The Hispanic Fenollosa

It has been 100 years since Ezra Pound published Cathay. And of all the things that Cathay brings to mind as a convergence of cultures, it's never regarded as a Hispanic text. I'm being provocative here, but not without reason; I want to comment upon certain aspects of the provenance of modern(ist) poetics as a specie of cultural syncretism. By provenance, of course, I mean the history of ownership or residence of ideas and their migrations, and the provenance of modern(ist) poetics has a longstanding dialog between Anglo America and Spanish America. In the Hispanic sphere, the tension of Anglo political, cultural, literary, and linguistic hegemony in the Americas is well-known as dominant in the emergence of avant-garde poetries (from Borges's ultraismo to Guillen's negrismo to Algarin's Nuyorican), but in the Anglo sphere, a reciprocal Spanish American role is largely unappreciated. Cathay has undergone a century of scrutiny, by T. S. Eliot, Achilles Fang, Hugh Kenner, George Kennedy, Peter Boodberg, Wai-Lim Yip, Feng Lan, et al., to access its authenticity, accuracy, creativity, emblematism, and fantasy as an orientalist translation, and this doesn't happen without acknowledging the ways that Cathay came, as it says on its title page, "from the notes of the late Ernest Fenollosa."

When I first heard  Fenollosa's name spoken almost twenty years ago, the Spanish speaker in me thought, that's not how you pronounce Fenollosa. In time I let it go, and wrote a chapter of my dissertation on his aesthetics and The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry without any reflection on "the unusual surname" (Saussy 11). (Much like how Mark Rudman wrote, in 2008: "In all these years of reading Williams I'd never once paused over his middle name.") In truth, it was of no moment; Fenollosa otherwise was a fascinating figure. He left Boston for Japan in 1878, taught philosophy, practiced Buddhism, caused a stir with his divorce. The unpublished notebooks he left when he died in 1908 were passed on to Pound, an exchange that altered the course of poetry. We know about Pound, Marianne Moore, Zukofsky, Haroldo de Campos, but imagine my surprise when I recently wrote an essay on spoken word and came across the 1994 anthology Aloud! Voices from the Nuyorican Poets Cafe, in which Bob Holman says, first page, "In Chinese, there is no verb without a noun; it is contained in the character. There is no running without a deer to run, and three deer is 'Beautiful.' It is not raining. What (who) is It?! 'No Tag Backs' (Paul Beatty). (Rain is.) (Try Pound/Fenalossa's The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry.)" As Haun Saussy has put it, "Fenollosa is really nobody's contemporary" (40); David Carrier has claimed that he was "the first American to write interestingly about Asian art" (127); his biographer Lawrence Chisholm has argued that his distinguished career as professor, historian, theorist, poet, and purveyor of indigenous Eastern cultural production "marked a new stage in American explorations of the Orient" (32); and it is certain that his writings provided much raw material for poets and scholars, like Pound, Yeats, and Froebenius, involved in recovery projects of ignored or forgotten literatures. My personal interest in Fenollosa was his influence on the Sao Paulo concretists in establishing the poetics of a new verbivocovisual object in the 1950s, and in making the argument that concretismo realized the ideogramic method far more than Pound ever did, I began to wonder if there was something distinctly Ibero-American in play, and came back to the unusual surname.

In the preface to Fenollosa's Epochs of Chinese and Japanese Art (1912), his widow, the novelist Mary McNeill Fenollosa (nee Scott), reveals her "Notes on Ernest's Childhood," which span six pages and which she says were dictated in one sitting by her husband back when the couple lived in Tokyo. It begins with the following:

My father's full baptismal name was Manuel Francisco Ciriaco Fenollosa del Pino del Gil del Alvarez, the names Francisco and Ciriaco standing for the two patron saints, according to Spanish custom. Pino was the family name of his mother and Gil and Alvarez of his two grandmothers. The Alvarez he supposed to be a modified form of the family name Alvarado, so famous in Spanish history, not impossibly the direct descendants of Alvarado, the Lieutenant of Cortez in Mexico, who married the daughter of the king of the Tlascalans. His descendants by her are said to have founded families in Spain. The name Fenollosa is also an historic one, and is doubtless the same as that of the Penalosa, another companion of Cortez, who made the first exploring expedition up through Texas, New Mexico and Colorado. (vii)

Scholars have made little issue of this background, avoiding ties between Fenollosa's first-generation Spanish American experience and his work as translator, cultural preservationist, and international arts ambassador. Saussy, Yunte Huang, C. E. Rosenow, Stefan Tanaka, and Michael Blouin have all elided the topic when examining the greater role of nationality in Fenollosa's purview. In "Notes," Mary herself offers little by way of reflection except for the curt characterization that his "parentage was unusual," and she borders on the oblivious when she explains that at the moment when the Meiji era imperiled Japan's artistic legacy by assimilating to Western style, it "is a strange thing that at such a crisis it should have been the keen eye and prophetic mind of a young American who first realized the threatened tragedy" (vii, xv). However, Chisholm's biography does provide intermittent commentary on how the bases of "Fenollosa's personal ambitions would merge with what he felt to be world-historical forces" (54), and here I want to draw these points out.

