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The Kids Are All Right

15 Aug

Torii Kiyohiro, "Flower-Like Lovers Under a Partially-Closed Umbrella"

In his last post, Steve notes the appeal of Genji’s walk-ons. Agreed; having passed the halfway mark, I find that much of the book’s appeal for me lies in the characterizations, the beating hearts beneath the chrysanthemums and poetry. So much of the time’s ruling aesthetic depended on contrast for balance, and the highbrow/lowbrow contrapositions in Genji—the essential baseness of so many culturally rounded characters—is what gives the tale a lot of its vivacity.

Throughout the book Lady Murasaki shows a sensitivity to the nuances of adult relationships from both sides of the ceremonial screen. In “The Maidens” she also demonstrates, for better or worse, a working knowledge of teenagers. The idea of an adolescent in power, a boy king, always has the power to fascinate latter-day Westerners, and I find I have a certain affection for Genji‘s imperial youngsters. In a culture where young men routinely acceded the throne after coming of age at 12, it can’t have been uncommon for the local ruler to be caught up in his own hormonal storms as well as court politics—presumably that’s what all those advisors were for. Murasaki gives us glimpses of the boys and girls beneath those ceremonial robes, and their rough edges have a real charm.

On the one hand His Majesty, Reizei, is almost too good to be true, a mature and level-headed young man at 13. When he learns the secret of his paternity from a guilt-ridden monk, he looks long and hard in the mirror, weighs the matter carefully, and considers abdicating and making Genji a Prince. All of which tips Genji off to the fact that His Highness somehow knows he’s Genji’s son. But the two do no more than circle each other politely, Reizei being reluctant to open that particular can of worms. Perhaps the office of Emperor has grown him up, or maybe he got his natural reticence from Fujitsubo, but either way he’s an exemplary young man throughout.

Genji’s legitimate son Yugiri, on the other hand, is about as typical a teen as they come. He has no conflict when it comes to his own paternity: Genji is his father and he’s just unfair. For starters, there’s that detested light blue robe. When Yugiri comes of age, Genji decides to hold him back a bit and advance him only to the sixth rank, rather than the fourth. His reasons are sound (although oddly similar to the theory these days behind keeping a boy with a fall or winter birthday in kindergarten an extra year):

For the moment I prefer not to make too much of a grown-up of him too soon…. For various reasons I would rather have him spend some time at the Academy. With two or three more years before he begins his career he will come naturally to be capable of serving His Majesty, and by then, you see, he will be a man.

But all the boy’s peers have moved up in rank, and while he used feel superior them, the tables have turned. His grandmother, Her Highness, tries to intervene on the his behalf, but to no avail. Genji’s response is infuriatingly parental: “He has a very grown-up complaint against me, I see. Ah, foolish youth! It is his age.”

Was there ever a better recipe for a spoiled teenager than a boy with a dead mother, a largely absent father, and a doting grandmother who does most of his caretaking? Genji sees this and sends Yugiri off with a tutor, and you can almost here the boy’s sullen (and, for effect, probably breaking) voice:

The young man chafed at being shut up this way all the time, and the more he did so, the more he detested his father; for were there not others who rose high and held distinguished office without ever having to suffer this way?

The tutoring pays off, and Yugiri passes his examinations with ease, in spite of all that suffering. When it comes time to find him a bride, however, a new problem comes to light: It seems the boy and his cousin, To no Chujo’s 14-year-old daughter Kumoi no Kari, have been taking their childhood intimacies a little too far. This is a scenario straight out of Endless Love—remember “the love every parent fears”? The two share adjacent rooms at Her Highness’ house, and while the indulgent women there chuckle and look the other way, apparently some serious slumber parties have been going on.

Genji and To no Chujo have always kept a friendly rivalry at a slow simmer, and the children have known each other all their lives. His Excellency treats Yugiri with avuncular fondness—“I see so little of you these days! What keeps you so hard at your books?”—until he catches a bit of whispered gossip from giggling gentlewomen. Not only are they discussing Yugiri’s relationship with his daughter, but they’re laughing at him—“He thinks he knows best, but there’s a father for you.”

His Excellency is furious with his own mother, Her Highness, for not keeping better track of what was going on under her roof, and announces that he’s taking the girl home. And with this, relations all over the palace erupt. Her Highness is hurt and insulted, sorrowful at losing the girl she raised and angry at her son. To no Chujo is livid at being the butt of gossip, not to mention the prospect of his daughter being “spoiled.” His older daughter, the Kokiden Consort, has recently returned home herself in disgrace. Kumoi no Kari quails at the thought of being married off to someone else. Yugiri, of course, is outraged and miserable—these grownups just don’t understand! Yugiri’s nurse helps engineer a final night together for the star-crossed couple, but to add salt to his wounds he overhears his darling’s nurse bewailing his low ranking—it’s that hateful light blue robe again—and like every spurned teenager since the beginning of time, “he wallowed in the misery of his own creation.”

