I first read the Tale of Genji when I was studying in Japan around 2002. It is Japan’s most famous work and was written a millennia ago. I find that one can gain a much deeper understanding of a culture by reading these famous works written long ago. Within them are ancient pieces of DNA which make up the modern culture. Just like actual DNA, most of society doesn’t know it is there even though it is the basic building block of who they are and how they act.
In most modern societies it is rare to find a person who has actually read their nation’s most famous literary works. I don’t know any Japanese who have read The Tale of Genji aside from being exposed to it a little in high school. I am also just as ignorant as I haven’t read any famous American literary works since high school. I can remember a little about them and know that they too are DNA inherent to American society but I just don’t have the time to read everything.
I remember little of my first reading of the Tale of Genji and only two things stand out in my mind. The first is how the Rokujo lady was treated badly having her carriage pushed aside during a parade so she couldn’t see it. This combined with her longing for Genji who also treated her badly made her very angry and caused her soul to become a malign spirit which possessed and killed two girls. Japan has an incredible ghost culture and this story is a great example.
The second thing I remember is the authors praise for all things Chinese. The Chinese koto, the Chinese writing, all of it is much more elegant and refined than Japanese which seems rustic by comparison. I found this fascinating since the Sino-Japanese relationship has drastically changed in the past century. During the time the story was written China was a world center of civilization and Japan would have seemed quite inferior in comparison.
Below are some quotes that stood out to me for various reasons. The quote is in italics and my commentary in regular font.
The other lady had not particularly encouraged his attentions and had been the victim of a love too intense; and now, though it would be wrong to say that he had quite forgotten her, he found his affections shifting to the new lady, who was a source of boundless comfort. So it is with the affairs of this world.
This is a crush. Crushes come on strong and like an intense flame have a ferocious burn. If not careful they could cause a lot of damage and destruction. Then just as quickly as they arrived can just as easily go, being easily put out by just a glass of water. This same topic was discussed in Don Juan De Marco which I wrote about here.
It is with women as it is with everything else: the flawless ones are very few indeed. This is a sad fact which I have learned over the years. All manner of women seem presentable enough at first. Little notes, replies to this and that, they all suggest sensibility and cultivation. But when you begin sorting out the really superior ones you find that there are not many who have to be on your list. Each has her little tricks and she makes the most of them, getting in her slights at rivals, so broad sometimes that you almost have to blush.
I’ve found this to be very true and it is the same for both men and women in this superficial culture we live in. People put on a show. Collectively they spend billions on ways to improve their appearance with makeup, expensive clothing, nice cars a big house. The put on the appearance through social media that their lives are just perfect. But just scratch the surface a little and you see that most of it is nothing but an act for the sake of appearances. I’ve found the ones who put the most effort into appearing beautiful and successful are the ones with the least self esteem and most chaos in their lives. They are a hot mess covered with a veneer of Chanel.
In the most important matter, the matter of running his household, a man can find that his wife has too much sensibility, an elegant word and device for every occasion. But what of the too domestic sort, the wife who bustles around the house the whole day long, her hair tucked up behind her ears, no attention to her appearance, making sure that everything is in order? There are things on his mind, things he has seen and heard in his comings and goings, the private and public demeanor of his colleagues, happy things and sad things. Is he to talk of them to an outsider? Of course not. He would much prefer someone near at hand, someone who will immediately understand. A smile passes over his face, tears well up. Or some event at court has angered him, things are too much for him. What good is it to talk to such a woman? He turns his back on her, and smiles, and signs, and murmurs something to himself. ‘I beg your pardon?’ she says, finally noticing. Her blank expression is hardly what he is looking for.
This quote really stuck out to me as it is true in most marriages and even my own. I don’t know any men who can really talk about their work life to their spouses. The wife may listen for an instant to be polite but it really is terra-incognita and so any fears, anxieties, problems are best left unshared. There are things you can talk about with your wife and things you cannot. We each have our own worlds and although we are together everyday we only catch a very small glimpse into the worlds of our other family members.
When there are crises, incidents, a woman should try to overlook them, for better or for worse, and make the bond into something durable. The wounds will remain, with the woman and with the man, when there are crises such as I have described. It is very foolish for a woman to let a little dalliance upset her so much that she shows her resentment openly. He has his adventures – but if he has fond memories of their early days together, his and hers, she may be sure that she matters. A commotion means the end of everything. She should be quiet and generous, and when something comes up that quite properly arouses her resentment she should make it known by delicate hints. The man will feel guilty and with tactful guidance he will mend his ways.
