Wednesday, August 22, 2007

EDW: Lafcadio Hearn

I am not certain what aspect of this summer is more distressing. The rain, the heavy skies, the dullness of these dog days; the fact that the brief outbreaks of sunshine prompts an outbreak of pale, wobbly skin, shorts and singlets on people who should not be wearing them, men wearing sandals; or the fact that so many people dress in this distressing, unpleasant travesty of summer wear no matter what the conditions.

It prompts memories of the times and places when people would not allow hot, humid weather to stop them from dressing elegantly but, rather, adapted stylishly to their conditions. One thinks of places such as New Orleans in its heyday as a city of dandies and duellers. Or of places such as old Japan: the kimono is a fine way of combing grace with ease of wear.

Which brings me to Lafcadio Hearn, the Greek-born, Anglo-Irish chronicler of both those places (pictured here with wife). As a young man he moved to the US and finally made his way down to the mouth of the Mississippi. For many years his sketches of the city provided a vivid portrait of all aspects of the place. These are collected in the book Inventing New Orleans, a revealing title in itself, given his influence in creating our shared mental image of the city.

In the course of collecting his unparalled vingettes, Hearn haunted the high places and low life alike. His writings evoke, variously, its high society; the gilded elegance and ante-bellum decay of a place that had made its money on the back of slavery; the bordellos and gamblers; the disease and decay of its swamplands and the mystery and strangeness of voodoo (an example of which may be found here.)

Hearn later moved to Japan, where writings such as Glimpses of Unfamiliar Japan did much to introduce many Westerners to the country's culture and, in some cases, reintroduced the Japanese themselves to many aspects of the more arcane aspects of their own heritage.

It was in Japan that he found his true metier and his aesthetic ideal:

I believe that their art is as far in advance of our art as old Greek art was superior to that of the earliest European art-groupings. We are barbarians! I do not merely think these things: I am as sure of them as of death. I only wish I could be reincarnated in some little Japanese baby, so that I could see and feel the world as beautifully as a Japanese brain does.

Leaving aside the slightly wistful Orientalism of his views, its easy to see why his popularity endures in Japan. A further point, however. To see the world so beautifully requires a proper elegance of dress, even in the most humid of climates.



Blogger Glamourpuss said...

Oooh, he looks fun. Lovely choice. Worthy of further investigation - thank you.


12:37 pm  

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