On Genji – Part 1
I’m rereading The Tale of Genji (Genji Monogatari). I’m enjoying it immensely. I first read Genji decades ago; I think it was at least 35 years. And, if memory serves, I did not read the entire work at that time, finding myself overwhelmed by the immense cast of characters and the huge size of the novel (over 1,000 pages). I admired the work at first reading, and there were passages of great beauty that spoke to me; but as an overall whole Genji eluded me.
This time I am responding differently. I love it. I think this is partly due to simply being older. The understanding of impermanence permeates Genji at multiple levels. The world of nature is one way that this expressed, but there is also the impermanence of human relationships both at a personal and political level. I think it is easier for an older person to resonate with this; in any case it speaks more to me now than when I read Genji before.
The fickleness of human desire is another major theme in Genji and, again, I think this is something that is learned, if it is learned, over time. All relationships end in parting, either by death or divorce; and though that is a universal truth, it is a truth that takes some experience to really comprehend.
I am also more familiar today than I was when I first approached Genji with the specifically Buddhist references found in the novel in every chapter. References to past lives and karma, to the Lotus Sutra, and to the Pure Land add dimensions of depth and meaning to Genji that, I suspect, most westerners would miss. Murasaki assumes that her audience knows these references, but a modern westerner, unless, like myself, he took a lot of time studying the Japanese Buddhist tradition, is unlikely to pick up on most of them. And the Buddhism of Murasaki’s time differs in significant ways from Japanese Buddhism today. Modern Japanese Buddhism is the result of the turmoil of the 13th century and ended up with strongly sectarian traditions that view each other with suspicion so that in Japan today you find institutionally separated traditions like Zen, Pure Land, and Nichiren. In the time of Murasaki (the 11th century), however, the Buddhist tradition had not yet fragmented into these mutually antagonistic sects. There were divisions, naturally enough, but they were divisions found within an organization rather than divisions between organizations. For this reason the understanding of Buddhism in Japan at that time was more singular and more pervasive than it is now; either in Japan or in the West.
I am also struck, at times amazed, by Murasaki Shikibu’s ability to comprehend and write about human psychology. The world of Genji is in many ways strange to us. It is an insular world, an elite world, a world of mannered gestures and coded complex customs that are no longer part of the world (either the western world or Japan’s). Yet beneath these striking differences Murasaki uncovers motives and purposes that drive her characters and that we can fully recognize as operative in the world today. That is how Genji can manage to speak to a modern audience.
In some ways I feel while I am reading Genji like when I am reading some sci-fi novel set in another world. I am thinking, for example, of the Darkover novels by Marion Zimmer Bradley. Bradley constructs a world on a distant planet named ‘Darkover’, with groups and factions that differ from what we have on earth today. Yet Bradley’s novels nevertheless speak to us. Murasaki is a better author; but my point is that reading Genji today has a similar, off-worldly, feeling to it; like you are dropping onto a planet (a Star Trek first contact) that is filled with strange customs and has a completely different history. Yet, in spite of that, they are still humanoids and not only is communication possible, but it is surprisingly enriching.
And I am a more experienced poet now than when I first tried to read Genji. Murasaki was not only a great novelist and storyteller; she was also a great tanka poet. The world of tanka poetry is a major theme in Genji. Numerous tanka from the imperial waka/tanka collections, such as the Kokinwakashu, are quoted. In addition Murasaki herself composed almost 800 tanka that are scattered like jewels throughout the novel. This integration of story with poetry has left a lasting impression on Japanese literature.
The English language world is blessed with four excellent translations of Genji. The earliest one is by Waley and is still admired by many. I am currently reading the Seidensticker translation which I find lucid with just enough footnotes to assist the reader with customs and references. There is also a translation by Royall Tyler; it is more recent. And late last year Dennis Washburn published a brand new translation through Norton. In addition, there is a translation of all the tanka poetry found in Genji by Edwin A. Cranston found in A Waka Anthology, Volume Two: Grasses of Remembrance. I don’t know enough Japanese (in fact, I’ve forgotten almost all of it that I used to know) to judge the quality of each translation. (And Genji is written in Japanese that is 1,000 years old. My understanding is that modern Japanese read Genji in translations into contemporary Japanese because the Japanese of Genji is too remote.) Each translation has its advocates. If you are inclined to read Genji my recommendation is to go online and read from the translations and find out which one resonates most with you and go for it.
This is the first post about Genji I plan on writing. In subsequent posts I want to address what Genji offers us in terms of insights into human nature, and the place of Murasaki’s poetry in Genji, which, I believe, hasn’t been fully recognized by her English language translators. I think this can tell us something about our own poetic culture at this time.
More to come.