There is something morbid about selfhood in Japan. It is not native to the culture. In the West, Judaism, Christianity, philosophy, language itself all teach us to say “I.” It is otherwise in Japan.
The Japanese “I” was born in pain — the wrenching of a part from the whole, a limb from the social body. A 10th-century diary known as the “Kagero Nikki” (“The Gossamer Years”) is the source to turn to for what it felt like.
The author’s name is unknown, but her predicament is famous. Not that it’s any big deal. One can hardly say she was wounded in love, for there is no indication that she did love.
Pressed by her family into an advantageous marriage, she joined, without enthusiasm but also without repugnance, the small harem of a leading member of the most powerful family of the time.
She herself belonged to a lesser branch of the same Fujiwara clan. Polygamy among the aristocracy was the norm. Fujiwara Kaneie had eight wives and numerous concubines and mistresses.
What kind of husband can a man so distracted be? Exclusive possession is what she wanted, what she felt her high birth entitled her to. But would it have satisfied her, if she’d had it? Would satisfaction have satisfied her? Some people wallow in suffering. The author seems to have wallowed in hers.
Few societies are kind to women. The Heian Period (794-1185) was in many ways, by any but modern standards, remarkably considerate of them. It accorded them more human dignity than later ages were to. But women’s rights are not the author’s concern. She is grieved not by the system but by her husband — by his absence when he’s absent, by his presence when he’s present, by his behavior absent or present. His behavior is at times loutish but as often, on her own evidence, solicitous and sympathetic. She demands the impossible, he protests. She admits it’s true — without, however, moderating her demands.
Blame who or what you will — her suffering is real, gnawing, bitter. It makes a “self” out of her — the first, it would seem, in Japanese literature. She would just as soon have declined the honor. Or would she have? Selfhood is complicated — not without its masochistic element.
The marriage began badly: “The place he called home was obviously not here, and our relationship was far from what I would have had it”; “My life was rich only in loneliness and sorrow”; “I spent my nights alone and my days in trivialities.”
Distractions might have helped, but one among many peculiarities of Heian society is its numbing inactivity. Women in particular, screened, cloistered, encumbered by layer upon layer of clothing and streaming masses of hair, spent their lives waiting, waiting, waiting for something to happen to them — “something” being a visit from a lover or husband, and when the visit does not materialize, the melancholy can be overwhelming: “I had nothing to do but sit and brood.”
The author sat and sat, brooded and brooded: “I was more than ever conscious of my own unhappiness”; “I thought of how I should like to die, and only this one bond with the world” — her son — “restrained me.”
Unexpressed, inexpressible rage takes its toll: “I dreamed that a viper was crawling among my entrails and gnawing at my liver.”
The “lady in the alley” episode goads the author to vindictive fury. One of Kaneie’s lesser ladies — “of frightfully bad birth” — had a child: “It began to appear that the lady in the alley had fallen from favor since the birth of her child. I had prayed, at the height of my unhappiness, that she would live to know what I was then suffering, and it seemed my prayers were being answered. She was alone, and now her child was dead, the child that had been the cause of that unseemly racket. … (Her) pain must be even sharper than mine had been. I was satisfied.”
The “unseemly racket” shows Kaneie at his caddish worst: “Loading the lady (in the alley) into his carriage and raising a commotion that could be heard through the whole city, he came hurrying past my gate. … And why, my women loudly asked one another, had he so pointedly passed our gate when he had all the streets in the city to choose from? I myself was quite speechless and thought only that I would like to die on the spot.”
The author — and Heian ladies in general — have one vent, short of madness, for repressed emotions that grow too much for them. They go on pilgrimages. The author embarks on several. A pilgrimage means, first of all, travel, a change of scene. Secondly, presumably more importantly, a pilgrimage means prayer — if one can pray. Sometimes the author cannot: “I could not control my sobs long enough to tell my story to the Buddha.”
Other times she gains a measure of peace, to the point of feeling ready to “leave the world” — meaning to become a nun. Kaneie is rarely permitted to speak for himself in the diary, but when he is, he shows himself to be rather less of a boor than the author deems him.
“Perhaps you really have grown tired of the world and decided to cut yourself off from it,” he writes her, “but if you should decide to come back, let me know and I shall come for you. In the meantime, since you seem to dread my visits so, I shall keep my distance.”
The author does not, it is pleasant to report, go mad: “Although I could hardly have been called content, I had reached a certain resignation, and I no longer had the strength of spirit to worry about his coolness.”
It’s not a big victory, perhaps, but it is, at least, a little one.
The second installment of a four-part series. The third installment will appear in March, the fourth in April. The first installment was published on Jan. 15 (bit.ly/2lufVpE). Michael Hoffman is the author of “In the Land of the Kami: A Journey into the Hearts of Japan” and “Other Worlds.”
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