I think that many of us approach medieval or premodern texts with some sort of a bias; either these texts feel so far removed from our daily lives that they are utterly uninteresting or else they are seen as gorgeous texts that provide a look into a dreamy, transcendent world that is pure aesthetic fiction. I was definitely part of the first category when it came to both medieval or premodern English literature and Japanese literature. In both cases, premodern literature was never worth the effort of trying to plod through the arcane language to get to the “good stuff” that those who loved this type of literature always claimed was there, somewhere, below the drudgery.
The Tale of Genji (源氏物語) always felt like the same old, dry type of literature to me. Of course, I grew up seeing the famous images plastered in various shops and hearing the general contour of what the story was about — “Genji sleeps with a lot of women and is an utterly beautiful man who somehow moves people to tears a lot and a bunch of women die weirdly artistic deaths?” — which made me even less interested in Genji’s exploits. Even the fact that it was written by a woman, Murasaki Shikibu, could not get me into the text. The only moment I felt a twinge of interest was when I was visiting the Tokugawa Art Museum as a teenager. I was visiting my grandfather in Nagoya and one day he suggested we go together, as one’s Japanese grandfather would do. I am a dutiful granddaughter and my grandfather has the knack of making (almost) anything interesting, so we went.
I remember looking at the Genji scrolls for the first time in a dark-walled, dim-lit room with spotlights dramatically lighting up the old scrolls and hearing excerpts from the Genji dramatically read over the speaker system. The Japanese was foreign, with odd words and rhythms that my Osaka-trained ears weren’t used to hearing, and I don’t think I understood most of what was read. I do remember the scrolls, though, and I remember seeing something in them that made me wonder why the story so compelling for so many years. I could sort of see the draw of these images, but I still didn’t get it.
Along with my mother, my grandfather was one of the biggest supporters of my reading addiction growing up and, as soon as he saw this barest inkling of interest for Genji in my eyes, he bought me an English copy, while also warning me that it was “difficult”. On that trip I ended up going home with a giant English copy of the Genji, that I stupidly brought in my carry-on because I stupidly thought I would want to read it on the eleven hour flight, which I didn’t. I still have that book and, to my teenaged/early adult-life credit, had tried reading it numerous times over the years. However, I never made it past the first few chapters because it was just so boring.
Fast-forward to about a year ago, when I decided to take a seminar on Premodern Japanese Literature with a professor whose work I really admired and who I thought, out of anyone, would help illuminate all this old stuff for me. The seminar turned out to be excellent for me on multiple levels. It was the seminar that introduced me to Classical Japanese as someone who deeply disliked reading through a lot of material earlier than late Meiji. It was the seminar that, shockingly, actually helped me with my Japanese grammar because I needed to diagram so many sentences to try to decipher what was going on in Classical Japanese. It was the seminar that gave me a crash course in reading calligraphy, which was something I would never be able to remotely be able to read before (though I am still really, really bad at reading calligraphy). It was also the seminar that finally got me to read the Genji — in English and in the Classical Japanese — and it was also the seminar that made me, dare I say it, actually enjoy The Tale of Genji.
What I needed, as a reader, was a better understanding of the world of Heian Japan and the world that the individuals moving around in the narrative were occupying and experiencing. In many ways, these older texts felt so far from corporeal existence that they didn’t feel real to me, so I didn’t care about what was happening on the page. Part of this is due to the dialogue that often surrounds the Genji and its mythic status as the major contribution to world literature on the part of Japan. I always heard it labelled as a novel and, as far as novels go, it’s pretty damn boring. However, since I was being forced to look at the text more critically, I started realizing that novel was just a modern category placed on a text that does something else. It is a monogatari (物語 ), which is not a novel (小説 shyōsetsu), and therefore presents a different reading experience. As the professor pointed out, monogatari includes the kanji kataru (語る) — which has a recitative, narrative, or spoken quality about it — and you don’t usually kataru by yourself, for example. Imagining someone, maybe someone like the ladies from inside the text itself, reading these words out loud to an audience made the text feel a little more real to me.
This simple reconfiguration of the way the text was handled at the time of its writing, as well as learning about the importance of recitation and poetry in the Heian context, completely changed the Genji game for me and made me receptive to this classical literature. I took the seminar in order to get a better grasp of this unruly text but, as it turns out, the text got the better of me.
I am a modern girl in the sense of literary era; my interests have always been in the era between the end of the Meiji to the beginning of the Showa. I can also be enticed to look at postwar literature, too, but I never ventured past maybe dipping my toe in late-Edo period literature. However, there is no better way of confronting your own biased conception of the world than by entering into a world that is structurally and phenomenologically different from the one you occupy. Rajyashree Pandey articulates this idea so beautifully in Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair, saying,
One of the opportunities and pleasures of reading literatures of a very different time and place is that they make possible a defamiliarization of categories that have become naturalized and obvious, and unsettle reading and interpretation practices to which we have grown habituated. Perfumed Sleeves and Tangled Hair, 155.
I often say that my purpose in reading diversely, in terms of geopolitical spaces or a wide array of cultures, is to get at the same activity that Pandey describes here. Yet, I didn’t think to look that far in the past. Reading through the Genji, and the secondary sources around it, present a new (for me) way of approaching issues like gender, social status, the body, and so on, that reveals how things that seem, in our time, to be fixed realities are simply contingent and constructed.
Clearly, the Genji has stayed with me for much longer than the duration of the seminar and has, surprisingly stayed relevant in my life in a lot of unexpected ways. Because of that, I wanted to start including a periodic post on the Genji whenever I come across something particularly enlightening or interesting. Using the past to confront how contingent a lot of culture is and how constructed much of how we approach the world is does not mean that the world we live in is not ‘real’. But, by that same token, just because the world that we currently occupy seems to far removed — in terms of modernization and technology — does not mean that there is nothing to be gained from older texts. For many readers who already loved premodern texts, this statement will be common sense. But for someone like myself, who always felt that the world of the Genji was so frivolous, shallow, and overly-exotified, it was an amazing experience to be excited by what I, the girl with a modern bias, was reading.