Edwardian and Georgian Canadian Poets



Selected Essays and Reviews

by Bliss Carman

Edited by Terry Whalen


An Interpretation of the Orient*


Mr.Lafcadio Hearn writes so much on Japanese subjects that criticism of his books becomes almost perfunctory. Last year he added Exotics and Retrospectives to the lengthening list of his works, and now he has laden us with yet another gift, In Ghostly Japan. Mr. Hearn (one still calls him Mr. Hearn, though his long sojourn in the Far East and his thorough adoption into the Japanese nation make it seem as if he should have some title more appropriate than any Saxon Mr.) Mr. Hearn is fortunate among writers. He has a subject peculiarly fitted to his genius; this enables him to multiply his literary productions almost unlimitedly, so elastic and spontaneous is the artistic spirit under favourable conditions.

But perhaps one ought not to say that Mr. Hearn is fortunate. For genius is apt to be imperious in these matters, and to seek its own field inevitably. And we may nearly always be sure that the circumstances which seem so fortunate are of its own strenuous making. Genius is not fortuitous nor haphazard; it takes nothing for granted. It feels toward its own best surroundings and conditions and picks out the habitat best suited to its peculiar life. True, it will find sustenance almost anywhere, even on the most unpromising ground. The very barrenest spots of existence are forced at times to furnish it nutriment for the creation of beauty. By a magic alchemy all its own, it can transmute the harsh earth, the starved crust of the universe, into flowery forms and colors. Yet all the while with that restless, persistent energy which is its mark, it will be quietly passing from point to point, from mood to mood, from place to place, from subject to subject, searching for its own.

Something of this sort (I think one may say so without fancifulness) happened in the case of Lafcadio Hearn. All his wonderful writings of the gulf coast and the French West Indies, so atmospheric, so vivid and brilliant and subtle and warm, was leading him really toward the further Indies all the time. His studies of the tropical, semi-occidental life of Martinique, was only preparatory to his migration beyond the limits of Western civilization altogether. The day he sailed for the east he was lost to us. That must have been inevitable from the first; so that when we read of his formal naturalization in Japan it only means that genius has overstepped the bounds of the customary and come to its own.

Here is our first interpreter of the Orient, the man of American breeding who has opened aside for us the door of eastern thought. It is one more word of Whitman's "Passage to India" coming true. Whitman saw the inevitable push of western peoples toward the setting sun; saw our material, rough, thoughtless, forceful civilization brought into contact with the ancient wisdom and divine torpidity of the east. Now already you have the American nation with a foothold on the farther shore of the Pacific, and already on the citizens renouncing his citizenship to become a subject of the Emperor of Japan. Then, consider, too, the immense work Mr. Kipling has done for us on English speech, in making the mind and mood of the Orient more familiar to our alien appreciation. He and Lafcadio Hearn have brought the Far East home to us, opened up the treasure houses of Oriental thought for our mental traffic, as none has ever done before. It is the beginning, hardly more than the index, of what the next century may expect. With the increase of travel, the added facilities of communication, the shortening of distances and the abbreviation of time, which follow the efforts of western invention, must come acquaintance with our foreign fellow-mortals, and understanding of destinies not our own. The white man's burden is not merely the vicarious assumption of the troubles of alien tribes; it the responsibility of his own development as well. The spread of a race is not a question of political policy, it is an affair of cosmic moment, not to be controlled by the prudence of the minority. Whether we like it or not, sooner or later, it seems, we shall be brought into close contact with the children of Sun-rise, and measure ourselves against standards of an outland race. It is the power of growth that has made the dominant surprises of the world, one after one, while your concentrated, home-keeping, unexpansive folk have shrivelled and perished.

Welcome, then, to every word that gives us the least help in understanding the character of our new neighbours! Be sure, we shall never perfect our own civilization in solitude. The law of life stands otherwise. By intercourse, by understanding, by interdependence, by effort, alone we grow. We are not to fear in the least the inroad of alien thought and unaccustomed ideals; we are to give them place and test them for our own needs, assimilating what our instinct bids us.

In manners, customs, religion, feeling, thought, dress, we are as far from the Japanese as one people can be from another. Perhaps we shall never come to understand them rightly. It may be a long time before we even give up sending them missionaries. And yet they are only another tribe of mortals like ourselves, to be befriended, rivalled, comprehended and loved.

The first of our lessons from the east is doubtless in the field of psychology and theology. With these ancient friends of the occult we may learn things hidden from the gross vision of the west. Tales of the impossible and supernatural; legends of the powers of the air; lore of the ancient world passing belief; a whole body of spiritual tradition and a method of thought new to us, are to be acquired and pondered. If our own faith is shaken by our own progress in science, possibly here may be an older and wiser people who can fortify our conviction in matters of the spirit. Let us learn of them. Let us at least see whether they may not have something to teach us. The light, receptive, curious mind of the Greeks should be ours, so that we may be always ready to assimilate whatever is good, no matter how strange-if by any chance we may achieve perfection.

"An Interpretation of the Orient," Commercial Advertiser, Dec. 16, 1899 [back]