Ancestral Recall: The Celtic Revival and Japanese Modernism

By Aoife Assumpta Hart. 2016. London: McGill-Queen’s University Press. 514 pages. ISBN: 978-0-7735-4691-2 (soft cover).

Reviewed by Mathilde Lind, Indiana University

[Review length: 1014 words • Review posted on October 10, 2017]

[Cover ofAncestral Recall: The Celtic Revival and Japanese Modernism]

Ambitious in scope, Ancestral Recall: The Celtic Revival and Japanese Modernism traces cross-cultural connections and influences between the Irish Literary Revival and Japanese modernist authors during the late-nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Aoife Hart shows how the relationships between Irish and Japanese authors of the time are not simply thematic, but are also constituted by interpersonal contacts and by involvement in analogous projects to strengthen their respective cultural identities through folklore. A major theme of this book concerns the influence of transnational literary exchange on their use of supernatural themes and the development of the literary and theatrical concept of twilight in response to the economic and cultural changes of modernity.

Hart examines twilight as a thematic and atmospheric device that enables these authors to explore connections between heroic and historical pasts, landscapes, and contemporary bodily experiences of custom and cultural identity. In both regions, ancestral recall, the “tracing of culture as a felt absence” (22), establishes continuity with the past and connections with the land while rooting identity firmly in the present, situating modern Irish and Japanese identity based on tradition and folklore as a state of haunting rather than an attempt at retrograde movement. According to Hart, the liminal state of twilight, populated by supernatural beings and ancestral presences, including spirits, ghosts, and fairies, forms a discursive space for considering trauma, loss, and cultural dislocation in the transnational context of modernization.

In chapter 1, “The Crossed Roads of Interculturality,” Hart establishes her central assertions, provides context for the Celtic Revival and Japanese responses, and engages with a broad range of relevant theories, including post-colonial theory and folkloristic discussions regarding the use of tradition as a politically expedient resource. Chapter 2, “The Cartography of Dreams or the Landscape of Nation?” covers the Celtic Revival and its importance to the emerging Irish state, focusing on the poetry of William Butler Yeats and the use of folklore in Irish claims of sovereignty. In chapter 3, “The Politics of Telling Twilight,” Hart uses Yeats’s The Speckled Bird and The Celtic Twilight to examine how Celtic revivalists used twilight as a strategy to open alternative spaces for considering past and present conditions in Ireland. She distinguishes The Celtic Twilight from other nationalistic collections of European folklore by noting its polyvocality and local geographic contexts, which Yeats presents through dialogues and social encounters, rather than attempting to standardize the tales into a single voice of national identity.

Chapter 4, “Airurando Bungakukai and the Translation of Fairies,” incorporates Hart’s Japanese research, focusing on the reception of Irish texts in Japan and the activities of the Airurando bungakukai (Irish Literary Studies Society). Her attention to Japanese modernist authors and other key figures in Japan, including Lafcadio Hearn, Doi Bansui, Matsumura Mineko, and Akutagawa Ryūnosuke, contrasts with her treatment of Irish literary revivalists, which focuses on Yeats to the exclusion of deep consideration of other authors.

This leads to perhaps the most illuminating section of the book. In chapter 5, “Accessing Ancestral Houses,” Hart examines several important Japanese modernist works and their relationships to the Celtic Revival, giving ample evidence of influence and interpersonal contacts between the two literary communities. Chapter 6, “The Stagecraft of Twilight,” and chapter 7, “The Cursing of the Bones,” focus on parallels between Izumi Kyōka and W.B. Yeats as innovative playwrights inspired by mugen nō, a phantasmal form of Japanese Noh theatre. While there is plentiful scholarship that characterizes Yeats’s forays into the forms of classical Noh as a sort of Orientalist mimicry, Hart expands the discussion by instead aligning Yeats with modernist Japanese playwrights who were reinventing the genre at the same time as he wrote Noh-inspired plays like At the Hawk’s Well. The dreamlike haunted landscapes of these plays invoke the concept of twilight, bringing together past events and present conditions in specific geographic locations to facilitate consideration of traumatic historical events and loss.

Hart refers to an astonishing number of texts in both English and Japanese, noting that previous work on the connection between Irish and Japanese literature rarely references texts in Japanese. Simply harmonizing so many sources is an achievement, but her handling of secondary sources, particularly those that contradict her, is impressive in its thoroughness and intellectual fairness. This gives readers a broad understanding of the context and debates surrounding various interpretations of an issue, allowing them to follow Hart’s arguments while thoughtfully considering other possibilities. This approach works well given the abundance of information and well-reasoned interpretations that she employs to create a strong case for her conclusions. Her inclusion of ample notes and an expansive bibliography lends additional authority to her work.

While this book should be read by those studying the Celtic Revival or modernist Japanese literature of the supernatural, its size and organizational issues make it somewhat prohibitive for casual readers or for classroom use. At 514 pages, it only contains seven chapters. While the chapters are laid out in a logical manner, content within the chapters can be difficult to follow. Given the number of primary texts and literary figures discussed in each chapter, section breaks and paragraph breaks could be more frequent to better organize content and minimize repetition, making the book more concise, manageable, and logical. Issues with structure clash with the overall sophistication of Hart’s writing and of her treatment of source material. Along with the frequency of textual errors, they indicate that the editing process could have been more vigorous to produce a more comprehensible and enjoyable volume.

For folklorists, Ancestral Recall provides vignettes of resistance to modernity through literary folklore and examples of tradition deployed as a resource in contexts of political and cultural instability. Hart presents portraits of authors who anticipated increasing commodification of heritage in the second half of the twentieth century and who attempted to compose alternative narratives of cultural identity that were resistant to market forces and to museum representation. Her work sheds light on how folkloristics, through approaching expressive culture as local and particular, can draw diverse scholars into transnational conversations and provide resources for addressing common, or even global, concerns.

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© Journal of Folklore Research, 2010. Last revised June 21, 2010.