These pleasures had lasted all too briefly, and a night of which one would have gladly had a thousand passed blandly into day.
We have come to what I think is The Tale of Genji’s most nearly perfect stretch, the long densely woven episodes contained in Spring Shoots I, Spring Shoots II, and The Oak Tree. It’s hard to adequately describe the effect these chapters have. As Lady Murasaki notes, poems composed on the occasions of great events “generally fall flat” because there is no stylish way of repeating well-worn sentiments and phrases.
Even so, we must give it a try. The key to these chapters is that they fuse the pleasures of life and the sorrow of death with such consummate skill that hardly a line passes when you are not aware of both. The epic nature of the book has allowed it to mature and make such a feat possible. There are aging, reflective characters as well as young, impulsive one, and we have been so privy to a rich host of bygone years that the specters of the past are every bit as present in our minds as the possibilities of the future.
The conjoined nature of life and death, of joy and sadness, is everywhere. The chapter titles beckon at birthday parties and rejuvenation, but of course the double edge of a birthday celebration is that the celebrant has edged closer to death. Genji and his son have a long conversation about the comparable beauties of spring and autumn nights, and as those evocative seasons are being juxtaposed we are also aware that Genji sees his approaching death in Yugiri, and Yugiri, at the height of his powers, is filled with remorse for not better living up to the promise he once seemed to hold.
All pleasure is instantly alloyed with pain. We are told that between Genji and Murasaki, “The passing months and years had only brought those two more perfectly together, until nothing whatever seemed to come between them”; and at the same time, Murasaki is serious about taking the tonsure and vanish into a nunnery.
Murasaki, of course, is thirty-seven, and though we instinctively think of that age as a hale and hearty time, a vigorous precursor to the decline after middle age, it is an inauspicious year, the year Fujitsubo died. What bedevils Murasaki, apart from the Rokujo lady’s indefatigably malicious spirit, is the insecurity of her life. This insecurity is the result of having the endlessly erring Genji for a husband; but in a larger sense it is simply the fundamental insecurity of an existence linked to death. Just as men are fickle, wanton, and treacherous, so too is the fortune of life. As we have seen, Genji’s insights into this truth are less profound, but he still expresses quite the same thing. When he learns that he’s been cuckolded by the melancholic and Hamlet-esque Kashiwagi, he finds the solace of revenge in the long view of existence: “Never mind, though, his time will come. The sun and moon never turn back. No one escapes old age.”
The palpably transitional nature of these chapters makes their scenes of celebration even more poignant. One of my favorite passages in the book comes in Spring Shoots II, in which the gorgeously depicted Eastern Dances at once speak to the beauty of being and the forlorn fact of its terminality:
It was the middle of the tenth month; the kudzu vines clambering along the sacred fence had turned, and the reddened leaves beneath the pines announced not only in sound the waning of autumn. The familiar Eastern Dances, so much more appealing than the solemn pieces from Koma or Cathay, merged with wind and wave; the music of the flutes soared on the breeze through the tall pines, conveying a shiver of awe not to be felt elsewhere; the rhythm, marked on strings rather than on drums, was less majestic than gracefully stirring; and the place lent its own magic to the whole. The musicians in their bamboo pattern dyed with wild indigo mingled with the deep green of the pines, and the many-colored flowers in their headdresses so resembled the flowers of autumn that one hardly knew one from the other. When “Motomego” ended, the senior nobles each bared a shoulder and stepped out to dance. From dull, black formal cloaks burst sappan or grape layered sleeves, while the deep scarlet sleeves of gowns moistened by a touch of winter rain eclipsed the pines and recalled a carpet of autumn leaves. All these lovely figures then decked themselves with tall white reeds to dance just once more and bring the music to a close. One would have wished to watch them forever.