National / History | THE LIVING PAST

Getting to the heart of Murasaki's 'Tale of Genji'

by Michael Hoffman

Special To The Japan Times

“If any society in the world can be described as unique,” wrote historian Ivan Morris, “it is that of Heian Kyo in the time of Murasaki Shikibu.”

Heian Kyo is Kyoto; Murasaki Shikibu is the author of “The Tale of Genji”; her time is late 10th, early 11th century. Unique? In more ways than one.

What an island paradise Japan would have seemed (“Heian” means “peace and tranquility”) to any civilized European fortunate enough to light upon it, had there been such a person — which of course there was not. Still reeling from the fall of the Roman Empire six centuries earlier and beset by waves of barbarian invaders whose latest incarnation was the fearsome Scandinavian Viking, Europe was mired in its seemingly terminal Dark Ages while Japan, its civilization barely 500 years old, had already spawned what still stands today among the world’s greatest literary celebrations of love, art, leisure, “the good life” — namely “The Tale of Genji,” whose eponymous hero is justly known as “the shining one.”

“Peace and tranquility” — a strange name for a city, but if any city merits it, Heian Kyo does. War was as foreign to Genji and his friends as was personal violence. Manners were exquisite. The “tale” is very long — more than 1,000 pages in modern English translations — and populated by some 400 characters, and if any single fact on its own can validate the adjective unique, consider this: Among those 400 characters is not a single villain.

No villains, no rogues, no scoundrels. Evil spirits, yes. Evil people, no.

And yet, moralists down the ages have held their noses on approaching Heian.

A 12th-century commentator wrote, “There are many things about him (Genji) that one might wish otherwise.”

Yes indeed. Here was a man, after all, whose amorous conquests and near-conquests included his royal stepmother, a pre-pubescent orphan child (the Lady Murasaki, who grew up to be the great love of his life) and a vulnerable young woman, also orphaned, who was supposedly under his protection and was thought by the world — mistakenly, though one wonders how much difference it would have made — to be his long-lost daughter.

“There hardly seems to be a taboo which Genji will not question,” writes Richard Bowring in a 1988 study. The Scottish historian James Murdoch, writing in 1949, bristled with indignation, damning the entire Heian nobility as “an ever-pullulating brood of greedy, needy, frivolous dilettanti — as often as not foully licentious, utterly effeminate … but withal the polished exponents of high breeding and correct ‘form.’ ”

Oh, come. True, some of the Heian grandees’ escapades can make even the liberated among us cringe; true also, however, that their “high breeding and correct form” kept male rivals from slitting each other’s throats, and when Genji is cuckolded by a young protege to whom he has been especially kind, he swallows his resentment, reflecting that his own behavior gives him no grounds for censure.

Nor does Genji incur much censure from his fellows. Some, yes — at one point, following an incautious liaison too high up the political hierarchy, he ends up for a time in rustic banishment — but mild and forgiving for the most part. Even those few who know the very worst — that he is secretly the father of the reigning Emperor — accept that his virtues more than make up for his vices. What virtues? Above all, his incomparable sensitivity. Every note he plucks on the koto evokes higher worlds in his listeners; every poem he indites is a masterpiece. And so indescribably handsome! Such a man does not come along every day; when he does, he might well be permitted a flaw or two.

The problem of evil is a difficult one in any society. What is it? Where does it come from? How should it be dealt with? When you consider the sadistic cruelty that has been occasioned, excused and justified by the need to punish evil down the ages, you can hardly fail to admire the humane Heian approach. The basic premise is: We come from other lives on our way to other lives. This present life? A mere dream. Who we are in it, the roles we play, are not ours to shape but have been determined by circumstances in past lives going back eons. There’s not much we can do about it. So Buddhism teaches, or was held to teach. The perpetrator of evil no less than the injured party is a victim — of karma, fate.

The worst sin of all seems to have been being a woman. “Women are the problem, good for a moment’s pleasure. … They are the seeds of turmoil,” declares a saintly recluse in “Genji,” summing up the enlightenment he has at last attained. Genji himself would not have put it so bluntly, but he wouldn’t have disagreed either. He too longed to “leave the world” and devote himself to prayer in preparation for the next life — and might have found the courage to do so, if not for women and their delusive but, alas, irresistible charms.

Proof of woman’s moral corruption was her susceptibility to jealousy. What crime will a jealous woman not commit, what horror will she not stoop to? Three murders are committed in the novel — of women, Genji’s women, by a woman, Genji’s woman, one he has treated rather lightly, though not, Heian being Heian, unkindly.

That last sentence is not quite accurate. The murderess is not the woman herself but her wandering, vengeful, jealous ghost.

“Unpleasant rumors reached the Rokujo lady, to the effect that it might be her spirit” who was fatally attacking Genji’s first wife and against whom the exorcists were powerless. “Though she had felt sorry enough for herself, she had not wished ill to anyone; and might it be that the soul of one so lost in sad thoughts went wandering off by itself?”

Poor Lady Rokujo. Years later, long dead, she is still wreaking vengeance, her hatred not spent until at last it has claimed Murasaki herself. “Pray for me,” she moans via a medium. “Pray that my sins be forgiven.”

Michael Hoffman blogs at www.michael-hoffman-18kh.squarespace.com.

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