I find this advice is much more applicable to Asia than the western world. Japanese society values harmony above all else and I find that so long as that harmony is not disrupted many things are permissible there that would not be in the western world. Women of pleasure have always existed but the influence of Christianity made that trade go underground. Buddhism took root in Japan and although I’m no expert the focus is not on calling just about everything sinful but instead living a peaceful and harmonious life.
Only in Japan will you find ‘hostess bars’ in plenty where men pay to simply drink and chat with women. If it leads to something else it is up to the woman but this is all normal. In western society it would be shut down for prostitution and everyone would be arrested.
Japanese society is ancient, deep and much more complex than the me first society we live in here in the USA. So long as the harmony is not disrupted most Japanese wives would look the other way so long as it is just a hostess bar or fling with no feelings or too much money involved. In America everyone thinks of themselves first so if this were to happen then something bad has occurred to ‘me’ and ‘I’ am hurt and my feelings need to be addressed first! If they need to take the nuclear option and blow up the family because of a dalliance I think a majority of women in the USA would do it. American society is a selfish one. The man who cheated gave no though to his family, only his selfish desires. Then when caught the woman only thinks of herself, gets a divorce and wants money.
Let me back up a bit. All men have desires, this is part of evolution and can be really difficult to tame. Religion tells us sex is bad unless it is to produce children. You cannot have men running around producing children all over the place as it wouldn’t make for a stable society. So religion and society keep men in line. There is no outlet in the form of legalized prostitution or even hostess bars like in Japan. So women expect men to stamp out their innate desires and have the backing of societal norms and religion to vilify them. Personally I think prostitution should be legalized. But on the other hand men should learn how to control themselves. In the west they are bound by the constraints of religion and societal norms. If these were suddenly taken away I would imagine they’d be running around like a bunch of stray dogs. I mean after all, just the sight of boobs gets most men excited in the USA. They are like children.
The chrysanthemums were at their best, very slightly touched by the frost, and the red leaves were beautiful in the autumn wind. He took out a flute and played a tune on it, and sang “The Well of Asuka.”
This is an example of imagery and appreciation for nature that is uniquely Japanese. I imagine it comes from Shinto which also makes up part of the Japanese DNA. Everything has symbolism and a deeper meaning. The falling leaf in autumn, the crescent moon on a cold winters night, all of nature brings with it something profound that reaches the depths of the soul. It is hard to put your finger on what it exactly is, but although we cannot grasp the source we can catch a whiff of its fragrance through poetry (haiku in this novel) which capture these beautiful nature scenes.
Her letters were lucidity itself, in the purest Chinese. None of this Japanese nonsense for her.
This is the example I remember and which surprised me. The Sino-Japanese relationship is terrible due to Japanese atrocities during World War Two. This was the limit of my knowledge and it is easy to see the two cultures don’t get along. So I was surprised to learn there was a time when all things Chinese were considered superior. This would have been the time of incredible Chinese dynasties and Japan would have seemed like a small, poor relative out there on some small island. Civilizations rise and fall and China certainly did fall being called “The sick man of Asia” these past few centuries. It seems to be rising again so the story continues to be written and in dramatic fashion if one reads the headlines these days. China is transforming from a backwards place to something incredible although their path seems to be writing a lot of chapters a lot of people will be loath to read.
The ancients used to say that a secret love runs deeper than an open one.
Tayu had to smile too. He was so young and handsome, and at an age when it was natural that he should have women angry at him. It was natural too that he should be somewhat selfish.
This reminds me of my own late teen and early twenties years. I had the idea that women wanted macho, “strong” men. And you know what? In America they still do! I observed time and time again my female classmates going for the “jocks” the guys who were very proud of themselves. Women flocked to them in droves and the “nice guys” were continually relegated to the friend zone. There is a lot of talk these days about feelings and being sensitive. This might all be true in the philosophical sense but nothing has changed in terms of women wanting men who exude confidence and are not going to bend just because a girl told them to. The guys that bend are friends, the guys that don’t are boyfriends.
Here is one of my own stories. I was studying at Arabica at Ohio State with one of my female friends where the possibility of something more existed. I liked to dip (smokeless tobacco) at that time and would often do so while studying. She told me not to dip or she would leave. She went to the bathroom and I put a dip in. She came back, got mad and left. I laughed. And then I met up with her again the next day. She was “mad” but it also made her like me more as ironic as that sounds.
A lesson to my sons. For the girlfriend scene, don’t bend when they tell you too. You can be sensitive but don’t do what they ask you to at least half the time. Women say they want a “sensitive guy” but this is a lie even though they may not realize it themselves. If you do you’ll be in the friend zone. This has been the case since ancient times as written by Murasaki Shikibu 1000 years ago. Modern society is full of all kinds of bullshit but women haven’t inherently changed much.
