the floating bridge of dreams (genji, part ii)

tale of genjiThe Tale of Genji is a massive work, one that could easily overwhelm a reader.  It is over 1,000 pages long.  It takes place a thousand years ago in a very foreign place and time.  Heian Japan is not the Japan we usually think of.  There are no samurai, no geisha, no tea ceremonies.  (Sakura, however, are eternal.)  Just holding it in your hand is daunting; it is a massive brick of a book, even in paperback.  Yet, despite its heft and its strangeness it is a surprisingly easy book to commit to.   This why I say the book reminds me of Montaillou, another challenging work that proved unexpectedly easy to lose myself in.   Because Genji was written by a woman who spent her entire life in the Imperial court for other women who spent their entire lives in the Imperial court, there is no sense of removal from the story.  You feel immersed in the world, a part of it, less a reader than a participant.   You come to know and like the characters, some more than others,  much as in life.  (Believe  me, after a thousand pages, these people are definitely part of your life.)

Over 400 people are individually identifiable in the book; dozens of these are primary characters who appear throughout the course of events.  Many of them are born, grow up, and die within the pages.  It is a tribute to Murasaki’s skill that each of these is a unique, recognizable individual.  This is especially true when you consider that in her society it was extremely inappropriate to refer to anyone by their name; in the original version of the novel none of the characters has a name.  All are referred to by descriptors (the lady of the evening faces, for example), titles (the Minister of the Right, the Emperor, etc), by an honorific (His Majesty), or by particular poetic allusions in the book that refer to or represent that person (Ukifune, for example, means “boat upon the waters”; her name comes from a poem).  Even Genji’s “name” refers to the fact that his father made him a commoner; Genji is word describing this social status.  By convention, English translators use these “names” in order to keep the characters easily identifiable to the reader, since there are several Emperors, Ministers, etc.  Apparently, however, Murasaki had no problem keeping them all straight, since in the entire book there are only a few places where identities or time lines are confused and her clarity has made it possible for scholars and translators to tell all these people apart.

What is it like to read this book?   First off, I’ll be honest.  There are some things about Genji that are fairly offensive to a modern reader.  Most of these center around the habit many of the male characters have of simply forcing themselves on women who resist their romantic advances.    Even the Shining Prince is not opposed to take by force a woman who does not willingly submit to his considerable charms.  He actually kidnaps Murasaki when she is ten years old, although he does not touch  her until she is old enough to marry.   Culturally speaking, of course, this was far more acceptable then than it is now but even Murasaki (the author) occasionally rebukes her male characters for particularly bad behavior, especially toward a virtuous woman.  What is somewhat harder to take is the occasional encouragement (and sometimes the assistance) that other women offer to men when one of their number refuses someone they consider to be a “good catch”.  There are several occasions in the book in which ladies in waiting, nurses, sisters, and friends essentially serve as accomplices to rape.   To be fair, particularly to Genji, most of the men love the women they sleep with (willingly or not) and do right by them, in the sense that they either formally marry them or recognize them publicly as part of their household.   Genji has several of his women come to live with him in his Rokujo house, each with her own wing and garden, and visits them each in turn.   At least one of the men in the book who behaves badly has the decency to literally die of shame afterward.  There is next to no “love ’em and leave ’em” among the characters;  nearly everyone Genji is intimate with in the book remains with him for the rest of her life, even servants although these women do not figure prominently in the story.  Children of these unions are also cared for as family members; many of these children themselves grow up to have prominent places in society, the Akashi Empress being the most obvious example.  That said, rape is rape no matter how well the women are treated afterward  and there are some uncomfortable moments in the book.  (About the only thing a woman could do to absolutely prevent a man from forcing himself on her was to become a nun; apparently the spiritual repercussions for violating a nun were so great that it would be out of the question. )

Another thing that might disconcert modern readers is the approval, or least the acceptance of, suicide.  Well, not exactly suicide.  Only one character in the book actively attempts to take her own life but there are several women and one man who basically will themselves to die.   Genji’s own mother, the Emperor’s most beloved consort, basically sickens and dies out of shame at her favored treatment (the Emperor treats her far better than his own very highly ranked wife).  Kashiwagi  has an affair and a child with the wife of a man who is both his best friend and his mentor and feels so horrible afterward that he simple no longer wants to live and he stops eating and dies.   Kaoru’s great love Oigimi dies similarly; not believing she is of enough importance to accept the attentions of such a well-born suitor she starves herself to death in an agony of shame and indecision.   It is very strongly suggested that Genji himself dies from grief following his beloved Murasaki’s death.   Although Murasaki clearly depicts these as tragedies she also goes to great pains to note that these people remain physically beautiful throughout their often very long illnesses.    Women in particular manage to keep their hair beautiful and lustrous as they waste away to nothing and Kashiwagi stays handsome throughout his ordeal.   Although it is difficult to fault Murasaki for failing to challenge her culture, her depiction of these deaths as romantic and somehow correct under the circumstances suggests tacit approval of them.

The novel is also somewhat classist in that it deals entirely with the rarified social strata in and about the royal court but this is probably unavoidable.  It is unlikely that Murasaki would have had any great knowledge of  the peasant class, or indeed of any rank much below her own.  Her society was quite insular and it would have been unusual for anyone highly placed enough to live at court to have any dealings at all with farmers or tradespeople.   Exile outside of the city limits, particularly to the provinces, was considered not only the kiss of social death but as actually physically dangerous and likely to be fatal.  Any visits to the countryside were accomplished with large protective retinues and accompanied by breathless speculation about the various rough-hewn sorts of people lurking about in the woods.   This isn’t without reason; outside of Heian-kyo the countryside very rapidly became wild and somewhat dangerous.  However, enough characters remark on the association between physical beauty, cultural refinement, and circumstances of birth to make it apparent that being born in the provinces was a nearly insurmountable handicap.   There are several beautiful and accomplished young ladies forced to basically live in the wilderness who are redeemed (and brought back to the city) when it is discovered that they actually have an acceptable lineage.   The implication is that their noble parentage provides them with beauty and grace no matter how untutored they are and  no daughter of peasants could ever attain anything approaching these on her own merits.

Clearly Genji’s world is very different from ours and in some not very appealing ways.  Yet there is much in the novel to love, to savor, and to marvel at.

[To be continued…]

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~ by gun street girl on April 21, 2010.

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