It’s a strange world we’re about to enter.

If I were the organizing type I would set up a “Heian Society.” In flowing robes and court caps, we would compose pun-laden poems simultaneously lamenting and celebrating the transience of life and beauty. Wine would flow, inhibitions dissolve, talk grow heated. What would we talk about? Why — about the things that matter: the seasons, the moon. Which season is more conducive to poetry — spring or autumn? Which moon — the misty one of spring, or the clear one of autumn — does more justice to the music of flute and koto?

Heian Japan: a world that lasted nearly 400 years, from 794 to 1185, and yet “has disappeared from the face of the Earth far more completely than ancient Rome,” as the cultural historian Ivan Morris remarked. Not even ruins remain, only a voluminous literature; and the thought and ethical standards it reveals are as extinct as child sacrifice, though certainly not as brutal.

We see what we see of Heian through a double veil — that of time, which has no mercy on flower gardens and wooden architecture, and that of dimness, for even to its denizens it was sunk in indescribable murk. “Women in particular,” writes Morris, “lived in a state of almost perpetual twilight. As if the rooms were not already dark enough, they [the women] normally immured themselves behind thick silk hangings or screens.”

When we read, therefore, of lovers coupling without knowing precisely who with, we need not be too surprised. It happens quite often.

* * * * *

Heian Japan may well be the narrowest advanced civilization in world history.

The population of Japan in the 10th century was roughly 5 million. That of Heiankyo (present-day Kyoto) was about 100,000, making it far larger than any European city of the time, however insignificant it would have looked set beside its contemporary model, China’s capital Chang’an (population 2 million).

Of the 5 million Japanese, 4,995,000 were of no interest whatever to the 5,000-odd members of the ranked nobility. Those millions may as well not have existed, and when, very occasionally, their representatives do make cameo appearances in the literature, they are likened — not maliciously, but simply as a matter of course — to beasts. Among the many refined talents of Heian’s aristocratic would-be poets, painters, musicians, garden designers, perfume-blenders and so on, was that of remaining blissfully unaware of what did not directly concern them — and that covered just about the entire world, minus the tiny sliver of it deemed worthy of notice in classical Chinese and Japanese poetry.

My “Heian Society” would be similarly exclusive.

Modern life is altogether too distracting. Too much goes on in too many places. Away with it, therefore.

* * * * *

Heian is a bower for lovers. Much of the poetry is love poetry, and the towering literary classic of the age, “The Tale of Genji,” is above all a tale of love — loves, rather, for monogamy is not a Heian virtue. On the contrary — polygamy was the norm and monogamy generally looked down upon. Only one author makes a case for it, a very forceful one grounded in personal anguish. Her literary rebellion, set down in a memoir known in English either as “The Gossamer Years” or “The Gossamer Diary” (we’ll call her Lady Gossamer, since her name is unknown), makes her unique among contemporaries who, whatever they suffer, do not dream of challenging existing mores. The world was the world; one took it or left it, and leaving it meant taking holy orders and abandoning oneself to one’s prayers.

Love. It is inseparable from our perception of Heian, and 1,000 years’ worth of commentary (some 10,000 volumes are said to exist on “Genji” alone) has weighed the moral, immoral or amoral significance of what to every succeeding age, Japanese and foreign, have seemed highly peculiar courtship rituals.

Any number of examples might be cited. This one comes from very early in “The Tale of Genji,” and the extraordinary thing about it is not the attempted seduction (though to a modern reader it seems more like attempted rape), but its failure. The woman’s determined resistance is not, as it normally would be, for form’s sake only. She really means it; she will have nothing to do with the shining Genji — not because she is a married woman, the wife of Genji’s host, or because she resents Genji’s highhanded assumption that the powerful longings aroused in him by an accidental glimpse of her are to be satisfied as a matter of right, or because she finds him unattractive (she most certainly does not), but because of her painful awareness of her own inferior social status relative to his. A look at how the episode plays out will give us an idea of what Heian lovemaking was like.

Genji at 17 has been married for five years — unhappily, as was generally the case with first marriages arranged by parents with an eye toward political advancement. A directional taboo (the requirement to avoid a certain direction so as not to disturb gods whose movements were predictable and charted) offered a convenient excuse for avoiding his wife’s vicinity, and Genji, accompanied by a modest retinue of attendants and outrunners, inveigles an invitation from a provincial governor to spend the night at his estate. It is the elderly governor’s young wife who draws Genji’s attention.

