William T. Vollmann's Kissing the Mask: Beauty, Understatement, and Femininity in Japanese Noh Theater (2010) has the subtitle with thoughts on Muses, Transgender Women, Kabuki Goddesses, Porn Queens, Poets, Housewives, Makeup Artists, Geishas, Valkyries and Venus Figurines ! This is a pretty clear warning that the book is likely to wander. Vollmann himself calls it "this string-ball of idle thoughts". It is first and foremost an introduction to the world of Noh theater by an amateur enthusiast, as well as that enthusiast's declaration of love for Noh. To tell you the truth, Noh would have been one of the last things I would have thought could appeal to Vollmann, but then I have only read his Whores For Gloria . What a whiplashing contrast there is between his early Whores For Gloria and this book, between dismal depths of human degradation (*) and the calm but intense artistic purity of Noh theater!
Vollmann apologizes at length and often for being an "ape in a cage", for not having the background and knowledge to fully appreciate this subtle art form. But he nonetheless obtained generous access to some of the most important people in Noh, as well as detailed advice from some serious experts, and an extensive bibliography and endnotes make it clear that he did his research (no one familiar with Vollmann's work ethic could be surprised). Vollmann did not embarrass himself in that regard.
Though, of course, Noh grew out of earlier forms of theater and performance, including Shinto dances and chants, it attained its unique and traditional form in the fourteenth century due largely to the efforts of a father and son team, Kiyotsugu Kwanami (or Kanami) (1333-1384) and Motokiyo Zeami (or Seami or Kanze) (1363-1443/4). Zeami became the theorist of Noh, writing essays about its aesthetics, and composed many of the plays which became the models for later authors. He also wrote very concrete and practical advice for Noh actors. Some of these essays are assiduously kept secret by the oldest troupes, which are associated with families - either you are born into the family or adopted into it if you want to be a Noh actor. Of the five main schools/families of Noh in our age, Vollmann spent most of his time with members of the dominant Kanze school, which has direct family ties to Zeami. Though the occasional woman was a Noh actor in the far past, all roles have been performed by men for a very long time, with few exceptions (women do study with one of Vollmann's main contacts; these women had to learn how to play the women "with a man's strength"). And this is one of the aspects of Noh which occupy Vollmann the most.
Indeed, this aspect of Noh led Vollmann to reflect on the nature of femininity; why is it an often elderly man can convincingly evoke a beautiful young woman with an exquisite mask, a gorgeous kimono and a few restrained gestures? This question then led Vollmann to look into the corresponding arts of transvestites.(**)
And so the reader is led far afield from the detailed descriptions of the experience of Noh theater, from the summaries of Noh plays, from the lengthy examination of types, appearances, and roles of the multitude of masks employed in Noh(***), from the excerpts of interviews in which Vollmann is trying hard to get actors and mask carvers, who do not express themselves in words (or at least not their own), to help him, a man of words, to see inside their experience, to finally arrive at the question of what is the feminine?
Vollmann flatly states "for me, the representation of femininity is the profoundest art," and he proceeds to rake Zeami's writings on the aesthetics of Noh over his own coals, seeking to detect/project Zeami's agreement. He drops that for a while and contemplates Zeami's admonition that balance must always be maintained, runs that through his experience with photography, recalls Celine, Rachmaninoff and Gauguin and constates that balance is not a prerequisite for beauty, then returns to Noh where
the lovely woman approaches, sliding silently across the stage, the ancient mask of her face shining warmly like ivory. She is not a woman - not only because she is a man but also because she is inhuman: perfect grace and womanhood itself. Slowly, slowly she inclines her head, and her face alters expression an infinity of times, each expression feminine, tranquilly lovely, and alien to the faces of any of the living women I have ever known.
Vollmann has not offered us a treatise on Noh, nor even on femininity. Though there is much information about Noh in this book, and much sharing of how Vollmann views femininity, the style of this book is more of an extended essay, or an obscenely bloated version of what the Japanese call a zuihitsu , where the author is to follow his brush, his thoughts, in whatever associative, deductive, inductive manner presents itself to his mind at the given moment. Clearly, Vollmann had to give some thought to the loose organization of such a lengthy book, but it consists of ruminative exploration, occasionally punctuated with disclaimers like "Set this aside for a moment, or for the rest of your life. I am not sure whether I believe it myself." And then on to the next rumination.
Vollmann's exegesis of feminine beauty in the pre-modern Japanese context convincingly drew my attention to a crucial point I did not previously appreciate. Feminine beauty was not to be seen , only, at most, glimpsed . The stunning kimonos, obis, etc. and the black sheen of the long hair studded with costly hairpins and combs drew the attention away from the body and the face. As Lady Murasaki wrote, "The moon was so bright that I was embarrassed to be seen and knew not where to hide."
But the reader must be prepared to find very little resolved in these lengthy meditations; the detailed, side-by-side comparison of two female beauties - the Noh mask with the face of a Japanese porn queen - peters out into inconclusiveness; the following interview with the Noh mask maker constates the obvious - the mask is not lifelike - but when asked, in this case why is it beautiful, the response is "That's what I'm always wondering, actually." And so it goes in Vollmann's search for the nature of feminine beauty. From contemporary beauty ads to Chretien de Troyes to Norse sagas; from the Manyoshu to the Renaissance poet Giovanni Giovano Pontano and then Yeats.
It doesn't much matter what I think of this book, but, in case someone may be curious, I found it engaging and generally interesting. There are few non-specialist books on Noh in English, and Vollmann's fascination with it is contagious. But, on occasion, it seemed to me that he was proceeding like the laziest kind of reporter, going to the street and interviewing the first person/woman/transvestite willing to talk to him. And I found some of his paeans to womanhood to have crossed the line into forced literary artifice, which I found doesn't suit him. But perhaps that's just me. Read it yourself; you certainly won't find another book like it!
(*) When I wrote in my review of Whores
"the most desperate, diseased, sliding-along-the-filthy-bottom-of-the-barrel prostitutes in San Francisco's Tenderloin district," I was understating the case; a few of the scenes in that book had me ready to bolt from the room.
(**) Vollmann is nonjudgmental, but it appears to me that he hasn't much experience with transvestites, for his reported interaction with them was very limited and was not particularly empathetic; it seemed he was examining the curious fauna instead of feeling his way into their lives as he usually does. In any case, he brought very little away from these interactions for the book.
(***) Vollmann's fascination with the masks definitely exceeded mine, but then he had these beautiful objects before his eyes, while the reader has only the photos Vollmann made for the book. Although I have the first edition hardback, the reproduction of the photos is truly execrable. Ecco should be ashamed.