Friday, December 05, 2008

Tale of Genji

Next Fall semester, I have an extra slot to teach.... ha! Like I need more courses to teach! I've applied for the Dean's seminar to teach a course on The Tale of Genji.

Genji, the Shining Prince, was not just about a dilettante and playboy, although I can understand such comments by students in a survey course of Japanese literature. But when a student compares this icon of Japanese literature to a suspect on MSNBC’s “To Catch a Predator”—even in jest—I am compelled to consider a course dedicated to a deeper appreciation of one of the masterpieces of Japanese literary history, The Tale of Genji. A Dean’s Seminar would provide an appropriate venue for such a course.

Misconceptions concerning the Genji are not limited to my students. The Japanese novelist and nun, Setouchi Jakuchō, regards Genji’s actions as more than seduction: “It was all rape, not seduction.” If Setouchi—a recognized “expert” on classical literature in Japan—can make such a comment in a New York Times interview (1999.05.28), then comments such as those uttered by my students should not surprise anyone. Using an abridged version to accommodate a survey course, that covers more than a thousand years of poetry, chronicles, diaries and essays, simply compounds the problem. All available abridged versions primarily cover the early chapters when Genji is young and sexually active. As a result, even an astute reader such as Virginia Woolf fails to capture all that the Genji has to offer. In a review of the first volume of Arthur Waley’s Genji translation, Woolf writes: “Some element of horror, of terror, of sordidity, some root of experience has been removed from the Eastern world so that crudeness is impossible and coarseness out of the question, but with it too has gone some vigour, some richness, some maturity of the human spirit.” (Vogue, Late July, 1925) Such conclusions, based only on the first few chapters, are unfortunate but inevitable. Time, effort and, of course, reading the entire text are necessary to appreciate fully the Tale of Genji.

The Genji, written by Murasaki Shikibu (b. ca. 973-d. ca. 1014), provides a view into the culture of the Heian court, a place both foreign yet somehow familiar. For example, political power was controlled by a branch of the Fujiwara family, a control based on political maneuvering: Through the mid-Heian period, Fujiwara leaders arranged for their daughters to become the primary wives of succeeding emperors, ensuring their position as imperial advisor/regent by virtue of being the grandfather of the crown prince. In the Genji, this legitimacy is challenged when the Genji—charismatic and beautiful since birth—is born of a lesser imperial consort. His mother is literally bullied to death and the emperor’s primary wife reveals herself to be an evil step-mother, coddling her own son the crown prince while tormenting Genji. The emperor, all too aware of the situation, ensures his son’s safety by assigning Genji to a distant branch of the imperial line, thereby disassociating him from any issue of succession.

However, knowledge of the political and cultural realities of the time is not the only requirement to appreciating the Genji. Japanese literature is notorious for its open-endedness. Anyone who has read “In a Grove” by Akutagawa Ryūnoske—later made into the film Rashōmon—will have experienced the Japanese sense of non-closure. This is certainly the case in the Genji, in which the main character dies with one quarter of the story remaining. The narrative continues, focusing on Genji’s descendants and how they are influenced by his past actions, whether by karmic affect or a confluence of circumstances. The effect on the reader is an appreciation of the open-endedness of life as portrayed in a story that seems to continue on regardless of the absence of the protagonist. Life goes on no matter who dies.

A course on the Tale of Genji will deal with topics such as these, through readings of the main text and selected secondary sources. The main text is a recent translation by Royall Tyler (2001). The fact that it is in translation should not detract from any appreciation of the tale; Tyler has provided a translation that is remarkably faithful to the original, making it just as accessible as the Genji monogatari translated into modern Japanese for college students in Japan. Secondary sources will provide insights that will lead to deeper discussions and analyses of the story. Ultimately, the course will reveal the vigor, richness and maturity of the human spirit in the Genji that was lost on Woolf, while encouraging diversity in thought and flexibility in opinion for GW Freshmen through an understanding of a world centuries away.

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