From Renditions No. 5 Autumn (1975)|
The Explorer Who Never Left Home
By Jonathan Spence
ARTHUR WALEY selected the jewels of Chinese and Japanese literature and pinned them quietly to his chest. No one has ever done anything like it before, and no one will ever do so again.
There are now many Westerners whose knowledge of Chinese or Japanese is greater than his, and there are perhaps a few who can handle both languages as well. But they are not poets, and those who are better poets than Waley do not know Chinese or Japanese. Also the shock will never be repeated, for most of the works that Waley chose to translate were largely unknown in the West, and their impact was thus all the more extraordinary.
WALEY SAT on a quiet edge of "Bloomsbury." Because he lived to a fine age—from 1889 to 1966 ק have always associated him in some corner of my mind with E. M. Forster and Leonard Woolf, for they were all educated in the same special area of pre-World War I Cambridge, and all lived well into the 1960's, shrewd observers of a cataclysmically changing scene. All three were very talented, and none of them was gregarious. They might meet occasionally for tea at Lytton Strachey's house Ham Spray, or run into each other in Gordon Square, but they all defended their right to run their own lives. And all three, rather oddly one might have thought, had an interest in Asia. For Forster there was India; for Woolf, Ceylon; and for Waley, China and Japan. But though Forster worked in India, and Woolf worked in Ceylon, Waley never even visited either of the two countries that gave him such extraordinary inspiration.
One can make all kinds of guesses concerning Waley's reasons for not going to Asia: that he didn't want to confuse the ideal with the real, or that he was interested in the ancient written languages and not the modern spoken ones, or that he simply could not afford the journey. Certainly we are safe in assuming that the trip would have been disconcerting, and it is worth reflecting on why this might have been so.