Ryan Johnson. Transnationalism and Translation in Modern Chinese, English, French and Japanese Literatures. New York: Anthem Press, 2021. 216 pp.
Review by Olga V. Solovieva
9 June 2021
World literature, translation, East-West comparison––these three challenging and much-debated problems of comparative literature today are approached and reconceptualized in this book from the point of view of the creative process not only of artistic production but also of reception. Building upon the observation that each work of literature is always already a world in itself––having absorbed, like a sponge, myriads of cultures, real and imaginary, which consciously and unconsciously went into its creation––Ryan Johnson understands world literature here not as a market-driven flattening out of cultural specificity for the sake of accessibility but as a literature of the worlds of individual creations, each one furrowed, burrowed, cross-reflecting, multidimensional, never completely accessible, and above all thriving on what Johnson calls vagueness, the hollowing out of strong cultural identities and all preconceptions implicit in them.
Johnson’s book undertakes a challenge of transforming the mostly sociological and quantitative concept of world literature into poetics, literary theory, and the methodology of reading by a surprising move: turning the concept’s very limitations, its vagueness and weakness, into an actual philosophical basis of aesthetic and epistemological inquiry. His major question—how elements of different epistemologies, ontologies, and aesthetic traditions cohere within individual works—is addressed through an intriguing array of examples showcasing experiments in transnational poetics: a collaboration between the poet Ted Hughes and the composer Chou Wen-chung on an oratorio based on the Tibetan Book of the Dead; Paul Claudel’s and Mishima Yukio’s adaptations of Noh in their own works; Claudel’s and Kuki Shūzō’s encounter in spiritual poetry; and again the fluctuating poetic identities of Hughes and Bei Dao, balancing in the liminal zone between East and West. The four case studies abound in historical, biographical, and aesthetic nuance and are thus valuable in themselves as contributions to a better understanding of the respective artists’ work, but they are also gracefully interconnected so as to open onto a larger theoretical inquiry into the notion of world literature not as a given to be found or defined but as a complex aesthetic construct that in each instance has to be reconfigured anew. Johnson’s reliance on the idea of “ontological vagueness” as the dimension of literary interaction allows him to hollow out a theoretical space for new readings in transnational poetics, which are more delicate, circumspect, and nuanced precisely because they are aware of the uncertainties of the spectrum where cultural epistemologies are not absolute but historically, relationally, and biographically contingent.
The major insight of the book in regard to East-West comparison, toward which the book works its way with remarkable consistency, is articulated only in the fifth chapter when Johnson writes that:
A world philosophical system, in the sense of a single unified world, would require the melting away of the oppositional terms East and West. . . . Throughout this book, we have been tracking the difficulties and potentialities of this fusion. Whenever writers attempt to “fuse” East and West, the structure of a literary constellation determines how a literary world coheres, which in turn leads to a unique fusion of ideas and scraps from various texts in a new literary world. [p. 157]
The ontologies of East and West that Johnson tries to preserve throughout the book finally appear as a matter of historical scale and ideological frame of reference and are thus relative rather than absolute. If the frame had been set by the pre-Christian cultures of the Mediterranean or the pagan rites of shamanism, the ontological difference between East and West would have been significantly reduced. Or if Buddhism had been understood through some of its more ascetic forms of spirituality such as Amidism, the difference from Christianity would be no longer a matter of ontological gaps.
Thus, the difference between East and West is acknowledged after all as just one on a shifting spectrum of possibilities, manipulated and adjusted to aesthetic needs and integral to a writer’s creative process. Isn't vagueness, presented as the major theoretical category in this book, more than merely a critical matter of logic, being also a common ontological condition for hybridizing creativity? Cultural essentialism, both foreign and domestic, manifest at times in the works of the authors discussed, is integral to aesthetic purposes of expressivity and differentiation but also figures in the ever-changing self-understanding of each artist’s being in the world. This major insight, articulated in a rather understated fashion, could have been foregrounded more assertively, given the richness of evidence that Johnson brings to this discussion. Undermining the conventional opposition of East and West as impenetrable otherness is after all the overarching goal of the book.
To this end, the book performs what it teaches throughout: Johnson constructs a world of literary criticism on the blueprint of Thomas Pavel’s classic Fictional Worlds (1986) and embroiders this theoretical canvas with threads from the most adventurous discussions of the literary worlds and East-West poetics in the last decade to create his own pattern. Haun Saussy, Eric Hayot, Christopher Bush, Lucas Klein, and Nan Z. Da are intellectual allies but also interlocutors in his enterprise of turning the smooth and flat concept of world literature inside out. Johnson’s readings of theory and literary works alike give us a glimpse into the concept’s hidden potentialities.
With its graceful style and independent argument, the book stands out for the rare quality of its academic writing. Its composition is reminiscent of an ivory ball, where the multiple theoretical levels and case studies, carved from a single piece of philosophical logic, appear so intricately nestled in each other as to be mutually transparent but never completely accessible, like works of art themselves, which are never completely identical with their message. The world of Johnson’s book is circumscribed by the crossing spheres of Hughes’s engagement with China and Claudel’s engagement with Japan, but there are also two Hugheses and two Claudels, whose points of view alternate between global and local, foreign and familiar, and whose relation to Asia depends on a comparative constellation of their poetic and ideological agendas. The transnational aesthetic interconnections demonstrated in this book delight with insightful details and surprising interpretations. Anyone searching for an aesthetic theory and method flexible enough to capture the transforming world in which East and West are interconnected unknowns and yet yield sense will appreciate Johnson’s skill at making them cohere.