What a country of verdure and shade is Japan; what an unlooked-for Eden!
This month in the French reading group our selection is Pierre Loti’s novel, Madame Chrysantheme, relating the experiences of a western naval officer living in 19th century Japan. Madame Chrysantheme is considered a precursor to the story that became the famous opera, Madama Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini (Italian libretto by Luigi Illica and Giuseppe Giacosa). But more importantly, it represents a western view of the Japanese people and culture which was unfortunately instrumental in developing the western attitude towards what Loti at one time calls the “ugly, mean and grotesque” Japanese.
As I started reading Madame Chrysantheme I immediately became hostile toward the text. Of course, I suspect I was looking forward to the tragedy of Cio-Cio San and not being totally fair to Loti’s text, but consider these descriptions:
- … little men and little women …
- … small yellow men, stark naked, with long hair piled up in womanlike fashion on their heads.
- … each seller squatting monkey-like …
- … some affected cat’s-eyed little woman ….
- … it is a hundred to one that she has no thoughts whatever. And even if she had, what do I care?
We are told at the beginning that the naval officer intends to temporarily marry a pleasant Japanese girl to care for him and presumably see to his carnal pleasures while he’s stationed in Nagasaki. Could Loti’s writing demean and objectify the Japanese people any more? I have always wondered why Madama Butterfly is so popular when is clearly exposes the selfishness and lack of respect the west showed towards the east.
But I am reminded of my own Rule #8 which contends that it is unfair and probably invalid to judge a classic work by the social and literary guidelines prevalent today (at least in the western world). Back in the 19th century, colonialism was the way-of-the-world (at least the western world) and people were honestly excited by taking advantage of foreign markets, destroying aborigine culture and peoples, and basically demonstrating how much more important and superior the western man was to the native populations of Japan or Africa or India. We’re still contending with the destructiveness of colonialism so it is difficult to just pass off because of a silly rule some pompous westerner wrote down years ago.