Throughout "Notes," Fenollosa makes the importance of his Hispanic background very clear, a narrative that emphasizes not only his Spanish roots but also the presumptive intertwining of the varied branches of his paternal family tree with Mesoamerica (if he were alive today, he might even call himself mixed). In fact, most of "Notes" pertains to the Fenollosa family's Spanish history and the transition from Spain to the U.S. before he was born and how this discourse resonated within his consciousness and that of his relatives. "Notes" recounts the immigrant experience of Fenollosa's father, a romantic and tragic story even for that of an immigrant. As a teenager, and a musical prodigy, Manuel Fenollosa dodged the draft for the first Carlist War by hopping a U.S. naval vessel with his band mates and went to America, where he would settle in the Northeast, teach music to children of means, and marry an Anglo of fine upbringing. The claims Fenollosa makes to Mesoamerican royalty (a descendant of Xicotencatl) and lineage of the gens d'armes of Spanish empire (a descendant of Alvarez and Penalosa) are difficult to confirm or refute, even if Chisholm echoes the sentiment that his "Alvarez blood was as aristocratic as any in Spain" (15). Nevertheless, the conversation with his wife that comprises "Notes on Ernest's Childhood," told in a sincere moment of confidence, reveals a crucial element of the imago of Fenollosa and how he regarded his cultural identity: not only of a Spanish American but also, in essence, that of a displaced mestizo, a Hispanic in a more vernacular sense of the word--a self-identification that, I would argue, motivated his commitment to the quest for uniting disparate cultures. His preoccupation with his Spanish heritage, and with how Spanish ancestors likely descended from one of the Tlaxcala sisters, Luisa or Lucia, resembles a more contemporary specie of racial essentialism in later twentieth-century Latina/o cultural studies, particularly considerations of raza in Chicana/o discourse. It might be anachronistic to consider Fenollosa (to borrow Americo Paredes's term) a proto-Chicano, but formulating a personal Hispanic heritage marked by mestizaje for the sake of justifying a progressive sociopolitical agenda was evidently a part of Fenollosa's provocative persona.

As a child, Fenollosa's home in Salem was bilingual. Chisholm has noted that his "house on Chestnut Street was filled with music and with the sounds of talk. Along with the clipped twanging speech of his mother and his playmates the young boy listened to the voluble Spanish of his father and [cousins] the Emilios. From the beginning his ear noted differences in rhythm and gesture which raised questions beyond the experience of his Salem friends, rending, if only slightly, the seamless web of childhood" (13). That this tore at Fenollosa's youth is easy to imagine in antebellum Massachusetts. Well before Fenollosa was born, his paternal grandparents, around 1845, made the voyage from Malaga to Salem to live with Manuel and his sister, but they hated Massachusetts and were back in Spain in a few years. It seems that Ernest's father was sensitive to the predictable pressures; raised a Catholic, he became an Episcopalian in Salem (Brooks 2) and married one of his music students, Mary Silsbee, the daughter of the well-respected Silsbees and the Hodges, an original Salem family. Try as he did, Manuel struggled throughout his life to assimilate: "Mary's own marriage to an unconnected Spanish musician of limited prospects placed her near the fringes of her milieu. Very likely the town did not allow her to forget it, completely. To the socially minded it was clear that Mary Silsbee Fenollosa had married down and to a foreigner besides" (Chisholm 16). Ouch.

