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A Rake’s Progress

5 Jul

With Chapter 12, our young lord’s errant ways have finally caught up to him, and what does it isn’t rape, kidnapping, or any other of the actions we might term criminal in modern parlance. Merely making off with other people’s daughters is a trifle, but indulge in a consensual relationship with a not particularly high-ranking courtesan attached to your brother, the Emperor, and off you go to Suma. Genji finds himself done in by his own tackiness. At least, that’s what I call macking on your brother’s girlfriend; Genji may be oh-so-fashionable and handsome, but a class act he ain’t.

Suma isn’t all that far from Kyoto as the crow flies; people living in Kyoto today can make a quick day-trip by train to sun themselves on Suma’s salty shores, which are currently considered no more dreary, windswept, or out-of-the-way than any other patch of coast. In fact, Suma is a sort of spring-break party beach, where people get drunk and ridiculous on a mass scale, float around on pool toys, and wile away their evenings in packed dance clubs. Any attempt to quote Chinese poetry there, while observing the pathetic spectacle of saltmakers and rustic fishermen, is likely to wind up with you taking a poorly-controlled Frisbee to the face.

Genji’s stay in Suma doesn’t really seem to hurt him any; a number of retainers go down with him; he has constant visitors and letters, and even tries his hand at painting – and, being the Shining Genji that he is – turns out to be a dab hand at it, churning out melancholy seascapes at an alarming rate. No, I rather feel sorry for Murasaki, who is forced to remain behind. Given the extreme limitations placed on women at this time, the exile is surely more of a punishment of her than him – he can still travel about a bit, see friends, and – as we’ll soon see – even resume his “gallantry.” She just has to stay shut up behind her curtains.

I also feel rather sorry for our poor Emperor. He isn’t really very upset with Genji’s betrayal – he knows that, around women, Genji has about as much control as Yogi Bear faced with a pic-a-nic basket. To quote a baseball commonplace, his brother’s pursuit of Oborozukiyo is just Genji being Genji. Banishing Genji is a matter of optics; if Emperor doesn’t do it, people will lose respect for him – and with his political opponents already seeking to make hay of his relative youth and inexperience, he has to look tough on this issue. What makes it all for the worse is his very genuine affection for the Mistress of Staff; he continues to dote on her, which likely undercuts whatever tough-guy image he bought himself by banishing Genji in the first place.

But banishment to Suma isn’t all that persecutes our hero. At the tail end of the chapter, Genji again faces the downside of spectacular beauty, as his purification rituals are interrupted by a supernatural personage of high standing – none other than than the Dragon King of the Sea – a great admirer of beauty – who sends a great storm to “summon” Genji under the waves. Yikes! First a freaky ghost kills Genji’s girlfriend, then jealousy transforms one of his other girlfriends into a living revenant that kills his wife just after childbirth, and now he has some kind of Japanese Poseidon after him. Un-cosmetic surgery might be in order, or at least a good case of acne. Being gorgeous is kind of a drag if it means you get continually haunted by spooks, place-spirits, and other folkloric boogymen. But Genji isn’t so dramatic as to deface himself; I sense that, rather than give himself the Joker/Phantom of the Opera treatment, our protagonist is about to get out of Dodge…


The Botany of Genji

1 Jul

Flowers and plants abound in this tale, and while some of them are familiar (as a resident of Washington, DC, I’ve seen more than my fair share of cherry blossoms), I have no readily available mental image of many others. Wisteria I know, but what does a gillyflower look like? Or a safflower? A twilight beauty? Heart-to-heart? A murasaki flower?

Seeing these plants adds a special poignancy or humor to Genji’s decision to refer to them in his poems to or about certain characters. The safflower, which gives Suetsuhama her name, is spiny, prickly, and often bright red – reflecting how her old-fashioned, formal manners rub Genji’s modern suavité the wrong way, as does her unfortunate, red-tipped schnoz (One problem with pursuing love affairs in the dark – you can’t be sure what the light of day will reveal). Twilight beauties, as it turns out, wither after a single night’s blooming; while murasaki flowers are small and white (it’s their roots that are purple, and beget the dye – this is clearly mentioned in the book, but it’s easy to forget). I’ve been reading ahead, and spent nearly the whole book thinking kerria roses – often mentioned in the tale’s landscape descriptions or in reference to clothing – were a blush pink, in accordance with the western idea of a rose-color. Turns out they’re bright yellow.

My research also clued me into the fact that the names of plants may pose a thorny (rimshot, please) question of translation. For example, due to common root words, heart-to-heart is often mistranslated as hollyhock, even though the two plants have about as much in common as a baobab tree has with a butterfly bush. Further, the sheer passage of time may change the referents of words — I found one gardening forum all in a tizzy as to whether the twilight beauties could really be moonflowers, as they were unsure as to whether moonflowers had yet reached Heian-era Japan. I also happened upon grad students puzzling over whether asagao really means bluebell, or whether it could also refer to morning glories. Mysteries abound.

