Can we have a moratorium, please, on "defining feminine beauty?" No? Okay, then! Here's a 500 page book on it! Available for Kindle!
William Vollmann is a well-known novelist. And, as those of you who've read his Imperial or other fiction know, a good one. He's also, other times, a questing journalist and his latest book is not a novel. Here's the title: Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater, with Some Thoughts on Muses (Especially Helga Testorf), Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Hou.
And in case that didn't clear things up, here's the PW description:
The performance of female characters by male Noh actors sparks a deeply researched, lovingly detailed, and obsessive discourse on the nature of feminine beauty by award-winning novelist and essayist Vollmann (Imperium). The book charts an increasingly peripatetic path through the meticulous yet ineffable art of Noh drama from the perspective of an enthusiast, all the while groping toward some definition of beauty and the feminine. But the feminine, and even the label female, is something widely claimed, and so the search takes him from a Tokyo transvestite bar to the feet of a master Noh actor-Umewaka Rokuro, scion of an ancient acting family-to the lips of the uncanny masks themselves, the kimonos of Kabuki geishas, and well beyond, traipsing far and wide across India, Babylon, the American fashion magazine industry, old Norse literature, the paintings of Andrew Wyeth, Yukio Mishima's Noh heroine Komachi, and a transgender community in Los Angeles, among other stops.
Ian Buruma, in the New York Review of Books, terms it, "A romantic quest for the secret of female grace, feminine beauty, the source of man's dreams of erotic fulfillment." Emphasis, as Lola would say, on the latter.
If you come to this book for Vollmann's prose - and I imagine most readers will - there's hardly any point in being irritated by the fact that it's a poetical, personal rambling rather than a more comprehensive social history; Vollmann never makes any claims to universality, and random discovery is kind of his whole thing. In a sense, you can't even get that annoyed by passages like "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." Anyone reading this will have tacitly agreed to go on a personal voyage. So: fair enough. But what is problematic, and what can't be viewed in a vacuum, is this persistent trope of the male gaze defining feminine "grace" and "desirability." And no amount of well-intentioned, self-knowing context can banish that stark fact.
The lens of Noh is an especially telling one. Noh is an ancient art form in which male actors, dressed as women, perform traditional dramas of love and death. Says Buruma,
Some believe, in defense of the great art of men playing women in Noh...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.
The Noh passages are interesting, yes - but for me, at least, it was hard to separate the facts of its beauty and history from the author's overarching "mission." A white man defining female beauty through an Asian prism is nothing new (see: Memoirs of a Geisha - or, for that matter, last year's The Asian Mystique) But because it's one man - a man we know is a good person! And loves women! And is into different cultures! - doesn't mean at the end of the day it's not falling into this trap and that it's this that makes such an unwieldy work in some way approachable to a Western reader. It seems like, in searching for "some definition of beauty and the feminine," the author has, ironically and maybe unwittingly, hit the nail on the head: it's defined by Western men and its exact "definition" - and its relationship with actual women - is incidental. The title, however, most certainly is not.