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


16 Responses to “Some Thoughts on Genre and The Tale of Genji”

  1. Chris Kern June 15, 2010 at 7:25 pm #

    monogatari is a problematic term as well because exactly what the term means is a matter of dispute (earlier “monogatari” were often essentially poetry collections with some brief prose sentences to explain the poems — indeed, it’s fairly probable to me that it was the practice of attaching prose prefaces to poetry that eventually led to the Genji.)

    As for translation, Genji is quite difficult to translate into anything that resembles the original style and language; even modern Japanese translations cannot capture it completely. But I think it’s a testament to the power of the tale that even in a translation it’s still deeply moving.

  2. samsacks9 June 16, 2010 at 1:09 am #

    For my part, I agree about the nomenclature–“world’s first novel” is just a catchphrase, and it’s obviously not what Lady Murasaki was meaning to write, in any modern sense of the term. But I agree with Chris, too! I don’t think we’re so inherently distanced from the novel, any more than we are from Sophocles or Shakespeare (or, hell, Thomas Pynchon–talk about alterity). The feelings encountered even early on strike me as being very relatable.

  3. kubla June 16, 2010 at 6:24 am #

    You might want to take a look at an old essay that David Hays and I published in the old Journal of Social and Biological Structures: Principles and Development of Natural Intelligence (download here): Here’s the abstract:

    The phenomena of natural intelligence can be grouped into five classes, and a specific principle of information processing, implemented in neural tissue, produces each class of phenomena. (1) The modal principle subserves feeling and is implemented in the reticular formation. (2) The diagonalization principle subserves coherence and is the basic principle, implemented in neocortex. (3) Action is subserved by the decision principle, which involves interlinked positive and negative feedback loops, and resides in modally differentiated cortex. (4) The problem of finitization resolves into a figural principle, implemented in secondary cortical areas; figurality resolves the conflict between pro-positional and Gestalt accounts of mental representations. (5) Finally, the phenomena of analysis reflect the action of the indexing principle, which is implemented through the neural mechanisms of language.

    These principles have an intrinsic ordering (as given above) such that implementation of each principle presupposes the prior implementation of its predecessor. This ordering is preserved in phylogeny: (1) mode, vertebrates; (2) diagonalization, reptiles; (3) decision, mammals; (4) figural, primates; (5) indexing. Homo sapiens sapiens. The same ordering appears in human ontogeny and corresponds to Piaget’s stages of intellectual development, and to stages of language acquisition.

    That’ll only give you “five” layers, but then your scheme includes cultural developments. I’ve got an old paper that does some of that in terms of narrative and personality: The Evolution of Narrative and the Self (download here). Abstract:

    Narratives bring a range of disparate behavioral modes before the conscious self. Preliterate narratives consist of a loose string of episodes where each episode, or small group of episodes, displays a single mode. With literacy comes the ability to construct long narratives in which the episodes are tightly structured so as to exhibit a character’s essential nature. Complex strands of episodes are woven together into a single narrative, with flashbacks being common. The emergence of the novel makes it possible to depict personal growth and change. Intimacy, a private sphere of sociality, emerges as both a mode of experience depicted within novels and as a mode in which people read novels. The novelist constructs a narrator to structure experience for reorganization.

  4. kubla June 16, 2010 at 6:25 am #

    Sorry, that previous comment was a mistake.

  5. kubla June 16, 2010 at 6:26 am #

    I agree, it’s not a novel. But then, why would anyone call it one? I realize this is a side issue, but when did scholars start calling any secular long fictional narrative a novel? I don’t believe they were doing it when I was in grad school (in the, gasp! 1970s), though there were, of course, questions about “Just what IS a novel?” But these days there does seem to be a tendency to call everything a novel. Does anyone know when and why that came about?

  6. Chris Kern June 16, 2010 at 8:18 am #

    I’m not sure that scholars have ever called it a novel; the problem with the term is that in popular usage it just means a prose story that’s longer than a short story. So in the normal popular usage of the term, Genji is definitely a novel. It’s hard to call it the “oldest novel”, though, because even in Japanese, there are earlier prose stories like the Tale of the Hollow Tree.

  7. kubla June 16, 2010 at 8:39 am #

    Perhaps not Genji, but I’ve certainly see scholars refer to lots of long prose narratives as novels.

  8. Global Graffiti June 16, 2010 at 7:54 pm #

    Thanks to everyone for the thoughts and comments! Tons to digest here.

    A couple of points:

    Chris: Some scholars have called it a novel. Norma Field, to give but
    one example; and Waley’s translation-which is also my favorite-is
    called a “novel in six parts.” I would also like to suggest that many
    of the Proustian comparisons operate on a variety of levels, but one such
    comparison, if only implied, seems to operate, at least to me, on the level of the genre. I need to go back and read Tyler’s intro and see if he tackles this
    question as well.

    Sam: I do think we are distanced from the Greeks as well, actually, and to think we are not brings with it a variety of other problems (and even from Pynchon in many ways! Pynchon is a great example seeing as how so many of his critics are always eager to point out that his characters are flat or cartoonish. In such criticism I see readers who are all too ready to read such texts in a singular manner and not on its own terms; they are looking for novelistic characters, and Pynchon is not interested in such writing). I guess what I’m also trying to get at is that we should never assume mastery or total understanding over anything, especially a text like the Genji, and that this can be a rather great point to read from (a form of negative capability, perhaps). But I also wish to point out, as both you and Chris have done, that all these questions are very, very complex and nuanced and need to be approached as delicately as possible (I really enjoyed what Chris said about the complex term monogatari).

    And Kubla: Thanks for the essay! Sounds great, can’t wait to take a look.

    One final question! Anyone have the Virginia Woolf review of Waley’s translation? Would love to read her take on it . . . Wonder if she calls it a novel as well . . .


    • lisa peet June 16, 2010 at 9:04 pm #

      Looks like Woolf’s review was in the July 1925 Vogue… the Columbia libraries have pretty extensive microfilm holdings, and if it’s not on campus I can probably get an interlibrary loan. Stay tuned.

    • lisa peet June 17, 2010 at 10:21 am #

      OK, didn’t make it as far as the periodicals room, but I found it in The Essays of Virginia Woolf, Vol. IV. Woolf does refer to it as a novel, but also as “story after story” — like a work of linked shorts — which works better for me, if I get to choose.

      It’s a pretty, lightweight little review. Let me know if you’d like a copy, George (or anyone else).

      • Chris Kern June 17, 2010 at 11:09 am #

        The “linked shorts” idea is especially good for the first set of chapters (at least up to 17, but especially the first 6). There’s good reason to believe that the chapters were not composed in the order they’re now in, and that some of the chapters may have been adapted from pre-existing short stories.

        There’s very little that can be said for certain about this, but I personally find the argument pretty convincing, and it does solve (though not completely) some of the thorny problems of chronology and continuity in the initial chapters.

        (And here I go again…I’m afraid people might get tired of my obsessive comments, but I can’t help it…)

  9. Global Graffiti June 17, 2010 at 1:38 pm #

    Thanks, Lisa, but will make a trek to my local library to get my hands on it. Am looking forward to reading it and seeing what Woolf makes of the Genji.

    Chris: please do keep the comments coming! All for having a constant dialectic going.

  10. Aulic October 7, 2012 at 1:42 pm #

    But it isn’t all that different, mutatis mutandi, from a Byzantine novel, is it. [They weren’t actually called novels either.]

  11. Hester October 28, 2012 at 10:55 am #

    Hey just wanted to give you a quick heads up and let
    you know a few of the pictures aren’t loading correctly. I’m not
    sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different web browsers and both show the same results.


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