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On Poetry in the Genji

25 Jul

(Forgive any cross-textual confusion, but all quotes in this post come from the Arthur Waley translation.  I’ve found myself switching back and forth between translations, and currently I am wedged in the Waley.)

There comes a moment in the Asagao chapter that illuminates some of the more subtle aspects of poetry and poetics in the Genji.  Surprisingly, little attention has been paid to the poetry found in the text, so Sam’s previous post in regards to the role of poetry as a “universal language” of “cultural references” was very much welcomed (even while I would at the same time resist any notion of a “universal language.”  “Local,” “provisional,” certainly, but never universal as the rest of this post will also suggest).  Here is the moment I wish to draw attention to, a moment which finds Genji once again at his writing tablet and attempting to communicate a certain sense of feeling, this time to Princess Asagao, someone Genji has been attempting to court for some time with little degree of success (I welcome any other readings that may change with the differences in the translations we are dealing with here):

After his return from this unsuccessful expedition, Genji felt in no mood for sleep, and soon he jumped up and threw open his casement.  The morning mist lay thick over the garden of flowers, which, at this season’s close, looked very battered and wan.  Among them, its blossoms shimmering vaguely, was here and there a Morning Glory, growing mixed in among the other flowers.  Choosing one that was even more wilted and autumnal than the rest, he sent it to the Momozono Palace, with the note: ‘The poor reception which you gave me last night has left a most humiliating and painful impression upon me.  Indeed, I can only imagine it was with feelings of relief that you so soon saw my back turned upon your house, though I am loath to think that things can even now have come to such a pass: “Can it be that the Morning Glory, once seen by me and ever since remembered in its beauty, is now a dry and withered flower?”  Does it count with you for nothing that I have admired you unrequited, year in year out, for so great a stretch of time?  That at least might be put to my credit . . .’  She could not leave so mannerly an appeal quite unheeded, and when her people pressed round her with ink-stone and brush, she yielded to their persuasion so far as to write the poem: ‘Autumn is over, and now with ghostly flower the Morning Glory withers on the mist-bound hedge.’  ‘Your comparison,’ she added, ‘is so just that the arrival of your note has brought fresh dewdrops to the petals of the flower to whom this reminder was addressed.’   That was all, and it was in truth not very interesting or ingenious.  But for some reason he read the poem many times over, and during the course of the day found himself continually looking at it.  Perhaps what fascinated him was the effect of her faint, sinuous ink-strokes on the blue-grey writing-paper which her mourning dictated.  For it often happens that a letter, its value enhanced to us either by the quality of the writer or by the beauty of the penmanship, appears at the time to be faultless.  But when it is copied out and put into a book something seems to have gone wrong . . . Efforts are made to improve the sense or style, and in the end the original effect is altogether lost.

First and foremost, and perhaps most obviously, poetry, and letter writing in general, acts as a substitute, a synecdoche, for the absent writer.  This passage wonderfully suggests the haunted nature of poetry and letter writing through the image of the wilted and autumnal Morning Glory that Genji decides to pick.  The writer here exists in the place of the letter, the flower a further representation of such an absence.  In a society with strict rules in regards to direct contact, such communication, of course, takes on a particular level of importance; it is even essential, especially in light of the fact that any real notion of “privacy” as we would have it today did not exist in Genji’s world.  Poetry, therefore, does not simply suggest aesthetic and cultural competency, but actual tangibility: there is a physicality, a bodily reality, that we can not even begin to imagine (hence the “accoutrements” to the writing process that make it what it is: the scents, the pressed flowers, the handwriting.)  Characters in the Genji often exist for one another simply as textual beings, and nothing more.  (Oddly enough, this brings to mind Frank O’Hara’s “Personism” manifesto, where O’Hara argues that there is little use in writing a poem to address a loved one when you can simply pick up the phone and tell that person how you feel.  Poetry, therefore, is a language that is meant to communicate directly with the other, and to wonderfully fail at such a practice.  As Wordsworth said: the poet is a man speaking to men).

