Crying as Geese Cry

23 Aug

The room was furnished very simply indeed, and it felt sadly quiet and empty.

If the experience of reading The Tale of Genji has shown anything it is that a great work of literature does not end with an epoch or at the terminus of an empire. We have throughout been trying to balance our understanding of these characters as entirely relatable people and as people defined by the customs of their time. But in the chapters The Law and The Seer, custom, propriety, and decorum are scaled back to the barest minimum; the vast networks of characters and their complex interplay are brushed away like cobwebs; the stylistic virtuosity–the cunning parallelism, the perfectly modulated irony, the humor slyly leavening the sadnesses–is ratcheted down. Almost nothing remains except the job of watching Murasaki and Genji die.

Murasaki Shikibu renders these chapters with a painful plainness, sparsity, and candor. Murasaki dies as she lived, quietly and gracefully: “That summer she felt increasingly faint in no more than the usual heat. She did not suffer in any particular way; she simply went on growing weaker and weaker.” It would actually be an almost ideal way to die, except that she is too aware of what will happen to Genji when she goes. So even their happy moments are almost unbearable. She is otherwise a little bit evanescent in her sublime acceptance of what is coming; we are likely to relate to Genji, who has never been much of a Buddhist, and can’t rid himself of the same wish, that she simply didn’t have to die.

Her death scene illuminates the contrast behind her acquiescent nature and Genji’s worldliness, but it is also simpler and more expansive than that; it shows a woman succumbing to death while the man who loves her tries anything he can to keep her alive:

“What is the matter?” Her Majesty took [Murasaki’s] hand and watched her, weeping. She really did look like a dewdrop that would vanish soon. Countless messengers clattered off to order more scripture readings. She had been like this before and still revived, and Genji, who suspected the spirit, spent the night ordering every measure against it, but in vain. She died with the coming of the day.

The pomp and circumstance surrounding her funeral is as anticlimactic as the rest of Genji’s life, and its all shown with heartbreaking frankness. The smoke from her cremation is a meager wisp; the great figures in the funeral march totter and lean in ignoble poses. Genji becomes increasingly confused and listless; he stares off into space, consumed in “vacant dreaming”; he becomes too distracted to carry out his resolutions to comport himself properly. Murasaki Shikibu grants him one last night of lovemaking with Chujo, but mostly he is only amused by his grandson. The chapter becomes so stripped down that it begins to actually count the months and days as they pass.

But eventually the nearness of death gives Genji a little courage as well, and he finds his integrity in the end by doing what he did with such consummate beauty and perfection in life: observing forms. “He decreed that everything on the first day of the year should be done exceptionally well. They say that he prepared superb gifts for the Princes and Ministers and equally generous rewards, according to rank, for those below them.” And with those preparations made, Genji dies.

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