Pondering Genji as the clouds fly by

Lake Superior Spring Sky by Ellen Schneider

Earlier this month I finished reading book four of the Tale of Genji, entitled “Blue Trousers,” in the Arthur Waley edition and began reading book five, “The Lady of the Boat.” I’m on page 869 or so with only 266 pages left to go. I never thought I’d say that almost 300 pages, almost a half inch thick of pages, would seem like a short read. Over the course of these many pages I have followed Genji’s life since he was a mere twinkle in his father’s eye to his final days as an older man with over a dozen grandchildren. It is truly remarkable, this literary achievement that is the Tale of Genji. Such scope, such vision in storytelling, to follow one person’s entire tale with all its turns of fortune. This might seem odd to say but I can’t help but be reminded of scientists who do life history research on species for decades–following generations of individual animals to trace whole lineages. It is a courageous undertaking to pledge a career to studying just one system. Brave as Lady Murasaki Shikibu was, to imagine this tale and write it down using the then newfangled kana system of characters, I call her brilliant too. Even after hundreds of pages chronicling 40+ years of an individual’s life I still can’t figure out exactly how she meant people to read Genji’s nature. Was her persistent praise of him meant in earnest? Was Genji really the absolute best at everything he tried (music, painting, calligraphy, love-making, dancing, singing, politicking, poetry etc.) or did she mean every fulsome compliment as a satirical barb at his expense? If there were satirical barbs, was she aiming them at Genji the man? Or men in general? Or the Imperial Court of Heian era Japan? I sincerely think that a legitimate case could be made in favor of any of these arguments using support from the text. Therefore, the answer is probably somewhere in the middle like a Venn diagram encompassing a little bit of everything. I have no doubt that in the last 1000 years there have been tens of thousands of pages written in many languages dissecting this book with more critical acumen than I can offer here.

For my part, I find it a point of interest that the talent brought up most from Genji’s stock of gifts is the steadfastness of his affection. No matter how many women he loves, no matter how many years elapse from encounter to encounter, Genji continues to love every woman as if it was the first day he fell for her. Genji is the most loyal fickle jerk in existence. This paradoxical behavior even nets him more women as the years go by and his reputation becomes more established. Talk about a successful mating strategy. Perhaps like love and rain in the desert this trait is praised because it is so rare and so desired by the women of Heian-era Japan–perhaps especially Lady Murasaki Shikibu and her court friends who lived such stressful cloistered lives.

Ford lake bed flotsam by Ellen Schneider

Like Arthur from T.H. White’s The Once and Future King Genji is doomed never to have a child with the woman he loves most in the world, his concubine/unofficial wife Murasaki (yes, the author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, took her nom de plume from this female protagonist who is the epitome of all female virtues–ponder that one for a while then take an aspirin) who remains childless herself. Though, like the perfect woman she is, she agrees to raise Genji’s illegitimate children. This lack of children is a tragic circumstance for them both in their world but at the same time it almost makes Genji and Murasaki’s love seem more private, sacred, and ideal. When they are together they never have to divide their love from each other. To paraphrase Genji, their hope as a couple is to share the same dew from the same lotus flower in paradise. This way they are burdened by no cloying affection for their children; paradise might indeed be in their reach.

As an anime fan I find myself seeing parallels between Genji’s story and certain elements of anime. Specifically I find myself wondering if conventions like peeping on girls, incestuous romances, and winter-spring relationships began or were influenced at all by The Tale of Genji. I don’t know if there’s any production company in Japan who is capable of trying this but I think it would be awesome if somebody undertook to adapt the Tale of Genji as an animated musical harem comedy. I swear, every other paragraph it seems like somebody is breaking into song or dance or song and dance or poetry and song. No matter where they are or what they are doing the characters always seem able to summon expensive musical instruments for spontaneous musical concerts–and if Genji is there it is bound to be the best concert that anyone has ever heard anywhere in the history of humanity. This calls for a musical, Japan! Something like the old MGM musicals here in America but with Heian era costumes and classical poetry. The characters already do wacky hijinks of sneaking into places, getting ridiculously jealous and emo about everything, and there is even a cat! After all, every harem comedy has to have a cute animal and/or animal toy that everybody goes “Awwww!” about. And this book has not one but multiple gorgeous cats, albeit later in the book, but that’s a minor edit. Genji: the musical harem comedy with a cute cat. Think about it, Japan. Just think about it.

