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Footnotes and Feelings

15 Jun

I agree with George that we should avoid falsely “domesticating” The Tale of Genji to make it seem more of a piece with our world than it really is. To my mind, Tyler’s edition already goes some way toward preventing this by having such an unmistakable footnote voice. There’s something benignly two-faced about playing both translator and editor, serving his text and his readers by turns, like a hired guide who helps his clients haggle in a strange market but informs them that they will still be charged exorbitantly. We are not receiving the same goods from Genji that a local to Genji time-space would. The bottom of nearly every page reminds us that we are still tourists, however enlightened and earnest our travels.

An odd little footnote on page eight remained with me for the duration of the first few chapters. A female emissary from the Emperor has gone to persuade Genji’s grandmother to send the little boy to the imperial court, and the grandmother weeps from the compounded grief and shame of her daughter’s premature death, her unkempt yard, and her wretchedly long life. The messenger says,

“The Dame of Staff told His Majesty how desperately sorry for you she felt after her visit here, and how heartbroken she was… and even I, who pretend to no delicacy of feeling, understand what she meant all too well.”

The footnote for the phrase ending in “delicacy of feeling” reads: “A conventionally modest statement. Myobu ranks too low to claim finer feelings as a matter of course.” By verbal convention, then, the higher one’s rank, the more emotionally talented (or at least emotionally capacious) one is. This first struck me because it seems so unlike the conventions and clichés of modern American culture, where our own banalities associate power with heartlessness and a clean whittling away of burdensome feelings. Of course, placing two clichés side by side is only mildly interesting, since both are but faint cartoons of the real world, but I am curious to discover whether the novel’s characters (and author) seem to believe and/or act according to this correlation between station and emotion. Do the more powerful characters have, on average, finer feelings than the less powerful?

The Emperor at the start of the novel seems to bear this out, flirting with political chaos for the sake of his lowly favorite, Genji’s mother. Of course, this is not the “finest” emotion as far as suitability goes, but it is certainly the most lavish. The mother of the Heir Apparent, the Kokiden Consort, seems to be the second most powerful character thus far, and has a matching wealth of feelings – mostly anger and anxiety – to spend. Genji, being unranked but as full of desires and emotions as anyone, is an exception, but then so are most aspects of his life and character.

The assumed correlation between real power and emotional wealth is not just a strange convention of medieval Japanese fiction. In The Portrait of a Lady Isabel Archer believes that her sudden large inheritance and leap in social status will afford her, above all, a broader and more profound array of “feelings” than she could have enjoyed as a middle-class American. Closer to our novel’s world, Genji continually reminds us of the example of the Chinese Emperor Xuanzong, who suffered political upheaval and civil war because of his limitless, ruinous love. I’ll be keeping tabs on this throughout the summer.

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