Ancient Titillation, Yada, Yada, Yada

I’ll be honest: I’m getting pretty sick of The Tale of Genji. It’s not even so much because of the confusion of trying to keep track of stray characters wandering in, or of who’s who in general; the translator warned us about that hitch, so I was ready for it. Rather, part of my impatience is due to a personal lack of much tolerance for Don Juanism; another bit has to do with what may be a shallow, if that’s the right way to put it, ability to endure ancient fiction and its frequent use of conventions that today seem schmalzy at best.*

The first of my issues doesn’t require much elaboration; much of our our hero’s time is spent bed-hopping, while being granted the predictable, though curious, blessing of getting away without any infections or disturbances in general of the ol’ nether regions. Oh, sure, he impregnates the empress, but other than frustrated desires and a sense of feeling harried by all these females and the attention they and social convention require from him, that’s about the only thing of any adverse nature that’s happened to Genji so far, at least romance-wise, and after, say, affair number three, this sort of thing just gets old.** And I’ve no idea how to describe my feelings about his dealings with Murasaki, the little girl he meets and kidnaps in order to bring up as his future bride. Want to feel slightly ill? Why not read about the guy’s simultaneous offense and amusement at Murasaki’s emotional disturbance in the wake of being unexpectedly deflowered.

So yeah, here we are, with my world and that of ancient Japanese nobility clashing over different understandings of gender, class, privilege and so forth. It was another time and place, etc., etc., so maybe the best I can do is be grateful I don’t accept that shit today as something that’s just part of How Things Are. But I’m nearing a point similar to the one I reached after having succumbed to people’s pressure and watching the first season of The Wire: namely, deciding that I see enough violence and misogyny in real life as it is, and I really don’t feel like subjecting myself to any more of it in my free time.

But now to the schmalz. People do so much tearing up on a regular basis (about Genji’s beautiful poem, his performance of a song, his walking through a room, his superlative hotness) that you begin to wonder at what point total emotional desensitization will set in, resulting in tears flowing constantly from all eyes everywhere.

The couple of things I do dig, even if I’m not certain whether to believe how well they reflected actual court life? First, how people go around spouting poetry at the drop of a hat, sending each other coded messages in verse on nice paper. Maybe this convention was somewhat like the role wit played at the eighteenth-century French court– but I’m also attuned to the possibility that what we have here is more like the idealism of a musical, where instead of song, someone spontaneously breaks into snappy verse. Somewhat related to the poems is the attention paid to handwriting, and Genji’s ability to tell, based solely on it, something about someone’s rank, or the immediate identity of a person who wrote something, even if said scribbler wasn’t someone he really knew. Beyond the fact that there really was no other way to offer written communication back in the day, maybe the circles in which the nobility existed were so closed and familiar that such a thing would indeed be expected.

It’s evident that I lack enough knowledge of the place and time period to be able to appreciate this book; maybe I can find a quick primer somewhere. Either way, I’ll finish it– but I doubt I’ll increase my affection for this ancient frat boy in doing so.


* Notable exceptions I can think of off the top of my head: Greek drama; Sweeney Astray; some chunks of the Bible and other contemporary mythologies of the region. I’ll have to consider this matter further.

** It at least doesn’t feel as insufferable as The Decameron, which, if I remember correctly, seemed constantly to be giving the reader the eyebrow, as if to make sure s/he’s noticing just how deliciously naughty all of this is, in spite of it just being one round after another of the same sort of hook-up. Had the Plague not been looming all over the place and social/cultural satire not been involved, Boccaccio’s work would probably just have to be chalked up as early porn. As for scot-free promiscuity, Don Giovanni and its hero’s apparently A-OK genitals are only bearable because of its great music and the badass statue at the end.




  1. Kinga

    Ha ha! I was actually toying with the idea of reading Genji and now I guess I will just hold off for a bit (or a-while). When it comes to Don Giovanni, the hero has become no more than an anecdote. I hardly think there is anyone genuinely moved by his demise at the end and i guess the idea is that there should be some shaking up / awakening happening. I think Genji is heading in the same direction. i won’t say these hero’s are merely aesthetic (since i take aesthetics seriously : ) i might have a better term. i’ll call them virtual bad boys.


    • Special K

      The problem with Genji is that everyone, narrator included, seems to love him; he’s apparently the paragon of court manhood, so my comparison to Don Giovanni is a very tenuous one. The only punishment that befalls Genji is due to court politics, and is presented as unfair; it seems he never gets blamed for anything he does, and we should all hope to be like him. Drink-the-Kool-Aid hero worship, meh.


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