To make things worse, when Ernest was eleven years old, his mother died. The burden of raising Ernest and his siblings rested squarely on his father, and, as is so often the case in immigrant families of modest resources, academics became a chief means for social advancement. In 1866, Ernest entered Salem's Hacker High School at the top of his class, and although he continued as a fine student, he suffered his share of the strains of cultural assimilation based on his ethnicity, "sensitive to imagined slights" (Chisholm 21). In his love life, Fenollosa encountered ethno-cultural alienation in ways quite similar to the experience of his father. Chisholm recounts an experience young Ernest had with a girl by the name of Lizzie Goodhue Millett, whom he became romantically involved with the year after his mother's death and would marry, father two children with, and ultimately divorce, controversially, after seventeen years of marriage. In a passage from his early manuscript, "Poems Written in Boyhood," Fenollosa broods over a temporary breakup with Lizzie apparently caused by her concern for her family's reputation, social status, and the stigma of keeping close company with an immigrant's son. He cynically lists their differences in this couplet: "My station far inferior to hers / My habits so disliked by all her friends" (qtd. in Chisholm 17). Chisholm also notes that in Fenollosa's handwritten manuscripts, a noticeable change occurs (at precisely this time, this rejection by the well-bred New England girl); Fenollosa's penmanship begins to show more economy and care, and the poems turn from dull rhythms and "cute rhymes" to "dramatic blank verse," "sharpened by disillusion" (17), as in these lines from the central poem of the last series:

I tear myself away
From fashion and society and all
Those pleasures of the sense one ever meets
Within the rich man's palace, and to shun
The sickening hypocrisy I see
In everything [...] (qtd. in Chisholm 17-18)

These overtones of disgust accompanied Fenollosa into maturity. His Hispanic otherness within his Anglo milieu was a sourse of angst, no doubt, in typical adolescent fashion; this was one among the many "personal matters which gave rise to precocious speculations about the meaning of life and the direction of his own career, speculations which foreshadowed many of the major concerns of his later years" (16). The angst Fenollosa experienced as a Hispanic American straining under the pressure of a relationship with an Anglo of "higher station" (29) affected not only his understanding of his self but also his pen--and, in turn, his penchant for getting as far away from here as possible.

One of the few students of the time to enter Harvard from public school, Fenollosa excelled, graduating with first class honors, taking a Parker Fellowship and studying at the Unitarian Divinity School before accepting an invitation from Edward Morse, the recently appointed chair of zoology at Tokyo University and a fellow Harvard alum, to move to Japan and join the philosophy faculty. In the months between finishing school and taking Morse up on his offer, Fenollosa struggled to find employment suitable for his training and ambitions (Yamaguchi viii), and when this defining professional opportunity finally arrived, it came with more misfortune. On April 22, 1878, the Boston Daily Advertiser ran a piece titled "A Salem Mystery Cleared Up. The Body of Mr. Manuel Fenollosa, The Missing Music Teacher, Found--His Career":

The mystery attending the fate of Mr. Manuel Fenollosa, a music teacher of Salem, since his disappearance on the night of January 13, was solved by the finding of his body floating on the surface of the water in the vicinity of Beverly bridge, by a Marblehead boatman as he was pulling his dory under the bridge. The body was in an advanced stage of decomposition, and the features were unrecognizable, but it was fully identified as that of the missing gentleman by the clothing and by the contents of the left pantaloons pocket, consisting of two gold rings, one of which was marked, "A. E. F. to M. F., July 26th, 1869." The first were the initials of Mr. Fenollosa's wife, and the date that of their marriage as recorded on the clerk's records at the city hall...It is supposed that the unfortunate gentleman made the fatal plunge from the railroad bridge, and that the body has remained beneath one of the yachts lying between the bridges, the disturbance of whose ground tackle this spring caused it to float to the surface...His second wife survives him, together with five children. Mr. Fenollosa's two oldest sons graduated at Harvard, and one of them, Mr. Ernest Fenollosa, has recently accepted a position in the Imperial College at Tokio, Japan.

In fact, Ernest's employment contract arrived within days of the discovery of his father's body (Yamaguchi viii). While it would be sheer conjecture (and tasteless, and morbid) to ascribe motives to Manuel's suicide, its influence on Ernest's cultural sympathies, insofar as such an inglorious demise would remain a part of his father's legacy to him, is not entirely immeasurable. Manuel was evidently a class-conscious man who worked hard in service to Salem's high society, and Ernest's loyalties lied with his father's roots as well as his father's ambitions. While Fenollosa rose to cultural prominence in both Japan and the U.S. largely by means of his connections to societies of wealthy art collectors, he consistently emotes sympathy for the common man in his critiques of the art establishment and the subjects of painting, as when, for example, he favors the realistic depiction of social issues in his essay on "The French Salon of 1896" (1896). In "The Bases of Art Education" (1906), Fenollosa begins his essay with an exordium that aligns his personal experience with working-class ideology:

Art is undoubtedly one of the noblest interests of civilized men. But why? That's a hard question. I remember in youth blundering through crowded picture galleries and wondering at the alleged importance of these hot little canvases. Why was painting so much more valuable than shoemaking? Besides, you couldn't feed the poor on plaster images! There was a time when I hated art. (160)