Among other things, this endeavor has certainly been an education in how much I don’t know about Buddhism. I never knew how many erroneous preconceptions I had about this ancient religion until I read this book and felt my jaw drop with every fresh revelation. According to Waley’s footnotes, the author, Lady Murasaki Shikibu, was a strict Buddhist and she used her tale to proselytize her readers to the sect of Buddhism favored by the Fujiwara clan, of which she was a member. She does it subtly. Lady Murasaki Shikibu works it into character dialogue and reflection—it all serves a narrative function, which is brilliant, but this evangelism is undeniably there. As I said, I don’t pretend to understand. I don’t. I just know now that certain of my unconscious assumptions are busted. For instance, I don’t know why I thought this, but I was under the impression that Buddhism was pretty woman friendly as major religions went. Maybe contemporary Buddhism is, I don’t know, but apparently at least Heian-era Buddhism was not very woman friendly. For instance:

“But what was the good of trying to please women? If they were not fundamentally evil, they would not have been born as women at all,” The Tale of Genji, “Blue Trousers,” by Murasaki Shikibu.

According to the footnote, that sentence is only stating a doctrine of Buddhism rather than Genji just continuing to be a whiner. A further footnote later on in “The Lady of the Boat,” tells us that the five drawbacks to being a woman specify that in a future incarnation she cannot be born a Brahma, Indra, Yama, a Wheel-turning monarch, or a Buddha. Uhhhh…yeah that kinda bites.  Why bother shaving your head and living as a righteous nun if you’re doomed from day one? Just punch jerk men in the face when they put the moves on you and party hearty! Yes, I’m being flippant. I don’t really mean it. I just found it rather soul-crushing as a reader to read about these doctrines. For all these hundreds of pages I found it comforting to think that all the female characters who suffered so cruelly at the hands of men and circumstance had found not only an honorable escape in  religion  but also the hope of a better life after passing the veil of this one. To me this was a common note between East and West in the year 1000, that women could escape secular life with honor by finding new life in religion. Undoubtedly there’s more to it than I realize and the women these characters were based upon did find some meaning in the life of a nun. At least that’s my hope.

Apparently, I also had no clue as to the way karma actually works. Here in the west we attach the term karma to the “golden rule,” what goes around comes around–bad actions will come back to haunt you in this life so you had better tread lightly on your neighbors. In Buddhism, according to this novel, karma states that the actions of a past life cause you misfortune in the current one. As Genji interprets it, karma is to blame for every single misfortune he has and his current behavior is in no way to blame for the sorrows of his life. Whenever Genji questions whether his behavior is creating certain negative consequences he basically says to himself, “Naaaaa! That can’t be it–it was all that last incarnation’s fault!” and he learns nothing. That’s a big difference from Western preconception. Reading Genji’s life story I found myself really hating the way Genji uses the precept of karma–the way he has no self knowledge or ability to learn from his own behavior. Even worse, he quotes karma a lot, but he doesn’t stop to reflect that his hurtful choices might be dooming his soul’s subsequent incarnation to even more misfortune.  Genji just is not a very thoughtful individual in all the ways that matter most: religion and love.

I don’t want you to think that I’m just hating on Buddhism, dear readers. I’m really not. I would not presume to judge an ancient and vibrant religion based upon one fictional novel from a 1000 years ago. I would not want anyone to do something like that about Christianity and I do try to follow the 12th commandment, “Love others as you would have them love you.” Religions grow and change just as populations of people–that is their great and beautiful power.  Christianity has certainly mellowed out in the last 2000 years, Buddhism probably has too. Like a cut gemstone I think every religion has different facets and you can’t make a judgement on its beauty if you only look at one. I just think it’s worth noting the number of assumptions we make about things we know nothing about without even realizing it. I had no idea. Assumptions are dangerous. Part of the point of reading in general and reading things from other cultures specifically  is to confront the unknown with an open heart and vanquish ignorance. Having  read most of the Tale of Genji, I now know how much more I don’t  know about something precious to millions of people and I’m glad of it. Certainly not this summer, maybe not even this year, but someday in the years to come I’ll learn more about Buddhism for its own sake.