But what do we make of the constant absence that such poems almost always, regardless of their “thematic” content, fall back to?  All poems in the Genji, by their very nature, point to an overwhelming absence, even while they struggle to suggest a certain presence.  Such poetry, in other words, rather than bridging an impossible distance actually suggests the exact opposite: that the notion of a textual presence is, depressingly enough, impossible, hence the very existence of such writings.  (To paraphrase Derek Walcott from Omeros: all the libraries and books in the world do not smell as good as the lover’s body.)

As such, the idea of a universal poetic language falters.  A universal language suggests a language that needs no interpretation, for it is beyond interpretation. It simply is.  And it is always there.  A universal language would not be called a language, since language exists solely in and through the failure of language; the same can be said of poetry.  Genji’s reading (and re-reading) of Asagao’s response is suggestive of such.  What makes this moment even more poignant is that the response is, at first, deemed to be rather pedestrian, non-poetic: “That was all, and it was in truth not very interesting or ingenious.  But for some reason he read the poem many times over, and during the course of the day found himself continually looking at it.”  Genji’s mind falters against the apparent crudeness of the response; but it is a letter that continually sends Genji back for me, an attempt, as always, to get closer to the absent body that the letter stands in place of.  The Genji suggests, therefore, that poetry may be an impossible language, or, at the very least, the reality of language in all its faulty glory.

Some Thoughts on Genre and The Tale of Genji

15 Jun

In her magisterial exegesis The Splendor of Longing in the Tale of Genji, Norma Field describes her study as a “record” of her attempts to become a “’scholar’ about the Tale of Genji,” and of the need to situate, or “triangulate”—a term she borrows from novelist John Gardner—oneself as a reader in relation to a text that comes to us with an insurmountable amount of historical and cultural distances.  The distances between ourselves and the Genji are vast, and many of them are, in fact, rather insurmountable—as they would be with any other text, albeit it in different ways; and before many of us begin reading the Genji—or begin re-reading it—I would simply like to raise some questions in regards to genre and translation, and suggest that rather than working against such fissures in our own provincial knowledges, we should let such distances provide a certain degree of obfuscating clarity to allow the text to retain some its alterity (even though this is perhaps only an ideal approach.  I fear that most translations may make the possibility of such an alterity impossible).  The question of genre, I would like to argue, is a place from which we can begin to question our reading practices for such a text.

I would like to suggest that a certain “ethics of reading” can only arise through the constant awareness of a critical distance between ourselves and any text.  This is why I always hesitate to use the term “novel” to describe the Genji.  I feel we do the text a great disservice by describing it as the “world’s first novel” or when we use any term that may domesticate or efface the very differences that make, for me at least, the Genji such a compelling read (while also being fully aware that we should be careful not to fall into a crass exotification of the text either; after all, reading is never an innocent practice).  In terms of genres familiar to most contemporary Western readers, the Tale of Genji is perhaps closest to a romance or an epic; but a novel it’s not (and perhaps we should simply use the transliterated Japanese term, monogatari).  To call the Genji a novel is an anarchonism of the most problematic kind, and one that seeks to further domesticate and homogenize the differences that make the text as powerful as it is.  It also fails to convey the historical and social dynamics—the rise of a literate, European middle class, for example— that gave rise to the novel.

Simply consider the Proustian analogy that many others have drawn (a rather Borgesian reading by which the later text—the À la recherche du temps perdu—becomes the touchstone for the earlier) in an attempt to relate to the text.  Harold Bloom in his Genius, to give but one example, writes of how Murasaki Shikibu “conducts an almost Proustian search for lost time.”  Rarely, or never, have I read a critic refer to Proust as being a disciple of Murasaki Shikibu’s, but we are meant to understand and read the Genji as a text that is in some oblique way “Proustian,” whatever that means.  Such an approach, while perhaps a necessary means by which Western readers can triangulate themselves in relation to the Genji, needs to be considered and critiqued.  Such readerly positions need to be complicated and problematized, especially since we should be more than ever conscious and sensitive to how the West has come to represent and speak of the East.  I simply ask that before we sit down to read the Genji we consider our positions as readers in relation to a text that we may have little or no tenable means—other than “translation,” of course— through which to relate to.

-George Fragopoulos

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