In a sense I have to come at The Tale of Genji in the same way--without knowing "how it ends" or even "what the point is." Its often compared to RoTP because they share at least size, if nothing else, but the goals of the author and the method of the work are, of course, totally different. I should add that I am reading the Waley translation because that felt like the most fun, but that means that I am (probably) reading the one most crafted with an eye to making the unfamiliar familiar in a novelistic sense. I ought not to try to read Genji the same way I do Proust (RoTP) but I will because Waley's translation and my own search for meaning impel me to do so. We'll see how well that goes!
If the major theme of RoTP is memory, loss, meaning, and time the main theme of Genji is (perhaps--maybe instead Genji will turn out to be Jewish) order, hierarchy, aesthetics and the search for a passionate and unique connection with another (woman) that in a world devoted to convention will startle and amuse. Genji himself is the son of an Emperor and a woman of social position and family that were not high enough to protect her from harm. She was the favorite of the (presumably) most high but her protector was not powerful enough to actually protect her and she goes into a decline and dies, sadly, at home with her old mother. Genji is brought back to court and raised, discreetly, so as not to upset the politically delicate position of the real Heir whose mother, from an important family, has the power to ruin him. In the Illiad almost all action springs from this kind of disjuncture between the ruler and the ruled--where the ruler (Agamemnon) is not as great a warrior as his subordinates (Achilles) great harm befalls society. Where the ruler (Agamemnon) is not as wise as his subordinates (Odysseus) everything goes to hell.
But the book doesn't turn on politics as such--not on warfare nor on administration and law. Instead it takes place (apparently, so far) in a world where such things are settled and regularized--a court in which competition, like that in the Court of Louis the XIV, has been focused on the purely ceremonial--who gets to sit or stand where, what clothing and jewelry is like. Is it a court in which this ceremonial has been raised in order to disarm the nobility? I can't tell. Certainly the Emperor in Genji's world is not the master that Louis the XIV was. He did not have the strength or cunning to protect his own favorite. Nor does he set the competition in motion--the competition appears to be free floating and almost natural, among the courtiers.
Genji's story starts promptly with a scene between Genji and his best friend: To no Chujo, "with whom above all other companions of his playtime he found himself familiar and at ease." (18) These two "shared both studies and play and were inseparable companions on every sort of occasion, so that soon all formalities were dispensed between them and the inmost secrets of their hearts freely exchanged." (19) One rainy night the two begin discussing women they have known and look through Genji's desk drawer for love letters from Genji's various women. What To no Chujo wants to see is not merely the "variety" or the names of the women (which he must guess at) but something which must be rare at court "passionate letters written in moments of resentment, letters hinting consent, letters written at dusk..."--in other words letters that reflect not specific women who might thus serve as a kind of status marker for Genji but letters reflecting Genji's ability to break through the boredom and convention of the Court and generate from these women something, anything, out of the ordinary or especially painful or beautiful. In fact I suspect that things which are "out of the ordinary" without fully troubling standards, which seem authentic and artless without really being so, and which are painful but not messy, angry but not crude, passionate without being chaotic are probably the highest marker for these men.
The two men fall into a discussion of the types of women in the world and their probable ability to satisfy a man's educated tastes. To no Chujo says "I have at last discovered that there exists no woman of whom one can say "Here is perfection. This is indeed she." What is perfection? It is a combination of culture, erudition, artlessness, and beauty that is hard to find.
"There are many who have the superficial art of writing a good running hand, or if occasion requires of making a quick repartee. But there are few who will stand the ordeal of any further test. Usually their minds are entirely occupied by admiration for their own accomplishments, and their abuse of all rivals creates a most unpleasant impression. Some again are adored by over-fond parents. These have been, since childhood, guarded behind lattice windows and no knowledge of them is allowed to reach the outer-world, save that of their excellence in some accomplishment or art; and this may indeed sometimes arouse our interest. "
So the interested man is an epicure who must have his interest aroused by the illusion, or belief, that the object of his attention is unique, witty, educated, literary--but such women are often guarded and so their true qualities are hard to ascertain. He is thus bound to be disappointed because though such girls are "pretty and graceful" they are really probably rather commonplace.
