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Once upon a time there was a world, very different from our world. It was very beautiful — sometimes in ways that strike us as very ugly. But its inhabitants would not have cared what we think.

It was a tiny world, self-contained, thinly populated — aristocratic, cultured, wealthy beyond even the dimmest awareness that wealth has to be created, if not by one’s own sweat then by the sweat of others. Entitlement to the best of what life offered was unquestioned. It was an aristocratic birthright, nothing demanded in return except the love and cultivation of beauty. In that they were unstinting.

Scholars dispute the identity of the world’s first novel. “Don Quixote,” say some; “Tom Jones,” say others; perhaps “Robinson Crusoe.” Those are the leading among numerous candidates — all European, all of the 17th and 18th centuries. Wrong, say devotees of Japanese literature.

Europe was still mired in barbaric darkness when “The Tale of Genji” appeared. Its author was a court lady known as Murasaki Shikibu. Her life, undateable with precision, spanned the late 10th and early 11th centuries, the peak of the dazzling Heian Period (794-1185). The beautiful world she created is a reflection, highly polished, of the one she lived in.

We couldn’t live in it. History shaped us differently. Its air would choke us. We won’t stay long, we come and go as we please. It’s as easy as opening and closing a book. Why bother? For this reason, if no other: Genji’s world is as different as a civilized human world can be from our own, and when ours, lurching from crisis to crisis amid “progress” whose rising, strident and endless demands for adjustment, adaptation, enthusiasm and awe, come to feel a little too much for us, there is Heian — calm, quiet, unhurried, changeless; above all, beautiful, ambiguous though its beauty may be.

A new year dawns. We are anxious and troubled. We crave escape. Where? Via what? To a vanished world. Via one of the world’s great books.

Heian Kyo, today’s Kyoto, was in the 10th century one of the world’s great cities. Its population was between 100,000 and 150,000 — 10 times London’s at the time. Genji and his friends, the “good people,” the royal and near-royal nobility — a nobility of birth and culture but not, be it noted, of war — were hardly part of the teeming urban landscape. They dwelt “above the clouds” — in and around the imperial court. They numbered maybe 1% of the population. Were the other 99% even human? Barely.

Aristocratic disdain for the toiling masses repels us today. It’s one stain on the beauty we’ve come seeking. Another is people’s physical appearance. “What have they done to themselves?” we’d wonder, repulsed. The Heian lady, immobile and almost invisible within her layer upon layer of silk robes, blackened her teeth and plucked out her eyebrows, painting in false ones high on her forehead. The men, scarcely less clothed or more physically active, sallow and flabby, challenge no less than the women our own cherished notions of beauty. They seem grotesque to us. Would we seem grotesque to them?

The “Genji” is a very long novel — over 1,000 pages — populated with some 400 characters, each one — such is the author’s genius — subtly unique, individual, alive, almost all of them accorded the adjectives “beautiful” or “handsome.” Those who are not fail a key test of Heian life. The ill-favored sink into oblivion. Genji himself is “so handsome that a smile from him can make you think all the world’s problems have been solved.”

Illustration of Chapter 42 of 'The Tale of Genji,' titled 'Nioumiya.' Traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-91). Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. | PUBLIC DOMAIN
Illustration of Chapter 42 of ‘The Tale of Genji,’ titled ‘Nioumiya.’ Traditionally credited to Tosa Mitsuoki (1617-91). Part of the Burke Albums, property of Mary Griggs Burke. | PUBLIC DOMAIN

What problems? We compare the easygoing flow of their lives with the restless pulse and surge of ours and see none. Life — its surface anyway — is a perpetual party, a never-ending ceremony, a dance, a concert, a poem, an amorous intrigue, the intrigue itself a dance and a ceremony. This isn’t living, we think — it’s playing house. Religious ceremonies, for all their solemnity, are no exception.

“Today there was to be a reading of the Prajnaparamita Sutra,” the author writes. “Murasaki had prepared the floral offerings. She chose eight of her prettiest little girls to deliver them, dressing four as birds and four as butterflies. The birds brought cherry blossoms in silver vases, the butterflies yamabuki in gold vases.”

Murasaki (not to be confused with the author) is the love of Genji’s eventful, sometimes chaotically amorous life. The son of an emperor, born of a love preternaturally intense, Genji is marked from birth for the heights of power, grandeur and, above all, sensitivity, the Heian quality of qualities. The sensitive man or woman is a true artist, whatever the art. An insensitive person is a clod. Genji is exquisitely sensitive; everything he does is exquisite; he has that way about him; and yet so much of what he does, from our point of view, is morally repellent.

His conquest of the child Murasaki seems worthy of our most lurid headlines of pedophilia and child abuse. She is 10 when he sees her by chance and fairly kidnaps her, stilling the protests of her retinue of serving women by saying, “My feelings are of no ordinary sort,” meaning they are deep, meaning they arise, as Buddhism teaches, from events and relationships in past lives, unknowable but, when they assert themselves, irresistible. The women give way, he gets his girl. For a time he is a father to her, and she a trusting foster-daughter; then, one night, “he could not restrain himself. It would be a shock, of course.”

We are less surprised than we might be. We know him a little by now. Has he not already cuckolded his own father?

There are reasons — what today we’d call extenuating circumstances. Genji never knew his mother. She died shortly after his birth, hounded to death by jealous rivals for the emperor’s love. Shattered, the emperor longs for a lady who resembles the deceased. One is duly found, an offshoot of the same family. Genji’s love for her begins as a child’s yearning for his lost mother. Likewise his love for Murasaki — the new lady’s niece, bearing the same resemblance.

Does that soften our repugnance? Should it? Today he’d be locked up. It’s broadening, seeing a wholly different society, with radically different standards at work. Little Murasaki soon gets over her horror, and the love that grows up between them as the tale unfolds — one measure of its depth is the depth of Genji’s grief at her death decades later — is as beautiful a romance as any to come in a literary genre with a very long future ahead of it.

The crime against his father is trickier. It yielded a son, thought to be the emperor’s son, in due course to inherit the throne. The imperial line, deemed sacred, has been muddied. Genji and the lady are tortured by secret guilt. The lady becomes a nun — she “leaves the world,” cutting her hair, retiring to a hermitage and devoting herself to prayers. Leaving the world is what Genji himself longs to do, more and more as he grows older — not, as in her case, in expiation but because the world in which he has so high and honored a place is, he knows, not “real”; it is the merest illusion, tempting and captivating but a snare thwarting ultimate Buddhist enlightenment.

The son learns by chance the secret of his birth. Strange to say, he is not appalled, only saddened. If anyone is guilty, he feels, it is not his parents but himself — the situation is such that he cannot honor his true father as the laws of filial piety enjoin. Such is the way of this insubstantial floating world. It is “a dream within a dream,” not worth gnashing one’s teeth over.

Might that be the ultimate explanation of its strange, mysterious, at times almost unearthly, always vaguely unreal, beauty, the more beautiful, perhaps, for its unreality?

Michael Hoffman’s latest book is “Cipangu, Golden Cipangu: Essays in Japanese History.”

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