She is the subject of talk as the wine cups are passed around, and Genji, waiting till the other revelers have passed out, sets off in search of her. Outside her pavilion he overhears her talking with her 12-year-old brother; her attendant, he learns, is out for a bath; the brother (suborned earlier as Genji’s spy) makes himself scarce, and she is alone. Genji slips inside. The lady gasps, but Genji hastens to soothe her:

“You are perfectly correct if you think me unable to control myself. But I wish you to know that I have been thinking of you for a very long time. And the fact that I have finally found my opportunity and am taking advantage of it should show that my feelings are by no means shallow.”

The narrator comments: “The little figure, pathetically fragile and as if on the point of expiring from the shock, seemed to him very beautiful.”

“I promise you,” Genji assures her, “that I will do nothing unseemly.”

“She was so small,” resumes the narrator, “that he lifted her easily.” The attendant, back from the bath, is struck dumb with astonishment — partly feigned, no doubt. “Come for her in the morning,” says Genji, sliding the doors closed.

The lady would seem to be at his mercy, but “naturally soft and pliant, she was suddenly firm.” When at last she masters her weeping and is able to speak, the bitterness she expresses is not at Genji’s presumptions, but at the lowly status (provincial governors were a despised class) that makes her unworthy of such a suitor.

No wonder Heian’s sexual mores have surpassed the understanding of later ages. Confucian and Victorian critics have lavished much outrage on them. To us, neither Confucian nor Victorian, a semi-tolerant bewilderment seems more in order.

Bewilderment is not always an unsatisfying emotion; my “Heian Society” would not seek to transcend it. We will disapprove when disapproval seems called for — not forgetting, however, how little we see of what there was, and how little we understand of what we see. We will keep in mind that, for all his promiscuity, the Heian nobleman was unfailingly observant of the minutely intricate unwritten code which constituted his highest (maybe his only) ethical standard — the code of good taste. This is true even of Genji — maybe (at the risk of deepening our bewilderment) especially of Genji.

* * * * *

So much for sex. It consumed much time and energy, but it was not, after all, everything, was it?

What of friendship, of non-sexual intimacy? Yes, there was that too, and Paul Gordon Schalow, who teaches Japanese literature at Rutgers University in New Jersey, rescues the question from an unmerited oblivion. His illuminating study, titled “A Poetics of Courtly Male Friendship in Heian Japan,” was published earlier this year.

As friends, Heian courtiers seem closer to us than they do as lovers, and yet here too we must not expect an exact correspondence between their idea of friendship and ours.

Western literature is full of intimate male friendships — Don Quixote and Sancho Panza, Hamlet and Horatio, Huckleberry Finn and the runaway slave Jim, Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson, and so on. These friendships unfold through shared adventure and danger — the typical bonds between man and man, as love and sex are between man and woman. In Heian Japan, though, there are no adventures to share. How can there be, when physical activity of all sorts (erotic exertion excepted) is deemed vulgar, and inactivity to the point of immobility slows daily life to what now seems a stupefying crawl?

But their friendships and ours have this in common: They show that it is not enough to be loved. We want to be understood as well, and Schalow’s theme — his definition of Heian friendship — is “the Heian nobleman’s desire to be known and appreciated by a kindred spirit.”

* * * * *

Imagine a bureaucrat reprimanding a subordinate for insufficient zeal. Now imagine the scene unfolding in verse. This is the Heian way — almost everything unfolds in verse. Lady Gossamer gives us a front-row-center view. She is a very gloomy lady, and her diary is on the whole a profoundly gloomy book, but in her account of her philandering husband’s brush with his friend and superior at the Ministry of War, we catch her in a rare smile.

A brief background sketch: Lady Gossamer (936?-995) is unhappily married to her kinsman, Fujiwara Kaneie (929-990), a leading statesman of the day. She wants a husband, she says, “thirty days and thirty nights a month.” But Kaneie has eight other wives to please, and numerous lovers besides, and Lady Gossamer asks the impossible — as she well knows.

