This past weekend I made progress on my group reading list as well as my personal list for summer reading. Below I start with pondering Heian-era Japan gender dynamics, I continue by writing about Darwin’s journey inspiring my own, and I close with some thoughts about Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery which I finished. You can see how I break things up with my photos. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything with the following ramblings but if you’re skittish, just scroll through and enjoy my awesome photography and come back when you’ve read the books yourself.
In The Tale of Genji by Lady Murasaki I finished reading Book 1 and am a couple chapters into Book 2. I am reading the Arthur Waley translation. I must admit that I’m grateful he used nicknames, it does make the text easier to understand even if it is unfaithful to Heian-era custom. According to my calculations I am just shy of one quarter of the way through this epic book. I marvel at the talent of Lady Murasaki. She reminds me of Jane Austen (though Murasaki predates Ms. Austen by hundreds of years I read Austen first) with her ability to describe quotidian details of court life and the mental growth of not only the protagonist, Prince Genji, but also the people orbiting his star. She was a genius. As annoying and strange as I find elements of Prince Genji’s character to be I am in awe of her skills in fleshing out his character and making the world he inhabits feel real and present.
The world of Heian-era Kyoto is an alien one to me. For all its similarity to Regency era England in terms of how women are treated there are many differences. Of late I’ve spent a lot of time googling for info on this time period just so I can keep up. Although the text follows the adventures of Prince Genji and his male friends they spend all their time consumed with women. How women lived back then is important to understanding the misadventures of the men in their pursuit. Heian-era women had to live secluded lives. They lived behind multiple screens of honor and a platoon of female servants. Conversations could not be conducted face to face generally. Rank, which was determined by the status of their father, was of paramount importance. They never left home on trips and if they had to venture in the streets they rode in a screened litter so that no one would see them. The only men they were to see, ideally, were their fathers and their husbands. If a woman had the comparative freedom afforded by being a lady-in-waiting at the Imperial Court it too came with certain costs and intrigues. A gently bred woman could not have an opinion about sexual matters but if she was a lady-in-waiting she was tacitly expected (it would seem) to carry on any number of affairs with courtiers. A woman was judged on her manners, her hair which must be long and thick, her ability to combine colors, her ability to compose poetry on the spot with layers of meaning, her musical talents, and according to the “Rainy Night Discussion Scene” her ability to be intelligent without seeming intelligent should the situation arise for her to lie. It would seem some things never change. Hair and clothes matter today as much as they did then. Men 1000+ years ago didn’t like it if a woman made them feel dumb any more than they appreciate it today. With the stress of court life I would be doomed if a time-traveling alien dumped me in 1000 AD Japan. Reading this tale, which I find difficult to put down, I find myself feeling intensely grateful to have been born a woman in the 1980s in the United States of America. For as hard as a woman’s life can be (as any human’s life can be) I find myself counting my blessings that I am me in today’s times. I am highly educated. I can pursue more education if I should wish. I married by choice for love which I found for myself. I can work and contribute to the support of my family. Even more than all this, I can have my own opinions. You might ask yourself, aw c’mon, anybody can have an opinion, how is that special? It is special though. Reading this book I found myself struggling with the fact that Genji, the noble hero who’s fatal flaw is his enduring fickleness, spends the first book having affairs with women. In itself, that doesn’t bug me. What bugged me, and is apparently a source of contemporary criticism and debate, is the fact that it would seem Genji rapes a lot of women in these affairs. That’s kind of a sticking point with me. I can’t sympathize with a hero, however much he is praised by the narrator of his story, who is a serial rapist. I can admire prose, technique, dialogue, and structure but not a protagonist like that. In my quest to understand Genji’s actions I found this article by Royall Taylor on the subject of Gender Relations in Genji which I found fascinating: http://intersections.anu.edu.au/issue7/tyler.html I recommend that anyone interested in this text read his article but to sum it up: Genji was a man of his time. Genji couldn’t be considered as raping these women because women of Heian-era Japan were conditioned to be incapable of having an opinion about sex. If rape is defined as saying “no,” then rape cannot have occurred if a woman cannot say “yes” or “no.” That’s Taylor’s perspective as far as I can tell. I don’t say I agree. In fact I think in today’s times it is a 10-ton pile of hot horse pucky. But I am capable of stretching my sensibilities to concede that Heian-era Japan had its own way of doing things and that Genji could have been the ideal man of his time obeying its social mores. I can read and appreciate and learn from that world without in any way wishing my world held those social mores.
As a student of animal behavior I find myself thinking of parallels in the animal kingdom to the behaviors demonstrated in Genji. The women especially remind me of lionesses with their curious blend of ferocity and vulnerability as they navigate the world of men and sorrow they inhabit. I find the men remind me of certain species of birds whose “studly males” attempt to maintain multiple nests of eggs under the beaks of cuckolded males, sneaking food to the females they seduced the way Genji financially supports multiple women he sports with for the remainder of their lives. The narrator is not insensible to Genji’s faults. At times she seems to tease and mock his decisions, keenly aware of his psychology and how he is driven to do the foolish things he does. Yet it is a narrator who loves her creation. Much of the text is devoted to Genji’s incredible beauty of both body and spirit. The narrator never fails to leave the impression that flawed as Genji is it is better to have been ill-used by such as he than to be well-treated by a lesser mortal. Take this as you will. It is a truth of fiction that troubled characters who do idiot things are certainly more interesting to read about than those who walk the straight and narrow. Like other epic narratives the Tale of Genji is fascinating reading as the hero stumbles along his path. As I continue reading I will post more thoughts on the book which has a lot more layers to it than gender dynamics which I will discuss in future blog posts.
