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Ernest Fenollosa's essay on "The Chinese Written Character as a Medium for Poetry" imagines, confects, taxonomizes and theorizes a kind of writing that would become one of the most durable obsessions of American modernism--the Chinese ideogram. The term came into being in the mid-nineteenth century to describe a kind of non-Roman script held to maintain a symbolic or pictorial relationship to that which it describes. In the first usage of the word noted by the OED, the Reverend Edward Hincks offers a definition of the term, notable for its mysterious flexibility, as "symbolic characters direct or indirect." Fenollosa's contribution to the field, however, will brook no such ambivalence, as the nature of the Chinese written character is taken to be the absolute determining force of Chinese thinking. The essay imagines nothing less than the total reconstruction of Anglophone poetry on the basis of the power of the ideogram.
Even more strangely, this aim was largely fulfilled. Given Fenollosa's extraordinary influence and popularity with the generation of modernist writers around Ezra Pound, the specific analysis of the ideogram offered in "The Chinese Written Character" is by now so familiar as to seem a blueprint for the American poetics of the last century. The most central arguments--usually dismissed by sinophone linguists, but lionized by Pound and his followers--concern the capacity of the ideogram to collapse time and space and present semiotic matter in a single, sublime image. Fenollosa insists that, just as neither verbs nor nouns are isolated in nature, nor are they separable in the ideogrammatic inscription: "In reading Chinese we do not seem to be juggling mental counters, but to be watching things work out their own fate" (45). Just as empirical observation will not allow us to determine whether an object is or is not, the copula is banished from Fenollosa's Chinese vocabulary. The generalizing of all intransitive verbs into states of being is condemned as a diluting effect of Anglophone pathology, "an ultimate weakness of language" (49). And yet each of these critiques would provide Pound with a principle for a new, renovated poetry in English, stripped of intransitive verbs, irrelevant nouns and bland ontologies. When the first edition of Fenollosa's essay was published in 1918, it bore the subtitle, inserted by its editor Ezra Pound, of "An Ars Poetica."
The problematic question of the essay's proper authorship has been a generally ignored mystery--which is why this new edition, edited by Haun Saussy, Jonathan Stalling and Lucas Klein is of such great value to contemporary scholars of both poetics and Orientalism. Saussy, an influential and polymathic literary scholar whose published work has made critical interventions into the field of comparative East Asian studies, has here made excellent use of Yale's Beinecke archives. This edition feels a lot like a joint Yale production--Stalling and Klein are two of Saussy's former graduate students there.
Towards the end of his indispensable introduction to this new edition, Saussy suggests that Fenollosa was "Nobody's contemporary--least of all his own" (40). The phrase summarizes succinctly the career of a writer …