“I concluded,” she writes, “that my unhappiness was part of my inescapable destiny, determined from former lives, and must be accepted as such.”

In 962, Kaneie was promoted up the ranked Chinese-style noble hierarchy, “and then there came a somewhat happier period.” The promotion had a catch — it included a posting to the war ministry as deputy minister. Committed to peace and contemptuous of war as perhaps no other early civilization was, the Heian war ministry was turned into a purely ceremonial office. Kaneie’s chagrin, and his truancy, are understandable. “The post was so distasteful,” writes Lady Gossamer, “that he quite ignored his official duties and spent his time on more interesting projects, and sometimes we had two and three days together in pleasant idleness.

“The Minister [of War], his superior,” she continues, “sent over a poem asking why [Kaneie] never came to the office: ‘Threads in the same skein. Why then do they not meet?’ “

Dreadful official reprimand!

To which Kaneie replied: “How sad to be told that being of the same skein should mean so little.”

The Minister: “It is proper to take in silk while the summer is high; and while we are tending to our two and three strands, the time somehow slips by.”

Kaneie: “And is one’s time to be taken up by a poor two or three strands? Count mine rather as the seven white skeins of the old song.”

What on Earth is going on?

First of all, of course, the gentlemen are indulging in the ubiquitous Heian virtue — it seems like a vice to us — of never saying anything directly that can be obliquely alluded to.

The first poem, explains Schalow, “expresses [the minister’s] hope of friendship with Kaneie, since fate has brought the two men together in the same office, but it also suggests the possibility of betrayal of that hope. . . . Kaneie responds with an avowal of his devotion to [the minister]. He first asserts how pained he is that [the minister] might doubt his attentiveness, and he then affirms his hope of sharing an ongoing bond with [the minister], based on their shared positions in the War Ministry.”

This brings us to the figure of “taking in silk while the summer is high.” Will it astonish anyone to learn that this refers to love affairs? Note Kaneie’s pique at the minister’s suggestion that only “two or three strands [lovers]” are involved; seven, he retorts, is more like it. The “old song” he mentions goes: “I have taken seven skeins of white thread and woven a cloak for you — leave that woman, come live with me.”

Kaneie’s neglect of his office duties, evidently not so very serious, serves as a pretext for a little friendly locker-room banter among men who understand each other and share an open secret: the War Ministry is a drag and love comes first.

In a subsequent poetic exchange between the two elegant rakes, the minister writes, “And who, among those who travel the mud-spattered way, does not get his sleeves wet in this disturbing downpour?”

Wet sleeves signify tears, and the “mud-spattered way,” thanks to a pun (Heian poetry overflows with puns) on koiji — “muddy way” and “way of love” — suggests the vicissitudes of a life devoted to love.

Kaneie replies: “And those who regularly follow the muddy path have few nights to dry their sleeves.”

Take Schalow’s word for it: “Kaneie’s reply seems to flatter [the minister] for the vast extent of his erotic adventures.”

So this appears to be how friendship between men could play out in those far-distant times.

Somewhat mysterious, however, is Lady Gossamer’s apparent amusement over an exchange that plainly mocks her own longing for a husband exclusively devoted to her.

Schalow ventures one hypothesis, ingenious if not altogether convincing: We must “imagine [Lady Gossamer] as an artist . . . writing a fictional narrative or tale, not a truthful account of her own feelings of jealousy as would be expected in a more naively factual autobiography or memoir. Attuned to the ways in which she can create an idealized image of her husband, she devised a depiction of male friendship to make him the hero of her narrative. Thus, in her act of writing, [Lady Gossamer] achieves a mastery of the man that eluded her in her married life.”

* * * * *

‘The Tale of Genji,” in contrast to”The GossamerYears,” is pure fiction, and to its author, court lady-in-waiting Murasaki Shikibu (975?-1015?), must go the credit for almost single-handedly inventing the novel as we know it.

“[T]he awareness that an imagined predicament can be made more real than a real one required a great leap of the imagination,” observes “Genji” (and “Gossamer”) translator Edward Seidensticker, “and Murasaki Shikibu made it by herself.”