Knowing that Mr. Tyler has been kind enough to join in some of the discussions going on in the comment box, I wonder if he can shed some light on these controversies. I have attempted a few translations in my time, and have found myself dog-tired simply from doing battle with modern slang. My little foray into plant-lore has impressed me with how all-encompassing this story is in its reflection of its culture — it simply leaves nothing out, from proper landscaping design to the type of hat a dancer wears to commentaries on what good and bad cliches in poetry might be. To translate it means to master a little – or a lot – of all these things. I am happy to have so thorough a guide.

Tale of Genji Crime Blotter – Week One

22 Jun

As has been noted in the last two posts, the infamous indirection of classical Japanese is insufficient to mask the fact that Genji is up to some serious — and in some cases punishable by long prison stints — hanky-panky. Indeed, at the beginning of the second chapter, our author warns us that Genji is utterly deplorable, but is at a loss to say whether his mostly successful efforts to keep his waywardness from being noised abroad make his sins better or worse. Well, as an attorney, I am unable to resist the desire to see them enumerated, in the cold light of day, according to modern American criminal and tort law. So without further ado, here are THE CRIMES OF GENJI, through the first four chapters. I have also, for the sake of completeness, described his torts.

1 count rape (of Utsusemi)

2 counts criminal trespass (entering Utsusemi’s rooms twice without permission or invitation, once to rape her, and once when he makes a second attempt and accidentally gets caught up with her Go-playing friend)

1 petty larceny (taking Utsusemi’s shift)

1-to-infinite counts stalking (Genji of Utsusemi; Koremitsu of Yugao, on Genji’s directions)

1-to-infinite counts of aiding/abetting/accessory before-and-after-the-fact for stalking (Utsusemi’s little brother, for helping Genji to harass his sister; Genji, for directing Koremitsu to spy on Yugao)

1 negligent homicide (Yugao)

At civil law, Genji could probably could get sued for assault, battery, and intentional infliction of emotional distress on Utsusemi, as well as conversion, for making off with her shift. Depending on the jurisdiction, outrage may also be a possibility, since inveigling her little brother into helping him was total creep stuff. Yugao’s family could likely sue Koremitsu/Genji for invasion of privacy (all that spying!) and Genji for wrongful death, as it’s just plain irresponsible for anyone as handsome as the Shining Genji to go larking around with ladies in old castles, given the 100% probability that those castles are haunted by jealous ghosts.

So, quite a parade of horribles! Barren of its lines of flower-referencing poetry, the tale is one of aristocratic decadence and moral turpitude, fit to make a marxist sigh and dream sweet dreams. What vile violations will the next four chapters hold? One shudders to think.

Coming Back to Genji

16 Jun

I’m a second-time reader of The Tale of Genji. I first read the book (cobbled together out of mixed volumes of the Seidensticker and Waley translations) in fifteen-minute, twice-a-day bursts on the New York subway, with background accompaniment provided by the wheels squealing over the old tracks, and blind accordion players passing up and down the aisle. The twice-a-day pattern continues now that I am reading Genji for the second time, although my public transit system of choice these days is Washington DC’s creepily dim, post-apocalyptic bunker of a Metro, caught in a perpetual hush.

Back in New York, I loved The Tale of Genji, and hated that I loved it. It was about people who appeared to lack both moral and practical sense, were bound by the conventions of a be-numbingly complicated caste system, and spent inordinate amounts of time judging other people by their clothes. Even when they managed to be charming, most of the characters – Genji himself in particular – were only so in the service of being odious in some other respect. It was rather like high school. It was very like New York.

The fact that a 10th-century Japanese soap opera reflects a culture beset by much of the same materialism, hyper-attentiveness to fashion, and lack of sexual prudence that characterizes American high schools says quite a bit about human nature. Throw in a great deal of poetry, some ghosts, inbreeding of such a degree that monstrosities ought to result, a lot of parties, and characters that marry studied indirection to heaps of indiscretions, and the result is . . . a curiously relaxed feeling. It is not that nothing happens in the Tale of Genji – lots does – but time moves rather funnily in its universe. Ten years go by in a paragraph. Three characters’ circular conversation about past girlfriends goes on for pages and pages.

Well, it’s summer, when time moves a bit oddly in general. It’s a time when we have time to slow down and smell the roses. Perhaps even time to compose allusive haiku about the roses, haiku which we will write with supremely distinguished brushstrokes on perfumed paper, to be included in a secret letter to a lady with whom we are not so secretly doing the horizontal kabuki, and who just so happens to be currently favored by our older brother (who happens to be the emperor). Time enough to read The Tale of Genji, for a second time even.

At any rate, I’m happy to be here with so many other distinguished readers, and looking forward to discuss the book. I hope that we enjoy ourselves in our languor.