, but whose instincts rebel against it. All through his essay on beauty he returns to his rebellion. Here is one example:

I see the mask of beauty, and I want to kiss it. Then what? I taste wood.

Drawn to the mask of love, I give myself. My fulfillment will be separation. One will stop loving the other; or one will die. Wait awhile; wait awhile.

No, I reject that! I want grace that lasts forever…

The paradox is that rebellion against fate, the attempt to stop time, to be always young, leads to a kind of death too. For to stop the process of decay is to stop living. It is perhaps a very American form of death, the umpteenth facelift, the short skirts wrapped tight around the withered thighs. Yet there is also something grand about Vollmann’s American rejection of fatalism. His thirst for experience is what drives him on in his Quixotic quests, from the streets of San Francisco, to the battlefields of Afghanistan, to the borderlands of Mexico, to the Noh theaters of Tokyo and the teahouses of Kyoto and Kanazawa, where geishas dance for him “like jewels in the darkness.”

It is in the nature of paradoxes that they cannot be resolved. Vollmann realizes that more knowledge will not get him any closer to the mystery of grace and beauty, because the beauty of Noh is “ultimately indescribable, like sexual ecstasy; what consoles me for my failure of language is that so is everything else. Moreover, Noh aspires to indescribability.” And yet Vollmann wants to know more and more. He can’t leave mystery alone. “Against all Noh’s warnings, I have always sought out attachments. I seek to know these ghosts so that they can allure me all the better.”

And so he prods, and picks, and reads, and asks more questions. He recalls a former girlfriend who complained to him that he wanted “a relationship without boundaries,” and he

proudly assented. I resist the notion that…the utterly accessible lover must decline in value. I wish to believe that if the beautiful object of my desire revealed itself or herself to me unstintingly, perpetually, any resulting failure of my appreciation would result from my own imperfections of love, concentration, etcetera.

And yet, Vollmann is also convinced that female attraction, or indeed most forms of beauty, to hold our attention, depend on adornment, performance, concealment, understatement. The experience of true beauty, he argues, is like glimpsing a garden through a wall or a landscape veiled by mist. “The onnagata [actor of female roles] conceals his hands, the Noh actor masks himself, the geisha whitens her face, for much the same reason. Sometimes the wall conceals a garden’s blightedness—another reason that disenfranchisement may be cause for gratitude.”

If you are an obsessive prober like Vollmann, the temptation to go through that wall and see the garden as it is, or to wonder what the geisha would look like naked, can be hard to resist. He both wants this, and he doesn’t. That is the paradox that runs through his essay. He wants to know what lies behind the theater curtain, what the actor is thinking behind his mask, but as his remark on Ivan Morris’s attempt to demystify an ancient Japanese text suggests, he does not really wish to wake up from his dream.

This paradox even provokes a rare expression of moralism in him, when he remembers “with pain the man who declined to see unpainted geishas because ‘I don’t want to know their tricks; I don’t want to know their sad stories.'” Vollmann declares that this deliberate looking away from suffering is “evil.” To take pleasure in the bound feet of a Chinese concubine, he continues, “might have been permissible,” but to take pleasure without “respecting” the agony that went into those stunted feet, “never!”

Which is presumably why Vollmann writes so feelingly about the sordid lives of whores in San Francisco, or poor Mexicans being smuggled across the sun-baked US border, or the horrors on the Eastern Front in World War II.7 This is his saving grace. In the hands of a pure aesthete, this essay on female beauty and the art of Noh would have been rarefied, and probably somewhat hard to stomach. It is Vollmann’s warm-blooded romanticism that makes him so convincing a writer. And he ends his quest accepting that he has come no closer to finding the key to female beauty than he did at the beginning. The teahouses and Noh stages he frequented in Japan are like memories of places as remote as the moon. He accepts that he can never see what the Noh mask and the geisha’s white face conceal. It is better to leave mystery a mystery, and “click little sake-glasses with whomever in this floating world I can love.” And he recalls a passage in Lady Murasaki’s diary in the Tale of Genji, the world’s first novel, all about the fleetingness of human desire, where she describes how she fussed about her dress and powder since early dawn before meeting her lover. Vollmann then sums up his essay at the end:

She [Murasaki] seeks to control how she is seen: a swiftly glimpsed or never-glimpsed face, masked by long black hair and an elegant fan which sprouts from her gorgeous sleeve. Now she is ready. Now the play will begin.

This Issue

May 27, 2010