Where rock meets water by Ellen Schneider

The women of the Tale of Genji are just as frustrating to me as Genji’s behavior. They all spend an inordinate amount of time regretting, pining, being jealous, sobbing into their sleeves, and generally making themselves miserable because Genji is such a fickle jerk. What boggles my mind is how they seem to think that eventually Genji will change or leave them alone. I just want to jump into the book and scream at them because it’s obvious that Genji is never going to change so why be miserable about it? Just sit back and enjoy the party or go join a nunnery. Unfortunately they had no other real options. One of the recurring motifs of the book is the fact that hate and jealousy can destroy others, literally,  so one must strive to control ones emotions. Jealousy has in fact killed three women, possibly four, by this point in the book via possession which causes the body to fail. None of this is considered to be Genji’s fault of course for being a philandering insensitive person, but rather it is laid at the door of the women who feel jealous. Again, I’m not letting Genji off the hook, but I can’t help but shake my head at these women who can’t seem to accept that Genji, despite his gorgeous looks and innumerable talents, is a jerk who will never be more or less than a jerk.  Suffice to say that I will be glad to be done with this book and its maddening characters. Lady Murasaki Shikibu knew human nature well. I don’t disagree that humans are illogical and emotional and sense has little to do with dissipating jealous feelings–all that is true. I just get weary reading about it.

One final point I find highly amusing is the fact that even 1000 years ago, at the dawn of the prose novel, the morality of novels was up for debate. Chapter VII of “A Wreath of Cloud,” even contains a discussion between Genji and Yugao’s child

Maple leaf in front of willow bark by Ellen Schneider

about novelists and storytellers and how the novel came into existence which is both fascinating and funny. To me the cherry on top of this discussion was the following monologue which I must share:

”  ‘But the purpose of these holy writings [he is referencing a Buddhist scripture], namely the compassing of our Salvation, remains always the same. So too, I think, may it be said that the art of fiction must not lose our allegiance because, in the pursuit of the main purpose to which I have alluded above, it sets virtue by the side of vice, or mingles wisdom with folly. Viewed in this light the novel is seen to be not, as is usually supposed, a mixture of useful truth with idle invention, but something which at every stage and in every part has a definite and serious purpose.’

‘Thus did [Genji] vindicate the storyteller’s profession as an art of real importance.’ “

That’s right folks! We can all finally relax. Genji himself, the shining one, has vindicated novels and fiction so it’s okay to read them now! Pheeew! I don’t know about you but I was rather anxious about the point–especially since it took 500 pages to clear that up.

It also gets pretty meta when on the previous page Genji discusses how novels tell us more about the everyday details of the past than any history book can contain. Yeah, I was laughing about that. The author couldn’t possibly know the role her book would play in the future but I find it incredibly awesome that Lady Murasaki’s characters were aware of the significance of fiction in understanding the past.

I will close this post with Genji’s personal theory as to how the art of fiction arose. One cannot help but suppose that Lady Murasaki Shikibu is speaking through her protagonist. Her theory is certainly food for thought and criticism since she seems to be saying how her tale came to be as much as any other piece of fiction and that it is certainly more than mere invention.

“But I have a theory of my own about what this art of the novel is, and how it came into being. To begin with, it does not simply consist in the author’s telling a story  about the adventures of some other person. On the contrary, it happens because the storyteller’s own experience of men and things, whether for good or ill– not only what he has passed through himself, but even events which he has only witnessed or been told of– has moved him to an emotion so passionate that he can no longer keep it shut up in his heart. Again and again something in his own life or in that around him will seem to the writer so important that he cannot bear to let it pass into oblivion. There must never come a time, he feels, when men do not know about it. That is my view of how this art arose.” –Genji, pg 501, The Tale of Genji, by Lady Murasaki Shikibu as translated by Arthur Waley.

Bird tracks on the beach by Ellen Schneider


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