Poor Pitiful Genji!

6 Jul

Although our gorgeous hero Genji is, in British parlance, a toff, a git, and a wanker, Murasaki Shikibu consistently maintains the expectation that he’s supposed to elicit our sympathy. In all of literature, he may be the single least sympathetic character to have such an inexhaustible (although knowingly ironic) champion, but how seldom does it work! We read of trials and misfortunes – Suma is rife with them, and they spill over to the beginning of Akashi – and we are informed repeatedly of how miserable these misfortunes make our young gallant, but we never feel sorry for him, not now, at least, not so early in the book when so many of his troubles are products of his own fatuous, privileged behavior.

We can never forget his exalted status, or how boneheadedly selfish it makes him. Yes, we say, this bad thing happened to him, and this, and this – but didn’t he deserve it all, somehow? At this point we don’t even suspect his misfortunes of being refining fires that will temper him – we’ve seen too often how little he appreciates his own luck.

That luck holds spectacularly true at the beginning of the jewel-like, multi-faceted Akashi, that most quiet and melancholy of all Genji’s early chapters. Storms beat the Sumi coast where Genji is sitting out his disgrace and waiting for his pardon; there’s unprecedented wind, rain, thunder, lightning, and hail. A messenger brings him tidings that the same unnatural weather is paralyzing the city, and things get worse: lightning strikes Genji’s wing of the house, and he and his retainers are forced to huddle with the common folk in the kitchen’s flickering candlelight. But lightning doesn’t strike Genji, and the storm-waves stop just short of his door, and through the tempest come the amazing good luck of a an emissary from the far more civilized nearby beach on Akashi. Even the winds some how direct themselves to speed Genji to his new host: more luxurious, better provisioned, and with the added allure of a reclusive beauty.

One things that’s clear in these early chapters: Genji never forgets the fascination he felt in “The Broom Tree” at the idea that there might be beautiful, accomplished women out there in the world utterly hidden from the prying exposure of renown. He’s like a bloodhound now for such hidden treasures – although in Akashi he’s given ample assistance by the girl’s ambitious father (our author’s sotto voce mockery of the father’s hopes of spiritual purification are as exquisitely delicate as everything else she writes).

But I don’t care if he’s away from home or if lightning barely misses him; in Akashi my sympathies – everybody’s sympathies – are reserved for the poor girl (disturbing, at least to the modern West, that there’s doubt as to just how young she is in this chapter). Here is our Nausicaa parallel from the Odyssey, only in Akashi the pretty little princess is not humbly thanked by her storm-tossed prince but badgered, ravished, and abandoned. She knows she can’t match his sophisticated court theatrics (as usual, a world of meaning is packed into her choice of stationery); she considers her father’s hopes for her humiliating and preposterous, but what choice does she have? It’s acquiesce or throw herself (or be thrown, likely) into the sea. Despite her foolish father, she’s certain nothing can ever come of Genji’s dalliance (the book’s original audience knew her whole story and so could savor the irony, and the book’s modern day re-readers can love her all the more for her humble origins), and she’s not all that surprised when his pardon comes and he assembles his retinue to return to the city.

And can there be anything cooler or more self-possessed than the half-line of poetry Lady Murasaki quips to Genji when she learns of this rustic paragon who’s so enchanted him? It’s the withering sophistication of the city completely annihilating the fragile simplicity of the country. As far as that poor country girl knows, she’s been used and completely forgotten – now that’s what I call a trial and a misfortune.

—Steve Donoghue


5 Responses to “Poor Pitiful Genji!”

  1. samsacks9 July 7, 2010 at 12:40 pm #

    Just a note that, for reasons beyond knowing, the spam folder claimed a very comprehensive reply from Royall Tyler to Maureen’s botany post. But it’s up now, and well worth reading.

  2. Chris Kern July 7, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

    I always have a different reaction — one of my favorite things about the Tale is the way that the power of Murasaki Shikibu’s writing can make me feel sympathy for a character like Genji, who seems like he should be unsympathetic.

    • Scott July 7, 2010 at 1:57 pm #

      It has been the same for me – there have been several moments where I was suddenly surprised by a moment of sympathy for Genji, in spite of everything he has done so far.

  3. Maureen July 7, 2010 at 2:18 pm #

    Sam, thanks for your update on Mr. Tyler’s comment!

    Steve’s reference to the Odyssey strikes me as apt, if only because Odysseus is another character who I never liked terribly much. Interesting, but not terribly likeable.

    I actually find Genji to be a much flatter character than some of the other people who pop up later in the tale. That may be just a matter of my not knowing people particularly like Genji, or it may be a reflection of the fact that he hasn’t much inner life, really. Much later in the book, the Lady of Falling Flowers says something gently pointed about this very fact…I haven’t got my copy with me right now, but I’ll search it out when I get home.

    • Royall Tyler July 8, 2010 at 4:24 am #

      A couple of remarks about Genji’s exile and the occasion for it.

      Murasaki Shikibu, whose father was a scholar of Chinese literature and history, seems to have read poetry and history in Chinese. This was rather like a respectable lady in, say, 19th c. England or America reading Cicero and Virgil for pleasure in the original. If she could do it, she certainly didn’t advertise it. At one point the empress asked MS to teach her to read Po Juyi, the Tang-dynasty poet most widely read at the Heian court. MS did so, but in secret. The empress didn’t want it known that she was studying Chinese, which, like Latin elsewhere, was a male preserve.

      A recurring theme in Chinese poetry was (for good reason) that of unjust exile–the bitterness, but also the bittersweetness and romance of it. Po Juyi’s work treats this theme. The details of Genji’s house at Suma and the things he brought with him (including Po Juyi’s collected works) are directly inspired by Po Juyi’s poetry. So is the entire mood of Genji’s stay at Suma.

      Medieval readers of the tale took it for granted that MS wrote the “Suma” and “Akashi” chapters first, out of sympathy for such brilliant, unjustly exiled men in Japan’s own past as Sugawara no Michizane, some 100 years before her time, and Minamoto no Takaakira, somewhere around the time when she was born. Whether or not these chapters really were the first, no one will ever know. However, there is absolutely no doubt that her evocation of Genji’s life at Suma is meant to be sympathetic. (Readers in other times and places may of course take it any way they please.) She probably placed him at Suma because of a precedent established by her time in the canon of Japanese poetry.

      MS also read Japanese historical sources written in Chinese. One, completed in the early 8th c., supplied her with the brief myth (best known in English as “The Luck of the Sea and the Luck of the Mountains”) that she developed with dazzling brilliance in the story of Genji and his older brother Suzaku. Genji’s exile harks back to a phase of this myth, the mechanism of which contains a precise counterpart of his misadventure with Oborozukiyo and its consequences. The supernatural interventions so prominent in “Suma” and “Akashi,” and so easy to ignore in our own time, are essential to this story. But the story is a long one, and I’ll stop there.

      There is more to MS, and to her tale, than meets the eye.

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