It was his first impression that the figure kneeling beside him was most uncommonly long and attenuated. Not at all promising – and the nose! That nose now dominated the scene. It was like that of the beast on which Samantabhadra rides, long, pendulous, and red. A frightful nose. The skin was whiter than the snow, a touch bluish even. The forehead bulged and the line over the cheeks suggested that the full face would be very long indeed. She was pitifully thin. He could see through her robes how narrow her shoulders were. IT now seemed ridiculous that he had worked so hard to see her; and yet the visage was such an extraordinary one that he could not immediately take his eyes away.
The principle enemy of women are other women. The strong woman, we have to stick together movement is nice, but it is in a woman’s DNA to inherently judge other women. You know when the last time a (non-gay) man mentioned the clothing or facial features of another man was. Never, that is when.
The thought came to him that she spirit of the departed prince, worried about the daughter he had left behind, had brought him to her.
Again, Japan has a wonderful ghost culture and it persists to this day. The dead are not completely gone in Japanese culture and even return home during Obon once a year.
With the spring come the calls of countless birds
Everything is new, and I grow old.
I love this quote as I am obsessed with the passage of time. I do grow old and find it hard to believe I am 42 years old already. Tomorrow I will be 60 and equally as stupefied.
“Sere and withered though these grasses be,
They are ready for your pony, should you come.”
Withered is the grass of Oaraki
No pony comes for it, no harvester.
“Were mine to part the low bamboo at your grove,
It would fear to be driven away by other ponies.
And that would not do at all”
This is an invitation for sex (and Genji’s refusal) and in the Japanese way is indirect although there is no mistaking the meaning. What stands out for me here is that people both from ancient times until now are very similar. I used to think older generations were completely unlike modern people. The only examples I had were senior citizens and these are people who would go to church, sit on their porches, watch game shows and do the crossword puzzles. I had thought that this must be how all people were in previous generations and how they must have acted their entire lives. I was mistaken.
I grew up in a Catholic environment where everyone puts on the appearance that they are upstanding, moral Christians who do their best to abstain from sin. Now that I’m out, I realize what a bizarre environment Christianity is. Human beings like sex, they like to have a good time and religion is the great buzzkill. The ancients also like to have a good time and it is through dialogues like these that I stop seeing them as gray haired old people who don’t do anything but sit around. They were also young and also had the same desires as all humans.
The cuckoo calls, to tell us that the grove
Of Oaraki is its summer lodging.
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?
This is the Rokujo lady. Another example of ghost culture.
He told himself that a fate which they had shared from other lives must require that they know the full range of sorrows.
I like the belief here there former lives influence your current life and your current life will influence future lives. This is mentioned a lot in the novel.
Where shall I go, to what cave among the rocks,
To be free of tidings of this gloomy world.
There is a strong emphasis on the world being gloomy amont the aristocrats in the novel. I find it ironic that those at the top of society seem to be the least happy. I find this to be true in modern times as well. The happiest people I’ve ever met were simple village people in Vietnam. The angriest people seem to be those with the most. I’ve met a few extremely rich people in my day and none of them wore a smile.
Strong my yearning for what I have left behind.
I envy the waves that go back whence they came.
In what spring tide will I see again my old village?
I envy the geese, returning whence they came.
I like the strong sense of nostalgia in the top two quotes. Through this very blog, my immense trove of well organized photos and a chest of relics from my past I often enjoy remembering and attempting to feel and think as I did in the past. I have no desire to relive the past but I do like to be a sort of ‘archaeologist’ of my own life, uncovering old thoughts, emotions and feelings that have long been forgotten.
What interest can he possibly take in a country lump like her?
Like most Asian countries I’ve visited, the countryside is always disparaged. Girls shield themselves from the sun so they are not mistaken for farm workers and they always get a little embarrassed if they have to explain that their hometown isn’t near a major metropolis. It seems this idea of being from the countryside has always been and will always be.
All the fisherfolk had gathered at what they had heard was the house of a great gentleman from the city. They were as noisy and impossible to communicate with as a flock of birds, but no one thought of telling them to leave.
Here in plain sight we see the author’s disdain for the rustics. City people everywhere always think of themselves as better than country people and the rich always look down on the poor. Welcome to humanity.
Lowly rustics, though they could not have identified the music, were lured out into the sea winds, there to catch cold.
Another example of Muraski Shikibu’s dislike of the countryside people.
There was a Chinese elegance in his touch,
Another example of all things Chinese being better than Japanese.
Women of pleasure were in evidence.
The Catholic church had me believing these people didn’t exist except for Mary Magdalene. If they did exist then they were sinners and needed to be brought to God. Through this simple entry I see that “women of pleasure” have always been and in many cultures are very much accepted. Thank God the Japanese never let Christianity take hold in their country.
