Friday, 26 June 2020

The Tale of Genji: chapter 35, change in reign, refuge in religion

1/ In The Tale of Genji, usually each chapter follows the previous one without break or there may be a break of a few months. 
Then in chapter 35, something unusual happens. All of a sudden in the middle of a chapter, there’s a jump of 4 years. The count is Royall Tyler’s, but it’s based on the mention of Reizei’s age in the same sentence. 
Then comes another change in reign, which means that everyone again changes titles: 
- Reizei abdicates because of health problems and becomes His Eminence. He is son of Fujitsubo and Genji, though to the public he’s son of Fujitsubo and the Kiritsubo Emperor (the first Emperor in the novel).
- Suzaku, the previous Emperor, has earlier renounced the world and become a monk, so he is His Cloistered Eminence. 
- His wife the Shokyoden Consort, who died within that 4-year gap, is posthumously appointed to the highest rank. 
- The Heir Apparent becomes the new Emperor—the 4th Emperor in the story. He is son of Suzaku and the Shokyoden Consort. He doesn’t have a nickname, as far as I know. 
- His eldest son with Genji’s daughter becomes the new Heir Apparent. They also have a daughter (the First Princess) and in this chapter she is pregnant with their third child. 
- Higekuro: previously the Right Commander, becomes the Left Commander, and then Minister of the Right. He is brother of the late Shokyoden Consort. His first wife is daughter of the Lord of Ceremonial (Murasaki’s half-sister), his second wife is Tamakazura (Mistress of Staff, Yugao’s daughter). 
- Yugiri: the Right Commander, becomes Grand Counsellor. He is son of Genji and Aoi. 
There are other promotions as well, but these are the important ones. 
The thing worth noting is that the Retired Emperor Reizei doesn’t have descendants of his own. The new Heir Apparent is Genji’s direct descendant but it is through his daughter, which isn’t the same, and the Reizei line, which in itself is a disruption of hierarchy, is cut off. 

2/ To recap, so far there have been 4 Emperors in the book: 
- The Kiritsubo Emperor: Genji’s father. 
- Suzaku: Genji’s half-brother. 
- Reizei: Genji’s son, but his half-brother in name. 
- The new one: Genji’s son-in-law. 
I should draw a family tree for illustration but their inter-connections are too complicated. 

3/ His Highness of War (Hotaru) marries Higekuro’s daughter with his first wife. 
As I have a morbid obsession with how the characters relate to each other, let’s see: His Highness of War is Genji’s half-brother, and Higekuro’s first wife is Murasaki’s half-sister, so His Highness of War marries his half-brother’s wife’s half-sister’s daughter. 
If we look at their relationships another way, he is also Suzaku’s half-brother and Higekuro is the late Shokyoden Consort’s brother, so His Highness of War marries his half-brother’s brother-in-law’s daughter. 
Are you confused? 

4/ The Tale of Genji is a Buddhist novel. The gods and buddhas are mentioned frequently, the characters talk about karma and reincarnation and the vanity of things, they go on pilgrimage, etc. 
The thing I don’t quite understand is why many characters in the story just renounce the world and become monks or nuns, or at least talk about doing it. 
In a few cases, a woman becomes a nun to keep herself from being harassed by men and save her name from getting tainted, like Utsusemi (cicada), or to protect herself, partly living in quiet and avoiding court politics, and partly seeking salvation, like Fujitsubo (Genji’s late stepmother). As Royall Tyler explains, in this society a woman only has one refuge outside a stable relationship with a man: becoming a nun. In both of these cases, they don’t go into the mountains (like the Akashi Novice) or join a monastery—they take religious vows, cut their hair short, wear plain, discreet colours, and stay at home. This is a radical step that is not to be taken lightly. 
In Genji’s case, he wants peace and quiet—he learns the vanity of all things after the many deaths in his life, and especially after the exile, realises that life is treacherous, so he plans to renounce the world after seeing his children well-settled. 
There are other monks and nuns in the story, such as Akashi’s father and mother, Murasaki’s great-uncle, the monk who knows about Fujitsubo’s secret, and so on. 
But why does Suzaku (the second Emperor in the novel) become a monk? What about Asagao (bluebell) and Oborozukiyo? 
And why does Murasaki speak of leaving the world? I reckon Murasaki knows that her life is forever insecure, and wants to go away before getting abandoned by Genji. Religion is a woman’s only refuge. 

5/ Throughout the novel, we see Murasaki’s jealousy and resentment a few times and get an idea of her feelings about her relationship with Genji, but it is in chapter 35 that we truly know how she feels. 
She has been lucky, she thinks, getting more favours than (she thinks) she deserves, but it is forever an insecure life because of her dependence on Genji and his feelings. The 2 women who have caused her most insecurities are Akashi and the Third Princess (Onna San no Miya, Suzaku’s daughter). 
She has resented Akashi in the past, partly because of Akashi’s elegance and accomplishments according to Genji and partly because they have a child together. She has been afraid of the Third Princess, who is superior to everyone else in rank and moves into the main house, and people think the Princess should be placed above all of Genji’s women—it’s just fortunate that she is childish and bland. But Murasaki’s whole life is insecure—when she’s young, the bond with Genji may not be so strong and there are numerous other women; when the bond becomes stronger over time, she’s aging and younger women have the advantage of youth and freshness.  
The Tale of Genji places a male character in the centre, but in many ways it is about the female characters, about a woman’s fate in the Heian period of Japan. 

6/ Chapter 35 is a great chapter (so is 34). 
The Tale of Genji is brilliant from the start and gets better and better, than a few chapters become less intense, but it picks up again around chapter 34 and becomes particularly intense and haunting with the return of the vengeful spirit. The book may be called psychological realism with some supernatural elements, but the supernatural elements fit in so perfectly that there seems to be nothing unnatural or abnormal about them. 
Is there anywhere else a more fascinating depiction of a woman’s wrath? 

7/ There is not a smooth transition but a sudden cut from Murasaki’s illness to Kashiwagi’s (To no Chujo’s eldest son) affair with the Third Princess, which I don’t particularly like.   
But afterwards the story is interesting again, and the narrative moves nicely between Murasaki and the Third Princess. 
Apart from predatory men, a lady at court has another “enemy”: her own gentlewoman. As it turns out, Suzaku’s concern is not unfounded and Genji’s fear is correct—the Third Princess indeed has no sense. As Genji thinks to himself, the trouble with her has never happened to his women—especially not the proper ones such as Murasaki and Akashi. His “guidance” cannot prevent her from being foolish and committing an error, and Kashiwagi is insolent.  
But at the same time, can Genji say he’s any better? He has betrayed both Suzaku and his own father. 

8/ Kashiwagi is an asshole though, one must say. He has been fantasising about the Third Princess but couldn’t get her and therefore marries her sister the Second Princess (like Kim Trọng loses Thúy Kiều and marries Thúy Vân in The Tale of Kieu), but cannot get over his crush. See what he writes down: 
“O wreath of twinned green, what possessed me to pick up just the fallen leaf, 
though in name it seemed to be as welcome as the other?”  
He refers to his wife as a fallen leaf!  
(It’s because of this poem that the Second Princess comes to be called by readers as Ochiba, “fallen leaf”). 
Then afterwards when Genji finds out his shameful secret, he blames the Third Princess for being careless and letting him get a glimpse of her! 

9/ The scene of Genji and Kashiwagi at the dance is interesting. In front of others, Genji has to pretend to treat him normally and know nothing about the fling, Kashiwagi knows that he’s pretending but he himself has to pretend that he doesn’t know.

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