Michael Amundson, a history professor at Northern Arizona University at Flagstaff, has a quirky hobby: he collects recordings from the turn of the 20th century that rode a brief, kitschy “Western” fad. Any temptation to classify this music as a prelude to the Country and Western music that would serve as one element in the rhythm and blues genre in the 1940s—which itself was a foundation of what became rock and roll—should be resisted, and Amundson makes no such attempt. Rather, this vogue was largely over before World War I. Amundson is dealing in serious arcana here.
Interest in their lack of sentimentality is not necessarily full-throated endorsement. In the chapters on Sontag and Didion, Nelson sharply brings forward the limits of a self-consciously unsentimental pose, which can devolve into smugness or self-satisfaction. Still, she insists, what links the six women discussed in the book is not simply their toughness but a need for reality, a move toward the painful. If there’s not a sisterhood, there is at least a school of unsentimentality here. In their attitudes toward their subjects, they sought to comprehend, to rebuke, to pay attention, but not to justify or to comfort. One could characterize them as seeking, in every instance, to be deliberately uneasy.
Illuminating Women, with its surprising take on tired medieval stereotypes, might . . . be called a curatorial equivalent to Gal Gadot’s fresh and successful 2017 performance as Diana, Queen of the Amazons, this same summer. But the analogies stop there. For whereas in Wonder Woman, Hippolyta had to beg the male Zeus to grant her the right for her daughter Diana to be born, medieval women . . . knew the reverse to be true: God had asked Mary for the right to be born of her. Indeed, unlike a film about an imagined single goddess, the women who commissioned and sometimes created these manuscripts were real, and there were lots of them.
Empson’s academic career in England was over, at least for the time being, and the best job he could find . . . was a teaching position in the booming city of Tokyo. And it was while teaching there, in 1932, that he visited the old city of Nara, where, as Rupert Arrowsmith says in his introduction to The Face of the Buddha, “the beauty of a particular set of Buddhist sculptures struck Empson with a revelatory force.” And thus began a curious detour in his career, a project that occupied him off and on for more than a decade before it eventuated in a book whose manuscript was promptly lost, by a drunkenly careless friend, and only recovered twenty years after Empson’s death.