"Such a girl by closely copying some model and applying herself with great industry will often succeed in really mastering one of the minor and ephemeral arts. Her friends are careful to say nothing of her defects and to exaggerate her accomplishments, and while we cannot altogether trust their praise we cannot believe that their judgment is entirely astray. But when we take steps to test their statements we are inevitably disappointed." (19-20)So attraction occurs first by repute--one hears of a woman who is beautiful and accomplished. Second one is attracted to a woman because she appears to satisfy these conventions by having mastered "one of the minor and ephemeral arts." But our hopes are inevitably dashed because when "tested" the woman falls short of the ideal. To be truly "first class" a woman must have everything--reputation, beauty, charm, talent and never fail this test, whatever it is? Apparently so. The two men fall into a discussion of ranks and histories. What is rank, for a woman? Is it something she can achieve, rising into the "first rank" of desirable women? Is it something she can lose? Are there certain kinds of women who are condemned to stay forever where they started? A woman can't be understood apart from her social setting:
"I divide women into three classes. Those of high rank and birth are made such a fuss of and their weak points are so completely concealed that we are certain to be told that they are paragons. About those of the middle class everyone is allowed to express his own opinion, and we shall have much conflicting evidence to sift. As for the lower classes, they do not concern us." (20)
Genji disagrees, but only in this way:
"It will not always be so easy to know into which of the three classes a woman ought to be put. For sometimes people of high rank sink to the most abject positions; while others of common birth rise to be high officers, wear self-important faces, redecorate the inside of their houses and think themselves as good as anyone. How are we to deal with such cases?"
The two men are joined by two other men of the world--Hidari no Uma no Kami and To Shikibu no Jo who consider Genji's point--which is that society itself is in constant flux so one can't even figure out what standards the parents and society are using in vouching for particular women.
"However high a lady may rise if she does not come of an adequate stock, the world will think very differently of her from what it would of one born to such honors; but if through adverse fortune a lady of highest rank finds herself in a friendless misery, the noble breeding of her mind is soon forgotten and she becomes an object of contempt. I think then that taking all things into account we must put such ladies too into the "middle class." But when we come to classify the daughters of Zuryo [*Provincial officials such as Murasaki's own father] who are sent to labor in the affairs of distant provinces--they have such ups and downs that we may reasonably put them too into the middle class."
Hidari no Uma no Kami asserts that there is a category of women, born into "complete security from want or deprivation of any kind...often [growing up] amid surroundings of the utmost luxury and splendor. Many of them grow up into women whom it would be folly to despise; some have been admitted at Court, where they have enjoyed a quite unexpected success...." These women are actually, in real world terms, only from families of the "second and third class" (politically speaking)--not important politically but for reasons that HnUnK considers perhaps embarrassing they have the means to sustain lives free from want and filled with material beauty. Genji teases him by saying "Their success has generally been due to their having a lot of money." HnUnK goes on to admit that even, or especially, in this class of protected girls--of high rank or high wealth--one can be surprised by how little of value, wit, charm, and erudition they display. "When we meet them we find ourselves exclaiming in despair "How can they have contrived to grow up like this?"
In the end HnUnK begins fantasizing that "the perfect woman" might exist, but that she would not be found in the ordinary places that a gentleman might expect:
"Suppose that behind some gateway, overgrown with vine-weed, in a place where no one knows there is a house at all, where should be locked away some creature of unimagined beauty--with what excitement should we discover her! The complete surprise of it, the upsetting of all our wise theories and classifications, would be likely, I think, to lay a strange and sudden enchantment upon us."
In other words it is part of the beauty of the woman, and the excitement of the connoisseur that the woman come from an unexpected place, unheralded by reputation--the very fact that she fails to track the rules, that she "upsets" all our "theories and classifications" is part of her charm.
