Welcome to the Lowell Page



This web edition plans to provide a series of essays or reports concerning Percival LOWELL who was a cosmos philosopher as well as a fine writer and photographer, and above all a distinguished Mars observer (when the planet surface was not just dusty but looked more intellectual). This is also a readers column and any contribution is cordially welcomed.




by William SHEEHAN


A hundred twenty years ago, Japan was still little known in the West. It was an exotic location for American travelers in particular -- note the fanfare associated with President U. S. Grant's pioneering visit there in 1876. The idea of spending time there was, if a somewhat eccentric, certainly an original idea, worthy of someone of the independence of means and of mind of an unconventional Boston brahimin like Percival LOWELL.


LOWELL had disliked travel as a youngster, perhaps because it had been imposed on him before he was ready for it; but his taste for globe-trotting bloomed fully by the time he graduated from Harvard (the year of Grant's visit to Japan). With a cousin, Harcourt Amory, he made the Grand Tour of Europe as far as Syria. After founding his fortune as an investment-banker and being engaged to marry a Boston socialite, he suddenly veered off in a different direction -- resigning from his position, breaking off his engagement, and setting off for the Far East (as later, seized by a fascination with Mars, he would set off for the Far Out). He proceeded, for a decade, to record in vivid and romantic prose and skillful photographs the landscapes, people, and customs of Korea and Japan.


He analyzed the "Soul of the Far East" in a book which is perceptive and witty -- for instance, from his perspective, the Japanese people stand calmly on their heads as seen from America on the other side of the globe; one can well understand his Topsy-Turvydom, which echoes the comments of the Portuguese Jesuit Luis FROIS Claudel, who had had the same experience three centuries before LOWELL did, and noted that the Japanese book begins from the page that European books end. LOWELL was writing from the perspective of a strongly individualistic Westerner -- there is little doubt that his sympathies lie more with the West, in contrast with those of Lafcadio HEARN whose interest in Japanese culture was largely inspired by LOWELL's writings and who moved to Japan and lived there the rest of his life. Having said that, his writings may strike modern American scholars as more chauvinistic than they do many Japanese. LOWELL grasped at least to some extent the genius of the Japanese personality. Our dear colleague Masatsugu MINAMI commented: "As to the impersonality [LOWELL discussed as the basis of the Japanese character], I think LOWELL is still right to some extent. We sometimes feel more comfortable when we, if we are 'water,' are the sea itself than when we should be rain drops."


It may be worth recounting the words Vincent Van GOGH wrote to Theo in 1888, the year that LOWELL's "Soul of the Far East" appeared. "If one studies Japanese art, one finds indisputably a wise man as well as a philosopher or intellectual in it. How does he spend his time? Does he study the distance from the Moon to the Earth? No. Does he study the politics of Bismarck? No. The man just studies a single blade of grass. The grass leaf however will then turn to the botany of all kinds and then to the seasons and then to the fields and mountains, and finally to ourselves. We want to spend as such our life, but alas, our time is too short to depict everything." It is obvious from this, as MINAMI points out, that LOWELL would have been more interested in the distances of the astronomical bodies than in the grass stalks.


Perhaps LOWELL's most charming book is "Noto," which begins charmingly: "The fancy took me to go to Noto." LOWELL saw in Noto the chance to experience an older, thoroughly Medieval and unchanged Japan. The peninsula was reached via Yokohama, the port by means of which French, American, and Mexican parties had landed to observe the transit of Venus in 1874, and from which Isabella BIRD, who traveled the world despite ill-health, had arrived in 1878. Though the book is written not without the condescension of LOWELL's upper-class personality -- it includes constant references to the inefficiencies of his porters and other toadies -- it is charmingly descriptive of a perhaps now vanished but distinctive and beautiful part of the world. Not an attempt to analyze the Japanese personality, like "The Soul of the Far East," or to subject to the skepticism of science the Shinto trances of Ontak, like "Occult Japan," LOWELL records his vivid encounters with landscapes and people recollected in the tranquility of his still-lovely prose, of which I give only a sample here, the concluding paragraph in which he describes his attempt to cross Harinoki Toge, a high pass in the Japanese Northern Alps:


"We now began to enter the snow in good earnest, incipient glacier snow, treacherously honeycombed. It made, however, more agreeable walking than the boulders. The path had again become precipitous, and kept on mounting, till of a sudden it landed us upon an amphitheatral arena, dominated by high, jagged peaks. One unbroken stretch of snow covered the plateau, and at the centre of the wintry winding-sheet a cluster of weather beaten huts appealed pitiably to the eye. They were the buildings of the Riuzanjita hot-springs; in summer a sort of secular monastery for pilgrims to the Dragon peak. They were tenanted now, we had been told, by a couple of watchmen. We struck out with freer strides, while the moon, which had by this time risen high enough to overtop the wall of peaks, watched us with an ashen face, as in single file we moved across the waste of level white."


This Web Site is devoted to those who, like ourselves, share LOWELL's interest in both Japan and Mars. In the study of the Red Planet, Japanese and Americans have long since become the closest of colleagues and allies, as witnessed by the research into the Martian flares which was inspired mainly by Japanese observations. The fact that our two countries lie on opposite sides of the globe from one another has become an advantage, since it means that from Japan and the United States, Mars can get away with nothing without our becoming aware of it -- it is under constant surveillance of our telescopes, and with internet, we can communicate our results instantaneously to those for whom the planet is still hidden beneath the horizon of the Earth. We are hoping to collect reminiscences of LOWELL's encounter, especially with Noto, and foster this as a special project for amateur students of Mars on both sides of the Pacific.


(28 July 2002)



Back to the Lowell Page Home

Back to the CMO Faade

Back to the CMO Home Page