Of love, though notoriously shy and withdrawn, she seems to have known all the emotional vagaries — whether or not through personal experience is beside the point. And what did she not know of friendship? There are many pairs of friends in “The Tale of Genji,” none more intimate than Genji, the hero, and his brother-in-law To no Chujo.

We first encounter them together as teenagers deep in boyish talk about their love lives and the bewildering variety of women they have noticed there are in the world.

Their friendship, now spiced, now threatened, but never sundered by sexual and political rivalry, proves lifelong.

Their final scene together is one in which, aware now as never before that for all its beauty this is a world of sorrow, the two aging statesmen mourn (in verse) the death of the peerless lady who meant more to Genji than all the others.

To the extent that friendship implies equality, this one is somewhat lopsided. Genji’s superiority is never in doubt — at least it is never supposed to be.

Murasaki Shikibu sometimes lays an almost unkind stress on it: “To no Chujo was a handsome youth who carried himself well, but beside Genji he was like a nondescript mountain shrub beside a blossoming cherry.”

Interestingly enough, To no Chujo betrays not the faintest jealousy, ever. He is altogether a superb character, subject in later life to fits of irritable misjudgment when the weight of the world seems to sit too heavily on his shoulders, but of such an expansive nature that his generous impulses usually triumph. There are times indeed when the reader is tempted to question the author’s prejudice in Genji’s favor.

As young men “of an amorous nature” they share a number of women, a potentially explosive situation which somehow only seems to deepen their intimacy. Sometimes the sharing is open and aboveboard; other times it is not. When there is subterfuge, it is Genji’s — most notoriously in the affair of “the Lady of the Evening Faces,” who was first To no Chujo’s lover and then, unbeknownst to To no Chujo, Genji’s lover as well.

When the lady dies mysteriously in Genji’s arms, the victim of a spiritual possession, the grief-stricken Genji muses, “I should tell my friend To no Chujo, I suppose, but why invite criticism?”

Similar thinking prevails when, years later, Genji discovers and adopts the lady’s daughter by To no Chujo: “Why should we tell her father? . . . We can say that I have come upon a daughter in a most unexpected place. She will be our treasure.”

His attempted seduction of the daughter while posing as her father shows Genji at his most distasteful.

Schalow, dissecting Genji’s behavior, makes a startling discovery: “Genji desires women who have — or who once had — an erotic connection to To no Chujo . . . Genji does not desire To no Chujo, but he desires what To no Chujo desires . . . To no Chujo’s presence as a rival is what stimulates Genji’s desire . . . “

The implication is that Genji’s feelings for To no Chujo border on, without quite being, erotic. This is treacherous territory, and Genji does not always rise above the moral swamp.

To no Chujo, a more straightforward character, less gifted, and less psychologically complex, seems on the whole the better friend. Ironically, he gets a belated revenge — one he never asked for and in fact one that he never learns of — when his son cuckolds the incomparable Genji.

* * * * *

Murasaki Shikibu knew the human heart as well as any author who has ever lived, and yet there is one emotion that has no place in her repertoire: anger. Only one voice in her vast “Tale” is raised in anger, and it belongs to a madwoman. Brooding melancholy is the dominant mood — it, not murderous wrath, is Genji’s response to his wife’s infidelity with To no Chujo’s son. Even joy soon yields to it, for not even radiant happiness distracts a cultivated person for long from the knowledge of the evanescence of all good things.

It’s a dark, gloomy, mysterious world, for all its color, and my “Heian Society,” if it ever gets off the ground, will not stint on tears. In dim lighting, we will be as shadows to one another, and to ourselves; for do we really know who we are?

Genji and To no Chujo are among the few characters who need be in no doubt as to their parentage.

Not so lucky is Genji’s son by his stepmother; the child later ascends the throne as the purported son of Genji’s royal father. That’s too long a story to tell here; suffice it to say that his plight is not unusual. A Heian identity crisis can make our own seem pretty tame.

Plagued by uncertainty about everything else, Heian courtiers of Genji’s day seemed sure of one thing only — that their tiny society, its values unquestioned and alternatives unimagined, would endure for ever and ever.

They died never dreaming how wrong they were.

Michael Hoffman is the author most recently of “Nectar Fragments” (Authorhouse 2006). His Web site is www.michaelhoffman.squarespace.com/

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