In Voyage of the Beagle I am up to Chapter V. Darwin is trekking through South America on foot while the Beagle surveys the coast. This might seem like an obvious statement from a biologist but I find Darwin inspiring. Shocker, right? The strange thing is though that I’m not inspired by his genius in Voyage of the Beagle, so far I’m inspired by his goofy geekitude. Most of my life to date has been spent feeling very goofy and geeky and awkward. I play it off well enough I suppose. I am a bit of a ham (shocker, right?) and where I have conviction I do find confidence but really the inner-monologue of my life is marked with lots of self-doubt. The nice thing to me about reading of Darwin’s adventures is how he seems to do dumb sorts of things and spends a lot of time being puzzled and not catching what he wants to catch and positing all sorts of things which today we know to be untrue. He gets ridiculously excited about tiny little details like fungus and how a bug flips about. In short he is a geek. A human geek who does silly things and asks all sorts of random questions. The genius of modern biology, of modern science, falls off horses, gets faint and icky in a desert, falls in muck, can’t catch a treefrog, is not always a crack shot, his samples die aboard ship, and he gets squirted in the face by angry cuttlefish he can’t catch. It’s awesome! A colleague once told me “We are all cooking with water,” but sometimes that is really hard to remember. It’s nice to know that Darwin didn’t start out being “DARWIN: founder of modern science,” but was a geek with lots of native curiosity, a sense of wonder, and the courage to keep on exploring. He was a dang fine writer too. His descriptions of the landscape are vivid without being flowery. I can picture the salt flats and the rock formations and the dark mud through which he journeys. I will never be a DARWIN or a Darwin and I don’t wish that; I just want to keep on exploring the world of biology. It is immensely comforting though to find that not only was Darwin not always DARWIN but that he was a geek too. It helps me feel brave.
I finished reading Emily of New Moon by L.M. Montgomery. As I read I kept thinking of the phrase, “Where have you been all my life?” In Emily Byrd Starr I have found another friend for life, a kindred spirit, another sister of the soul comprised of words on a page. I don’t know why I haven’t read it ere long. There was a reason of some import, something to do with sadness, but I don’t remember now. Sometimes it is just as well I think that the human mind is prone to forgetfulness. I think I know already how the story shall be sad and how it might be happy. I see Emily’s life wavering before my mental vision as Emily sees fairy paper in the air. There are too many beaux in Emily’s life and she has so much talent and passion. She will break hearts and her own will break in the breaking of theirs. Her talent will never amount to all she thinks it will because it cannot possibly, the way words on paper cannot possibly be as clear and beautiful as they seem to be in one’s head. I hope I’m wrong but I don’t think I am. We shall see soon enough, I will blog about the sequels as I read them. In any event I’m glad I forgot every foolish reason why I wasn’t going to read this series. It has done my spirit good to make these new friends and live in that purple tinted world of dreams and fancies for a little while. It is a world worth visiting and her story, however it turns out, will be worth reading because Emily is a well-drawn character. Her world, like any well-drawn world, seems familiar to me somehow. Aunt Elizabeth and Aunt Nancy remind me very much of my late Aunt Donna; so many sharp edges concealing a loving spirit and goodness. Many of Emily’s exploits and faults reminds me of me when I was young, especially the impertinence. It is an uncomfortable enough sort of feeling but not unfriendly–she is a true friend of real substance even if she is fictional. Before I die I want to visit Prince Edward Island. I know, I know, it cannot be in reality as it is in the pages of L.M. Montgomery’s stories. That is okay. I don’t expect it to be. I just want to see the dunes one day before I meet my final reward in the beyond. I know something of dunes, being a child of the Great Lakes, and they have a certain timelessness even if they are surrounded by RVs, corn dog stands, and trafficked by people in flip flops. To read a bit of one of Montgomery’s stories on a PEI dune overlooking the sea would be a special sort of balm to the spirit. Of course, reading an L.M. Montgomery book for the first time in a long while like this reawakens my desire to read all of her work. When I read her stories I feel not only like I have been transported to the world she creates but that I’ve also been transported in time to my girlhood of pigtails and grass stains with names for every tree and rock. Montgomery’s books contrive to be the best time machine/anti-aging philtre ever invented. Luckily I have 15 volumes yet to explore which I shall list as a sort of encouragement to myself. I won’t get through them all this summer, nor do I intend to try, but I will read them all in due time.
- Emily Climbs
- Emily’s Quest
- Chronicles of Avonlea
- Further Chronicles of Avonlea
- The Story Girl
- The Golden Road
- The Blue Castle
- Magic for Marigold
- Jane of Lantern Hill
- Pat of Silver Bush
- Mistress Pat
- A Tangled Web
- After Many Days
- Akin to Anne
- Along the Shore