HnUnK starts embroidering this dream woman
"I imagine her father rather large and gruff; her brother a surly, ill looking fellow. Locked away in an utterly blank and uninteresting bedroom, she will be subject to odd flights of fancy, so that in her hands the arts that others learn as trivial accomplishments will seem strangely full of meaning and importance; or perhaps in some particular art she will thrill us by her delightful and unexpected mastery."Here, Genji "begins to doze" from boredom but I perk up--this description is almost hysterically like reading a Japanese account of the Bronte Sisters and leads us to imagine that the HnUnK's ideal woman is like a composite of one of the classic English Authors like Jane Austen or the Brontes and perhaps one of their own heroines like Cathy or Jane Eyre or even Elizabeth Bennett: from a middle or forgotten and fallen upper class? Isolated from society? Filled with unique fantasies and talents? Unspoiled by imitation of more classic upper class ways? Guarded (or unguarded) by gruff and surly males who do not value her erudition and style? I realize that there is a reason, far up top, where, as I was reading the original list of great accomplishments a woman should have I was reminded of this priceless scene in Pride and Prejudice. It begins, of course, with a person of high social standing (Bingley's sister) puffing off the accomplishments of Darcy's sister:
"How I long to see her again! I never met with anybody who delighted me so much. Such a countenance, such manners, and so extremely accomplished for her age! Her performance on the piano-forte is exquisite.''
Bingley, like Genji, makes fun of this obvious example of female and family solidarity--praising Darcy's sister is, of course, Bingley's own sister's backhanded way of trying to please Darcy and create distance between herself and Elizabeth.
"It is amazing to me,'' said Bingley, "how young ladies can have patience to be so very accomplished as they all are.''"All young ladies accomplished! My dear Charles, what do you mean?''"Yes all of them, I think. They all paint tables, cover screens, and net purses. I scarcely know any one who cannot do all this, and I am sure I never heard a young lady spoken of for the first time, without being informed that she was very accomplished.''
Darcy agrees, unknowingly, with the Japanese courtiers in Genji:
"Your list of the common extent of accomplishments,'' said Darcy, "has too much truth. The word is applied to many a woman who deserves it no otherwise than by netting a purse, or covering a screen. But I am very far from agreeing with you in your estimation of ladies in general. I cannot boast of knowing more than half a dozen, in the whole range of my acquaintance, that are really accomplished.''Elizabeth offers a critique of the right of all men--Genji and his friends included--to consider themselves the arbiters of what is appropriate or inappropriate, valued and admired, in an entire category of people "accomplished women."
"Then,'' observed Elizabeth, "you must comprehend a great deal in your idea of an accomplished women.''Darcy and his "faithful assistant" the sychophantic Miss Bingley don't understand that their very right to judge is being itself judged and found absurd:
"Yes; I do comprehend a great deal in it.''"Oh! certainly,'' cried his faithful assistant, "no one can be really esteemed accomplished, who does not greatly surpass what is usually met with. A woman must have a thorough knowledge of music, singing, drawing, dancing, and the modern languages, to deserve the word; and besides all this, she must possess a certain something in her air and manner of walking, the tone of her voice, her address and expressions, or the word will be but half deserved.''"All this she must possess,'' added Darcy, "and to all this she must yet add something more substantial, in the improvement of her mind by extensive reading.''Elizabeth delivers the coup de grace:
"I am no longer surprised at your knowing only six accomplished women. I rather wonder now at your knowing any.''
It remains to be seen whether, in the Tale of Genji, there is any person, even the Narrator, who can stand outside the action and outside societal convention and take the protagonists to task for their arrogance and their judgmentalism or even if such things are considered by the author to be flaws. They may not be--this is a very intrusive, judgmental reading I've chosen. Its really that I can't help myself.
The other text that came to mind as I started Genji is equally far fetched andin appropriate, coming as it does from a completely different place and time: I couldn't help but remember the beginning of The Three Musketeers when D'Artagnan sets out for Paris and for fortune. His father offers him some absurdly inappropriate advice and basically tells him to respect the order of society, to assume that most people are who they say they are and need to be treated according to their station, but also that the only way for D'Artagnan himself to achieve anything is to fight whatever battles are offered to him and thus rise in the world. Of course D'Artagnan goes off and discovers that very few things are as they seem in this world: his best friends will be a Nobleman in disguise, a fat fraud and braggart who is dressed by his middle class mistresses, an impure priest-in-training and there is a war going on between the Cardinal and the King. Genji begins in quite another fashion: with the young men describing a society in which the central conflict is going to be finding the perfect woman in a society in which standards are more or less clear and the parameters of romance more or less set. Unlike D'Artagnan they will not be confused by the way society doesn't track their expectations--or will they? I will have to wait and see.