Yugiri redeems himself, of course, by growing up. And even in the wake of infatuations with Tamakazura and Murasaki, his love for his childhood sweetheart never waivers. By “New Wisteria Leaves” he is 18 and has acquired some of Genji’s shiningness, a “noble grace.” To no Chujo relents and gives him Kumoi no Kari’s hand, and they finally get to spend an honest night together.

He returns home the next morning, sleepy and satisfied, and Genji is as proud a papa as you could want. But he’s still the father of a teenager, no matter how respectable. And his first question to Yugiri, “Did you do your letter?”, still sounds a lot—to this former mother of a teenager, anyway—like “Did you write your thank-you notes?”


Ask; Tell

22 Jun

I started out writing a long comment to the previous post about Genji and Women, but I’m selfishly going to keep it for a post of my own, since it segues nicely.

I come to The Tale of Genji from a nonacademic, vaguely middlebrow vantage point—basically, I’m a sucker for a good epic tale. But I’m also an armchair anthropologist, and I appreciate the care Royall Tyler has taken with this translation. As exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting—that print doesn’t get any bigger as the hour grows later) as the footnotes are, they’re endlessly helpful on all sorts of cultural and linguistic subtleties that I might not even think to question otherwise. I find, four chapters in, that the experience has gotten smoother: My eye is getting the muscle memory of bouncing between text and footnotes, and the effect is something like the point in a foreign movie where you suddenly seem to hear the subtitles being spoken aloud. Also, the layering of the endless multiple meanings is getting easier to anticipate, if not suss out—Tyler’s done that work for us.

So because I’m a geek and always read the Introduction, I can tell you that Tyler is inclined to interpret much of the veiled language as euphemism for intercourse: for instance, yume, “dream,” and katarau, “chatting.” He also points out that because of the proscriptions against unaffiliated men and women actually looking at each other straight on—hence the endless delicacies of screens and latticework—he calls out that first encounter between Genji and Utsusemi as a rape: “Genji’s having ‘seen’ Utsusemi in a pitch-dark room (chapter 2) means bluntly that he has possessed her.” Thus, also, the fabulously straightforward Freudian appeal of Genji’s Peeping Tom habits: “through a crack in a fence, a hole in a sliding panel, a gap in a curtain.” No wonder the young man was such a rake, with all that codified titillation at every turn.

But at the end of The Broom Tree, Tyler’s willingness to annotate all these sexual nuances stutters and skips a fairly major beat. In the wake of Utsusemi’s rejection of his advances, Genji engages Kogimi, her preadolescent brother, in service. On the surface this is a good devious plan: The boy can carry private messages to his sister without arousing suspicion, and he can keep Genji apprised of her whereabouts. But being used as a go-between discomfits Kogimi, as he’s torn between loyalty to his sister and wanting to please his master—the text makes it clear that everyone involved is quite aware of this:

Genji, whose plans were laid, had his entourage retire early and sent her a note, but her brother could not find her. Only after hunting high and low did he go down the bridgeway and come across her at last. “He’ll think I’m no use at all!” the boy cried, nearly weeping with anger and frustration.

“I will not have you take this awful attitude!” she scolded him. “They say a child should never carry such messages. Tell him that I am not feeling well and that I have kept my women with me for a massage. Everyone will be wondering what you are doing here.”

Genji, crushed and angry, demands to see Utsusemi; Kogimi is torn, but doesn’t dare take him to where she is sequestered with the other women. The chapter ends as follows:

“Very well, then you, at least, shall not leave me.” Genji had the boy lie down with him. The boy so appreciated his master’s youth and gentleness that they say Genji found him much nicer than his cruel sister.

And for this, there are no footnotes. All of a sudden Tyler is uncharacteristically silent.

I don’t pretend to be particularly knowledgeable about historical gender identity issues, but I do know that there was a tradition of homoerotic relationships among Japanese Buddhists and their young acolytes, similar to the arrangements in Greek and Arab cultures and probably most other places as well (anyone better-schooled in LGBT studies than I am, please chip in or disagree). A quick Google survey confirms that homosexuality in ancient Japan wasn’t strictly considered a sin in either a religious or social context, although I’m sure it was subject to just as many constraints and taboos in terms of conduct—no doubt a lot more—as heterosexual relations.

So why the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell treatment from Tyler? If we were reading the Waley translation from 1933 it would make more sense; even from Seidenstricker in the ’70s. But it seems strange to have this passage—the conclusion of an action-packed, sex-saturated chapter—glossed over in a 21st-century translation. Even if mention of boy love offends Tyler’s sensibilities, doesn’t he have a responsibility to put the work first? It seems a shame that he should pull back from such obviously dedicated research because either he finds a custom distasteful or—worse—he imagines the reader will, and wants to spare us. I found the omission jarring, coming at the climax (sorry) of a great chapter, and I’m wondering if anyone else was as bothered by it.

Moronobu Hishikawa (1618-1694), Male couple on a futon