Tree spirits are shy of crowds, but when people go away they come forward as if claiming sovereignty. Frightening apparitions were numberless.
The belief in spirits being pretty much everywhere still persists to this day in Japan. Spirits are an everyday part of life and has been as demonstrated by this quote since ancient times.
He wanted to withdraw quietly and make preparations for the next life, and so add to his years in this one. He had purchased a quiet tract off in a mountain village and was putting up a chapel and collecting images and scriptures. But first he must see that no mistake was made in educating his children.
Another example of the belief in reincarnation with a new life following the next forever.
Yes, thought Genji, the world was an uncertain, dreamlike place.
I very much agree. Perhaps it is an imbalance of chemicals in my brain or perhaps I’ve reached another level of awareness through my meditations but life is an absolute mystery now when it was not before. What is all of this and what is the nature of my mind? Surely it isn’t just a vast knot of neurons and chemicals firing? There are the big questions and once you ponder them enough the entire word becomes inherently fascinating.
It was a time when the skies would have brought poignant thoughts in any case, and a falling leaf could take one back to things of long ago.
This is a powerful quote for me. I have a powerful memory and share in this nostalgic longing for the past. I remember the chill of an autumn breeze and the smell of dried out, fallen leaves as they crunched beneath my feet. I remember my childhood in the ’80s, the shooting star I saw on Halloween when out trick-or-treating and the joy I felt that night. Through this quote I can imagine ancient royal parties where everyone is dressed up, sipping sake and the dances are magnificent. There are secret loves, intense feelings of happiness and all take place under a bright crescent moon as the crickets provide a peaceful ambient sound. Now, as that leaf falls the old emperor and most of the court are dead. They now only reside in the memory of the author who is greatly saddened to know that those events will never happen again.
It is when there is a fund of Chinese learning that the Japanese spirit (Yamatodamashii) is respected by the world.
This quote is interesting because not only is something Chinese praised (as occurs quite often) but she now says something positive about Japan. Yamatodamashii is still alive and well although it took a severe beating after losing in WWII.
There is a sad thing that I have more than once witnessed, a father who grows stupider as his son grows wiser.
This is a fact and one I thinks takes place around 60 years old for men. The world changes and older people have a harder time adapting. They’ve been shaped by the environment of their own generation, a generation whose time has past. Around 60 the older generation starts to lose control and the younger start to shape the course of society.
The ancients did not know what they were talking about when they said that a father knows best.
My koto does not, I am sure, have the effect of that Chinese koto, but it is a strangely beautiful evening.
Was it merely silly, his own inability to forget the beauty of a girl who was being unkind to him?
Humans always want most those things which are denied to them. As soon as a thing is acquired it loses a lot of its value.
They say that a man is only as low as his thoughts. You must pull yourself out of it.
This is a powerful quote. At its most basic and purest form, all of life and the experiences that come with it are simply mind. In our society people put too much emphasis on the external and severely neglect the inner world that is mind. Happy thoughts will make for a happy life and sad thoughts will make for a sad life. This is a simple truth.
The moon was almost too bright in the dawn sky and there were snow flurries. A wind came down through the tall pines. The soft yellow-greens and whites of the carolers did nothing to break the cold, white calm, and the cloth posies in their caps, far from seeming to intrude with too much color, moved over the scene with a light grace such as to make the onlookers feel that years were being added to their lives.
A beautiful scene that in its simple elegance is so typically Japanese. I feel as though I am there. One of my passions is the attention to ambiance. Every morning I put a peaceful scene up on the big screen TV which corresponds to the current season. Perhaps I am drawn to the change in seasons because here in California the weather looks pretty much the same year round. I’m caught in a never ending “groundhog day” with everyday looking just like the one before it. Sunny and 60 degrees. Maybe there will be some fog.
Might I recommend the Japanese koto, for instance? It is a surprisingly bright and up-to-date sort of instrument when you play it with no nonsense and let it join the crickets in the cool moonlight of an autumn evening.
Praise for something Japanese and I like how in tune the Japanese are with nature. Play an instrument and let it compliment that which is being produced by nature. Then we have the scene set for us which of course is absolutely elegant.
Pure, precise speech can give a certain distinction to rather ordinary remarks.
Those with the most intelligence can transmit their thoughts with the least amount of words. Simplicity is the ultimate sophistication said DiVinci.
End of Part I of the Tale of Genji. I’m have now started Part II but not sure how long it will take me and I don’t want this post to just sit so will go ahead and post. I also may modify my thoughts in this post from time to time. There are some weighty subjects here that deserve something deeper. It takes time to come up with profound thoughts.