Session 11: Discussion of assigned Japanese premodern texts, third of three sessions
Topics for this session
❖ Japanese premodern texts: The Tale of Genji, third of three sessions
❖ Death (with reference to layering and deception as well, although this is primarily an investigation of death in Genji)
❖ Musubu (結ぶ, to bond)
❖ Summary statements on qualities of The Tale of Genji that we should keep in mind.
Here is my short list of aspects of romance that are apparent in The Tale of Genji that sometimes continue to appear in modern Japanese narratives and which seem "natural" to Japanese readers or audiences. (By "natural" I mean something that feels familiar and for which there is tolerance or acceptance, even if the reader or viewer doesn't particularly agree.)
First-person / narcissistic longing. The language of love of Genji is, in part, inscribed in the word "koi" which is a type of longing and nearly always "my longing" and so "love" as narrated in that story is "about me, my feelings of love" rather than "What can I do for you? What are your needs?". While it is possible to describe this as self-centered and narcissistic one can also say that it is simply interested in a particular aspect of the experience of romance.
Being dependent. One characteristic of an intimate relationship in Japan (premodern and, I would argue, modern) is that acting in a way that invites another's support or protection is viewed not as a demanding weakness or as dangerous, clingy behavior, but rather admirably vulnerable, honest and trusting. It is a channel for the exchange of love. Evoking, allowing or enjoying the response "Here, let me do that for you …" has been called, in modern times, "amae".
Private discourse. Japanese romantic narratives often position themselves deep in the private end of the spectrum between a public world with a set of morals to subscribe to and a private world distant from the imperative of those morals. This makes Genji feel a bit immoral (to some) or a-moral (to some). Spring 2012: I gave the example of wife beating and the necessity for that to be kept in a private space since the public, widely accepted narrative is strongly against it (not to mention, the "law", which is an encoding, in a sense, of widely held narrative of the "should" variety). Japanese romantic narratives are comfortable with very private perspectives. (In trying to clarify the private/pubic scheme, I screened the trailer to "Tony Takatani" based on Murakami Haruki's short story, as a modern example of Japanese narrative involved in the private, and narcissistic. And I offered various positions—foot-fetish as a private interest vs. an assertion that all relationships should be dominant/submissive, for example— to show how we measure things by whether they are someone's private affair or intended to affect our public discourse. We allow the former and resist the latter when we don't agree with it.
Love will not last. Since "love" is primarily presented in Genji as a passion towards another, not a publicly stated commitment towards another, it is easy to also characterize it as fleeting. It is not "anchored" through a public promise or public imperatives. It is possible to promise "I will care for you until I die" but we know that it is not possible to promise "My heart will leap up with passion every day I see you for the rest of my life." Genji, as a romantic narrative, is positioned deep within these "naturally" occurring emotions/passions and relatively far from promises that incorporate free-will choices. The basis for this line of narrative having "truth" value to the readers of the day is definitely Buddhist but that is not the whole story. Japanese narratives cleave close to this naturally occurring emotions and are less interested in free-will choices and that, too, subverts the possibility of enduring situations / commitments.
Love is debilitating. In Genji, generally, characters are burdened, sad, weakened in some way—even debonair gentlemen such as Genji. Being in love means being in a weakened state physically and emotionally. It rarely is shown to be an empowering element. This is not always true of Japanese narratives. In a medieval short story, "Little One-Inch" (that is measuring his height!), Little One-Inch finds a way to win his love out of confidence and bravado, based on the energy that comes from him wanting the woman he has become infatuated with. But Genji is an iconic text, as is the Kokinshu, and the narratives there import the Buddhist (and to some degree Confucian) hesitation about lust, lustful relationships, and passion that is lust-based. In English, too, the word "lust" marks certain feelings as somehow not right. So we have this too, but it is very strong in Genji's world and quite common in Japanese narratives.
Irogonomi. The man who would be praised for his skill in courting a woman is called, in Genji's world, an irogonomi man meaning he is powerful, wealthy, handsome, highly educated (including emotionally sophisticated), understands a woman's needs, and is the perfect gentleman in manner. It does NOT include sincerity or intention for long-term commitment and so, in a sense, the irogonomi man works better in the context of love-as-a-game (a wonderful, thrilling, sometime thing) rather than love-for-real (for the long run, "true" love, whatever). Some of the intense loneliness in Genji is polite loneliness. The irogonomi man should not simply be equated with the good Confucian man (the caizi of caizi jiaren introduced in the sessions on the Chinese premodern readings) of Chinese and Korean texts that have a greater emphasis on Confucianism.
Bonds / musubu. Tying knots, giving gifts that have knots on them, etc. Love is to be enwrapped, entangled, not necessarily a shoulder-to-shoulder, free-will based, "team".
Cyclical love. The world of Genji has a strong sense that love isn't particularly building something or going somewhere, it is just ever-present or regularly recurring. One is stuck within its troubles more or less endlessly.
Where is Confucianism in all of this? Since Genji's topic is not marriage but romantic feelings, and since it is a very private world, Confucianism is not challenged or denied in this text, it just isn't the most relevant set of values. Or, the fact that it is ignored might, in some ways, be a challenge.
Required—to be completed for today's session
✓ The reading of Genji should already have been completed in full by the first session of the sessions on premodern Japanese texts.
✓ For the discussion of death, please read/view the materials in the Korngold folder. We do not have time in class to cover this. We move straight to discussion.
Reminder: You should be working on the Chinese premodern readings.
Texts, multimedia notes, links*
Video clip "City of the Dead (Die tote stadt)" (segment directed by Bruce Beresford in the 1987 film Aria) that is based on Eric Wolfgang Korngold's 1920 opera City of the Dead which itself is based on the 1892 novel Bruges-la-morte which tells the story of a man who has lost his love and finds in another woman such a resemblance to her that he moves to her decaying city to be close to her. The name of the song is "Gluck, das mir verblieb" also called "Marietta's Song" (City of the Dead, Act 1, Scene 5).
nothing yet ...
*THOUGHTS: Reading before class probably helps follow session content, reading afterwards might help consolidate notes, revisiting for tests is recommended. Content might be added before class or anytime up until about 24 hours ahead of a midterm.
*TEXTS, MULTIMEDIA NOTES, LINKS: If I have read from something, shown something or presented audio that is not elsewhere mentioned, I usually include that information here for the curious, sometime after the class (since I often make last-minute decisions about including something). It might take a while and sometimes I forget. You can email me.
*OTHER: When possible I note here names, places, and other details that I have mentioned in a lecture that would otherwise not be accessible in the assigned materials or easily located on your own. As with "TEXTS ..." this is usually sometime after class and, again, I might not be able to get around to doing it.