Fenollosa's explicit invocation of personal experience rests on his confidence in the importance of the proletarian class to cultural transmission--a subject with which he clearly identifies vis-a-vis the circumstantial formation of his own personal character, echoed when he concludes the first section of this essay, "The Roots of Art," by claiming, "Art education must take the 'child mind' as its primary condition" (162). This "child mind" is not merely a generic template for playful inquisitiveness; it is unique to every person, and a byproduct of parentage. The third and final section of the essay, "The Individuality of the Artist," argues for the importance of individuality over originality in the production of art (281), a measure of "genius," and as Fenollosa puts it, "I allow the variability of the genius to be contributed in part by his parents, or by accident if you prefer" (284). Whether Fenollosa is speaking of parentage in terms of nature or nurture I can't definitively say, but either way, it is clear he believed individuality was the soul of art, and that individual acumen owes a debt to filial inheritance.

The lessons of Fenollosa's Hispanic upbringing laid the ethical foundation for the extraordinary accomplishments of the second half of his life. Hired by Tokyo University to lecture on Hegel and phenomenology, Fenollosa was named Japan's Imperial Commissioner of Arts in less than a decade. His duties included embarking on a world-wide voyage, throughout England and Europe, on a four-year contract to study divers practices of art education in order to properly advise the Japanese government on implementing university curricula. Fenollosa's career, "the romance par excellence of modern scholarship" as Pound put it, was defined by ambassadorship between several distinct cultures. But even as a poet, Fenollosa published a collection called East and West (1893) that ends with a long poem, "The Discovery of America," which he explains aspired "to exhibit the steadfast idealism of" the "sublime purpose of uniting the East and the West" (v-vii). He concludes the poem with a metaphor that is unusually uplifting, likening the history of intercultural conflict to "the numbered pages of a dying / theme" (205).

Having pinned down the unusual surname, I'm convinced that Fenollosa's Hispanic American experience and identity deeply impacted his formulations about language and aesthetics, a spirit that haunts Pound's Cathay. The underlying theme of Fenollosa's work on politics, art, and literature is the vicarious experience of otherness. He was not a Saidian Orientalist who "commanded, codified, and articulated virtually all Western knowledge and experience of" the East Asian world (Said 80). The overt purpose of his criticism and theory was to encourage the Western intellectual not just to regard and appreciate the traditions and cultures of the East but, in a figurative sense, to knead the Western mind until it is malleable enough to be pressed into the contours of Eastern ideologies:

But if our young consciousness is at last to appropriate the East, we cannot have the foundation of our responsibility laid too deep. The crisis is too grave to be led by selfish ambition. It must be no conquest, but a fusion. We are not to court Japan for the number of her battleships, nor weigh China by the tonnage of her imports; rather to challenge the East soul to soul, as if in the sudden meeting of two brothers parted since childhood. It is primarily a test of ourselves, whether we are capable of expanding local Western sympathy and culture to the area of humanity...[Today] must we prove the absolute value of Western thought and institutions by their flexibility, by breaking through their selfish nationalism, dropping all mean sense of strangeness and jealousy, and exhibiting a sympathy that shall thrill to amalgamate with everything human, aspiring, and constructive in that wonderful Eastern world. (Fenollosa, "Fusion" 116)

The idea is to lose a little of our Westernness as we gain some Easternness: to radically redefine our collective cultural self and become more global. This is a proposition with which Fenollosa was quite comfortable, and which he was quite comfortable articulating, as he himself, for as long as he could remember, was a living, breathing embodiment of this same sort of fusion of nations and cultures.

In Modern Man in Search of a Soul, Carl Jung famously describes how the earliest stage of consciousness of an individual is "anarchic or chaotic" in that it indiscriminately absorbs the precepts of knowing from all factors of environment, and that this stage is the basis upon which the later stages of forming the ego and understanding the gestalt of dualism are constructed (99-102). By tracing the trajectory of Fenollosa's ideas back to their nascent phases, and by paying attention to the importance he himself drew to his Hispanic roots, we can begin to see how he transposed the early lessons of his Hispanic life upon his later opinions on cross-cultural exchange. His desire to find a source of ethical sublimity in the dialogue between Eastern and Western languages was fashioned after his childhood experience in a bilingual family. His willingness to leave his home and immigrate to a foreign country drew inspiration from his own father's experience; both men learned the language, accepted the religion, and endeared themselves to the high society of their adoptive countries through service in the arts. To a large extent, Fenollosa's culturally progressive program was a cognitive self-projection, an abstract justification of his hybrid subjectivity. The points have been hard to connect because of the vast contextual differences between Hispanic America and East Asia, but the spirit is the same and, in short, the ethical underpinnings of his views on global culture arose from his Hispanic beginnings.



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