Symposium in the Palace!

17 Jun

Since we’ve got Chris Kern marvelously adding to the comments fields, and he’s just demurely hinted that he’s one of the foremost experts on the second chapter of Genji in the English-speaking world, it seems worth dwelling on this odd, wonderful, and uncharacteristic section. We have Genji, his flâneur friend and rival To no Chujo (the Secretary Captain), and then two fellows whom I don’t believe we’ll encounter again: the Chief Equerry and the Aide of Ceremonial.

There’s too much going on to summarize, but for much of the time we have the Chief Equerry indulging himself amongst some highborn young lads by telling stories out of school, and probably, we sense, rather romantically exaggerating the stories. (The Aide of Ceremonial tells an absurd tale about a sharp-tongued girl who smells of garlic, and is quickly shouted down.) There’s a wonderful balance in the yarn-spinning of irony (we know the men are showing off, making themselves seem tremendously experienced and world-weary) and earnestness (for Young Turks like Genji and especially To no Chujo, this sort of braggadocio is intoxicating). It’s fascinating to see their distinct reactions–To no Chujo hangs on the stories, and joins in the boasting with a fairly awful tale of his own, about knocking up a sweet, unprepossessing girl, and then neglecting her until she vanishes (he then caddishly suggests she ran off with another man). Genji, on the other hand, reacts wryly and rather disapprovingly to it all (even falling asleep at the more longwinded moments); and we discover that in part that is because his beau ideal is his stepmother.

Those character dynamics add a second layer to what was (possibly?) a traditional parlor-room-equivalent formula of telling romantic and tragic tales about lost love. I don’t think that there’s another scene quite like this in all the rest of the book, but it works very well as a formative experience for impressionable Genji, who will then go on to have his own lovelorn misadventure with Utsusemi.

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6 Responses to “Symposium in the Palace!”

  1. Chris Kern June 17, 2010 at 4:29 pm #

    Well, “expert” may be a bit overstating things, but I did spend a great deal of time with this section.

    What strikes me the most is the Chief Equerry’s first story — I really think that he’s being sincere in what he’s saying. He had this great woman that he lost because he couldn’t deal with a small flaw, and he honestly seems to still regret that.

    One thing that I wondered about is that the Aide of Ceremonial, in the original Japanese, is “Tou Shikibu no Jou”. Murasaki Shikibu’s father was a Fujiwara (which is what the “tou” means), and also had the position of Shikibu no Jou (thus Murasaki’s title). In addition, we know from Murasaki’s diary that she was very good at Chinese, apparently exceeding her brother’s knowledge and making her father wish she had been born a man. So there may be an additional level of meaning to that 4th story, but it’s just a guess.

    But it really is a fascinating and somewhat unprecedented section of the story.

  2. Maureen June 21, 2010 at 7:13 am #

    Having read the book before (and having read ahead a bit this time), the section is remarkable not just for the stories themselves, but of course for how the Chief Equerry’s discourse prefigures Genji’s quest for womanly perfection, and in particular his focus on finding “diamonds in the rough.”

    I also rather like the fact that when it comes down to actually detailing the qualities of a perfect woman, the Chief Equerry lapses into “neither this nor that” vagueness, or else sounds like an 8 year old describing his imaginary friend. “He’ll be THIS big, and shoot bad guys with lasers that come out of his EYES and he’ll only be my friend FOREVER…”

  3. Sister Rye June 21, 2010 at 12:39 pm #

    The comedic scene about garlic breath and courtship makes me think story-telling has remained relatively constant over the last 1000 years.

  4. Lisa Peet June 21, 2010 at 11:22 pm #

    What really got me was the punch line, if you can call it that, of The Chief Equerry’s story:

    “To teach her a lesson I said nothing about wanting to change. Instead, I put on a show of headstrong independence. She was so hurt that she died. That taught me that these things are no joke.”

    Um, OK.

    • Sister Rye June 22, 2010 at 11:34 am #

      The stories of Fumiko Hayashi (and films of Mikio Naruse) include more examples of this kind of thing. Hayashi writes about lovers committing suicide on a whim. I’m not sure if this is a representation of then-current practices, a tool used to warn others about the dangers of impulsive love affairs, or simply a narrative device used to deal with an unwanted character.

  5. Scott June 28, 2010 at 9:01 am #

    I couldn’t help but be think of Soseki’s I Am a Cat during this chapter. I was ready at any moment for the Nameless Cat to start mocking them all before joining Genji in a nap.

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